I’ve never been properly, officially diagnosed with any sort of mental illness, but let’s just say that I’m well aware my emotions and sometimes coping habits range outside of the norm. This makes it very, very easy to get “stuck” in a non-productive, unhealthy mental state. We’re talking about more than “I had a bad day at work” stuck. We’re talking about sitting in the bath tub crying because you are vividly imagining the aftermath of the deaths of everyone you know and you can’t stop. There’s no ‘off’ button once the process starts. Sounds fun, right? Thankfully it’s not something I deal with all the time.
The emotional rabbit hole is deep. It’s deep enough on the good days, extra deep on the bad days, and when you’re a writer who delves into the emotional for a (hopefully one day) living? We’re talking black hole deep if you aren’t careful.
Over the last several years I have learned to twist this toward my advantage. Several of my poems deal with some extra sticky (think big, fluffy, stab-you-in-the-leg-when-you-walk-through-it field of burrs sticky) memories. Things I have lost sleep over. Things I could have filled a bathtub with tears over. Things that to this day make me feel like a chunk of my insides are missing. And yet I write.
I have learned that poetry is how I turn depression into something pleasantly bittersweet, though it must be said that not all of my work comes from this source. It can be difficult to willingly go into the trenches because if it’s going to work, both as a poem and as personal healing, then I need to toss myself back into the most heated memories of the battle. Who wants to do that? Who wants to stare at the rabbit hole, not knowing where the bottom is or if there is a bottom, and toss themselves in anyway going ‘what the hell, let’s see what happens’? That’s kind of what I do.
But this is also how I’ve turned some really heartbreaking moments into poetry that I absolutely adore. Poetry that doesn’t hurt to read. Poetry that makes me remember the best, most perfect moments before the fall… but is safe, the verse catching me in its tangled hold before I ever reach the fall itself. I think some of my best work has come from this.
It is very important for a writer to be physically healthy, and it is all too easy to let that fall by the wayside in a job that encourages “butt in chair” time so highly. But it is also very important for a writer to be mentally healthy, and for some of us that means figuring out the best way to surf that dark line between ‘really good subject material’ and ‘current well being’.
There is a common misconception (of which I have also been guilty at times) in believing that if we don’t have our darkness, we can’t create our best work. I highly encourage you, if the darkness is too close, to always reach out to someone about it. If you’re worried about losing a part of your creative self, you won’t. That part will stick around. Your relationship with it may change, but it will not disappear.
When my own darkness tries to be my roommate I get nowhere. Sure that part of me is extra close at hand, but I can’t create. I can’t keep a clean house. I can’t do much of anything. When my own darkness is a neighbor down the street? We can visit for collaborative work, then go home to our respective beds at night. It’s safer, healthier, and more productive (not to mention happier!) all the way around.
The rabbit hole is a risk, but one I have learned to navigate. I write myself out of it. My words create a ladder that pulls me right back onto grassy land. And once I’ve written myself out of a particular rabbit hole, I find it incredibly difficult to fall so deeply into it again. The poem doesn’t go away, so the ladder doesn’t go away. It’s a permanent installation.
So while you try to eat right and try to fit in some exercise around the busyness of life, don’t forget your mind. It’s the home of all your best ideas so take care of it too!