I was recently lucky enough to be commissioned to run a writing for wellbeing project in a local care home- and not just any old care home. This is the poshest, friendliest, swankiest care home I have ever seen.
They have a bar, a brasserie, a café, a salon, a library, a cinema, and an ever-rotating schedule of activities, entertainment and outings on offer for their residents. It is like a five-star hotel, with all-inclusive meals and excursions. They even serve sherry at lunch time!
The Poetry Project I was commissioned to run is part of the new approach their Events and Business Development Manager is taking to introduce more creative activities and to encourage more engagement with the local community. There will be a different creative project each month, each led by a local artist, and I hope to be invited back again in the future…
Mostly, the residents just enjoyed listening to me read a poem, as there is an immense power in just hearing the words out loud, and being read to can be extremely soothing. But one thing our elders have going for them is their ability, and indeed willingness, to tell stories.
The responses triggered by a poem or other prompt seemed random at first, but they often made sense when I knew the back story of the person I was speaking with.
For example, the repetition of certain words or phrases may have seemed out of context with the subject at hand, but then a staff member would point out that the word ‘grandad’ from the poem I had just read, reminded the participant of their own grandfather, who liked to cycle, hence the repetition of the phrase ‘a bicycle made for two.’
The participant had free associated from ‘grandad’ to ‘bicycle’, to the lyrics of a song she recalled hearing in childhood. And therein lies the poetic gold; the abstract thinking creating a tangible memory based on the sense of sound.
During our final session, one lady was recalling her experience of being evacuated during the war, and was repeating the same details she had previously shared with me, which had then been included in the group poem.
I thanked her for her memories, and said I had a poem that reminded me of what she had just told me. I read her the poem she had contributed to the week before, and she was stunned to hear her own words repeated back to her as a poem, despite the fact that she couldn’t remember having spoken them before!
The older generation also seem to be less inhibited than the rest of us. Although they may still have some anxieties over not being ‘clever enough’ or thinking they need to ‘be a writer’ to take part in the sessions, they are usually less anxious about speaking in front of their peers than other age groups.
Care homes are becoming more and more eager to provide a wide variety of activities, outings and entertainment for their residents, so there is bound to be something for everyone.
The most important thing I have learnt about working as a writer in a care home is that, just being there is often enough. Sometimes residents just appreciate a new face, someone to talk to, to tell their stories to; someone to acknowledge their existence.
Just by giving them your time, attention, kindness, respect and encouragement, you are improving their wellbeing. If you can soothe them with the sound of your voice reading to them, or use their words to craft a poem from their shared experiences, then that’s just an added bonus.
And if all else fails? I’ve discovered that a nice cup of tea usually does the trick!
(NB: This piece was started on World Mental Health Day, and completed the day after...it's just taken me till now to get it on here...)
My mental health was really crappy yesterday, and the irony of it being World Mental Health Day was not lost on me!
My anxiety was through the roof from the moment I woke up, and I found it almost impossible to get going or to motivate myself to do anything.
My usual default is to get everything done on high speed auto pilot, and I know I am capable of being highly productive and self motivated. But recently I have been unable to be that same conscientious person that I have become known as.
Yesterday’s anxiety did lessen slightly as I somehow made it through each job I had to do, but it eventually culminated in my need to re-do the cleaning my boyfriend had already done in an attempt to help me by doing some of the things that I usually force myself to do.
But no, it wasn’t good enough. I had to clean more, make it more perfect, burn more calories, punish myself more. More, more, more…
My chest hurt and it felt like I was having a heart attack. I was starving and my stomach was cramping, but I couldn’t relax enough to eat or to get the pains to stop; not until I knew that the hairs that my boyfriend had just moulted from having a shower and getting changed, had all been eliminated.
And then I felt bad for not trusting him or appreciating his help; for making him feel scared to shower- or even move- in his own home.
This manic cleaning spree also meant that I had less time to sit down and write, which I consider an act of self care; something I could really have done with yesterday! But the anxiety took over and nothing but obsessive cleaning would make it go away.
This recent increase in my anxiety has me worried for several reasons:
If I am incapable of completing even the simplest of daily tasks without crippling anxiety; if I am scared to go to work, no matter what that job is; if I cannot bring myself to get out of bed; how will I ever be able to live and work to the best of my ability? How will I make myself credible to any potential employer, let alone as an entrepreneur, supporting others as well as myself?
