Is Poetry Therapy?

It was recently World Mental Health Day, and I wanted to start writing this blog again. I made a note in my calendar to try to do it weekly, but even then I’ve ended up pushing it back to three days later. It’s been over a year since I actually wrote a proper freelance reflection, so I guess things are going well in that respect, but for my next post, I hope to catch up with that.

So, the topic of this post was the question as to whether poetry is therapy. My short answer is no, but that’s not to say poetry and other forms of art can’t be used for therapeutic goals. Over a year ago now, I made a new friend through other friends and he challenged me to write something everyday, and he would do the same. He wasn’t a writer, but wanted to be more creative, and he told me in this time that it was something that really helped him. After a year, I had a lot more material that I would have had otherwise, and I think the process was therapeutic for both of us. 

Poetry is cathartic for me, and it is naturally how I process things. I aim to write my diary each morning, but it is writing poetry that gets to grips with certain issues, delving into them in a way my simple prose writing often doesn’t. Fellow writers may also have the same experiences, whereby the same themes will reemerge time and time again, haunting you, as if each time you return to it, you are attempting to exorcise it from you. There is something about getting it down on paper in a poetic form that allows you to distance yourself from it somehow, as you then try to craft it into art, and shape it into something that can then also connect with others and help them too.

Helping others is what motivated the artist Rich Simmons to create the project ‘Art Is The Cure’. He explains in the short film how art has helped him with autism and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. He talks about how visual art can help as a means of self-expression, and how it can be a positive release, even going as far as saving his life. Throughout the last few months, experiencing lockdown, I have also recounted how poetry has saved my life, in response to the way the arts are suffering and how they continue to be devalued. He talks about how other kinds of art can help us, and that it is really creativity as self-expression that is at the core of what is therapeutic in this sense. 

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This concept was also summed up in one of my favourite podcasts (before they moved from Spotify to Luminary, which isn’t available in the UK), ‘Guys We Fucked’ by ‘Sorry About Last Night’, made up of comedians Corinne Fisher and Krystyna Hutchinson. They would repeat the phrase ‘comedy is therapy’. After Tweeting about a show I’d listened to that made me both laugh, cry, and heal, on a train, they repeated this phrase again when retweeting me. Likewise, Apples and Snakes shared poet Inua Ellams’ ‘Art as Therapy’, where he discusses the topics, stating: 

“Any seasoned poet will concur that more time is spent editing than writing. Involved in that process is the going-over of memories and instances, of emotions and images, the combing-through and the filing-down-to-their-smoothest-most-ergonomic-shapes our creations. It involves meditation, introspection and inspection. This for me is where poetry becomes therapeutic, when the created serves the creator, when the feather serves the bird.”

All of these points are true, but it was this Tweet from Burning Eye, which put the state of mental health in UK today into perspective: when it comes to talking about mental health, things are getting better, but when it comes to funding and enabling people to have access to therapy, we are a long way off.

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Poetry, art and any kind of creative self-expression is certainly therapeutic, but it is not in itself the same as therapy. CBT and mindfulness are also great tools to tackle mind anxiety and depression, but even with CBT, I would argue that it is pushed because it is often cheap. It is often delivered in groups, and can even be DIY, but it is not a miracle cure. Really, what is needed is a holistic approach, that gives value to both therapy and medication, which can often work best in tandem, rather than it being a case of one or the other (though I’d argue sometimes therapy alone could work, I’m skeptical about medication alone working, but that’s more to do with my view that everyone would benefit from therapy).

At the start of this year, I saw a psychologist who said I had traits of BPD; she phrased it ‘Emotional Intensity Disorder’, but this is just one of the many alternative names for Borderline Personality Disorder. I tend to use the term ‘BPD’ because it is more well-known, though I do feel that EID does capture a large part of the characteristics of my own experience. What others may deem to be “too sensitive” simply refers to my lived experience, and whilst there are negative points to feeling so intensely, I am thankful that at least these experiences of emotions has given me greater empathy and compassion for others.

