Writing helps poet manage mental illness

Donna Robinson admires poetry and artwork as part of the Distillations exhibit at the Nanaimo Arts Council Gallery. The poetry was done by by Timothy Merrill and the artwork was done by Clare Singleton and is on display until March 2.   - NICHOLAS PESCOD/The News Bulletin
Donna Robinson admires poetry and artwork as part of the Distillations exhibit at the Nanaimo Arts Council Gallery. The poetry was done by by Timothy Merrill and the artwork was done by Clare Singleton and is on display until March 2.
— image credit: NICHOLAS PESCOD/The News Bulletin

It was an 18-hour walk for writer and poet Timothy Merrill that made him realize something was seriously wrong.

“I started hearing voices and I took a long walk,” Merrill said.

Merrill, who was 30 years old at the time, then did something that nearly cost him his life.

“I jumped out in front of a car and it barely missed me,” Merrill said.

Police were eventually called to pick up Merrill. However, the writer had other ideas.

“The police came and started to tackle me and because the voice said run, I did,” Merrill said. “They pushed my head to the curb and kept pushing. I almost died. I sustained injuries that are with me to this day but I can’t really blame the police because how could they know? They saw me and I ran away.

“So my introduction to schizophrenia was a pretty rough one,” Merrill added, laughing.

Merrill had been hearing voices for sometime and said he thought he had to obey their commands.

“I thought they were guides and I thought I was suppose to do what they said,” Merrill said. “I thought they were a higher power. I thought they would lead me to the thing that was best.”

Since then Merrill has received treatment and used writing to help him cope with schizophrenia.The Nanaimo-based poet has written more than 10 books of poetry and has 19 books in total. Merrill’s latest work, titled Distillations, is a 45-page book of poetry with complementary paintings by Clare Singleton. Distillations is currently on display at the Nanaimo Arts Council Gallery until March 2.

“When you speak of that book [Distillations] you speak of her [Singleton]. She picked out the poems, she picked out the paintings, she was the mover and shaker all the way through,” Merrill said.

Merrill and Singleton met as artists nearly nine years ago at a mental health meeting for the Columbia House Society. Merrill said that Singleton has become a close friend to him since their meeting. “She’s an incredible support,” he said.

Merrill was born in Moscow, Idaho and spent his early life living in La Grande and Eugene, Ore. As a teenager, Merrill became a hippie and experimented with drugs and alcohol. When he was 17 his family moved from Oregon to Montreal to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam war.

“I wanted to stay in Oregon,” Merrill said about his family’s decision to relocate north. “I had tons of friends and I was very popular.”

Shortly after arriving in Montreal, Merrill began working at the Montreal Star as a mailroom clerk. A year later Merrill and his family moved to Nanaimo. Merrill landed a job at the Nanaimo Daily Free Press as a reporter.

“They were shorted staffed and they hired me to cover Duncan. Then I studied creative writing at UBC,” Merrill said.

It wasn’t until after he graduated from the University of British Columbia that he really began experience symptoms of schizophrenia. Merrill, who hasn’t let his mental health issues slow him down, said his advice to anyone dealing with schizophrenia is to get help.

“Absolutely do not hurt yourself,” he said. “Talk to a doctor first. If voices are telling you to hurt yourself absolutely ignore them and get help. It’s as simple as that.”

A copy of Distillations can be purchased for $25 at the Nanaimo Arts Council Gallery Nanaimo located in Nanaimo North Town Centre.

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