Poetry vs depression

Rachel Kelly has a remarkable story to tell – it’s her own life – of her 2 mental breakdowns and how poetry helped her recover.

The love of my family, drugs and therapy were hugely important in the battle to recover from an illness so severe that the first time I was bed-ridden for six months, the second for a year. But it’s no exaggeration to say that poetry proved a lifeline.

Her story is grippingly told in her book “The Black Rainbow” – which I recently read through in 24 hours straight as it is so well-written and gripping – Rachel is a journalist and reports back from the frontline of what was a struggle for her life.  In her case, both depressive episodes occurred a short time after extreme busyness and giving birth.  I read with interest, as I know two remarkable women – strong, smart, kind, outward looking whose lives suffered greatly during postnatal depression (they are well recovered).

If you also have a friend with depression, then if you read this book, it may prove useful to understanding some of their struggles and how to support them in this.  Because part of the condition – in Rachel’s case – was a difficulty in saying what was going on inside, even for someone who before her illness was a professional communicator.

Which poetry helped?  After her recovery, Rachel was asked by others for her poetry recommendations, and her book grew out of this.  The key poems are woven through the story of what was going on with her thinking at the time.  Ideally – buy the book – I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Though I couldn’t read during the acute stage of the illness I could listen. My mother would read to me from books of poetry or the Bible and I could manage to remember and repeat the odd line. My favourite when I was first ill was from Corinthians: “My grace is sufficient for thee; my strength is made perfect in weakness.” It made sense of the suffering. I wouldn’t just recover: I’d be stronger too.

As the medication began to help, Rachel could then listen to whole poems, and even eventually begin to concentrate enough to read again, herself.

Another favourite “But westward, look, the land is bright” from Say not the Struggle Naught Availeth by Arthur Hugh Clough, (Churchill would quote him during the War), and also the work of the poets Gerard Manley Hopkins and George Herbert.

When I was awake in the dark hours of the night, and suffering from that sense of complete isolation that is at the heart of feeling depressed, I would repeat these snatched lines to myself, prayer-like. I wasn’t alone after all.

As Rachel explains, these words from outside her world of constant anxiety, gave her another narrative to consider.  Structurally, because poetry is more concentrated and has a more complex word order, it required her brain to concentrate, slow down, be in the moment, not the worries of past or future.

You can read a good long article by Rachel Kelly herself in the Telegraph:




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