Humor and Healing
Interview with Jo Lee Dibert-Fitko
Jo Lee Dibert-Fitko drew her first cartoon in 1990 when hospitalized with spinal meningitis and a pituitary tumor. Once released from the hospital, she self-prescribed cartooning as a tool for healing and wellness. Combining art, writing, and photography talents into a business, Dibert-Fitko Diversions emerged. You can visit her website at www.dibertdiversions.com
Jo Lee's work has appeared in over 100 publications nationwide as well as in Europe. A graduate of the University of Michigan, she has been a featured speaker in Michigan and Illinois, as well as a consultant on the healing art of humor. Jo Lee has received awards from the Poetry Society of Michigan, Quincy Writers Guild (IL), Rockford Art Museum (IL), Zuzu's Petals (PA), Excursus Literary Arts Journal (NY) and Portals Magazine (WA). She has been a registered social worker for over 20 years and currently counsels pituitary tumor patients. Additionally, she is a member of the Flint Institute of Music (MI), Flint Festival Chorus, Tall Grass Writers Guild (IL), the Society for the Arts in Healthcare, the American Association for Therapeutic Humor, the Saginaw YMCA (MI) and the Pituitary Support and Education Network of Michigan.
Jo Lee has received feature coverage in the Flint Journal, Saginaw News, Kalamazoo Gazette and Muskegon Chronicle, and has appeared on WPON radio in Detroit and Public Television.
Mrs. Dibert-Fitko fondly refers to her pituitary gland as the "cartoon storage area."
Tammie: I want to thank you first Jo Lee for taking the time to talk with me and for sharing your amazing story.
Jo Lee: Thank you, Tammie. It's my pleasure.
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Tammie: I can only imagine how frightening it must be to be given a diagnosis of pituitary brain tumor and spinal meningitis. What was your initial response when your doctor delivered the news?
Jo Lee: Actually, Tammie, the previous one-and-a-half years of chronic and unexplained physical and emotional symptoms before receiving a diagnosis was the more frightening part. So when I was told specifically what I had, I felt somewhat a sense of relief. It was the prognosis that disturbed me more. Yet ironically, or perhaps not so, the first words to my doctor were, "I'm going to beat this." At that moment, I had no idea how I would do so. I only knew that I would. Those words sparked the beginning of a new journey.
Tammie: How would you describe your road to recovery?
Jo Lee: When lying in a hospital bed, the one thing you have plenty of time to do is think! My road to recovery was indeed one that required determination, direction and constant "mind over weakened matter" reinforcement. The extreme fatigue, dizziness, visual disturbances, severe depression and debilitating pain were challenges. I was prescribed various medications to provide some relief. To the frustration of the medical staff and myself, none were effective. I decided a positive attitude and strong faith were going to have to be my illness-conquering tools. I also recalled Norman Cousin's book "Anatomy Of An Illness", and how he used humor and laughter to help him through a critical illness. I couldn't seem to muster up my own laughter so I decided the least I could do was to start smiling and at a time when that was the LAST thing I felt like doing . I began smiling at patients and staff alike. And I laughed. "You need a spinal tap." Smile. "Time for more lab work". Smile. "Just one more MRI." Smile. My developing sense of humor was met with more than one suspicious look. Even my family questioned my newfound technique. I suspected my medical chart was reviewed to see if I was on some sort of prescription drug whose side effects included "smiling at inappropriate times" and "laughing while in pain." When they sent me down the hall for an EEG (electroencephalogram), it was a turning point in my hospital stay. All those wires glued to someone's head would in many patients induce fear, anxiety or at least a visual flashback of Boris Karloff playing Frankenstein. When they wheeled me back to my bed, I flipped over the bed stand placemat, retrieved a pen and drew my first cartoon. When I presented it to the lab technicians they laughed out loud and taped it up on the wall. It was all the incentive I needed. Pretty soon everything became a cartoon...the medical tests, other patients, and the English language itself. I was provided a stack of white paper and a black marking pen. I soon discovered this self-prescribed cartoon medicine was a wonderful tool for healing and recovery...and it changed my life.
Tammie: Leaving the security of a corporate job when you were single and self-supporting in order to pursue an uncertain future writing and cartooning had to take an enormous amount of courage. How did you manage to muster the courage to take that big of a risk? And what kept you going?
