The Poetry Pharmacy

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My luck held, but then I had a second breakdown several years later. That time, the trigger was something as seemingly insignificant as holding a Christmas get together. Our house was packed with family, friends and neighbours for our annual Christmas drinks. I had been trying to be the consummate hostess, twirling strangers together as if I was choreographing an elaborate dance.

But my mistake was to briefly pause for breath in the kitchen amid the dirty glasses and empty trays. At that moment I knew the battle was over. All the physical symptoms I knew from the first episode were back: the racing heart, the sense of dread, worries piling on worries.

Once again my fears solidified into agonising physical symptoms. Once again all I could do was lie in bed and scream. I was screaming because of the pain. Every bit of me was in acute, dynamic, physical agony. It was as if I was back on that plane that was crashing, hurtling at high speed. That time I was ill for the best part of two years.

Days merged into nights. There was no getting up and no going to bed, no mealtimes, no dawn or dusk. All signposts of daily life had gone. The only respite was to knock myself out with sedatives. My mother would consult the doctor and give me his prescribed dose of tranquillisers, which made me dizzy and nauseous but momentarily lulled the demons. At night I would take both the tranquilliser and a sleeping pill. I devoured the pills, longing for oblivion, crunching them as if for nourishment.

Very slowly my anxiety began to subside, but the recovery was bumpy. It was as if I were climbing out of my tunnel up on to a mountain with multiple false peaks. I would get to the top, only to slip back down the other side. On his next visit, my psychiatrist drew a picture of a jagged line, as if outlining the Himalayas. This was how I would get better. I pinned the picture by my bed.

The mornings were the worst. Later in the day the antidepressants seemed to take hold. Typically I would wake up, momentarily euphoric that perhaps I would feel different today. Perhaps it had all been a dream. Then just as quickly I would despair as I felt the same and it was real. There was no guarantee that I would ever be well. Worry would pile on worry, panic on panic in what was now a familiar pattern. It was still far too frightening to make even the simplest decision, beginning with whether or not to get up. Subsequent decisions required monumental courage: to brush my teeth, say hello, even to go to the bathroom.

Through this acute period, I had an unusual ally: poetry. Throughout my 20s and early 30s, whenever a friend needed comfort, I would send them a poem that had helped me. Some joked that I ran a sort of poetry pharmacy, prescribing words instead of pills. Now, in sickness, I was the one in need of poetic consolation, and my mother was a rich source.

1 thought on “The Poetry Pharmacy

  1. There are lots of Bauhaus exercises that I feel link with this, for example experimenting with words by creating ‘sound images’ or writing within a structure like having to omit one vowel or taking a line for a walk – finding your total freedom from within, basically. Depression has been truly ‘outed’ now and is heading towards a place of post-stigma, but just because society is more accepting doesn’t mean that we needn’t heed Rachel Kelly’s excellent suggestions to aid the alienated soul in expressing its creative side. She addresses all of these aspects equally well in this personal and poignant piece.


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