My first poem was a suicide note.
and i’m in an impossible place
the choice between life and death
hangs in the balance
I was 16 and had just ended an unhealthy relationship with the first boy I’d ever fallen in love with. Let’s just call him Jason. We were an unlikely couple, Jason and I. I was a nerdy, straight-A student and Jason was a high school dropout who couldn’t even sell enough weed to move out of his mom’s house. Still, I liked the danger, the excitement of dating an older guy who hung on to my every word. We did everything together, me skipping school to hang out with him for days at a time.
It took me a while to figure out that Jason’s “devotion” was really possessiveness, which eventually became physical abuse as his drinking got out of hand. At first, the violence was subtle. Things like Jason getting drunk and high with his boys and then choking me when I nagged him about it. “My bad, babygirl,” he would say, and all would be forgiven. I wanted to chalk it up to the stress of Jason studying for the GED and trying to find a decent job without a high school diploma.
The final straw came after an argument about Jason refusing to give me a ride to my volunteer site after school. (The irony? I was volunteering for a suicide hotline.) We began yelling at each other in a fight that quickly became physical on my parent’s front lawn. I slapped him first, my tiny hand meeting his muscular, almond-colored jaw. He paused for a moment, then said resolutely, “I don’t let nobody hit me in my face.” Then, he picked me up and threw all 105 pounds of me onto the ground. Jason might have been shorter than the average 18-year-old, but his body was ripped from lifting weights during the day while everyone else was in school or at work.
He body-slammed me, wrestling style. I don’t remember how long I laid there on the ground, my face in the dirt. I was physically hurt, but more than that, emotionally crushed as I tried to figure out how I had let this person so deep into my life, into my heart.
I realized that I didn’t really know him at all.
This was almost 14 years ago. What followed was me getting a restraining order against Jason, me taking him back out of fear, him stalking me at 2 am outside my bedroom window, me taking him back after missing him so much it hurt to breathe. Because of that relationship, I vowed to never, ever date another man with a drinking problem. And as far as I know, I haven’t.
That first melancholy poem I wrote helped me begin to process my 16-year-old feelings. Although I experienced many long nights after ending my relationship with Jason, I did not, obviously, commit suicide. Most days, I just wanted to curl up and die, but I dove headfirst into writing instead. I’d always loved reading and the written word, but poetry became my savior. I had a wonderful English teacher who encouraged me to write through my pain and begin to build a creative life for myself. That teacher, with her books and her words and her love, provided an outlet for me at a time in my life when I felt I had nowhere else to turn.
I’d always known I’d be going to college, but it was my love of poetry and literature that led me to major in English and pursue a life of creativity. During college, I finally learned how to transform my writing into something that could be useful outside myself. I published in my university’s literary journal. I began to organize poetry readings and share my work out in the community. And when I was 19, I was able to connect with several local nonprofit organizations who needed someone to write grant proposals to help them bring about social change. Ten years later, here I am, still working in the nonprofit field and (hopefully) still putting my writing to good use.
A few months ago, Jason emailed me to congratulate me on my “good work.” My life and email address are both all over the internet, so I suppose he just searched my name in Google. I am cordial. “How are you?” I ask. Then I Google his name. Up comes a bunch of search results of people who are not him (he has a pretty common name) and a glaring link from the Florida police department. Apparently, Florida posts mug shots online of everyone who gets arrested in the state. The link to Jason’s mug shot shows a gaunt, haggard version of the handsome face I remember. It’s from a 2004 arrest: battery, domestic violence.
I sit back in my chair, stunned. Five years after we broke up, after Jason begged me to take him back for the last time, vowing to never hurt me again … he was arrested for domestic violence, presumably for hitting another girl.
Last week, I began taking a 6-week poetry class here in Charlottesville. As we start in on a timed freewriting exercise, the words spill out like blood onto the page, tumbling over each other to find their place in the mess. Suddenly, I’m back in my 10th grade classroom, writing poems about a boy who loved me so much it hurt. I’m rusty and my Moleskine creaks open to receive the lines of metaphor about where I am, where I’ve been and where I want to go.
This is poetry, saving my life once again. It’s certainly not a substitute for therapy, but it is a way to figure out what’s happening on the inside.
Do you write poetry? If so, how has it helped you in your personal growth?