One of the worst things is when people tell you that you look okay. People you hoped would know “I’m fine” means I’m scared, and “I’m OK” warrants a hug. People you want there on a Sunday morning holding you and telling you only good things. People who say you look tired, but everything seems okay. Trust me, I know—I know that I am strong enough to fake a smile, and hold back tears until I get home. My therapist teaches me breathing exercises. She would say inhale, exhale, inhale and hold the air deep in my lungs.
But how do I tell her that my body has become so riddled with holes that I can’t seem to hold anything in anymore?
She says, try Zoloft. It makes you feel like hiding, not from anything tangible but maybe just from yourself. You feel silly saying you feel different but you do; you don’t feel like yourself because you aren’t yourself. It’s like you’ve lost control. You once became so lost in your mind that you caused an accident on Market Street because you wandered into the street: no, you didn’t wander—you ran; no, you didn’t run—you leapt, but everyone got hit except you. The world keeps spinning and the buildings blur and you’re always fuzzy, but at least you’ve stopped crying.
She says, try Prozac instead. Do you feel more like yourself now? You still don’t feel at home. You still can’t escape the fog that your mind has become. You start cutting because the pain gives you something simple to focus on. You can’t roll up your sleeves at the dinner table, and you can see the band-aids through your leggings so you wear sweatpants everyday. But you tell her your mind feels clearer so she calls it progress.
She says, try taking long walks. So you would circle your neighborhood, memorizing the colors of fake flowers in window shops and the cracks in brick buildings. When those walks would get lonely, you would long for someone to fill those holes with you. But your brain and your mouth refused to make that connection. There was a language barrier that would keep that word, heavy and stuck lingering on the tip of your tongue out of fear that it would come out as attention seeking and selfish, but it was still there, always—suicide. Suicide was not obnoxious or aggressive, but it was always there. Suicide was not a light left on in the kitchen: it was the pot on the stove that was left on far too long bubbling and bubbling asking for help until it flooded over and there was nothing left but empty steel. Each time, you hold it in until it bubbles over and you drown, but you’ve been gasping for air for so long you’ve run out of breath to cry for help. So this is more than any empty promise, more than a cry for help. This is you standing on the peak of a mountain yelling louder than stigmas, farther than judgments and hoping and praying that finally, someone, will hear you.
I used this spoken word piece as a way to speak about my mental health issues. It has become more common to teach those with mental health issues coping mechanisms that leave the victim alone with their problem. There’s a belief that long walks, one-on-one therapy, or journaling—not raising awareness or public discussion—will help us heal. It is easier to simply ask people to bottle up their emotions. Over time, those affected come to equate their silence to strength, when we should be teaching each other that true bravery is sharing our stories. If we do that, we can remove the stigma. The stigma attached to mental health took away from my own ability to acknowledge my issues, which could be why I was not diagnosed until after my suicide attempt. I spent time in an inpatient treatment facility where I found another outlet for my emotions in spoken word poetry. When I started writing poetry, I learned how to turn all the chemically imbalanced chaos in my mind into something beautiful. However, poetry did not come easy to me. My words came out crude and cliché, and turning pain to metaphors felt unnatural.
When I returned to high-school, I joined the spoken word team. The other poets prompted me to expand my pieces. They showed me that good poetry is honest poetry. The poets on the team were outspoken and daring; there were no bounds to what they could say. There were weeks when poets shared stories of loss or sadness, when their words would ripple out from the stage like ocean waves crashing into the audience, leaving us all drowning. Other times, words clapped back like jump ropes hitting the concrete, reminding me of when the hydrants broke open and I could jump through the water with my hair down, words so happy and snappy I feel like a kid again. For this first time in months, I laugh with my mouth wide open; I can see that everyone else is doing it, too. Being here makes me smile because there is power here, in this auditorium, there is power in his words, and her words, and my words and everyone can feel it; me, especially.
The first spoken word piece I performed was in a room of 20 people at a writers’ workshop; months after, I left inpatient care. I spoke about the history of my anxiety and depression: everything from my first panic attack at 12 years old to my suicide attempt at 15 years old. As I spoke, I remembered the confusion of depression in middle school: I did not know what to label it, but I knew it was wrong because I was afraid to talk to my friends. I remembered Googling “peaceful ways to die” because “suicide” was still a foreign concept. I remembered the stickiness in my mouth as I dry swallowed dozens of pills. I remembered my father holding my hand while I laid in a hospital bed. I remembered the screams of my bunk mate as she was strapped to a gurney and driven to juvie because inpatient treatment was not enough. I remembered making excuses to my teammates for the scars on my legs. I remembered thinking I could leave my sister in a world without me. When I finished, I did not feel a complete sense of relief, but I felt lighter, like everything I had been carrying had been set down, and I could finally rest for a bit.
The beauty of spoken word poetry is that it demands to be heard aloud. It is more than reading a memorized rhyme: it’s a performance. Before each performance, I read a quote by Marianne Williamson, one that my father shared with me months after I had been released from inpatient care. It reads:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you… As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
This quote reminds me of everything I’ve been through, and as painful as it is to relive, tapping into that source gives me control, and a certain power over my pain that allows me to make it into something beautiful. It reminds me that I am more than a suicide survivor, I am more than low points of mental health.
Poetry, like any art form has the ability to inspire, and change lives. Poetry comes from a Greek word meaning “to make,” and the word poem, meaning “a made thing.” Poetry is a set of techniques, or a set of ways and patterns that put emotions into words. The more techniques you know, the more things you can make. I found this to be true in making my own art, and discovering what others could express through their art. When he was contemplating suicide, the poet Frank O’Hara was thought to have said that being unable to read or write any more poems stopped him from taking his own life. At this point in my life, I can say that is true for me as well. Poetry is not a cure all, but it is a step in the right direction.
This week my psychiatrist cleared me to stop taking my medication. Almost three years later, this is the first time I can say I feel accomplished in my journey. This does not mean that my depression and anxiety have disappeared and I do not think they ever will. However, this means that I know how to cope and live with my mental illness rather than letting it control my life. There are good days, there are bad days, and sometimes, weeks. And when the bad days come, I still take long walks, but now I bring a pen and paper with me. Poetry saved my life, and it could save many more, if we are only willing to stop and listen.
Azure Lintulahti is a Philadelphia native. She is a freshman currently attending Goucher College in Baltimore. She is an undeclared major and a member of the women’s soccer team. Azure hopes to continue exploring herself and the world around her through her writing.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.