The Quieter We Become, the More We Are Able to Hear:
Writing with Teens in a Psychiatric Hospital
by Ann Teplick, Pongo project leader
Each time my meditation teacher suggested that we “hold” our pain, rather than cling to it or push it away, I wanted to do something un-Buddha like. Like scream, or crack a few obscene jokes, or belt out the lyrics of a Jim Morrison song, where torment seeps like a bruised and mucked-up fruit. Shake up the hushed room.
It took me years to wrap my head around this concept of being gentle with myself, less obsessive. To trust that in hard times, I would not suffocate. And though I’m far from100%, I’ve come a long way. The effort is constant. I slack, and I’m back in the wilds of anxiety—heart palpitations, wet like I have just walked out of the sea, breathing that is cockeyed, visions of train wrecks and crimson.
And then, one day, the epiphany—
It’s 6:45 a.m. on a beach in Seattle, foggy and damp, my hair wet and strung into curls. A boat horn blares, a heron strolls through the foam of a wave, driftwood and seaweed scatter across the sand. I am perched on a wet-salted rock, crying, cursing, trying to “hold” the unholdable— an indelible personal pain—one hell of a fire, like I have been blowtorched.
When out of nowhere, a barrage of butterflies light upon me—one on my thumb, one on my knee, one on my shoulder, the zipper of my fleece jacket. Who knows how many are on my hood. They are the size of my fist, with wings, veined and coppery, that close and open in slow motion. And they do not fly away, but cocoon me in stillness. The quieter I become, the more I am able to hear.
On Mondays, from October to March, four colleagues and I write poetry with teens at Firwood secondary school, in Lakewood, Washington. Forty-five miles south of Seattle, the school is one of many buildings on the campus of Western State Hospital, a 265-acre psychiatric facility. Western is wooded with trees, wildflowers, owls, eagles, and deer. Yes, butterflies, too. The teens live a stone’s throw away in cottages at the Child Study and Treatment Center (CSTC), the only state run and state operated psychiatric hospital for children in Washington. CSTC serves youth ages 6-17 in two primary programs—Inpatient Services, for youth who cannot be served in a less-restrictive environment, and Forensic Services, a program that conducts mental health evaluations for the Juvenile Court System of Washington State.
We walk into Firwood school at lunchtime, to the aroma of Mac and cheese, sloppy Joes, chips and salsa. The environment is brightly lit and cheerful, with polished floors, art on the walls, and friendly faces of adults and teens, which is not to say there is never a scuffle. We sign in at the reception desk and head to the computer room, high-five a few students we pass in the hall. “Can I write poetry, today?” “How about me? I didn’t get to write last week!” “I’ve got a cool poem back in my room, can I go fetch it?”
My colleagues and I work with The Pongo Teen Writing Project (www.pongoteenwriting.org), a volunteer non-profit founded (in 1992) and run by writer Richard Gold. Gold is a compassionate man with a huge heart. He is dedicated to writing with youth who lead difficult lives. In the mid 1970’s, while a graduate student of creative writing in San Francisco, Gold volunteered with teens at a special-needs school, many of whom were patients at an adolescent psychiatric clinic. He is anchored in the belief that when we write about life’s challenges—from hardship to distress to trauma and grief—we can better understand ourselves and take better control of our lives.
I met Richard Gold ten years ago at a summer art festival in Seattle. While manning the Pongo booth, he introduced me to poems from the teen collections on display. They were very difficult to read. Many, excruciating. Stories of alcohol and drug addiction, rage, despair, depression, suicide, physical and sexual abuse, abandonment, life on the streets, crime, violent deaths of family, friends and pets. The ravages of guilt.
Dear Baby Girl,
I never got to say goodbye to you. I was in JRA. I know how you died: shot in the neck by a sniper. You died in my mom’s arms. Before you died you walked to the house and up to her and made her follow you to your bed. That’s when my mom saw the blood and she cradled you. Then you died.
He was just a crazy guy next door, my dad’s friend’s friend because you trespassed just once onto his property. I see an animal on my property, I better just shoot her. He had anger inside that he couldn’t handle, he had mental problems just like me.
