How Poetry Heals: A Personal Story

How can poetry help depression?  Aren’t medication and therapy the best ways to treat the illness? My story may surprise you.

When I suffered from depression in the early 1990s, Prozac was the new “miracle drug.” Along with this so-called “miracle drug came a physical explanation of causation: that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. This thesis is still widely promulgated, though much research is coming to light that disputes and even negates this biomedical explanation for the darkness that is so prevalent in our modern world. More information on the research side can be found at the website Mad in America, curated by science reporter Robert Whitaker. As part of Whitaker’s work to educate the public, he invites doctors, psychologists, counselors, and patients from all over the world to share research, essays, and personal experiences on the issues of depression and its treatment.

Ancient doorway in Rome
The other door to healing

Even in the 1990s when I  struggled to climb out of depression and tried numerous medications for several years with no results, the idea that the chemicals in my brain were out of whack did not provide a solid answer. Instead, I pursued a more metaphysical explanation for the questions that haunted me:  “Why am I depressed?” and “What longings are unfulfilled?”

And that’s what led me to poetry. One of the most valuable resources I found to aid in making sense of the gifts of depression was poet David Whyte’s 1992 CD entitled The Poetry of Self Compassion. Whyte’s recitation of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey” confirmed my feelings of being on a perilous but necessary quest through darkness and confusion. And I was deeply confused by the all-encompassing psychological pain that I was experiencing. But once I heard Whyte recite “The Journey,” I knew that someone understood a piece of what I was experiencing. And that the way I was feeling  had nothing to do with messed up brain chemistry. My depression had everything to do with self-discovery and taking charge of my life.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
~Mary Oliver

I remember listening to the poem over and over–as if rolling around a mysterious new food in my mouth, trying to figure out why it tasted familiar. What was it I was determined to do?  What else besides raise my children, serve my community, and be a good wife? I just knew there was more. And Mary Oliver’s words gave me the courage to make the journey that would save my life.

The answer was slow in coming, but I gradually began to  realize that my struggles with depression and a migraine headache exacerbated my ex-husband’s verbal abuse to the point where I could finally see his behavior for what it was. Depression and chronic pain became my crucible for change and my pathway to a new life. My body and my mind were finally aligned. Poetry became my way to unlock the profound secrets that illness led me to discover. Poetry helped me to have compassion for my journey and for all the mistakes I had made along the way.

Whyte ends on a note of great compassion in the poem “The Faces at Braga” as he compares surrendering to the fire of depression and embracing your flaws in this way: “If only we could give ourselves to the blows of the carver’s hands, the lines in our faces would be the trace lines of rivers feeding the sea” and we would “gather all our flaws in celebration, to merge with them perfectly…”  What a compelling call–to celebrate one’s flaws. What a gift of healing.

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