Breathing my way through trauma, with poetry

Trauma loves to stay in parts of your body that therapy and medication can’t shift. And although I benefited greatly from my pony-tailed psychotherapist in New Delhi when I was going through the worst times of my marriage, I can truly say, it is poetry that has set me free.

In 2015, I did an unusual thing — I signed up for an MA in Creative Writing. Middle aged women, especially Indian ones, don’t suddenly get up and go to England to do another degree, but on a whim, I sent off a creative piece, got admission, and I was off. I was 47 years old and was trying to rebuild my life after a divorce, the kidnapping of my children, trauma, forced incarceration in a mental health institution, sexual violence, and much else. The irrational decision turned out to not be so irrational after all. The Poetry module, when it came to me — although I went in dragging my feet, protesting that poetry was not for me — transformed me. I could suddenly breathe. Poetry turned into my gills.

I couldn’t put my finger upon it at the time. The research came much later, when I started propounding the use of poetry as therapy, began a charity in India, Bhor Foundation, taking poetry into asylums and prisons, and got involved in an intervention in a mental health secure facility here in England, where I am living. Indeed, I am now so convinced of the power of poetry to heal, that I speak at conferences about this, encouraging other people, especially those recovering from trauma, to consider the arts, particularly poetry, as therapy.

Trauma is a strange beast. It is a heaviness in your limbs, it is an itching just under your skin where you can’t reach, it is the IBS in your gut, it is the hair falling out in handfuls. It is the grey dog sleeping at your feet which can suddenly wake up, lunge for your throat, gleaming white teeth bared. It is the cobwebs that flutter in every room of your house, and as you walk, they shimmy, reminding you of their presence. Trauma loves to stay in parts of your body that therapy and medication can’t shift. And although I benefited greatly from my pony-tailed psychotherapist in New Delhi when I was going through the worst times of my marriage, I can truly say, it is poetry that has set me free.

I breathe differently when I am writing or even reading poetry that speaks to me. It’s as if the whole world slows down and I can finally tune into what really matters.

When I began my course, I found that I related to more contemporary poets — Warsan Shire’s work resonated with some aspects of my own life, the feeling that I was not enough, not pretty enough, not woman enough. Anne Sexton’s confessional poems gave me an insight into the heart and minds of women with feelings like mine: ‘But suicides have a special language./ Like carpenters they want to know which tools. /They never ask why build.’

Ellen Bass and Jane Hirshfield taught me to tune into the immediacy of the moment and the thrill of being able to express it with the simplest language. This was a journey I was already on with yoga and mindfulness and meditation, which has literally saved me through my darkest times. And the joy of Faiz and my current attempt to learn Urdu is a quest that is transformative and is somehow taking me closer to my Muslim grandmother, now dead and gone, except that I sense her fragrance leaning into me, holding my hand as I read.

Although we cannot think of specific poems for specific illnesses, because everyone is unique, consider that in her memoir, Black Rainbow, Rachel Kelly describes learning and repeating lines from George Herbert’s poem The Flower and the effects this simple act had on her: ‘In those moments of the day when I held hands with Herbert, the depression couldn’t find me. It felt as though the poet was embracing me from across the centuries, wrapping me in a cocoon of stillness and calm.’

Description: An illustration of a person lying in a bed of yellow and brown leaves, eyes closed. Their body is hidden by the leaves, only their extended arms and feet stick out.

Credit: Helena Perez García via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There are too many poets and poems to mention, but it is a fact that at least two or more hours go by every day when I am either reading poetry, writing it, or taking part in a workshop or some other way to better my craft. It’s as if I am a child who showed up late at a party and now wants to eat the ice cream before it all melts. But the other interesting thing that has happened with me thanks to poetry is that I have just become more relaxed and nothing, I repeat nothing, bothers me anymore! It’s as if I have finally discovered the magic mantra for life, and I am grateful for every day, every breath. Stress, worry, headaches, migraines, sleeplessness, all these have just upped and left my side, whereas before they were my constant companions.

That my work is getting recognition helps as well. In 2017, my first collection of poems, Reclamation Song, slated for release in 2018, was shortlisted for the RL Poetry Award.

I run an online group, The Woman Inc Poetry Project, which is aimed at helping women to heal from domestic violence and trauma through the use of writing poetry. One of my poems, Button, has found a space in an upcoming anthology by some of the best known British voices in poetry, like Helen Mort, Kim Moore, and others, and is a response to the global #metoo movement. It is an amazing initiative and I am so proud of my voice in this book, due for release on March 8, International Women’s Day.

Three of my anti-psychiatry poems were recently performed at a play in New Delhi which asks important questions about restraint, care, and aims at reforming institutions. Small and big successes keep coming, but for me, the best reward has been the joy I have found in Nature, the peace I live with and the absolute zen that nothing can bust.

Poetry has helped me realise that this single breath we live in is home, that the body is home, and that while we have that, nothing else can really go wrong.

Jhilmil Breckenridge is a poet, writer, artist, wanderer and yogini. She is the fiction editor at the Open Road Review, editor at The Woman Inc., and managing trustee at the Bhor Foundation. 


Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal