Chloe Honum’s chapbook “Then Winter” was released from Bull City Press in 2017; I read it last year and reread it this winter, cherishing the intimate observations and vulnerable recollections of a stay in a psychiatric hospital. These poems offer solace and insight, equipping the reader with both empathy and knowledge of a time in the speaker’s life that was formative and very difficult.
Even though I’ve never been admitted to a psychiatric hospital, I’ve struggled with generalized anxiety and had several breakdowns, the worst of which was during the 2017 CUPSIs. And mental health breakdowns are, as you may know, atrocious and taxing and intense and heartbreaking. Winters, like RIGHT NOW, THIS WINTER, are especially hard for me (I live in Michigan). Seasonal affective disorder is bad. I can’t leave my house without layers of warm clothes and a hat and gloves and a scarf and boots, and I hate it. I’m tired of shoveling and scraping my car in the bitter cold. I’ve slipped dozens of times, and both my husband and I (as well as plenty of other people I know) hurt ourselves badly from falls. I miss hiking and being in the sunshine. I feel considerably less happy, and I know so many others are also grumpy and sad and so over winter. No wonder, then, that these poems take place in the grips of a snowy winter. And even without having experienced as severe a crisis as the subject of the book, I turn to these poems and am still able to relate and gain comfort, healing, and solidarity from them, and for that, I’m grateful.
Many of these poems are quite emotional and are tied to heavy moments; the details and snatches of conversation recorded in “Group Therapy” and “Early Winter in the Psychiatric Ward“, for example, place the reader squarely in the therapy sessions, hearing the difficulties of each patient, feeling the same heaviness and turmoil, longing for the same “miracle drugs.” In “Rest”, Chloe writes of wanting to rest with “dreams / like white petals absorbing ink.”
“I imagine myself in the ward above, for the more severe cases. I’m afraid I’ll float up and ask to be admitted,” Chloe writes in “The Ward Above.” For years, I’ve had troublesome thoughts about self-harm or intentionally crashing my car or of fainting and being found to have some sort of major health issue. They’re terrifying but also exhilirating, and the worst part is that I’m aware that they’re founded in a desire for attention, even if I know that it would not be a healthy kind of attention. These lines I’ve pulled from “The Ward Above” seem to carry the same weight; they’re an admission and a sudden desire, even if the speaker knows it isn’t actually desirable to have to be admitted to the upstairs floor.
This book also explores the concept of wellness and normalcy. “Maybe sense is not a place / I want to linger” she writes in “At America’s Best Value Value Inn in Crossett, Arkansas”. The book’s first poem, called “The Angel”, examines the othering that people with mental disorders or difficulties sometimes experience: “Since then, she has gone everywhere with me. / Occasionally, people see her and startle. They ask her if she’s all / right, but she speaks only to me…”
In “Note Home”, Chloe writes the beautiful line: “It it so important to go / on naming, even if all I said to you this winter was snow, snow, snow.” For me, it evokes the memory of my therapist teaching me of mindfulness. One way to combat mental wellness struggles is through meditation and a focus on being present. Some people count slowly; some pay attention to their breathing; others picture a place that helps them feel calm.
Mental wellness is a constant heave-ho, requiring work and emotional awareness that sometimes, we just want to ignore. Sure, yoga and getting enough sleep are crucial, but you have to be able to discipline yourself to do those things, and if you’re a parent or if you’re low-income or if something else in your life is a serious stress factor, it can be hard to do the hard work of maintaining good mental health in the first place. Thank goodness, then, for “Then Winter”, which reminds us that it’s okay to be in the off-seasons and to still be trying.
“Then Winter” is available from Bull City Press or your local bookstore for $12.
Throughout your life, you meet people who stand apart from the crowd in their consistency and honesty. Angela Cluley and I became friends about two years ago and slowly realized that we have a lot in common, from struggling with anxiety to our shared experiences serving. We did this interview online, as Angela is living in Costa Rica, working for the PeaceCorps in child development, as part of her Masters in Social Work program through the University of Michigan. I hope you enjoy reading this interview and the poems that follow.
