Would you read poetry when you are suffering from severe depression? What if you don't have the energy to cross the room? This is something people have asked in relation to my memoir Black Rainbow, which describes how poetry proved a lifeline during my seventeen-year battle with depression.
I didn't have the energy to read a book when I was at my worst, but I could listen. My mother would read to me by my bedside, or recite poems she knew by heart. Words were what I knew, what I had always relied on: loving poetry when I was growing up, writing essays at school and university, and churning out copy as a Times journalist.
'My grace is sufficient for thee; my strength is made perfect in weakness,' she would repeat from Corinthians. And even as a bored child at church I always appreciated the poetry of the Bible. In The King James Version the sound and rhythm of the words is often as beautiful as their meaning: take this from the famous Psalm 23: 'He maketh me lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.' You are lulled by that gently running stream of language.
During my depression I clung to the words I heard and repeated them like mantras. Another mantra was the last lines of Arthur Hugh Clough's poem 'Say Not The Struggle Nought Availeth,' which was a favourite of Churchill during the war: 'In front the sun climbs slow; how slowly/ But westward, look, the land is bright.' These lines began to reverse the malicious narrative in in my head. Rather than wishing to die, I would recover, and indeed be stronger. There might even be a point to the suffering.
Of course, I couldn't have recovered without medication, and I couldn't have fully understood the context of my illness without undergoing therapy later. But drugs need time to take effect, and there will be a long gap between starting to get better and being well enough for therapy. Indeed, there is a period of a depressive episode in which nothing seems to work. It is then that you need the most willpower, and, ironically, the most belief in your own ability to recover.
In the middle of the night, and subject to the double sense of isolation which depression and wakefulness at that time brings, I would repeat snatched lines of poetry to myself. I wasn't alone after all.
It was only when the antidepressants began to work that I could concentrate on full short poems. I read Gerard Manley Hopkins, who is himself thought to have suffered from a bipolar illness. As I contemplated poems such as 'The Windhover,' 'Pied Beauty,' and 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire,' it was as though nature was announcing itself and restoring me to my former sensitivity. Hopkins's ecstatic language bathed my own dormant powers of expression in light. I could newly appreciate the simplest things, such as the motion of clouds across the sky. Take these rolling lines from 'That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire:' 'Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-/ built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay gangs they throng; they glitter in marches.' There were words there I'd never seen, but they seemed to communicate their meanings through their very exuberance.
The most important poem I read during my depression was George Herbert's 'Love (III)'. The first lines sent a bolt of electricity through me: 'Love bade me welcome: Yet my soul drew back,/ Guilty of dust and sin.' The idea that my soul was 'guilty of dust and sin' seemed the most perfect description of what I was suffering. Why did I have the right to be depressed when I was blessed with a loving, healthy family and good career? It seemed Herbert and I had been to the same place and spoke the same language, albeit that his visit was centuries ago.
In the last lines of the poem, the compassionate voice of 'quick-eyed Love' asks the sufferer to 'sit and eat.' This was a particularly appropriate welcome for me: I hadn't been able to eat properly for a while.
Herbert may well have been diagnosed with depression had he lived today, and his poems are only with us because he intended them for the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of others. Shortly before his death he sent them to a friend, requesting he publish them only if he believed they could 'turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul.' I would certainly count myself as among those dejected souls that his words have healed and even validated.
Great literature can reassure you that what you're going through is serious and real. If you are having psychological or emotional trouble, it is often invisible to others. The written words of others are testaments to the reality of what you are going through.
There's even scientific evidence that poetry changes the way we think. The arrangement of poetry, even the clearest, has different conventions to continuous prose. This presents enough of a challenge to get our brains working differently.
Research by Philip Davis and the neuroscience department of Liverpool University discovered that readers of Shakespeare, when they came across an unusual but totally comprehensible grammatical construction, would show a spike on the graph of their neural activity. (1) Even though the readers understood what was being said, their brains were shocked into activity. It is this activity which takes your mind off the spiral of negative thinking which depression induces. In this way, poetry can work in a similar way to mindfulness techniques, forcing us into the present.
Black Rainbow began life as a series letters and emails to friends, recommending them poems to suit their pressing emotional needs of the time. With the book's publication, strangers have been sending me poems that have helped them. It gives me hope that so many are aware of, or are willing to try, the restorative effects of poetry.
1) 'Syntax and Pathways,' by Philip Davis in Interdisciplinary Science Review Vol 20, issue 4 (2008)
Rachel Kelly's memoir Black Rainbow: How words healed me - my journey through depression is published by Hodder & Stoughton. Its accompanying app, also called Black Rainbow, is available for download on the Apple App Store for £1.49. All author proceeds of the book and app are being given to the charities SANE and United Response. Follow Rachel @rache_Kelly or go to www.black-rainbow.co.uk