Unexpected Ways Poetry Made My Life Better

TRIGGER WARNING: I DO BRIEFLY TOUCH ON EXPERIENCING SUICIDAL THOUGHTS

The word ‘prom’ conjures images of a glamorous night of celebration shared between a peer group who have shared the stress of schoolwork, teen drama and exams together. Long dresses which glide along the floor, folds of expensive material and dates’ arms slung around each other come to mind. Perhaps this is simply the rose-tinted image I have gathered from endless cliched American high school movies where the bullied girl turns-up to prom looking every inch the movie star whilst the ‘mean girls’ suffer the worst night of their lives. I wouldn’t know what a real-life prom looks like because I have never been to one. Not even my own one. Anxiety made sure that I stayed away. I could not bare the thought of going and having to endure an evening with my bullies.

Secondary school and especially the last year of GCSEs was really difficult for me. By year 11, I was depressed and plagued by suicidal thoughts. School felt like a prison where every negative thought I had was heightened to unbearable levels and my fear of failure was magnified, even encouraged, by teachers who wanted good grades on their record. I was swamped with self-doubt and tortured myself with imagined scenarios with my disappointed parents which I was convinced would occur if I did not get the results which were expected of me.

Alongside the pain of academic expectation was my growing sense of anxiety. My mum had to drop me off directly outside the door to my school and pick me up from the same location at the same time everyday because I was so anxious about being outside rather than within the safe confines of my own home. The voices of my bullies ricocheted around my head all day everyday whilst I was at school and snide looks in the locker-room was all it took for my self-confidence to take another battering.

Regular meetings with the school therapist were my only saving grace. Whilst talking out loud to her was a struggle (as I explained in my previous post ‘What Is Wrong With My Voice?’) she encouraged me to express my feelings in the form of poetry. The words began to pour out of me and became a significant source of communication between me, my counsellor and my head of house. Whilst my peers teased me for how quiet I was and how little I spoke, this very fact became my strength in regards to my creativity. Though I have never been loud or outspoken, this has never meant that I have had nothing to say. In fact, it almost felt like I saved-up all of my thoughts and insight for my poetry which allowed me to explore the depths of my mind like nothing else could.

Poetry slowly allowed me to gain some confidence. Writing poetry gave me a sense of achievement and the encouragement of my counsellor and head of house made me believe in the words I was writing. Poetry restored within me a sense of identity which had been dwindling away from me for years. I found my own unique voice which I was not frightened to use, unlike my verbal, spoken voice.

In many ways, I see poetry as both my therapy and my passion. This may seem unusual because therapy is frequently portrayed as something which is impossible to enjoy, a chore or a source of heartache. However, whilst poetry can bring many hurtful feelings to the fore of my mind, the creativity which is intertwined with the act of writing makes it not only bearable but beautiful.

My New Therapy

I have never thought of myself as much of a cook. I’ve simply known the bare minimum about nutrition and basic meals to stop me from starving to death and that was the extent of my cookery knowledge! However, recently I have come to consider baking and cooking a form of both self-care and therapy. Becoming vegan has allowed me to research some really interesting recipes and taught me that my dietary differences do not stop me from having food which I have always considered as very far away from being vegan, like loafs and cakes.

Baking especially makes me feel productive because the process leaves me with something I have created with my bare hands, a physical embodiment of all of the effort I have put in. It also makes my environment feel a lot more welcoming and comfortable because the smell of baked goods drifts throughout my kitchen and beyond whilst my food is in the cooker.

All forms of cooking appear to me to be a fundamental (yet often overlooked) example of self-care. When tidal waves of mental health issues are weighing you down or feeling sad threatens to overcome you, one of the first things we begin to cut corners with is our nutrition. Cooking from scratch seems like too much of a mountainous task and instead we would much rather curl-up on the sofa around a bowl of cereal (or at least that’s what I do anyway!). This sparks a vicious cycle of feeling bad about ourselves because we know that we are not eating properly or getting what we need from the food we are consuming. Therefore, cooking and baking always feels like a step in the right direction during these moments.

