Guest Post, Natalie Easton: Culture of Deflection: Gun Violence and Mental Illness

In 2015, the impossible happened: I was accepted to the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference as a

One of the poems I submitted in the manuscript for my application (a piece titled “Laws of Motion”) was about an incident of domestic gun violence my mother and I survived in 2001. It had taken place less than a week before my 19th birthday.

A series of northeast Vermont winter storms had dropped about three feet of snow on the ground in the preceding days and, when my mother and I snuck back onto the property the morning following our ordeal, we had to shovel frantically to get our possessions out of the house. We were racing against the clock before my mother’s ex-boyfriend could make bail; his family had money and it was only a matter of time before he’d be released. The next few weeks were strange. We had moved in with one of my mother’s friends and I had a long commute to and from school. My teachers were sympathetic to my situation, but I could tell my classmates were looking at me oddly. I wasn’t sure what they had heard, but in a town of less than 2,000 people, they surely knew something. I felt self-conscious about what I had just been through, as though I was the one who had something to explain. My lifelong best friend asked me if my bipolar mother wasn’t to blame for what had happened, and our attacker appeared to be spending much of his free time laughing with his buddies about the whole thing. Within a month and a half my mother and I left the state and moved to Illinois. I couldn’t wait to get out. I didn’t care if I ever returned. I hadn’t even been able to face the prospect of confronting our attacker in court; I was too afraid to be in the same room with him. Sadly, this meant that he won the case by default.

My fear wasn’t magically resolved with the simple traversing of state borders, either. For months afterward I holed myself up in my room… and then 9/11 happened. I didn’t feel safe in my home or in my country, and my anxiety level hit the stratosphere. My mother saw all of this, but instead of confronting me to try to talk sense into me—which she knew me well enough to know wouldn’t work—she took an indirect approach and introduced me to the daughter of one of her friends. I became comfortable enough with the girl to apply for a job at the same supermarket where she worked. Though I was still struggling to make emotional connections with others, I was at least able to leave my room on a regular basis.

No matter where I went from then on, it was difficult for me to feel at home. For the next several years I went only where my old friends were: I moved from Illinois to Pittsburgh, then briefly to Massachusetts. By the time I applied to Bread Loaf I was living in Connecticut. My mother had passed away in 2012 after a long, soul-sapping battle with breast cancer, and without any conscious decision on my part I had been exorcising my grief by writing a chapbook about us. It was, specifically, a book chronicling our overlapping experiences fighting mental illness, from my childhood through the time of her death.

I was experiencing something called “complicated grief,” according to my social worker, and I was having a difficult time mourning properly. I had begun to refer to the work in progress as my “box of grief,” and as I sat down to put my application together I thought hard about how to put into words why going to the writer’s conference meant so much to me, and why I believed it might help me establish a feeling of having come full circle.

In the end, it was simple- Vermont was where I was born. It was where the events in the book had taken place. It was where my mother was living, once again, when she lost her battle with cancer. That had been my last experience in Vermont: going to her to see her through the final stages of her disease.

I reflected on the first time I had thought I’d lost my mother: a winter night in March of 2001 when I had run down a snow-filled drive, gunshots ringing out behind me. In the house, where my mother still was.

“I want,” I wrote in my application, “to return by virtue of my own talent to a place which has come to symbolize nothing but fear and defeat.” I went on to say that if my writing could not earn a place for me at the conference, then I would keep pushing myself until it could. I was at work when I got the notice that I had been accepted. I whooped aloud and hugged my bewildered coworker, who had stepped out of his office to blink at me. I then sat back down to turn my attention to the documents attached to the acceptance letter. I found myself hesitating over an advisement to declare prescription medications. I had recently started Wellbutrin for my depression, and the idea of announcing that to perfect strangers made me feel ill-at-ease. (Eventually I would come to champion the use of antidepressants and to shun the idea that anyone should feel strange about taking them, but at the time I was still unable to be so kind to myself.) I was feeling better than I had in years, but I didn’t want to point out anything that might make me “different” in the eyes of the people who I so badly wanted to impress.

