How words can heal: my journey through depression with the help of poetry
As we adjust to a second lockdown, one musical voice keeps playing in my head: that of Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian poet and Sufi.
Like Anna Maria Di Brina, who wrote movingly in an earlier Inspire the Mind blog about how she derives solace from reading (as well as writing) poetry, I too am drawn to verse right now.
Rumi’s poem ‘This Being Human is a Guesthouse’ in particular is working its magic. The poem casts the individual as a dwelling, allowing each chapter of life to take its room within. We must “treat each guest honourably”, he writes, even if “a crowd of sorrows” greets us: our ‘sorrows’ can be the making of us.
It is a philosophy which makes sense of these dark times. The separation between the personified emotions and the person is comforting: the highs and lows of this challenging pandemic need not define us, nor are we responsible for them. We simply play host to all these different experiences. We need not be overly attached to them. The poem ends with the belief that the most unprepossessing guest “may be clearing you out for some new delight”.
In twelve short lines, a poet gives us a way to cope. This is not the first time that Rumi has helped me through difficult times. He was one of the poets I turned to during a long battle with severe depression which began when I was in my thirties.
Just over twenty years ago, I was lying in bed in so much physical pain that I begged to be allowed to kill myself. That I didn’t was in large part thanks to my love of poetry and my mother.
She would sit by my bedside and say aloud a phrase from Corinthians that reminded me of my childhood: ‘My grace is sufficient for thee; my strength is made perfect in weakness.’ While it is a line from the Bible, I did not think about religion when she repeated those few words. I thought of the beauty of the words, and the message they contained. In the midst of my first severe ‘depressive episode’ that had gripped me in its terrifying embrace, I owed my survival to such poetic mantras.
There was nothing else to which I could turn. My psychiatrist and his drugs had yet to take effect. My mother and husband were as loving as they could be; but they couldn’t reach me. I had ceased to be aware of them. They had faded in my consciousness to vague presences. Our two children had vanished altogether. But the healing words my mother recited were lifelines.
It would have been impossible to learn anything new. I could though remember the words my mother softly repeated from my childhood without much effort. It was a different refrain, more positive than my previous chant that I wanted to die. I would recover, and indeed be stronger. There was a point to the suffering.
Poems also temporarily laid my anxiety to rest when I was unwell by fixing me in the present. It was as if the words had become embodied, almost physical in their power, something to hold on to and rub, like prayer beads for the mind.
As I continued to recover, my mother added more and more healing poems to her repertoire. Favourites include the last lines of Arthur Hugh Clough’s ‘Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth’, also famously quoted by Winston Churchill in his wartime speeches.
“In front the sun climbs slow; how slowly, But westward, look, the land is bright.”
Of course the healing power of words has a long history, dating back to primitive societies who made use of chants. By the first century AD, the Greek theologian Longinus wrote about how he believed in the powers of language to transform reality, to affect readers in deep and permanent ways, and to help them cope with the vagaries of their existence. Spool forward to the twentieth century and by 1969 the Association of Poetry Therapy was established in the USA.
A powerful poetic line can diminish your loneliness, one of the worst characteristics of clinical depression. This was especially striking when I came across poems written hundreds of years ago, like Rumi’s, which described a similar blackness to that which I was experiencing.
Then there is the way poetry encourages your mind to focus on the present moment. Depression cripples your sense of time: your involvement in the present is overwhelmed by worries about the future or regrets about the past. But the complexity and subtlety of poetry requires you to concentrate right now.
Now recovered, poetry has remained a constant friend in need. It is not the only thing that has helped me stay calm and well. I have been helped and written about other approaches too, such as mindfulness and the importance of nutrition, the subject of my book ‘The Happy Kitchen’.
But there will always be a special place for poetry in my heart. Robert Frost, demonstrating my point perfectly, put it far better when he said that a poem can be a ‘momentary stay against confusion.’ That’s what happened all those years ago when my mother sat at my bedside and spoke the words aloud; and that is what is happening now through this lockdown when I recite my Rumi.
Rachel Kelly is a British mental health advocate and author. Her memoir about how poetry helped her recover from depression ‘Black Rainbow: How words healed me — my journey through depression’ is published by Yellow Kite Books.
Singing in the Rain: An Inspirational Workbook
NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: We are so excited to be publishing another wonderful blog from Rachel Kelly. Rachel has written as a journalist for The Times and has written books including Black Rainbow: How Words Healed Me — My Journey Through Depression, Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness, The Happy Kitchen — Good Mood Food and her latest, Singing in the Rain: 52 Practical Steps to Happiness — An Inspirational Workbook. It is a pleasure to have Rachel share another lovely blog with our InSPIre the Mind readers.