I’m pleased to announce that my memoir, Crash, will be published and available for purchase in October. Putting this book together was like assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle—fitting experiences together with research helped me to develop a deeper understanding of what happened to me when I sought help for a severe depression and chronic migraine. Contrary to many of the upbeat and happy images you see in the commercials for antidepressants, my journey was one of trying one drug after another, yet never finding relief. The research I did for the book revealed that I was far from alone in that experience–only about 15% of the people who take antidepressants experience improvement greater than what’s accounted for beyond the placebo effect.
Part of the reason I’m so interested in the topic is because I grew up in a home with a mother who suffered from chronic, unremitting depression for nearly 40 years. Mom did everything the doctors told her, yet she could never escape the heavy pall of darkness. I kept wondering: Why could I recover and Mom couldn’t? I found the answers buried in an old folder in my sister’s attic. Crash braids my story with my mother’s to explore her journey using Dad’s detailed records from 30 years of her care, interwoven with research and vignettes from my past.
All through my illnesses, “I’ll never be like my mother,” was my fervent mantra. I vowed to escape her fate despite year after year of unsuccessful treatments with numerous drugs and many rounds of electroconvulsive therapy. Crash is the story of what I learned about treating depression and chronic pain and the steps I took to finally recover. My memoir serves as a missive to women struggling to heal, carve their own path, and demand better care.
Hope you’ll join me for the launch on October 13th at 7pm on Zoom. Details coming soon.
Here’s what some noted people in the field of psychiatric reform had to say about Crash:
“Ann Bracken’s evocative memoir powerfully tells of how psychiatry’s diagnoses and treatments can lead to loss, illness, and despair, and how escaping from that paradigm of care can be a starting point for a full and robust recovery.”
~Robert Whitaker, Author of Anatomy of an Epidemic
“Ann Bracken artfully braids her path out of chronic pain and major depression, while questioning the system designed to help her, and reaching back into her mother’s history to find a way to help her as well. Bracken gives us permission to ask questions about our current mental health treatment; read and educate ourselves on the risks, benefits, and alternatives to psychiatry’s status quo; and above all, not to quit until we find our own path to a healed life.”
~Angela Peacock, MSW, mental health advocate and featured in award-winning documentary, Medicating Normal
“A fascinating memoir of two generations of medical and psychiatric mismanagement and suffering, and how one brave woman figured out what was happening and successfully took control of her health and well being… and prevented a third generation from following the same path.”
~Stuart Shipko, MD, author of Surviving Panic Disorder and Xanax Withdrawal
In honor of National Poetry Month, I’m posting a couple of columns that can help you see often-neglected uses for poetry. Besides its great beauty and ability to capture emotions, poetry can be a useful tool in many aspects of life–like dealing with depression.
How can poetry help depression? Aren’t medication and therapy the best ways to treat the illness? My story may surprise you.
When I suffered from depression in the early 1990s, Prozac was the new “miracle drug.” Along with this so-called “miracle drug came a physical explanation of causation: that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. This thesis is still widely promulgated, though much research is coming to light that disputes and even negates this biomedical explanation for the darkness that is so prevalent in our modern world. More information on the research side can be found at the website Mad in America, curated by science reporter Robert Whitaker. As part of Whitaker’s work to educate the public, he invites doctors, psychologists, counselors, and patients from all over the world to share research, essays, and personal experiences on the issues of depression and its treatment.
Even in the 1990s when I struggled to climb out of depression and tried numerous medications for several years with no results, the idea that the chemicals in my brain were out of whack did not provide a solid answer. Instead, I pursued a more metaphysical explanation for the questions that haunted me: “Why am I depressed?” and “What longings are unfulfilled?”
And that’s what led me to poetry.
One of the most valuable resources I found to aid in making sense of the gifts of depression is poet David Whyte’s 1992 CD entitled The Poetry of Self Compassion. Whyte’s recitation of Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” confirmed my feelings of being on a perilous but necessary journey through darkness and confusion. And I was deeply confused by the all-encompassing darkness that I was experiencing. But once I heard Whyte recite “The Journey,” I knew that someone understood a piece of what I was experiencing. And that the way I was feeling had nothing to do with messed up brain chemistry. My depression had everything to do with self-discovery and taking charge of my life.
