I’ve never been good at being honest. My apologies are harsh, and my confessions are quick. Often, I smirk when I’m discussing something serious about myself, as if my memories are some sort of misunderstood inside joke. I’m stingy with the punchlines. I cut and choose the amount of myself I give away very carefully. I remember my pain purposefully and privately. And worst of all, I write about it.
When I was eleven, I began a planned endeavour into depression. I started self harming routinely. Originally, I wanted attention. Or maybe help I didn’t know I needed. Isolation was closer to me than I liked to pretend. Ideally, my friends would see that my unhappiness was enough of a project to pay attention to. So I rolled up sleeves for easier visibility. Hurt myself a room away from someone in the hopes they would walk in. None of them ever did. I wasn’t disappointed, because I didn’t really understand what I wanted to happen. Emotional reflection and analysis is not a privilege afforded to sixth graders.
One day in July, I stripped next to the pool and two of my friends caught sight of my wrists. They spent the next two hours in the water twisting, pulling, grabbing, and scratching at them, giggling like maniacs. It wasn’t the reaction I expected. Technically it was attention. And technically it scared the shit out of me. Things spiraled. Friends saw, friends laughed, and friends always, always left. I stopped being able to tell the difference between boredom and numbness. Emotions started to make me feel pathetic. My mother found out, and I hated myself for exhausting her. So I told myself I had attempted an experiment and had failed. That all this nighttime would end and I’d be happy in the morning. It didn’t work. I underestimated addiction and its ability to stalk. Depression was quiet and dogged and dark and at fifteen I started writing it down.
When I came to high school and discovered slam poetry, I got jealous. A beginning poet is the most natural form of envy. I went to slams and saw these beautiful, emotional people giving themselves to crowds who reached back and shouted, We hear you! We love you! Give us more! The act of being received like that is a lonely teenager’s dream. So in freshman year, poetry became my newest and most accessible way to self destruct. I followed suit with what I had seen, and glamorized my own mental illnesses. I wrote poems about hurting myself, about my mother, about my father, about being sad, about crying, about suicide, etc. The audience responded the way I had hoped. I got support. I got more hugs than I could count. But it made me feel absolutely nothing. There was no clarity. No emotion. No resurfacing. No therapy. It was recitation of trauma. And I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t working. I think now I do.
Poetry is often known as a way of emotional expression and translation. But to me, its actual purpose has always been clear: to make grief pretty. Writing dormant pain back into existence is praised. Digging into oneself is rewarded. A large audience has no agenda for the performer because they are anonymous. So applause is conducive to how easy the story is to respond to. Writing about myself is an act of separation. Heart from body. Mind from thought. Joy from smile. I objectify my experiences to the point where I’m convinced I didn’t have them. Once the experience does not sound like yours anymore, you are ready to begin.
This phenomenon is not isolated to poetry or depression. O’Brien mentions his experience with it in The Things They Carried. “The act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse. By telling stories, you objectify your own experiences. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened...and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.” (158) He believes that trying to explain the war encourages him to falsify memories for easier delivery.
The exact same thing happened to my poetry. I created new incidents. They may have never actually happened, but they assist in making the pain seem more attractive and sensical. Being understable convinces the listener that the poet understands themselves enough to recover alone. And if not alone, then the most they’ll need is a few hugs and I love you texts. Writing about pain can make the conviction that there is only pride in steady recovery. Often the self fakes their own growth through their writing to reassure themselves and those around them that they no longer need help. A slam poet shouts, Look at what I’ve been through! Don’t you all feel something for me? The easier the trauma is to receive, the more support is given. And the more the changing world seems to accept the self, no matter how false the presentation of the self is, the more the self feels validated and, to a sense, normal. It’s the most seemingly honest way to seek attention.
Then something happens when the poet is no longer shy of the spotlight. When tearing yourself open becomes a paid pastime and the only familiar way to garner support, the microphone becomes just another addiction. You become dependent on the attention you receive. Many assume that writing is catharsis, but regurgitating trauma always comes with the price of acid reflux. Of course, the act of sharing can shake memories out of us that may otherwise have rotted in paralysis or dysfunctionality. But really it just hurts. And making it into an artform just makes it a procedural hurt. Therefore, we become jealous that other poets might utilize the pain that we worked so hard to get our bodies used to feeling. Slam poetry teaches children to fingerpaint with our trauma and the unhappiness of a poet is our only antecedent of paint. We’re swollen with heartache. And the pen’s only purpose is to prick.
In the same vein, I still feel reluctant to use the word trauma to describe that which I write about, because it has become such a foreign concept to me. What is trauma? I hurt myself, sure, but how valuable is that? Ongoing self harm doesn’t have enough balance between relatability and good endings to be appealing. Scars are artistic. Fresh wounds are not. Therefore, writing about scars is easy. But writing about the act of creating them is impossible. Clarity doesn’t always come with hindsight. Even this essay feels like a pitiful and futile reach for empathy where there is none. I can write poem after poem about tears and sadness and whatever, and never came close to honesty. Which, honestly, is what I did. And I was fine with that. Lying to the audience. To myself. It was familiar to say everything and speak nothing.
But of course, this facade catches up. It may take hours. It may take years. But the process of rebirthing yourself as someone you are not is always inevitably undone. In a way, my personal undoing is an ongoing process. Part of it is writing with brutal honesty. To not apologize to myself for how I have written about myself in the past, but to continue without doing so. This essay is a prime example. I did not lie once in what you’ve just read. And I won’t again.