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.

Wellbeing: Feeling Good – The New Mood Therapy

Before this turns into a rant about the state of mental health care in the UK, I’m going to give a brief overview of my experiences and where I am at the moment, as well as looking at one of the books that started my journey into looking seriously at my wellbeing.

I see my mental health issues as being quite situational, so most of my problems stem from how I react to things rather than feelings that come out of nowhere. I don’t feel like I’ve had any formal diagnosis and a lot of the help I’ve been offered seems to be more to do with what is fashionable and cheap. At the moment that has meant a recent movement from CBT to Mindfulness. In terms of managing my mental health, both of these seem like good options for me.

I went to my first counselling appointment as a teenager, in reaction to a difficult period where I felt there was something wrong with me, but left with the therapist telling me that I was “okay” and didn’t need to come. This was at a point where I actually was a lot better, but looking back, my teenage years at secondary school are probably the most likely time I would label as having suffered from clinical depression, though I never got that label.

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The next time I looked for counselling was at university. They offered person-centred therapy and I finished it, but didn’t find it any more helpful than talking to a friend. I realised that it was the constant going out and binge drinking that is accepted as such a normal rites of passage at university, which was causing me problems. Again, this was a situational thing, but also chemical. Alcohol is obviously a depressant. But more than that, as an introvert, going out so much was exhausting and unnatural for me, and it resulted in a physical illness so bad it could have developed into what the doctor termed “leukaemia and other nasties”. For me, my mental and physical health are intrinsically linked.

Anyway, I don’t think the way we drink in the UK is normal, and although my behaviour was much like any other university student, I wanted to reach a position where I felt I didn’t need to binge drink. Lying in bed all day was something I should do (and still should do more), but without the horrible feelings that come with being hungover. I decided to go to alcohol counselling. The sessions were helpful and interesting, but it is still something I struggle with if given the chance to drink into the early hours. More helpful has been getting a job and focusing more on my career. I do like the odd night of dancing, but generally I prefer pubs and restaurants.

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It was this focus on my career though, that has meant for the last three-four years since graduating from my MA I have been working so hard that I’m risking burn-out again. People have different tolerance levels, but for me working 35 hours a week, travelling 3 hours a day to and from work (often standing in rush hour), and on top of that trying to work a second job that encompasses many roles within it – writer, performer, event organiser, workshop facilitator, editor – is impossible to keep up for much longer. For the last couple of years I have been trying to find a way to make this work better, and although I feel I’ve have anxiety from a very early age, I’m now at a stage where assessments have shown that I have GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder). It feels slightly more official than a doctor at university saying it sounds like I have cyclothymia, but in both cases I’m highly functional with it, so the only problem is how I feel inside rather than anything else.

I was recommended the book ‘Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy’ by David D. Burns. What I found most eye-opening and helpful about this book was the list of cognitive distortions. I was guilty of so many. There are many different techniques and suggestions that are in-line with CBT. I’m not always very good at actively doing these things, but I do find it useful to have these exercises at hand. Burns also makes the point that having therapy alongside medication is much better than just using medication alone. Its guide to anti-depressants made me feel lucky that my problems are mostly mild-moderate, as there are so many side-effects and so many different types, the trial-and-error you have to go through to get the right medication is a battle in itself.

During the time of reading this, I also got some CBT phone-calls, because the journey to my “local” psychological service was too difficult and stressful to get to. Sometimes with CBT it feels like you understand the logic of what you’re doing, but it has very little impact on the very real feelings associated with these thoughts. Maybe this is because the cognitive distortions are so embedded, but at times I felt like I was lying to myself and the therapist when the percentage I gave linked to a particular thought. Initially they had offered me to join a group Mindfulness session, which provoked lots of negative emotions, feeling like I wasn’t getting what I asked for, and just being offered it because it was cheap and fashionable. That said, I have come to see how Mindfulness is what I need, but it’s actually setting aside the time to do it that I find difficult.

My partner is a visual artist, so over Christmas, and beyond, I’ve been able to take some time to colour-in, which I’ve found to be a good exercise. I’m into all that return-to-childhood type stuff, so though I know it’s become a bit of a cliché, I think it’s good for people like me who like to be constantly doing things, as it’s an activity that keeps you occupied, but means you can relax your mind and zone-out a bit too. Meanwhile, I’ve also started some CBT sessions as part of a research project comparing CBT to a particular drug. I’ve found this quite interesting, and more useful than the phone calls. This isn’t just because it’s face-to-face, but because there is more of the B (behavioural). I’ve been set small steps to try to deal with uncertainties better – a massive problem for me, being quite the control-freak! Some of the stuff that has come out of it has been really eye-opening and I feel like I’m discovering things about myself, like how I actually have a lot of positive associations with worrying, such as it being a sign for care (inherited that one from my parents).

One of my tasks for this weekend is to leave some time for “unstructured activities”. I always set myself too many things to do, so even when I intend to do this, or to do more relaxing activities, the time gets eaten up and I always end up sacrificing it. As it’s homework, it should hopefully push me to actually do it. I’m also doing something extreme to help with the pattern I’ve got into with over-stretching myself with work etc. I’ve handed in my notice at work! But this post is quite long enough, so I’ll save that for another time…