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice–though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingersat the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.It was already lateenough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
~Mary OliverI remember listening to the poem over and over–as if rolling around a mysterious new food in my mouth, trying to figure out what it tasted like that was familiar. What was it I was determined to do? What else besides raise my children, serve my community, and be a good wife? I just knew there was more. And Mary Oliver’s words gave me the courage to make the journey that would save my life.
The answer was slow in coming, but I gradually began to realize that my struggles with depression and a migraine headache exacerbated my ex-husband’s verbal abuse to the point where I could finally see it. Depression and chronic pain became my crucible for change and my pathway to a new life. Poetry became my way to unlock the profound secrets that illness led me to discover. Poetry helped me to have compassion for my journey and for all the mistakes I had made along the way.
Whyte ends on a note of great compassion in the poem “The Faces at Braga” as he compares surrendering to the fire of depression and embracing your flaws in this way: “If only we could give ourselves to the blows of the carver’s hands, the lines in our faces would be the trace lines of rivers feeding the sea” and we would “gather all our flaws in celebration, to merge with them perfectly…” What a compelling call–to celebrate one’s flaws. What a gift of healing.
I have a few summer events scheduled as well as one for September. I’ll have more details and registration links once they are posted. Hope to see you in a class soon!
Thanks to everyone who came to the Roland Park reading. You were a great crowd, and I appreciate your support!
Hamilton Street Club, June 5, 2019, Baltimore 12pm-2pm
I will discuss and read poetry from my 2015 volume, The Altar of Innocence, which explores ideas associated with family secrets and trauma and the many ways a family is affected by the serious emotional struggles of other family members. Because I have training and wide experience in using poetry and the arts in healing, I will also discuss how poetry and journaling can be used to reach those who struggle with the all-too-common human experiences of severe emotional distress.
Currere Exchange: Conference in Oxford, Ohio June 12-14, 2019
I’ll be presenting a proposal for an art installation exploring my mother’s journey to conquer her nearly 40 years of depression and anxiety. Using a variety of artifacts, including letters, prescription records, and insurance forms, I detail my mother’s journey and raise questions about the nature of depression and the current models of treatment.
Jump-start Your Creative Writing: East Columbia Library, September 11, 2019 1-2:30pm (registration details coming soon)
Do you have stories inside just begging to be told? Do lots of great ideas fill your imagination? Is there something you want to say but you don’t know where to begin? Then this class is for you. Ann Bracken has published numerous essays, interviews and two books of poetry since she began her writing career. During this class, students will explore a variety of basic techniques to enhance any type of creative writing you want to pursue, including memoir, fiction, and poetry. In this class, we’ll explore and practice using image and figurative language, specific and concrete details, and varying the pacing and rhythm of lines and sentences. All of these techniques can help to propel your writing from good to great.
I’m honored to participate in this healing event sponsored by Peter Brunn and the New Day Campaign. Hope to see lots of folks there as we share music, poetry, art, and stories about addiction, emotional challenges, and healing
A few weeks back, I posted my story of being overmedicated and getting off of pain medication and psychiatric drugs. So when I read the blog post below, I thought it was a good follow-up to my story. I, too, was a victim of polypharmacy, which is why this post resonated with me. What is polypharmacy? Here is a definition that is included in Dr. Brogan’s post below:
Polypharmacy is ambiguously defined as the prescription of 2-11 or more medications, simultaneously, 6 encompassing more than half of the American population. 7
Is Gloria some kind of freak anomaly of someone who could possibly feel better off medication? You can see that part of her process was shifting out of a mindset that she was fundamentally broken, in need of medication as some sort of normalcy prop. I believe deeply in personal reclamation through a rewriting of this story of the broken self. But what if medications actually contribute to a poorer quality of life, not because of their metaphysical role in self-identity and outsourcing of power, but simply because of their toxicity, particularly in combination?
The Problem With Pills
We know that it’s not a matter of opinion, (despite what the NY Post would have you think!), that medications – properly prescribed – are the third leading cause of death in this country. 1 This does not include the quarter of a million deaths from medical errors 23and overdose, which in 2016 killed more than the entire Vietnam War. 4
These reasons and more are why I was delighted to read Poly-deprescribing to treat polypharmacy: efficacy and safety5 in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Drug Safety. This longitudinal, prospective trial addresses the major symptom of our fragmented, specialist-driven, the left-hand-doesn’t-know-what-the-right-is-doing-health care system: polypharmacy.
