There is a reason poets often say, ‘Poetry saved my life,’ for often the blank page is the only one listening to the soul’s suffering, the only one registering the story completely, the only one receiving all softly and without condemnation,” --Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Many of us remember lines from our favorite poems that we first learned in high school English classes. Maybe it was Robert Frost’s call to exploration, “I took the (road) less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.” Or perhaps it was William Henley’s empowering words: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” Or Emily Dickinson’s hopeful image: “Hope is the thing with feathers, That perches in the soul” Or Dylan Thomas’s call to fight death: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Poetry has long been a form that can express the range of human experience. Poets have explored positive topics such as health, happiness, hope, faith, belonging, love. Poets have also explored the darker topics—loss, grief, anger, death, pain, fear. From Aristotle to the Biblical psalms, from Shakespeare to free verse and now to slam poetry, rap, hip hop, open mic poetry readings, poetry remains an alive, diverse, evolving form and practice.
So how can writing poetry be therapeutic? It can help us to define ourselves, to explore our issues and to develop a voice from which to speak honestly. Poetry can help us to have a written record of our thoughts and feelings to reflect on. It can also help us to find deeper meaning and purpose in our experiences. Finally, poetry can help to create form out of our sometimes chaotic and messy lives.
My background: I am a therapist, writer and teacher. I have two master’s degrees—one in writing and one in counseling. I taught writing classes at the Loft Literary Center for over ten years. I now have been a therapist for over ten years. I combine my two passions of poetry and therapy and offer individual, groups and workshops on poetry therapy and healing through writing.
How does poetry therapy work in practice? As a poetry therapist, I will bring poems to our sessions that I feel fit the current issues or struggles you are having. Together we will read the poem(s), reflect on content, images, meaning. Then I will have ideas/suggestions for writing based on the poem chosen. Sessions typically include reading a poem and writing but also each session includes time to talk, and to process life issues.
Who is a good fit for poetry therapy? Writers, poets, musicians, artists, deep thinkers. Creative people who feel stuck. Those who love metaphor, imagery, story, lyric. People who want to explore alternate ways to heal.
Interested? Drop me a note and let me know you would like to explore poetry therapy!
Wanna try a poetry therapy exercise? First read Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” poem. Then take one line from the poem that resonates with you or your life, write it down at the top of your page and begin to write about that idea. Good luck!
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
I am a cisgender female. If you don’t know what that means here’s an explanation. When I was born the doctors looked at all my parts and told my parents: she’s a girl! Growing up, I thought of myself as a girl. Even though at times I was what we then called a “tom boy”— I was definitely okay with hanging out outside playing kick ball--but inside of myself, I identified as female. Therefore my gender assigned at birth matched my internal gender identity=cisgender.
Now imagine this scenario: you are born and the doctors look at all your parts and declare: It’s a girl! Except you grow up feeling this dissonance: why don’t I feel like a girl? Why does girl clothing bother me? Why do I feel more comfortable around boys? And as a teen, the feeling intensifies more: Is something is wrong with me? Why am I not okay with myself?
As a counselor who works with transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) adults, I sit in my therapist chair as ally and witness to their struggles. When I first started this work, I found myself struck by the amount of pain, self-hatred, anxiety and depression they felt. TGNC clients have told me they feel like “freaks,” that they don’t belong, that no one will love them, that their families don’t accept them, or they fear they’ll be disowned. They’ve told me they feel alone, isolated, scared. Often they have suicidal thoughts. A recent study states that 41% of transgender adolescents have attempted suicide!
But then after listening to many of their stories I began to understand their pain. Here’s why: not only do TGNC individuals have to struggle within themselves to figure out their true self-identities, they then may have to take steps to make very public changes to their identities.
They may have to come out to mom, dad, sister, brother AND perhaps ultra conservative Aunt Mae, and Grandpa stuck-in-time. They may have to tell their co-workers and boss that they want to be called a different name, use a different pronoun, or that they may be dressing, or presenting themselves differently. They may want to start hormone therapy to effect body changes that better align with their gender identity. Then they may need to change legal documents—driver’s license, credit cards, insurance etc. They may want to have expensive surgeries to have body parts that align with their gender identities.
