June is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Month. One psychiatrist is dedicating a portion of the proceeds from his new book, Poetry Rx, to the David Lynch Foundation (DLF)—specifically the Resilient Warrior program—in the hopes of curbing US military veteran suicides.
In this Q&A, we speak with author of Poetry Rx, Norman E. Rosenthal, MD. Dr Rosenthal is a world-renowned psychiatrist and researcher, most widely known for defining seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and pioneering the use of light therapy as treatment.
Psychiatric Times (PT): Tell us about your book Poetry Rx and what inspired you to address PTSD in veterans in this way.
Rosenthal: Over my years as a psychiatrist and long-time poetry lover, it has become increasingly clear to me that poems can heal, inspire, and bring joy to our lives. Some time ago it occurred to me that this is our goal as psychotherapists, doctors, and healers. Over time I accumulated many poems that have this potential. Finally, I felt I had a way of organizing these poems so that they could deliver on the therapeutic promise of poetry.
PT: Your book features a poem by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Why did you choose this particular piece? How does is speak to the overall meaning of your work? Is there a particular poem that stands out to you as the most important?
Rosenthal: I first encountered this poem in the web-based Favorite Poem Project, a brainchild of former poet laureate Robert Pinsky. “The Sentence” by Anna Akhmatova was chosen by Georgia Tech professor of cognitive science, Nancy Nersessian, PhD, in memory of her brother, who was a Vietnam veteran traumatized by his wartime experiences. The second stanza of Akhmatova’s poem goes as follows:
“Today I have so much to do;
I must kill memory once and for all,
I must turn my soul to stone,
I must learn to live again—”
Dr Nersessian, whom I interviewed for the book, wondered whether it would have been helpful to her brother to kill the memories of the war that haunted him. In Akhmatova’s poem, we see that this was not a helpful strategy for her. As I discuss after presenting the poem, the intrusive memories of PTSD are often treated by encouraging those who suffer to actively think about their traumatic memories in ways that decondition their painful responses.
In “The Sentence” we also see an excellent depiction of dissociation, which is valuable for individuals suffering from PTSD to understand. It is easier for clinicians to focus on the dramatic symptoms of PTSD like nightmares and flashbacks and to overlook the emotional costs of shutting down one’s emotional dealings with others, which can severely impoverish the life of the individual with PTSD.