Saved by a Poem?

It is one of the moments I cherish most. Somehow, through the magic of our interaction, my client has come upon an insight, a truth, a new perspective or even perhaps, a grief, long buried. As I watch this unfold, tears often come, we breathe together and the weight of new understanding begins to settle.

In the ebbing of those moments, I am often compelled to pull out a file I keep near my chair, marked simply, “Poetry”. I open the file, choose a short poem that suits the client’s circumstances and depth of experience and ask permission to read it aloud. I read. We breathe together again. Tears may come again. And, whatever understanding the client just gained sinks down deeper.

So yes, I do think poems can help save us.

I know a poem is special when it gives me a certain feeling of both of anticipation and satisfaction in my gut when I read it out loud. Out loud is definitely best. The rhythm of the words and the feel of them on your tongue add to the experience.

Many people think they don’t like poetry because when they hear the word they think of dusty old rhyming couplets. But even those folks can be touched by words that reflect their own lived experience.

Writing poetry is also a way to be saved. During years of trauma and struggle and in the aftermath of these times, I have used the writing of poetry to heal. Finding the words to create something of beauty and meaning out of a painful situation, out of loss, has been transformative. Sharing those words with a few beloved ones gives witness to both my suffering and my ability to transcend it.

Here is an example of a favorite poems I often share:

The Journey
By Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice-
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do-
determined to save
the only life that you could save.

To find poems you like try Poemhunter or Poetry for Grateful Living.

For help getting started writing poetry consider these books:

Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making (available used)
By: John Fox

Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words
By: Kim Rosen

The Artists Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
By: Julia Cameron

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Letters You Will Never Send: The Art of Journaling for Self-Awareness and Healing

When many people think of writing, they unfortunately often think of their dreaded high school English class or the research paper they suffered through in college.

But, what if writing can be used to transform your life? What if writing can heal?

Journaling is effective, low cost and efficient. It is a way to understand yourself, a way to hold a conversation with yourself, a way to gain clarity and a way to work through grief, set goals and access your creative nature. Here are four journaling strategies to change your life:

1. Write a letter you will never send. Letter writing has long been used in counseling as a way to say the things you have never said to those who have hurt you. Use your journal to write a letter to a parent, a lover, a sibling, an abuser, and say everything you have ever wanted to say. Don’t edit yourself. This letter is not meant to be sent, instead it is meant to help you release long-held anger, grief, fear and sadness.

After you write the letter, you may choose to read it to a safe person who can witness your experience and feelings. Or, you may decide to burn it, rip it to shreds or plant it in the ground with a new tree or rose bush sending its roots down through your words, allowing the pain in your letter to be transformed into beauty.

2. Ask the kid. Another technique helps us get in touch with the child part of ourselves. It works like this: Using your dominate hand, write a question, you think your child-self might have insight about. Use your non-dominate hand to write a response. For more information about this kind of journaling check out the work of Lucia Capacchione.

3. Get to sleep. When you wake up at two in morning with your mind in a swirl and anxiety clutching your gut, use journaling to do a data dump. Keep a pad and pen by the bed, turn on a soft light and spill out everything you are thinking. Don’t edit yourself. Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation, or if any of it makes sense. Just dump it on the page. There is something almost magical about externalizing your fears. Try it. It works.

4. Rev up creativity. In Julia Camaron’s book, The Artist’s Way, she recommends a simple strategy to help increase creativity and reduce blocks. The process includes three, long-hand pages of writing every morning. Julia says these pages can or even should be whiny and full of mundane concerns. They are not literature. I used this process for several years myself and found it to be every bit as helpful as Camaron claims. Hear her talk about this process.

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Can We Give Up Grief?

When I was 26, my mother died. It was a difficult death. She suffered and longed to leave, but lingered, in pain and semi-consciousness.

My last act as a daughter was to give her sips of water and promise to miss her…and to finish my education. I have accomplished both. The education part came in starts and spurts, with long breaks in between, when my resolve waned. But eventually, I ended up with two master’s degrees. The missing her, however, has been near constant.

