Poetry has been in the news due to its usefulness in therapy, helping the traumatised, the bereaved, and those who just have difficulty expressing themselves through normal conversation.
Perhaps less well known is the use of poetry in helping people recovering from addiction. Emotional pain is part of the wreckage of addiction and using poetry to unlock shame, anger, anxiety and low self-esteem can produce remarkable results.
This can be done by trained therapists in poetry workshops where clients are encouraged to identify with the poetry of others and perhaps more effectively, to write their own verses about their own particular issues.
In this way, clients can often get closer to their real feelings than they would by being face to face with a counsellor.
I recently spoke to Jeff Blair, a 49 year old East Londoner with a long history of addiction. Jeff is only a few months into both recovery and poetry writing but his enthusiasm for each of them is remarkable. He does not strike you on first meeting as a man who has had much use for the written word in the past. Here in his own words, is his take on how poetry therapy is helping his recovery:
"I have been an addict for 38 years and recently went into treatment in Oct 2015, graduating in Dec 2015.
I suffer with anxiety and I am untrusting because of PTSD .
I was part of a recovery workshop where I read some of my poems I had written.
I started because I found it difficult to communicate with people so I put my thoughts on paper.
I started doing this at the beginning of treatment and I just cannot stop.
I have written almost 70 poems mostly about treatment and recovery and my experiences as an addict and here and now.
I was asked to read at a recent UKESAD* Conference.
Writing these poems or rhymes has changed my life.
It helps me put things in order and helps me see my life in a very different way.
Also the feedback I have received has been beyond any of my expectations.
Another recovering addict commented on a piece of mine called 'Crucifixion' that was his "life, right there, on that paper."
People seem to be connecting in and say it has helped them or they can relate.
It has truly made me feel so much better knowing I have this impact and connection with so many people. This is the complete polar opposite to my whole life. It's scary but exciting.
So, I can honestly say: "yes, poetry changes lives."
I just never knew I had this, or where it comes from, but I love writing."
Jeff's experience is not unique and is likely to become more commonplace as treatment and support agencies become aware of the benefits of this comparatively simple and low cost but high result method of treatment.
A UK website - Poetry Therapy - The Healing Power of Poetry** sets out to collate treatment information and blogs on the subject.
In the US, The National Association for Poetry Therapy***has been active since 1963. At present no such national organisation exists in the UK but hopefully this will be remedied soon.
Clinical Neuropsychologist and poet Sean Haldane, a contender for last year's post as Oxford Professor of Poetry, is enthusiastic about the power of poetry****:
"I don't have huge faith in the possibility of psychotherapy to change people as I used to. In fact, I now think poetry has more capacity to change people than psychotherapy. If you read a poem and it gets to you, it can shift your perspective in quite a big way, and writing a poem, even more so."
Here is part of one of Jeff Blair's poems, the one referred to above - 'Crucifixion', just the way he typed it. It is about the attitude and the stigma related to addiction and addicts:
who am i ,
what do you see ,
am i nothing ,
or am i free ,
free from an illness and what you say is my fault
and theres nothing you can do for me .
im a criminal ,
thats how im treated when i am caught with the drugs i bought.......
Jeff had never written poetry until encouraged to do so while in treatment for addiction a few months ago and for him the experience of pouring out his emotions thorough writing was truly cathartic. Here is the end of the same poem:
...........a long time ago a man was nailed to a cross ,
because people never understood who he was ,
some people make me feel like i should be crucified too
because of this stigma that lies in you .
please dont see a man wrapped in thorns
see the man who is in recovery and will see many more dawns .
the man who your listening to
and hearing my voice ,
its only with your help that i get a choice .
It is raw, unedited and full of emotional pain but it is the real voice of Jeff, truly expressed in probably the only way that he will ever manage to do so - through the medium of poetry.
To read the whole poem go to www.poetrychangeslives.com
* UKESAD - UK and European Symposium on Addictive Disorders 2016: www.ukesad.com
** POETRY THERAPY - THE HEALING POWER OF POETRY - www.poetrytherapy.news
*** THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR POETRY THERAPY - www.poetrytherapy.org
**** SEAN HALDANE - Interview - The Observer 30.05.2010
***** CRUCIFIXION - the full poem by Jeff Blair is at - www.poetrychangeslives.com