A Small, Safe Room
Updated: Oct 11, 2021
By Amy Watkins
The student in my office is twenty-two, a combat veteran. We’re here to talk about thesis statements, make-up work, how to communicate professionally even when you’re emotional. He says, “I don’t get emotional.” We both know that’s a lie. He’s cursed me out by email, and the scars on his knuckles say he’s put a fist through something solid. He keeps a wall at his back. I keep an open path to the door. Since he came here, he hasn’t unfisted his hands.
At his age I was a psychology major, trying to heal my own trauma, slowly deciding poetry would do the job better than study after study that said the human heart was shattered, the mind a maze of chemicals and habits. I don’t mean to say my hurt was like his, only that some of it is familiar, the way he holds his body perfectly still while his eyes never rest and the clench of his jaw makes the walls contract. When I was his age, I too believed it failure to say, “I am angry. I am afraid. I am full of sorrow.” Better to keep my emotions inside my own skin, the way a child believes herself safe in the dark if she keeps all her limbs on the bed, under the covers.
A psychologist might have told me there are no bad emotions, might have warned that the feelings I denied would find their outlet, whether or not I willed it. Twice now, unprompted, my student has told the story of how his squad fucked up, killed civilians—again and again, the same horrible non sequitur. “It wasn’t our fault,” he says, again.
Once I asked my mother why no one in our family went to therapy. She said, “I was afraid they would tell me I should leave your dad or leave the church. And, besides, we couldn’t afford it.” My student would surely qualify for VA mental health care, but according to a study by the National Academy of Science, only 28% of recent veterans who have need and qualify for mental health services actually use them.¹ When I was very young, my family was impoverished, but my parents never applied for food stamps or Medicaid. I never went to therapy or office hours. I never asked for help for so many reasons—shame, fear, a self-imposed identity built on the faulty premise that I don’t get emotional, that I’m OK.
Instead, I learned to write sonnets, 10-syllable by 14-line rooms I built to hold my fear, anger, and sadness. Inside the room of the poem, I was safe; I would not lose control within the boundaries of syllable count and meter. I could decide what each dangerous memory meant. I could reform and intellectualize my experience, tame it. I suppose it was another way of distancing myself from my emotions, but it was also a way to release them, carefully, and if I say it saved my life, you might believe me.
My student says, “The assignment doesn’t make sense.”
He says, “Nothing here makes sense.” He says, “I should be back there.”
And though I know it’s little comfort, I say, “You’re here now.” I say, “You can do it, this one thing in front of you. Let me show you.”
I try to show him how the thesis sets a boundary, how the essay is an action that can be revised. I speak quietly. I keep all my emotions inside. I try, though I know it’s not enough. He won’t pass my class. Statistics say he won’t get the help he needs. But this is the only thing I know—a few words, a few rules. An essay, like a sonnet, is a room. May its walls be strong enough to contain whatever you need to set down inside it. May it be a place of safety. May its boundaries hold.
1 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Evaluation of the Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Services.Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.17226/24915.
Amy Watkins is the author of the poetry chapbooks Milk & Water, Lucky and Wolf Daughter. From 2008 to 2018, she taught composition at vocational and for-profit colleges with large veteran and first generation student populations. Find her online at RedLionSq.com and on Twitter @amykwatkins.