Yesterday, I re-read my debut poetry collection, History of Present Complaint, for the first time since its release in February 2021. I’d gone back to a few poems from my book during this time, but hadn’t read it cover to cover, in order to put space between myself (the writer and also the ‘you’ subject of the poems in the book) and the project, to let it breathe on its own. But I also avoided it in order to distance myself, even protect myself, from the trauma that saturates its every page, traumas that were either still fairly recent (namely the psychotic episode that I suffered in September 2019) or still very painful and “undealt with” (like my father dying in October 2016).
What I read shocked me. The very first poem in the collection, ‘There Were Five Them’, describing what I saw (or rather, hallucinated) during that psychotic episode, rattled me so much more than I thought it would. I thought I wouldn’t feel the contents of my book so viscerally, since I know exactly what the book comprises of and therefore know exactly what to expect. But right from the start, my heart was pounding, my hands were shaking, tears were filling my eyes: I was right back in the scene of the trauma as if it were happening again. It’s not that I ever forgot what happened — I don’t think I will ever forget that day for as long or short as I live — but through the act of writing down what happened I managed to push it away from the forefront of my mind, make the incident solid, physical, separate from me, on a page that I can see and touch, rather than it being an intangible memory that exists purely within the confines of my brain. But the recollection of this incident, forced on me by seeing it there on the page in black and white, what I went through, frightened me all over again. I sometimes can’t believe that that waking nightmare actually happened to me, but it did. As I repeat throughout these poems: ‘It was real.’ ‘You saw it.’ ‘It was real to you.’
I can also very clearly see, re-reading this book, how seriously unwell I was. It is evident how out of control and panicked and desperate for relief/release I was while writing the various sections of this book. These pages are frantic, they’re so fast-paced, all of the memories spilling out of me, unstoppable. It is also evident how much pain I was in. There was pain in the actual happening, there was great pain in the recalling, there was pain in the act of writing; and I now see that there is pain in the sentence structure, the absences of punctuation, the titles, the dialogue, the diction, the organisation of the book. I even see pain in the humour, which I didn’t notice before.
I could also clearly see the influence of drugs and alcohol on my writing, and found myself mentally comparing these poems to the ones I’ve written clean; the poems I’ve written in 2022 (all of which are yet to be published as I’m saving them for my next book) I believe are my best work – they are so much sharper, more concise, all tightly controlled lines rather than insane outpourings, just better all round, especially since I’ve started reading more poetry than ever I did before and learning more about the craft. The distance between who I am today and the girl in the book was even wider than I first thought.
I think I started crying around page 8 of the 86-page book and didn’t stop until I reached the end, but from the first few pages, I separated myself from the subject, again. My body and brain felt that I had to, to get through it. This is a well-known trauma response, to dissociate. This is why 95% of the writing in the book is written in the second person. I could not write as ‘I’ (I did this, this happened to me, I went through this) because I couldn’t bear it. I didn’t want it to be me. It was easier to write as ‘you’. It was necessary. I still do this in my writing now — very rarely do I use the first person in my poems, almost always favouring ‘you’ and ‘she’ and ‘her’ when speaking about myself instead of ‘I’ — and while this was never a conscious choice (in fact it was wholly subconscious), it has inadvertently become the style I am known for. Most of the poems I’ve collated for my second collection are also written in the second person, and I frequently wonder how effective this is, whether I should use the first person and “claim” my experiences, but that’s something I’ll work out when I’m ready. So while re-reading my book, I didn’t feel sad for myself, I felt sad for the young woman in the poems, who was subjected to so much. I was also in awe of her. I can’t fucking believe she survived all of that! I can’t believe she survived all of those episodes, all of those attempts on her life, all of those deaths (near- and actual). And I can’t believe she managed to gather the strength and focus to actually write it all out, to create something from the destruction instead of letting it kill her, which it very nearly did, which perhaps it should’ve. I can’t believe she’s still alive.
For someone who has been diagnosed with “chronic suicidality”, to be in awe of the fact that I’m alive, rather than devastated about it, is quite the revelation.
Reading History of Present Complaint again, I was also struck by how messy it is, how intense it is, how chaotic. For some reason, I believed it was far more polished than it actually is, but in this book I found far more mess than finesse. Reading it again now, after having such distance from it, I really picked up on how raw the content is, something which many readers and reviewers also noted but that I couldn’t grasp for myself, as all that raw material was simply My Real Life. And my art will always reflect my life; the details that I shared about these episodes of psychiatric crisis were so specific to me, rather than generalised so as to make the experiences universal, so it’s even more incredible to me now that I know that so many people were patient with the book, muddled through the chaos and horror of it all, and ultimately engaged with it.
I can now agree that this book is a real challenge, in both form and content: it is frequently described as “not an easy read.” So I’m really lucky that so many readers willingly accepted the challenge, and even enjoyed it by the end, or took something away from it, or were glad they read it. This was, is, and always will be very humbling for me. The support and kindness I’ve received in response to History of Present Complaint has been more than I ever could’ve hoped for, more than I thought I deserved: when you don’t receive kindness and support from the very people whose job it is to give those things to you, you end up really struggling with the concept of receiving and accepting love from anybody at all.
In re-reading my book, there was definitely a feeling of “re-traumatising” myself (which absolutely made reading it a risk as I’ve been struggling lately, not in the best place mentally or physically), but by the end I felt that this sort of “exposure therapy” was actually just what I needed: to be reminded of what I’ve endured, but also of what I have overcome.
Mainly, re-reading my book has given me a newfound respect for my brain. Multiple times a day, every single day, I feel angry at my brain for being the way that it is, frustrated at my disordered cognition, wishing it would just behave nicely, be on my side for once instead of constantly working against me. But now I see that my brain was on my side: I find myself stunned at the way in which my brain wrote out all that trauma simply so that I could move on with my life, impressed at the way I distanced myself from these incidents instead of letting them consume me. I’m amazed that, actually, while I will always carry these traumas with me and am yet to have any therapy or proper help to deal with all these things, I have managed to deal with it in my own way, through the writing and publication of this book, in order to survive it, in order to move forward. I thought these incidents still plagued me, when in actuality I have managed to block so much of it out, more than I knew, more than I previously thought. Even if it’s “not healthy” to “block everything out”, as least I didn’t bottle it all up inside me. I let it out and let it go, as much as was humanly possible. It was only upon re-reading what I went through that I felt the full force of it all, again. And so now I know that my daily terrors are actually nowhere near as bad as they were 1/2/2.5 years ago or 5/6/7/8 years ago — the fleeting memories that crop up are just that: fleeting. I can push them away again, they don’t have to fuck me up every day, they can stay where they belong: in my book, rather than constantly in my brain.
And actually, my brain is on my side. We’ve made progress. We’ve come a long, long way from where we were when we wrote this book, further than we thought. We’re still writing. We’re still fighting. And, most remarkably of all, we’re still alive.
History of Present Complaint is available in paperback and Kindle editions here.