sNine months into the pandemic, I haven’t written a word. When I finally got back on the page, in September 2020, it wasn’t with the clarity and intent needed for the articles and stories I used to write. Instead, my thoughts and feelings and pen wandered and explored; I wrote in a generally unfocused, sometimes frantic stream of consciousness and emotion that, to my surprise, began to take on a different form: poetry.
It was the last two and a half years Riding: bouts of depression, a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, a bunch of panic attacks…and also recovery, renewal, and a return to a happier, more balanced place. Through it all, poetry has moved closer and closer to the center of my life. And it seems I’m not the only one who’s found an outlet during this time.
In the midst of the lockdown, writing and reading poetry was on the rise. According to CNN, one popular poetry site, poets.org, experienced an historic spike in traffic, garnering 1 million page views — a 25 percent increase — from January to October 2021, following a recital by National Youth Poet Amanda Gorman at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. .
Former American poet Joy Harjo said, “Periods of decay, destruction, and chaos are often followed by reconstruction and rebirth—periods of new invention in thought and art.” USA Today in February 2021. “This is what often appears from among the ruins. You see small plants like after a fire… emerging from the sea.”
My own char-derived plant is my recently published book, The funny thing about a panic attack. It explores how depression, anxiety, and sadness intersect with creativity, joy, and love. While celebrating the release of my book, and reflecting on the journey that brought it to life, I wondered about the connection between my mental health challenges and my creativity.
I’ve wondered about the connection between my mental health challenges and my creativity — am I creative, at least in part, because I live with anxiety and depression?
Am I creative, at least in part, because I live with anxiety and depression? Am I somehow relying on my suffering to create art? And how does actively dealing with mental health issues affect my writing, for better or worse?
Possible links between creativity and mental health
There may be a connection between creativity and individuals suffering from anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, major depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, says Jessica Kettner, IMFT, a marriage and family therapist in Columbus, Ohio. It focuses on the common symptoms of some of these mental health conditions. For example, a tendency to ruminate or focus excessively on a feeling or memory can “offer a unique way of seeing the world that, if expressed creatively, can display an intensity, perspective, and beauty that is captivating, poignant, and evocative of the experience,” she says. “Also, an uninhibited racing or wandering mind can be an opportunity for ideas to flow. These ideas can be channeled in creative ways.”
However, Ketner cautions against viewing anxiety or depression as some sort of requirement or boon to creative output. Romanticizing mental health struggles or reinforcing the “tortured artist” or “mad genius” stereotype can be dangerous, she says, especially if she discourages a person from seeking mental health care in order to “stay in a creative place.”
Researchers and laypeople alike have long speculated about the connection between mental illness and creativity, but some oft-cited studies showing a link between the two have been criticized on the grounds that they use small samples, use inconsistent methodologies, and rely too heavily on anecdotal accounts. Nevertheless, the notion of a “mad genius” is still pervasive and deeply ingrained in mainstream culture, and many point to great tragic figures such as Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, and Emily Dickinson as evidence of this. But the notion that good art has a positive relationship with artists who struggle with mental health issues is a fallacy, says Adriana Garcia, LMFT, a licensed art therapist and illustrator in Santa Monica, California.
How writing poetry, in particular, can serve as a mental health exercise
In my experience, anxiety and depression promote the exact opposite of creativity: harsh, intrusive thoughts, and existential dread, respectively. Exhaustion and despair negated any hope I had of writing a poem, let alone of being able to live a functional and healthy life.
If I’m sinking into a bout of depression or drowning in the raging waters of anxiety, it takes a fleet to pull me up: patience and support from friends and family; Lots of therapy and months of lying on the floor to zoning out the desk, followed by slowly resuming a routine of healthy eating, exercise, and relaxation. In my darkest hours, my poetry alone isn’t enough to save me—even if I were able to muster any output at all—but writing does wonders for my everyday mental health, whisking me away from depressive sewers and calming the constant buzz of anxiety.
As a complement to a healthy lifestyle and mental health therapy, Ketner says, “Finding a creative outlet can be an excellent and meaningful way to express, release, process, or communicate your feelings.” “Many people find a tremendous amount of therapy available to them through expressive writing, visual art, playing or composing music, dance, and other creative pursuits.”
Research supports a positive relationship between how creative activities can benefit mental and emotional health. One study that focused on the link between creativity and mental health supports these findings and makes an important addition: when creativity is seen as a coping strategy, it is associated with mental health benefits, but when creativity is seen as a defining characteristic of a person, it is not. There is a negative association with mental health.
Since I’m the type who likes to write poetry, I might also be the type who’s prone to anxiety and depression. At the same time, writing poetry helps me overcome anxiety and depression.
In other words, because I’m the type who likes to write poetry, I might also be the type who’s prone to anxiety and depression. At the same time, writing poetry helps me overcome anxiety and depression. While I sometimes find it difficult to find joy in my life, I often create joy on the page. Sometimes I use writing to escape from pain. Other times, to bring it closer, as a way of coping or catharsis, or as a way to see my struggles in a different light. Even as my poems delve into my darkest moments, the writing process replaces anxiety with positive energy and a sense of play. These themes are evident in both the process and the product of my work.
In my poem “Deep Sea Donuts,” the speaker falls asleep dreaming of “ways/not waking up”; He wishes the waves would “drive me to nothing”. Eventually, though, he discovers the sensual pleasures—namely, breakfast—that make life worth living, when he awakens and realizes:
which i don’t like
Salt water in my coffee
And they don’t
They have bear claws
At the bottom of the sea
“When the total gray obscures the sun, gravity is a train and I am a penny on the tracks.” In my poem “Brent,” the speaker turns to his writing, to create characters, build worlds, and find solace in (even marginal) escape: “It is a progressive fantasy where Everything is exactly the same / Except everyone is hovering three to five inches off the ground.”
In “The Notebooks,” the speaker emerges from fear and despair to find intimacy and connection:
And I was afraid
I was going to do something bad myself so I will call you and you will come
Make grilled cheese or just sit on the kitchen floor and breathe
And I believe
This is what it means to need someone
In my poem “The Funny Thing About a Panic Attack,” the speaker thinks he’s dying, so his roommate calls the paramedics who arrive, muscle-bound and in suspenders, as if they were “April, May, and June in next year’s calendar.” At the end of the poem, the speaker and his roommate think, Seekers of humor in the experience of mutual trauma:
Later you ask your roommate if she had time to get dressed before they came or if she was just wearing a Backstreet Boys nightshirt and she says “yeah I put on sweatpants and god this is the most I’ve had in a while” and laughs and laughs because you both need to To be really funny.
Finally, at the end of the book, when the speaker reaches a place of stability in I Wish You Superblooms, he thinks of others who may be suffering, and sends them strength across the page:
This is the morning you rise as your cavalry
By noon, you are exponential, blessed with strength
To lift your finger and move the decimal point of the day
All the way to the right
Yes, my creativity thrives on imaginative, sometimes frenzied thinking, combined with deep, intense, and often painful feelings. My writing also requires a sense of lightness, grace, poise, and comfort. It is this duality that makes me who I am, as a poet and as a human being, and allows me to confront depression, anxiety, and sadness in my writing—and in my life—with humor, heart, and a sense of wonder.
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