Susie McComb – Rhyme, Hypomania and Me

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Susie McComb is an emerging spoken word artist on the North East scene. Lisette Auton asked Susie to write about what the term ’emerging’ means to her, her journey into spoken word, and what it feels like to finally find your tribe.

Woman behind microphone

Susie McComb. Photo © Ian Gibson at Gong Fu Poets

‘Emerging spoken-word artist’ is a term I’ve begun to use about myself, and had others use about me, over the last six or so months. The phrase is an interesting one, which has given me pause to reflect a little on what ’emergence’ truly means to me as a disabled artist. Where am I ’emerging’ to? What was I ’emerging’ from?

There’s the evidence of professional ’emergence’ I can point to on a C.V. – I was invited to perform at Lindisfarne Festival last August, for example, and made it through to the semi-final heat of the Great Northern Slam; my name also featured on Scott Tyrell’s map of spoken-word artists of the UK, and in May I will be presenting a paper on rhyme, poetics and creativity at an academic conference in Helsinki.

However, the word takes on a deeper resonance for me when I consider it in terms of the full scope of my disability; in particular, the social phobia and panic attack disorder that left me terrified to ’emerge’ from my house most days for approaching two decades before poetry swept its way into my life.

‘Emergence’, for me, describes a very literal escape from the darkness and solitude of locked doors, drawn curtains, racing heartbeats and shut-down dreams to the lights, cheer, warmth and welcome of the North East spoken word community. From scuttling through streets with my headphones blaring, terrified to make eye contact with anyone, to striding onstage with my head held high.

If any amount of anxiety is holding you back from reaching out and dipping a toe into the artistic opportunities available to you in your own region, I both empathise completely and would also urge you to summon every reserve of energy and coping strategy at your disposal, take a deep breath and make that first, courageous step. The results could be utterly transformative.

“All the world’s a stage, and I’m suffering stage fright,
All the world’s a stage, and I wanna exit stage right,
All the world’s a stage, and every day is opening night,
All the world’s a stage, and every phrase is open mic.”
Unspoken Word – Susie McComb

Of all the poems I perform regularly, Unspoken Word is probably the one that receives the most feedback after shows. Sometimes the feedback is wordless (twice, now, an audience member has simply walked up, shaken my hand and walked away); more often, I have the privilege of listening to people’s own experiences of anxiety as we share tips, stories and solidarity.

Woman behind microphone speaks to audience

Susie at DiVerse. Photo © Kev Howard

I wrote Unspoken Word in September 2017, a day or so after my second ever poetry open mic performance, in a fit of equal parts confusion and adrenaline. I’d suffered from a severe and disabling panic disorder since I was 11 years old (my first panic attack happened on a school trip to Disneyland, of all places), and for more years than I care to reflect on throughout my twenties I could barely leave the house, let alone hold down a job or – it seemed – accomplish anything remotely useful with the endless free time I had at my disposal. Stage performance’ had previously seemed as unlikely a life-course for me as moon travel; I considered myself absolutely phobic of public scrutiny, yet here I was standing in front of a microphone reading my poetry to a room full of strangers and actually enjoying myself.

Looking back over the text of Unspoken Word fourteen months on from writing it, I’m struck by its defensive undertones:

“If given my condition, you find it strange to see me brave/just know I live fear every day, and this here’s only a stage”.

A lot of that insecurity has fallen away now; I know that poetry audiences are by-and-large full of great, supportive, nurturing, enthusiastic people who are both well-used to seeing mental health diversity represented on stage, and perfectly welcoming of it.

Unspoken Word is a poem about anxiety, panic disorder and bravery, and as such, most of the conversations its performance generates revolve around these issues. However, while preparing a set for DiVerse – a spoken word night for non-mainstream voices which alternates venue each month between Saltburn and Stockton – I began reflecting on the contribution my ‘other’ major mental health disorder had played in the writing of this and so many other of my poems.

I was first diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder II in 2011, after experiencing what was probably not my first ever hypomanic episode, but certainly my most extreme up to that point. The ‘Hypo’ in hypomania actually stands for “less than”, which makes it slightly less exciting than it sounds – as Stephen Fry explained in his excellent series of documentaries The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive.

Bipolar is a spectrum disorder, with both highs and lows manifesting differently for each person. For me, my manic episodes usually stop short of outright delusion; more often, I ‘merely’ experience racing flights of ideas, reduced need for sleep and food, reckless spending behaviour, and – charmingly or embarrassingly, depending on how you look at it – a tendency to think and speak in rhyme, whether consciously (making lots of puns, writing reams of rhyming poetry) or sub-consciously (making Freudian slips in speaking and/or writing).

People respond to Unspoken Word because of its content matter, but also because it rhymes well, and it rhymes well because – to put it bluntly – I was off-meds and consequently absolutely high as a kite when I wrote it!

It came together in my head on a dog-walk, as poems increasingly often do – I think my mind responds well to the rhythm of walking – but I was so excited by this one that I completely lost track of time; walking and walking, writing and writing, returning home two hours late for dinner to an extremely worried boyfriend who had been about to send out a search party.

Now, when I perform lines like ‘My vocal cords are sore but I can soar/My lips are bitten raw, but I can roar/My vocal cords are swords’, I reflect not only on my journey with anxiety, but also my journey coming to terms with the rhyme-peppered hypomanic upswells that are a constant risk with my particular flavour of Bipolar disorder.

“Rhyme remembers,
Restokes memory’s embers,
Awakens as you weaken: rhyme is dementia,
Echolalia, hypomania –
She hunts. Haunts. Hurts.”
Rhyme – Susie McComb

When I wrote Unspoken Word, I had been out of work and formal education for approaching a decade. I honestly thought that the complexities of my mental health conditions were such that I would never work or study ‘properly’ again. Fourteen months on, I have steady employment as an academic tutor, and an increasingly acclaimed place on the spoken word scene.

Performance poetry and the amazingly supportive network of poets and spoken word artists threaded throughout the North East have absolutely revolutionised my life and health. I am proud and grateful to have truly ‘found my tribe’ through collectives such as the Tees Women Poets and the many talented and compassionate individuals who have offered encouragement and friendship along the way.

“We are, each of us, a product of the stories we tell ourselves”
Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine – Derren Brown

I used to consider myself a person with anxiety and bipolar disorder who sometimes wrote poems; now the ‘story I tell myself’ – and tell about myself – is that I’m a poet who is sometimes affected by anxiety and Bipolar disorder. There’s power in that.

To contact Susie McComb you find her FaceBook page at https://fb.me/susiemccombpoet.