Artist insight: Clare Shaw

Featuring: Audio Audio

Clare Shaw is an acclaimed poet and performer. She talks about her own experiences of self-harm and her work with the self-harm awareness organisation, harm-ed.

By: Clare Shaw (Guest)

  • Duration 15 mins
  • Updated Friday 18th June 2010
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Health Studies
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Copyright The Open University


[‘Poem about Dee Dee’ and ‘Not as simple’ from Straight Ahead, Bloodaxe Books, 2006. These poems are used with permission.]


Poem about Dee Dee

Dee Dee is out on the hospital roof.
From here, Liverpool is a story
she can read from beginning to end.

If you’ve never driven too fast
into a bend in the road,
felt the slow slide of your stomach

into a corner of itself;
if you’ve never leaned back
at the top of a rock,

felt the knot of the rope
like a waking snake
squirm loose in your hand;

if you’ve never walked home to a lover,
your tongue like a blade in your throat
to tell her it’s over;

if you’ve never known
the milk-white explosion
of a moment that could last forever;

then you have no idea how she felt.

I’m Clare Shaw, I’m a poet, and I’m also the director of a self-harm training organisation.

When I kind of look back at me time in hospital, you know, I remember some incredible characters.

What it gave me? Phwah, it gave me a hell of a lot to write about. It certainly shaped me in lots of ways. It gave me a lot of anger, but it also gave me a lot of faith and belief in human relationships. I think a lot of the damage that was done to me was done through human relationships but also a lot of the healing was also done through relationships.

Just one short sprint of 30 feet
to the low, grey wall
and the city laid out like a map of itself.

Close your eyes
and it’s Sports Day.
You can smell the new-cut field.

There’s a crowd of everyone, bright
as if they’ve been dipped in the river.
Everyone there you’d want to be there

and the sound of the cheer
is your big day out; it’s the prom
and the beer, the kiss under the Tower;

it’s a Midnight Mass of drunken song
and you’re pounding the pitch
to the finishing line

to be first to the faces waiting there;
the waiting arms,
the waiting air.

Two guards and three nurses
bring her down.

It’s evening, lock-up
and you’re drinking your tea
watching the hours
drain in the grey outside.

You see the streaks of concrete
on her face
and you remember the weight
of a grown man balled

through the fist
of his knees in your back.
You remember the taste,
like molten rust.

You remember your arms
pushed to the back of your neck;
how your shoulders were a flame
that scorched your chest

until all it could hold

was a necklace of tiny, red gasps.

You remember when
all that you were
was a scream
that no-one could hear.

That was a poem that erupted totally out of experience. One of those very rare poems that kind of burst forward and wanted to be written in exactly the way it was written. And it’s about one of my longest stays in psychiatric hospital. I think it was a three-month stay in my 20s.

The day room is a late-night
fish tank of sound
and yellow shadow.
The hum, bang, clatter of the ward.

Dormitories simmer with sleep.
I am wide-eyed with two weeks awake.
Her eyes
are methadone-heavy.

We watch TV in the small hours,
eating Frosties dry from the box.
We know all the tunes to Ceefax,
baiting the glaze-eyed agency staff

with high-risk jokes.
“How about a day out?
It’s been three months since I crossed a road
and I’m beginning to lose the knack”.

Dee Dee and me are having a laugh
dreaming up plans for O.T. –
rock climbing schemes
for the deeply depressed.

A barebacked parachute jump.
A Blackpool trip. Imagine
riding the Big One
with your seatbelt undone.

Dee Dee laughs.
Feels the wind in her hair,
the world spinning its pages
beneath her.

God, we laughed
in there
you could die laughing.

One of the only good things, one of the only positive things about the time that I spent on the wards was some of the people that I met there, and Dee Dee was a particularly kind of shiny character. She’d had a hell of a life and it kind of showed but she was just this lovely, kind, funny person who I had a real bond with for that time. And then she died a few years later. That’s where that poem came from, poem about Dee Dee.

I started to self-harm round about the age of 10. I was 20 when I came into contact with Services. So for those 10 years I suppose you could say I managed the self-harm but, obviously, the distress that was behind the self-harm had a huge impact on my life. I continued to function. I did very well at school. I absolutely felt that I should keep it secret. I had an enormous sense of shame and embarrassment about the self-harm and about the eating disorder. I went to really quite some lengths to keep both things hidden.

But it was actually in third year at university at the point where I chose to come into contact with Mental Health Services, and that was about the distress and the anxiety that I was experiencing, just reaching levels where I thought, you know, I’m not going to deal with this on my own any more. What I actually got in that first appointment was a diagnosis, if you like, of third year nerves. I was in third year at the time and a prescription for Prozac so a huge gulf between what I needed and what I was actually offered.

A few weeks after, so just after my 21st birthday, I took a big overdose of the Prozac - which is a horrible drug in overdose, makes you feel awful. I was admitted on to a medical ward and from there I was transferred to a psychiatric unit. The initial admission being for three days but it was the first in a kind of continual string of admissions over the next six years. Kind of very briefly describing hospital, you know, it was terribly frightening. It was really, really boring. I was in a position of absolute powerlessness.

