Can poetry help you through dark times?

Trigger warnings: Suicide, depression

Poet Emmanuella Hristova shares her very personal journey about loss and how poetry and writing saw her through some very tough life events. So, can poetry help you through dark times?

There was once a time I wanted to die. Sorry, I guess this post should come with trigger warnings for a few sensitive topics. I assure you, no attempts were actually made on my life. But I will give you a trigger warning for suicidal thoughts—because that much was true.

Emmanuella Hristova

When I think back on the worst period of my life, it often comes back to me a bit faded in memory. As if I had blacked out repeatedly after drinking too much, or as if my doctor had prescribed me heavy sedatives that affected my brain. The pressure of what I faced was like a printing press—pressing me down underneath a weight until I was crushed, with the stain of my body leaving some beautiful markings on paper.

That is how I remember my first year of graduate school.

I was dealt a series of blows which came in a succession. And, as tragedies often begin, it all started when I fell in love. For the first time. And love was, as cliché as it sounds, euphoric and splendid and I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want it to end because I fell in love while my sister was undergoing chemotherapy for stage two breast cancer. So, in a way, I clung to love as an escape from that gnawing feeling that ate away at my gut. And if you’ve ever watched a family member suffer from a terminal illness, you know what that gnawing feeling is—uncertainty. The uncertainty of whether she would make it out of this one. Because our brilliant minds often want to cling onto all that is good, even if that means ignoring the inevitable. And boy, did I want to ignore the inevitable.

Following my first college graduation, a young woman I used to mentor gave me a green Moleskin notebook and told me to document all my adventures. And at that time of my life I was pondering my own definition of feminism—and I started to write it down in this notebook as a result. But, of course, love struck me like a fever and within a matter of a few months I wasn’t writing about societal gender inequality anymore, I was writing about the color of my lover’s eyes and the way I felt when his hand touched mine and what it meant to tell him how I felt about him. It was all so new to me, and in a way, so was writing.

But this love, too, began to deteriorate. As with many young graduates learning to navigate their entrance into adulthood, career uncertainty taints new relationships. My boyfriend broke up with me due to career prospects in Washington D.C. and I was left with another thing I had never experienced before—a broken heart. And if you thought things couldn’t get any worse—wait for it. Two weeks later I found out my sister’s cancer had reached stage four. Terminal. And we didn’t know how long she had left. Weeping days turned into weeping nights where I often didn’t even eat dinner, because I had gotten so used to my own tears being my sustenance.

This was all happening during my first fall semester in graduate school, where I had to quit work so I could do student teaching hours to complete my teaching credential. All of which, was free labor, by the way. In addition, the homework load my graduate program assigned was monstrous. And my graduate program advisor was the least empathetic person when it came to my situation; she barely extended any sympathy or help in accommodating for my deteriorating mental state and frequently put me and my cohorts down in class for not having completed assignments or for not doing them well enough, according to her standards. I couldn’t focus on my school work.

I couldn’t focus on all the scholarly reading I had to do. I couldn’t focus on the lesson plans I had to write each night. All I could do was write in my Moleskin notebook about how I felt. And wrote, I did. I wrote and wrote until there were no pages left, until there was no ink left on the printing press that was suffocating me with its weight. I wrote through the pain of learning that my ex-boyfriend wasn’t leaving for Washington D.C. after all, and I wrote through the pain of my sister’s death which occurred less than two weeks after Christmas, and I wrote through the pain of following graduate semester without her and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote till each day the pain was a tiny bit less, and a tiny bit less, and a tiny bit less. And when I look back at that period of my life, the period in which I suffered and endured things nobody should have to endure, I realized I had written a book. It was in my diary—but it was all there. It even had a name: The Day My Kisses Tasted Like Disorder. And I realized something else—I was alive.

I used to think teetering in and out of suicidal thoughts was a sign of weakness. And I think many of us do, and that’s one of the reasons talking about these things is stigmatized. The media paints celebrities that struggle with their mental health as delusional, mental. Until they take their own life that is, and then these same celebrities are deified, martyred even. And all everyone talks about afterwards are about the “signs”. The signs everyone ignored. The signs that everyone stigmatized. So really, there’s no winning. Until there is.

So, can poetry help you through dark times? I’m not saying you should write—that’s my coping mechanism of choice. But surely, there must be other ways for you to express your pain. Be it working out, painting, joining a solidarity circle, reading, making music, cooking, singing, creating comic books, designing clothes; there are countless ways to express yourself in a way to alleviate the numbness we all feel when we may not necessarily want to be alive. And I no longer see that desire as a weakness, but I don’t necessarily see it as a strength either. It is, rather, a symptom of being human, and perhaps feeling too much pain. But you are not alone in your pain, and as I turn to my Moleskin to write down some thoughts, I need to remind myself that I, too, am not alone.

Emmanuella Hristova
Choose a creative outlet as therapy

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