Ridgefield poet tells family’s battle with addiction, depression: ‘Brutally honest and therapeutic’

Great writing can often draw its inspiration from sadness and struggle. Raw, honest poetry has helped Ridgefield poet laureate Barb Jennes cope with a multigenerational family struggle with depression, alcoholism, and drug addiction — and to ultimately achieve a sense of peace and healing.

Jennes recently published “Blinded Birds,” a short collection of poems that tells her family story in verse.

“In it, three female protagonists — my mother, my daughter, and me — content with these inherited afflictions,” Jennes said. “I’ve had phenomenal feedback. To a person everyone who has read it has told me it is both brutally honest and therapeutic for anyone who’s had to deal with substance abuse or depression.”

“Blinded Birds” will make its public debut at 7 p.m. on June 8, when the Ridgefield Library will host a book launch. There Jennes will read “Blinded Birds.” She’ll also host a talk after the reading, along with her daughter, Mallory, who is recovering from being addicted to heroin. Fifteen percent of the sales will go to the nonprofit To Write Love on Her Arms, which assists people struggling with addiction, depression, self-injury and thoughts of suicide.

The title of “Blinded Birds” comes from a rather cruel tradition from the Middle Ages involving competitive birdsong: Singing finches were blinded with hot needles to eliminate visual distraction and improve their focus on song. In fact, British author Thomas Hardy wrote a poem with a similar title — “The Blinded Bird” — to protest the practice.

Battle with addiction

Jennes grew up in North Greenbush, N.Y., where her father was a civil engineer — and had alcoholism. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom who was very isolated from her own family and friends in what was a very rural area. This led to her mother’s long struggle with depression.

Jennes first began writing poetry in high school. This was also when her own struggles with alcohol began. Despite this, she managed to build a successful career in advertising and corporate communications. She later worked for 18 years as a middle school language arts teacher.

Along the way she sought help. “Twelve step programs didn’t work for me,” she said. “I eventually found help through a group called Women for Sobriety.”

Women for Sobriety has as its basis 13 empowerment statements. One is this: “I am a competent woman, and I have much to give.” Another holds that “I have a life-threatening problem that once had me.”

The crux of this program is that the individual deserves a better life and to rise above the past. It also holds that individuals who struggle with substance abuse nonetheless deserve to love and be loved.

“That worked for me — that and the fact that my therapist at the time told me, ‘You’ll never make it without rehab.’ I heard that as a challenge,” Jennes recalled.

During the 1990s, a new form of insight came from the scientific community, when experts began to understand that a predisposition to depression and substance abuse may be hereditary.

Knowing that helped Jennes in her own struggle with alcohol abuse. However, it meant her daughter, Mallory, has a genetic predisposition toward substance abuse, too.

“Mallory began experimenting with so-called recreational drugs in high school,” said Jennes. “In college she met a young man who was also a heroin addict, and she became one herself. All the while she was a good student who graduated with honors.”

She was planning to do graduate work in Ireland but before she left she overdosed. “I was able to resuscitate her,” Jennes recalled.

Mallory instead entered a six-month rehabilitation program at a residential treatment facility called High Watch in Kent. Upon completion, High Watch hired her as a house mother.

“She did have one relapse when her boyfriend, whom she had met at High Water, overdosed and died,” said Jennes. “That’s when she became truly serious about becoming clean for good.”

The experience led Mallory to choose a career in substance abuse counseling. “When you go through what Mallory went through you understand the hell that people are in,” Jennes said. “You also know that they’ll do anything to remain in that hell.”

Expressing through poetry

One of Barbs poems is titled “Eating Dinner After You Died.” It describes the experience of finding Mallory when she was clinically dead, and the triumph of saving her life. But the title also alludes to something entirely mundane: Life goes on. Painful things happen. We must all endure.

She described the gene that affects the brain’s dopamine receptors as “tumbling down the family tree like a slinky on the stairs.”

“People who have the gene on both sides of their families have a very difficult struggle in overcoming it, as was my own situation,” she said.

“Such people cannot just ‘quit’ because they are battling their own genetic makeup,” she continued. “My poetry has been described as brutally honest and I want it to be. I want people to know that substance abuse can affect anybody. I had a career, I was respected in my community, my daughter was an honor student. Yet there we all were, attending Al Anon and NarAnon meetings.”

In addition to depression and addiction, Jennes explores other topics in her poetry. “We live in the woods, so I write about nature as well,” she noted, “more specifically, our environment and what we are doing to the earth.”

Another work in progress explores Jennes’ relationship with her sister, who has terminal cancer and is now in home hospice care. “She was a brilliant scientist, but she now has aphasia, which traps people inside their minds,” she said. “She is completely alert and aware but cannot speak.”

Witnessing the progression of her sister’s illness has been especially bittersweet. “For instance, she works with a music therapist and can belt out all sorts of songs from the 1960s, but she cannot speak sentences,” Jennes said. “I’m writing these as short poems, almost in haiku, to describe her struggle.”

For details about the upcoming reading, or to borrow a copy of “Blinded Birds,” please contact the Ridgefield Library at (203) 438-2282.