Not long ago I went on a workshop given by the poet Chris Tutton called Poetry as Healing, an afternoon that came like a gift of grace at a time when I needed it more than I realised. It confirmed what I already knew but had forgotten – that there are times when writing, and more particularly writing poetry, can do more than anything else to bring stillness and peace to a frightened mind.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that research shows when sufferers of anxiety and depression use poetry as a form of expression, it lessens activity in the amygdala – the so-called ‘lizard brain’, the primitive neurological centre associated with fear. Quite why writing poetry rather than creative prose should do this is not fully understood and was something we discussed, but it seems clear that as Chris suggests it probably has to do with structure. Finding words to express feelings in a concise, condensed form and in a free creative way can be very liberating, while at the same time it’s a comfort to find focus and order in a situation that is otherwise spinning out of control. I know that there have been times when I’ve found greater peace and comfort from this than I could have found any other way.
It’s important to understand that it doesn’t matter how good the results are in terms of writing. This is unashamedly, first and foremost, therapeutic and if you thought it was only worth doing to try to produce a poem to be proud of, you’re thinking about it the wrong way. Nevertheless it can sometimes throw up lines that make sense in a powerful way that can be worth sharing.
That Saturday afternoon I was filled with tension and anxiety. A close member of my family had slithered into a deep depression after enduring months of anxiety and was struggling to keep afloat; we watched in dismay as he sank further and deeper and weren’t sure he would be able to climb out however much we supported him. We had all been hanging on in one way or another, wishing desperately that there was more we could do, and having known the pain and despair of depression from the inside I now learnt the pain of watching someone you love suffer in a bleak dark place.
It wasn’t until almost a week later when the crisis had past, and new medication and the intervention of the wonderful Mental Health team had brought about the miraculous beginnings of recovery, that I noticed myself coming apart and agitated to the point of distraction.
I did a lot of vacuuming. I went for a fast walk, trying to ease my tension with fierce exercise. I immersed myself in work that didn’t really need to be done and got exhausted. I did practically none of the things that I could have done that would have made me feel better and by dawn the next morning my stomach was fluttering and cramping and no amount of slow deep breathing would calm my anxiety. My stress response had kicked in and activated the fossil-record of experiences from long ago so that the present merged with past and I was in a permanent state of fight-or-flight. I lay in bed unable to control my gibbering mind, and clutched at straws. Start from where you are, I thought. That’s the right way to begin because you can’t start from anywhere else.
Catching the first few words that came to me I let them form together and repeated them in my head until they made sentences that I could hear on the in-breath and on the out; the rythymn of the unspoken sound of it was like a lullaby, like listening to rain or the sound of the wind. Within minutes I was calm, and the calmness endured.
Let my heart cry.
Let me loosen the ties
that bound me
and held me together.
Let me unravel a little,
and travel a little
in weakness and worry and fear,trusting my journey
and finding the comfort of tears.
Its not much of a poem. I print it here to illustrate how much that doesn’t matter, how that really isn’t the point. What matters is that it’s often the best way I know to find my way back to myself, to a place of stillness and calm, the place that feels like home.