They may have to come out in this current cultural stew of oppression, hatred, and misinformation. The TGNC community faces an atmosphere of open discrimination: where politicians use fear mongering about transgender persons to keep them from using the bathrooms that ally with their gender identity, when our president wants to ban them from the military, when only 20 states have statutes that protect sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. Minnesota IS a state that offers protection. That means in 30 of our states in the great USA transgender persons have NO legal protections! Other depressing stats: 47% of TGNC community faced discrimination in hiring promotion or job retention, 78% have faced harassment or mistreatment at work based on gender identity.
Recent statistics: The Williams Institute in UCLA did a study and found that 0.6% of the population was transgender. A 2016 Minnesota survey found 3% of teens identify as transgender or gender non-conforming. TGNC, then is a small percentage of our overall population, a minority group. As a minority group they therefore will need support of the majority, cisgender people, to also advocate for their rights. A good society, I believe, is not just one where the majority groups advocate for themselves and reap all the benefits. A good society is one where minority groups—racial, religious, sexual orientation and YES gender identities—are allowed equal access, protections under the law. Transgender rights are human rights!
I think my transgender/gender nonconforming clients are some of the bravest people I know. Despite all the discrimination, hatred, non-acceptance by family members and society, many forge ahead anyway to express their true identities.
And so today, because it is needed in our current political environment, I come out not only as an ally, a support, to the TGNC community, but also as someone who admires their strength, applauds their courage, and appreciates the more difficult path they must take to honor their own truth.
Sally comes to see me at my office and tells me her depression is so bad she has a difficult time getting off the couch. (“Sally” is a fictionalized, composite character representing many clients I have seen.)
“It’s like I’m glued to the sofa,” she says to me. “I know I should get up and do things, but it is so difficult. Instead, I just sit there for hours, sometimes doing nothing, sometimes just watching stupid shows.” I nod and listen and reflect in my own mind how the “couch vortex” has taken over Sally’s life.
When someone is in a depression, it is like a force stronger than they are compels them to be stuck. This vortex is a negative energy that fights against any positive energy making it very difficult for the depressed person to move forward.
When a person is depressed they hear from others around them that they should just pull out of it, get up, do something, damn it! What the non-depressed person has difficulty understanding is that the depressed person is fighting a force.
I have heard depression, or the couch vortex, called a black hole, a grey place, a dark energy. As a therapist, I realize that my role is help the client to resist, fight, escape the vortex.
First steps for someone who is feeling very depressed is to check out medication options that may put the brain in a stronger place. Therapy is also a good step, but it is important to find a therapist you like and who will work with you through the depression.
Some keys: From my own work, I do see that there is a part of depression that is biochemical—medication, diet, exercise—are part of a good prescription for depression. I also think, however, that depression goes deeper than that.
My clients have taught me that to escape the depression vortex you have to fight the five f’s: 1. Fence sitting 2. Failure 3. Feelings 4. Fucked up self-talk. 5. Forgiveness.
Fence Sitting: The person who is depressed is unsure of how to move on from something. Depression in this way is like fence-sitting—we sit atop the fence and know we can’t go back to what was, but unfortunately we don’t know how to step off the other side into the future either. Fear of change can be a part of this also. Change can be scary. Therapy can help to navigate this feeling of fence sitting. A good therapist can help to uncover blocks, make plans to move forward.
Failure: Depressed people often feel they have “failed.” People often begin therapy after a failure—a person has lost their job, a relationship has ended, etc. People who have depression tend towards “internalizing” rather than “externalizing” failures. For example, a person who loses their job will say negative things to themselves—“I am no good, I’m stupid,” etc. The truth is: we all fail. I have failed at many things! But our ability to be gentle with ourselves afterwards can help us to try again in life.
