Poet and psychiatrist Faizan Syed’s work was featured in issue #13 of Newtown Literary. Below, he reflects on his personal experiences with the therapeutic power of poetry. For more from Faizan, check out his blog, Dr. Faizan's Dreamery.
“My mental illness . . . was a cage,” he says with bewilderment, as if finding these words for the first time. “My wings were clipped and my feet were tied . . . but now, I’m free.”
My patient, a Jamaican man wearing a rastacap as round as his face, looks up at me with kind brown eyes, his pupils spread wide, and cracks a rare smile at the group. It’s Monday morning, and eight patients have just finished writing their personal responses to “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou. Another patient, a young woman with a history of schizophrenia, shares with us how free she feels when she plays with her nieces and nephews at her sister’s house. A recovering alcoholic with schizoaffective disorder tells us about a time his sponsor from AA saved his life, and how keeping sober allowed him to embrace his own personal freedom. One by one, each patient shares a little of their story, inspired by the caged bird's song.
The first time I presented a poem to our writing group several months ago, I didn’t expect too much of a reaction. The group, called “My Story,” usually started out with a prompt chosen to appeal to the senses, such as a piece of music, a set of mystery smells, or a news article. Attendance at the group, part of a day program at a mental health clinic in Queens, was scattered and inconsistent, and participants would often keep quiet or fall asleep and rarely wrote in response to the prompts. As a psychiatrist-in-training, a resident, I was invited to help co-facilitate the group partially because of my passion for writing.
Most of the patients at this particular clinic have no insurance and little to no family support, having been in and out of the state system for most of their adult lives. Some had been hospitalized for years in the past due to the severity of their illness, but recovered well enough to be discharged back into the community. They live relatively simple lives, usually in supportive housing, and have their basic needs met thanks to social welfare programs. A few of them function well enough to work part-time, but this is usually the exception rather than the rule. Many have little interest in socializing and so spend most of their time alone. Some still hear voices but are able to manage. Some of them still harbor delusions about their past. Many have endured extensive abuse and trauma since childhood.
Patients with this level of chronic mental illness tend to have impaired cognitive abilities and tend to have difficulty with abstractions such as proverbs, taking things concretely and literally. Many patients with schizophrenia also have neutral faces that express very little emotion and speak very little even when prompted. None of them could name a poet or poem they liked. Knowing this, I did not expect much of a reaction when I first brought in a poem as a prompt, hoping that it could help at least a couple of our more engaged patients verbalize their feelings. I began with group meditation and guided imagery to help the group enter a more relaxed state. Then, I read a poem called “Barter” by Sara Teasdale. The response was breathtaking. Patients who had never spoken before suddenly couldn’t wait for their turn to speak. They were enchanted by the vivid imagery and the mysterious language. Moreover, every patient in the class had something to write, and the outpouring of memories was like an oasis in a desert. Moments of beauty, awe, and pain revealed themselves as the patients read aloud their stories one by one.
Since then, every week, I bring a new poem or literature excerpt, many written by mentally ill writers, and our patients continue to keep coming back, engaged, writing, and sharing on a level we couldn’t have dreamt before. For them, it’s never been about producing art, hunting for inspiration, or honing a craft. Some write no more than a sentence or a few words, while others write much more. Most of the time they don’t even keep their written responses, but turn them in as if they were assignments.
So why do they keep coming back? Perhaps it’s because through poetry, they discovered the power of self-expression and found the courage to put their own experiences into words. Perhaps they just want a chance to share a piece of their lives. Perhaps the music behind the words, like a gentle drizzle, calms their warm, weary minds. Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: poetry has injected their lives with meaning in a way that therapy and medication never could. By connecting with feelings they previously had no satisfactory way to express, they are able to heal, understand, and grow. They find chances to reconnect to the person they used to be before the illness changed the course of their lives, and to appreciate how far they have journeyed. This, I think, is the greatest gift poetry has to offer: the ability to meet your true, authentic self, and set it free.