Thursday, September 2, 2010

Sympathetic deja vu

DISCLAIMER: this is a very personal post. It is not meant to be construed as advice, I have not scrambled to be politically correct, I am not saying that this is what "should" be done. This is an account of my own experience, my own thoughts on the subject, and I ask that you respect that.

*             *                *

At uni this semester, I am doing a course called 'world writing today'. We were asked to read a play called 4.48 Psychosis, by Sarah Kane. The format of the script was not traditional. I had no idea how it would translate to stage at all, and as such ended up reading it like a poem. It was so hard for me to read. Not just because it was odd, dark and violent... but because those qualities reminded me of the poems I used to write when I was suffering from depression.

I'm saying this right now: I am not comparing myself to Kane's literary or dramatic merit. Ok? The reason that I so much identified with her work is the emotion; her use of visual poetry format; her wordplay, rich in alliteration, repetition, and strongly physical imagery. When I read her words, I could feel them roiling in my stomach and twisting through my veins like the words I used to try and exorcise my own demons with. It's awful, but I miss that... burn, that rush when it felt like I was able, with pen or keyboard, to bleed a little of my own darkness into form. My quality of life, and my relationships, are immeasurably better. My anxiety levels are that of a normal person and I'm utterly grateful for it. Medication and therapy helped me to cope, helped me to enjoy life rather than feeling like I failed miserably at everything and shouldn't have been born. The feelings that I needed to explain are, for the most part, gone... But I still miss the relief and the exhilaration of being able to put them on the page. Does that make sense? I am a writer, and I have in essence, lost a part of myself. But it was the emotional equivalent of a gangrene limb: not having it makes me happier and much healthier.

I want to read more of Sarah Kane's work, but I don't know if it's a good idea. A few months ago, my desire to write poetry again drove me to stop taking my medication. I crumbled like a derelict house. My emotional equilibrium was gone. I became so despairing and at times hysterical. I cried nearly every day. Work was unbearable. I hated the way I behaved towards my family, my friends and my boyfriend. I went back on the medication. I never even wrote anything during that period. My brain was so freaked out by the resurgence of my chemical imbalance, I did not know how to cope with it at all. Any and all tolerance I had built up over
the years was gone.

Funnily enough, we discussed this connection between creativity and mental illness in class. It was my second tutorial (I missed a week when I was fluey) so I was totally uncomfortable and didn't mention my affinity with Kane's work, my conflicted reaction to it or my personal experience with the subject of our discussions.

The fact that I take antidepressants is not something that I really share with people. Depression has been such a 'popularised' condition that it's almost something not taken seriously any more. Yes, some doctors are more quick to prescribe antidepressants to people who are lethargic, going through a rough time or have other conditions. But for me, personally - I was significantly depressed and anxious from the age of twelve onwards. I did not seek professional help until I was seventeen. I utterly resisted the idea of medical or psychological help, even after that. When I finally went to the doctor, nineteen and desperate, it became clear within a month that my problem was a chemical imbalance. However, I had mental and emotional habits which lingered after the medication, so reluctantly accepted, had stablised my emotional state.

Thinking back, it's easy to see why I didn't really want help for so long. I wasn't ready to let go of the pain, which utterly defined me. I was scared of what I would be without it. I was afraid of losing myself, or at least a part of me, if and when the pain went away (not that I could imagine what that would feel like). We humans don't like change, even if we know that it's a change for the better. It's scary. To accept help with dealing with depression and anxiety is inviting a massive change into your life.

Sarah Kane's work, and her story, is just as wrenching as that of the better-known Sylvia Plath (I have not read the Bell Jar: same issue. I would love to read it but I am afraid it will be too triggering for me). Psychosis was actually completed, and delivered to her agent, two days before she killed herself. Some critics and academics have labelled the play her suicide note. While it is raw, shockingly emotive and confronting I think labelling it a suicide note takes away from the fact that it is art. It has all the qualities of a piece of art, but even the first page tells you that this is not just some fictive piece, an imagined world. With 4.48 Psychosis, Sarah Kane brought her world of chaos, pain and loss onto the page, so that it may be translated onto the stage. So that maybe someone would understand, and maybe... maybe then she wouldn't be so alone with her perception of the world. That's what I felt like when I wrote. Yet... after opening herself up to the world this way, she ended her life. I still don't know what to make of that.

Further reading about Sarah Kane here.
Downloadable and free copy of 4.48 Psychosis here, if anyone is interested in reading it.
My previous post about artists and suicide here.


  1. Your honesty is beautiful.

    And so are you.

  2. hey, it reminds me of me too. weird, eh?

    must be one of those universal things...

    no, it isn't. we must all think the same..

    i think i'm starting to write like her!

    but i remember being 12. and i agree with you. not the greatest time of my life, start of many problems. but now, hopefully this adulthood thing resolves some of those 'problems' though similarly it's more like acceptance.

    i think that's enough negative stuff for me today :) enjoyed reading!

  3. Just read 4.48 Psychosis. There's something very recognisable about it, a particular shade of darkness ... I guess the same as what you felt, although I've never been as close to it as you have.

    "It's awful, but I miss that... burn, that rush when it felt like I was able, with pen or keyboard, to bleed a little of my own darkness into form."

    I don't think it's awful. I think it's just true. You do lose things by choosing to be mentally healthy; we might as well admit that. But the things you gain by choosing mental health are worth it.

    (Although I haven't personally suffered from anything bad enough to be clinical, choosing to be healthy is something I am / have been quite aware of - partly as there is some history of bipolar / anxiety in my family, and partly during the time when my OH was seriously depressed (couldn't afford to have both of us out of it!).)


PLEASE don't leave your blog URL in your comment unless you're linking to a relevant post. Thanks!