We are often taught that the pain of losing someone eventually dissolves, and all we are left with is memories, devoid of sadness or longing. But the truth is we are forever changed by significant loss, and the pain of that loss can revisit us again and again, albeit in more tempered doses.

For me, each phase of life has brought renewed awareness of my mother’s absence and pain in the realization of that void. When I got married, when I graduated from college, when I began a new career, I felt the loss again acutely. When I am struggling, confused or lonely, I long for her. But always, I am aware that I am motherless, and always, I miss her.

Grief is a reflection of how much we have loved. When we love deeply, the loss will stay with us, for the rest of our lives. This is not dysfunction, but a manifestation of our ability to bond with and love another.

Khalil Gibran expresses this idea with grace in his master work, The Prophet:

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”

But I say unto you, they are inseparable.”

It is true that the intense, all-encompassing pain of grief does diminish with time when we allow ourselves to experience it rather than pushing it away. Eventually, grief’s physical symptoms (lack of energy, nausea, crying, lump in the throat, etc.), the inability to concentrate, the anger, (even rage sometimes), the guilt (often unjustified), the isolation, the hazy feeling of unreality, all these will fade and we will return our energies to life and other relationships.

But, there is no cure for grief. It is only converted from the acute to the chronic. And, it is really chronic love, manifesting as sorrow, which clings throughout the years. We have loved and so we mourn. We are human and so we grieve.

For more information about grief or to find support contact Winterspring Center for Loss and Grief.

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Do You Really Need Drugs to Treat Depression?



For the past 30 years whenever someone seems depressed, the answer has been an antidepressant.  Most people get this prescription from their doctor after a 15 minute assessment. 

But is that really the best approach?  Antidepressants often have unwanted side effects, are expensive and may even contribute to a life-long cycle of depression.   (See studies from the book, Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker for more information.)  So, what to do instead?  Here are five alternative strategies for easing depression.

1. Exercise. In double blind studies, patients who exercised regularly and took a placebo were compared to those who didn’t exercise and were given an antidepressant. Surprise! Those who exercised improved their mood significantly more than those taking the drug.

2. Take supplements. Many people are Vitamin D deficient. This can cause or worsen depression. Get a little (15 minutes is enough) sunlight on your skin a day, or take a supplement. Omega 3 fatty acids (the kind found in fish oil) have been shown to effectively treat depression. Read about it in this study, or in the book, The Omega 3 Connection, by Andrew Stoll, MD

3. Write. One study found that people who wrote about their troubles every day for three days felt better and shifted to a more positive perspective.

4. Change your thinking. We are taught that circumstances dictate mood. But the truth is, how we think about our situation is the more important than the situation itself. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl describes how even in a concentration camp, the way we think about our circumstances matters. He said, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.”

5. Service. When we help others, our own problems fade into the background. Service offers meaning and purpose, as well as validation and connection.

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Finding a Meaningful Life

“The best way to find yourself, is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Mahatma Gandi

I am always looking, along with my clients, for the choices that bring greater meaning and peace to life. Together we wrestle with the questions, “How can my life be meaningful?” And, “How can I balance freedom and responsibility?” Together we examine what adds meaning and what fuels despair, what brings a sense of peace and what tears at the soul with anxiety and angst.

From these explorations, here are a few ideas about what helps many of us create a more meaningful life:

• Staying present. When we habitually ruminate about the past, or worry about the future, we are unable to really experience our lives or our relationships. We are absent. Bringing ourselves back to the moment can be as simple as taking a breath and feeling our feet on the floor. Then, we can appreciate the beauty around us and our connection to other people.

