Photo credit: Jess Wilkins Photography
Leah is a freelance writer, a lifestyle blogger at Roots and Toots, and a published poet short-listed for several prestigious accolades including the Bridport Prize and The National Poetry Competition. She’s currently working on her debut pamphlet, ‘Awake when sleeping,’ which explores lucid dreaming and chronic sleep deprivation. During her first two years of motherhood, she used poetry as a way to process her postnatal depression. This is how she found a twinkle in the coal pile.
This post features extracts of draft poems from her debut pamphlet. For finished, published work, go to: http://poems.poetrysociety.org.uk/poems/jackdaw/
Over to Leah.
Like many, I was in survival mode for the first few months of motherhood. (If I’m completely honest, I still spend much of my week there.) Our newborn was fractious and often inconsolable. For the first three months she had colic, reflux and a series of back-to-back illnesses – though thankfully, nothing serious.
Unlike all the other sleepy bundles around me at the time, she opted for regular night feeds yet only took the occasional power nap during the day. Sleep when the baby sleeps is only possible if your baby sleeps. Everyone kept telling me that after three months it would get easier. Almost three years later, I’m starting to emerge through the other side.
Extract from “Pema”
a lotus flower bloomed from protracted darkness
yellow tinted flesh so soft, stained yet unpolluted
as though spun from, then rolled in the purest pollen
we held you static under violet lights, your greenhouse
and Perspex prison for three days
and two held breaths.
Although hypnobirthing allowed me a calm and happy birth, we spent five nights in hospital whilst our delicate ‘lotus’ received light therapy for jaundice, and I recovered from complications following our seemingly perfect birth.
But as Vicki highlights in her book, Mum Boss, if you’re not able to rest and recover from childbirth, the physical and emotional exhaustion can sometimes contribute to the baby blues or postnatal depression.
For me, the shadows began to emerge five months later, on Christmas Day, which was when chronic sleep deprivation and grief declared war.
Extract from “Pandora’s Box”
yet amongst the blushing relief and oxytocin that comes
with a new brightling: the opening of powdery coloured boxes,
folding of thank yous, the standstill and spinning of clocks
the chalky-rose scent of new flesh and warm lactation cookies
another box also popped opened, and out of that crawled
unrecognisables from the dark corners of the boiler room.
Like many, during the height of my postnatal depression, I couldn’t experience daylight. I felt as though life, as I once knew it, was over, and I was convinced it would never, ever, get any better. My precious bubby with eyes like giant almonds, had robbed the nights from beneath my eyes and I’d lost both my sense of self and fight. Once the colic had passed, there were hourly wakes and 5 am starts for over a year. She wouldn’t take the bottle. I was left whispering degrees of madness. I encountered one or two mums in a similar situation but I was left wondering why I seemed to be the only one sinking deeper into misery.
At night she would burn her throat crimson as she sung her punk song till dawn. Often, I could feed her to sleep, and if lucky, I’d fall into the hypnogogic state for half an hour, until the next wake. Thing is, unlike my daughter, I’ve slept through the night since I was 3 months. Aged 34, I still needed 9 – 11 hours a night.
Nearing my daughter’s first birthday, I still hadn’t had a full night’s sleep. I felt as though I was being slowly tortured. I often dreamt of being hospitalised with a mysterious,un-diagnosable illness so that I could get some rest and live on NHS white toast and sugary tea. Hundreds of nights were stolen during the first two years, and though she still keeps us busy during the nights, things have improved.
I was extremely lucky to have some phenomenal support from my Mum, who, despite still being in a high-pressured full-time job, has done everything she can to help. Similarly, once I’d stopped breastfeeding, my partner, Matthew, who saw how sleep deprivation was eroding me, began to take the reins on the then, less-frequent night wakes.
not on a full moon but on a new moon
my inner mother could not swim
to my child, so I sailed her
to the harbour of her grandmother’s arms
the child pushed my sorry away
I came home to a soundless bedroom
with laughter in the walls.