Feelings: Blocked feelings from the past or a new grief or loss—an intensity of emotion can lead to depression. Bottled up sadness from the past may need a place to come out. I have worked with many men who have held their sadness in for so long, it then comes out like a huge wave, overwhelming them with emotion. New grief or loss can feel overwhelming, but with care we can move through it. Find some support to accept and explore your emotions.
Fucked-Up Self Talk This leads me to my next point—NEGATIVE SELF TALK—depressed person’s language about themselves and the world is very negative. It can be full of distortions, all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralizing and loathsome labels! People are much meaner in their mind to themselves than they are to their worst enemies. Finding kinder words for self helps greatly with depression.
Forgiveness The person a depressed person most needs to forgive is themselves. Forgiveness means working on self-acceptance—even with our vulnerabilities, our flaws we are still lovely humans worthy of hope and happiness. If you haven’t yet, take a look at Brene Brown’s work on shame, imperfection, vulnerability and being human! We are all imperfectly flawed! You don’t have to be perfect. Work on forgiving yourself for your imperfections.
Today’s Writing Exercise: Do you relate to the idea of the couch vortex or one of the 5 F’s listed above? Write a piece which explores how it resonates in your life AND at the end write out gentle, kind, hopeful language about yourself and your life.
This morning instead of getting up right away, I opened the shades, stared out at the morning sky and absorbed the beautiful sunrise colors. I was thinking about writing this essay: How can I help others be more creative? What gets in the way of being creative? What are some steps to begin the creative process? I let my mind wander through what I know about creative inspiration, and how to impart that information to others.
I thought that one of the first steps in being more creative was just what I was doing: taking some time to day dream, to think, to sit and stare and let the mind wander. This at times is counterintuitive to our super busy, “do it now” society. But creative inspiration needs time to grow, to incubate, to mushroom, snowball, balloon or build up. When we are too busy, it is often harder to create.
As a creativity counselor, I have met many people who want to be more creative. Often one of the first things they say to me is, “My job leaves me little time or energy to be creative.” I am sympathetic to this. Many successful “creatives” I’ve met have figured out some way to adjust the 9-5 job/creative work balance. Some have partners that support their creative pursuits, some just try to live on less money, some cobble together a couple of part-time careers that still leave them time to be creative. And others, well they just try to eke out their creative space when they can on their off time.
Unfortunately even our “off” time can be filled quickly with our things-to-do list or a busyness that makes it difficult to be creative. Modern society is vibing faster and faster with our connectivity also being a potential creative killer. Cell phones, social media, the constant checking of news, updates can also hinder creative thinking and work. I myself have run into this problem. I tell clients that I now leave my phone off until three o’clock on creative days and some of them look like I’m crazy. How can you do that? Aren’t you expected to answer things right away? No, you’re not. Answering messages by the end of the day is acceptable. Try it if you’re trying to be creative. You will be happy with the results.
Finally, another thing that gets in the way of beginning creativity is our belief that we should be doing something else. That housework or groceries or fill in the blank is more important. Tess Gallagher’s poem, “I Stop Writing the Poem” addresses this subject well.
I STOP WRITING THE POEM
to fold the clothes. No matter who lives
or who dies, I’m still a woman.
I’ll always have plenty to do.
I bring the arms of his shirt
together. Nothing can stop
out tenderness. I’ll get back
to the poem. I’ll get back to being
a woman. But for now
there’s a shirt, a giant shirt
in my hands, and somewhere a small girl
standing next to her mother
watching to see how it’s done.
Creative Exercise: What gets in the way of you writing the poem? Or being more creative? Write a poem or journal entry about this.
30/30/30 Creativity Experiment: Turn off all electronics. No checking of email or texts. For 30 minutes, go to a quiet space and sit and think about a creative project. For another 30 minutes, pick up your pen and write out some thoughts on how to accomplish creative product. Finally for your final 30 minutes work on your project.
Send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org if you try out these exercises and want to share your results!