Tell me about your childhood.
Favorite childhood memory is playing football with my dad. It was my younger brother and I and my dad would finger draw out football plays on his shirt and then I would execute exactly the play and always win against my brother. (since I was older) We would then play football video games on the Nintendo after so that we could have additional practice. I loved it!
Least favorite childhood memory is being in foster care from 7 to 9 years old. I lived with different families, some related to me and others not. One of the random families I lived with were horrible to me. They had many foster kids they were taking care of, and it was too much. The kids bullied us, and one actually slammed my head into my birthday cake to be funny. Luckily, we didn’t stay very long.
When did you begin writing? Why do you write?
I began writing when I was in high school. I had a teacher who introduced us to poetry and I started to like putting my life on paper. I write for my own personal reflection and healing. When I began writing, I did not write from a personal standpoint, which didn’t feel genuine. When I perform poetry now, I am able to express myself and heal with the audience.
Favorite interaction after a performance?
The best reaction was when one of the audience members came up to me after reading a very personal poem that I had broke down after reading and not only did they give me a hug, they told me that they had gone through that same experience and thanked me for putting it on the stage for the world to hear, since the subject is usually stigmatized.
What’s important to you?
Family and friends are really important to me but also serving others. I want to dedicate my life to making the world a better place which is why I am currently serving in the PeaceCorps and studying for my Master’s Degree in Social Work.
Why do we delete blurry photos? Hit the trashcan when we see red eye or an extra flab of skin? We should love mistook photographs. Undocumented moments. Moments that cannot be tamed by the lens. The blurry laugh line of your grandpa’s smile as he sits back in his rocking chair telling stories of back in the day mischief and wander.
the camera knowing that this moment was too great to be staged. The grasp of your mother’s hand intertwined in yours as she takes her last breath. Tears uncaptured falling onto your hands.
A child dancing in the wind, dandelion seeds swirling around, their laughter touching your cheek. Daring you to put down your phone and dance. Children are more knowledgeable than adults. They know that technology cannot replace interaction. They understand how to live life, to enjoy the sunrise, soak in the scents of flowers of grass and earth. Imperfect photos remind us that the screen cannot replace people. The night sky cannot be felt in a Facebook post. Dreams and aspirations will not be contained in 140 characters or a hashtag. Fears and regrets cannot fully be expressed or heard in a 4 walled plexiglas solitary confinement. Love cannot be shared the same without the touch and hug of a friend. Active listening without distraction.
Don’t be mistaken, photographs are beautiful, we are able to capture a percentage of a moment through a mechanical apparatus that soaks in light… that is magnificent but realize that there’s always a place and time for everything and though the camera can be an amazing tool it can also be the knife that stabs us in the back as we lose moments with distraction. And if you must capture then don’t pose, don’t delete post the photos with the least amount of preparation. The ones with extra hazy laughlines, wrinkles and too much or too little makeup.
You never know when this moment will be captured and ruined.
I was 8 years old when I wrote my first suicide letter At 8, I wanted to die, found that life was too difficult and wished for a time machine
Shaking pen hand, trembling my goodbyes across construction paper, shouting silence to the world I don’t belong, never belonged. Tears smudging letters, creating thumbprints evidence of my existence. Existence I want to wash away. Moments flood the mind, moments alone at this table with thoughts and a pen.
As a child I watched my family drown themselves with poison and addiction so they didn’t have to feel anymore. Everyone was slowly committing suicide so I decided to write mine.