Polypharmacy is ambiguously defined as the prescription of 2-11 or more medications, simultaneously, 6 encompassing more than half of the American population. 7
The author, Garfinkel, states that the epidemic of polypharmacy is driven by:
(1) the increased number of doctors/specialists and clinical guidelines; (2) the lack of evidence-based medicine (EBM) and knowledge regarding drug–disease–patient interactions in polymedicated; (3) barriers/ fears of medical doctors to deprescribe.
His study was conducted on patients >66 years old taking >6 prescriptions (never mind the 666!), and this intrepid clinician endeavored to offer them the opportunity to discontinue more than 3 of their meds, strategically assessing quality of life parameters.
Getting Free, One Med At A Time
After approximately four years, Garfinkel found that: Overall, 57.4% of PDP patients/ families reported an improvement as early as 1 month after the intervention. In 82.8% health improvements occurred within 3 months of the intervention and among 68% improvement persisted for more than 2 years.
Like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, feeling and describing only their part, neglecting the comprehensive appreciation of the whole animal, Garfinkel states:
…all too often specialists who treat patients ‘by their book’ have but one aim, to deal with their one aspect of the disease spectrum; no in depth consideration of the ultimate effects of medications they prescribe combined with other consultant’s interventions on patients’ overall welfare.
He also references the domino effect of prescription toxicity leading to new diagnoses and new medications, stating:
“The problem is further aggravated due to ‘prescription cascades’ where symptoms resulting from ADEs are perceived as representing ‘new diseases’.”
So, it turns out that when real life studies assess the effects of medications, stopping them – several if not all of them – can lead to a better quality of life.
I love his hopeful message, in conclusion:
Conclusions: This self-selected sample longitudinal research strongly suggests that the negative, usually invisible effects of polypharmacy are reversible. Poly-deprescribing] is well tolerated and associated with improved clinical outcomes, in comparison with outcomes of older people who adhere to all clinical guidelines and take all medications conventionally. Future double-blind studies will probably prove beneficial economic outcomes as well.
The study doesn’t particularly reference psychiatric medications (in fact, he references starting them during the study window), which, in my opinion, are the most difficult chemicals on the planet to detox from. While I acknowledge that the physiologic relief from discontinuing a medication may, itself, result in near-immediate improvement in quality of life, psychiatric medication taper seems to ask something more of patients intending for a medication-free life. The taper process asks for healing. Physical, emotional, and spiritual…and this healing does more than improve quality of life…it sets you free.
Author’s Note: This interview was previously published in July, 2008, in The Museletter, a publication of the National Association for Poetry Therapy.
Updated 2015 bio from drew Cameron’s website Warrior Writers:I am a second-generation hand papermaker, trained forester and former Army soldier. I co-founded the Combat Paper Project and have been facilitating workshops with veterans and the community in which they transform military uniforms into handmade paper, prints, books and art since 2007. The portable workshop has reached thousands of people throughout the country in 29 states and more than 125 workshops. My work is represented in 33 public collections and has been shown numerous times including at the Corcoran Gallery, Courtauld Institute, Library of Congress, Museum of Contemporary Craft and Craft and Folk Art Museum among others. Combat Paper is now operating in four locations: New York, New Jersey, Nevada and California, with open and ongoing programming. I am based in San Francisco at Shotwell Paper Mill and continue to practice papermaking, teach and encourage others to do the same.
Drew Cameron, 25, lives in Burlington, Vermont. He served in the United States Army beginning in August 2000 for four years on active duty and subsequently served two years in the Vermont National Guard, separating in August of 2006. As part of his healing work from the trauma of the Iraq War, Drew participated in a therapeutic writing program called Warrior Writers. Out of that came his idea to create Combat Paper, paper made from the uniforms of people who served in Iraq. Drew and his fellow vets have produced numerous journals and two books of poetry from the combined Warrior Writers and Combat Paper programs.
Ann Bracken: Tell me about Iraq.
Drew Cameron: The reality was a lot more chaotic, more callous [than what is portrayed in the media]. And when we weren’t fighting, we’d get in our trucks and tool around the country. We were young guys with lots of bravado; we got complacent. We got very comfortable and did whatever we wanted. We got a kick out of stupid things.
AB: What do you mean, stupid things?
