My father told me a story about when he was a young policeman working in Milton, ON. He was called to the scene of a suicide. A veteran of the First World War had stood in the middle of night saluting on railroad tracks letting a train run him down. It is a harrowing image, one that stills haunts me.
As a young person, I found it hard to believe anyone could be in that much pain, or feel so abused by life’s ups and downs, he or she would would choose to end it in such a dramatic fashion.
Then I became a teenager and the first signs of depression began to manifest themselves in my own life. I remember being bullied in grade 7 and 8 to the point I began to stammer in front of my peers. I was kicked and punched daily, had my property stolen, every conceivable obscenity flung at me. The worst was when the young bully wiped his nose on my shirt. His mother was a teacher at my school so I felt no one would listen to me, and therefore I was on my own.
Such taunting drove me deep inside myself where I cultivated inner resources of the imagination which would serve me later on in life when I actually decided to become a poet, but it also made me deeply distrustful of my surroundings.
At the time, I did not think of myself as depressed. Just a victim of moving to a small Northern town where few kids liked me. It was later in my twenties as an undergrad that I suffered my first major depressive episode as an adult. I remember having suicidal thoughts for the first time. I could not sleep or eat. I lost ten pounds. I recovered slowly over a few years, but I eventually graduated with honours and moved to Montreal where my mental health stabilized.
Since that time, I have suffered at least three personal “doozies” as Jim Harrison once said of his own depressive episodes, the last one persisting for three years and only now am I starting to feel better. Depression is a hard thing to talk about not simply because of the shame or feelings of personal weakness it engenders, but because of the fear it might actually come back. Something about invoking one’s demons. Here be monsters.
If writing is elation, intoxication, depression is its opposite. Suffocation. A feeling like there is a slow leak, and all the air is leaving the world. It is also crippling exhaustion, panic and anxiety, which make it painful, especially for loved ones, to interact with the depressed person.
I am not entirely sure of the relationship between depression, and the art of poetry except to say for me it is profound. David Biespiel has recently written,
“The poet’s journey involves a series of transformations because to write a poem is, above all to change your life. And, no less important, to change someone else’s life. A poem is an offering. A poem is a common wealth. Because each poem contains insight, the wisdom you reveal in your poems can renew the community. When you present your poems to the world, you are saying to readers that you have discovered something. You are saying that you are ready to participate in the shared human experience…"
For the depressive who feels most often apart from the world and other people, stuck on invisible railroad tracks with their neuroses bearing down on them, it is vitally important to understand experience is malleable. A poem is transformative. It offers a way to connect and share with other human beings when no other way seems possible.
Why I have depression—bad genes, a nasty drug my mother took when she was pregnant with me, childhood trauma—hardly seems important. The truth is chronic major depression has been a constant in my adult life ruining my relationships with people I care most about, and no amount of exercise, medications or therapy has made it go away for good. That poetry and the imagination can help me forget this burden awhile, or even at times to feel like a whole person is a spiritual fact. It allows me to keep going.