In an attempt to keep my evil twin at bay in the past, I’ve enthusiastically taken to alcohol, cannabis and gambling. I take medication and have counselling, but nothing works like poetry. The tap-tapping of my fingers on the keyboard is therapeutic – the words that come out please me (mostly) to such an extent that the troubled mind is banished for long stretches of time. I’m grateful.
Poetry is cathartic, & plays a significant role in my battle with mental illness.
According to a study by psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, the incidence of mood disorders, suicide and institutionalisation was 20 times higher among major British and Irish poets between 1600 and 1800 than the general population. The “Sylvia Plath effect” is a term coined by psychologist James C. Kaufman in 2001 to refer to the phenomenon that poets (principally women) are more susceptible to mental illness than other creative writers.
After I had my colourful, but distressing, breakdown about 10 years ago, I started writing poetry more seriously. The event changed the way I look at the world and life and all the big and boisterous questions. My writing became more intimate and confessional and intense – except when I was joking about being too intense. British writer Clare Allan: “In my own experience, one of the enduring legacies of a ‘breakdown’ is a vastly increased flexibility, a smudging of the boundary that used to divide ‘the real’ from ‘the imagined’. Once you realise that the world you perceive is precisely that, the world you perceive, and not an objective reality, it's impossible to unrealise it again.”
I wasn’t able to hold down a job for years – I’d lost focus and confidence. Now we run a guest-house from home and I write for magazines. I crave silence when I write and only launch into it after the household goes to bed around 10pm or 11pm and continue through to dawn – very anti-social.
I pursued poetry with more energy because I flipped out, although I don’t write about mental illness all the time. My depression and anxiety has given me an insight into another way of seeing myself among all these other people. It colours my writing and I think adds a component to it that enhances the poetry. But it doesn’t make me a better poet than the person who has a clear head and wind in their sails.
British poet Luke Wright says: “I don't think you have to be ‘mad’ to be a poet, but if your mind is alive, then it can produce both positive and negative responses. It can mean wonderful things, but it can mean that fitting into ‘normal’ life is difficult.”
Psychologist Gary Fitzgibbon says: “Creativity is certainly about not being constrained by rules or accepting the restrictions that society places on us. Of course, the more people break the rules, the more likely they are to be perceived as ‘mentally ill’.”
Writing poetry has given me a cliché (sorry, that should read “purpose”). The expression of my thoughts keeps me sane - along with the plastic pills I pop in the morning.
In a recent poem I wrote about how I deal with the many-headed beast that hides in my shadow:
Falling Foul Feet First
I’m tired of all this evil
burning bulls and spinal taps
ashes in my mouth,
talking about bombing Briscoes,
suicidal actors playing
hostile dictators in soiled nappies
I’d like to turn the ace of spades
into a shovel and bury
three quarters of the majority
who voted for whoever’s in power
there’s always next year
until it’s last year
then you grab your history
and throw it against walls of silent farts
waiting patiently for the crestfallen
to ask you to leave quietly
with good manners strapped to your back
and frisbies holding up the meaning of life
I felt better for writing that, whether it’s considered good or not. And for me that’s the point – I don’t have to measure up, I just have to write. Poetry is cathartic, healing and inspirational and plays a significant role in my battle with mental illness.
NB: Some poetry that rings true for me ...
these words force you to a new madness
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place.
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.
My impoverished muse, alas! What have you for me this morning?
Your empty eyes are stocked with nocturnal visions,
In your cheek's cold and taciturn reflection,
I see insanity and horror forming.
Do you suffer from mental illness? How do you tame your beast?