Mental Health in Writing: Meet Poet Heather Grace |

Self-Discovery in Writing: Meet Expat Poet Heather Grace

"Self discovery is about becoming honest, it’s about uncovering truths within. Truth is not easy to see - it takes courage and willingness."

Posted on

14 February 2021

Last updated on 26 April 2022
Expat Interview: Meet Dubai-based Poet Heather Grace

Heather Grace is a South African expat who has called Dubai home for more than 13 years.

She is a poet, artist, mental health advocate, business leader and keynote speaker who works to creatively crush the stigmas around mental health in the UAE.

Heather writes her poetry on the run or in planes in between listening to her existentialist six-year-old daughter, working her day job at a global production company, and living with bipolar affective disorder. Heather’s unapologetically honest, raw and often amusing poems embrace mental health and encourage readers to show themselves even greater kindness.

For the 2021 edition of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, Heather introduced visitors to a 90 minute workshop about self-discovery through poetry.

"Self discovery is about becoming honest, it’s about uncovering truths within. Truth is not easy to see - it takes courage and willingness."

"We workshopped topics such as our relationships with ourselves and others, naming emotions and writing clear, vivid and interesting 'mini chapters' of discovery as well as some quirky things to do at home to continue the writing journey."

Dubai expat poet Heather Grace

She felt thrilled to be part of the festival this year as a delegate.

"I always try and attend the festival and am just so pleased that they have managed to arrange a festival with all the COVID guidelines. They have been so organized and phenomenal."

Q. Writing can be an essential part of dealing with trauma and navigating mental health. Do you remember when your interest in poetry and being a mental health advocate started?

"I started writing to release my feelings in journals at a very young age as I grew up with 4 siblings and my mother was a single parent. It was tough to navigate my early feelings of depression because at the time in the early 90’s I had no idea what I was experiencing.

When I became a mother in 2014 I started writing short-form poetry purely because I had less time.

Since I have personally dealt with depression, bipolar, PTSD and post natal depression I decided that I eventually wanted to share my poems and a book was birthed. I have always had a very honest approach towards mental health and since I first started therapy 20 years ago I have always advocated for being honest about mental health."

Q. What inspired you to publish “cloudraker”? Was there a lightbulb moment?

cloudraker by Heather Grace

"I guess there was always a book inside of me. I have hundreds of unfinished journals that have travelled the world with me (to 19 countries to be specific). They always annoyed me because I am an A type personality and like to finish things!

I put my poems into a book and my journals finally found their home."

Q. Is there a certain poem that was difficult to write, but you felt it was important to finish and be read?

"Initially my publisher asked me to remove all the poems relating to my mother’s struggle with alcohol as well as anything relating to my ex-husband as some of them could have been deemed “defamatory”.

I was gutted, so much of my book had to be deleted, but I was very blessed that during this time my mother shared some of her own writing with me (she has been sober for more than 20 years now) and she gave me permission to write and said: “It’s the truth, go for it”.

My ex-husband also eventually gave me permission too. I don’t think my book would be complete without being able to add in those honest poems about my childhood and my turbulent marriage and divorce.

They were all hard to write, I wanted to be honest in my writing, but I also did not want to hurt anyone with the poems."

South African poet Heather Grace

Q. Some of your poems are unapologetically honest, others prompt feel-good laughter. Do you believe humour is necessary when approaching mental health topics?

"Humour keeps me sane. It’s very hard to have a good sense of humour when you are feeling depressed or anxious.

When you are overwhelmed with depression even sending an email can feel too much for the day. Laughing is so crucial to me – even if it’s a dark joke that no one will dare say. There is a lot to laugh about in the dark, you just have to dig deep!"

Q. What are some common behaviours of bipolar disorder that others may misinterpret?

"In my experience - the standard line “he or she is bipolar” is generally used as a flippant line to describe someone who often change their mind. I have also heard many times that someone bipolar has “two personalities”. Neither are true.

Very few people fully understand the two sides of Bipolar Affective Disorder (Depression and Mania) unless they have someone in their inner circle or family or are diagnosed themselves and undergoing treatment.

Being informed is key as it’s a mental diagnosis that is often overlooked and misdiagnosed. Untreated, it can really affect the person suffering as well as their family and friends in a drastic way."

Heather Grace interview | Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

Q. What is your best advice for others living with bipolar disorder, and hope to write about it?

"The golden rules for me are simple and practical: Be medication-compliant, have a clinical team (both a psychiatrist and a psychologist), keep a daily routine, exercise, have fastidious sleep hygiene, a good support structure and no alcohol.

The biggest mistake many people with bipolar and psychiatrists face is that as soon as the person feels ‘well’ they go off their medication. Unfortunately, it is one of the few psychiatric conditions you have to take medication for life.

I parallel it to diabetes. Diabetics need their insulin, they risk their lives if they do not take their medication, exercise and watch their diet. Bipolar is no different, you risk your life balance if you don’t do the things you have to."

Q. If you could let people know anything else about you, what would it be?

"Do not be ashamed of your mental health. We all have mental health to take care of whether we have a diagnosis or not. It’s just the same as having to take care of our physical bodies. Be kind and gentle to yourself. Always."

Her poetry memoir, cloudraker, is available on Amazon.

Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
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Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is the Arab World’s largest celebration of the written and spoken word. The 2021 festival will be held across three weekends at three fantastic venues: January 29 - 30 at the Jameel Arts Centre, February 4 - 6 at InterContinental Dubai, and from February 29 - 30 at Alserkal Avenue in Al Quoz.