Poetry writing as a self-help tool when recovering from an eating disorder

If you really want to know me, read my poems, because this is my soul. _ Anne

Poetry is an art form that helps many people to express how they feel. It may involve jotting down a poem now and then when feeling inspired, keeping a daily journal specifically for expressing ongoing thoughts and feelings in the form of poetry, or incorporating poetry in your regular diary entries. The benefits start with every word that’s put on the page. A revelation as to the power of poetry occurred while I was sourcing diary excerpts for my PhD creative work, Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders – The Diary Healer.  I was struck by the popularity of poetry as a form of narrative expression in the recovery process.This post, the first of two parts, provides a window into how poetry can assist healing in the lives of people with eating disorders, and their caregivers.

In Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders – The Diary Healer, Anne (one of my 70 research participants) describes writing poetry as, literally, her heart and soul coming out through her pen. Diary writing allows her to “let it all out” and that’s good and necessary too, but it lacks the metaphors, the emotions, the caring, love and even anguish that her poetry expresses. For Anne, creating lyrical and narrative poems counteracts the voice of ED more effectively than prose. Anne says:

Expressing these things in poetry has brought out the self I really am apart from ED. My poetry has grown and changed as I have. It has helped me to realize I am not useless and that realization has assisted my healing.  Through the process of writing I stopped hating myself. Now my poetry has evolved to become more about caring and wanting to touch and help others than just about me.

When Anne began treatment, she was so full of anger, fear, and especially pain, that she didn’t even want to try to recover.

Something had died inside of me, and when I was in treatment and almost dying, I began writing again. ‘Ebb Tide’ was the first poem I wrote in treatment. I needed surgery and several friends had moved on and I went into deep depression, and one day we were asked in therapy to write, and the words just flowed, and from then I improved.

My mind works in metaphors and pictures – and I can do this better with poetry than anything else. It comes from my heart, and this is me. It is the story of my recovery. I had felt for many years like a useless dead tree that would never have leaves. … but then when I started to write, my thoughts and feelings came out in a way that I could share with others, and they could understand.

What started me on the right path, was being encouraged to write my story. My writing saved me. I could feel jaws drop as I read my story in a group session. As if they were thinking: “She’s got something in there after all!” From that point on, with one big exception, I did not want to turn back. It was heady stuff, being thought of as being worthwhile. I had never experienced that feeling that before.

At some point every person with an eating disorder has to choose between death and life, healing and recovery. Through writing poetry Anne was able to let emotions out and, in reflecting on her poems, achieve an extra degree of separation from her illness, and an extra spark of connection with self, that allowed more processing of her feelings.

Nobody wakes up one morning and says, ‘I think I’ll get an eating disorder’. It happens slowly over time until you find yourself stuck in it and out of control. Because you don’t know how it happened, getting out of it and working towards recovery is a challenge. Anne found that poetry helped her to hold on to hope and persevere, in following the light out of her eating disorder to freedom.

Walk toward  the light

I don’t even know how it happened.
The detour was such a gradual one.
I never planned to be on it at all,
let alone for so long.

I never planned to get so lost
in the forest of ED,
but, I did.

After years of wandering aimlessly with him,
I wanted to find my way out.
Then, I saw it;
a pinprick of light
way up ahead.

I decided to risk walking toward it,
to risk trying to get out of ED.
The going was rough,
especially at first.

Many times, I almost gave up,
until I began to realize something –
the pinprick of light
was growing bigger and brighter!

It lit my way out
of this long, hard detour.
Now that I’m out,
I never want to go back.
I love living free!

While writing poetry is helpful to creative people like Anne, so too is the experience of inviting others to read our works. Anne found that sharing her poetry helped to strengthen self-understanding, and helped others to understand her, leading to mutual enlightenment of relationships. In the same way that the diary works for others, Anne’s poetry added to the discovery of her own phoenix.

Healing is about learning to trust

Caroline, who also participates in Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders – The Diary Healer, describes how poetry taught her to trust what was out of her control:

I have been writing poetry since I was a little kid. My early poems were about little things – like apples or spelling bees or family or trees. When in middle school and into the throes of an eating disorder, my journal was filled with poems. Poems about struggling with an eating disorder, self-harm, depression, and other experiences and factors impacting those traumas and mental illnesses. I don’t know how it happened. I just know that the liberating freedom of a lawless written media allows me to play with language in a way that heals my soul.

Journaling heals the soul. No question. Still, for me, there is something about poetry that writes itself. Poetry takes control. It’s the only thing that takes control outside of me that doesn’t exacerbate my default need to perfectionism. I’ve never really realized that until right now, right this moment, writing here on this page. Poetry taught me to trust that which is out of my control. That’s the helpful part. That’s what helped me learn to trust my body, my thoughts, and the world around me.
_ Caroline

  • * Next week, Kitty Thatcher will introduce poets Mabel and Fal. Kitty shares my passion (and that of our mutual friend and colleague, David Epston), for exploring and using the narrative and poetry to navigate the eating disorder healing path.

About June Alexander

As founder of The Diary Healer my prime motivation is to connect with people who have experienced an eating disorder, trauma or other mental health challenge, and provide inspiration through the narrative, to live a full and meaningful life. My nine books about eating disorders focus on learning through story-sharing. Prior to writing books, which include my memoir, I had a long career in print journalism. In 2017, I graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy (Creative Writing), researching the usefulness of journaling and writing when recovering from an eating disorder or other traumatic experience.
Today I combine my writing expertise with life experience to help others self-heal. Clients receive mentoring in narrative techniques and guidance in memoir-writing. I also share my editing expertise with people who are writing their story and wish to prepare it to publication standard. I encourage everyone to write their story. Your story counts!
Contact me: Email june@junealexander.com and on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn.

All articles by June Alexander

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