On the evening of March 26th, 2012, Yvonne Kent Pateras suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke, leaving her unable to speak or move. She also experienced “locked-in” syndrome. These are Yvonne’s own words regarding the traumatic stroke she experienced:
“I had the experience of knowing what was happening to me from the beginning. I felt a sinus rhythm in my head becoming louder. I tried to center myself, but it was over before I had time to act. I opened my mouth to shout for help-the noise that left my body was the most primordial noise. My beautiful voice had been replaced by the noise of a wounded beast. I wouldn’t hear another word for the next for 3 months. I knew that I had not only suffered a stroke, I was paralyzed and locked in. I couldn’t tell my family that I knew what was going on. I tried to just keep my neurons busy and alive. I did simple counting exercises to stay calm and occupied-to keep my adrenaline levels under control. I was determined to survive.”
After four months in the hospital, to everyone’s surprise, and with extraordinary courage, Yvonne was able to regain speech and movement. Yet, in a span of approximately ten months, she suffered three ischemic strokes, and another hemorrhagic one. Since different kinds of strokes require different treatments, medical care was challenging.
Yvonne persevered. She said that recovery required “endless effort.” She can now walk without difficulty. She has a light speech impediment and lost some functioning in her right hand.
As we now know, with post-traumatic growth, trauma like this can often serve as a catalyst for a profound awakening to an emotional and spiritual transformation. Yvonne’s awaking came in the form of writing poetry.
“Following the stroke I went through a spell of re-learning, like being born again. Feelings were overpowering my mind’s concentration and understanding. Writing verses were facilitating the expression of my feelings. Publishing my work also gave me upmost satisfaction, particularly as the response by other stroke victims was so moving. Poetry takes the weight off my legs, gives me wings!!!”
You can find Yvonne’s poetry in her book, Stroke Journeys, by clicking on this link.
There is research that those experiencing PTSD reported improved well-being in response to poetry therapy. This might be the case because a hallmark of having experienced trauma is the subsequent difficulty processing the experience, which results in avoiding and suppressing associated emotions/memories.
Poetry therapy has provided an outlet for those suffering with PTSD to start to integrate many of these feelings, and even more so, to start to reframe the traumatic experience.
Poetry therapy itself is a bit abstract to describe, but there are a few ways to engage with it. Here is a multi-model poetry therapy practice developed by Nicholas Mazza, the founding and continuing editor of the Journal of Poetry Therapy.
According to Mazza’s model, poetry therapy involves three main components:
Receptive/prescriptive: This part of therapy involves the clinician/therapist reading a poem out loud, and then subsequently encouraging the client to react to it, either verbally, non-verbally, or both. The therapist might even prompt: “Is there a particular line in the poem that resonated with you?”, or “I noticed you started to become teary-eyed when I read this line…”
Expressive/creative: This entails actual creative writing. The therapist promotes stream of consciousness writing that might aid in discovering blocked emotions, parsing felt emotions, or retrieving memories that are difficult to articulate. The therapist might offer a prompt to help someone get started.
Symbolic/ceremonial: This includes working with metaphor/simile to help further explain emotions that are hard to describe in a more literal sense. The ceremonial part may consist of writing a letter to someone they may have lost and then burning it.
The efficacy of poetry therapy is still being studied. Most of the empirical evidence for its effectiveness comes through James Pennebaker’s (a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology) work in the therapeutic use of expressive writing. His studies have indicated that the use of expressive writing, even for as little as 15 minutes over the course of 4 days, resulted in positive health effects. In addition, his initial work dealt with the use of expressive writing to heal wounds from traumatic stressful events.
One case in point is that in the aftermath of 9/11, poetry was utilized as a healing mechanism. According to a New York Times article on October 1, 2001:
“In the weeks since the terrorist attacks, people have been consoling themselves—and one another—with poetry in an almost unprecedented way … Improvised memorials often conceived around poems sprang up all over the city, in store windows, at bus stops, in Washington Square Park, Brooklyn Heights, and elsewhere. …”
In some ways poetry gives us the way to speak about the unspeakable. It is more and more common for those suffering with medical challenges to write their story, many times in poetic form, to aid in their own healing. As always, it is crucial to note that just like with mindfulness approaches to trauma, poetry therapy is most often used in conjunction with other therapies.
