Last week, Tecola Smith posted her book of poetry to Oprah Winfrey.
‘I’ve paid for it to be signed for,’ she says, ‘so someone’s going to get it.’
Her poetry collection, She’s My Poetic Philosophy, is based on Tecola’s experiences as a Wellbeing Mentor at a university in Birmingham. They tell the stories of the young women she’s met over the years, anonymously of course. The stories are often sad (some feature abuse, trauma, violence, difficulties with mental health) but there’s a strength in sharing, Tecola believes. The reactions to her poems make her want to write more. Not just for others, but for herself too.
‘I was exposed to so many stories,’ Tecola says. ‘Girls were telling me about being abused – sexually and mentally. They told me about addictions, mental health problems, all kinds of things, and I had no outlet. I didn’t have a councillor. The only thing I had was writing. Of course, I couldn’t write about it using names or dates because of confidentiality. I had to find a way to get it off my chest. The poems tell multiple people’s stories – it’s never just about one person.’
But writing isn’t new to Tecola. She started writing poetry when she was eight, growing up in Handsworth in Birmingham.
‘It was the kind of neighbourhood where you saw a lot of things,’ she says. ‘Drug addicts, violence, things like that. Writing was my way of dealing with it. I became fixated with reading the dictionary. My mum bought me a little dictionary and a little thesaurus – I actually still have them now – and I used to read them every day. I was trying to come up with words to describe how I felt. I wanted to make the words a kind of riddle, something I would understand but no one else would. I think that’s where the poetry came in.’
Tecola would write about the sounds she heard – she remembers hearing gunshots once and these became ‘boom, boom, boom’ in her poem. She started early and continued into her adult life, using it as a way to process her emotions and events in the world around her.
But it was only in 2019, at a women’s empowerment event organised by a friend, that Tecola started to take her writing seriously. She agreed to read a poem in front of an audience, no stranger to public speaking because of her job. She was pregnant with her twins at the time and, as she sat in the front row with swollen legs and a huge stomach, the reality of what she was about to do hit her.
‘I was trembling,’ Tecola says. ‘I remember thinking ‘oh my god, I’m next.’ All the other speakers had gone up. I knew it was my turn. But I knew I had to do it though, for my mum, who was there, and my oldest daughter. But, after I did it, I realised all the fears I had were in my head. People clapped me – it was like being accepted. People were asking me about when my next poem would be out. They were giving me their email addresses and everything. I think I needed to experience that, to have the confidence to release the book.’
It was at this event that her friend announced Tecola would be writing a book. So then she had to do it. And then it was 2020, and we all know what happened then. She wrote the book throughout lockdown and published it via Amazon. No messing about. The publication was delayed slightly, but then the final release date fell on her birthday – meant to be, surely?
‘I hope people are able to use the book to express themselves,’ says Tecola. ‘In the back there’s a notes section, and I say I want people to use that part to tell their story. I think we live in a time of personas – everyone parading around with smiles on their faces, when what they’re actually experiencing is deep pain. I think people need liberating. I hope that me discussing all these taboo topics in my poetry (and some of them are very taboo) will help them find the way to express what they’re feeling too.’
We talk a lot about mental health now. Talk to anyone older than thirty and they’ll tell you how much things have changed. Tecola is in her early thirties, a mental health professional, studying for a Masters in psychology and has two small children – she seems pretty well-placed to offer a clear-eyed perspective. So I ask her if the current situation – mental health problems everywhere – is actually just down to the fact that people are talking about it more and have more methods of expressing themselves, or if there really is something that has turned the dial and brought these emotions up to boiling point.
‘We had an assignment on our Master’s course asking us this very question,’ says Tecola. ‘And it’s funny, before I did the research, I would have just said it was down to exposure. I’d have said people are just more aware of it. But, when I did the research, my mind changed. I believe that, for younger generations now, resilience is at an all-time low. Older generations tend to be quite resilient to situations. They’re able to work through things. But in this day and age, a lot of young people struggle with day to day life. Things we consider to be ordinary emotions like sadness, they see as depression. And once they’re in that mind frame, it kind of takes over. ‘Why is my life like this? Why am I not like that person in the YouTube clip?’ Then, they put it back on themselves – they think it’s all their fault and it becomes a personal attack.’
