Six months into the pandemic, I hadn’t written a word. When I finally returned to the page, in September 2020, it wasn’t with the clarity and intention required for the essays and stories I was used to writing. Instead, my thoughts and feelings and pen meandered and explored; I wrote in a generally unfocused, sometimes frenzied stream of consciousness and emotion that, to my surprise, began to take a different shape: poetry.
My last two and a half years have been a ride: depressive episodes, an anxiety disorder diagnosis, a handful of panic attacks… and also recovery, rejuvenation, and reemergence into a place of more happiness and balance. Through it all, poetry has moved closer and closer to the center of my life. And, it seems I’m not alone in having found it as an outlet during this time.
Amid lockdown, poetry writing and reading were on the rise. According to CNN, one popular poetry site, poets.org, saw a historic spike in traffic, garnering 1 million pageviews—a 25 percent increase—from January through October 2021, following National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s recitation at President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
“What often follows periods of decay and destruction and chaos is rebuilding and renaissance—periods of fresh invention in thought, in art,” former U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo told USA Today in February 2021. “That’s what often emerges from the ruins. You see little plants like after a fire…coming up from the char.”
My own plant emerging from the char is my recently published a chapbook, The Funny Thing About A Panic Attack. It explores how depression, anxiety, and grief intersect with creativity, joy, and love. In celebrating the release of my book, and reflecting on the journey that brought it to life, I’ve wondered about the relationship between my mental health challenges and my creativity.
I’ve wondered about the relationship 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? Do I somehow rely on my struggles to create art? And how does effectively coping with my mental health issues impact my writing, for better or worse?
The possible links between creativity and mental health
There may be a link between creativity and individuals with anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, major depression, and PTSD, says Jessica Ketner, IMFT, a marriage and family therapist based in Columbus, Ohio. She zeroes in on common symptoms of some of those mental health conditions. For example, tendencies to ruminate or hyperfocus on a feeling or memory could “offer a unique way of seeing the world that, if expressed creatively, can display an intensity, a perspective, a beauty that is captivating, moving, and interesting to experience,” she says. “Also, a disinhibited racing or wandering mind can be an opportunity for a flow of ideas. Those ideas can be channeled in creative ways.”
Even so, Ketner cautions against viewing anxiety or depression as some kind of requirement or boon for creative output. Romanticizing mental health struggles or reinforcing the stereotype of a “tortured artist” or “mad genius” can be dangerous, she says, especially if they discourage a person from seeking mental health care in order to “stay in a creative place.”
Researchers and laypeople alike have long-speculated about the relationship between mental illness and creativity, yet some often-cited studies that show a link between the two have been criticized on the grounds that they use small samples, employ inconsistent methodologies, and strongly depend on anecdotal accounts. Still, the idea of the “mad genius” remains widespread and deeply ingrained in mainstream culture, and many point to brilliant, tragic figures like Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, or Emily Dickinson as evidence. But the notion that good art has a positive correlation to artists with mental health issues is a fallacy, says Adriana Garcia, LMFT, a licensed therapist, art therapist, and illustrator based in Santa Monica, California.
How writing poetry, in particular, can function as a mental health exercise
In my experience, anxiety and depression foster the complete opposite of creativity: respectively, relentless, intrusive thoughts and existential dread. Exhaustion and despair negate any hope I have of writing a poem, not to mention, you know, my ability to lead a functional, healthy life.
If I’m drowning in a depressive episode or thrashing in the raging waters of anxiety, it takes a fleet to pull me out: patience and support from friends and family; lots of therapy; and months of lying on the floor zoning out to The Office, followed by slowly resuming a routine of eating well, working out, and relaxing. In the darkest hours, my poetry alone isn’t enough to rescue me—if I’m even able to muster any output at all—but writing works wonders for my day-to-day mental health, veering me away from depressive sinkholes and quieting the constant buzz of anxiety.
As a supplement to a healthy lifestyle and mental health treatment, “finding a creative outlet can be an excellent and meaningful way to express, release, process, or communicate your feelings,” Ketner says. “Many people find an immense amount of healing available to them through expressive writing, visual arts, playing or making music, dancing, and other creative pursuits.”
Research backs up a positive correlation between how creative activities can benefit mental and emotional well-being. One study that focused on the link between creativity and mental health substantiates these findings and offers a crucial addition: When creativity is viewed as a coping strategy, it is associated with mental health benefits, but when creativity is viewed as a defining trait of a person, there exists a negative association to mental health.
Because I’m the kind of person who loves to write poetry, I also may be the kind of person who’s prone to anxiety and depression. At the same time, writing poetry helps me cope with anxiety and depression.
In other words, because I’m the kind of person who loves to write poetry, I also may be the kind of person who’s prone to anxiety and depression. At the same time, writing poetry helps me cope with anxiety and depression. While I sometimes have trouble finding joy in my life, I often create joy on the page. Sometimes I use writing to escape the pain; other times, to pull it closer, as a means of coping or catharsis, or as a path to seeing my struggles in a different light. Even when my poems delve into my darkest moments, the process of writing replaces anxiety with positive energy and a sense of play. These themes manifest in both the process and product of my work.
In my poem “Deep Sea Donuts,” the speaker falls asleep dreaming “of ways / to not wake up”; he wishes for the waves to “tide me / into nothing.” By the end, though, he discovers sensory pleasures—namely breakfast—that make life worth living, when he wakes up and realizes:
that i don’t like
saltwater in my coffee
and they don’t
have bear claws
at the bottom of the sea
“When total gray eclipses the sun and gravity is a train and I’m 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 a marginal) escape: “It’s an incremental fantasy where everything is exactly the same / except everyone hovers three to five inches off the ground”
In “Notepads,” the speaker emerges from fear and despair to find intimacy and connection:
and I was scared
I’d do something bad to myself so I’d call you and you’d come over
make grilled cheese or just sit on the kitchen floor and breathe
and I guess
that’s 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, muscle-bound and suspender-clad, arrive looking like “April, May, and June on next year’s calendar.” At the end of the poem, the speaker and his roommate reflect, seeking humor in the mutually traumatic experience:
Later you ask your roommate if she had time to put on clothes before they came or if she was just wearing that Backstreet Boys sleep shirt and she’s like “Yeah, I did put on sweatpants and my god, that’s the most action I’ve gotten in a while” and you laugh and she laughs because you both really, really need it to be funny.
Finally, at the end of the book, when the speaker arrives at a place of stability in “I Wish You Superblooms,” he thinks of others who may be struggling, and sends strength to them via the page:
This is the morning you arise as your own cavalry
by noon you’re exponential, blessed with the power
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, along with deep, intense, often painful emotions. My writing also requires feelings of lightness, levity, balance, and ease. It’s that duality that makes me who I am, as a poet and as a person, and allows me to face depression, anxiety, and grief in my writing—and in my life—with humor, heart, and a defiant sense of wonder.
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