DC: We acted in what they (the officers) called a “show of force.” Guys would get a real kick out of it. You know, we’d drive fast. We’d go out with a number of trucks, all loaded up. If a car was in our way, we’d just push it to the side of the road or run it off the road. We had our sunglasses on and usually had our rifles hanging out of the windows, at the ready. The idea was that if we were really tough and looked like we were ready for a fight, people would be deterred. Instead, people felt harassed, brutalized, hurt and hunted. Innocent people were hurt or driven over. It was a real provocation. But when I got home, I told myself I had nothing to feel bad about since I had never killed anyone.
AB: You said you thought you had nothing to feel bad about since you never killed anyone. Are these the kinds of thing that people would feel bad about when they came home?
DC: Yes, most definitely. I am very fortunate that I never killed anyone. But that kind of behavior is a provocation. And those are the kinds of memories that play in your mind over and over, the kinds of things that wake you up at night. Even worse that that, many people will have a single horrible ex-
perience that will play out over and over in their minds. They’ll replay it and replay it, trying to make some sense of it and there is no sense in it.
AB: Describe how writing about your experiences has helped you. How has it helped others?
DC: I went from being quiet and all alone to being involved in art and helping my fellow vets. I am trying to bring about some kind of change through my work, through the art. Cre- ating art comes from a good place inside. This work is also a political statement. My friends come here to the paper studio and hang out. This project of writing and then making paper out of our uniforms spurs a very positive, creative, releasing activity. It’s cathartic for those who get involved in both the writing and the act of making paper. And the healing that happens is not forced. The people are really doing it themselves.
They [vets] come in here and start talking, making pa- per, doing art and the ideas just start bouncing around. And I’m in my studio, which used to be a place for me to hole up in and spend a lot of time alone. Now it’s a place where I just love to bring people in. I can be generous with this and I
6 The Museletter
want to continue in that vein. I went from being quiet and unable to relate to anyone to someone who brings his friends in here and can offer this opportunity to someone just home from Iraq. This healing is important and no one should have to do it alone.
AB: It really is an amazing transformative act to cut up your old uniforms and then use them to make paper for your journals. How did this idea come about?
DC: The story of the soldier, the Marine, the man, the woman, and the journeys within the military service in a time a war is our basis for the project. Creating handmade paper editions of the book and facilitating papermaking with my fellow veterans eventually led to using our combat uniforms. The story of the fiber, the blood, sweat and tears, the months of hardship and brutal violence are held within those old uni- forms. The uniforms often become inhabitants of closets or boxes in the attic. Reclaiming that association of subordina- tion, of warfare and service into something collective and beautiful is our inspiration.
AB: What would you like to see come out of your experi- ence? What do you want people to know?
DC: I want people to know that when we come home, we vets don’t fit in. Everything has changed. We’ve changed. I’ve been slapped in the face with a set of circumstances and I have a lot of choices as to how I can deal with them. I was sent to fight in an illegal, unjust, immoral war. I can wither away. I can reenlist. I can resist. I can organize. I have choices. I chose to write about it, reflect on my experiences, and move forward trying to do something different with my life.
AB: Can you share a writing exercise that was especially helpful for you?
DC: Sure. Here is what I wrote in my first writing workshop with Warrior Writers.
Warrior Writers has been an impetus for me, recollecting old letters and my overseas journal to pick apart the memories that I would carry on paper. Going back to a place that I have left over four years ago. Trying to remember, regard- less there hasn’t been a day that has gone by in the time since when I haven’t though about it. 1,460 days of thinking about war. I feel as though we must go to the beginning to tear apart the shroud of numbness. We have to find the way back, understand it, dig in and continue; there are no short cuts with this.
When I first moved here I didn’t want to be known as a veteran, I would ask my partner not to tell people. I didn’t
think it necessary, nor did I want to be known as Drew the Army guy. Pushing away from the experience only manifested it in undesirable ways. My affliction isn’t flashbacks or in- trusive thoughts, drug use or violent behavior. My affliction is nothing. Absolutely nothing. I didn’t feel, hate, love, fear, or even care. My life was a monotone of going through the motions, I so very wanted to be emotional. I know in my train- ing I enabled myself to build various walls. Methodically constructing walls takes time and effort, it is an effective way to enable positioning one’s self against the brutality of com- bat. Unfortunately they do not teach a soldier how to deconstruct these walls. This is my charge, to find the foun- dations, to understand them and perhaps permit myself to move in—there will be no moving on.
