Article in GAMIAN magazine

POETRY AGAINST THE TABOOS

The taboo surrounding psychological problems of all sorts is still surprisingly big. Even in developped countries such as those within the European Union, there are still a lot of people to whom disorders such as autism, bipolar depression, anxiety disorder, borderline, etc are unknown or only vaguely heard of. The wrong stereotypes about psychological problems are a serious problem. Too often people get stigmatised with wrong assumptions that “depression is something you choose to have” or lack of knowledge that autism is a spectrum disorder with several other forms than the universally known “RainMan” stereotype. This leads to a vicious circle. The taboo makes people who suffer from psychological problems, decide to suffer in silence, afraid to openly talk about their problems, afraid to seek the right psychological help. The lack of people openly talking about what they are going through in its turn keeps the stereotypes and taboos intact. In several EU nations there are only a handful of psychologists trained in diagnosing certain types of autism, sometimes forcing those who may be affected to travel over 300 km to the nearest trained specialist. The taboo also leads to a low self esteem for those suffering but ashamed to come out for their problems. They often feel inferior to the “normal” people, thinking they will never experience romance because they think they aren’t good enough to deserve a boyfriend or girlfriend, thinking that whatever job they may be offered will just be a temporary experience until they’ll get fired and replaced by a “normal” person. It is clear that the taboo is still standing. And that it needs to be broken.

Gerrit is a 29 year old native of Belgium. He has Asperger Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder which combines normal to high intelligence with the social problems that are typical to those in the autism spectrum, and has unipolar depression (also sometimes called clinical depression). At age 16 he developped a severe OCD which is an anxiety disorder. Gerrit nonetheless chose to not sit quietly weeping in a corner and chose to chase the dreams he had despite knowing there would be many difficulties in realising them. Aged 22, he left his native Belgium to relocate to Dublin, Ireland. It was a lifelong dream of Gerrit to emigrate and experience other cultures and countries. It was during an almost 2 years stint in Belfast, Northern Ireland, that Gerrit developped his love for poetry and arts. “In Belfast, even now that the worst problems on political level are over, it was still not done to talk openly about religion or politics. The one place where people were unafraid to do so, was the artistic scene. It was underground, but very vibrant. It was very meaningful art. I went to open mike nights, poetry readings, … All my friends there were practising some form of art. It was very exciting to be part of that. It was at that point I started to write poetry to better deal with my own emotions and frustrations that resulted from life with severe psychological problems,” explains Gerrit.

Ireland was the first of 6 foreign countries Gerrit would eventually reside in. Via Turkey, Germany and the Czech Republic (the latter being the most negative experience Gerrit had abroad: “all was orientated to mass tourism and wealthy foreign investors while the local population was exploited for a disgracefully low salary. Brothels and gambling halls were everywhere, discotheques and decadency were widespread. Those had taken over all culture that existed before, finding a place where poets and artists would gather was searching for a needle in a huge haystick”), Gerrit eventually ended up in Barcelona, where he formally started his artistic project in which speeching and poetry are used to tackle the taboos and wrong stereotypes about psychological problems.

“It was in Belfast I first speeched in front of a crowd of university students psychology. I just had to talk a bit about my life within the autism spectrum, with OCD and depression… It may sound strange for an autistic person, but I felt very comfortable. Idealism and motivation make you overcome any stage fright. At the end a woman came to me, she was a young mother of a girl with Asperger Syndrome and was so afraid her daughter would never end up living independently and having a remotefully normal life. She said that hearing me talk so clearly and rationally about it, and living independently in a foreign country, gave her new hope her daughter would eventually maybe end up doing okay in life. That was the best compliment I could have imagined. That moment I realised the power of how words can break taboos. Sometimes a paper and pen are the most powerful weapons available in order to reach your goal.”

Gerrit chose to relocate to Barcelona specifically for the artistic scene. “I felt my life in the Czech Republic was a dead end street. I just needed to leave that place. When being offered the chance to go to Barcelona, a city I had previously visited and of which I remembered that it had a very vibrant arts scene, it was a logical step. A spur of the moment decision in a way, but sometimes those turn out to be the best experiences.” Gerrit affiliated quickly to a local poetry circle that held weekly open mike nights, which became his first experience with reading his poetry to an audience. As reactions were positive, Gerrit searched options to organise own poetry readings where he would have full control of the number of poems read, the speeches in between, the decoration of the stage, … “In the open microphone nights I often saw the same people week after week. It was fun to do, but in the end when your poetry is orientated at spreading a message, you want more people to hear your work. Also, my poetry was quite drastically different from what the others were doing. They had poetry varying from erotic or romantic verses to spiritual poetry or even sarcastic poetry. Then there was me, with rather bleak poetry that was mainly intended to confrontate people with their own prejudices rather than intended to entertain. The open mike nights were fun to do but it was time for the next step.”

Meanwhile Gerrit has done over 5 speeches in front of university students psychology in Barcelona, has started organising his own shows and is trying to promote his project. “I do have the ambition to go professionally with this. Not because I am after fame, but because I am idealistic. I want as many people as possible to hear my poetry and to grasp the message in it. This is also why, as my poetry contains a lot of metaphors, I tend to explain those that could be too complex to decipher otherwise. If I use a knife and bleeding as a metaphor for confrontating yourself with your own fears even when you know it will be very frightening, you don’t want people to take those words literally and think I am talking about self-harming. I want to speech and read my poems in as many different places as I can, to allow as many people as possible to hear the message. Only once we raise awareness on large scale, people will eventually understand life with psychological problems, understand the isolation and the constant alienation, but also the normal desires and emotions underneath. Once people understand, the next step we should realise is creating better help for those suffering from psychological problems. For example there is still no place open 7 days a week where you can just walk in and meet others who go through the same problems. That is such a shame because talking openly to someone who won’t judge you and who will understand your issues can be the listening ear that can make a very big difference at the times of great despair.”

