Tag Archives: Mental Health

Writing the therapeutic journey #1: a part of my story

Anniversaries are interesting things. As human beings we seem fascinated by them. I suppose they give a focal point for remembering, for reflection, for noticing the years are passing (on their inevitable march towards our demise), for coming together, for apology, for celebration…

One anniversary is knocking on the door of my consciousness: it is four months since my final therapy session (ever? I doubt I would ever claim that.) Four months ago, after a period of seventeen years of regular therapy, I stopped having sessions with my current therapist.

I would not claim to be ‘sorted’. I consider that I live with depression rather than I am ‘cured’ of it. I do recognise that I am much more resilient emotionally and psychologically. I feel more comfortable with who I am, I accept more readily my vulnerabilities and failings. I understand how my history continues to intrude into my today. I feel joy and the support of others. The word journey is probably much over-used, but it fits here, it has been a long, challenging, difficult, fascinating, enriching journey.

I take up my battered Pocket Oxford Dictionary with its loose and thumbed pages. ‘Journey’: to travel, expedition, voyage. From the French ‘journee’ meaning day. Connected (importantly for me) to ‘journal’ (more on that later).

I have had three therapists over the years. I miss all of them in different ways for what they brought with them to sustain me and my journey. I certainly miss my most recent therapist, Annie, some days more than others.

There are two important legacies bequeathed by my therapists. Firstly, the space they (we) created together in which it was okay to examine me, my story, my life. Finlay calls this the ‘between’ ‘The mysterious intersubjective space between, where we touch and are touched by the Other in multiple, often unseen ways…’ (Page 3. Linda Finlay, Relational Integrative Psychotherapy, engaging process and theory in practice. Wiley Blackwell. 2016.)

I like the Dixie Chick’s definition:

‘When the calls and conversations
Accidents and accusations
Messages and misperceptions
Paralyze my mind

Buses, cars, and airplanes leaving
Burning fumes of gasoline
And everyone is running
And I come to find a refuge in the

Easy silence that you make for me
It’s okay when there’s nothing more to say to me
And the peaceful quiet you create for me
And the way you keep the world at bay for me’

                                                     Easy Silence, Dixie Chicks

Though in truth, rather than keep it at bay, the ‘easy silence’ allowed me to examine my world, without becoming totally overwhelmed by it.

The second legacy is that my therapists’ words, their ways of being, have stayed with me. They are a gentle and nourishing counter-balance to my own tendencies to self-criticism and towards self-annihilation. Tendencies which can sometimes become augmented by the attitudes of others and events. I have left my therapists, but they do not leave me.

There are other significant things which have brought me to where I am. Good support from my husband, my sister and friends. A healthy diet, exercise and yoga. Making more of a connection with nature. And last, though certainly not least, writing and my writing journal. Having reached this particular way-station, I thought I might return to my continuing passion: writing for wellbeing. On this blog, over the coming weeks/months, I will explore ideas around the connection between writing and wellbeing. I hope there will be readers who will want to join me on this particular branch line.

7 things you need to know about: Poetry Therapy

By Victoria Field

vickyfVictoria Field qualified as Certified Poetry Therapist with the National Federation for Biblio-Poetry Therapy in 2005 – she has since done a two year training as a mentor-supervisor for the, now, International Federation for Biblio-Poetry Therapy. She is a poet, playwright, fiction and memoir writer,  a member of the British Psychological Society and an International Fellow at the England Centre for Practice Development at Canterbury Christ Church University – full details on www.thepoetrypractice.co.uk  Read her inspiring and thought-provoking new book, Baggage: A Book of Leavings – part travelogue, part memoir, part reflections on loss and redemption – https://goo.gl/mZgz1m

Poetry Therapy is not just poetry
We work with the ‘poetic’ in all literary forms – and even beyond ,with music, movement, film and visual arts. The arts open an imaginative space in which we can encounter the full potential of our lives and humanity.

But poetry is special
The way a poem can convey rich ambiguity, be beautiful, memorable, moving, personal and universal, is for me, something magical. I never tire of taking a poem to a group and hearing the infinitely varied responses of individuals encountering it in the moment. I’m always surprised.