This is why I cannot wait for my appointment with my local mental health team next week, where I will finally (hopefully) be getting the support I need- whatever that may be.
All day yesterday, I scrolled through Twitter, wanting to post something profound to mark World Mental Health Day. But it had all been said so powerfully, and by so many others, what could I possibly add? I didn’t want to just re-hash the same old messages that are repeated so often we become immune to them.
And, if I am brutally honest, I am still scared of who will see that I am struggling with my mental health right now, as opposed to it being something I have been ‘cured’ of and is safely in my past. I am worried that it will somehow come back to haunt me.
Oh, the conflict of wanting to raise awareness of mental health, and to decrease the stigma surrounding it, whilst still fearing that this very same stigma will make others think the worst of me and further limit my life.
But if we don’t talk about it - the reality of it- and be honest about what’s going on right here, right now- how will we ever make it ‘OK not to be OK’?
If I judge myself for struggling with my mental health, how can I expect other people not to do the same?
We need to remember that we all have mental health- just as we all have physical health. Therefore, we will all have times when our mental health is crappy, just as there will be times when we feel physically crappy.
Also, the symptoms of mental ill health will vary between individuals, just as symptoms of physical ill health will vary. One person may be prone to earaches, while another tends to get a lot of migraines. I happen to get severe anxiety, while other people get really, really depressed.
And then there are chronic physical conditions such as diabetes and asthma, and chronic mental illnesses such as eating disorders and OCD. It’s all the same but different, just as all humans are the same but different. We all get ill, but we can all get well too.
And we all have our own preferred ways of staying well; eating a balanced diet, practising yoga, walking regularly, listening to music, limiting alcohol, mindfulness, creative activities…all of these things improve both physical and mental health.
For example, writing this has made me feel better. Just the act of expressing myself, getting my thoughts out of my poorly brain, and being honest about who I really am and what I am going through has made me feel ‘heard’ and accepted.
And even if that is not the case and no-one ever reads this, or if I am seen by some as ‘weak’ or ‘unsafe’ because I have admitted to having current mental health issues, at least I have expressed myself and eased my anxiety- for now.
(NB: It is actually scientifically proven that, not only can writing about your feelings improve your mental health, but being honest in general also alleviates symptoms of stress and anxiety.)
So there you have it: Be honest, and open up- even if it is just to yourself. Maybe you can help others to do the same.
Maybe, one day, we won’t need a dedicated awareness day to talk about health: the good, the bad and the crappy.
(This is an extended version of a ‘confession’ I shared today with the very supportive Calmer Community facebook group, who champion the importance of health and wellbeing for entrepreneurs, and challenge the stereotype of the glamorous lifestyle often assumed to go along with running (or attempting to run) your own business.)
Mixed feelings this #WellbeingWednesday.
I don’t ‘do’ self care. I feel guilty if I allow myself to stop or slow down. I am afraid that, if I stop, I will never start again. Much like my fear that, if I stop counting calories and forcing myself to exercise everyday, I will become a fat, lazy failure. To me, I am already ‘a failed anorexic’ as I know I will never feel ‘thin enough’- but isn’t that exactly the definition of eating disordered thinking?!
Anyway, I had planned to get up three hours earlier than I actually did today. I wanted to do a workout or go for a run, clean the flat and THEN go to my day job, so that my evening would be free to focus on my own writing, the online course I have just started, and to work on my business.
But I was exhausted, and I slept in and, as a consequence, have felt guilty and lazy all day, and nothing has seemed to go right since. I tried to go for a run this afternoon, but it was so windy I could barely move. I have cleaned the flat, but nothing feels clean. Even though I know I needed the extra sleep, and I know I have done my best, I still feel like today has been a failure and I haven’t really ‘achieved’ anything.
So I felt I needed to 'confess' what I perceive as a 'failure', and the only place I felt I could do that this morning was the Calmer Community facebook page.
This group was set up to encourage entrepreneurs to lead more balanced lifestyles, whilst still pursuing their personal and professional goals. It acknowledges the pressure that so many of us- regardless of our employment status- put on ourselves to do more and appear more ‘successful’ than is even possible.