So Gerrit’s poetry is not intended to entertain, it is intended to educate. While Barcelona offers an incredible number of venues open to poetry readings, Gerrit looks beyond that and is constantly searching opportunities to perform in other cities and in front of new audiences. Both in other Spanish cities but also abroad. “The taboo is extremely big in some Eastern European countries, or in the Middle East and Asia. I am not afraid to stand up as a pioneer and go speeching and performing in places like that. I realise a society doesn’t change its views overnight, but I am confident at least those affected by psychological problems and their loved ones, will listen and will try to understand. Regardless of one’s culture, no parent wants to see their child suffer without knowing how to help.”

Gerrit’s poetry tends to be on the dark side. Subjects such as claustrophoby and phobias are often described themes, such as in the poem “By the Sea”, which deals with claustrophoby in a very direct way.

I got a little house, I got a little house
I got a little place by the sea
Nobody there, only me
It’s my house, my refuge, my sanctuary
I don’t want you to come close, don’t want you to pass this door
Because this is my sanctuary, holding all I care for
My sanctuary, by the sea… by the sea…
I got a Little home close to the water
I got a Little place by the sea
All alone, just myself and me
But is a house also a home?
Well it sure doesn’t feel as such
I try my best, oh I try so much
But I feel claustrophobic, sometimes the walls are closing in on me
I need to run away, I need to get out!
Seek refuge in the cityscape
A house is a machine for living in
But I cannot move, don’t dare to touch my own things
I don’t want to pollute it all
But it feels dirt sticks to every wall
I can’t stay in here – I need to get out
I feel so stressed – is this really my house?
It’s my place by the sea
Nobody’s there, not even me
I wish I could just be home alone, listen to music, watch some TV
But all I see are those bloody walls where filth crawls and crawls …
I feel lack of space, I cannot move
I cannot touch a thing, I run to the streets
Off to public places where I can find some peace
I got a home but I’m almost never there
It hosts all I care for and it hosts despair
Leave me out now, I want to breathe!
By the ocean, by the sea…

Also, the poems tend to be highly metaphoric. “A few examples are the dove which stands for purity and liberty. That metaphor was already used in the earliest religious books of several of the monotheistic religions. The sea is another metaphor I tend to use to describe freedom and purity. Then there are other more grim metaphors such as bleeding or scars, which usually refers to emotional suffering rather than literally scarring yourself. For example, one of my poems has a paragraph contain the line “Go on until I can delight in my pain”, this actually means: please go on confrontating me with my fears, until what is painful now simply doesn’t hurt anymore. It is important to describe such metaphors to the crowd however to avoid misunderstandings.

Another poem that is using metaphors on several places is “Windswept”:

So here I walk through the ruins of my life
No matter what I try, I’m a failure in search for a guide
Beauty is everywhere around me
But damage and decay is all I really see
It rains so hard, the skies all look so grey
I feel so windswept, the storm seems here to stay
But I hold the head up high
Walk on with my wounded pride
And yeah, all that’s left is hope
I walk on a windswept beach in the rain
Wondering what I became
Inside there is such a void
How did I grow so paranoid?
My mind is stormy and my skies are dark
I look up and try to remember the sight of the stars
But I can’t see them…
The city  goes to sleep
I’m all alone by the sea
Is there no escape?
If only I could be swallowed by the waves, that take me far away
To a place away from this misery
But I grab my last bit of courage and walk on with wounded pride
Tomorrow’s another day, I’ll survive tonight
Life is falling down and standing up again
Just gotta move on and don’t ask why
Look at the sky, it keeps on raining
And yeah, all that’s left is hope…

It may be clear that Gerrit’s poetry indeed is more orientated at eye-opening than entertaining. On top of this, the minority of poems not directly about psychological issues, tends to be quite in-depth as well, often describing more broad social issues and expressing Gerrit’s stark left-wing ideologies.

But for sure the project is not all bleak and sombre. There are those poems that are hopeful as well. “I want to show the audience both sides of life with psychological issues. Yes, every day can be a struggle, and there are a lot of moments of alienation and despair. But we also have normal emotions and desires like anyone else. Those also need to be expressed. And after all, we have a disorder. Nothing to be ashamed of. One of the messages that needs to be spread for sure is to not be ashamed, a message I try to include frequently as well in my poetry”. An example is the poem “Sei Stolz”:

You walk away as if the world crashed down
Yet another person that hurt you
or didn’t want to understand
To understand your pains,  emotionless while watching you suffering
I know how you feel, don’t cry or swallow your pride
You’re not alone and your light is shining bright
I’ll comfort you with every new scar
In a world too cold to understand, we’re beautiful as we are
No reason to hide, to swallow pride
Don’t feel dirty and hate yourself
You’re not alone on this side

Even when the water keeps on running, be proud
When the world refuses to understand you, be proud
When you fear all of them reject you, be proud
When you fear you can’t switch off the light
When you count the steps and stones on the sidewalk
Be proud
Stop the ritual, make the change until you’re wild and free
Be who you want to be but don’t let them change you
No matter what : be proud, sei stolz

What does Gerrit hope to achieve with this project? “I want to take this as far as I can. Knock against the taboo walls until not a single brick is left. I hope to get the chance to perform in as many different venues. Both in other Spanish cities and abroad. We need to raise awareness if we want the next generation of those who suffer to be better understood and helped. This project may sound ambitious, but there’s nothing wrong in believing in yourself and in what you’re doing.”

All poems are written and property of Gerrit De Feyter.

Article appeared in GAMIAN magazine. For more info: see www.gamian.eu

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