When you go to Bread Loaf, your first questions to anyone you meet are invariably about what you are there for (poetry, fiction, or nonfiction) and who you have as a workshop leader. What I wasn’t expecting was that over lunch I’d end up in conversation with the other writers about who among us was on medication. Almost everyone at my table was on something for depression or anxiety, or both. The attitude surrounding prescription medications was suddenly normalized, at least at that table, and I saw that I had been torturing myself for no reason. I finally had a moment where I felt at home.

Though I’ve long since made peace with my mental health issues, the rest of society is not so comfortable. We live in a culture of deflection, where people are conditioned to feel put at ease by the idea of the “odd one out.” This attitude is not always one born out of malice, at least not in the case of those who have nothing to gain from such a stance; much of the time it has to do with defaulting to learned helplessness. In the face of what overwhelms us we tend to fall back on the things we think we understand well (in the case of this blog post, those things are second amendment rights and/or the mentally ill as portrayed by popular culture).

We unfortunately have the opportunity to see this psychology demonstrated regularly. When Devin Kelley walked into a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and opened fire last November 5th, the number of mass shootings in the US in 2017 reached 307 (Gould). President Trump then asserted his opinion, one which arises almost every time gun violence is addressed in the media: “This isn’t a guns situation. This is a mental health problem at the highest level.”
A statement like that feels a bit like a shrug and a raise of the eyebrows; it isn’t the guns—it’s all those “crazy people” getting hold of the guns. So let’s restrict who gets hold of the guns, not the availability of the guns themselves. Right?

Yet many of those who worm their way into the national spotlight with these despicable acts (and, sadly, I have little doubt that by the time this blog post goes up we will have seen several more of them occur) have no record of receiving care for any mental health issue. Mass shootings perpetrated by “people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides” (Annas 81). Which means one of two things: either they never had a mental health issue to begin with, or they did but never sought help. Regardless, to lump them in with the mentally ill does everyone a disservice: it promotes ignorance, and it discourages those who are suffering from seeking help for fear of being further stigmatized.

The American Psychological Association has published research findings that indicate there are no “…predictable patterns linking criminal conduct and mental illness symptoms over time” (APA). The study was based on interviews performed with 143 different offenders with diagnoses of mental illness. But this is a scary idea, and it isn’t what most people want to hear. It isn’t comforting or convenient. Again, it’s that culture of deflection deal. I can understand the desire to think everything is so clear-cut, but most things aren’t. It’s time to do away with this harmful cycle of misinformation; that is the whole point. I also want to point out that nothing in this post is meant to imply that all artists are mentally ill, that mental illness helps creativity, or that no one mentally ill is harmful. I am not here to knock down one harmful generalization only to assert others; anyone can be anything and one trait does not preclude someone from possessing another, just as it does not guarantee that they will.

What I can say about my own traumatic experience is this: the man who grabbed a gun and
flipped the circuit breaker to corner my mother and I in a dark house was not mentally ill. He was
an angry man who wanted to dominate everything around him and who couldn’t bear it when he
thought his hold was slipping. Until I became aware of that fact, I trusted him. I overheard him
refer to me as his daughter once when he thought I was out of earshot, and at the time I
assumed it was a sign of affection. Now I believe it was proprietary—merely an extension of that
need to control.