At 14 I took razor blades to my arms trying to cut the hurt off, trying to get rid of the evidence of my failures. I took scissors to my legs and stomach trying to cut my fat away. Shaking scissors interlaced in defiant fingers, cutting the moments away, ridding my body of ugly of laughing, pointing children mooing in the hallway
Hoping to be my own lipo-surgeon
At 15 I found my uncle’s suicide letter, written on canvas so elegantly, telling everyone it wasn’t their fault and not to blame themselves. I spent hours at my uncle’s grave, contemplating why, justifying his reasons then justifying mine. I imagined his moment-
Staring down the black hole barrel of a gun, the smell of dumpster death lingering, contemplating the moments that came to this.
Counting the bullets in the chamber, 1, 2, 3.
Each a different tragedy leading to this. One click into position-raise the black hole where an outstretched hand should be, a heart should be. He goes unnoticed, he leaves like the silence of a tree in the woods that nobody hears. With one click.
At 23, I wrapped a belt around my neck. The belt a noose to end the nuisance of breathing. I pulled, playing tug of war with my breath. before collapsing to the floor and clutching the dying inside me. wheezing in and out of a self induced asthmatic attack. Each belt notch marking a tragedy, a devastating moment coming to where the belt loop meets the strap.
At 25, I learned that my brother drove his truck at a tree. Key burning in ignition, foot on the pedal revving the engine to life, he never felt so alive. Shifter in park, just two shifts down and the moment of adrenaline
the moment of impact. Fingers caress the button contemplating the moments
2 shifts down, engine charges ahead
tree in sight as he closes his eyes. My brother wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t gotten stuck in the mud right before the crash.
That’s when I stopped dreaming of my own death, when I realized that someone I cared about was dreaming of theirs.
I got accepted into grad school! I’m so excited…don’t I sound excited?
I guess I’m not as excited as I should be because I only have 3 months to say I’m sorry, I apologize.
3 months to make amends to take back all the words that I said that slithered through your ear canal, leaving remnants of poison in your cranial cavity, acidifying your blood stream and finally sucking the blood out of your heart…leaving it cold. Colder than bitter frostbit ankles on long winter hikes through Antarctica. I left it below freezing.
And now I have 3 months to unthaw freezer burn, to defibrillate your heart from cardiac arrest, repair puncture wounds and warm your soul with hot cocoa. I’ll let you have the marshmallows.
I’m sorry that’s not enough, not enough time because I caused more than 3 months worth of damage and instead of healing your wounds I’ve been blanketing them in bleach, whitewashing them to agonizing thresholds, digging into your skin deeper and deeper beyond what any skin graft could repair.
I apologize for not being genuine, for pretending everything was Alice in Wonderland shoveling all the pain down the rabbit hole and now…Where’s Alice? Searching for her in a Where’s Waldo portrait. And finding that she doesn’t exist, or maybe she’s in costume.
I apologize for sounding condescending, when I said I was proud of you, I meant it. I am so fucking proud of you. I hope that sounded heartfelt
it was, it is.
I apologize for taking jokes too far, not understanding boundaries or understanding but still crossing the line. Every time. Treating you as a finish line in a marathon race, I shouldn’t have crossed. But I did. Life’s not a competition but sometimes we still treat it like it is.
And now I have 3 months to shred the tears on pages in your book of pain, turning them into confetti pieces thrown on your birthday. Each becoming a wish for the future that could come true after you blow out the candles.
I wish you happiness, I wish you love. I wish you healed wounds. Scabbed over turned to scars that I can only hope go away eventually.
You’ve always meant the world to me and I still love you. Take out that piece of paper that I gave you.. I still love you.
These next three months I will help craft our resentment into paper airplanes named X and O and we can fly them in our spare time. Every Time they crash will be the last line in a goodbye letter XOXO from me to you.
P.S. I’m sorry that I wrote this into a poem but this was my only way of knowing that you’d hear my apology.
Sincerely, I hope you forgive me.
What advice would you give to other creative people who feel insecure / stuck in their art?
