‘Poetry really was a lifeline’

A successful journalist with a thriving family, Rachel Kelly’s life was torn apart by depression. She tried everything to cope, from medication to spending more time outdoors, but it was the power of poetry, she says, that ultimately saved her

‘Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.’ These words are precious to Rachel Kelly.

“There’s something very special about a tiny bird as a symbol of hope and positivity,” she says, referring to the poem Hope by Emily Dickinson. “I find even now, if I’m feeling a bit low, I’ll go in the garden and I’ll seek out a little bird and just listen to it.”

We’re sitting in a tranquil French cafe in Notting Hill Gate, discussing depression. It first struck her down 17 years ago. Kelly was a highly acclaimed journalist at The Times, with a successful husband and two small children, when she fell ill. Her depression was so severe that she was in physical pain and unable to get out of bed for several months. A few years later, she was hit by an even more intense episode and to this day still needs to manage herself carefully to ensure she doesn’t relapse.

“It’s a bit like being an anxious pet and having to look after yourself. And not to be ashamed of that,” she says as she describes how diet, exercise and not over-scheduling are tools she uses to manage her wellbeing. But it isn’t always easy. “It’s hard to go against the prevailing trend, which is to be busy. I think there is a big problem with stigma and shame and a culture of ‘pull yourself together.’

Carving out time in nature is another tactic. One of the characteristics of depression is being so focused on your own bid for survival that you become self-centered, but nature can restore your connection to the wider world, she says.

“It’s about changing the story in your head from a more negative story to a more positive story”

“We all know it instinctively; when we get out in the country or go for a walk in the park, we come back feeling rested and calmer. It’s just finding time in your day. And knowing that it’s just as important as your big meeting.”

But for Kelly, who shares her experiences in her recent memoir, Black Rainbow: How words healed me, it is poetry that was and still is her best coping mechanism.

“It’s not for everyone,” she acknowledges. “But if the drugs don’t seem to be working and you’re really ill in hospital then what else is there? A healing phrase might help.”

She quotes a line from the bible that became her mantra during her first nervous breakdown: ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ And also lines from The Sickness Unto Death by Anne Sexton, who she says, “so brilliantly describes what a depressive episode feels like – ‘I’ve got to have something to hold on to’ – because it can feel like a trap door has opened and that you’re crashing. Sometimes you can almost hold onto a line [of poetry],” Kelly explains. “It’s no exaggeration for me that it really was a lifeline.”

Kelly now works with United Response and Sane, two mental health charities that will benefit from the profits of her book. Her face lights up as she describes the workshops she runs with the charities’ support groups. In them, she typically takes seven or eight consoling poems or pieces of prose. Different members of the group, who all suffer from depression or anxiety, read each one aloud and discuss them together.

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The poems she chooses are “ultimately about people finding a compassionate and more forgiving voice for themselves and for others,” she says, “and to help them through every day life.

“What’s really lovely is that it can work a bit like mindfulness in that because the poems sometimes require concentration to unpack the meaning, it keeps people in the moment. So they get a little respite even for that short session.”

The Guest House by Jelaluddin Rumi has proven popular in workshops. This one, she says, encourages acceptance and that it’s not the circumstances but the way we approach them that’s important. “It’s about changing the story in your head from a more negative story to a more positive story, and just feeling that you’re less alone and that other people have been through this.

“One of the things that happened to me is that I lost the powers of expression. It can be a real gift that other people can express how you’re feeling.”

“Poetry helps people find a more compassionate and forgiving voice for themselves”

At a recent workshop in Maidenhead, one of the group read out Derek Wallcott’s poem, Love After Love. Kelly describes how after reading, the woman told the group that she’d had 20 years of psychiatrists and social workers and had never felt that anyone understood what it felt like to be her. But the poem was the first thing that did, she said. She planned to pin it to her fridge and read it daily.

“So it can work in lots of ways,” Kelly concludes. “Some of the greatest writers in our history have looked at these problems and ways of helping people.”

And despite the suffering she has endured to get there, she says it’s a “privilege” to now dedicate her vocation to helping others to find comfort through words. “I do see how much pain and anxiety there is around us. If I can help nudge at least one person through their day in a small way, then that’s what gets me up in the morning.”

Black Rainbow: How words healed me – my journey through depression by Rachel Kelly, is available now, published by Hodder.

Rachel Kelly has used her experiences to create an app to help people who are suffering with mental illness. The app is now available to download from the iTunes App Store. The app is split into two sections: help for a hurting mind and help for a hurting body. It offers both practical advice on diet and exercise as well as words of comfort in the form of poetry and prose.

For information and advice about depression, visit the websites of Sane, United Response, or Mind

Rachel’s poetry pick

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

– Jalaluddin Rumi. Translation by Coleman Barks