My high school friend’s reaction was to wonder what my mother and I had done to provoke
someone’s anger to the point where they would draw a gun on us. That was back in 2001,
before we were being confronted regularly by reports of inexplicable gun violence in this
country, but despite the passage of time I feel that it’s still quite easy to see how others would
want to believe that we had done something to drive this man to his act. Or, alternately, to
believe that he must be mentally ill. What other options could there be? Surely he couldn’t just
be a violent, dangerous man for no obvious reason: he had friends. He seemed normal in

This is still the prevailing attitude. It makes people feel safe to believe there is some easy way to
identify dangerous individuals and situations: that there will always be some blatant warning
sign to watch for. If that was so, we could be on our way to formulating proper preventative
responses right this very moment. Mental illness is a hot-button subject that is far more tangible
than the concept of a violent person who can act like anyone else in his or her day-to-day
dealings. But mental illness being so tangible has not yet played any role in a solution to the
problem, and that is because it is not the answer.

My Facebook feed is a daily example of mental wellness. It is an onslaught of brilliantly expressed sadness and anger, intelligent debate, and creative expression. Many of these discussions are taking place between those same people I met at Bread Loaf: people who have struggled against both circumstance and biology and emerged stronger, with or without pharmacological help. They are outraged by the backwards movement of our country—or, rather, the atmosphere of validation which has been cultivated for small, hateful minds, therefore raising the volume on those voices and giving them an unpardonable degree of power. In this atmosphere it isn’t just the debate on gun control that suffers, but also issues of race, politics, feminism, sexuality, and disability rights. All of these subjects labor along without progress, stifled. Creativity moves the air in the room, and that knowledge drives my artist friends to set aside whatever internal issues they are facing- if any- and protest.

There is no telling, at this rate, when real discussions on what can be done to better this country and its policies will begin. The one thing we can be certain of is that we cannot start having the right conversations until we stop having the wrong ones, and those would include the ones we’ve been having over and over again without any fresh result.

If we want to know where to start to get these conversations pointed toward true north, I would suggest that there are plenty of insightful writers and artists we could listen to. I know some fine ones to begin with; I met them at a lunch table in the summer of 2015. They come to us with fresh, creative perspectives, empathy their greatest tool.

True empathy is a powerful thing when we live in world of “you vs. me” where the almighty dollar can be counted on to have the last word. To imagine things being any other way feels quite utopian, I’ll grant you that; but if something’s got to give, I think that we as a majority can agree that we would rather it not be the world from underneath our children’s feet.

Where we are standing right now is simply not sustainable.

Guest Post: Beth Gilstrap

After Nick Hornby

Self Portrait

School Years

Bathroom Floor

Not As Long As You'd Think

English Class

Cornell Quote


Journal Entry

Remember Me

Self Portrait


It's Dark In Here

Dedication: For all writers who struggle with mental illness. But particularly, for Aubrie Cox Warner and Jill Talbot who, whether they realize it or not, continue to inspire me to be vulnerable and open. With thanks to Ben Barnes for assistance with self-portraits and so much more.

Guest Post, Beth Gilstrap: On Depression, Vulnerability, Risk, and Writing

creativity and depression
“Creativity and depression” by Quinn Dombrowski is licensed under CC by 2.0

I know my depression may kill me one day, but today is not that day.

I write this with the full weight of it causing my shoulders to spasm. I don’t write this as a threat or a way to evoke fear or pity. I write it as a statistical fact based on my diagnoses: major depression, anxiety & panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (including body dysmorphia). I have been in treatment for twenty-two years, but my troubles started long before I ever stepped foot in a therapist’s office. I used to ask myself in the vein of Nick Hornby’s protagonist from High Fidelity, “What came first—the writing or the misery?”

The truth is I’m not sure. Even before I could write, I made up stories to escape the trauma of my surroundings. Many of my earliest memories are violent and lonely. The rest are soft, sweet, and full of the joy of storytelling in the varied timbres of my brother, Mama, Grandma, and Grandpa seeping past and through our always-rocky financial situation and the great, gnarled yarn of mental illness among us. No one had to tell me we told ourselves stories in order to live. We all made something. Grandpa with his carvings. Grandma with her sewing, etc.