• Shifting focus from self to others. When I sit down with a client and listen to their story, hear their pain and celebrate the positive changes in their lives, my own struggles and grief dissolves. In those moments, I am free. You do not have to be a therapist to claim the beauty of service to others. For example, clients have told me of their joy in caring for a grandchild, sponsoring a newcomer to AA, working at a food pantry or driving a neighbor to the grocery store. When we focus on the needs of another our own tribulations melt into the background. Careful though…this does not mean forcing our ideas or solutions on others or taking over their lives. True service happens with permission and gentleness.

• Remembering our connection to something greater. You do not need a religious faith, or even a belief in God to create a sense of connection with something beyond yourself. For many people this is found in a community where they are known and loved just as they are. For others it is experienced in the natural world. When these folks stand in the midst of a forest it brings an awareness of themselves as a part of nature, as part of life. Others find that groups such as AA or Al-Anon provide a “Higher Power”.

• Create beauty. The act of creating can bring great meaning. For many of us making a garden grow, painting a picture or writing a poem can provide a sense of transcendence. When I am writing, there are times when I feel a mysterious flow of energy moving through me that seems to aid the process. Words come, ideas bloom and I am outside time. It is beauty. It is meaning.

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Why See a Counselor?

Many people think that you have to be “crazy” or extremely dysfunctional to seek out the services of a mental health counselor.  The truth is that most people can benefit.  Here are some of the best reasons to see a counselor:

• Manage anxiety. Everyone experiences stress and anxiety. In therapy you can learn ways to reduce the potency of stressful experiences. This improves both your emotional well-being and physical health.

• Understand yourself. Sometimes our motivations and feelings can be mysterious. A skilled counselor can help you unearth the origins of your behaviors and emotions. Insight can lead to positive change.

• Gain clarity about your purpose. What do you want out of life? What is meaningful to you? How do you balance freedom and responsibility? Counseling can help you discover what is truly important and help you focus your energies towards those goals.

• Learn to grieve. Sadness is a normal part of the human experience. Counseling can help normalize your reactions to difficult events and losses and help you express and move through the darkness.

• Develop new skills. Counseling can help you learn more effective ways to communicate, to ask for what you need, express feelings and understand the feelings and needs of your family and friends. You can create self-care strategies that include self-compassion and self-forgiveness. In counseling you can learn what healthy boundaries look like and how to stand-up for yourself.

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Part 5: Procrastination: Addiction is a Thief

Addiction, in its many forms, robs many of us of motivation, confidence, follow-through and self-esteem. If we are using a substance to modify mood or to quell anxiety or sadness, not only does it change our brain function while we are under the influence, the effects linger and can actually increase depression and anxiety, causing us to crave more. Thus, the very thing we have used to try to feel better eventually enhances our misery.

Many addictions stimulate the reward center in the brain and give us a pleasurable rush of the powerful neurotransmitter dopamine. Activities like gambling, sex, pornography and video games often produce this effect and can create an addictive cycle in people vulnerable to addiction.

Addiction can be powerful and destructive. Not only does it influence procrastination it can also create a host of other relationship and work issues. If any of this sounds familiar to you, seek out a twelve step program and/or find a counselor qualified to assist you in recovery and begin the process of eliminating or reducing the behaviors that stand in the way of a meaningful and productive life.

Helpful Links.

Alcoholics Anonymous
Narcotics Anonymous
Al-Anon (Help for family and friends of alcoholics)
Addiction Recovery Center (ARC)

Understanding the reward center

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Top 5 Reasons Why We Procrastinate – Continued

#3. Poor time management. This happens when we spend time doing things that are not important or meaningful, but that suck up the day and leave us lethargic and unmotivated. Watching TV, online activities such as Facebook, Twitter, gaming, etc. can fall into this category.

Managing time more effectively is a skill that can be learned. Start by creating a daily schedule for yourself. Make sure you include activities that focus on things and people that are important. These should be in alignment with your values and goals. Getting your schedule right might include a careful inventory of what and who is important to you at this point in your life. Surprise! It might have changed since the last time you checked in with yourself. Consider writing a personal mission statement to hone your focus.

