Poetry has healing powers. Best-selling author Rachel Kelly talked to students on the Introduction to Therapeutic and Reflective Writing course about the role words and writing played in her recovery from two severe bouts of clinical depression, and the process of writing her award-winning memoir Black Rainbow.-> Read more
In 1997, Oxford graduate, working mother and Times journalist Rachel Kelly went from feeling mildly anxious to being completely unable to function within the space of three days. Prescribed antidepressants by her doctor, and supported by her husband and her family, she slowly began to get better, but her anxiety levels remained high, and six years later she suffered a second collapse even worse than the first.
Throughout both of Rachel’s periods of severe depression, poetry became an integral part of her recovery. She found it became something to cling on to in times of need – from repeating short mantras to learning and reciting entire poems – and these words and verses became a powerful force for change in her life.
Rachel dropped into our online classroom to chat with students on our Introduction to Therapeutic and Reflective Writing course. Here’s what they discussed:
Q: Rachel, what made you decide to write your memoir Black Rainbow?
RK: I think I wanted to make something positive out of a very dark time. And I have always written. I was a journalist on the Times, and I have always written diaries and letters. So it is what I knew. I made the decision when my youngest went to school and I had time and wanted to get back to work!
Q: In your book you describe how poetry was therapeutic – did you find writing therapeutic too?
RK: Yes, partly it was therapeutic. I hate waste. I felt there had been a lot of wasted years, and I wanted to make something out of them. I had kept diaries, emails, letters, I had doctors’ notes, I wanted to piece the story back together. And that was very satisfying. But it was painful to revisit some of the memories; especially realising how selfish and demanding I had been as a patient.
Q: I wonder if you could tell us how you kept yourself ‘safe’ as you wrote the book? I imagine it must have brought up some difficult memories and emotions.
RK: I think I kept myself safe by concentrating hard on the mechanics of the writing… turning a good sentence, trying to find the right words, the right phrase, being really forensic about the memories. Sometimes I remembered something and then I interviewed someone and it turned out they had a really different memory which was interesting. But I think the nuts and bolts of the writing and focusing on that kept me removed in a way from the pain.
Q: Rachel, you say you knew ‘writing’ – did you also feel you knew your depression, even before the book?
RK: I’m not really sure… when I was first ill I was in complete denial and didn’t want to accept the idea I could have depression or be mentally unwell; then when I was ill a second time I couldn’t deny it. I suppose I knew the depression the second time. It did feel like a returning foe. It was terrifying and it remains very frightening.
Q: I am interested in how you went about the writing process. Did you get it all down and then edit out afterwards or were you always editing as you wrote? I wondered if there were parts of the story that felt too difficult to share and if you had to think carefully about everyone involved before you were comfortable with a final version?
RK: I probably wrote about 30 drafts! It took ages to get right… about six years actually. At first I wrote rather an edited sanitised version of the story. But little by little I added more in: more of the horror and more of the truth of what had happened. I worried at first it would be too samey to repeat two episodes… but then I began to get more confident writing the truth. I shared versions of the drafts with my husband and with one really good friend Eliza who was a brilliant editor. I couldn’t have done it without her. Then towards the end I sent it out to loads of people, maybe 20. They all had suggestions, most of which I incorporated. And I had to get my mum to read it and was worried she wouldn’t approve, but luckily she supported me.
And I became more honest about some of my decisions… like the fact that I wanted another baby even though my mother had warned me against it and I didn’t even tell my husband I was trying. A few readers really thought that was irresponsible given how ill I had been, but in the end it was the truth. Even then I didn’t share everything, to protect my husband and mother. I felt comfortable with that as I tried to think that it was about me and an illness so I didn’t need to overshare more about my relationships with my family!
Q: Some of the experiences you write about, such as your first depression, happened some years ago – did you have any difficulty recalling the specifics of your illness and timings. Did you keep any kind of journal?
RK: I had kept diaries and letters. When I was very ill there were just scribbles as a lot of the time I was sedated, but I did have clear memories – as well as the fact that one of the things I found helpful was writing to people who had sent cards because I didn’t feel up to seeing them. So I had those letters which described my days… and also I interviewed everyone, especially my husband, my doctor, the nannies who had worked for us, my mum… it was almost like a journalistic assignment. I also kept diaries about the children, individual ones, something I’ve always done and still do. I’m a bit of a family archivist so that was helpful too.
Q: Do you continue to write about it? Are there dialogues still ongoing that you document?
RK: I do continue to write about it, but more now about strategies to stay well and calm. My last book was a diary of my year called Walking on Sunshine, 52 Small Steps to Happiness – one entry per week. I wrote that each week so that the entries would hopefully be fresh and current. I don’t write so much about dark times because luckily I am so much better.
Q: I was struck by the descriptions of the physical pain of your depression. I hadn’t really thought about depression in those physical terms.
RK: One of the reasons I was keen to write the book is I thought the physicality of the illness wasn’t well understood. One of the big bits of feedback I’ve had is from others who experienced the same horrid physical symptoms and they’ve been very pleased there’s a description out there because sometimes you can hardly believe it. Depression does present in different ways, but my kind of heightened anxiety does come with horrid fight or flight symptoms – it’s like being on a crashing plane.
I remember my husband saying how he was keen I should do the book as he hadn’t realised about the physicality and horror of the illness, nor had my mum… and she’s quite old and experienced, so if they both hadn’t there must be lots of others like them. That was a great moment since I felt justified in going out there.
Q: Do you feel that writing the book brought you a measure of resolution or peace, or enabled you to move forward from the experiences?
RK: Yes, it did bring me a degree of peace, in the sense that I returned to the Corinthians line that my strength had been made perfect in weakness. It did feel as if something whole and created and positive had emerged and I was grateful for that. I suppose it helped my recovery too as it gave me a sense of purpose and led to a new working life, so I’ve been incredibly grateful for that as well as connecting with so many others which has been immensely, immensely rewarding. The feeling that you might have made a tiny difference is truly amazing and I pinch myself every day thinking how lucky I am.
Q: You said in Black Rainbow that certain lines of a George Herbert poem spoke so powerfully to you through your depression that it felt as if they had been injected into your body. Can you say a bit more about the physical effect that poetry had on you?
RK: I just find certain lines do have this physical effect, literally as if I had swallowed a pill. I just feel my shoulders drop, I become less tense, my breathing calms. I feel less alone. I feel there is a sense to what is happening. I love the fact that someone like Herbert was writing 400 years ago, but experienced the same thing as me… and of course he writes like a dream and I think I get a physical pleasure out of the sheer brilliance of his writing. I mean lines like ‘Grief melts away/ like snow in May’, or ‘Who would have thought my shrivelled heart could have recovered greenness?’ are just magic. I used to be comforted as a child in the same way… something about the sound and the rhythm and beauty. There is a bit of evidence now on the effect of poetry on brainwaves and slowing us down, a bit like mindfulness, which is also lovely.
Rachel Kelly’s memoir, Black Rainbow: how words healed me – my journey through depression, is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is available from Amazon. All author proceeds go to mental health charities SANE and United Response.
The Black Rainbow app is available free for download on the Apple App store and Google App store.
Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness is published by Short Books and is available on Amazon.
Follow Rachel on Twitter @RachelKellyNet or visit www.rachel-kelly.net.