When you have a mental illness or you’re going through certain struggles, you think it’s just you. You feel alone. Incredibly alone. You think you’re the only one who’s devastated or numb or so nervous your body won’t stop shaking. You think you’re the only one who feels uncomfortable in your own skin. You think you’re the only one who’s overwhelmed and exhausted and lost. So very lost. You think you’re the only one who doesn’t know who they are, who feels shame, who is drowning in grief.
You’re not. Whatever you’re feeling, whatever you’re thinking, whatever you’re experiencing, you’re absolutely not alone.
Caroline Kaufman started writing poetry when she was thirteen years old to help her cope with her clinical depression. A year later, she started posting her poetry online. She quickly realized that she wasn’t alone, as thousands of followers started reading her vulnerable writing—writing that explored not only depression, but also anxiety, sexual assault and abusive relationships. Her words struck a chord because her followers see their struggles, they see themselves, reflected in her poetry.
Today, her powerful, beautiful collection of poetry, Light Filters In, comes out. I had the pleasure of interviewing Kaufman about her struggles with depression, how she created a safe and compassionate space online, how we can start composing our own poetry, what helps her cope with depression and much more. Below you’ll find her honest, wise insights.
Q: When you were struggling with depression, what kinds of symptoms did you experience? What did you feel?
A: I was an extremely happy, excited, social, and outgoing kid. And I remember that really shifting as I got to eleven or twelve. I would be with a group of people talking, and suddenly feel completely alone. There were days I just couldn’t get out of bed because I had no motivation to get up and live life. I started fixating on how I looked, my eating habits changed, I withdrew from friends because I thought I was being annoying or a burden.
I began cutting myself as a way to release all the anger and self-hatred I was feeling. After a while, I just accepted that I would never feel any better, that this was life. And that’s when I just started to feel numb—I had no motivation to go out and talk with friends because I knew it wouldn’t make me feel any better. I was kind of existing instead of living at thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.
Q: How did writing poetry help you deal with your depression?
A: During that time, I felt like I had no one to talk to and that I was completely alone. Writing was a way for me to get my words out, even if it wasn’t directed at anyone. When I was overwhelmed and upset and felt all of my emotions building up, I would write. It gave me that same sort of “release” I so desperately needed and usually turned to self-harm for. But when I found writing, I turned to that instead.
Q: What inspired you to share your poetry on Instagram?
A: I had seen other people use Instagram as a sort of diary—they would post about how they felt or how their day went, and people would comment and sort of be there for them. Since I had no one in real life to talk to, I thought I could post about how I felt online, and that maybe feeling heard, even just on social media, would make me feel less alone.
Since my thoughts were organized into poetry, that’s just what I ended up posting. I never intended for it to become this big poetry account. It really started as a way for me to consolidate my thoughts and hopefully get one or two people to say they were feeling the same way.
Q: Social media can be a negative place. It often leads us to make comparisons, to feel jealous and to feel bad about ourselves. However, you’ve used social media as a tool to feel empowered, connect with others and bring comfort and empathy. How have you been able to do that?
A: It didn’t start out that way. Social media was actually pretty toxic for me before I started my poetry account. I would see dozens of extremely pretty, thin, happy women on Instagram as well as on Tumblr, and it definitely made me feel more isolated and alone, as well as unhappy with my body.
I also found myself in a part of social media where disordered and dangerous thinking was sort of glorified. People would post pictures of their fresh cuts, extremely triggering things, diets to go on, pictures of sickly thin women, etc. At the time, I thought it was fine because it allowed me to talk to people who were going through the same things I was, but it really just turned to me surrounding myself with extremely depressing and triggering messages.
When I started posting my writing, I found a much more supportive and healthy community. There was a focus on honesty, on letting out feelings in a healthy way, on supporting people no matter what they were going through. I stopped looking at triggering accounts and started looking at empowering ones. I think the reason I’ve been able to have such a positive experience on social media is because I’m committed to honesty.
Most people use social media as a way to share the positive and amazing parts of their lives–they show off their accomplishments and hide their failures. Everyone is hiding something while assuming nobody is hiding anything. And it can be really upsetting.
But on my account (and most writing accounts in general), there is an emphasis on honesty. Yes, I post about the good days: my accomplishments, my crushes, my book, my friends. But I also post about the bad days: my fights, my anxiety, my breakups, my therapy sessions. And I think that really empowered me. Being able to see that not everyone is perfect, and being able to admit that myself, even if it was through the internet, gave me comfort. It reminded me that I wasn’t alone, it reminded me that these are topics I shouldn’t be ashamed about, and it reminded me that there is a real human being behind every social media account.
Q: If someone wants to try writing their own poetry, how do you suggest they start?
A: I would say to think of it as a diary entry. How are you feeling? What do you feel that needs to be let out? What secret do you want to scribble down? It doesn’t matter if you’re not using fancy words or a rhyme scheme. Anything can be poetry. And don’t be afraid to write bad poems, either. Write all of the bad poems you can possibly pull out. You have them, I have them, we all have them. But the only way to grow as a writer is to let yourself fail and learn from it.
Q: What poets or writers inspire you and maybe help you to feel less alone?
A: Right now, I really love Sarah Kay and Trista Mateer. They are both extremely inspiring and strong women and every word that comes out of them sounds like poetry. Sarah has a lot of spoken word videos you can find, and they are so powerful. I have four of Trista’s books, and I told myself I’d only highlight my favorite lines, but it seems like every word is highlighted.
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about the power of poetry, social media or healing from depression?
A: That recovery is complicated and different for everyone. I’m not going to sit here and tell everyone suffering from a mental illness that posting poems on the internet cured me. Because it didn’t. It was years of therapy and psychiatrist sessions and coping skills and medication and crying and relapsing and moving forward.
And I am not “cured.” I still go to therapy, I still have bad days or weeks. But I’m not suffering from depression—I’m living with it. And everyone learns to live with it differently, in a way that works for them. I just want people to know that it is possible to live a rewarding life with mental illness. Because that’s what I’m doing right now.
Caroline Kaufman, known as @poeticpoison on Instagram, grew up in Westchester, New York, and is currently a student at Harvard University. In the future, she hopes to attend medical school and continue growing as a writer. Learn more at http://carolinekaufman.net or follow her on Instagram and Twitter.