A healthy outlet

Israelis increasingly finding virtual support while blogging as a form of therapy when facing illnesses.

keyboard 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
keyboard 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Yehuda Solomont learned he had aplastic anemia last fall, he held a cyberspace press conference. Striding into his computer room in front of his Webcam, he outlined his condition in mockumentary style, noting that despite what people thought, his illness had not been caused "by excessive coffee drinking" and that for now he was resting at home, "watching unhealthy levels of television." While it's uncertain just how many people caught the bit on his blog, www.Judahsolomont.com, the move did reflect how Israelis are using blogging as a way of coping with the challenges posed by serious illness. Whereas in the past, and even today in some communities, diseases like cancer were assigned code words or simply referred to as "hamahala [the disease]," and rarely spoken about publicly, that's simply no longer the case. With a mix of determination, humor, courage and hope, increasing numbers of individuals are finding their voices via the blogs - Web logs or diaries - to talk about the challenges they're encountering, offering precious insight to others with similar illnesses, or just keeping friends and family anxious to know more in touch with the latest developments. Where words are sometimes hard to find while discussing their situations out loud, the blogs have proven the perfect catalyst to express their feelings. "Dozens of such blogs by people who are using the form to cope with illnesses are currently being featured on our site," said Tal Levine, of the Hebrew Tapuz Web site, which aided in the preparation of this article. They share not just the rigors of chemotherapy or endless doctor's appointments, but vital elements of their personalities, beliefs or lifestyles, from hobbies to the joys of parenting, or just some of their favorite TV shows or songs, like the link to the Get Smart movie trailer on Solomont's blog. Meanwhile they've gained a unique sense of empowerment in fighting what is often a lonely battle, made less so by reactions from the readers of their blogs. The results are not only fascinating to read, but inspiring even those fortunate enough not be facing similar illnesses, and all the more so to those who do face similar challenges. In meeting with the four bloggers profiled here, I too came away inspired and amazed by their courage, forthrightness and humanity, and was enriched for having met them. WHILE IT MAY not replace more traditional methods of treatment for those dealing with the emotional sides of serious illness, blogging has "a potential which we did not recognize earlier. It won't replace all forms of therapy, but it definitely has its place," says Dr. Shlomit Perry, head of Psycho-Social Services at Petah Tikva's Davidoff Cancer Center. Perry differentiates between writing a blog and reading blogs written by others. "I think that writing, like painting or some other forms of expression, allows them to express what they're experiencing. When you express yourself outwardly, you have to process things, and there is definitely something therapeutic about turning inward into outward: thoughts, feelings, experiences into words that you say to yourself into words that become public. This is an initial therapeutic process that gives names to feelings... There are those who say that giving a name to your feelings has a therapeutic effect, much like in psychotherapy. "These words, when they come out, become a form of dialogue. Someone writes them and knows someone will read them, or someone reads them and responds, which creates a dialogue that also contributes and which is a healing process... it's definitely a process with therapeutic potential, to strengthen the person with the illness and to gain strength from others." Perry and others dealing with cancer patients have been surprised by how much the Internet has to offer those coping with illness. "I think initially there was some reticence about the Internet, the feeling being that one only shares one's feelings face to face with someone, that body language was important. But we suddenly discovered that people can share their most intimate feelings, and that, strangely enough, the Internet can also be a very intimate thing, and sometimes people prefer to write on the Internet, like the cases we have here, more than they dare say in face-to-face discussion." The blogs are as varied as the people behind them whom she encounters daily, notes Perry. "People are very different; some hit you in the face with their cancer and others want to hide it at all costs. In therapy there are those whose story has to be peeled off a layer at a time, and those who go straight to their gut feelings." "At the beginning, I think, before we were familiar with blogs, we thought that it was important to have a conversation with the patient, a dialogue. But today I think there are people for whom a blog is a more fitting tool, especially for those who feel comfortable with the Internet," says Perry. She particularly recommends it for those who are unable to leave their homes. Her own practice has also been impacted by the Internet revolution, she says, with patients now sending her e-mails to react to problems that came up in face-to-face sessions. "If you had told me this 10 years ago, I would've told you it's strange, that they would only do such a thing in person, but things change... To our surprise, the computer can also be a tool for sharing feelings." BLOGS HAVE been around for years, but the type presented here, aimed at helping individuals cope with their illnesses, is part of a revolution, with new communities being created on the Internet, according to Eli Hacohen, professional director of the Netvision Institute for Internet Studies at Tel Aviv University. These communities - professional, ethnic, those having to do with medical matters and others - focus on a specific goal, body of knowledge, conflict or specific problem or ailment, he says, and are "very fruitful, active and create their own rules. There is agreement among members that, for example, on this blog we will relate to the subject in a particular way, on that on this forum we will act in a certain manner." Allowing "the man in Chicago, Melbourne, Wellington and Tel Aviv who all have the same illness" to share feelings, thoughts and information on their treatment creates "a revolution of the type no one would have dreamed of 15 years ago, of human sharing that crosses borders," says Hacohen. "I see this initiative by people to open up their own blogs in areas related to serious illness as one that is a welcome development from many standpoints," he says. "First and foremost, for them - that they have the feeling that they are not alone, that they are getting support and sympathy, empathy and encouragement." Moreover, while someone writing in Hebrew in Israel may reach only Hebrew-speakers, if a blogger writes in English, "he can get sympathetic messages from people from Australia to Northern Europe," notes Hacohen. Medical tips can also be shared, and "they get the kind of interaction they never dreamed of, reaching people and countries providing information they never knew about. And this is a tremendous blessing provided by the Internet." Not everyone chooses to go public - some bloggers still hide behind a "nick," or Web nickname, assigning initials and other identifying tags instead of using actual names in their blogs. "There are those who prefer to maintain their privacy, but still say: 'I am willing to grant myself the freedom to express myself about my particular problem and write.'" But Hacohen says they all share "a need to let other people in on what is happening with them, to receive support, and they get it big time. The Internet serves this need which I believe also existed in the past, but there wasn't a way to meet it. Today, that way exists. And I'm sure it helps them, because otherwise they wouldn't dare do this. It's a very significant development." But will the accessibility of so much sympathy and information via the Net lead patients to seek comfort and diagnoses on-line instead of relying on loved ones and doctors, perhaps endangering themselves in the process? "It's not only a danger, it exists," says Hacohen. "I always say that there is good and bad on the Internet, just like in the rest of the world. People should use their judgment and check into things; keep your eyes open." He's not sure where the blogs on medical topics are headed, though he's seen Webcam footage posted from doctors' offices. "Yes, and the doctor knows and the patient knows. The problem begins when one of them isn't aware of it, but I haven't run into that yet," he notes. Nonetheless, overall Hacohen believes "this platform is great, because they receive support without anyone having to know who they are. They hear: 'You are not alone. I had the same thing. The same thing happened to me.' And it gives them a lot of strength."