Although I see it as a kind of neurodivergence, because of the fact, I often feel I really need the support of therapy, whether one-to-one, or a support group. Unfortunately, the support I was given previously was inadequate, essentially due to lack of funding and not being suicidal enough to get proper therapy (though ironically, that changed over the last few months, when it has been impossible to get anywhere). After moving, I found a support group that would have been free to attend, but I was in the wrong borough, and I haven’t had much luck finding anything beyond the £75-100 BPD therapy sessions. If there was a way to pay a fraction of the cost, and for the majority to be covered, it may be doable, but I’m not aware that this framework exists. Previously, I had paid for one-to-one counselling at a cheaper rate, but it didn’t meet my needs.

I know I need to do more self-help work as well, and part of me is using other (sometimes unhealthy) coping mechanisms rather than delve into the DBT book I have, for example, which is meant to be good for those with BPD. Aside from that, poetry, amongst other things, has saved my life, where the system has failed me, and so many others. The less fortunate are no longer with us.

Suicide rates are continuing to rise, and our mental health is bound to be the collateral damage of the current pandemic. Writing, drawing, walking, skateboarding, rollerblading, dancing, singing, cooking, playing games, and having a good support system have all helped me and continue to do so. But when things are okay, I still don’t feel I have the right tools to cope when triggered, where I might turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, whether manifesting as an “episode” of crying inconsolably, screaming in a rage, or self-harming (in its many forms). When these moments happen, I’m reminded that I do need help, but at other times when I reflect on my instability in relationships, it can dawn on me how much I need support in unlearning certain patterns (one of the biggest I think being related to elements of emotional abuse, whereby I have grown attached to receiving comfort after either being ignored or treated poorly emotionally in some way, meaning I am finding myself becoming attached to those who use such manipulation tactics or simply behave in an avoidant way due to their own attachment issues, for example).

Where the system does fail us, we have art to reflect our experiences when we consume it, and we have this fantastic ability to create, where talent and skill doesn’t have to matter, as it is something that everybody can do to feel good, whether it’s as a means of self-expression, an attempt to heal from pain, or simply to get a buzz from creating something from nothing.

If you want to know more about BPD disorder, I stumbled upon this video, which I’ve found accurately describes most of my experience. The fears of abandonment, interpersonal issues, and difficulties with regulating emotions are described here as the main characteristics. The only thing I would say, is that I have a strong sense of identity, though I can relate to the idea of having different personas within myself, but in a way that I feel is somewhat “normal”. I also feel like to say a reaction is “too much” is difficult to fully get to grips with, as it is in response to real emotions, and whilst I fully acknowledge I need to take responsibility for the ways I cope with these emotions, more often than not, a little empathy and compassion goes a long way too.

In the video, Dr Ramani also emphasises that diagnosis is a tool to drive treatment, rather than labelling someone, which is also a great point to remember.

If you are struggling to cope, please call Samaritans for free on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org or visit the Samaritans website to find details of the nearest branch. I have also personally found CALM’s chat function helpful, because phone calls with strangers can also provoke anxiety.

She Grrrowls does Edinburgh PBH Fringe Free Festival 2017

After my first fringe run, it’s hard to know what I’m feeling, but, I’m so glad that I’ve done it. I viewed it as a learning experience, and wanted to sell some of the 100 books that were delivered to my hostel. I could just about fit the 50 books that were left in my suitcase, so I feel like I did what I set out to achieve. In celebration, I also got my first two tattoos: a heart on my wrist, because that’s where I wear it, and leopard print on my shoulder, to symbolise She Grrrowls.