I know what I did to you was wrong. What I did to you was hit you, stuck you with needles and basically abused you. I did it because I had no other way to handle my rage. I felt like I should take it out on other species. And you were one of them. I’m sorry.
I remember that every time you went off our property you wouldn’t listen to my mom but you’d listen to me.
I remember that you slept in my bed every night, every time I was sad or depressed. It really felt like you were my real sister.
I remember that you protected me whenever I was scared. I also remember that you protected me from strangers that came to our door—you would growl and bark, I would open the door and you would chase after them.
You made me feel safe and loved.
I want to say goodbye now, but not forever: please take care of your sisters and grandpa Peter, but especially yourself. I hope you have a good time in heaven with Jesus and God. Take care of them.
Love always and forever,
As a writer, raised with an abundance of love, I cannot create these scenarios. But writing is my life, and I well know its power to pull me through the smack of tough times.
I have been working with Richard Gold and the Pongo Teen Writing Project for eight years—five, in King County juvenile detention (Seattle), three of which I served as project lead; and for the last three years, as project lead at CSTC. The experience has altered me—not only the honor of working with young people who live with challenges many of us cannot fathom, but the fact that I am learning how to listen—really listen—with no interruptions, judgments, pity, or verbal attempts to alleviate suffering. My belief in story, and the importance of telling our stories, has been reinforced a thousand fold. Our words matter, and the world desperately needs them.
Since 2000, Pongo has reached out to over 4,000 teen writers in juvenile detention, psychiatric hospitals, juvenile rehab facilities, LGBTQ centers, and homeless shelters. King County juvenile detention and CSTC are Pongo’s pillar sites. Pongo has published 12 anthologies of teen poetry, most of which are given away to the authors.
The teens we write with at CSTC have severe emotional, behavioral, and thought disorders. Their lives are delicate, layered and complex. We cannot fix this, but we can share our love for poetry and the tools for writing, so that they can find ways to express emotions and experiences that are often a 10+ on the Richter scale. When they do, their sense of relief, satisfaction, and greater self-respect is palpable. The process is stunning and humbling.
He controls me.
He wants me to want more, more.
He’ll make your friends and family disappear.
He’ll scream in your ear.
He’ll make you be a thief.
The high will make you want to have sex
And to be loved because nobody else will love you back.
He doesn’t love you.
He just owns you.
First try, you don’t want him.
Second, he becomes you.
Third, you won’t know yourself anymore.
There is no way to stop him.
You are gone.
So, what does our day look like?
Before we meet with the teens, my colleagues and I gather for an hour to share poems we have discovered and poems we have written. We devise writing activities to accompany many of our personal pieces, and explore themes such as family, love, heartbreak, the masks we wear, forgiveness, gratitude, resilience, and survival. We discuss who to invite to write that day, with a focus on those who have not written with us in a while, or perhaps ever. We especially seek teens who have a difficult time expressing themselves. Last year, we worked with a total of thirty young writers. The numbers vary each year, as does the level of functioning.
Once the teens arrive, we begin with an Opening Circle. We introduce (or reintroduce) Pongo, and follow with a conversation about poetry and why write it. I love that poetry is succinct, says the most with the least, and is the perfect building block for all writing—perfect to experiment with metaphor and simile, repetition and word play, sound play, rhythm and rhyme. Symbol. Poetry is a nugget, and has the potential to be a powerhouse. It serves us well at Firwood school, where our sessions with the teens are brief.
We believe honesty is one of the most important qualities of good writing, and we share this at our Opening Circle. We encourage everyone to write from the heart about who they are as a person. We distribute Pongo anthologies and invite the teens to thumb for a poem that hooks them, one they might want to read to the group. The teens connect with poems they relate to, those that express loneliness, alienation, anger, humiliation, abuse, and abandonment, to name a few. Often, this identification is a comfort.
Next, we pair up with the teens. They can work on a poem by themselves, and ask for assistance, if they need it, or they can work directly with us. If they choose the latter, we begin an informal chat. We ask them how they are doing. How is their day going? High points? Low points? What might they like to write about? Often, there are issues pressing, such as an argument with staff or a friend, a frustration at school, a vicious rumor circulating about them, a longing for family, or a not-so-positive family visit. They speak, and we type, guiding them to infuse their work with images, details, and repetition to underscore importance.
