“Ghostlike, you watch me in my morning shower,
You hover in the corner of the kitchen.
You sit seductively on the soft sofa
Wearing an evil smirk,
Beckoning for me to spend
My precious hours there with you.”
These are the first few lines of Elizabeth Maynard Schaefer’s poem about her own depression in her powerful book Writing Through the Darkness: Easing Your Depression with Paper and Pen. Schaefer, who has bipolar disorder, believes that writing saved her life. She also takes medication, and has received electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). As she writes in the book, “Writing was as healing to me as all my medical treatments—this did matter. Writing helped bring me back.”
Schaefer has an entire chapter dedicated to using poetry “to light the darkness.” She includes an illuminating quote from Freud in the beginning: “Whenever I get somewhere, a poet has been there first.”
Poetry somehow cuts through the needless, and shoots straight to the heart. It lives in emotions and images and senses. It is visceral, like depression is visceral.
Poet Caroline Kaufman, who penned the collection Light Filters In and has clinical depression, told me: “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.”
Maybe you, too, will find relief and release in writing. Below are three ways to specifically use poetry to cope from Schaefer’s beautiful book.
- Think about what your depression looks like, and what it sounds, smells, tastes and feels like. Jot down a few images. For instance, according to Schaefer, members of a mood disorders support group gave these descriptions of their own depression: “a tornado, a dark cloud, a fall off a cliff, a many-headed monster, a cracked mirror.” Schaefer’s depression appears as a “dark fog that has enshrouded my head and body.” Arrange the words and phrases of these images into lines of free verse. Play with the sound and look of the lines.
- Think about what you’d like to say to your depression. Write a poem in the form of a letter to your depression. The above is an example of Schaefer’s letter to her depression.
- Write a poem in response to another poem. For instance, you might write in response to the ideas or observations in a poem. Or you might use one line, or phrase, or word, or image as a prompt. Or you might write a letter to the poet in response to the poem. Some of Schaefer’s favorite poems are: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson, “Prayer” by C.P. Estes, “The Guest House” by Rumi, “Morning Poem” by Mary Oliver, and “Gift” by Czeslaw Milosz.
It isn’t that writing can or should replace medication or therapy when treating depression. As Kaufman told me, “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.” Today, Kaufman still attends therapy, and still has bad days and bad weeks.
Rather, writing can become another valuable strategy in your coping toolkit.
Whether you compose poetry or prose, writing helps us to make sense of our pain. It helps to give words to nebulous, overwhelming feelings and symptoms. And once we name it, we can better understand it. We can work through it. We can release it. Plus, connecting to your creativity might remind you of just how powerful and strong you really are.
Any time we express ourselves through words (or art), we honor ourselves. We honor our experience. We listen to ourselves. We say, I matter.
And you do. Yes, you do.