What Kind of Interventions Do We Need Now?
The time will come when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome.
– from Love After Love by Derek Walcott(2)
Poetry and creative writing as medicine
In a recent interview I gave to Lapidus International,(3) a charity in the UK for writing and wellbeing, we discussed how writing and wellbeing is often perceived as soft and fuzzy, but how I use it to deal with hard-hitting stuff — sexual violence, domestic violence, mental health, and more.(4) One of my recent projects(5) involved unearthing information from the Lancashire Archives on one of the largest asylums in Europe, Whittingham Asylum, and using historical tidbits along with the lived experiences of service users and their families, including prisoners in a secure unit here in Lancashire to create fresh writing. The result of these workshops were startling, politically charged, and powerful.
Poetry and creative writing may be used as therapeutic tools, and become powerful interventions to create change and affect public perceptions. Another UK-based project worth mentioning here is the 60 Voices project,(6) which showcases how art and writing have helped people through illness; I believe such projects can lead change and give us alternatives to clinical options to heal from distress. Of course, the link between poetry and medicine is ancient: Apollo was the God of both poetry and medicine.
Writing trauma, feeling better
In the 1990s, James W Pennebaker started publishing results from the clinical trials he had been conducting: his team invited participants whose health markers – such as blood pressure, whether they were grieving, in distress, and so on – were individually noted, and who were then placed in writing cubicles in a lab. Participants were separated into groups that wrote about general topics like the weather, or a walk, and others that wrote about significant and traumatic events in their lives. They repeated this activity for at least 15-20 minutes on five consecutive days. The results revealed that the health markers of those who wrote on general topics showed no significant changes, while those writing on distress or trauma experienced improvements in both physical and mental health over the next six months.(7)
In my work as a poet, activist, and founder of a mental health charity based in New Delhi, Bhor Foundation, one of whose mandates is to take poetry as therapy into small groups dealing with distress, or into psychiatric institutions and prisons, I use Creative Writing as an important tool in helping people heal from trauma, or perhaps make more sense of living with their distress, or cope. These sessions have had varying results, mainly positive. Participants might claim, ‘Don’t know what it is, but I feel so much better after writing!’ I suggest that poetry in particular, helps make sense of trauma, opening a door to light.
In my project on Whittingham, we used historical prompts about Whittingham Asylum(8) to create new writing, poetry and songs by service users living in Guild Lodge, an NHS (National Health Service) secure mental health facility in the grounds where the old asylum stood. In India, we currently create therapeutic writing sessions through ‘The Listening Circle’ – Bhor’s peer support circles.
Not so irrational after all
Trauma is a strange beast. It is a heaviness in your limbs, an itching just under your skin where you can’t reach, the IBS in your gut, the hair falling out in handfuls. Trauma loves to stay in parts of your body where therapy and medication can’t shift it. And although I benefited greatly from my pony-tailed psychotherapist in New Delhi during the worst times of my marriage, I can truly say it is poetry that has set me free.(9)
When I began the course, I found that I related better to contemporary poets: Warsan Shire’s work resonated with some aspects of my own life; the feeling that I was not enough, not pretty enough, not woman enough. Anne Sexton’s confessional poems gave me an insight into the heart and minds of women with feelings like mine: ‘But suicides have a special language./ Like carpenters they want to know which tools. /They never ask why build.'(10) And the joy of Faiz: my current attempt to learn Urdu is a transformative quest taking me closer to my Muslim grandmother, now dead and gone, except that I sense her fragrance leaning into me, holding my hand as I read.
Although we cannot speak of specific poems for specific illnesses, consider that in her memoir, ‘Black Rainbow’, Rachel Kelly describes the effects of repeating lines from George Herbert’s poem ‘The Flower’: ‘In those moments of the day when I held hands with Herbert, the depression couldn’t find me. It felt as though the poet was embracing me from across the centuries, wrapping me in a cocoon of stillness and calm.’(11)
In the UK, there is considerable focus on expressive writing, as well as reading. The mandate of Lapidus,(12) an organization of which I am a member, includes writing with refugees, the elderly and families, and also new ways of engaging with stories and poems. The Reader,(13) a charity, takes shared reading to spaces like palliative care homes and other communities to improve wellbeing, reduce social isolation and build resilience. Universities are also increasingly conducting seminars, workshops and conferences on Writing and Wellbeing (I attended one such at Glasgow University last year), with MHPs, service users and writers coming together to talk about the not-so-mystical connections between writing and wellbeing.
“Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.’”
Poetry and our lives
As Audre Lorde says: ‘Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.’(14)
Poetry, both reading and writing, offers support and therapy to affected people around the world. Of course, people also read poetry for pleasure. In my own case, poetry helped me feel at home again in my breath, in my body.