Working with ingredients and following a recipe gives you a structure, so that you are not drowning in your own thoughts, at least for a period of time. Then, your concentration becomes so enveloped in what you are trying to achieve, you stop having to ruminate on whatever feelings and emotions are burdening you at the time. You are simultaneously doing something good for your body, by making proper sustenance for it, as well as doing something good for your mental health as the process occupies your mind and offers you a sense of achievement when you reach the final product.

My personal favourite items to bake at the moment are vegan fruit cake and banana breakfast bars. Evidently, I have a ridiculously sweet tooth which I am trying to satisfy without processed sugar or the chunks of vegan chocolate which are taunting me from the cupboard. I save these shop-bought sweet treats for rewards for when I achieve something, like tackling the grocery shop in a crowded supermarket or making myself engage in small talk with the person next to me in a queue.

I don’t know if this post made much sense, I just wanted to share this newfound sense of joy I have been getting from baking. Let me know if you have any vegan recipe recommendations and I will leave some of my favourite recipes linked below…

Banana and Raisin Loaf – Deliciously Ella

Fruit Cake – The Vegan Society

Vegan mushroom risotto – Elavegan

RECOVERY

QUESTION: is the idea of ‘recovery’ helpful?

I have mixed feelings about recovery. Whether it is a help or a hindrance when so many people present it as an ideal which feels distant and unattainable to people who are in the midst of any type of illness. Sometimes when people reference recovery or being recovered, it just makes me feel more lost and hopeless than I was before. However, other times it can inspire me and give me the courage to keep moving forward with the comfort that others have weathered similar storms.

What is probably most frustrating to me about the idea of recovery is that it is so vague by virtue that it is subjective and hard to pin down in what it means to each of us individually. There is no specific route or journey that will lead you straight to recovery, the same steps and challenges do not work for anyone. Recovery does not look the same for everyone either, leaving me in the strange position of never being entirely certain of what I am aiming or working towards, meaning that my motivation begins to dwindle behind my uncertain mind.

Whenever counsellors or therapists have mentioned recovery to me I have felt myself recoil into my seat. Even the word seems so intimidating and far off in the distance. Also, I find the use of the term frustrating because who has the right or the knowledge to determine exactly what recovery is, what it looks like and what the time period for recovery should be? However much I want there to be a finish line I also do not know who I am without mental illness because I have let my mental health define me for so long. How do I separate myself from the characteristics of my illnesses and how will I know when this process is complete and I have recovered?

This post is a mess of rhetorical questions and abstract thoughts but what I have learnt from it is that I need to narrow down the specifics of what I am striving towards and what progress I will be satisfied with so that I could call myself recovered. Abstract and vague goals only lead to more frustration and motivation leaving me like a deflated balloon.

“I wanted to tell her that I was getting better, because that was supposed to be the narrative of illness: It was a hurdle you jumped over, or a battle you won. Illness is a story told in the past tense.” – ‘Turtles All The Way Down’ by John Green

MY EXPERIENCE OF CBT…

I had a 12 session course of CBT in 2016 on the NHS when I was 16.

For those who don’t know, CBT stands for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and it aims to change the way you think and behave by talking through situations which you find triggering. Personally, my course of CBT focused on my anxiety because it was thought that if this was tackled and I could gain more independence, such as travelling on my own and such, then this may decrease my experience of depression and OCD because it would give me more freedom and lessen my tendency to worry about everything.

This is a difficult topic to talk about for me because I don’t believe that I got everything I could of out of my therapy experience. Whilst I seemed to make progress during my course of treatment, as soon as the treatment stopped after the 12th session I regressed back to my old ways because there was no-one working with me to maintain my progress, therefore there was nobody for me to disappoint with my inaction and hibernation in my house.

I have always found talking therapies a tricky experience anyway because part of my anxiety centres around talking and explaining myself in front of others. Therefore, it seems ironic that, in order to reduce my anxiety in the long-term, I have to put myself through hours of anxiety provoking treatment and talk about my deepest thoughts and feelings with a complete stranger! My fear of judgement and my embarrassment about my own wild thought patterns meant that I found it really hard to properly open-up to my therapist.

