Anne Hailes: Poet Alice McCullough's attitude to mental health is inspiring

Performance poet Alice McCullough. Picture by Noel Thompson

WE'VE just had mental health week and the Darkness into Light walks throughout Ireland yet people don't want to discuss the subject. However, Alice McCullough is brave enough to talk about her situation quite openly and in front of hundreds of people.

This remarkable young woman is a performance poet and I think she is quite exceptional. She has her demons to contend with and she admits her writing and performing have saved her life.

“Words reach out and touch others and you feel less lonely.”

We met at an art exhibition: “I was on your programme when I was five. It was about twins and I was there with my identical twin sister.”

That was 30 years ago but she remembered in detail. One of her talents is observing and remembering, as I discovered when she invited me to her performance in the Sunflower Bar during the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.

The show, Earth to Alice was a real eye opener. I didn't know what to expect – presumably poems, verses, interesting but orthodox. I couldn't have been more wrong. Her rhythms and her rhyming are spellbinding social commentaries.

It's not easy

Alice McCullough is 36 years old and is bipolar. When she was 18 and a student at art college she spent time in a mental health ward. However, she hadn't been back in hospital for a long time until in 2017 depression set in again and her disconnect from reality meant going back into hospital in November that year.

“I got home, made it through Christmas and was back on track. I started a stand-up comedy course, did the first class and by the next week relapsed and was back in hospital again. Always reasons, not some random thing, specific stressors.”

Apart from her medication, like most people experiencing depression and stress, she tries all types of therapies.

“At some point I want to write a poem of the list of things,” she laughed. “It becomes quite funny – yoga, Reiki, massage, reflexology, aromatherapy, acupuncture, psychotic, psychotherapy, Freudian psychoanalysis!”

Her poetry is of everyday issues. The opening lines of her Belfast Poem:

You say your heads melted, felt it sting the day they cursed the queen and burnt the pope. Up the stairs they smoke dope, can't cope with it tipping from hope and forgiving to another racist attack. Another beautiful black family made to feel they're less than welcome on our streets, rearrange your beliefs and give our heads peace. Wind your neck to a perspective where we are all free, keep going, keep growing Belfast, take it in, feel we could win more together than apart, because you may be no oil painting but you're our wee work of art...

This is her style; she doesn't mince her words.

An expressive face, Alice doesn't just look at her audience but into their eyes. She tells us she's still in recovery and has needed time to get her mental and physical strength back because she has a busy schedule ahead.

“Growing up, I was an introvert and very quiet but I could also be an extrovert at times. I was always creative and I told my parents when I was three years old that I was going to be an artist.”

Since then she has been a costume designer, a painter, a stand-up comic, has written children's stories and a musical and acts out countless poetic monologues.

She is gradually turning her situation round thanks to her writing. She has won poetry competitions, been appointed poet in residence at the Cathedral Quarter and is in demand to perform at many and various events but always wary and suppressing her fears.

Although unique in every case, basically bipolar affective disorder means different situations affect the person, resulting in extreme mood swings, with apparently one per cent of the population suffering this disorder. With depression comes self-doubt, pessimism, disturbed thinking and often suicidal thoughts.

“Many things will affect me – for instance, I don't watch the news but when I‘m down, if I can I pick up a pen and write, it's incredibly empowering.”

This way she regains control

Alice has been gaining recognition for her work The Lion's Roar, a homage to Van Morrison appears on his internet page, she's been on television, in newspapers and magazines and performed in Ireland and America.

Sometimes she feels overwhelmed by the attention but she knows to retreat to a quiet place to recover or talk to the Samaritans who have played an important role in her life.

She's in Birmingham this week as she's been nominated for the prestigious Saboteur award specifically for spoken-word poetry and if she wins it will help her fulfil her ambition to tour. And as long as her health remains positive hers is an exciting future. But she's realistic; a line in one poem: Love is more coal than diamonds.

Her works are commentaries on life, the depth of her words, her rhyming ability all come together, no holds barred.

A poem for Stormont

Cardiac Arrest at Parliament Buildings: If Stormont had a heart, we'd need a by-pass on major arteries to open up the broken bleed of the ruts of centuries, a fatal coronary disease of worn-out, torn out history resulting in a diagnosis of an atrocious ferocious thrombosis.

She puts a sadly modern spin on the old favourite I'll Tell Me Ma When I Go Home, the words take on a horrifying meaning as she develops it to the story of the rugby trial: ‘I'll tell my boys when I get back, Boy last night was mighty craic, had a wee girl round the back...' And so it goes on with a new and tragic meaning.

Alice has big dreams and the creative ability to go far but, as she says, at the moment it's baby steps.

There is an opportunity to see Earth to Alice on Friday June 28 at the Strand Arts Centre and it's also on YouTube.

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