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How Poetry Saved My Life

I was fourteen-years-old when I first started writing about wanting to kill myself. While I was too terrified to talk about it for the shame that I was certain would follow, I wasn’t inhibited in the slightest as I turned to my best friend, my trusty old journal. While most teenage girls were writing love […]

I was fourteen-years-old when I first started writing about wanting to kill myself.

While I was too terrified to talk about it for the shame that I was certain would follow, I wasn’t inhibited in the slightest as I turned to my best friend, my trusty old journal.

While most teenage girls were writing love notes to their crushes or drawing designs of their ideal prom dress, I was researching how to hang myself and which medications can kill you the quickest.

It’s strange how mental illness never matches the face it belongs to. I was a bright young thing; focused on contribution to the world; delighted by everything; happy, mostly.

Meanwhile I was writing in my journal, I can’t wait to say goodbye to everything and let all my pain go.

Two years later, I’d try for the first time. And then, two years after that, I’d try one more time, but this time, just barely escape with my life.

“Don’t even think about doing this again,” Mom said.

“Okay,” I lied.

It’s no secret that mental health is a real challenge in today’s world. In fact, it’s become something like a buzzphrase.

We’ve got Mental Health Day and Mental Health Month; a constant stream of celebrities opening up on the daily about their struggles for mental equilibrium, and interesting chatter surrounding new discoveries in the science behind caring for our brains from medical and sociological perspectives.

But it’s not a new epidemic. People have been struggling with mental health for centuries; perhaps even, since the beginning of time itself.

There are a few dividing factors that separate the sufferers of mental health, however. There are the victims and the conquerors. There are those who are never free and those who gain footing amidst the struggle. There are those who suffer because of biological reasons and those who suffer from external or environmental circumstances. There are those prone to depression, others prone to anxiety, and still others prone to various shades and swings of both.

One thing is certain (and it’s my opinion that anyone who claims otherwise is an inexperienced fool) and that is this: all of the types and causes are valid.

As a poet and writer, I’m in a career with one of the highest risks for mental health struggles. But the range of other careers at high risk are also shocking: everything from sales and maintenance labor to caregiving and food service.

As I’ve battled mental illness throughout my teens and twenties, the only thing I’ve turned to time and time again is art. Music — because it made me feel different feelings, and poetry—because it made me think different thoughts.

I’ve thrown myself into classical poets such as Keats, Wilding, Dickinson, and Rumi. I’ve eaten up words from modern voices such as Rupi Kaur, Wilder, Chloe Frayne, Najwa Zebian and Atticus. The interesting thing is that they never try to teach anything; they only seek to understand.

Many of their poems start out on a darkened note, and often even end that way. Reading these are a great entrance point for me; the start of a conversation in my head in which the poet and I converse about the challenges and atrocities of life.

When I was a teenager, these were the things no one else was saying. No one else in my world was walking around with their fears sitting vulnerably on their shoulder. No one else was confronting the mirror about their pain. Just me, it seemed.

And isn’t that the deadliest weapon of depression and anxiety, after all—isolation? The haunting feeling that you are all alone in the world and that no one is ever coming to rescue you?

For me, it wasn’t just about the input of words, though. As I began trying my hand at writing, I watched as the output of creative expression began rewiring my brain. I wrote more than I ever had before. I had to. It was saving me and I knew it. The poetic powerhouse behind Hamilton, Lin-Manual Miranda, says it magnificently in his song Wrote My Way Out.

When the world turned its back on me, I was up against the wall
I had no foundation
No friends and no family to catch my fall
Running on empty, with nothing left in me but doubt
I picked up a pen
And wrote my way out, I wrote my way out

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton the Musical

The saving power of poetry isn’t some magical potion hidden within the words; it’s the words themselves. It’s simply saying the truth that most people are hiding from.

It’s speaking about the pain.

Those of us who battle mental health issues don’t need pandering or sympathy. In fact, we would argue that we don’t need anything (which isn’t true, of course, but we’d be the last to admit it). We aren’t asking for answers necessarily. We’re asking for validation and acceptance; a sitting down in the darkness with me and simply holding my hand.

When your words, poems, songs and paintings tell me that you’ve been there, too—suddenly, strangely, I’m able to grasp air again. Someone understands me and is sitting in my corner.

Because, believe me — the only thing worse than battling mental illness is feeling alone while in the battle.

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