Jo Lee: It did take courage and it was a risk but the much larger risk would have been to stay in a career where I was very unhappy, unfulfilled and stressed out, factors that contributed to my illness to begin with. Besides, they had taken away my health insurance and reclassified my position, making my choice easier. For the first time in my life , I decided to make ME a priority. Many of us are raised to believe that placing ourselves first is selfish, when actually it is the most unselfish thing you can do. If you do not take care of your own physical, mental and spiritual health, if you don't love yourself, you will never be able to fully give of yourself and your talents to others. It took a major illness for me to discover this. What kept me going? The fact that my health was improving was a major factor and I was truly excited about my cartooning. I also decided to reintroduce my love of writing and singing back into my career, two "joys" that I had abandoned for almost twenty years. I felt then and continue to feel and know I was given the gift to cartoon for a reason. When you are blessed with a talent that changes your status from life-threatening to life-affirming, how could I possibly choose otherwise!
Tammie: What ever prompted you to write your first book, "You Never Asked For This!"?
Jo Lee: Part of my recovery and healing process was the essential realization that I needed to share my gifts with others, particularly other patients. I started visiting hospitals and giving out cartoons to patients and staff alike. It was incredibly satisfying for all of us. Small presses started accepting my cartoons for publication. I received phone calls daily from people requesting cartoons.. for a loved one who was ill, for someone who was having a tough time at work, someone going through a divorce or someone who simply needed a smile in their day. The reasons were endless. Because of the whimsical/childlike drawing style of my cartoons, I knew early on I wanted to do a cartoon/coloring book...but I wanted it for adults. We need to reintroduce laughter to our lives and simple pleasures like coloring. The title of my book came from two sources of inspiration, the first, a general comment voiced by many an adult claiming much of what happens to us in this life are "things we never asked for." And most of the time we don't mean that in a positive light. The other source was from a gentleman I never met who received a sampler of my cartoons per a friend's request. He called me and announced, "I sure never asked for these, and I am so glad you sent them!"
Tammie: I loved the coloring book and could immediately appreciate its value to anyone facing an illness, particularly those who are bed ridden and afraid. What kind of response have you been getting from readers?
Jo Lee: The response from readers has been incredible! To see a smile on the face of someone who said "there is nothing to smile about in life" and then to see them get out crayons and chuckle is incredible medicine for both of us. It is also a great motivational factor for me. It makes me draw more cartoons. I find medical personnel and family members are equally "lightened up" with the humor. I often hear "Boy, did I need that!" Children enjoy the cartoons and physicians, therapists and patients are now endorsing the book.
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Tammie: You write so beautifully and compellingly about the power of humor, how would you say your own use of humor has served you in your personal life?
Jo Lee: Humor and laughter and the arts have made an amazing difference in my health. When an MRI revealed the pituitary tumor was gone, I was not surprised, I was expecting it! The spinal meningitis ran it's course and has not been invited back, not even for a brief visit! I have some vision loss in my left eye, but I've decided it is temporary. Humor and laughter are incredibly contagious and addictive, so I like to "infect" as many people as I can. One brain tumor patient I counseled told me she felt very awkward and uncomfortable when she decided to start smiling and laughing more. But she noticed the difference in herself and with those around her. Now she tells me it would feel uncomfortable NOT to laugh!
Tammie: What would you say are the most significant differences between the Jo Lee before her illness, and the Jo Lee now?
Jo Lee: Besides a wonderful improvement in my physical health, I have found my emotional and spiritual health have become wonderful allies. I am optimistic, hopeful, enthusiastic and patient with myself and others. My self-esteem has soared upward. I live my day without centering on worry, regrets and guilt. I don't allow the little things to get me down nor overwhelm me. When challenges present themselves, I look for new opportunities and learning. I no longer think we should just count our blessings...we should celebrate them. And of course, I smile and laugh a lot and I pass it on to others. Making a difference in the lives of others has made an incredible difference in my own.
Tammie: What is the primary message that you want to deliver to those who face uncertainties and are discouraged and afraid?
Jo Lee: Life is full of uncertainties and fear, but we can make a choice not to let those events and emotions consume us. If you spend your time regretting the past and worrying about the future, you can not experience nor enjoy the present. I often think about my father's words to me shortly before his death. We were sitting in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania on a clear, starry night. Although I did not know it, the brain tumor was growing in me. I was very unhappy in life and with my work and felt a sense of confusion and anxiety about the future. As he pointed up to the night sky he said," This universe is huge. It's infinite. And you and I are but specks of dust." He paused, then continued," When some people hear that they feel overwhelmed or hopeless or say why bother, what difference does it make? Others, however, hear those same words and say, I'm just a speck of dust but I can make a big difference in myself and the world around me ...and that's one powerful tool!" I smile and say, "Indeed."
Staff, H. (2008, December 7). Humor and Healing, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, June 14 from https://www.healthyplace.com/alternative-mental-health/sageplace/humor-and-healing