Poetry – Mental Health – Everything but the Kitchen Sink

Pain does funny things to our cognitive abilities. It muddies our vision, fogs our thinking, and makes it insanely difficult to remember important information.

I remember, as a teenager, getting my fingers pinched in a door. Damn, that hurt. I let out a string of curse words in front of my uber-religious mom and I didn’t really care at the moment. My cognitive functions shut down briefly.In the moment, I was not concerned with being punished by my mother and I didn’t think of the incessant guilt-trip I’d deal with when this ordeal was over. I simply reacted to the pain and made language decisions based on the limited functioning I could muster at the time.

I know this is a very innocent example – petty, even. But I’ve been talking to folks living with chronic pain and it’s made me consider my own experiences more closely. One woman described it as a kind of fingers-pinched-in-a-door-CONSTANTLY type of pain. Maybe you can relate. Maybe you know all too well what chronic pain does to your brain functioning. If that’s you, my prayers go out to you. Really.

The physical pain I deal with is generally mild, although my emotional turbulence is often accompanied by physical symptoms. But it’s not as bad as the chronic pain some people live with daily.

Language is a cognitive function. Writing is one of the ways I cope with emotional and physical pain. How can writing help with pain when the very functions of language are hampered by pain?

The answer is poetry.

Poetry is helpful for people coping with pain. You see, poetry doesn’t begin with language. It does away with the need for cognitive functioning. In other words, poetry can begin to emerge even when we can’t find the words to describe what we feel.This is because poetry begins in the senses – sight, sound, taste, smell, touch – not from memory or thought. When I write as a way to cope with pain, I don’t begin with a story I want to tell. I don’t begin with the idea that I want to describe what I am feeling.

I begin with feeling. The physical motion of writing the words becomes a process in itself. I begin with that motion. Then with one word. Then another. Then I return to feeling and begin again.

What I end up with is almost never a good poem. In fact, it’s mostly junk – gibberish and nonsense. (If you’ve read emotionally-charged amateur poetry, you’ll recognize this instantly.) That is not poetry. But it is the beginning of poetry. It is the place to start.

I cleared out my kitchen this week as a way to cope with the debilitating anxiety attacks I’ve been dealing with lately. It was a ritual of sorts. 

When the chatter and background noise becomes too much, I need to clear space. Not the metaphysical “holding space” type of space. No, I mean the literal removing of physical objects type of space. I believe there is a correlation (as above so below), but wasn’t thinking that as I cleaned up.I was only thinking of the clarity I want, the openness my body craves, and the way the extra stuff seems to crawl up my counter-tops and jump out at me during an anxiety attack.I need the simplicity that comes with less stuff. When my cognitive functioning is limited by pain, I need less choices in front of me. Do I want a glass of water or an apple? Simple. Not overwhelming. Not crowded.

I can’t always live this way. Most days, I don’t need to. Most days, I am able to decide what to eat, how to talk to people, how to show up in the world. But on pain-days, as I’ve come to call them, I want the simplicity of clear counter tops and doors that never pinch shut.

Poetry offers that space.

It allows for space between words, space between stanzas, even space between feeling, thought, silence, and meaning. Poetry exists in that space. And that is where I turn when everyday words are just too much.

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