Connection is everything
In a typical session, we connect with a poem, our multi-faceted selves, the selves of others and the world around us in a way that is profound and meaningful. Being disconnected is, I believe, at the root of distress whether individual, collective or universal. Finding connections is a way of getting to know yourself better and that can lead to improved life choices as well as being able to respond in a nuanced way to this beautiful and broken world. 

Poetry therapy is accessible and inclusive
Working in community settings, I often have no idea who will turn up to a session. Somehow, once we are a group around a table – which mimics the way human beings have sat in circles around the fire for millennia – the social trappings fall away and we see ourselves mirrored in the poem and in each other. 

Poetry therapy is both receptive and expressive
We read poems on the page and write in response. In the UK, these are often seen as separate activities but the US-model in which I trained is based on close reading, discussion and then creating in response. One of the pioneers in biblio-poetry therapy was a librarian, Sister Arleen Hynes, at St Elizabeth’s hospital in Washington who noticed that when patients discussed books they’d read, they seemed to benefit more and when this was done in a group, the impact was even greater. 

What if I don’t like poetry?
‘Poem’ is shorthand for a text that can elicit an emotional reaction – a feeling response rather than an intellectual one. We use all kinds of texts and these can be film clips, stories, memoirs, songs as well as every kind of poem. If someone actively dislikes the poem, that’s all grist to the mill. How about writing a letter to the poet? What would you say? How can that illuminate your own values and enthusiasms? 

What if I don’t want ‘therapy’?
Poetry Therapy works with the ‘positive psychology’ model of what it means to be human. We all have strengths and weaknesses and suffer losses and challenges and medicalising these can be unhelpful. Sometimes, though, suffering is so profound, or behaviour so challenging that specific treatments of disease or illness is called for. Poetry Therapy, like all the expressive arts and anything we do that is absorbing, meaningful and contributes to a common good, can be useful in most situations whether we talk about therapy, healing, wellbeing or use another word entirely.

The Poetry of Julia Darling – Still Inspires

Ten years ago, Julia Darling died of cancer. She wrote in many different genres, but it is her collections ‘Apologies for Absence’ and ‘Sudden Collapses in Public Places’ which I go back to most often. Through this poetry she charted her life with cancer and also asked pertinent questions about illness/health and how we as individuals/professionals respond to both.

At our Lapidus (www.lapidus.org.uk) meeting on Saturday, Julia was amongst us like a benign ghost and so was her poetry, inspiring us to write about ourselves and our own approaches to wellness. I was pleased to discover some lines from Chemotherapy:

‘I’m not unhappy. I have learnt to drift
and sip. The smallest things are gifts.’

Another line from this poem prompted me to write the following, which I feel is perhaps an aspiration, perhaps a blessing:

I would wear myself more lightly;
my self –
a silk shawl,
imperfectly woven, yet
vibrant and warm.


Healing Words Workshop – 7th March 2015

Growing into Ourselves, using fairytale narratives to reflect on where we are in our journey. Scarborough Counselling & Psychotherapy Training Institute (SCPTI), 1 Westbourne Grove, Scarborough, YO11 2DJ, 01723 376 246, mail@scpti.co.uk

Fees: Early bird before 15th January 2015 members SCPTI £75/non-member £95. Non-early bird £90 (member SCPTI)/£110

A day of gently facilitated writing exercises which will use fairytales as a starting point for exploration and creativity. The fairytales we probably encountered when young come from a long tradition of oral story-telling, where the narrative was taken and moulded by each re-teller at each re-telling. They were vehicles for passing on wisdom, as well as for creating a sense of self and community for the story-teller and listener alike. When fairytales were written down in the nineteenth century, for the most part, they became stuck in the societal mores and outlook of Europe at that time. It is time to reclaim the fairytale for our day, for our lives, for our own journey.

Tutor: Kate has been a writer for 30 years. Her non-fiction, short stories and poems have been published and she has created two audio installations using poetry for Coastival. In 2013, her book Pathways through writing blocks in academic environments was published by Sense Publishers. She is a trained as a psychotherapeutic counsellor. She has been working within therapeutic environments with creative writing for over 10 years. She has run a group for people with depression and anxiety for four years and has been poet in residence for Hospital Arts in North Yorkshire working with terminally ill patients. She has also facilitated training for clinical psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors and writers. She is a member of Lapidus (Literary Arts for Personal Development, http://www.lapidus.org.uk/).

