Jhilmil Breckenridge is a poet, writer and activist. She joins our 60 Years, 60 Voices series to share her story of how poetry and painting helped her make sense of and heal from trauma...

Trauma is a strange beast. It is a heaviness in your limbs, it is an itch just under your skin, it is the IBS in your gut, it is the hair falling out in handfuls. It is the grey dog sleeping at your feet that can suddenly wake up, lunge for your throat, gleaming white teeth bared. It is the cobwebs that flutter in every room of your house, and as you walk, they shimmy, reminding you of their presence.

Trauma loves to stay in parts of your body that therapy and medication can’t shift. Unfortunately, I have had my share of trauma. Although I have used medication and therapy in acute periods, I can truly say it is poetry and art that have set me free.

Jhilmil Breckenridge

I think poetry, in particular, helps you to make sense of grief, of trauma. Poetry opens a door to light. I am so convinced of its healing and therapeutic power, I use creative writing as an important tool in helping people heal from trauma, or perhaps make more sense of living with their distress, or cope. In prison settings, classroom settings or workshop settings, I have used these sessions to varying results, mostly positive and powerful, and the participants claim “don’t know what it is, but I feel so much better after writing!

In the 1990s, James W Pennebaker started publishing results from clinical trials he had conducted, in laboratory conditions, on the connections between health markers and expressive writing. Although there has always been a connection between revealing your traumas and feeling better, the way Pennebaker conducted these trials and documented results, resulted in his work being accepted as ‘therapeutic’ and ‘scientific’. Also, in The Body Keeps The Score, Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist, drew on his own experience of 30 years to argue that trauma and the effects of stress cause physiological changes in the body and the brain that predispose us to diseases like diabetes, heart diseases or cancer. Van der Kolk advises body work like martial arts, yoga, massage and alternatives to medication like therapeutic writing or art for long term healing.

Jhilmil Breckenridge

Indeed in my own case in 2015, I did an unusual thing — I signed up for a Masters in Creative Writing. Middle-aged women, especially Indian ones, don’t suddenly get up and go to another continent to do another degree, but on a whim, I sent off a creative piece, got admission, and I was off. I was 47 years old and was trying to rebuild my life after a divorce, the kidnapping of my children, forced incarceration in a mental health institution, sexual violence, and much else.

The irrational decision turned out to not be so irrational after all. The poetry module, when it came to me— although I went in dragging my feet, protesting that poetry was not for me — transformed me. I could suddenly breathe. Poetry turned into my gills. I breathe differently when I am writing or even reading poetry that speaks to me. It’s as if the whole world slows down and I can finally tune into what really matters.

But the other interesting thing that has happened thanks to poetry is that I have just become more relaxed and nothing, I repeat nothing, bothers me anymore! It’s as if I have finally discovered the magic mantra for life, and I am grateful for every day, every breath. Stress, worry, headaches, migraines, sleeplessness, all these have just upped and left my side, whereas before they were my constant companions. And this again corroborates with the Pennebaker studies, that health markers improve from expressive writing.

Jhilmil Breckenridge

In the UK, there is a lot of focus on expressive writing, as well as reading. There is an organisation called Lapidus which I am a member of; in addition to other things, their mandate includes writing with refugees, the elderly and families, to new ways of engaging with stories and poems. They aim to work with writing and words to inspire, connect and promote communication, physical and emotional health, and enjoyment. Their journal debates how writing contributes to the wellbeing of individuals, groups and communities. The Reader, which is a charity, takes shared reading to spaces like palliative care homes and other communities to improve wellbeing, reduce social isolation and build resilience in diverse communities across the UK and beyond. The groups they work with include looked after children, people in recovery from substance misuse, prisoners, individuals living with dementia, parents, teachers, people with mental and physical health conditions and many more.

Writing every day can be challenging and most writers speak of writer’s block or fertile and fallow periods. It is in those I discovered art and painting! I think this is true of several poets and singer-songwriters; there is a curious or not so curious affinity between poets and art. It’s not so unusual, because to be a poet, you need to be hypersensitive and be able to tune into the immediacy of what you feel, what the senses are telling you and then paint these images into words. When words are blocked, why not try painting? From Coleridge to Mark Doty, from Ginsberg to Joni Mitchell, examples of poets or songwriters who also are gifted artists abound.

Reclamation Song by Jhilmil Breckenridge. Published by Verve Poetry Press, UK.

I have found art to heal me and I use it when words don’t flow or when I feel particularly stressed or blocked. Spending several hours on the floor usually, surrounded by my paints and images seems to work wonders and it just transports me to another realm where everything seems possible again. And then words come back to me. In my case, poetry and art have helped me realise that this single breath we live in is home, that the body is home, and that while we have that, nothing else can really go wrong.

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Jhilmil Breckenridge is a poet, writer and activist. She is the founder of Bhor Foundation, an Indian charity, which is active in mental health advocacy. She advocates Poetry as Therapy and is working on a few initiatives, both in the UK and India, taking this into prisons and hospitals. Her debut poetry collection, Reclamation Song, was published in May 2018 by Red River Press, India and in November 2019 by Verve Poetry Press, UK.