The concept of recovery from mental health problems is contentious because of differences between those who theorise such problems as biological or genetic and those who see them as proceeding logically if indirectly from childhood trauma and abuse. The former tend to subscribe to what I call the “weak theory” of recovery which holds that recovery means living within the constraints of the illness. Those who see trauma and abuse as the root tend to argue that a complete recovery is possible. In the course of the debate between the two sides, some people with mental health problems have wanted to use the word journey to describe their development and describe a sense of becoming more whole as a result of the journey.
There are parallels between the processes involved in the creation of “works of art” and the processes which help guide the journey towards recovery from mental health problems. Speaking from my own experiences of writing poetry, the (largely unconscious) process of writing a piece of poetry involves the casting up of uniting images or metaphors which integrate the different levels of meaning through which the poem achieves its resonance. Often there is a sense of the ‘givenness’ of these images. I cannot tell where they come from, nor how they come, but I am left with a sense of gratitude and joy which follows from what I think of as the whole psyche working collaboratively with consciousness to create something meaningful or beautiful.
The metaphor seems to me to be built into the foundations of human thought. As young children we see similarities between things, parallels, and perhaps metaphorical thinking is the first kind of thinking. Certainly, where organic damage to the brain occurs in dementia, people revert to metaphoric thinking, as if that were the underlying substrate that underlies all thought. If metaphor is hard-wired into the brain in this way, perhaps it explains how and why poetry has been in such high regard across cultures and times: as if we instinctively feel that poetry (metaphor) can reach to the heart of the matter. I certainly think that poetry is for me my “primary thinking” in the sense that I often have to write a poem about something before I can think about it as a whole.
There is also something metaphoric about psychotic thought in the sense that it often talks about something as if it were the case in the way that a metaphor will say “the secret ministry of frost” and we will know instinctively that what is meant without being troubled by it being too literal. Perhaps we misread psychotic thought when we hold it to be literal. Perhaps it is speaking in the same kind of magical connectedness that metaphor can communicate and we need to understand it as a form of early infant thought operating in the adult brain.
For me the integrative functions within my mind that are engaged when I write poetry have at least metaphorical similarities to the process of ‘becoming more whole’. Perhaps mental health problems may be thought of as distress arising from incompleteness. Many of the people I have worked with in counselling say they often are in a better place after the full course of distress and recovery; that they feel more whole. One man described a sense of being a bigger and better person. The drawing together of disparities, split-off or fragmented aspects of the self, is often accompanied by similar emotions of gratitude and wonder during
the process of recovery.
We all need to recover from something and creative activity provides a powerful tool in helping us do this. Whoever I am, however “well or unwell” I believe I am or am believed to be, I will benefit personally from the practice of creativity. The arts projects run by Leeds Mind are examples of this showing how the act of artistic practise alone brings increased confidence and functioning to even highly distressed individuals.
Although art can be therapeutic I do not believe that the purpose of poetry is therapy. The poem is the thing: I write to make poetry, not to heal myself. But I do not think it hurts to point out similarities underlying different processes. I hope this article stimulates interest and curiosity in creative arts and how our brains work and that it increases our understanding of how we can all make use of them for our well being.