The cliché of the entrepreneur (or anyone really) who gets up, works out, drinks a green smoothie and writes a blog post before everyone else has even hit the snooze button, is really highly irritating to those of us who just don’t have those energy levels- whether that is because their physical or mental health is suffering, or just because they are human! Basically, the wellbeing and sanity of people trying to 'do it all' is often overlooked, because it is assumed they are coping.
And I guess I just wanted to highlight that, although it may sound exciting to be pursuing my ‘dream career’, using my writing to express myself and to support others to do the same; although it may appear that I ‘like being busy’ (I don’t by the way, I just don’t have a choice!); that I am actually not coping very well at all.
Oh, and that it’s OK not to be OK- in fact, it’s kind of normal!
I appreciate this may never be read but, if I've learnt anything from my work as a writing for wellbeing enthusiast, it's that getting it all out, and the potential for my words to be 'heard' by others, is where the magic lies. So I am practicing what I preach.
And at least I have now achieved one thing today- a new blog post- and all because I used my writing to process my feelings, reached out to others for support and shared my experience honestly.
So maybe I CAN do this self care thing after all…
There are things I want to write about but don't know how to start. And ideas for growing The Pocket Poet 'business' that I'm not sure I have the capacity for. So I thought I would practice what I preach and just start writing and see if that helps. And if I get a blog post out of it, and show you how this reflective writing thing works in the process, then even better!
Things that are ACTUALLY happening:
Ideas I've got in the pipeline of my mind or have put out proposals for:
And some ideas for the longer term:
So now I feel exhausted but it's amazing to see it in black and white how much I have already achieved and am possibly yet to achieve quite soon. And although there is a long way to go, at least I have captured my intentions to refer back to when I am in the right place to move forward with the next step.
Creative Bridges for me was overwhelming. Whilst I found it inspirational, exciting and nourishing, it was also scary, challenging and revealing- my writing over the weekend highlighted my anxieties around my ability to 'make it' in the world of Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes (CWTP) and my impostor syndrome was well and truly triggered!
The conference gave me so much and yet I still feel I cannot get enough. The world of CWTP seems too good to be true and I feel a sense of duty and pressure to immerse myself in it as much as I can, as soon as I can. And then I think: I have such a long way to go and there is so much I want to do- should I just give up now?
I am scared to burn out while I try to launch myself into this world alongside having to maintain my 'real life' commitments- work, home etc. If only the weekend could have lasted for ever... it's been so hard to come back to the 'real world' and I feel desperate to get on with my new venture as The Pocket Poet.
I first heard about the All Party Parliamentary report, ‘Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing’ whilst listening back to the recordings of the keynote speeches and debates from the Culture, Health and Wellbeing International Conference which was held in Bristol in June this year. The Right Honourable Lord Howarth spoke about the key recommendations cited in the report and told the delegates that the report would be published on 19th July 2017. I was listening to this keynote speech on the 12th July and was relieved it was only a week away. Even through my headphones, via YouTube, I could feel the excitement of potential fizzing in the conference hall.
Needless to say, a week later, my Twitter feed exploded, and I could hardly contain myself on social media that evening- sharing and liking and re-tweeting about the report, despite the fact that the majority of my friends and family would have no clue what I was banging on about, or how important this news was: not only for me and my various career paths, but potentially to society as a whole.
Many of us don’t need a report to tell us what we already know: that creativity, arts and culture can improve our mental, physical and emotional wellbeing in so many ways I won’t even try to go into them all here. James Pennebaker proved this with his expressive writing experiments back in the 1970’s, and Art, Dance and Music Therapy are already widely used in hospitals, care homes, schools and other settings to supplement more mainstream interventions.
But so far the arts have been just that: supplementary. They are considered a luxury rather than a necessity, accessible only by the privileged few who are wealthy enough, or live close enough to, funded projects. Only this week I was reading an article shared by Ty Newydd Creative Writing Centre where poet Kim Moore defended the centre against a recent report that claimed that creative writing retreats, such as those run buy Ty Newydd, were primarily for ‘retired hobbyists’. This is another example of society viewing creativity as something indulgent that only people with lots of time and money can afford- and deserve- to participate in.