In terms of learning, I think I could have flyered better in terms of exit-flyering more rigorously. I did well with the Wee Blue Book, but the people taking them weren’t necessarily my audience, and I feel like people who would have liked it weren’t always reached. I tried to pace myself, but as a lone wolf, I saw more shows than people, and could have put myself out there more in terms of meeting other poets etc. Tim Wells bumped into me flyering and stressed the importance of networking, but it isn’t my best skill. For this, I was grateful for people like John Osborne who invited me to hang out at the Book Festival, which I didn’t know much about. Sadly, coming down with a cold meant I had to propose getting well again, but towards the end of the month I was also able to hang out with Tyrone Lewis and Jake Wild Hall from Boomerang Club, and met a few people through them. It was actually BC, along with Joel Auterson who inspired me to take She Grrrowls to the fringe having seen they did it the previous year.

The Fringe is so expensive to attend, even with a free venue, and so I wasn’t expecting to make a profit, or break even, but just hoped to have some money to help me get by. It had put me out of pocket for many months when working in Spain, and it was thanks to a week of teaching work in Wimbledon that I even had money to buy food. I have no savings. The only thing to alleviate the stress what when I secured a couple more weeks of work for September, and started to do interview for tutoring jobs from my hostel kitchen. I was paying over £800 for a mixed 6-bed dorm,  and although this resulted in many sleepless nights due to snoring guests, the location was perfect, and it was pretty clean with a well-equipped kitchen. Doing a solo show I think I’d need something better, but I managed to survive it.

Initially, I was nervous about flyering, and not too excited to have to host the show. I found I surprised myself in both these areas. Flyering was okay when I could be myself, and there were hundreds of others doing the same. Hosting each night felt like I was training a set of muscles. However, there were a few times sexism reared its head. Once a man spoke to me about my event then asked to shake my hand. Except he brought it to his frog-like lips and kissed it. I felt violated. Then there was a time when a guy walked past, whipped a flyer out my hand only to throw it to the gutter – normally, not much to think of, except it seemed a deliberate reaction to the word “feminism” emboldened on the flyer. Just after this a group of guys I recognised (possibly fellow poets) approached me. At first they seemed friendly, but what they said to me was strange, hostile and intimidating. I doubted they would behave the way they did to a man, so regarded it as an act of sexism. And it wasn’t just me: Fay Roberts wrote an account for this problem here.

I did a few feature sets at nights such as Raise the Bar: Poetry Versus and That’s What She Said. Another thing I would have done would be more features and open mics, but this required more planning than I had realised, and I wasn’t quite sure where to look.  I did suffer from “fringe flu” at one point, which was when the wonderful Jane Bradley, host of TWSS, gave me a lovely bag of goodies like grapes and tea and lozenges. When I wasn’t flyering, seeing shows, or doing shows, I was writing reviews for The Norwich Radical (one, two, and three), and applying for tutoring jobs for when I returned to London. This means I’m going to soon become self-employed when I start taking on tutoring clients.

I saw so many incredible shows that it would be impossible to list them all, but I will try now, and did try to tweet about them all during the fringe (categories may cross over).

Comedy

KMT by Athena Kugblenu

Elsa by Isobel Rogers

What Women Want by Amy Annette

Sticky Digits by Pamela DeMenthe

Galpals

The Lol Word

Adele is Younger Than Us

Hurricane Katie by Katie Pritchard

How to be Good at Everything by Next Best Thing

The Conscious Uncoupling by Rosie Wilby

All KIDing Aside by Christel Bartelse

Molesting the Corpse of Traditional Masculinity Since 1987 by Henry Ginsberg

London Hughes: Superstar

Shit! I’m in Love with You Again by Rachelle Elie

 

Poetry

Above the Mealy-Mouthed Sea by Jemima Foxtrot

Circled in the Radio Times by John Osborne

Frankie Vah by Luke Wright

Anxiety and Animal GIFs by Hannah Chutzpah

My Cloth-Eared Heart by Melanie Branton

Neil Hillborn

That’s What She Said

Porky the Poet

Fifty Grades of Shame by Sophia Blackwell

An Evening with an Immigrant by Inua Ellams

No Rest for the Lizard by Gecko

A Matter of Race

Struggle With Purpose by Patrick Shand

Loud Poets

 