Keep writing, be in spaces where creativity and writing happens, practice makes perfect and if you get stuck…change your environment or people around you. Share your work with different places and avenues, with schools, publications, and open mics.
Interview and poems edited for grammar, clarity, and aesthetic / spacing.
Only consume body-positive media. Check out Tess Holiday and Joanna Spicer. Surround yourself with body-positive and mental health-positive images. Look for good media to consume.
Prioritize yourself. Declutter. Give away clothes that you don’t feel confident in. Only buy clothes that make you feel like yourself.
Extract yourself from relationships that don’t bring you joy.
Practice positive self-talk (Editor’s note: yes, this is really hard), even when you don’t feel like it. I’ll voice my feelings when I’m having a low-confidence day, then try to reply aloud with loving affirmations.
Find hobbies that make you feel good about yourself and do them. I draw and ballroom dance and do makeup.
Disregard the idea that there’s a male audience (or any audience) you have to do anything for.
Take selfies that make you feel like yourself. Honestly, taking nude selfies (although not necessarily sending them to anyone) can really help. (Editor’s note: be careful not to keep nude photos in storage on your phone, as they could end up somewhere you don’t want them. But pose away for those self-love moments! Your body is yours!)
Support other women. It circles back and rejuvenates you. Actively promote body / mental health positivity. For a while, I tried to start a little trend called “tummy love.”
What ways are you going to start loving yourself better? (Start right now!)
On the first Friday of every month, Division Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan bursts with art, performances, food, and laughter. Avenue for the Arts‘ free event is attended by artists, curators, art-lovers, young people, students, and world travelers.
Shibori [indigo dyeing] mini-workshop with Annie from LIGHT Gallery + Studio
All displayed artwork, books, shelves, candles, jars, etc. inside LIGHT is for sale.
What a beautiful way to shop!
I stopped taking my anti-depressant last week. It was first prescribed to me by a Spectrum Health mental wellness expert, and the positive effects on my anxiety were immediate. I could drive somewhere without an anchor in my chest. I could breathe while having a difficult conversation with a boss or parent. I felt genuine love and happiness in my marriage, emotions that should have never vanished.
I attribute my steady improvement and growth in self-esteem and confidence largely to my 5 mg Lexapro swallows. Therapy is certainly the most helpful part of my mental wellness regimen, along with my own journaling and conversations with my husband, but my anti-depressant has aided in lowering my general level of anxiety and allowing me to be successful in my day-to-day activities.
However, I decided last week Thursday that I was sick of the exhaustion Lexapro brought to my days. Before my prescription started, I slept between eight and nine hours a night and occasionally, perhaps once or twice a week, took a one hour nap. While on Lexapro, I began needing ten to eleven hours of sleep a night and could rarely make it to evening without laying down for a nap. My brain was certainly happier with the extra serotonin, but I think it was getting exhausted from the constant chemicals. (As someone else said, I’m not a doctor, but I can speak from my own experience.)
All those extra hours of sleep added up and stole valuable time from my productivity and hobbies. So I stopped taking it abruptly last week, after a night of twelve hours of sleep. Ain’t nobody got time to sleep that much.
And the dizziness started. I’ve been feeling nauseous, light-headed, dizzy, and unfocused for five days now. I didn’t realize that side effects can also happen after you stop taking prescription drugs. Just now, I googled “does stopping a Lexapro prescription cause withdrawal?” and found this entire page of testimonies about how eliminating or lessening doses of Lexapro can cause a whole slew of side effects. Why weren’t we told about this possibility before being prescribed such a serious drug? I’m grateful to my prescription for the benefits I had while on it, but I’m not looking forward to enduring up to a month of dizziness and nausea. We’re talking end of July here. That’s a long-ass time. I want to reclaim my days and make progress with self-love and confidence, and skipping meals and using an inhaler aren’t what I had in mind.
Any of you suffering from mental wellness-related withdrawal symptoms? I feel for ya. Tell me about your experiences in the comments section!