Rolling Down on Me
I am very sad.
I feel like breaking down –
Like a bridge collapsing
Due to holding on to so many barriers,
Keeping so many cars from falling
Into the river below.
My dad is a car.
I’ve been run over so many times.
Yet I feel that he’s been run over, too.
I’d like to turn the anger around.
I wish we could have been
A bridge for each other.
My dad is in prison for 23 years.
My sisters and my family are cars
On the bridge.
I want to keep them from being like my dad.
My little sisters are adopted,
My older brother has a guardian,
My other brother is in foster care,
And my other brother is in a group home.
I am a bridge.
I want to keep everyone safe
And be strong for them,
But I’m not doing well myself.
I wish I could be there for them,
But instead I’m in here.
I am a bridge that has cracks in it –
The cracks in my heart.
If ideas for writing are hard to come by, we might offer a prompt, such as writing about a close friend, someone they trust. Or writing about something funny that’s happened to them. Perhaps, the best gift they’ve ever received, material or other. We might ask, what makes them happy? What makes them sad? What gives them hope? And we build from there. Sometimes the words spill and sometimes they don’t. We might suggest various structures, such as the wonderful and user-friendly List poem. For example, a list of “wishes,” or “10 Things I Like About Myself,” or “Things That Drive Me Crazy.” Perhaps a list of good memories, and not-so-good memories. Or we might improvise a poetic structure, such as “My guilt (anger/frustration, etc.) surprises me when. . . is predictable when. . . helps me when. . .hurts me when. . . is like… (simile)."
The teens come to us with many levels of writing experience. Some are masters of hip hop and rap. Some are meticulous and devoted to end-rhyme. Some have journaled in the past. Others have seldom written. Others still, may be wary of poetry and throw us the Stink Eye. Initially, that is. We aim for a positive experience, and according to our surveys, we continue to meet our goal.
Each session ends with a Closing Circle, where the teens read the poems they have written. They receive compliments, applause, and acknowledgment for their creativity and bravery. I believe everyone leaves the room taller, prouder, and stronger.
Years ago, when I first began this work, it was not uncommon for me to excuse myself to find refuge in a bathroom stall where I could meltdown in private. I’d fall apart on the drive home. I’d duke it out, box with insomnia, because of the sights, sounds, smells and tastes that the teens had articulated. Our inhumanity to others and our inhumanity to ourselves haunts me. Yet, this is where I want to be—rooting for the voices that are too often ignored, denied, shunned and walked away from. It is here that I have no choice but to be present and compassionate.
They Won't Stop
I hear them
They hear me
They tell me to kill people
I tell them to shut the fuck up
But they don’t
They’re in my head
And they won’t be quiet
I pray and plead for them to but
I’ve learned that don’t work
I’ve been hearing them for 10 years and
It makes me sick to think about that
I’ve been on meds that make me
And that make me suicidal
I’m on a medication that makes me feel angry all the time
I tell doctors and staff but they don’t care
That’s the truth
I hear voices and I tell people
No one cares
Not staff, friends, doctors
I pace and I get punished
I have schizophrenia and no one wants to help me
This makes me feel anger, pain, shame
I’ve been feeling lonely for 10 years
And I feel it will never go away
That makes them louder
And I can’t stop it
That’s the saddest thing ever:
I hallucinate and I can’t stop it
Mental illness is not a pretty picture. I believe at certain times in our lives, we may question the thin line that keeps us on one side, and how easy it would be to slide to the other. We are at a constant face-off with ourselves and life’s fragility.
The teens we work with at CSTC are beautiful young people. They are truth tellers, fearless in many ways, and many, with unsinkable spirits. They inspire and instill gratitude, for the simple privilege of sitting side by side with them while they write their lives. And I will continue to hold their pain like a butterfly—a Monarch, maybe, or a Lupine Blue. This, is the ultimate grace.
[This essay was originally published in Hunger Mountain, journal of The Vermont College of Fine Arts]