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How Poetry Saved My Life

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Ellie explores anxiety and how poetry, words and creative expression saved her…

I remember the first time I read my poetry in public…

I remember the first time I read my poetry in public. Hands trembling, barely gripping the paper containing my words, I stood on a raised platform with nothing but a microphone between the audience and myself, and almost in spite of myself, I read. My voice sounded ridiculous in my own ears and it wasn’t anything like the performances of spoken word artists I’d watched and admired, but for once I felt like the lump in my throat had a reason to be there. It was the best scary thing I’ve ever done. Somehow, despite the familiar feeling of panic welling up in my chest, the words of my poem made it through the brain-fog and out of my mouth. As I spoke, the lump diminished until it was barely an afterthought. I was caught up in it, experiencing the poem almost as vividly as when I wrote it. Then, before I knew it, I was being congratulated for winning my first poetry slam. I was being put through to the regional final. I was being told, by someone I’d never met, ‘you’re my new favourite poet’. I didn’t even feel like a poet, but here I was, being told just that. The friend who’d dragged me there had to pinch me, because I was sure I was dreaming.

Fast-forward to a few months later, when the 2015 Hammer & Tongue slam poetry regional final was being held at a bar on Small Street  in their cosy upstairs room. It was packed with people – it had been highly anticipated not just by the performers and our supportive friends but by anyone who knew that the winner of tonight’s slam would go on to not only perform at the Royal Albert Hall in London, but also to compete for the title of Hammer & Tongue’s national slam champion.

There were two things I was praying for: that I wouldn’t cry and that I wouldn’t be the last to perform.

It likely felt like a preliminary round for many of the seasoned spoken word artists who were performing that night, but for me it felt almost like a fluke that I was performing my poetry at all, let alone in a regional final for one of the country’s most prestigious slam events. After all, I’d only performed once prior, and I’d never expected this. That could sound boastful, but I was too terrified for that.

I was squeezed between two of my friends, shaking with nerves again and unable to look at anybody. There were two things I was praying for: that I wouldn’t cry and that I wouldn’t be the last to perform. There were two heats in the slam – the first to narrow nine performers down to four, and the second to choose the two Bristol winners. I had prepared a second poem but I had only really come along to perform my first; I likely wouldn’t get through to the second heat. It just felt really important for me to share the one positive poem I’d written in months. It was a poem about how I no longer wanted to commit suicide, because for the first time in what felt like forever, I didn’t.

You see, I don’t remember a time that I didn’t deal with anxiety on a daily basis. That’s a lie, sort of. I have vague memories of happier times in the Irish countryside, before teenage-hood and its inevitable issues, but I feel like anxiety has pretty much always been there, in the back of my mind, in the ridge marks that my nails leave on my palms.

My ‘lizard brain’, which is what my therapist calls it, needs constant attention. It doesn’t like being ignored. It will grasp at almost anything around me to get the attention it feels it deserves, and when I pay it any mind, it has only one message for me: this is all really, really wrong.

My ‘lizard brain’, which is what my therapist calls it, needs constant attention.

What’s wrong? I don’t know. But it is. It all is. That’s why I panic. That’s why there are some days in which breathing just feels like too much effort. That’s why, during my first semester of university, I had thought seriously about ending it all. Anxiety often comes hand in hand with depression for good reason. It’s exhausting, it picks at your self-esteem and it restricts you both physically and mentally.

I sometimes wish there was a specific trigger for what I have – I know there are anxiety disorders which react more often to social situations or certain fears – but mine is the sort that could be pretty much anything. It’s called generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and it’s estimated that it affects up to 5% of the UK population, though the true figure is, as with any mental illness, probably higher. According to the NHS, many people ‘develop GAD for no apparent reason’. That’s reassuring. At least when I was waiting to perform my poetry I knew why I was panicking. That was pretty rare for me.

