A Poetic Record of the Frontlines

An Essay by Seema Reza, CEO of Community Building Art Works and Bush Institute Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program Scholar

As our nation praises medical workers saving lives, we must also remember that providing them a time and place to heal themselves is just as important.

Nurse Amber Kirk with a COVID-19 patient in the Intensive Care Unit at Sharp Grossmont Hospital on May 5, 2020 in La Mesa, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Each quote in bold represents an overlap in sentiments expressed in writing workshops I have led over the past 10 years with both health care workers and military members. These populations have much in common: work ethic, commitment to service, sacrifice of self, high rates of moral injury, substance misuse, and suicide. And perhaps more clearly right now than ever: A public adulation that runs in opposition to the private experience of trauma. 

“Someone got hurt and it was my fault.” 

If one is told that their difficult job, which causes great personal pain and uncertainty, is also the best thing about them, shame — one of the primary emotions associated with trauma (along with anger, grief, and fear) is heightened. With shame comes isolation, loss of community, and an unwillingness to seek help. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, it was clear the reverberations within the already struggling health care community would be powerful. And the toll has been growing, with reports of suicides among health care workers and first responders all over the world.

“I had to bury a part of myself to do the job.” 

Decades of research reveal the link between expressive writing and health. Writing is accessible, inexpensive, and largely self-directed. It provides a private space for individuals to reinforce positive experiences, display gratitude, and explore and articulate painful truths. Yet to overcome shame, and the often deadly social isolation that accompanies it, writing privately about difficult truths is not enough. Babette Rothschild writes that while shame does not cathart like other emotions, “it does seem to dissipate under very special circumstances — the nonjudgmental, accepting contact of another human being.” 

Disclosure is necessary, but uncomfortable. Directly expressing a traumatic story can leave a person feeling vulnerable. Poetry, the symbolic expression of emotional truth with the freedom to obscure details that one may not yet be ready to lay bare, allows for a powerful, safe step towards disclosure. 

Writing is accessible, inexpensive, and largely self-directed. It provides a private space for individuals to reinforce positive experiences, display gratitude, and explore and articulate painful truths.

If you balked at the word ‘poetry,’ you’re not alone. The resistance to poetry is as ubiquitous as the need for it. Before I turned to poetry as a buoy, I resisted it. When I introduce it to skeptical service members and health care workers facing post-traumatic stress, moral injury, and compassion fatigue in clinics, I meet resistance. I often joke that my job is to undo whatever our English teachers have done to turn us against poetry. Really, my work is to encourage self-examination despite cultural pressure to drive on towards outward-facing productivity. 

Hospital staff, including nurses, doctors, and administrators, look on in anticipation of the United States Navy Blue Angels flyover above Medical City Dallas on May 6, 2020. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

“I miss myself.” 

In writing a poem, we elevate our actual impressions above an incomplete story we have been told or been telling about ourselves. Poetry is the native language of the self. “Two ingredients are required in the construction of the conscious mind,” writes renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, “wakefulness and images.” According to Damasio, the autobiographical self consists of two related processes: (1) the grouping of biographical images to create a core self, and (2) a brain-wide operation in which related memories are displayed as images and interact with other parts of the brain to create coherent results that are held for a period of time. 

Driven by associative sensory images that relate fleeting life events to a steady construct of self, poetry is the closest mirror of our thoughts—of consciousness itself. Rooted in personal experience, its purpose is not to convince, but to discover and record. Unlike other writing, poetry allows the writer to summon all of herself onto the page—professional self, childhood dreams, joys and griefs. We don't truly shed our personal lives at work, nor are we untouched by our work at home. We exist fully in life, and poetry allows that. Through metaphor and poetic device, what was a barrier to connection becomes a work of art to share and be admired for its fullness. 

Driven by associative sensory images that relate fleeting life events to a steady construct of self, poetry is the closest mirror of our thoughts—of consciousness itself.

The language discovered on the page becomes the language used to connect. Once an experience has been articulated through poetry, it becomes easier to share directly to one’s community. Doctors once had patients use dolls to point to where pain was, allowing patients more distance and modesty. The poem is the carved wooden sculpture of pain.  

(Timothy Brown / U.S. Marine Corps Veteran)

“You don’t know what I’ve had to do.”

Chief among the challenges presented by workplace mental health initiatives is the fear of negative professional consequences. The Poetic Record circumvents that through a simple online interface where health care workers are guided (with the option of anonymity) to share their accounts through poetry. Affirming responses from poets and one another provide the benefits of writing, disclosure, and social connection with minimal risk. In order to support these vital members of our society, we have to not just thank them, but hear their stories, even the parts that are difficult and uncomfortable.           

America is no stranger to holding shame and pride simultaneously. Our nation’s history contains dark stains, oppression, exploitation, and the burying of truths alongside the revolution, freedom, and ingenuity that makes this country extraordinary. To support the best among us — the people dedicated to caring for others at great personal cost—we must share their burden, give them space to express both the light and shadow of their experience, to listen, and accept them for their public acts of heroism as well as their private burdens.

Seema Reza, a scholar from the Bush Institute’s 2019 Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program, is the author of two books and CEO of Community Building Art Works, an organization that bridges the veteran and civilian communities and combats social isolation through writing, art, improv, and music workshops in military and veteran health care settings.

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