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Support Group Spotlight: Art and Buddhist principles help women with fibromyalgia

  • These mini make-a-wish bottles were made by FEAT participants. (Julie Puttgen photograph)

  • Julie Puttgen is the facilitator of FEAT. (Photograph courtesy of Julie Puttgen)

Valley News Calendar Editor
Published: 2/29/2020 10:27:15 PM
Modified: 2/29/2020 10:27:13 PM

LEBANON — Fibromyalgia is a medical disorder that’s often misunderstood.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is characterized by widespread body pain and stiffness, trouble sleeping, fatigue, and depression and anxiety. Women are twice as likely as men to have fibromyalgia.

Julie Püttgen is a therapist who works in the rheumatology department at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center where she assists people diagnosed with fibromyalgia in addition to practicing somatic and expressive arts therapy at the Center for Integrative Health in Hanover. She is also an artist and meditation teacher.

In 2016, Püttgen started Fibromyalgia Experiential Arts Team, known as FEAT, a support group for women diagnosed with fibromyalgia. The next gathering is from 2-4 p.m. Saturday, March 7, at the Women’s Health Resource Center in downtown Lebanon.

In an email question and answer interview, Püttgen discussed why she started FEAT and how she incorporates art and Buddhism to assist people who have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. It has been edited for length, style and clarity.

Question: How would you define the work that Fibromyalgia Expressive Arts Team (FEAT) does?

Answer: We are a once-a-month support group for woman-identifying people living with fibromyalgia. Each of our meetings begins with contemplative and expressive arts practices that give participants a chance to approach their experiences in a curious, creative and compassionate way. Over the years we’ve worked with clay, fibers, drawing, painting and mixed-media interventions — always with the idea that the materials are there for pleasure, play, and insight. From there, we move into structured opportunities to share and witness participants’ experiences. Gentle movement and suggestions for helpful resources round out our time together.

Q: What inspired you to start FEAT?

A: Dr. Nicole Orzechowski, Section Head of Rheumatology at DHMC, invited me to facilitate Fibromyalgia Shared Medical Appointments at the beginning of that program, in early 2016. Those meetings proved really helpful to a number of patients, in no small part because it was often a relief for people to finally meet others who shared their experiences with fibromyalgia. At first, when patients would ask us about follow-up peer group resources, we didn’t really have anything to offer. So, with the support of the Women’s Health Resource Center and Rheumatology, I decided to try offering a monthly support group. People showed up and expressed appreciation, so we kept going.

Q: How many participants do you average each month?

A: It’s a small-group experience — between three and eight participants each time. This is great for having time, space and support for everyone who shows up.

Q: How have your experiences studying and practicing Buddhism influenced your work with people who have fibromyalgia?

A: My teachers over the years — including Thich Nhat Hanh in my 20s and many others since — have pointed me in the direction of balancing radical acceptance with skillful means for reducing suffering and finding greater freedom. People living with fibromyalgia are often very experienced in working with suffering, and relieved just to be witnessed in an unafraid and spacious way. I think cultivating spaciousness, awareness and compassion in my own practice has helped me to meet others with those qualities as well. I’m often deeply impressed by the wise hearts FEAT participants bring to meet one another in the group.

Q: What is something that the general public seems to misunderstand about fibromyalgia and how can people combat that stigma?

A: Many people living with fibromyalgia say that because they have no easily visible or “fixable” injuries or symptoms, others often minimize the extent of their struggles. This kind of invalidation can really impact someone who is struggling with chronic pain, sleep loss, cognitive issues and exhaustion. So I would say, if you know someone living with fibromyalgia, be curious. Listen to them tell you about their experiences. Try to imagine what they are going through, emotionally, physically, professionally, financially, spiritually and socially. Take time to understand and to check with them that you are hearing them clearly. If there’s anything you think you might be able do to help lighten their load or connect them with important resources, check in with them to see if your ideas would, in fact, be helpful. Your willingness to come alongside and be present is far more appreciated than attempts at minimizing or fixing would be.

Q: The time period immediately following a diagnosis can be difficult. How does having a support group help people who have just been diagnosed with fibromyalgia?

A: Hearing from others who share your experiences, even if they are hard, is really helpful. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone be super-relieved just to know that other people’s nervous systems work in similar ways to their own. It’s helpful to hear about resources and tips that other people have found for living well with fibro. Finally, I would say that the expressive arts and contemplative elements of FEAT offer people time and space to be present with themselves outside their habitual ways of perceiving themselves and others. It’s OK to rest here. It’s OK to be however you really are.

Q: How has FEAT evolved since it began in 2016?

A: Since I started FEAT, I’ve completed a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling with a concentration in expressive arts therapy at Goddard College in Vermont, as well as the three-year somatic-experiencing training in embodied trauma healing. I see therapy clients regularly in my work at the Center for Integrative Health in Hanover and facilitate Art/Dhama retreats and groups. So I would say my skills as a facilitator have been growing all along. Over time, a core group of experienced FEAT participants has also emerged. Those women are amazing, bringing essential wisdom, humor and kindness to our meetings.

Q: What is something you have learned in working with people who have fibromyalgia?

A: Listen. Then listen some more. Good structures and boundaries are essential to embodying freedom and compassion.

Editor’s note: For more information, visit fibromyalgiaexpressivearts.com.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.




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