Tecola’s noticed this in her own children. She says that, when she was a little girl, the only things she really cared about were playing, eating and sleeping. But when her ten-year-old daughter has bad moods, they last a long time and spiral into something else. Some of Tecola’s friends work in schools and they’ve noticed primary school children carrying worry differently.
‘They’re taking on so much,’ Tecola says. ‘They’re worried about the environment, their sexuality, pronouns – they’re concerned with a lot. These are eight-and nine-year olds. And they’re starting to use the term ‘anxiety’. Language is a powerful thing. If that’s what they’re told when they’re very young, they’re going to adopt that behaviour.’
And it’s not just the very young. Tecola works with university students that struggle to leave their rooms. They’ve never cooked or cleaned for themselves before so, when suddenly in a new environment and under academic pressure, they have no idea how to cope. They retreat, hide in their rooms and, in a state of isolation, reach dangerous mental places. Tecola’s had students ring her up and ask her to walk them from their accommodation to her office. Sadly, she also knows several students that have died by suicide.
‘I had a student on campus the other day that wanted to kill himself,’ she says. ‘He had a breakdown on the campus, and it was a big ordeal. They called me from home to come down. It was awful because I’d watched this individual deteriorate over the weeks. Near the end, he’d had enough. It was just too much. And, in that moment, I realised this could have been prevented with a different upbringing. He needed the chance to become a man. Instead, we cushion the kids and overcompensate and give them whatever they want. But then, if things don’t go their way, they can’t cope.’
So, when term begins in September, Tecola’s running resilience training for new students. It’s based in affirmations and mindfulness, designed to help them build perspective and self-confidence. But, of course, at some point, we all end up in mental places we don’t want to be. Even Tecola.
‘Yesterday, I found myself in a place of unhappiness for no real reason,’ she says. ‘Fifteen, twenty years ago, if I’d been looking at my life right now, this would be the perfect situation. I have three beautiful children, a loving partner, a lovely home and a full-time job. But this is the illness, this is what the parasite does. I call it a parasite because once it gets in you, it can grow unbelievably fast. So I knew I needed to get it out.’
So she started to write. This is what she wrote:
My life is my own and I am in control of what I do in and with my life. Happiness is a choice and I choose to be happy. I choose to love my choices because they were and are mine. There are no bounds unreachable, no paths that can’t be a choice for me to journey upon. I create and live in what I have created. There is only greatness, abundance, happiness, love, wonders, nature, enlightenment, wisdom, creativity, poetry, spoken word, music in my future and I choose to accept it. I walk in this path. I run on their journey. I am in charge of my success and my failures. Life is a wonderful privilege, in all its hardship and whims. No achievement is beyond reach and no achievement is without loss. I strive for greatness and I learn through weakness. I am my only challenge. With awareness I can conquer my own disbelief. Regret is not your problem. Your problem is your inability to be grateful for the opportunity of choice itself.
‘Once I wrote it and read it to myself, it was like I was released,’ she says. ‘I was in a place of gratitude again. I had to remind myself of what I do have, because I’m bombarded constantly by what I don’t.’
It’s possible you don’t yet have a copy of Tecola’s book. Get it here. Before Oprah reads hers.
She’s My Poetic Philosophy is now available to buy from Amazon. To find out more about Tecola and her writing, you can follow her on Instagram.
About the author
For ten years, Ellen Lavelle has interviewed writers for The Young Journalist Academy, Nothing in the Rulebook, Newark Book Festival, and her own blog. She’s written for several publications, including The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award Blog. Now an editor at Nothing in the Rulebook, she writes fiction and non fiction, while working as a copywriter for an education company. You can follow her on Twitter @ellenrlavelle