One of my very earliest memories of writing is of learning how to write my name at age 3 or 4. I saw nothing wrong with writing in large letters “mad” then underneath “ge”. It looked lovely to me. Adults around me laughed. “You have to write it all on the one line” they said. I didn’t see why. I liked the way the letters danced on the page, the big open loops of the d and the g.

In primary school, I learned how to write using a pen and ink, real ink with a pen and a nib, a metal nib that slipped onto a wooden dowel. The pointed nib was dipped into ink that came in tiny glass bottles of blue or red or green liquids. Often the fingernails on my index and middle fingers sported dark blue stains from the ink bottles as I dipped my nib into the bottle or the inkwell, a tiny porcelain receptacle fitted into a hole in the wooden school desk. Sometimes the nib would break from leaning too heavily on it. Then panic would set in. How was I going to be able to write without a nib?

At school, we learned how to form loops and do capital letters, keeping our writing in between the blue lines and the top loops of the L and the H and the F the same size and shape as the bottom loop of the G the Y and the Z.

Writing poetry got me through the quagmire of adolescence, my teens and twenties. Writing became a habit when my first child was born, helping me to make sense of the myriad of emotions fighting for space in my head. It got me through the pain and the heartache of grief and loss and clapped me on the back during times of triumph and joy.

At some point along my journey I stopped writing. Perhaps it was because I got some negative reviews from a trusted person in my life or perhaps I hadn’t placed enough value on the writing I was doing. Sometimes the only writing I was doing was writing shopping lists or school notes, an occasional handwritten letter to one of my sisters who lived abroad.

I rediscovered poetry and writing during my training as a psychotherapist when, during a particularly tough training session, I became incensed at a remark made by another person in my training group. “I will not be silenced by your judgement” was the thought that provoked my return to poetry writing. I can’t remember the poem now, and neither did I keep a record of it, but I do remember the relief I got from simply expressing how I felt through poetry. I found it quite healing.

Recently I have become interested in writing for recovery. According to www.goodtherapy.org “Several studies support poetry therapy as one approach to the treatment of depression, as it has been repeatedly shown to relieve depressive symptoms, improve self-esteem and self-understanding, and encourage the expression of feelings”

Poetry Therapy

Poetry therapy has been used as part of the treatment approach for a number of concerns, including borderline personality, suicidal ideation, identity issues, perfectionism, and grief. Research shows the method is frequently a beneficial part of the treatment process. Several studies also support poetry therapy as one approach to the treatment of depression, as it has been repeatedly shown to relieve depressive symptoms, improve self-esteem and self-understanding, and encourage the expression of feelings. Researchers have also demonstrated poetry therapy’s ability to reduce anxiety and distress in people diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Those experiencing posttraumatic stress have also reported improved mental and emotional well-being as a result of poetry therapy. Some individuals who have survived trauma or abuse may have difficulty processing the experience cognitively and, as a result, suppress associated memories and emotions. Through poetry therapy, many are able to integrate these feelings, reframe traumatic events, and develop a more positive outlook for the future.

People experiencing addiction may find poetry therapy can help them explore their feelings regarding the substance abuse, perceive drug use in a new light, and develop or strengthen coping skills. Poetry writing may also be a way for those with substance abuse issues to express their thoughts on treatment and behavior change.

Some studies have shown poetry therapy can be of benefit to people with schizophrenia despite the linguistic and emotional deficits associated with the condition. Poetry writing may be a helpful method of describe mental experiences and can allow therapists to better understand the thought processes of those they are treating. Poetry therapy has also helped some individuals with schizophrenia to improve social functioning skills and foster more organized thought processes.

It is important to note in most instances, especially in cases of moderate to severe mental health concerns, poetry therapy is used in combination with another type of therapy, not as the sole approach to treatment.

Amherst Writers and Artists

Some years ago I became a member and trainer with the Amherst Writers and Artists. Amherst Writers & Artists’ philosophy is a simple one: every person is a writer, and every writer deserves a safe environment in which to experiment, learn, and develop craft. The AWA method, which is fully described in founder Pat Schneider’s book Writing Alone and With Others provides just such an environment.

Pat Schneider says that whether your purpose for writing is artistic expression, communication with friends and family, the healing of the inner life, or achieving public recognition for your art – the foundation is the same: the claiming of yourself as an artist/writer and the strengthening of your writing voice through practice, study, and helpful response from other writers.
The AWA Method is based in the following philosophy. These affirmations rest on a definition of personhood based in equality, and a definition of writing as an art form available to all persons.

  • Everyone has a strong, unique voice.
  • Everyone is born with creative genius.
  • Writing as an art form belongs to all people, regardless of economic class or educational level.
  • The teaching of craft can be done without damage to a writer’s original voice or artistic self-esteem.
  • A writer is someone who writes.

So, I am a writer, I am a poet. Sometimes I am a more prolific writer than at other times. I find it difficult to recite poems and envy those who can spout Emily Dickinson or Seamus Heaney at the drop of a hat. My favourite poem of all time it has to be the one that I find easiest to remember. It’s an anonymous poem called Fleas which I came across in a book of short poems some time ago. I remember every word of it to this day.
It goes:

Fleas
Adam had ‘em

Madge O’Callaghan, Youth Advocacy Platform Coordinator at St Patrick’s Mental Heath Services

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