I know one of the reasons I’m alive today is because I write. As an adult trying to eke out a career in a creative field, I’ve devoted a lot of time to reading about the link between creativity (writers in particular) and depression. When I learned of Ned Vizzini’s suicide last year, (author of: Teen Angst? Naaah…, Be More Chill, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, The Other Normals, and House of Secrets) I found myself crying for him and crying for myself. I did the same thing for Robin Williams. As I did for all three of my friends who killed themselves over the years. As I’ve done for the ones who overdosed. As I will do over and over.

Sometimes, my outcome seems inevitable, but I write to combat that feeling.

Inevitable can get bent.

Like Dylan Thomas implores, I will rage against it. I urge other creatives out there (and everyone else fighting this terrible disease) to rage with me. Rage against it by making things. Do what you do and do it to survive. Rage against stigma. Rage against shame. Share.

The Atlantic devoted a large chunk of their July/August Ideas Issue to the neuroscience of creativity. Dr. Nancy C. Andreason researches the link between creatives (including writers, visual & performing artists, and scientists) and mental illness. I think most of us are aware of the famous (and too often romanticized) suicides, but I’m also interested in those who have or did manage to cope, succeed in their fields, and somehow, survive their mental illness. Andreason reports:

“One after another, my writer subjects came to my office and spent three or four hours pouring out their stories of their struggles with mood disorder –mostly depression, but occasionally, bipolar disorder. A full 80 percent of them had some kind of mood disturbance at some time in their lives, compared with just 30 percent of the control group…” (68).

Andreason’s work shows there’s not necessarily a correlation between high IQ and creative genius, but more of a similarity in personalities. Creatives tend to persevere. Creatives are better at forming associations. They tend to be “adventuresome and exploratory.” Creativity tends to run in families alongside mental illness. The part I want to keep in my pocket for later use is her claim about creatives being risk takers:

“They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.”

I am not the only creative in my family and brother, you have no idea how deep the mental illness and addiction goes in our clan. I come from a proper, southern, religious, sweep-that-mess-back-under-the-rug-where-it-belongs (try not to snicker at the contrast) family. Don’t dare talk about your problems. Poor Mama. She wound up with a writer and a musician for children.

You may wonder what all this has to do with you and your writing or art (whatever form that takes), whether you struggle with depression or not.

It has nothing and everything to do with your creative work. For some of us, it is survival. It’s about anchoring ourselves to the few things we can rely on when, for great swathes of our lives, we cannot rely on ourselves. My anchors are the act of writing, my husband, and my animals.

If you are like the 80 percent Andreason talks about, you get it. I hope you’ll join and rage with me. If you are one of the fortunate few writers (& artists) who do not struggle with depression, it is no matter. Ponder these ideas when it comes to what you create and how you interact with the rest of us sad sacks. It’s not something we can shake off nor should it be for your characters. I recommend Charles Baxter’s craft essay, “Regarding Happiness,” (from Burning Down the House) in which he argues against “happiness” as sustainable in any narrative form. Baxter claims:

“I’d argue that in 80 percent of all narratives, the young couple and their happiness are not the story; the story resides in the unhappy onlooker –Satan, watching Adam and Eve; Claggert, staring at Billy Budd; Iago, looking at Othello and Desdemona…” (208-9).

What I find most interesting is how much Baxter’s essay reminds me of a discussion with my therapist about the meaning of the word “happiness” –its mythic, unattainable stature, and how what we should really strive for are moments of joy and self-care. I have major depression. It’s the one thing I write about that causes so much discomfort and unease. I lose more followers when I’m open about my depression than anything else I post about (even the constant stream of cat and dog photos). I struggled with whether or not to write about depression. I wanted to write something safer, but I chose the topic that made me most vulnerable. Most times if you are working hard to avoid writing something, that’s the very thing that begs to be written. Walk right into the dark, bubbling middle of that thing. Stare it in the eye. Writing without vulnerability is worthless.

I know my depression may kill me one day, but today is not that day.

Today I write.

Today I rage.

Today I anchor myself to you.

For further reading about the neuroscience of creativity: