Ode to Healing

Poetry therapy allows people to overcome challenges through creative expression.

by Lisa James

April 2013

For Katie Lawrence, the struggle with food started in middle school. “I was chubby and kids used to tease me about it,” says Lawrence, 56, of Fairfield, Connecticut. “And then one summer I grew about four inches and lost a lot of the baby fat. At that point I said, ‘I’m never going to go back to the place where people can tease me about my weight.’”

Lawrence developed anorexia nervosa, in which disordered self-perception leads to unhealthy, often-drastic restrictions in food intake. In turn the anorexia, “plus family issues,” caused her to become depressed.

Lawrence’s problems continued to plague her as she married and raised three children. “I had a lot of hospitalizations while the kids were growing up. It was rough on them,” she recalls.

Lawrence attended an outpatient program at the Renfrew Center, an eating disorder treatment facility. There she received a recommendation to see Dana Michie, a therapist who employs poetry in her work.

Therapeutic Verse

In poetry therapy, a trained professional uses the reading and writing of verse to help clients discover deeper insights into their lives. “As a psychotherapist I bring poetry therapy into whatever situation I’m working with,” says Michie, LMFT, MSEd, PTR, of Redding, Connecticut. “It works well with developing a sense of self; a lot of people with depression or anxiety have low self-esteem.”

Rela­tionship difficulties, including the aftermath of traumas such as abuse, commonly arise in therapy. “Poetry so often deals with someone who’s important in the poet’s life,” says Geri Giebel Chavis, PhD, CPT, psychologist, professor of English at St. Catherine University in Minnesota and author of Poetry and Story Therapy (Jessica Kingsley Publishers). She says poetry’s deeply personal nature allows clients to work through grief, either immediately after a death or “down the line, figuring out who you are now that the person’s gone or how to honor the person’s memory.”

Poetry therapy can let people come to terms with emotional issues raised by serious medical conditions. Chavis once worked with a cancer survivors’ group grappling with the effects of chemotherapy. “So I brought in a poem about heroism, everyday heroism, to promote their self-esteem.”

A poetry therapist can also help someone gain a greater understanding of themselves. “We use the term ‘developmental therapy’ to describe someone who is using poetry therapy for self-enhancement, not because they are in pain or depressed,” says Lila Weisberger, L-CAT, PTR, MM/S, CASAC (emeritus), creative director of the International Academy for Poetry Therapy (www.iapoetry.org) based in New York City. For example, one of Weisberger’s colleagues has done ekphrastic poetry sessions, in which the poet responds to a piece of art, by inviting participants to visit a museum and write poems afterwards. Weisberger explains, “They weren’t going into art history or techniques. Instead they found themselves in the artwork or they used it to tell a story— ‘What are these people feeling?’”

Forming Connections

Chavis says poetry forms an intimate emotional connection with the reader by “condensing meaning into a little space. Poetic language has lots of sense images and metaphors,” often relying on repetition and sound effects such as rhyme for its effects.

Such emotionally charged language can help clients make significant breakthroughs in their lives. Chavis worked with one client, an incest survivor who suffered nightmares in which she was being chased, to learn how to talk back to the person who was chasing her. As a result, “she comes in the next session and said she actually changed her dream—she had gotten power over that demon.”
Training standards in the field, set by the National Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy (www.nfbpt.com), include required coursework and studying under a mentor. “Poetry therapy is an asset for somebody who is already in a helping field—nurse, teacher, social worker,” says Weis­berger, herself a master mentor. (You can find a therapist through the National Association for Poetry Therapy, www.poetrytherapy.org).

Chavis says poetry therapy is “the baby of the creative arts therapies” when compared with those based on art or music. Nevertheless, she says, “there really is a flourishing of poetry for growth and healing.”

Shadow and Light

For Lawrence, those healing effects come into focus through one-on-one therapy with Michie.
Michie had Lawrence pick a poem by Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet whose work, with its heavy emphasis on mysticism, has enjoyed a recent revival: “The lover hotly pursues the beloved/When the beloved comes, the lover is gone/You are a shadow and in love with the sun/When the sun comes, the shadow quickly disappears.”

The next time, Lawrence brought her own poem, “Light and Shadow,” which she read aloud: “...The love of the light often turns to the shadow for life/There is more to love than the sun...Intimacy often seems to be found in the light/But it is also in the shadow that it is found/There are no barriers between the lovers...”

“I would like you to speak more about the idea of no barriers between the lovers,” Michie said. “What do you see as the lovers?”

“On one level, it’s two people who love each other,” Lawrence responded. “But also the darkness of depression and eating disorder, and the sun of health and peace and loving, and there are no barriers between them, and you can go from one to the other easily.”

Michie has seen how poetry has given Lawrence the courage to not only confront her eating disorder but to speak of her experience to others. “I’m remembering when Katie came the first time—it was really hard to get her to say five words. She has challenged herself to do things that a year or two ago she never could have imagined—that she would be speaking in front of her church, that she would be speaking to high school kids about eating disorders,” Michie says, adding that poetry therapy serves “a door opener; the client can discuss the poem or an image in the poem or a feeling they get from the poem, where it might be more frightening to just talk about themselves directly.”

Lawrence says she has found more than just healing from poetry; by seeing herself as a poet, she has found a new identity in life. “I want to say that through poetry I’ve found this whole world of wonderful people who are so supportive and caring and they come from all over the world. I never would have dreamed that I would have been accepted by people who write poetry that I think of as exceptional,” says Lawrence, who has published a book of her poetry, Hunger: A Poetic Journey Through Anorexia Nervosa (Xlibris).

Michie believes poetry therapy empowers people, especially when they read their own work out loud. “It helps develop their voice on a whole other level that is body-centered,” she says. “It’s a visceral experience; I think of it as going from a mouselike voice to the lion that roared.”

For Lawrence, poetry therapy has allowed her to express what was once inexpressible. As she writes in one of her poems, “Do the hard work that your eating disorder shouts to suppress/Arise and shine in the brilliant light of wellness.”

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