I used to visualize my brain as this cold, enemy planet that the rest of my body orbited and, sometimes, crashed into. I imagined my brain as separate from myself, in a dark corner of my skull, plotting. Devising its next wicked plan to dismantle my life. It was easy for me to detach myself from the reality of bipolar disorder because it is a mental illness, so it was only my head that had a problem. Plus, it was close to invisible. The rare times I did speak of my depression, it was cushioned with self-deprecating humor, presented as more hyperbolic than authentic. With language I planted distractions, thwarting every opportunity for the planet to be named.
When I’d retreat, ignoring phone calls and emails, vanishing for weeks at a time, I was allotted this radio silence without much concern; poets, after all, are notorious for falling into A Mood. My friends didn’t know I contemplated committing suicide at least twice a week, would go up to six days without sleeping, obsessing over the idea that I might one day become my mother: a paranoid woman who heard voices, receiving direct orders from God through the radio. A lost astronaut, spinning further and further away.
In 2010, a year after moving to upstate New York, hundreds of miles from my friends, I spiraled into the most severe depression of my life. There was no longer an audience, so no need to fake it. Sadly, my children had grown accustomed to my bad days. They knew when to avoid me and when to give me a hug or rub my head. They were the last of what was anchoring me to this world, and it pained me to know they knew it. I fought hard to be present for them, but often I’d find myself in the middle of a conversation, then see my daughter shaking her head, asking, “Are you even listening to me?” Other times I’d be standing in a part of the house without any idea why I was there, or how I got there. Too many times I had to ask myself, “Why am I here?” There were tasks I completed, things I smashed, poems I wrote, rants I hurled, that I was not present for. This terrified me. I had five children, a beautiful home and I was checking out.
The dissociative behavior grabbed hold of me hardest at night. Once the kids were put to bed, I drifted. My eyes blackened and I would fall catatonic. If I stayed too long in this state, the edges of my body would start to tingle and I’d feel myself, the energy that was my actual SELF, begin to be absorbed by the static. Eventually, this started seeping into my days. The unpacked traumas and lack of sleep and denial took a heavy toll on not just my brain but my entire body. My joints ached at the slightest touch. My body swelled around each inflamed muscle. My temper became unyielding. And worst of all, my language began to deteriorate. I lost the name for things. I was a poet and I lost the name for things. In my panicked state, I chose words that were woven with cruelty. There were moments with my partner, when I heard myself speaking to him and knew it was not me. I often pleaded, while outside of my body, to my body, “Ooooh no no no no, please, don’t say that.” But I couldn’t stop myself.
Poetry had been my outlet for over a decade. Normally, if I was struggling, I wrote myself through it. In poems, I admitted my ugly, resurrected departed friends and relatives, constructed beauty from the demolished, and gave every trauma I’d outlived its deserved name. I realize now, I never wrote about living with mental illness because I wasn’t living with mental illness. I was running from and fighting with and stumbling through and barely surviving the shame of it.
By denying the existence of a flaw, I denied myself the opportunity to ground myself, to learn to navigate and build and establish a home within myself. On this planet that was never separate from me at all. This planet where I come from, that also comes from me. This planet that has guided me through every loss and revelation: my complicated and botched and beautiful brain. My brain my brain my brain. My brain that sometimes fails me. My brain that designs mercy. My brain that seethes. My brain that yearns for my estranged mother. My brain that steals. My brain that glistens. My brain that comes up with The Best Halloween Costumes Ever. My brain that swaggers. My brain that fights, daily, against its inherited mechanics. My brain that blooms. My brain that wanders and imagines and freaks the fuck out. My brain that unravels and lacerates. My brain that conjures. My brain that craves death metal and Neil Diamond. My brain that appreciates sick jokes. My brain that is the teeth in the mouth of my heart. My brain that vibrates with memory and trauma and overload and retreat. My brain that waited for me to acknowledge it for what it UNapologetically is. My brain that gave itself a voice. My brain that gives and asks for nothing in return. My brain that engines me through hell. My brain that drags me back to bed. My brain that wants only to be my brain. My brain that has shed its shame. My brain that said and fights to keep saying YES.[Headline image: The photograph shows a young white woman with brown, red-streaked hair. She is wearing a white scarf on her head, and her hands are folded one top of each other. She has blue eyes and is wearing red lipstick, and she has tattoos on her fingers and wrists.]
ABOUT Rachel McKibbens
Poet, activist, playwright and essayist Rachel McKibbens is the author of the poetry collections Into the Dark and Emptying Field (2013) and Pink Elephant (2009). The Rumpus wrote of Pink Elephant, “McKibbens awakens and haunts with selfless honesty.” Her poems, short stories, essays and creative non-fiction have been featured in numerous journals and blogs, including Her Kind, The Los Angeles Review, The Best American Poetry Blog, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, The London Magazine, The Acentos Review, World Literature Today, Radius, and The American Poetry Journal.
McKibbens is a well-known member of the poetry slam community: she is a nine-time National Poetry Slam team member, has appeared on eight NPS final stages, and coached the New York louderARTS poetry slam team to three consecutive final stage appearances, was the 2009 Women of the World Poetry Slam champion and the 2011 National Underground Poetry Slam individual champion. McKibbens appeared on two seasons of Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam and was featured in the poetry slam documentary Slam Planet in 2006 at SXSW. In 2011, McKibbens was commissioned by The Getty Center in Los Angeles to write and perform an ekphrastic poem for their multi-media poetry event Dark Blushing.
For four years McKibbens taught poetry through the Healing Arts Program at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan and continues to teach poetry and creative writing and give lectures across the country as an advocate for mental illness, gender-equality, and victims of violence and domestic abuse. A poetry fellow for the New York Foundation, she lives with her family in upstate New York, where she teaches poetry and co-curates the monthly reading series Poetry & Pie Night.