All in the Mind

I usually have a lot of time for All in the Mind on Radio 4 and its presenter Claudia Hammond, but I have become increasingly uneasy listening to the recent coverage of the All in The Mind awards. Over and over again I hear that these awards are being given to people – carers and professionals – who have ‘gone beyond the call of duty.’

As if uneasy themselves, they did tackle this in one programme discussing whether ‘going beyond the call of duty’ might conflict with professional boundaries. However, the focus was on how these kept clients safe, there was no mention of what they might mean for the carers/workers. Many people (including me) seek support for their mental health because of past or present issues within relationships. We search for a replacement relationship, one which is nurturing, with us at the centre. Often we find this replacement relationship with a mental health professional. Yet it can only be a temporary alternative. Professional boundaries are about making this temporary substitute safe for both people, without them the danger for the carer/worker is burn out.

I am very grateful to those professionals who have held me and nurtured me, when I have felt very vulnerable. I am also very grateful that they were clear about their own boundaries and kept themselves safe and well – otherwise we would have both sunk together.

People working in the mental health field are already loaded with responsibilities in an under-funded service over-burdened by targets and now we have to ‘go beyond the call of duty’ to gain recognition for what we do? That sets up, I believe, unrealistic expectations on all sides, but maybe especially for those seeking help. Of course, I support anything promoting good practice which must include treating people as individuals and not as a bag of symptoms, as well as treating everyone with respect. Yet what about respect for the worker/carer, for their needs to set limits? Furthermore, for professional staff to be able to treat those they care about considerately, the staff must also be treated with respect. This is sadly lacking in many working environments causing stress and distress. What purpose is there in adding to the load by acknowledging only those who ‘go beyond the call of duty’?

Many go into mental health jobs because of their own experience of mental distress and with a sense of wanting to help others. We often discover very quickly that the only person we can save is ourselves, the deck is stacked against saving anyone else. We fall short, we are vulnerable, we are fallible. Yet an important lesson for maintaining mental health is that it’s OK to be all these things. So let’s have an award for falling short, that’s what I say.

I do wish everyone who has been nominated for an All in the Mind award well and I hope they have the support they need to maintain their own mental health. I would ask, though, that in the future, the All in the Mind team have an award which celebrates the ordinary, the just getting by; because understanding that we are all limited and flawed and, even so extraordinary, is a valuable tool for maintaining our mental health and our humanity.

“And Some There Be” by Kate Evans, 2008
On the road to Cap del Pinar
a plaque reads: “Victorious engineers 1939”,
to those who
dug, blasted, pinned, tarmacked,
built this precipitous way.

And I thought

how often do we commemorate
the men and women who
quietly, gloriously,
create, not destroy?
The triumphant cleaner?
The undefeated carer?
The conquering call centre clerk?
The broadbacked brickie?

I wonder whether
in amongst the celebrity, the influential and the hero,
there’s room for the mediocre,
for the does their best,
for the not quite good enough?

Where indeed stands
the marble memorial
to the ordinary?

To the majority of us?

My Writing Process – The blog tour

So I have taken the baton for this grand tour of writers’ blogs, thank you to Judith Marshall for asking me to take part and see her blog at http://judithlesleymarshall.com/

The idea is that we all answer the same questions, so here are my responses.

What am I working on?
I have three very different projects on the go. Firstly, there is an article on embodied creative writing within the therapeutic environment which I am collaborating on with a friend and colleague. This is destined for an academic market. Secondly, I am doing some writing around Edith Sitwell for an article, workshop and performance celebrating her life and works in the 50th year since she died. And thirdly, I am working on a novel series in the crime genre.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Focusing on my series of novels, I would say that I am riffing off what others are doing within the genre, namely interweaving social observation into a plot driven by a problem posed by a crime. I am following on the heels of Sayers, Cleeves, Rankin, Atkinson, Paretsky, Rendell, Walters… and oh so many others who have dragged the genre into the modern era. As ever my preoccupations are: relationships; mental health; and writing. In the first book a psychotherapist gets murdered, but don’t tell my therapist that.

Why do I write what I do?
I write because I am enraptured by the process of playing with words and ideas. I write because I have to, I feel compelled to. I write because I want to be in communion with others. I write because when I don’t I feel less myself. I write because doing so helps me feel fulfilled and useful.

