2016, Archives, June 2016, The MFA Years

On Anxiety & Writing in the MFA

Image: Porsche Brosseau

“Well, it seems to me, based on what I’m hearing, that you have what’s called general anxiety.” This comes as no surprise, but the psychologist looks at me with expectation, searching for some kind of reaction to the news. I nod and look away, already crystallized with this information, a thing lived every day for my whole life. Of course I have anxiety—I have been anxious always, always worrying about how I am perceived, always brought to tears when someone dislikes me, always fixated on illnesses to the point of hypochondria.

My anxiety can be cruel and self-torturing, a thing that drains me, that pulls me away from the good things that have entered my life. I collapse at a single “bad” thought—a thought that is unreasonable, hyperbolic, “crazy.” I get obsessed, my brain compelling me to go online and look at WebMD, to look at images of gore, to search the internet for any unkind opinion of myself. I indulge in my fears about death, my health, my self-perception, I see how much I can “take” until I totally break down. One night, I threw out my kitchen knives because they frightened me and I couldn’t sleep until they were gone. Another night, I stayed up watching YouTube videos about potential diseases I could die from. And always, the next morning, I would think, That was crazy, why did I do that? but after being alone for a few hours, the thoughts would come clawing back. Six months ago, I felt it was time to fight the good fight and see a therapist.

Considering how my decision to fight anxiety conjoined with the first year of my MFA, I think, in some ways, my own writing encouraged me to make the change. In my poems, I became more explicitly drawn to images of pain and violence, a mode that aligns much with gurlesque poetics, juxtaposing the pretty, the “girly” alongside the grotesque. I guessed that the images emerged solely from a place of bodily pain. I have a chronic hip impingement which causes discomfort if I sit too long or if over-exert myself. And last summer, I was diagnosed with genetic misalignment in my feet, a condition which causes tendonitis in my toes and ankles. These joint issues combined, I often feel old for my age, living in a young, seemingly healthy body that is plagued with invisible pains, conditions that I could see informing my writing. It had never occurred to me that the visceral pain in my poems could also be psychological, that my own anxiety was being expressed there as well.

This past semester, our workshop was framed as an “inquiry workshop,” a space in which the writer gets to speak, answering questions from the workshop members. When asked about the violence in the poems, about why my own speaker was disempowered and made vulnerable, I was forced to sit with these questions and to articulate why this pain was necessary. I didn’t want, necessarily, to empower my speakers, which was difficult to explain. I realized that I was more interested in reporting pain, the cathartic expression of it. I wanted, more than anything else, to make visible the particular, complicated reality of living in a body with anxiety, with physical aches. The pain enacted on the page, I realized, was an embodiment of my own brain and body, my discomfort, my self-inflicting compulsion towards pain and painful imagery.

I can say all this now, after much reflection, time, and some space away from last semester. There were some difficult workshops, when I didn’t have the precise words, when I was frustrated with how my work was interpreted, when I couldn’t effectively explain what the poems were doing. But now, in summer, in the midst of processing, I understand myself and my work better. I see a therapist regularly during the school year, I am on Zoloft, I feel okay now being alone for several hours at a time. I trust myself again, trust that I have the self-control and self-awareness to do things that will make me feel relaxed, and to actively avoid behaviors that will make me unhappy. And most importantly, I am more vocal about my anxiety, about what triggers it, about when I am in a “bad place,” when I need to talk through my fears, or to just get out of my apartment. I have strategies now, I have support, and most significantly, I have language. I am able to speak of my pain, to name the bad thoughts and show them others, like here, look here, this is what I feel and it is scary, but it isn’t so bad in the light.


Emily Corwin is a Midwestern girl who loves all things pretty. She is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Winter Tangerine, Painted Bride Quarterly, Rust + Moth, smoking glue gun, and Word Riot. Her chapbook, My Tall Handsome was recently published through Brain Mill Press, and in the coming year, she will serve as Poetry Editor for the Indiana Review. You can follow her at @exitlessblue.

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