A lot of what my therapist told me was a repetition of the familiar refrain that my thoughts are illogical and not reasonable. When I told her about my feelings of impending danger whenever I left the house, she would reason ‘but there is only a very small likelihood of you coming to any danger by just leaving your house – it’s not rational to think that some crisis is going to descend on you when there are so many other people walking the streets right now who aren’t facing any danger at all’.

Every single session she would bring me back to the fact that my fears and anxieties were irrational, therefore there was no point in focusing on them and letting them rule my life. The problem with this was that I already knew that my thoughts were irrational. I know that my fear of leaving the house is neither plausible nor founded on any factual basis. Everyday I can see people walking outside my window without a care in the world or any threat of doom hanging over them. I wasn’t blind or stupid. The whole reason I wanted therapy was to find out why my life was so dominated by illogical thinking, why I am the way I am, not to just be told that my thoughts don’t make any sense. Instead, my therapist just continued telling me that my thoughts weren’t rational (as if this were a revelation) rather than giving me any practical advice to navigate my way around them.

So, for me, CBT didn’t offer me a route of a solution to my problems, if anything it just left me feeling more lost than beforehand. I felt like a failure for not leaving my course of therapy having been ‘cured’ and transformed into a carefree individual. The disappointment of my therapist who told me that I wasn’t making enough progress was, and still is, a heavy presence in my mind, telling me that my struggles are my own fault and that I am a lost cause.

I have no doubt that CBT works for lots and lots of people and it was definitely something worth trying because at least now I can say that I have tried it and I can cross it off my list of possibilities. It’s just a shame that it didn’t have the effect on me that I was hoping it would.

 

AM I BROKEN?

My meeting with my student support worker went as per usual today.

It started off as usual with me updating her on my progress and what I was doing currently but then inevitably the conversation turned to my lack of socialising. She began questioning me on all of the clubs that are on offer at the University and the surrounding area and was enthusiastic about me going out and meeting people and forging a group of friends.

This is the point that I can never seem to convey to counsellors, therapists or support workers; having a group of friends does not appeal to me. I don’t enjoy organising trips out and meeting up with people to chat, I find it draining and daunting. I always feel that there is an invisible block between me and other people which stops me being able to fully immerse myself in conversation with them. Instead, I am constantly counting down the clock until a reasonable time that I can leave without being impolite. Also, I have nothing to talk about, no funny anecdotes to share unless they want to hear about the successive nights when I have stayed in my University room and chuckled to myself about inane youtube videos! I have a narrow set of interests that I find hard to talk about when someone asks me about them on the spot because I feel like I have to prove to them that I like whatever it is and then I just panic and fail to get any of my points across.

Does this all make me broken? My student support advisor has told me before that humans are sociable creatures, they are not meant to spend prolonged lengths of time on their own. So, does the fact that I have no desire for any relationships (whether romantic or otherwise) mean that I am a non-functioning human? Has a wire come loose somewhere in me and need re-connecting so that I spark back into animated life?

THIS MORNING

This morning I lay in bed feeling that my body was too weighed down to heave out of bed. The rational part of me was telling myself that I needed to get out of bed and get on with my day, I am already behind on Uni work. But the rest of me just wanted to stay cocooned inside my duvet for the rest of the day. I didn’t want the responsibility of sustaining myself, having to feed myself, having to hydrate myself. I wanted to pretend that the night could last all day – no new dramas, no challenges, just being suspended in that feeling of comfort all day.

I had an initial appointment for on-campus counselling yesterday. I have counselling and therapy before and each time I have to spill my guts to a new stranger so that I can get referred to another stranger to talk things through, I feel more drained and hopeless. I move from person to person and begin to think ‘what is the point?’. I fall into this black hole of thinking that I cannot be helped and that I can never verbalise my feelings properly anyway, so how can I ever get a counsellor or therapist to understand me?

I know that I am in a privileged position to even be close to get counselling, there are so many people across the world who are denied the treatment they need for a multitude of reasons. So, I’m sorry for moaning about it.