Poetry and Letting My Freak Flag Fly

poetry.jpgWhen talking to people who are not entirely convinced my mental illness is as serious as it is, I am taken aback by their soft reminders of the “perks” of having a mental illness – namely, creativity. And to that I typically respond, “but at what cost?”

True, a lot of mentally ill people use art as a way to make sense of their chaotic inner world, but not being able to reconcile my reality with everyone else’s predetermined “reality box” is not something I celebrate. The cognitive limitations, memory problems, and attention span shortening make it extremely difficult to channel the creative energy I do have into something I would call “complete.” Most of my art – poetry is my chosen poison – is fragmented or in a perpetual state of revision because my vision changes with my manic-depressive episodes.

When I’m manic, everything becomes dark – as opposed to depressive melancholy – and frenetic. I don’t use punctuation or capital letters, but when I hand write, everything is in all-caps. My images become much more space-oriented (“void,” “nothingness,” “oblivion”), and the subject matter is either of sex or vague emptiness. I only go into detail about this because the contrast is so stark (as seen here). Perhaps most indicative of a manic state, however, is my belief that this poetry is the poetry. My way of writing will change the world.

But it won’t, and my professors’ raised eyebrows and squinted eyes tell me as much. I won’t heed their advice, however, until I’m no longer manic. Then, I just stare at my art until I’m convinced it’s shit, and I start over.

If my loved ones read my uncensored poetry, they’d probably be more concerned about my mental state considering a lot of it emerges from struggles with sex, faith, and mortality. My obsessions, my body-image issues, my self-harm, my binge drinking, my foul mouth, and my agnosticism: it’s all in there. In fact, most people are shocked by the discrepancy between my dark meditations and my outer appearance.

My social anxiety and my nihilism are constantly at odds. Bipolar disorder and OCD can cause some pretty violent – in every sense of the word – obsessions, but I look pretty unassuming – shy, chipmunk-cheeked, white girl. My face says, “going shopping,” but my poetry says, “ready for the void to swallow me and stretch me into nothingness.”

I shit you not. I’ve had my internal-state discounted based on the fact that I “drink Starbucks,” but that’s probably just internalized misogyny.

But here are my two main problems with all this: 1) people fetishize creativity in mentally ill people but shun them in real life if they act as their mental illnesses compel them and 2) it’s incredibly dismissive to think enhanced creativity makes up for all the pain caused by mental illness. (It’s the equivalent of saying, “I know your loved one just died, but hey, at least you get all those free meals brought to your house.”)

Creativity isn’t a consolation prize. For many of us, it’s our last lifeline. It’s the only positive thing that keeps us alive, which is a nice reprieve from the other thing that keeps us alive: all-consuming guilt.

But most of the time, it still isn’t worth it. I’d much rather feel capable of living a “normal” life without dwelling on the futility with which death imbues it. Sometimes, poetry is the only thing that makes sense, and in those moments, it’s nice to have something, but I’d rather not need it so desperately.

Constant awareness that decontextualizing the mundane renders it utterly absurd (thanks, Camus) doesn’t really bode well as far as productivity goes. I’m not one to romanticize Bukowski, but his sentiments about the drudgery of a conventional 9-5, white picket fence, 2.5 kids life echo mine. And if I don’t want that end, why would I put myself through the means that typically achieve that end?

And here’s where neurotypical people go, “DID U KNO U R LAZY?!?!?!??!??!?” Like, joke’s on you, Barbara, but I’m not lazy. I’m trying to find reasons not to kill myself every day. But if I express that sentiment to neurotypical people, I get the, “holy shit u need help right now call 911 plz,” response. So clearly it’s a lose-lose. I either share the full extent of my mental illness to explain why I have such a hard time doing “normal” things and scare the shit out of people or I use my façade of normalcy until exhaustion renders me completely useless, making me appear lazy. Outcome 1: alienation. Outcome 2: misery.

And now neurotypical people are saying, “U R SO NEGATIVE PLZ COUNT UR BLESSINGS,” and I’m like, “okay, objective blessings counted. I’m still mentally ill, but thanks for playing.” The worst part is those people are usually well meaning, so I look like the bad guy if I try to point out their misconceptions about mental illness. That’s why it’s easiest to either drench my life in irony or to not talk about the truth of it in full.

So my appearance of having it relatively under control again makes it easy for people to see enhanced creativity as a perk. They don’t see the reality of all the other aspects of my mental illness, and if I showed them, they’d probably 5150 me and then tell me to pray about it, which is the mental health equivalent of this meme:


Yet art informed by mental illness still fascinates people. There must be something beautiful and intriguing about insanity at a safe distance, but that’s hard to see when I can never keep insanity at a safe distance because it’s INSIDE MY OWN MIND. The world didn’t give me a good way to express what I’m feeling, so I have to create my own. It keeps me busy and alive, and it makes me feel like I’m at least doing something worthwhile.

But it isn’t a perk, nor is it something for you to appropriate as an aesthetic.

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