And how I coped with that on a daily basis, on one level partly by adopting wholeheartedly the identity of a psychiatric patient, you know, accepting this is it, this is where I’m at, this is who I am. Kind of seeking a level of status or credibility, this was a long-stay patient and, you know, a gold star self-harmer kind of kept me safe. Adopting the identity, going with that as this is my life, this is my future, this is my career, and then just on a practical sort of day-by-day level, by using all of, on the whole, the most destructive coping strategies that I’d always used but even more so.

I became actively suicidal for about two weeks. Which doesn’t sound a long time but it felt a really, really long time. I was really determined to kill myself. Ultimately, obviously, I didn’t kill myself and that was about me making an active decision to stay alive and from that point realising that my life needed to be very different. Part of that was about making a decision to not go back in hospital and realising if I go there that will be the end of who I was. You know, whether it was about death or kind of the sort of death of my identity.

You’d expect that having had six years in and out of hospital, and that having been a major feature in my life for six years, it would be really hard to make a sudden decision not to go back. But it wasn’t hard. It would have been much harder to have gone back into hospital. By that point, I was living in a really, really helpful supported accommodation project which certainly would have played an important role in helping me to keep out of hospital. And then equally as important if not more so was therapy and counselling.

I’d kind of adopted the career as long-term psychiatric patient, then, you know, realised it was killing me, realised I had to change that, then kind of struggled to find what it was that I was and what I wanted to be and going back into an education. Education was really important to me, particularly the course that I did, Applied Women’s Studies, because that was all about saying look there are different ways of looking at the world, that you can choose the way that you like best, that’s most helpful for you and most helpful for the things that you care about.

For me, I think communication is such a driving force, and I think that’s partly come out of almost the negative places of my life that were about not being able to speak, not being able to express what was going on, what had happened to me, how I felt, so the lack of communication in my life I feel was really centrally implicated in why I ended up so unhappy and why I ended up spending six years of my life in and out of hospital.

Communication, for me, was an absolutely central part of healing or recovering or however you want to describe that process but moving away from those horrible times in my life. Poetry is a really powerful way of communicating. And it’s a very tangible form of communication. So it’s like taking ideas and experiences and communicating them in this tremendously powerful short way the things that you can do so much with. You can have them on a page, you can look at them visually, you can perform them, you can almost sort of feel them in your mouth, they’re like little concrete beings, and that’s sort of part of what I love about them.

Getting to perform my work on a stage - whether it was the initial stage that I was sharing with Carol Ann Duffy and all these kind of poets of wide renown or the stages that I’ve performed on since - that’s part of the reason that I write. My whole point is to communicate about what matters to me, what I feel, what I think’s important in the world. Some poetry works only on the page but I just love the sound and the feel of poetry.

The other thing that I loved about poetry is about, you know, what I loved about academia, was that it also invites you to look at the world in different ways, and that’s also been a really, really integral part of my healing, for want of a better word; learning there are different ways of looking at things.

I’m starting to take poetry more seriously and also developing the idea about working with or around self-harm, they were roughly parallel. I founded harm-ed with my sister, whose name is Terri Shaw, four years ago. We run training courses that are primarily designed for staff working in services who work with people who self-harm, although we also do deliver courses to people who self-harm and also people who care for people who self-harm, friends and family.

It feels enormously necessary and also empowering to draw on my own personal experiences, to make what I know is a real difference to people’s understanding and people’s response to self-harm. If I had to pinpoint one single misconception around self-harm, it would be the assumption that self-harm is attention-seeking. I think it’s the most common and also one of the most damaging.

For somebody who was in distress that was so deep that they were coping with it with self-harm, I think the first thing that I’d want to do is to try to offer some comfort and to encourage the person to seek some comfort because I think you need and deserve a bit of comfort in those circumstances, but specifically around creative expression. It’s just about reassuring that person that it might not feel like it but the world is your oyster and you can look at it and take from it what you want to and that creative expression might be one way of taking from the world what you need and also offering the world parts of yourself.

Not as simple

It’s not as simple as growing up and looking back, telling a story that leads from one event to the next. Neither is it as simple as going in circles. That would imply a going. Instead, it’s like certain landscapes, a mixture of map and geology, of prehistoric and industrial history, and also it is biology, as well as being the strange light at an unspecifiable time of the day, in unseasonable weather, the wrong country. But no, it is not so simple as being lost or even finding your way on your knees by darkness. It is not so simple as ears, mouths, your ears, my mouth. It is similar to fingers, though nothing like that. You get me? It is miscellaneous only much more complex. It is English characters and Welsh soap operas screened in Germany. It will never make any sense or turn out right in the end. It is just not as simple as doing your best or getting the general gist. Oh, no, not as simple as painting or writing or any form of telling or saying, of laying the right words in just the right order. Just look at me trying.

‘Poem about Dee Dee’ and ‘Not as simple’ from Straight Ahead, Bloodaxe Books, 2006. These poems are used with permission.