Once I was diagnosed with GAD it became clear to me that knowledge is power when it comes to mental illness. The more I understood about what was happening to me, the more I felt like I could cope with it. That’s why I’ll always advocate for therapy treatments like CBT, because it helps you to understand your thoughts better and in turn, your mind. Three years ago, I couldn’t leave my parents’ house without throwing up. Today, I’m living independently in a city, studying a degree and writing for Rife magazine. I’m about a thousand years from ‘lazy’, ‘scared’ and ‘useless’ and I try to erase those words from my vocabulary as much as possible these days.

I told myself it was okay if it was awful because it was just for me.

There was one thing though, one pretty major thing, which saved me before I knew what was happening to me, and continues to do so on my down days. For me, that’s poetry, which highlighted to me how important creative expression could be for a self-controlled way of coping with mental illness.

It was during one of the darkest anxiety-spirals of my life that my friend somehow got me out of the house for a poetry gig. My first poetry gig. The headline act was Buddy Wakefield, the wide-eyed American genius whose words changed my life that night. I stared, open-mouthed as he cried ‘Tonight, let us not become tragedies’. Tears sprung from my eyes before I could discipline them and when I met him after his set, I couldn’t form words, let alone sentences. Somewhere along the line that night, I decided that poetry was magic, and I wanted to keep it with me forever.

So I started writing.

The process of creating something is unique in that you become besotted with a string of ideas, leaving no room for anxiety or self-deprecation. This was the first time in a long while that I wrote consistently, pouring thoughts onto the page like water. I told myself it was okay if it was awful because it was just for me. It was okay if it didn’t rhyme because it wasn’t meant for consumption. When I write, I feel everything I have within me except the anxiety. I didn’t know why I felt the way I did but after months of feeling it, writing was the only thing that stopped everything for a while. Over those few months I’d tried everything else – drugs, alcohol, throwing myself into my work – nothing stuck with me like creative expression did. Finding something that seemed to understand me and flow the way that I flowed was the most important step in my mental health journey – I think I’ll still feel like that when I’m eighty years old, because I have all these poems now, all of these pieces of pride that my mental illness can never take away from me.

Months later, when I felt – not ready – but half-confident, I performed my first poem.

Months later, when I felt – not ready – but half-confident, I performed my first poem. Months after that, I performed at Hammer & Tongue’s regional final. I didn’t cry, even though I was the last to perform. I also didn’t win, but that couldn’t have been further from what it was about for me. I’d done it – I’d shared with the world the most important thing that I’d had to say: that there are things in this life that make even the darkest days seem a little brighter. I’d progressed eons since the beginning of that academic year and it was before diagnosis and before therapy. I’d go so far as to say that without creative expression, I might never have sought professional help at all. I might still be sitting at home, terrified to open my own front door. That’s why it’s so important for me to share this message:

Poetry – reading it and writing it – saved my life, and it was the creative process that helped most of all, I think, because it blocks out all the bad thoughts in order to save room for the next word. The best word. Sharing my poetry with those who loved the art as much as I did was how I brought creativity and socialising together in my life, and it allowed me to truly flourish, because even after the scary diagnosis, I wasn’t alone with my thoughts anymore. Even better, I realised that I never truly had been.

I’d encourage anybody dealing with mental illness, or even just going through a bad time, to try creating something. It doesn’t have to be the best or even good by your own standards, it’s just a really beautiful way to focus the mind and have something solid to hold onto later. Whatever you create will be there to remind you that it was real, that you are valid. Then, if or when you feel comfortable with doing so, try sharing it with somebody. The relief I felt when I did is incomparable.

Finally, a thank you to Bristol’s spoken word community. You are all so kind, so open and so important for people like me. I sit here, writing this, knowing that I will be forever grateful.

Are you a fan of spoken word? Is it something you’d like to get into? Which poets should we be paying attention to and what poetry nights should we be looking out for? Let us know @rifemag

Check out these poetry gigs