Theatre

This Really is Too Much

Happy Hour by Jack Rooke

Socially (Un)acceptable

Brutal Cessation

Show Me The Money by Paula Varjack

Jane Doe

Quarter-Life Crisis by Yolanda Mercy

Good Girl by Naomi Sheldon

The Vagina Dialogues

Side Orders

Syd & Sylvia by Claudia Jefferies

At the end of the run I had a couple of nights still, catching the rest of the shows I could, and trying to do some non-fringe stuff. Having had a picnic for dinner on Calton Hill the night before, I treated myself to a lovely meal at MUMS after climbing Arthur’s Seat on my final day, and had my first try of haggis with a Full Scottish Breakfast the next morning (I spread it on toast and finished it, but I’m more of a hash brown girl). After cooking for myself everyday, aside from exactly two portions of chips and gravy, for the whole month, it was a worthy reward. I’d also been veggie the whole time, so meat was quite a treat.

Now it’s onto the next chapter – the book launch at The Five Bells in New Cross on Wednesday 20th September!

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Words & Music

Had a busy week! Tuesday I went out with my friend Laura and my ex-housemate Kirstie (who is travelling around India as of today!) Me and Laura had Nando’s (standard) before meeting Kirstie to go to the Camden Barfly for a gig.  For only a fiver we got to see Supercute and the inspiring Miss Kate Nash in her side project The Receeders.  It was definitely worth seeing and an interesting path for Kate Nash.  Also spotted her boyf Ryan Jarman at the bar.

Last night, after a really stressful day trying to work out PDFs, trying to deal with too many DM boot bids on Ebay and a shift at Sainsbury’s (oh, and after walking in the wrong direction to the venue – typical) I found myself a haven at The Gallery Cafe for The Word House poetry event.  I saw a friendly face in Captain of the Rant, (check out his event, there’s one this Friday I plan to go along to!) and after a quick chat and a rather unimportant embarrassing incident I found myself in, Christian Watson took to the stage.  He was incredible!  I don’t really know what else to say.  It started on a high and that high just did not stop.

The open mic included the likes of Emma Jones who performed her winning set from this year’s Glam Slam (and myself, performing my winning poem from the ‘Loss’ category).  John Berkavitch continued the features and was also amazing, and played with the audiences emotions with a poem that began with a cliché, went forward with comedy and ended with words to send shivers across your skin.  He then told us to read The Empty Space, which is so cheap on Amazon I may have to add it to my huge pile of books to read.  I’m currently reading Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.  It’s massive.

Last up before a dash for the tube (both him and me) was Inua Ellams.  I have said before how lovely he comes across and he is so genuine.  Not only that, but he has an amazing way with words, and also an amazing Graphic Artist. Jealous much.  All in all, a wonderful evening, raising money for Oxfam, yay!  And I even made it home for a late-night viewing of X-factor.

I’ve been working as usual, doing lots of useful and interesting MA stuff (including a gruelling day about accounting) and spent a couple of days with my boyfriend in Norwich, forcing him to come with me to a Feminist Society discussion group, and coming back to his only to watch a rom-com.  Sorry love.  Oh yeah!  And we did Yoga.  About 2 hours of it!  It was really hardcore, seriously, my legs hurt a couple of days later and everything.  Oh yeah, he’s starting up this Sketch Club – if you’re creative in any way, get involved!  I also saw my Gran for dinner with my parents which was a welcome return from the coach journey from Norwich.

Matt made me these cool timetables that you can draw and wipe off.  It’s really good because it gets your mind focused and you feel good ticking things off.  I’ve missed a few things off but I think I’m doing pretty well!  I wonder if I can count my Sainsbury’s work as exercise since it’s manual? Hmmm!

Adios!

xxx