On a personal note, I’m particularly drawn to this type of therapy and recently started studying for my MFA at Queens College. I am touched by the profound pain that is both individually and collectively felt, how this pain can displace someone from others and their selves, and yet, the profound capacity for resilience, healing, and growth. Aside from writing my own work, I hope to employ poetry as a technique to help my clients say what they couldn’t otherwise say.
Here’s an example of a poem that I recently published in the British Journal of Medical Practice in this vein:
Did you know that Emily Dickinson can change your neurophysiology? Well, maybe not Dickinson herself, but certainly the poetry she wrote.In 2013, researchers at the University of Exeter had subjects take functional MRI’s (i.e., a tool that allows the brain’s activity to be seen in real time) while they read from texts that they had never seen before, these included works of non-fiction, fiction, and poetry.The results indicated two main things:
The brain parts activated in response to reading the poetry were the same as those activated in response to hearing beloved music.
The brain’s response to poetry mimicked the brain “at rest”. That is to say, the same way the brain looks when we feel introspective.
Since humans have an innate response to rhythm and sound, it seems to make sense that poetry and music would align in the brain. Poetry as an art form predates literacy, and poetry was first employed as a way to both remember and convey oral history. Poetry is not much different than music in this way as it is found in ancient hymns and chants that delineated cultural traditions.
In addition, it appears that poetry also serves as a haven for a reflective, contemplative, and daydreaming brain. Therefore, poetry might also prove beneficial to the brain on a cognitive level.
In a 2006 study, researchers observed how brains reacted to Shakespeare’s linguistic craftiness, including his pun-making and also a technique called ‘functional shifting’ during which Shakespeare uses a noun as a verb. When the grammar shifted, the brain “lit up” and responded in its attempt to make sense of the unusual use of the word. This type of stimulation is beneficial to long-term cognitive functioning. Learning, especially learning that is not passive, is neuroprotective.
In 2013, researchers had subjects read both original Shakespeare texts as well as versions that had been translated to be more easily understood by modern audiences. When reading the complex originals, researchers noticed a more intense reaction from the language centers of the brain (for most people, their left hemisphere) as subjects strove to make meaning of the text. Furthermore, during the same study, researchers noticed that when it came to reading Shakespeare’s original poetry, brain regions related to personal and autobiographical memory were activated (found grossly in the right hemisphere).
These findings point to poetry’s ability to foster both a personal connection to a poem, as well as create a sense of self-reflection. To take the latter even further, we can extrapolate that poetry triggers what is called a “reappraisal mechanism,” or the process of reflecting and sometimes rethinking our own experiences in the context of what we are reading.
As one of the authors of the study, Professor Davis, put it:
“Poetry is not just a matter of style. It is a matter of deep versions of experience that add the emotional and biographical to the cognitive.”
So, reading poetry, especially poetry that keeps us on our toes linguistically, is a portal into a space for our self-reflection and growth, as well as serving as a beneficial tool to keeping the brain vital.
At the very least…poetry is like music to our ears!
It’s April, and while that means more rain showers, it also means it’s time to recognize a literary style “in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm”. Or, simply put, poetry!
In honor of National Poetry Month, I would like to present these 4 poems that not only resonate deeply with me, but have also helped to inform my work with my clients.
One of the beauties of poetry, I think, is that there is no single meaning to any one poem. The poet pens a narrative in verse that can be interpreted in all ways; I would even go so far as to say that a reader of poetry projects upon a poem what he/she needs in that given moment. The interpretation is never static, and likely the reader will experience something different with each reading or recitation. So, if it stirs something within you right now – and moves you to greater awareness of self, others, and the world – then honor those things!
Vulnerable alert: These works have seen me through difficult times. As my post-doc and a romantic relationship were both simultaneously coming to an end in 2010, the feeling of loss led me to these poems. I recited them every time I needed a reminder that not only was it was okay to feel every iteration of my feelings, but that those feelings were also healthy, and important – serving as a springboard for new endeavors and a greater openness to identifying, and then saying yes to, those things I desired that were beyond my comfort zone.
Reciting the poems, as I power-walked around the Charles River, comforted me, and also allowed me to notice and feel the pain of confronting the changes in my life. The more I recited, the more I let myself feel, and the more facile it became to just put one foot in front of another, trusting that those small steps would lead me to my somewhere new. The words reverberated over and over until I found my way towards healing.
There is much to be learned from a poetic journey inward. I hope that one, or more, of these poems bring you some of the peace that they have brought me.
by Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
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
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.