AB: What is the message you’d like readers to take away?
DC: It’s so important that you’re here. We’re nothing with- out a broader push of people in society. There are many dif- ferent components to culture writing, art, the fine arts, com- bat paper. We can encourage others to do this, to participate in this shared experience. We can influence people by inspir- ing others. There are many small things we can do. For me, it’s a unique opportunity. Before, I never spoke about being a vet. Now, it’s a big part of who I am.
I first met B. Morrison at the Maryland Writers Conference several years ago when she published her memoir Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother. She wrote her courageous account of being on welfare for a brief period in her life as a way of saying to the world, “Look, this awful situation can happen to anyone. Even someone from a good home with an education.” Last year we did a series of readings together where we both discussed the importance of looking back at our lives to move forward and to heal.
B. Morrison’s gentle approach to memoir writing is encapsulated in this quote from Othello:
“What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”
I’ve been teaching memoir classes for quite a few years now. What I’ve found is that people want to share their stories for all kinds of reasons. They may want to leave a record for their families. They may have experienced a particular era, such as World War II or the 1960s counterculture, that people may later want to learn about. Or they may have gone through some other trial and believe that what they have learned may help others. Some simply want to discover the shape of their lives, to see their life as a sustained narrative rather than a collection of random events.
While writing therapy is an established field, when I teach memoir writing I am not there to be a therapist or counselor. I am there to help them find their stories and to tell them. But inevitably I am also there as a recipient of their personal stories. As I read or listen to a participant’s story, I share their experience. I am a witness, but one with certain responsibilities.
Finding the story
I often work with people who want to write a memoir or have been asked by their families to create one, but they don’t know where to start. “My life is ordinary,” they might say, or “I don’t remember anything much.”
No matter how ordinary your life may seem, you have stories that will interest others. You may have to excavate them. You may have to shape them to make them more effective. You may have to get out the power tools.
To find the stories participants in my classes want to tell, need to tell, we do writing sprints. I offer a prompt, a suggested topic such as “Write about a time you fell down.” I leave it open-ended, so that the prompt could be interpreted as a physical fall or a metaphorical fall. Then we freewrite for a set period of time, five or ten minutes, just writing anything, whatever comes, without worrying about grammar or structure; just writing.
It’s surprising what comes out of these sessions. And such memories are like a magician’s rope of scarves: you start to pull and more comes out and more and then even more.
To shape stories we talk about story elements, such as characterization, setting, story structure. We work on including dramatic scenes. As one student put it, sometimes you need to take an axe and chop holes in your narrative that you can then fill with scenes.
A safe place
Memoir classes are different from other creative writing classes because people are sharing true and often painful experiences. It’s important for me as the teacher to create a safe space for such sharing.
One aspect of that safety is privacy. In the first session of every class I remind everyone that what is said in class stays there. It is fine to share what you’ve learned about writing, but nothing about the lives or experiences of others.
Another aspect is respect for each participant’s voice. We take turns critiquing work, going around the table, each person having their say. It is part of my role as the teacher to ensure that any criticism is constructive.
Even more important is that I make certain we critique the work and not the experience, not the person. For example, if a person’s memoir piece is about a past conflict with their mother, we would not say, “You should have felt this way or done that.” Instead we look at the writing and offer suggestions for making the piece stronger, perhaps by adding more sensory details or varying sentence structure.
I and the others in the class bear witness to the writer’s experience, without criticising the experience itself. However, though I work with adults rather than children, if I thought one of the participants were in danger, I would act. That is part of my responsibility as the teacher.
In a story the protagonist (who in a memoir would be yourself) goes a journey that starts in one place and ends up in another. In the best stories, it is actually two related journeys: one external and one internal. For example, in her wonderful memoir The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls tells the external story of growing up with imaginative but irresponsible parents. Her internal journey is to learn to appreciate them for who they are and, as her mother says in the first chapter, to tell the truth about them.
Writing a memoir means digging into the emotions of a past event. Like the protagonist of any story, as we write about our experience we expose the inner wound that drives that particular story. It may or may not be healed, but at least it is heard.
Biography: B.Morrison is the author of a memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother, and two poetry collections, Terrarium and Here at Least. Barbara provides editing services and conducts writing workshops, including courses this fall through the Johns Hopkins Odyssey Program and the Baltimore County Arts Guild. More information: http://www.bmorrison.com.