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‘There is life in me’: Poetry and healing in the face of self-stigma

Numerous mental health studies suggest poetic expression is an undervalued but effective tool for healing. Using language to simplify the complicated, to name the nameless, express the inexpressible can help us make sense of our lives and find our authentic selves. In the context of mental health, poetic depiction of our personal struggles can encourage introspective thinking and the realisation of our identities. It can also be a powerful artistic instrument of social change; Audre Lorde considered poetry to form “the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”

Lorde’s idea of poetry recognises that change must start with the individual, working from the inside out. Changing the way we see and treat ourselves requires exactly this kind of internal transformation and writing poetry might prove a useful tool in the process. Self-stigma manifests as feelings of guilt, worthlessness and negative self-image; it is the deep-rooted belief that we are not enough. During the Wakakosha course delivered by Beyond Stigma and Zvandiri in November 2022, five young poets discovered for themselves - with the help of poetic expression - a new way of being, beyond self-stigma. The poems they each produced were then published as a poetry collection in March this year titled There is a Treasure in Me: Poetry on overcoming self-stigma from young people living with HIV in Zimbabwe (available to read on our website). We asked each of the poets to share some insight on the experience of using poetry on their journey out of self-stigma and into self-love.

For Patience, writing her poem was like “lifting a heavy burden”. She chose to reflect on the contradiction of the human experience, how life can both painful and joyous. Patience finds a way to make peace with this, in knowing and accepting that “Everything happened for a reason.”

Without all this,

there is no life.

So we have to thank God

for the life.

When Samantha sat down to write her poem, she experienced a significant shift in her present mental state: “When I wrote my poem, in that moment, I was heartbroken, did not have confidence, looked down on myself and I felt like crying because life felt hard… [when I finished writing] I felt lighter, like a heavy weight was removed. In that moment I felt good, confident, calm and open.” Her poem is a heartfelt promise to “love myself as I am” :

I love myself, I love my life

I realise that you are strong

and you can do it.

Tadiwanashe used his poem as a vessel to “to pour out everything which was burdening me”. In the process of sharing his burdens with others, he found himself opening up and making deep personal connections. His poem empathetically celebrates this newfound sense of community, the power of giving and taking love in equal amounts:

One day I’m gonna be the father

of the fatherless.

I’m going to give love

to those who seek it

Before writing his poem, Takudzwa acknowledged that “self-stigma was suppressing my potential and demotivating me.” Constructing his poem, which Takudzwa describes as a reflection of his life, goals and hopes for the future, released the hold that self-stigma had on him: “I had forgotten who I am, so [the poetry workshop] reminded me that I can be successful and I can achieve all that I want and go beyond. What I just have to do is stand up and fight for my identity.”

Be on your quest

and be ready to discover

the power and the potential in you.

Thomas also discovered hope in his poetry. He described a “supernatural relief” coming over him as he wrote a poem reflecting on his own inherent humanity. “[My poem] means that I have hope and I can have a bright future.”

Life. There is life in me.

I am just a living being.

Discovering our own intrinsic self-worth through language has the power to transform how we see ourselves and allows us to envision a brighter future; these poems and the experiences of those who wrote them prove just that. While they vary in style, all of the poems touch upon life, personhood and hope; they embody Audre Lorde’s vision of poetry as revolution. The bravery and talent of the five poets emanates from their work, for they have discovered the treasure within.

Read the collection, published on 21st March 2023 (World Poetry Day) here.

Author: Meadhbh Hayden

Audre Lorde quotation from Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing Press, 2007, pg 45.

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