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How poetry and spoken word taught me to talk about my mental health

Illustration of a hand holding a microphone

Submitted by Claire McGowan

‘Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found its words' – Robert Frost

I was 18 when I was diagnosed with anxiety and OCD. For the longest time, I branded my anxiety as just being shy, and my OCD, well I kept quiet about that. I didn’t know how to explain it until I was sat in a doctor’s office, and it all came pouring out. While I was lucky to have a supportive family and understanding friends, I still found it incredibly hard to open up about it. Even today I still find it difficult to talk about, but it’s something I’ve worked on and got better at.

My first year of university was challenging, and most of the time I would either keep travelling back home or stay cooped up in my room watching YouTube videos. I was offered counselling, and while it felt good that I opened up a little, I didn’t feel in the right headspace to be able to understand how to deal with my emotions. Later that summer, I found my mental health plummeted, I was going through a breakup, and everything felt so overwhelming to me. At one point I worried that I wasn’t going to cope with going back to my second year of university. I felt extremely vulnerable, but thanks to my family and friends who supported and encouraged me to keep going, I chose to go back.

Facing my fears

In my first year, I felt too scared to try anything new, and I was still worried about this feeling in my second year. Something I had wanted to do in my first year was join the Creative Writing Society, but the thought of walking into a new environment and having to introduce myself to new people terrified me. Luckily, some people from my course were part of the society, and I felt more comfortable going with people who I knew so I didn’t have to go by myself.

Little did I know that it was going to be one of the best decisions I ever made. I was welcomed in by a group of people who enjoyed writing like me and were always keen to learn more, inspire more, and encourage others to share their work. I am still friends with them almost nine years later and met my boyfriend through the society too. Being in an environment where everyone is accepting of you, encourages you and does not push you to share, meant the world to me.

From creative writing to an open mic

I remember sitting at my first open mic hosted by the society and being unsure of what to expect. I had a limited understanding of what an open mic actually was, outside of knowing that it involved people going up on stage and sharing some of their work. What I didn’t realise is how awestruck I would be by people sharing their words, and how inspired it would leave me.

It takes a lot of guts to go up in front of a group of people and share something you’ve written. In secondary school, I used to experience panic attacks when we had to do presentations, mainly because I was worried what people would think of me, or that I would mess up and do something wrong like misunderstand a topic or – because I took notes up with me – that it didn’t look like I knew what I was talking about. It took me a while to perform at an open mic session mainly because those feelings hadn’t gone away, but also because it was something that would be personal to me, and I was worried I’d be misunderstood. There was this worry that people wouldn’t like what I had written or that it wouldn’t make sense.

But, after a couple of months and lots of encouragement from family and friends, I pushed myself to do it. I performed one poem which was about anxiety and lasted about a minute. No one told me they didn’t like it, no one laughed, and I actually had someone come up to me after to say how much they had resonated with my poem. I then experienced something I hadn’t felt in a long time: I was proud of myself.

From then onwards, I kept going to the society open mics, but also researched about more events in the area, and soon felt part of a writing community where everyone always supported each other. I have made many friends through poetry and spoken word events for which I am so grateful.

Down the Rabbit Hole...

Once I had opened up about my mental health in poetry, I found it easier to be honest with myself and talk to others about it. I would give myself more time to reflect on my emotions and it also kept me writing. It was suggested to me that I kept a journal and wrote in it every day, so I did. Not everything I wrote I shared, but when I was writing I was allowing myself to be truthful about how I was feeling, and sharing my work with others gave me the opportunity to open a discussion about mental health while improving my performance and writing.

I was always looking for ways to improve, and I found that just like having a favourite genre of music, an author, or a favourite band, I could search for poets who openly spoke about their mental health, and this is where I fell down the rabbit hole of watching Button Poetry. I still remember the first time I watched Neil Hilborn’s poem ‘OCD’ and was stunned. I had spoken a lot about my anxiety and depression, but not so much about my OCD. I didn’t really know how to express why I had certain compulsions, and to this day I still struggle because there is so much misconception about what OCD actually is. Yet Neil’s poem managed to be informative, with a mixture of funny and heartbreaking moments.

When you like a band, you have favourite songs of theirs, and you itch to see them live so you can experience it first hand in a room or stadium full of people who are just as passionate about them as you. You remember their lyrics, usually because you like the words or you feel you can resonate with them in some way. I feel poetry is the same, I love Neil Hilborn’s work, but OCD will always be my favourite of his because it is the one I can relate to most.

‘When you have obsessive-compulsive disorder, you don’t really have quiet moments' – Neil Hilborn, OCD

Just like Spotify recommends music you may like based on what you’ve been listening to, YouTube recommended me other poets to watch on the Button Poetry channel based on what I had watched. I found myself watching poetry for hours on end every day, being excited when I was notified that new content had been uploaded.

Poetry and Spoken Word are great ways for people to connect, not only through their mental health, and you are bound to find a poem or a piece of spoken word that you can relate to. Not all spoken word is serious; there are funny ones, there are ones on topics people love, and it’s up to you to find them, and maybe even share them with the world.

Every time you share, or you tell an artist how much you love their work or that you relate to it too, you inspire them to keep going, and it means an awful lot to them too.

Here are some of my favourite spoken word videos:


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