Healing Words: A Meditation on Poetry and Recovery from Mental Illness

This is a brief extract from an essay by Sandy Jeffs and Susan Pepper entitled “Healing Words: A Meditation on Poetry and Recovery from Mental Illness” published in The Arts in Psychotherapy (2005). Sandy Jeffs is an Australian poet and community educator and a regular contributor of poetry and essays to the Centre for Medical Humanities blog. Her memoir Flying with Paper Wings: Reflections on Living with Madness, published by Vulgar Press, was SANE book of the Year in 2010.

An excerpt from “Healing Words: A Meditation on Poetry and Recovery from Mental Illness”:

I make my poetry out of the misery of existence, using whatever language I can to transcend the barriers my madness builds around me. The troubled mindscape becomes a palette, with its textures and colours the raw materials that inform the creations bursting forth from the senses, enabling me to document the ravages of madness on those it touches. Poetry has a primacy about its essential and basic ability to connect people to the collective unconscious, often going to the very core of humanity’s need to communicate with itself. Poetry is at the forefront of this urge to understand what it means to be human.

If nothing else, poetry has given me the means by which to recreate my identity. With the onset of mental illness, one is often stripped of one’s identity and left with a sense of failure and distress. One feels like a shell; a being of no substance; one who walks in the shadows of others and casts none of one’s own; a victim of the spooks and phantoms that pervade one’s mind. Escaping this island of madness comes in the form of poetic utterances. Regaining an identity where one feels at home with oneself, and at ease in the public gaze, is essential to surviving the onslaught of mental illness. I am not saying one only has to write a poem and one will be healed. It is not that simple. Recovery is a personal experience and mine is through the agency of poetry and the overflow of its wash of opportunities.

Recovery is a profoundly unique experience, a change to the way one sees oneself having been in those desperate mind spaces of the annihilation of mental illness. Recovery is a process deeply felt by all who enter its realm and not one that is easily or lightly attained. Each person’s recovery will be different. Recovery might be getting out of bed for one morning of one week for one person, while another’s recovery might be getting a full time job. It is not a linear process it may have twists and turns, ups and downs that make it a harrowing experience. It is hard fought for some and one that comes after a long and fraught campaign to find meaning in life when all has seemed lost. There are set backs and triumphs. Recovery is about self-understanding and about finding hope, a reason for getting out of bed. For myself a sign of recovery is writing a poem.

The simple experience of creating something, bringing into being a work of art that did not exist before the creative moment, is wonderfully empowering. I believe there is a poem in everyone’s heart. And this is especially important for those of us who live sanity-challenged lives, where we need every bit of empowerment we can find. Poetry has opened doors I never thought would open for me. It has been like a miracle. […]

I write about my madness, finding the healing words, sending them on their way, not knowing if they will land on friendly territory, or whether they will end up shipwrecked and lost at sea. Part of me is with them, hoping to find some comfort in their safe arrival. I give them as much help as I can, as much love as I can, caressing them out of my being, furnishing them with a protective coat that will help them on their journey. I give them strength and courage, a resilience that will sustain them through all the storms they will have to encounter. And if they return to me with a new wisdom, I shall be pleased to receive them and welcome them home.

Continue reading here.

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2 Responses to Healing Words: A Meditation on Poetry and Recovery from Mental Illness

  1. Betty T says:

    What profound thoughts of recovery and poetry! I have worked many years with various people in the recovery process and found the following line you wrote to be very true in all circumstances,

    “Recovery is about self-understanding and about finding hope, a reason for getting out of bed.”

    For you recovery is obviously poetry, even in your writing one can see you are a poet at heart. It is very important for people like yourself and others to share their reasons ‘for getting out of bed’ so to speak. I was inspired by your recovery poetry plan and will be sharing with others because sometimes finding the medium to your recovery can seem limited when first introduced to the idea.

    Thank you for sharing and for not giving up, great article and beautiful concepts!
    with love – Betty T

    • Sandy Jeffs says:

      Thank you for your lovely response Betty. Poetry has been a lifeline for me though it hasn’t protected me from my meetings with my madness. What it has done is give me a place in which to try and understand what has happened to me, to explore my mind’s meltdowns in words that transcend the mire I find myself floundering in. If my words can help someone better understand the veiled places into which we go in madness, then I have done my work.

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