How does my writing process work?
I read A LOT. All writers must read and must read widely. I write pretty much every day in a writing journal. Here I write very freely, whatever comes, I don’t worry about making sense or having any purpose. A lot of what comes out is how I am feeling, along with observations, ideas, quotes, lines of poetry I’ve discovered, scraps of things I’ve found and reflections. Writing in my journal means that I am always experimenting, practising, limbering up. The contents of my now numerous journals are a treasure trove of starting points for writing that I may decide to share.

I always have two or three projects on the go and I usually make a six month plan detailing week by week how I am going to achieve what I want to do. So, for instance, this week I know I am working on Edith Sitwell and to do that I need to spend so much time researching/reading and so much time writing and I put those blocks of time into my diary. Once the plan is there, I rarely allow anything to intrude on my writing time.

Within this stringent time framework, I will write freely/organically. For my novels, I have had a cast of characters who I have got to know along the way and a loose plot but I have not known ‘who dunnit’ before I started. That has come out in the writing. I have discovered that what’s great about a series is that I have my characters and I can continue to live with them.

That’s enough from me. I will now pass the baton onto my writerly friends Julie Fairweather and Sue Spencer.

Julie Fairweather is a creative writer who allows her writing in progress the freedom to find its own form, though she tends to favour the short story genre. Julie completed an honours degree in creative writing in 2012 and last year published a collection of her short stories ‘Picking at the Bones’, available in digital form from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Picking-at-Bones-Julie-Fairweather-ebook/   Read more from Julie at Spinning Stories from the Secret Self on http://juliefairweather.co.uk/ 

Sue Spencer trained as a nurse at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge in the early 80s. She worked as a District Nurse in London and Gateshead before becoming a Diabetes Specialist Nurse. Sue moved to her present job in 1996. In 2004 Sue met Julia Darling and her world has never been quite the same since. Poetry has become one of the most important guides in her life and Sue completed the MA Creative Writing in Poetry at Newcastle University in 2008.
Sue is determined to spread the word about the power of poetry whenever and wherever she can. She is currently developing a portfolio of workshops and activities that integrate her clinical, research and educational expertise with the creative arts in personal/ professional development and coaching. She is Senior Lecturer at Northumbria University, Newcastle Upon Tyne. Read more at: http://the-grumponthehill.blogspot.co.uk/

Writing and the Body

A few weekends ago, along with  a friend/colleague, I facilitated a workshop called ‘Writing & the Body, Alexander Technique and creative writing’. It was for our local Lapidus group (www.lapidus.org.uk) and so the participants were people interested in writing for health and well-being. We wanted to explore with them: how to write paying attention to our whole selves; what our bodies might be saying to us; and how being connected to our who self might effect our creativity.

We’ve had some good feedback from the day and we certainly enjoyed ourselves. It is part of our own continuing exploration of creativity and ’embodiment’. After maybe 250 years of segmenting  the human (especially in health care terms) it seems like there is a movement now to try and fit the parts back together; recognising we are a whole (if very complex) organism and each piece is intrinsically linked to every other.

In parallel with this, however, the ‘re-connecting’ of the mind (perhaps even spirit) with the body is throwing up its own conundrums. With scans and the like we can begin to ‘watch’ the brain at work, we can see it as just another muscle or network of neurones and blood vessels. In doing so we risk missing the complexities of the individual. Our mind/spirit becomes a akin to a rose bush, which, if we prune judiciously and feed the right chemicals, will begin to behave ‘correctly’, ‘acceptably’.

I was reminded of this again when I watched an episode of Channel Four’s Bedlam. One person followed had received a diagnosis of ‘bi-polar’ and had been medicated accordingly over a number of years. Following several attempts at suicide, the psychiatrist changed his diagnosis to a ‘personality disorder’, stopped the meds and prescribed therapy instead. Low and behold, the suicide ideation and attempts disappeared.

I am not against medication per se – I take my fair share of pain killers when the need arises, and I know these pain killers are only getting me through, they are no cure for the cause of the pain. Nor am I against diagnosis, if it is helpful to the person and has room for the subtlety and nuances of human individuality. What I hope for the tide towards the recognition of the intertwining of mind and body is that it will help us hold onto complexity rather than be used as an excuse for reductionism. I strongly believe that what most humans crave most is healthy relationships – with themselves and with others – and we could go a long way by focusing on that.