Little Patuxent Review contributing editor Ann Bracken participated in New Day Campaign’s Book Club on December 1, 2015. Peter Bruun purchased in advance several copies of Ann’s memoir-in-verse, The Altar of Innocence, and provided them to women in recovery. These women attended Ann’s reading and participated in a lively post-reading discussion.
Little Patuxent Review: The New Day Campaign’s mission is to challenge stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness and addiction, making the world a more healing place. Share with us why participating in this campaign was important to you.
Ann Bracken: As someone who has dealt with depression in the past, I think it is critical to normalize the experience. Many times feeling sad, overwhelmed, or stuck is a normal response to extremely challenging experiences. Many times when someone has experienced some abuse or trauma, the psyche needs a break and going into what I call a “down-mode” offers you a chance to reflect and restore.
As for addiction, I think of addiction as experiencing a hole that can’t be filled — sometimes due to some trauma or abuse, again. One seeks to fill the hole with something that will temporarily take away the pain. The “something” could be food, gambling, sex, shopping—it doesn’t have to be drugs in the traditional sense. Almost anything in excess can give you a temporary rush of serotonin and dopamine(the feel-good chemicals).
The New Day Campaign aspires to create safe spaces where people can talk about depression and addiction. I think the more we can all share our experiences in safe places and talk about what has helped us, the more we can move towards both personal and societal healing.
LPR: Peter Bruun said of New Day, “we create a space of safety and acceptance out in the public realm, where more often than not shame, blame, fear, and judgment prevent those who hurt from speaking of their hurt and vulnerabilities.” How important was this safe space for you at this point in your journey?
AB: I’m not currently suffering from any depression, yet I know it well and can remember how the darkness can isolate you. When I read from my memoir in verse, The Altar of Innocence, and share my experiences of depression and recovery, people often find hope for themselves in the story of my struggle to overcome depression. Writing the book and sharing my poems has helped me to let go of shame and find healing for memories and past hurts. I hope that the New Day Campaign’s efforts can offer that same healing to others.
LPR: What did you find helpful as you worked through your depression or melancholy?
AB: Part of feeling depressed involves feelings of low self-esteem and worthlessness. One way that I worked to overcome those feelings was by pampering myself. I chose a sensory treat that I could appreciate throughout the day. For example, I used to buy the least expensive body lotion in the grocery store—usually with very little fragrance. But after reading about the importance of being kind to yourself, I decided to buy my favorite rich, vanilla-scented body cream. I realized that every time I put that cream on my hands, I had an instant sensory treat. The lush fragrance and the rich cream served as reminders that I was worthy of a treat. Treating myself well in a small way helped me to begin to establish a much healthier regard for myself.
LPR: What words of encouragement would you like to offer others who are currently experiencing depression?
AB: Hold on. You will make it to the other side. It’s so important to let people know that there is an end to the feelings of sadness. In addition, I think the most important lesson for me in the midst of my depression was the notion that depression is more than a dark hole, that there is often a gift in the darkness if you can ride the rough waves of sad feelings. David Whyte expresses this idea beautifully in his poem “The Well of Grief” when he says:
Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief
turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear
nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for something else.
LPR: You became an expressive coach. Tell us more about that.
AB: Because poetry, journaling, and the arts played such vitally important roles in my recovery, I decided to pursue training in using poetry and journaling for healing and personal growth. As a result of that training, I established my practice, The Possibility Project. The poetry and journaling workshops I offer are suitable for both adults and teens. One of my original programs, The Three Pillars of Hope, is designed for women in transition and features a combination of sessions composed of poetry, journaling, and arts-based reflections.
LPR: When the inaugural New Day Campaign has ended, what would you like to be different?
AB: Actually, I’d love to see an end to the term “mental illness.” How about melancholy instead? Or normal sadness? Why is anxiety seen as illness in the face of the pressures of modern life or the presence of huge challenges? Why is the most common way to deal with depression to offer a pharmaceutical remedy when what so many need is someone to talk to that can guide them through the darkness?
People need to know that there are many effective alternatives to medication, particularly for people who suffer from mild to moderate depression or low-grade anxiety. According to the latest research, non-medical alternative interventions for depression—including placebos—are just as effective as the so-called chemical cures. In my case, poetry and cognitive-behavioral therapy did more to help me heal than any medical intervention. I’d like to see these non-medical interventions become just as well known to greater numbers of people.
LPR: Thank you, Ann, for your courage and example.
Online Editor’s Note: Please visit New Day Campaign (http://www.newdaycampaign.org/) to see a full list of exhibits and events, which run through December 31, 2015.
Resources of interest:
- The Hidden Epidemic. Robert Whitaker. A Summary of Findings (PDF)
- Mad in America Website: madinamerica.com for further resources, research findings, and information