The sense of danger must not disappear
The way is certain both short and steep
However gradual it looks from here
Look if you like, but you will have to leap
-- “Leap Before You Look” W.H. Auden
Last week I found myself faced with a difficult challenge for an introvert therapist: marketing and promoting my business. Indigo Counseling, my new therapy practice, was doing well, but I still needed to build up a steady referral base to have consistent business. I wondered: should I market to doctors? How do I do that? I visited a Facebook private practice group and read about how others approached this. Some went for the cold calls, some the letter in the mail, while others dropped off their cards and pamphlet at doctor’s offices.
I decided to go for the in-person drop off and made up gift baskets with my cards, pens, pamphlets along with candy and homemade cookies. My idea was to visit four local doctors and psychiatrists that I thought might refer clients to counseling. When I approached the first doctor’s office, my anxiety raised to a high level—my heart started to beat louder, my breathing got more constricted, my body got numb. “What am I going to say? Will I look stupid? Is this the right way to approach this?” and a blizzard of other anxious questions stormed through my brain.
I parked, grabbed one of the baskets and then read out loud the note I wrote at home so I could remember what I wanted to say, “Hello, I am a local therapist with a new business just down the road. I am dropping off this gift basket with my cards, pamphlets and goodies for you to enjoy.” I thought “well, here I go.” I walked into the building with my anxiety spiking to a 10. I was certainly outside of my comfort zone, but I took the leap, entered the doctor’s office, gave the receptionist my spiel and handed her a gift basket.
When you’re a therapist and you give advice to others all day, you better make sure you are authentic. I have often thought when I am counseling someone, “How can I advise others to take risks, to step outside their box if I cannot do those things myself?” I need to leap of outside my own comfort zone so I can know what it’s like, so I can empathize with the uncertainty, the fear that it evokes.
Years ago when I was working as a writing teacher, I often got feedback from my students that I was too quiet, my voice too soft and monotone, that I was not expressive enough. I decided at one point that maybe I needed to do something to improve my teaching skills so I signed up for a improv acting class.
Improv teaches you to say “yes” to engaging in the moment and the experience. If you’re doing an improv piece and your partner says, “It’s hot,” the biggest improv goal is just to agree and keep going! “Yes, it’s hot, it’s 110 out here in the Sahara and I’m dressed in a sweater and jeans!” Or you could reply, “Hot, you don’t know hot until you become a 55-year-old female!” But the point is that there is not a right or wrong way to approach improv. It’s about being in the moment, saying yes, taking the leap, and seeing what happens--a lovely metaphor for life!
All of the receptionists greeted me warmly and took the baskets and said they would give the cards and pamphlets to the doctors. At the last place I stopped, the receptionist at first looked at me quizzically, like she didn’t understand what I was doing. I gave my spiel or some nervous, truncated version of it, “Hello…therapist…gift basket…cards…pamphlets…goodies for the staff and doctors.” I handed her the basket and as she looked inside, she noticed the bag of chocolate chip cookies on the top and she smiled, “Thanks,” she said, “You’re very sweet to drop off goodies for us.” Later, she called me on the phone to get more specific information about my specialties so the doctor could refer to me.
When I leap past my comfort zone I often find that there is not pain, humiliation or suffering on the other side. I don’t crash in a spectacular fashion as I had imagined, instead it is a soft landing. Somehow other humans forgive or don’t even notice my anxiety, worry or questioning. Instead I find that when I take a risk, there are just kind people who smile, engage with me in the moment, and are ready to accept a gift basket and/or make a connection.
At age 45, I was embarking on a brand-new career as a psychotherapist, but I hadn't fully escaped my undergraduate dreams.
I imagined I would escape my own problems by becoming a therapist. Instead they tended to walk through the clinic’s front door to greet me.
Seven years ago, I was an intern therapist practicing in Minneapolis. One of my first clients, let’s call her “Writer Gal,” was in her mid-20s. She had sculpted cheekbones and long dark hair. She wore jeans and a peasant blouse. During our first session she described the pain she felt being a writer.
