In June 2015 I found myself unexpectedly un-busy – after 36 years of uninterrupted employment I found myself sent on gardening leave. Instead of being responsible for the running of a clinical facility I was asked to resign and not come back – it was horrible. It wasn’t an unexpected event (I had verbally resigned the week before) but the abruptness of the termination of working for the organisation was traumatic. I was sent packing – accompanied from the premises and told to come back at the end of the week when they had packed up my office. At the time I knew it was the best thing for me and would preserve my mental health but it has also been one of the most significant events in my life.
So why am I telling you this? Well it is because the day after this happened I was talking to a wise friend on the phone and she asked me about my life raft. What was going to keep me afloat over the next few months whilst I made sense of what had happened. Well I didn’t hesitate in my reply – I said it was poetry. Poetry had been a constant in my life for 10 years and it felt like it would keep me going during this unexpected and somewhat perplexing time. There is no doubt that I have found this to be true – poetry has proven to be the foundation I needed to rebuild my career and find myself a space that feels more authentic and stable.
Cultivating regular writing habits have been part of my recovery and also reading and writing poetry. Through regular writing practice I have become more attentive to the difference between sources of energy and activities that deplete my energy. Meditation has also helped me cultivate more attention to the present and calms my riotous brain and the overthinking that is my default setting. But it is the poetry and writing that has helped me more than anything else – writing first thing in the morning and last thing at night, it is now an activity I can’t live without.
Take certainty down a peg or two,
listen for veiled heartbeats.
Tangible traces – illusive.
Take nothing for granted
instead caress tree bark, lichen, moss.
Measuring progress – a fool’s errand
This language thing is tricky,
we miss many moments rushing on.
Sudden insights – falter.
False visions – erased memories.
This poem is about being burnt out and how by reading about signs and symptoms of burn out I realised that my career change in 2014 was destined to be difficult – I had never worked out why I was disillusioned with my “successful” career in Academia – going back to clinical practice was a mistake and only one I have begun to understand as I excavate my experience as a student nurse. Hints of the activities that have helped me are indicated here – walking in nature and developing a more secure sense of self through values rather than status.
The poems shared here are from workshops and post-counselling sessions where I have found myself excavating the experiences I have had in the last four years and have begun to shed light on why things happened and also increase my self-awareness. I have been getting things wrong for quite a while and the mistakes I have made are better understood when I am kind and contain them in poetry.
I have been thinking about this approach to sharing my story over the last couple of years and then I was listening to radio 4 and heard a programme where the narrator shared his story weaving his poems into the narrative. It was a light bulb moment and I felt that I had heard something significant.
First there are
Instead of asking you
seek kindred spirits.
not gaining kith or kin
You wander through the colleges on Sunday
Downing, Trinity, St Johns,
Back in your room – nothing fits.
I trained as a nurse in Cambridge – I hated nursing and being a student nurse but I loved the city. By the end of my first year (1980) ALL my friends were undergraduates NOT nurses. I didn’t realise this until I was in a writing workshop with William Fiennes. The exercise was about drawing a map of a significant place from our life. My map of the nurses home and hospital in Cambridge was uninhabited – I had labelled places and spaces BUT had not peopled the place. William’s sensitive questioning of this has stayed with me for the last 3 years and found itself in the poem. Reading this poem to a kind and attentive audience has enabled me to be more forgiving and kind to the lonely 19 year old who didn’t leave nursing and spent many years feeling unfulfilled and frustrated.
I went on a writing retreat with the magnificent Kate Fox at the beginning of December. As part of the weekend we were invited to perform some of our writing and share it with the other writers on the retreat. Well I decided this was my chance to try out the interweaving of my poems and story about my career hiccup and the theory I have begun to understand that provides some explanation to the things that have happened. I have been fascinated with the “why” word for a while and staying kind and curious about my recent job-related challenges has helped me learn so much about myself and how others perceive me. It hasn’t been easy, but the writing has helped hugely – morning pages have helped me start the day, writing during tricky times has helped me keep things in perspective and also it has given me confidence in a process that can really help contribute to understanding self and others.
Writing poems that crystallise an experience and help sense making is one thing but sharing them with others in a supportive and energising environment has also been healing. Having people listen to my story and honour my subjective experience has made all the difference.
My reflection on all of this is about how the process of writing that works towards making sense of ourselves and the world around us can make all the difference in relation to how we develop knowledge and I have learnt so much. The books that have inspired me about writing and healing over the years are now beginning to be part of what I do – rather than talking the talk I am also walking the walk. Regular habits of writing have significantly contributed to my sense of wellbeing and I am also more confident in encouraging others to do the same – encouraging regular practice and increasing well-being by doing so.
I believe that I am more confident in calling myself a writer and less hesitant in explain myself to colleagues at the University. Writing this blog and trusting the process of telling my story has really helped as well.
Julia Cameron – The Artist’s Way https://www.amazon.co.uk/Artists-Way-Discovering-Recovering-Creative/dp/0330343580
Lousie De Salvo- The Art of Slow Writing https://www.amazon.co.uk/Art-Slow-Writing-LOUISE-DESALVO/dp/1250051037
Jo Bell and Jane Commane – How to be a poet http://ninearchespress.com/publications/poetry-collections/how%20to%20be%20a%20poet.html
Sage Cohen – Writing the life poetic https://sagecohen.com/books/writing-the-life-poetic/
Sue Spencer is a former senior nurse and nursing academic. She has an interest in creative approaches to facilitation and working with person-centred learning and linking this to reflection and increased self-awareness.
She currently works at Newcastle University within the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences developing creative pedagogies and activities for undergraduates studying the Combined Honours programme. The focus of her work is to encourage early help seeking behaviour in relation to self-care and well-being.