What the ‘Creative Health’ report has done is bring together all the evidence that has been building up since Pennebaker’s research, and even from way before then (why do we think were so many war poets? How else could they make sense of the horrors around them? And I’m pretty sure there is evidence that human beings have been using art to improve their lives since the Stone Age), and brought it into mainstream consideration. The report includes several case studies of projects taking place all over the UK today that prove, in both qualitative AND quantitative ways, that being involved in creative, artistic or cultural activities, improves health and wellbeing for ALL people, regardless of their age, socio-economic background, ethnicity, or any other characteristic.
And the really clever thing about the report? It’s not asking the government (whoever that may be at any given time) for any more money. In fact it is saying that, by following their recommendations, they could even SAVE money! It is just asking for a shift in the way we think about the arts, and for policy makers, healthcare providers, politicians, practitioners and the general public to finally embrace the full potential and power of creative pursuits- for the many, not the few.
For people like me who are just trying to break into the field of Creative Writing for Wellbeing, it means that there could potentially be more support (financial, social and practical) for this industry. It means there could be more opportunities available for practitioners using writing within a health or social care context. It means my timing could be just right.
And for people suffering from both physical and mental issues (the entire population basically), it means that there could be an alternative way of improving their health and wellbeing that is neither invasive nor expensive, and is confidently ‘prescribed’ by their GP or other medical professional. In fact, no ‘prescription’ is needed. Anyone can pick up a pen, pencil or paintbrush; put on their dancing shoes; sing their heart out. Anytime, any place; alone or with company. Creativity is the ultimate self-help technique.
Many people believe that, if creativity was a drug, it would have been bottled, branded and sold years ago, as the miracle cure we have all been waiting for. The ‘Creative Health’ report has given us a recipe to follow to make this ‘drug’ available to everyone, as a cure in its own right, and, as a Writing for Wellbeing enthusiast, I am perfectly placed to be a part of this exciting new era.
.Benefits of Participatory Arts Projects with Young People:
I have been thinking about the benefits of writing for others versus writing for myself.
For most of my life I have only really written for myself, as a therapeutic tool and to make sense of my thoughts, feelings and experiences. I would occasionally branch out into 'commissioned' work for relatives for birthdays, anniversaries etc, but ultimately, writing has always been- at least partially- a personal act of self development and self care.
When considering where to go with my writing next then, it seems only logical that I take my skills and passion for creative writing, combine them with my interest and enthusiasm for psychology and mental health, and start working towards facilitating Creative Writing for Wellbeing Workshops.
That, dear reader, is my next grand plan. Writing for Therapeutic Purposes/Wellbeing Workshops in a variety of settings- starting with my local library and the existing mental health support groups I facilitate, and maybe even testing out some sessions on the kids sown at the local youth club; everyone can benefit from the positive effects of writing, and I want to make sure that everyone does.
How about this for a fun (and potentially revealing!) ice-breaker/prompt? I hope to use this with my future Creative Writing for Wellbeing groups...
The Alphabet Game
Give all participants an A4 piece of paper. Ask them to write the letters of the alphabet down the left hand side of the piece of paper.
They should then write the first word that pops into their head that begins with each letter of the alphabet. Encourage them to go with their first thought, no matter how boring or random they think they are.
When everyone is done, go round the group with everyone reading out their words for A one after each other, resulting in a non-stop barrage of words beginning with A! Some words may appear more than once, others may be completely unexpected! Go round the group for each letter of the alphabet.
Ask the group to reflect on the following:
This can also be done with colours of the rainbow, emotions, animals, places.....It is interesting to note that different people have different associations with each of these seemingly universal things..
The Mis-Employed Poet
1) Beer Garden
half-buried in wet soil.
My fingers sting with bleach and mud.
2) Maid 2 Clean
In the kitchen
it smells of antibacterial wipes
and rotting flowers.
A cloud of caramel-scented steam slithers
between the filthy slats of the blinds.
In the bathroom
a urinal overflows
with liquid gold.
There are footprints on the sink,
and handprints on the floor.
In the lounge
there is a dismantled sofa,
sand on the rug,
and incense dust dripping
into a plant pot.
3) Old Shoes
Before I moulded myself to your shape;
before you broke me in,
I was so stiff I thought I might snap.
Now you try to buff me new again;
now I smell of chemicals
that linger even after my disposal.
The Pocket Poet
I got 99 jobs and a poet ain't one.