Make sure to include fun, relaxation, exercise and connection with other people in your daily schedule.

#4 Overwhelm. The task feels overwhelming, or we don’t know where to start. This is often a result of not having enough information to evaluate the task at hand.

The best way to approach something that feels overwhelming is a two-step process. First, ask yourself, “Do I need more information, assistance or support to tackle this?” If so, do research, gather your supporters and then plunge ahead.

The second step, if things still feel overwhelming, is to chunk the task down into smaller steps.
Keep breaking things down until the first step feels doable. Set yourself up for success by making the chunks easy to manage.

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Top 5 Reasons Why We Procrastinate

#1.Fear of feeling. For example, I may put off paying my bills if I have difficulty tolerating the feelings that come up when I face my financial situation. This also applies to confronting difficulty in a relationship when we expect there to be conflict or pain. The survival part of the brain says, “Nope, that doesn’t feel safe. I think we’ll avoid that.”

One of the most effective ways to deal with this barrier is to cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means paying attention to everything that exists in this moment (both inside and outside ourselves) without judging or pushing it away. It is allowing our fear to be present, and experiencing it as a something transient that will ebb and flow, change and grow, then diminish. As we watch our feelings with such an intention we learn that no state is permanent and that we can tolerate even the most intense emotions when we realize that they won’t last forever. This frees us to take action, knowing that even if we feel deeply while paying the bills or calling a friend to confront a conflict, we will survive.

#2 Fear of failure. If we never begin something, we can’t fail. If we don’t try, we can’t discover our deficiencies, and sadly, also can’t discover our strengths and potential for success. My mother, a real estate broker had a large poster in her office that read, “Not to decide…is to decide.” She would point to it in silence when a customer was considering whether to make an offer on a home or accept an offer to sell, often a life changing decision. And it’s true, not to decide is to make a decision.

The key to overcoming this form of procrastination involves how we talk to ourselves internally. Most people, who choose not to try, due to fear of failing, are seeing the world and themselves through a negative lens. They have cognitive distortions that keep them locked in self-doubt. Take a look at my first few blog posts for more specific information about how to change negative self-talk into realistic, rational responses that can free us from depression and anxiety.

Check in on Thursday for more…

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Stinking Thinking: How it Keeps us Stuck in Depression & Anxiety – Part 3

Awareness is the first step towards changing any behavior or pattern of thinking. Last week we discussed a method designed to heighten your awareness of negative self-talk by writing it down. Now that you have recorded some of the stinking thinking that is undermining your mood, confidence and self-esteem, it is time to create rational responses to those damaging thoughts.

What is a rational response? It is a way to respond to a cognitive distortion that dissipates its power. For example, suppose you are running late to work and your cognitive distortions go something like this:

“I’m never on time. People at work will think I’m useless.”

There are several cognitive distortions at play here. The first statement is an over-generalization. The second includes mind-reading and fortune telling with a dash of all-or nothing thinking and over-generalization thrown in for good measure.

Rational responses might be:

•I am not always late. There have been many times I have made it to work right on time.
•Some people I work with might be frustrated if I’m late today, but it is not the end of the world. Everyone is late sometimes.

A rational response must be believable. It won’t help us to replace a negative cognitive distortion with a grandiose or overly optimistic one.

Rational responses only improve mood if we use them. It can help to write out rational responses to your most frequent distortions. In his seminal book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David Burns suggests using a triple column method to track thoughts, identify types of distortions and create rational responses.

Continue to track your negative self-talk. At the end of the day, read through what you have written down. Identify the types of distortions and write out rational responses to each one. Defend yourself. For help identifying cognitive distortions try this link:

Info on Cognitive Distortions

Next time: Dealing with Procrastination.

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  • About The Author

    Lois Schlegel

    Lois Schlegel, MFA, MS, mental health therapist at Life in Bloom Counseling in Medford and Ashland, has 20 years of experience providing services to individuals and families. She has taught parent education and life skills classes to adults and ... Full Profile
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