How poetry saved my life: mental health within my community
07 Jan 2018
*warning: mentions of panic attacks, severe depression and suicide
It’s that time of year, when you look back and reflect on everything you have experienced, learnt, achieved, overcome in the last 12 months. For many people, for obvious reasons this is an overwhelming time of year. In fact it is highlighted that those who are suffering from loss will experience greater loneliness over the festive season with approximately one in four people in the UK likely to experience a mental health problem each year and one in six people in England report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week.
It’s something we do not like to acknowledge, but yes, that is even the case if you are a woman of colour, and it is even the case if you are a Muslim. Despite this, the conversation in the last few years around mental health, especially within the South Asian community, has started to change. It is very likely that as you are reading this you can reflect on your own struggles with mental health, whilst also holding on to this obscure feeling called hope.
“Throughout my mental health journey it has helped knowing that people who seem like they have their shit sorted also have dark days”
I understand, I have been there. In fact, I have been there on more than one occasion on varying levels throughout my 20s and 30s. And no, I am not going to be condescending and tell you it’s all going to turn out great and you’ll be fine, and keep your head up. I am simply trying to reach out to a someone out there who, like me, needed to speak with someone else who felt as overwhelmed, and as broken as I have been.
Because throughout my journey with mental health, anxiety and panic attacks, it has helped to know that people I admire, people who are well put together, seem like they have their shit sorted, have days as dark as the days I have visited. Who have the same fears and worries, and that heaviness is carried around by others too. Not always in a misery-loves-company kind of way, yet occasionally that as well, but more of an, “it is not just me who struggles to cope with something as simple as life”. There are others, and I belong to something greater than just me, than just this sickening feeling.
In fact, the most stressful life incidents are cited as moving house, relationship issues, and bereavement. These are hard enough issues on their own, but when they came for me one at a time, piling on one after another, the stress of it all was too much.
“Depression is not logical, you cannot see beyond the pain. Sometimes getting out of bed is a huge accomplishment”
One night my breath caught in my chest, rationalising that a panic attack cannot kill me, I checked into a hotel, with a small handbag. In it were a pair of PJs, my wallet, phone, a mixture of sleeping pills, paracetamols, aspirin, and a poetry collection. It was not pre-planned, and I zombie walked into a budget hotel in east London. Whilst Hollywood had really shaped my ideas of suicide, it was not quite in the same fashion as a romanticised Hollywood suicide.
I knew if I survived the night I would make it through this shitty time of my life, and that somehow I would be OK. It was a test of sorts yet I just didn’t know how I would overcome it. Until I picked up the poetry collection from my handbag. I spent that night, exhausted, and numb, and tired, and recovering, as I read page after page and then Instagram poet after Instagram poet on my phone once I came to the end of the collection. The pills lay untouched on the hotel room desk, and instead, I fell asleep to a mantra:
I don’t pay attention to the
it has ended for me
and began again in the morning
— poem from Salt by Nayyirah Waheed
I have had people speak to me about those who face hunger every day, drown in seas, live through wars, experience violence, and say to me if those people can get through it, then why are you making such a big hoo-ha about relatively small issues. But these people do not understand that depression is not logical, you cannot see beyond the pain, sometimes getting out of bed is a huge accomplishment.
They do not understand that you are not quite ready to sit there and count your blessings, not quite ready to be grateful that you are not leading the difficult life that your grandmothers and mothers experienced, that you should be thankful, say Alhamdulillah’s more, pray more. That hope sometimes seems like a faraway dream.
A light song of light is not sung
in the light; what would be the point?
A light song of light swells up in dark
times, in wolf time and knife time,
in knuckle and blood times; it hums
a small tune in daytime, but saves
its full voice for the midnight.
— Twelve Notes for a Light Song of Light, Kei Miller
So I want to tell you, dear reader, that it is not OK, and that is OK. That you do not have to get through whatever you are getting through how they (whoever they are) expect you to. You are allowed to go at your own pace. Your pain is real. I cannot sit here and say that I feel the decision I made that night was the right one, some days I still question myself, but what I can say, is that there are people, and there are words out there written on pages that have helped me take one little tiny hour at a time.
I wish I could show you
when you are in loneliness or in darkness,
the astonishing light of your own being.
— Hafez of Shiraz
I have started the process of seeking counselling (CBT to be precise) and reaching out to friends and family. I write small lists as the beginnings of counting my blessings and accomplishments, with even the smallest things making it on to that list. I plan ahead for the times where I will find myself lonely, inviting friends round and building a network in London. Maybe some of these things will work for you, even though on some days nothing will. What I do give thanks for everyday, however, is the courage I find in poetry, the poets who put their fears against the whiteness of a page and make us feel human again, teach us that we are supposed to be vulnerable and raw, and that there is strength in that. I hope to meet you again across the pages of the digital world, in the hope of the words of poets. In the meantime, I leave you with this:
Every night I’d say good-bye to my mother
walking in her long nightgown into the fire;
her hair waving behind her as she entered
a cave with a black mouth and orange embers
burning on the ground. This was that place
she must have believed was her real home.
I never asked her why she had to go there
knew only that this was where she always slept.
Each morning, I’d tiptoe over to her,
never quite sure if I’d find her dead or alive —
But she was always there, wrapped in a blanket,
so I’d pull her close, and say she hadn’t died,
say I was proud this woman was my mother,
and had made it through another night alive.
— Dream of A Burning Woman, Jodie Hollander