I’ve been working on myself this year, really paying attention to my body’s needs and voicing my concerns as soon as they arise. I got married last fall (hurrah!) but only a month after the wedding, I was crying almost every day for no reason. I felt unhappy, like a merry-go-round spinning in place, not going anywhere even though I was going through the actions of life. My partner held me and tried to understand why I was upset, but there really wasn’t a reason; I just was.
I started seeing a therapist at Spectrum Health – an awesome testament to how far mental health has come, that my doctor’s office is employing a full time social worker to address issues of mental wellness. She was amazing; she listened and offered practical advice; she talked about deep breathing and the normalcy of anxiety; in follow-up appointments, she remembered concerns I had previously brought up.
It was incredible to be acknowledged by a professional, to have my anxieties aired and empathized with. Many of us struggle with anxiety and depression. Personally, I feel anxious when I’m around a lot of people who I want to “fit in” with or whose admiration I desire. I have bad habits derived from my anxiety: I pick my nails and nail beds, I scratch my head, I chew things and fiddle with objects. These aren’t attractive character traits, but I’m admitting them so you, reader, might see your own tendencies in them and feel a sense of community. You aren’t alone in your struggle. You are one of millions of other teens and young adults who get nervous before public speeches or make impulsive choices to feel a sense of belonging. We want to feel part of something larger than ourselves, but we don’t always make the best decisions about how to do that. And others, those people we so desperately yearn to connect to, often hurt us out of their own selfishness and painfully low self-esteem.
So how do we meet our needs and work toward mental wellness?
One amazing thing I’ve learned is that there are two types of expectations we hold: our ideal expectation and the standard expectation. Here’s an excerpt from The Art of Happiness (interviews with the Dalai Lama):
For example, my ideal expectation in my relationship would be hugs every single day, fun, creative dates almost every day, and never having to clean up after each other. The standard (or more realistic) expectation would be: hugs every day we see each other, fun, creative dates when we can afford them, and minimal cleaning up after each other. See the subtle differences?
Here’s an example of a way I held myself to the wrong expectation. I gained about fifteen pounds last year after I came down with mono and wasn’t allowed to participate in any rigorous activity for fear of a spleen rupture (yikes!). I wanted to lose those fifteen pounds and felt awful about my appearance every day, even though I wasn’t making time to exercise so there was no way to lose the weight. But I ideally wanted to attain my lower weight, so I was mentally dissatisfied with myself, feeling disappointed in my figure, feeling sorry about my situation. It was absurd to expect that I could lose the pounds without time and effort, so I adopted a more realistic expectation, that I simply start exercising and that became my goal, rather than focusing on my physical appearance. It helped. I’ve lost three pounds, and even if I don’t lose anymore, I’m gaining muscle and definition, and my stamina is improving, and that makes me proud.
I also highly recommend that you see a counselor or therapist. If the first person doesn’t help, keep trying new therapists until you find one who understands you and who gives you the advice or assistance you need. My first counselor was kind and a great listener, but she didn’t give me practical advice. My current therapist specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy, meaning she focuses on how I can change my own thinking and adopt healthier habits. That is the kind of assistance I needed, and it’s made a noticeable difference in my attitude and spirit. My partner has noticed a significant change in my day-to-day wellbeing; I haven’t cried for no reason in two weeks. I am motivated to write and hang out with my family and clean my desk. I am more honest and talk about my feelings before they turn into problems. I actually want to wake up in the morning and get started with my day.
So what changes do you need to make in your mental wellness habits? Do you want to implement yoga or start journaling? Do you need to take one night off a week to just spend some time alone and practice self-care? Do you need to be more honest with a significant other or a friend about how you’re feeling? Do you need to talk with your parents about your emotions and seek professional help?
Feel free to comment here, and I’ll do my best to connect you with resources or give advice, if I feel competent! Thanks for reading! Live well, reader. Peace.