I typically begin my day by pounding my head against my desk.
This comes after waking up too early from failing to get enough sleep, coaxing myself out of bed with the promise of a cup of coffee, spilling said cup of coffee all over my kitchen counter, then finally sitting at my computer to start a staring contest with a blank page.
That’s when the hard part starts.
The words fight back as I plug them into place, characters I craft run amok, and the sense that anyone could possibly identify with what I’m trying to say seems absurd. My mind wanders, usually slipping down the rabbit hole. The voice—that one we all know so well, that whispers to us in our darkest moments—comes creeping out of the woodwork to stoke my insecurities.
“You’re terrible at this,” it says. “Who the fuck are you fooling? No one will ever read this. You’ll never amount to anything. The government is on the verge of collapsing into fascism, the whole planet is dying, humans will be extinct in a hundred years, and this is how you’re spending your time?”
And this is just the first fifteen minutes.
While I consider myself many things, I am first and foremost a writer, which is perhaps its own form of diagnosis, accompanied with its own set of insecurities and neuroses. It wasn’t ever something I chose—it chose me. I’ve been putting words into sentences into stories as long as I can remember. I spent a majority of my time in high school locked in my bedroom, writing stories. Writing is all I’ve ever wanted to do.
This all probably seems foreign on a blog about mental health, but if being an artist has taught me anything, it’s that you can be “normal” and still bleed inside. I don’t have depression, but I’m still depressed. I’m not taking medication, but I’m still sick inside. My panic doesn’t attack, but strikes with a creeping silence. I have bad days, just like anyone else.
Once, while I was in college, I was on the verge of a mental collapse. I was fighting with my girlfriend, my roommate and I weren’t speaking, my friends felt like strangers, and I couldn’t stand in a room of people without feeling helplessly alone. I remember sitting at the desk in my apartment and shuffling through songs on my computer when I came to a song by a band that had already saved my life once. That song, by a little duo from Columbus, Ohio called twenty one pilots, contained a verse sunk its teeth into me and shifted my mind’s axis.
“Are you searching for purpose?
Then write something, yeah, it might be worthless.
Then paint something, and it might be wordless.
Pointless curses, nonsense verses,
You’ll see purpose start to surface.
No one else is dealing with your demons
Meaning, maybe, defeating them
Could be the beginning of your meaning, friend.”
Since hearing this song in a moment where I could feel my mind unspooling itself, this verse has become the foundation for my artistic practice. I find my own poor mental health dissolves in the face of genuine connection, the moments where I can remove my mask and showcase the totality of my brokenness. Of course, this means different things to different people. But at our core, we’re all simply looking for love and meaning and something beautiful. At its most basic, art is the means to communicate and connect. The whole goal of creation it to make us feel a little less alone, to give our demons names and faces, to scratch our itching souls with a paintbrush or a melody or a few words that rhyme.
Sometimes, making something is the means to make us feel less alone. It’s the catalyst for conversation. Other times, it’s enough just to have created, as though the story or song or sketch was tumor that needed to be plucked from inside us. For me, there are days when writing stories isn’t enough. I need to point a camera at the world and capture the way I see things. I have to strum my guitar mindlessly and belt a few lyrics somebody else wrote. I have to cut and paste picture from magazines to diffuse the nuclear fallout in my soul. Whether it’s the means to connect or merely to keep our minds busy, there are moments when the things we create can save us.
Art is a way for us to know and let ourselves be known, offering the means to sift through ourselves and discover what we believe, how we understand the world, and the working of our inner machinery. This is why I create. Not for the sake of keeping myself busy or proving I’m worth something or even to win love and acceptance from those around me. I create because it helps me understand my own existence. And pounding my head against my desk every morning seems like a small price to pay.
Joshua Chamberlain is a writer, artist, and storyteller from Cincinnati, Ohio. His work in fiction, theatre, and visual art explores varying topics, including identity, culture, and creativity. In his spare time, he enjoys composing poems about his most recent existential crisis and screaming into the void.