“I wish no one would have ever complimented me on my writing or told me I was a good writer,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because then I would not have gone down this miserable path of being a writer,” she said. She put her head in her hands and cried.
As I gathered more of Writer Gal’s history, I learned she was told in high school that she was a talented writer. So she went to college and earned her BA in English.
After college she was getting some freelance writing gigs, but they were not generating enough cash to pay the bills. At the time of our first session, she was crashing on a friend’s couch.
As a new therapist, I often found it difficult to observe others’ pain. With Writer Gal, I had even more difficulty easing her despair because, quite frankly, I identified with her problems.
At age 45, I was embarking on a brand-new career as a psychotherapist. But if you peeled away the layers of my past, you would quickly discover another disillusioned English major.
In 1990, I graduated from the University of Minnesota with my own bachelor’s in English. My first post-college job was at a convenience store, where I spent my days ringing up Ho Hos, cigarettes and Mountain Dew.
I asked everyone — friends, classmates, professors — what to do with my degree. Their ideas included technical writing, teaching, advertising, editing and working in a bookstore.
Turns out, the path for English majors (and liberal arts majors more generally) is a lot rockier than for those with degrees in business, engineering, computers or medicine.
‘I need to find an out’
My sessions with Writer Gal were often intense. For reasons I did not fully appreciate at the time, I often found myself arguing with her positions. This wasn’t my usual stance — with other clients I was more supportive or even neutral. Maybe I wanted to convince her the situation wasn’t so bad. Or perhaps I was trying to protect myself, trying to avoid my own history of pain.
“Joan,” she said one day, after months of therapy, “I can’t take it anymore. I need to find an out. I don’t think I want to be a writer anymore.”
“OK,” I said in my therapist way. “What else could you do?”
“I’m not trained to do anything else. The bloody path of the writer, it keeps you from being qualified for other things. I would have to go back to school.”
And then, after about a month, I decided to fess up: “Well, I have a BA in English, and I went back to school for a master’s in counseling to work as a therapist.”
Writer Gal’s eyes lit up, “Really?” she asked. “Wow, I’m impressed you found a way out.” She made the life of a writer sound like a hostage situation in an underground bunker.
It took me 15 years after earning my BA in English to “find a way out,” as Writer Gal put it. After my convenience store job, I worked as an essay reader, then a bookstore employee. I returned to Hamline University to earn my MFA in writing and taught at the Loft Literary Center.
To some it appeared I had “made it” in the writing world. I certainly plunged forward with the writing career path.
Yet trying to survive as an adjunct teacher and writer eventually burned me out. The low pay, the high stress of teaching, the unpredictability of getting my work published — it wore on me. I had my own breakdown, crying and praying to find an out.
In my work as a therapist, I often encounter one of two types: The first is a writer, artist, musician or actor trying to focus on art, but like Writer Gal he or she is struggling financially, emotionally, psychologically. The second has a well-paid but boring or soul-deadening job. This person wishes there were more time to be creative and pursue an interest in art, writing or music. Each camp envies the other: the artist dreams of more money and stability, the worker dreams of time for creativity.
Writer Gal continued scheduling sessions for two more years. The last time I saw her, she was thinking about pursuing a second degree in the medical field. She was done with therapy by that point and stopped scheduling sessions. Yet I continued to spot her freelance articles for several years and knew she was still writing.
I love my work as a therapist and find it fulfilling. Yet I, too, continue to write and teach creativity workshops.
My therapy practice attracts creative types: artists, writers, musicians and actors arrive weekly to my office. I don’t have easy answers for them (or for myself) on how to balance the worlds of creativity and stability. But I do have empathy.
Editor’s note: Writer Gal is a nickname used to protect the patient’s privacy. This essay was written with her permission.
Joan Hause is a licensed psychotherapist practicing in St. Paul. She also teaches creativity workshops. She is currently working on a collection of essays about being a therapist.