Protagonists is a series of interviews about life, identity, and pursuing passions…
Anke Grünow is a 27 year old writer/photographer/artist from Dresden, born in the faltering twilight of the GDR. She’s always looking for a new angle of expression, and someone whose creative thirst I envy.
She has also tried to kill herself. Twice.
Are you able to summon inspiration? Or just try to be ready when it arrives?
Music is very important in this regard. It sets the mood. I need to feel a bit melancholic, sad even, when writing.
Trying to be ready for it when it arrives or when it hits you like a brick in the face is quite a challenge. I try to never leave the house without pen and paper, or at least my phone.
I rarely check back on phone notes. The physical act of writing feels better, like there’s muscle memory involved.
I also prefer the physical act of writing. The same applies to photography – I prefer to be able to touch the outcome.
Sometimes my mind is faster than my hand when holding a pen so I have to use a machine. However, it’s weird what this does to the way you’re writing. When writing on my typewriter, my computer or my phone, my train of thought is completely different.
When writing by hand, I see and feel the paper. There’s a weird form of resistance to what I’m doing. The hand has to fight against the paper. My handwriting is quite small but very ‘bow-y’, so I try to find words that look good next to each other. It’s weird. I usually do this when writing in public because I often notice that people read what I’ve just written.
When sitting behind my typewriter, I try not to think at all. I focus on writing fast and steady while trying to not be too loud and disturb the neighbours. Whatever I’m writing on my typewriter is the classic stream of consciousness. Though not in James Joyce volume.
Can you describe the build-up to your suicide attempt?
I went through an emotional rollercoaster with someone who triggered old behavioural patterns. Then, we had a family event I was anxious to go to, mostly since I feel estranged from my mother, and the same night a friend of mine died in a house fire.
Things just began to build up on me one by one, I got sick quite often and I began to cry uncontrollably on public transport (one of the benefits was that it made the bad subway musicians go away) and my doctors kept on telling me to seek help.
So I began searching for a therapist which can be very hard in Berlin. I was already suicidal at that point, then decided to take medication (which I had always refused to do) and the suicidal tendencies just took over. Later a dear friend persuaded me to admit myself and seek help to have someone look after me.
How did you try to kill yourself?
With the meds I got from my psychiatrist. But I got a panic attack so I threw them all up again.
Do you remember how you felt at the time?
Most of my memories are very dull. I remember feeling very numb, then helpless, overwhelmed. Most of the time I felt guilty though.
Did you leave a note?
Of sorts, yes. I sent a text to my dearest friends around 4am (excluding that certain someone). At 7am, my best friend rang the doorbell until I answered. She rushed up to me and held me in her arms for about ten minutes.
Were you hoping to be stopped?
No, I knew all of them would be sleeping by then. If I wanted to be found or saved, I would have tried to kill myself in the bathroom right next to my flatmate’s room.
Had you thought about suicide before that day – not as a distant, abstract notion, but something you would do?
Yes, it was actually my second attempt. The first time I tried to kill myself was when I was 14. The suicidal thoughts are always in the back of my mind though most of the time, they’re not urgent.
Are you able to suppress/ignore those thoughts now?
I either sleep through them or try to visualise how far I’ve come. I’m not suicidal suicidal right now and I know that they’re a symptom of my clinical depression. Seeing my therapist helps, too. Plus, my closest friends are people I can talk to about these thoughts and they don’t stigmatise me or run away because of that.
What happened with your suicide attempt when you were 14?
In hindsight, it’s quite cruel. In wintertime, I tried to drown myself in the river that flows through the city I grew up in. I’ve been celebrating my ‘second birthday’ ever since.
Do you think stigma around depression is disappearing?
It depends on the people you’re dealing with. The stigma is not as bad as it used to be but it’s still there. As long as people tell me I’m brave for speaking up about mental illness and what I went through, there’s a lot of work to be done.
You think it’s patronising to be called brave?
I think it’s patronising if it implies I might lose some form of social status or potentially be losing friends for speaking out.
Often it’s a case of not knowing what to say.
I think helplessness is nothing that you can criticise someone for. Neglect is what you have to call people out on.
There are still people who believe that there is no mental illness and that all you have to do is hang in there or ‘get a grip’.
I do find off-hand comments to “smile!” or “cheer up!” very frustrating. It’s a refusal to engage at all with the issue.
I know that most of the time they mean well but if they keep on saying that, it’s insulting.
And as long as health insurance employees tell me I should just admit myself and spend a lot of time in a psychiatric ward so they don’t have to pay for psychotherapy, there’s [clearly still a problem].
You also suffer from panic attacks?
The panic attacks started after I found out I passed the entrance exam for my university and it’s continually gotten worse. The trigger is unknown but the attacks occur when I’m outside. I get this sudden feeling of being unsafe. I feel kind of threatened while at the same time I’m scared I’ll do something embarrassing.
