By Brenna Gautam
“I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”
— “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley
I repeat the lines to myself often. I repeat them before taking a test or walking into an interview, and on mornings when I still wake up with panic clogging my lungs and childhood nightmares fresh in my mind, I summon the words for strength.
I’ve heard that William Ernest Henley wrote “Invictus” as a reflection on his inner resilience following the loss of a foot to tubercular infection — a disease that later killed him — and I imagine him lying in a hospital bed with a grizzled beard and one leg that ends abruptly at the ankle, silently composing stanzas in his head that call to mind images of battle-weary soldiers stumbling towards tattered flags on the horizon, all while painfully, exquisitely aware that he might never stumble — or walk, or dance, or run — towards anything again. He lost a foot, and at that point, he must have been struggling not to lose his hope. So he composed a battle cry for himself and put on a brave face for the nurses.
(He seems like an exceptionally brave poet. His daughter died when she was 11 years old, and his tuberculosis-ridden hands helped bury her. Unconquerable soul indeed!)
Before learning about poor Mr. Henley’s foot, I used to imagine that the author of “Invictus” suffered from intense clinical depression. The night, the black pit, the wrath and tears…I used to imagine the landscape of his mind was a mirror to my own, that we both felt lost in an abyss and clung to written words like life rafts.
“On mornings when I still wake up with panic clogging my lungs and childhood nightmares fresh in my mind, I summon the words for strength.”
Some background information: Most days, I deal with depression and anxiety. A sense of heightened fear and despair that won’t dispel. Occasionally, I experience horrific, clammy panic attacks or flashbacks to long-since-past abuses. About once every other month, I perform mental acrobatics and elaborate breathing exercises to dispel suicidal ideations from my mind.
This is an improvement from college, when I used to keep updated suicide notes stuffed in various jean pockets, used to walk to my campus and conjure up 100 different death sentences in a flash of racing thoughts: I would see a stoplight and imagine hanging from it, exert self-restraint and walk past the light, pass a speeding Toyota, imagine throwing myself beneath its belly — Would I be torn in half by rubber tires? Or crushed under the weight of its heavy metal frame? My dad was an automotive engineer, and during my parents' divorce, working with cars gave his life some meaning — now, perversely, I would imagine dying under a hot car engine, force myself to walk forward, past a construction site, where I could fling myself from the top of a crane, and then past a hardware store, where I could buy poisons and chainsaws with my credit card, and then past a small cluster of fellow pedestrians — Could it be a gang, willing to knife me in the gut for my wallet? — and on and on until I reached campus, and by then I felt I might die from exhaustion and couldn’t remember why I walked there in the first place.
I used to wonder, How can someone be the master of their soul when they can’t even control their own thoughts?
Now, I struggle more with depression and anxiety than with suicidal ideations (thankfully, because I spend less time obsessively researching methods to off myself and more time researching school assignments). There are many factors implicit in this improvement, but one secret tool that has helped keep me afloat has been literature. Reading it, writing it.
I wrote a book last year that had nothing to do with mental health, but somehow these same themes kept bleeding into my chapters, and it felt like catharsis. I’ve collected poem anthologies and draw strength from their syllables. When I feel most broken, I’ve learned to quickly type out descriptions of every dark thought to use as material for some future writing project: turning sadness into creative ammunition, turning to words instead of alcohol, pills or any form of self-harm.
“This is an improvement from college, when I used to keep updated suicide notes stuffed in various jean pockets, used to walk to my campus and conjure up 100 different death sentences in a flash of racing thoughts.”
One day, after a weeks-long bout of nearly crippling depression, I was maybe too carried away with my literature/therapy and let a tattoo artist ink a line from my favorite novel, “The Brothers Karamazov,” onto my forearm. Over the humming needle, he told me that tattoos can be a way of visually expressing emotions that are otherwise invisible, like grief.
I like that idea: words making invisible pain visible, to share with others.
The seventh and eighth lines of “Invictus” read:
“In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.”
All my respect to Henley for evidently not wincing or crying during his amputation (especially considering 19th century anesthetics), but I think there is a time for crying aloud and for sharing pain. After all, if he hadn’t shared his medical struggle through poetry, I wouldn’t have found solace in his words.
I go back and forth with the question of whether my mental battles are useful — or even appropriate — to write down and share with others. (Sometimes I shamelessly lie about my depressed state to the people closest to me; other times, in bouts of strength and transparency, I post detailed public Facebook statuses about past traumas). But the ultimate purpose of this website is to share vulnerability, and I think that is worthwhile.
There have been many embarrassing Google searches in my past, queries like “Is it normal to suddenly feel like you can’t breathe and can’t stop your hands from shaking when you hear raised voices arguing???” typed into the search bar in a desperate attempt to gather information about what this condition feels like. To understand what I am going through, to comfort myself in the knowledge that there are others out there like me, to learn from others’ coping mechanisms, to rejoice in their survival stories. I hope that in writing words like these, I’m emulating Henley and might help readers recognize their own resilience too.
Brenna Gautam is a law student/activist/national security nerd living in Washington, D.C.