Why it resonates:
The Journey resonates with me because it speaks to the idea of individuation and separation.
It is hard for most of us to leave our family of origin, mentally speaking. It’s a challenge to go out into the world, without the protection and grounded-ness that our primary attachment figures provided (if we were lucky enough) when we were younger. It is also just as hard, because despite wanting to “become ourselves” as individual entities, we often stay enmeshed in the maladaptive patterns of our ancestry. Their traumas, and subsequent triggers, sometimes become ours, and though we want to shed those layers from our own psyches, it is what we know – the familiarity is resoundingly comforting.
My clients and I have learned that we sometimes make unconscious agreements with ourselves to hold on to the pain, until we realize we can’t breathe from the bearing of it, and we need to let go of it in order to save ourselves.
Both personally and professionally I know so well that change is hard. Actually, that’s the understatement of the day! When we have engaged with certain unhealthy thoughts, feelings, and behaviors for a long time, the path towards wellness takes extra patience, perseverance, time, and trust. This poem resonates for me because it reflects a sequence of change that is authentic.
Portia beings by speaking to the deeply painful reckoning with bumps in the road. Then, she begins to recognize patterns that might be holding her back, but does so with a gentle nudge and compassion for herself. She continues by putting just one step in front of the other, supporting herself through each step, not blind to the challenges, but not beating herself up either for the slow progress, which includes literally falling into the same old maladaptive patterns.
She recognizes that patterns are like habits, accumulations of ways of being and showing up in a world that used to work for us, and that most likely previously protected us from our pain. Ultimately, she finds a new path. This doesn’t mean her journey is over. In fact, in some ways, it has just begun.
Rumi, the Sufi poet, waxed poetic in his ‘The Guest House’ a long time ago about how we should treat every emotion as a visitor, without looking to get rid of any of them, but rather to understand their message and purpose.
Emotions are neither inherently good nor bad, and to think of them in such dichotomous terms is to do oneself a disservice. Emotions just are. In fact, every emotion tells us something about our inner experience that might be informing our outer experience.
What Rumi alluded to in his writing was also recently confirmed by research (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/negative-emotions-key-well-being/) – which indicated that well-being is actually predicated on having a wider range of emotions, including the negative ones! Yes, that’s correct, the more you can feel, in all of feeling’s iterations, the better off you are.
While relaxation is a beneficial byproduct of mindfulness practice, its salutary effects are associated with the ability to help us expose ourselves to our emotions, to truly feel them, with compassion and as little judgment as possible. That’s why techniques like mindfulness have gained anecdotal significance, and their effectiveness is being confirmed through rigorous research.
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 your 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.
Why it resonates:
We are socialized from a young age to think that being “good” means that we will be rewarded. What does “good” really mean though? The need to “be good” for the sake of approval, or the idea that one needs to repent to be redeemed, is immediately refuted here. How do we differentiate our own moral compass, and being a “good” person versus a “bad” person, from how other people interpret “good” and “bad”? When we try to base our actions on other people’s definitions, it can often lead to stifling expectations and guilt, which leads to deep suffering.
This poem, perhaps, then, speaks to a freedom that defies the need to be “good” as a way out of punishment or scorn by others. In this poem, Mary Oliver invites us to shed the shackles we so often place upon ourselves for the sake of pleasing others. She makes room for us to let go of that, to fully embrace our essence, without judging it, without labeling it good or bad or right or wrong.
There is a chance for catharsis here, as we let ourselves connect to the “soft animals of our body”. Beyond the layers of somatic tension, clenching, and a protective posturing, is softness. The soft part of ourselves doesn’t need to hide. We shouldn’t deny what we love or whom we love or how we love.
To me, the most poignant part of this poem is the invitation to shed those limiting layers, and to look at the bigger and grander picture; that is, all of us, every living creature, are immortally bound by our smallness and bigness all at once. Perhaps, this collective truth is the most healing of them all.
You may have noticed that two of the poems I shared are from Mary Oliver’s oeuvre. I tried to be more diverse in my choices, but Mary has become a role model and mentor (read-she doesn’t know who I am!) for me in my own journey as a poet. A few years ago I attended one of Mary Oliver’s rare readings and signings at the 92nd Street Y and scored this!
Sometimes the only way out of a trying situation or time in our life, is to journey inward, and a great place to start is by peering into a poet’s own journey. I hope that one, or more, of these poems bring you some of the peace that they have brought me.