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Mental Health and the Journey to Recovery

The second poetry workshop run by Young People’s Laureate for London Theresa Lola in partnership with the Museum, centred on mental health and the notion of the journey to recovery.

The workshop took place online and began with the group studying two sets of drawings commissioned by early 19th century Bethlem Hospital physician Alexander Morrison, currently on loan to The Four Ages of Woman exhibition from the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh - see here.

The drawings offer a reductive concept of recovery from mental distress, and in the exhibition they demarcate each of the four ages of woman that are explored through other artworks by, and of, women.


Images: Eliza Ash Improving, and Eliza Ash Recovered, Charles Gow, 1842


Elizabeth Jeffreys, and Elizabeth Jeffreys Recovered, Alexander Johnston, 1837

Looking at the two pairs of drawings, participants were asked to write a haiku (three lines, with five, seven and 5 syllables respectively) showing a before and after of a physical aspect of the two drawings of Elizabeth Jeffreys as way of commenting on what changed about her to signify recovery.

Haiku in response to the first drawing of Elizabeth Jeffreys, with a focus on the restricted hands

Hayley Bromell

My Free will is theirs,

The chains rub across my wrist,

Mind numb, restriction.

Haikus written about Elizabeth Jeffreys’ eyebrows

Elspeth Wilson

Threaded like caterpillars

Theatres for stories of the face

Audience tight shut

Slopes like a low hill

Ascending towards flatline lips

Secrets locked in between

Thinking about recovery as a journey, the group studied the poem The Journey by Mary Oliver and spent some time writing poems in response to it.

A Return

Noor Zehra

Kal – a word that means both yesterday and tomorrow

reminds us of our need

to look both ways

spinning gold, spinning fire

Forgotten worlds, forgotten flavours

a language that tastes unfamiliar

Like brain fog and memory lapses

I lost who I was and the world I knew

could not see my reflection in

memories or the mirror

Thought if I emigrate change course

A renegotiation of narrative could take place

Find where the excess fits in

A self - worthy of belonging, being seen, heard

spinning gold, spinning fire

I find my way back to these cacophony of voices

inhabiting the in-between

the flow of memories forgotten

building a remembered future, slowly

moving towards that quiet vital force

the voice - that will not be silenced

spinning gold, spinning fire

Walking Away from Comfort

Shaniqua Benjamin

She ventured out her front door of misery and mauby,

too comfortable and cushy in home of needles

jabbing at her mental, emotional and physical;

she needed to let herself out before

her punctured bones were all that remained.

First steps were shaky, a baby wobbling into unknown

tripping her up a little, unsure of what she’d stumble on ahead;

almost giving up after her ankle rolled mischievously, mocking

her mind, contorting it so she thought her body had turned against her,

but she found a heat pack of resolve, helping to push her on

until she could find her stride.

Finally she built trust in her feet again

as they found strength to step over fallen lamp posts

then jump over puddles, strengthened by a new lease of purpose;

focused on starting over and sorrel, newly sweet

moving into an unknown home that was in the best way uncomfortable,

giving her freedom to skank and salsa

dancing to the beat of her newly released confidence.

one day you finally knew

Aisling Towl

though the gas was empty

though the metal teeth

too cold in your palm

for the electric switch

what you had to do

and now.

the door creaked

when you opened it

spat dust out its sides

realising its sunned leather

burn-metal smell

letter box red paint peeling

a mouldy artichoke of a car

an escape route

a ribbon in the maze.

though the seats were sandy

you sat in them.

though the empty sprite bottles

melted slowly at your feet

though the christmas tree

in your eye line

had long lost

its bubblegum scent

you opened your hands to the body of it

‘drive me.

let’s do this together.’

though the wheels had

no tyres

you asked it

and it let you

the slowest

and the only

way out.

In Response to The Journey by Mary Oliver

Hayley Bromell

Sweat profusely drenches my upper lip.

Scum run walls and distorted drawls preach the daily delays on the lines.

Intricate networks that weave and cross, all a sabotage plot for me to get lost.

The rushes are rude, stomp by and tightly lipped faces,

All in a desperate need to get to their workplaces.

The tide holds me and pushes me forth,

Deep, deep, deeper down

thick clotted air sticks and distorts.

Distorting my lungs and clings on tight,

Heavy monotony of bodies pushing by as the masses alight.

And my head hangs heavy, eyes down

‘Keep back from the yellow line.’

A line that attempts to keep me safe in this dark place, that infiltrates.

The distaste of the brown decor, itch of the seat against my thighs,

As I recline is this space that must be mine for a time.

For a time in my life, but the time it will pass.

To rise out of the ground into brightness at last.

An unfinished poem in response to the Mental Health and Journey to Recovery session as a whole

Hayley Bromell

Counselling was not an option for a girl like me. For anyone in my community. Sit in a room and talk? About what? They’ll judge, they’ll laugh, I don’t need it.

Yet I can feel it. Still. The sadness and the anger and I channel it into my lungs where it grows as I breath the hate in, till they swell, and I shout the words out.

Then I cry, because I’ve hurt those who care, I’m not me and they can see it, but they resent it and ‘it’ will grow.

Biting the bullet, I entered a space that was safe

and the leather chair squished gently against my thighs as I reclined and immersed myself in this small room in Catford.

Violence. This world has been violent, and this room is violet. Crushed powdered sugar that’ll make me feel better.

She said she can’t make me better. But she can help me get there. Then words started to pour from my brain to the floor and they floated around in this space that was mine, for a time.

One hour for my sorrow to shower, big droplets that splash from my eyes on the leather,

each word I spill to sew my heart back together.

But the thread is loose, and my tongue is too,

the words of our past cannot reunite me with you.

And it was time, and it is time, that forces us forward still.

And she shook my hand when our time was done and said goodbye to me for what she hoped would be forever,

A professional relationship that I mourned to be severed.