Luckily, I was also armed with three self-help tools that saw me through this time. The first two are possibly lesser-known: Shadow-integration techniquesduring lucid dreams and Reiki. I was able to give myself Reiki in bed in between wakes, and when I did have R.E.M. sleep, I would either escape to a happier place or try to figure things out in my dreams. But that’s a whole other blog post.
The truth of the matter is that the shadow is ninety percent pure gold
During daylight hours, the third thing that allowed me to process what was happening, and the twinkle in the coal pile, was writing therapy. I started dabbling in poetry just before I fell pregnant and when I started suffering from anxiety and PND, as a busy and shattered new mother, I found it to be a manageable form.
At first, what I was writing wasn’t poetry. A poem requires precise consideration – although hopefully authentic and true -technique, the right use of form, musicality and structure, all need to be applied. Therapeutic writing is raw, unpolished and unedited, the bones laid bare.
Writing therapy is also different to journaling, which is more about writing down whatever pops into your head. Therapeutic writing is often more directed and based on prompts from exercises. (There’s lots of inspiration online if you’re interested in exploring this.)
Much of my therapeutic writing did later transform into poems, but in those early days, words were merely scribbled onto napkins, receipts and shopping lists. They were but fragments from my mind desperate to breathe. I captured all the dark thoughts, the ugly things that would shock,the things I couldn’t share with anyone.
Sometimes it wasn’t always explicit. Other times I’d capture how I felt by describing the sky, the winter trees or a cold cup of tea. This was easy to do. I’d sometimes look at something familiar, like a bird or a flower, and would be surprised at how different they seemed to me in this state. I felt enthused to capture the strangeness of it all. It reminded me of a quote I’d seen before: “Write odd, but stay true.”
Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.
In fact, it was these most challenging times that brought a wellspring of creativity and inspiration. I was just too exhausted to do very much about it at the time. (Two of the first poems I ever wrote about sleep deprivation were both short-listed for the Bridport Prize last year.) Eventually, when I did find a little time to write, it was an incredibly helpful way to get my feelings down on paper.
That page was my space to be heard, it helped me acknowledge what I was going through. It was a place I could go to make sense of things. Often, I’d end up finding missing pieces of the jigsaw – writing things I had no idea I was feeling or thinking.
I did eventually receive some professional support, but for the first eighteen months, despite trying to communicate what I was going through, to friends and family, only a very small minority understood.
Extract from “Hoodwinked”
yet all that was seems brighter. For now, there’s a darker
storm, where time travelling beams hoodwink the night
and past the dead palms I can feel a welcome in the hillside
I’m long-vanished yet there’s a twinkle in the coal pile.
Writing, however, allowed me to download and offload safely. Sometimes I’d discover new information or I’d view things from a different perspective. Other times I’d feel surges of creativity, and occasionally, I’d find clarity. I had suffered a huge amount of grief and longing for the creative and spiritual life I’d left behind. When I was able to write, I felt a sense of relief, rediscovery and hope. Above all, a sense of empowerment; a sense of me resurfacing for air.
Go to places that scare you in order to discover the Buddha within yourself
After studying an MA in Creative Writing, I’d always wanted to write a novel or a collection of short stories, but now I had a vision to write a poetry collection or pamphlet. This gave me something to work towards, something that was constructed in small manageable forms. Plus, I had lots of new material. I wasn’t living life in the margins. I had some control again. The fuller, more inspired I became, the stronger I felt, and I am beyond certain that this creative outlet helped to nurture the growth of our mother-daughter bond.
Extract from “untitled” (shortlisted for Bridport Prize 2016)
before he flees, something tumbles from his hoodie
it lands on her lips
a lotus-scented kiss, the most precious she will ever know
he lumps that into the lostness at her core
she wakes ransacked yet chockfull.
This post is dedicated to Judith. Just a few months after my daughter was born we were both swallowed by grief in different ways. Despite the treacherous waters on either side of this island, we helped each other stay afloat. Without you, my ship would have sunk.