The Quieter We Become, the More We Are Able to Hear: Writing with Teens in a Psychiatric Hospital

Ann Teplick is a poet, playwright, and prose writer, with an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College. For eighteen years she has been a Teaching Artist, writing with youth in schools; literary art centers; hospice centers; and Pongo Teen Publishing, in King County juvenile detention, and currently, the Washington state psychiatric hospital.

This essay was originally published by Hunger Mountain’s online literary journal.

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 from 100%, 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, 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.

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.

*Read the rest of Ann’s essay, along with more samples of teen writing, at Pongo Teen


7 thoughts on “The Quieter We Become, the More We Are Able to Hear: Writing with Teens in a Psychiatric Hospital

  1. Exquisite writing here, Ann. Thanks first for that. And thanks so much for letting us in on the Pongo program–and the fine work of RIchard Gold, too. Keep the vision.

  2. Hi,

    I am exploring this blog and writing this post as part of a college course titled Reading, Writing, and Teaching Across Cultures. When I saw what this was about I was thrilled. A few years ago my mother, who just turned 60, decided to go back to school. She had a degree in graphic design and worked as a childrens’ book illustrator for many years. When I was in high school she decided she wanted to do something more engaging with her talents as an artist. She enrolled in a master’s program in Expressive therapy- a way of helping people to work through and come to terms with complex problems in their lives through painting, sculpture, dance, music etc. I was always very intrigued by her program and began to attend classes with her some week nights. I loved to participate in their projects and hear about the research that has gone into this relatively new field. Now, I am in college and hope to become an art therapist when I graduate. I find art extremely calming and safe. There is something cathartic and freeing in getting your emotions released onto a page. Its a way of showing others, and yourself, how you feel without needing to verbalize or break the emotions down. Raw and honest. In many ways it helps bring clarity to the feelings and allow space and release but also a greater understanding. I am so glad to have read your piece, because it reminds me so much of this work- only in written form.


  3. I felt that this article really spoke to me because it touched on the importance of self discovery through one’s writing. I know when I personally start to write for the pure sake of writing, even if I start out with an agenda to write about a specific feeling or situation that recently occurred, I rarely finish my entry writing on my initial topic. Writing has a way of traveling on its own, taking us to places we never anticipated or could even imagine. The process of healing through our writing enables us to discover repressed thoughts or “get to the root of the problem” by uncovering the layers and layers we have within our thoughts, shown through our writing. By “speaking” to a journal, nobody is speaking back or interrupting. Our journals are the best listeners, and we are also silent as we write, gaining a new level or respect for ourselves and practicing patience. We need to listen to ourselves, to listen to our writing, and to unearth our deepest fears and desires. Only through actively telling our stories and feelings in a journal, writing until our fingers fall off, can we search deep inside ourselves. This article is touching in its ability to pinpoint an incredible healing process for teens.
    Thank you for sharing this with me.

  4. I have personally found that writing can be a great healing process. I love writing in my journal and writing poems and short memoirs that reflect how I feel. Even if I do not feel like I can tell someone how I am feeling face-to-face, writing it out makes it easier to me. I feel less vulnerable when I am writing down my thoughts and then reading my poems aloud, rather than just saying my feelings. I think that it is amazing that you understand the value of therapeutic writing and are able to use it to the best of your ability. Many people cannot see the importance of creative writing and the positive impact that it can have on one’s life.


  5. That sounds like a fantastic program! Expressive writing certainly allow individuals to articulate whatever is on their mind, letting their hopes and fears flow. I can imagine that it is difficult to do so at first, finding an appropriate way to make your feelings and innermost thoughts clear, even to yourself. But I imagine that once your expressions are at the front of your mind, the actual writing is liberating. If I am not mistaken, I think I read somewhere that expressive writing reduces symptoms and increases health in cancer patients. That is amazing! I will admit that expressive writing has never really intrigued me, as writing papers for grades consumes a majority of my time spent. Even though I am not emotionally or behaviorally distraught, next time I feel upset or stressed in some form, I might just try expressing my feelings through writing!

  6. This really sounds like such an amazing program. I’ve always been a writer, keeping a journal when I was younger and keeping a blog now. As a college student, I’m stressed out a lot and often feel like I’m on an emotional roller coaster, but letting my feelings out in writing has always helped me. I’m on the reserved side, so for me writing is the way I articulate myself best, where I am able to think my thoughts through and work through how I’m feeling. Often times if I’m going through a mental or emotional conflict, I’ll have epiphanies when I’m writing and figure out what I’m supposed to do. Although I’m not a big poetry writer, writing is my favorite thing– whether making up stories or writing about my life. I’m always really proud of everything I write, and it feels good to let all of my ideas and feelings flow out onto the page. I’m sure the teens in this program felt the same as well.

  7. This article is truly moving. It’s definitely hard to express our deepest and darkest thoughts without feeling like someone is going to judge us. Because of this, many of us clench our emotions to the point where it takes over us. It’s hard for people to find that “someone” to talk to. What better way is there for us to reflect our feelings to “paper”, who has no face and doesn’t pass judgement. I feel a’s though the best way to heal isn’t help from someone else, but help from ourselves. Our inner being is the key to our healing process. Writing poetry is a great way to express ones self. I think the Pongo program is doing a great job in helping these kids. More importantly, I think these kids are doing a great job in using poetry to better their lives as well.

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