[In my flat] I try to protect my private space as much as I can so I don’t have too many bad memories when things turn sour.
You say that as if it’s an inevitability.
In my experience, they usually do turn sour.
My room is my safe place. If I invite someone into my flat – specifically my room – I trust them 100 percent. Some people, former lovers and former friends, may tint my room. Like, once they’ve been here, I always picture them here. And when things don’t work out, I’m left with these memories I can’t shake.
Which do you find more cathartic, writing or photography?
It’s always a mix. I need writing and photography. I hurt more when I write. Photography on the other hand is very important because it helps me remember. In retrospect, it makes me see warning signs I couldn’t see while stuck in that situation.
Is there a risk of stewing in the negative stuff too long for the sake of art? Or is creation just a by-product of emotion, and the art pure catharsis?
Catharsis can be dangerous. The night before I attempted suicide, I attended a play by a friend of mine which asked the question if it’s possible to escape the eggshells you’ve been carrying with you ever since your birth. That question, this cathartic moment (I answered the question as a no) drove me over the edge.
Writing, to me, is a process that makes me understand. While it’s very helpful, it also means I potentially dwell too much on negative thoughts or emotions. Writing a story that continually triggers negative emotions may potentially put me in a vicious cycle.
So in that sense, my creative output is a mix of by-product and message/project-driven work.
What do you mean by eggshells?
The eggshells are leftovers of behaviours within the family. Patterns your parents taught you.
What is your family dynamic?
My father is very loving and always put us before anything else. I’m more like my father who is very sensitive. He always wants the best for you though sometimes he’s overwhelmed.
My mother is very bad at showing any sign of affection or emotion. She says she’s pragmatic. I only found out she was proud of me after I read an official letter she’d written to a government agency. I don’t remember her hugging me until I was 19.
I always wanted to be a writer when I was young and, after I told her, she told me that nobody is interested in whatever it is I have to say. This feeling stuck with me ever since.
I think she has her own problems but she doesn’t talk about them. She lost her father when she was a baby and grew up in the GDR but I don’t think I want to keep on explaining her behaviour. I try to protect myself as much as I can.
I have this hangover from childhood sometimes where I assume adults just sprung, fully-formed, into existence. And whatever flaws they have are just because they’re ‘bad people’, rather than a past that shaped them.
I used to think the same. But we all grow and we never stop. Some people either never become themselves or don’t see the intrinsic responsibility they have towards their nearest and dearest.
I’m also responsible for the pain I have caused others or my erratic behaviour. I think it’s about true strength to apologise for that. I don’t think that this responsibly thing is a one-way-street.
Who are your influences?
Mostly contemporary though there’s a lot of literature that meant a lot to me when I was younger. I loved (and still love) Hermann Hesse, Rainer Maria Rilke, Christa Wolf, Christoph Hein, Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto. As my interests have shifted and grown, I’ve found more artists that inspire me.
[In terms of photography] I find daily life documentation and portrait photography the most appealing.
Also, having classes with art students (I study visual communication) is highly inspiring. This made it clear to me that I’ve always been more of an inspiration-remix/rethinking person. This doesn’t mean I just copy another person’s work. I try to incorporate a certain point of view or a philosophical question into my work.
To me, this is the way it’s supposed to be: be inspired by another person’s work, make art, and inspire another person in turn.
There’s a Dorothy Parker quote, “I hate writing, but I love having written”. What part of the process do you derive pleasure from?
The part I like the most is reading what I wrote, about ten months later. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or autobiographical, it’s always nice to see and read what state your mind was in. However, I find it’s pretty much a pain in the ass to do the writing.
It used to feel easier but as my own expectations grow, I dare not write. Or I simply don’t feel like writing because I think I have nothing to say. This cathartic moment always hits me later. So maybe it’s also about taking the pressure out of the equation. Just write, you can always redraft later.
How do you define happiness? Is it something you strive for?
There are different versions of happiness. I feel that some people mistake bliss for happiness and aim for this nearly unreachable feeling. Whenever I’ve been close to reaching what others might define as happiness, I felt like I was being tricked or as if what was happening was a trap. In the end, it almost always turned out to be a tiny high before an abrupt landslide into (my own) darkness.
Sometimes I get angry at this overly present need for this never ending overly joyful happiness. Happiness is nice, yes, but it also comes and goes like waves do. The type of ‘happiness’ I aim for is to be content with where I am, where I’m going to and most importantly, I want to be content with my (mental) health.
Life looks like a sinus curve on an oscillograph and to believe that striving for happiness cuts out the lows is a bit naïve – especially if you’ve been experiencing lows or a moderate emotional state for as long as you can remember.
Maybe it’s possible to be proud of who you’re becoming. It’s just a work in progress.