Daniell Koepke, Poet And Mental Health Advocate

When did you start writing? Did anything or anyone spark the internet in you? I started writing back in 2013 on Tumblr! I had been running a mental health advocacy/self-care blog on that platform since 2009. I think I reached a point where I stopped feeling inspired by and connected to the quotes on my feed. But more than anything, I think I chose to start writing as a way of saving myself. My quotes were, and have always been, about vocalizing what I wish someone would tell me; about what I wish I could believe for myself. I’ve struggled most of my life with depression and anxiety, and there were a lot of moments in my early twenties when I felt invisible and disconnected. Being able to articulate my pain and my experiences helped me heal.

What’s your writing process like? Do you write everyday? I don’t write everyday – mostly because I don’t have time as a graduate student! But also because inspiration ebbs and flows. I used to beat myself up for not being able to come up with something meaningful to share ever time I sat down, but the longer I do this work, the more I realize that creativity is a process, and some days it’s winter and there’s nothing growing and other days ideas are in full bloom. More often than not, I write when I’m struggling with something in my life or in my relationships. I’ve had a negative voice that’s followed me around for years, and when things get hard, it typically gets loud. I often write out all the things that piece of me has to say and then for each judgment or thought, I try to reframe it. I try to ask myself, “Is there another way of telling this story?” Because in essence, we’re story tellers. It’s how we make sense of our pain and our experiences. But often times, we create stories that don’t serve us. And so, for me, writing is about telling a new story and asking myself, “How can I show up for an 11 or 13 year old version of myself in this moment? What would she need to hear to feel seen and heard and validated and enough? What story can I rewrite for her? For the people I love and people I know carry this same pain?”

What do you do when you’re not writing? I’m a full time doctoral (PsyD) student in a clinical psychology program, which is a fancy way of saying I’m working towards being a clinical psychologist! It’s a long road – I’m in year two of five – so my time is typically spent doing reading, writing papers, or working on my dissertation. I also see clients as a part of my program and work in a community counseling clinic with individuals who have mild to moderate anxiety and mood disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. If I have free time, I enjoy being out in nature on hikes or at the beach, adventuring to new places, binge watching Netflix, getting sucked into the YouTube vortex, and reading about psychology, issues of social justice, and mental health advocacy.

Tell me about Internal Acceptance Movement. How did it come about? Why did you decide to create this? I created the Internal Acceptance Movement (I. AM.) back in 2009. I got the idea when I was in treatment for an eating disorder. I had just sat through a group where we watched a video about body image and all the ways in which people (particularly girls and women) subscribe to an unrealistic thin ideal. The message of the video wasn’t anything novel, but it got me thinking about the power of social media and it ignited something in me. I felt angry that I had this eating disorder and that I’d be affected by these toxic cultural messages. There are many moments in recovery when people feel powerless, and I decided that I wanted to do something to take back my power and help others. And so, I. A.M. started as a way to spread awareness about eating disorders and advocate for recovery. Over the years though, I decided that I wanted to create a space that offered support and validation to all people, regardless of what mental health struggles they carried. The fundamental idea behind I. A.M. is that we aren’t defined by the external pieces of who we are – by our weight or the ideas people create about what it means to have a certain skin color or sexual orientation or health status. That it’s the internal pieces – our kindness and our courage; the things we value and the way we make other people feel – that matter. I think it also represents the idea that in order to really heal from our demons, we have to make peace with and accept those internal pieces; the pieces we feel are bad and ugly and shameful. And this idea that you can lose all the weight in the world, at the most prestigious job/program, dating the most attractive person, living the most luxurious lifestyle…but you’ll still be unhappy if you can’t make room for your authentic self; if you’re carrying around self-hatred and shame and neglecting what you really need.

Daring To Take Up Space is your first collection of poetry. How did it come to be? Daring To Take Up Space is really a collection of pieces I’ve been writing for years. So in essence, you could say it came about just from navigating my own struggles with depression, anxiety, toxic relationships, and an eating disorder, and from trying to find the words to help myself survive and heal. For most of my life, I felt like I wasn’t allowed to take up space in the world as my authentic self. I had been given the message that I was too much – too sensitive, too needy, too loud, too emotional, too different from my family – and so, I tried to shrink myself. I shrunk my personality, my body, my needs – anything to try to be enough for other people; anything to feel loved and seen and valued. My healing process has very much been about giving my authentic self permission to exist and take up space. And as I’ve written throughout the years, I think this poetry collection was also created out of a desire to help other people realize they deserve to take up space too. Out of a desire to help people recognize that the things we think are bad or a weakness are often our gifts; that the stories we’ve learned about ourselves don’t have to be our truth and can be re-written; that we aren’t alone in whatever we feel; and that the raw and dark parts of who we are don’t make us inadequate – just human – and it’s okay to make space for all the pieces of ourselves.

Do you have any advice for any writers or for anyone with anxiety? My advice to writers would be to stop comparing. You may never sound or write or tell stories like the one’s other people tell – and that’s okay. You have a unique combination of strengths and struggles and lived experiences. You have a unique history. And so, no one else can tell the exact story you have to tell. And that’s where your power is – in your lived experience and in your truth. What you write may not resonate with everyone, and that’s okay too. What you have to share is important and meaningful and worthwhile, whether it affects one person or a thousand, and even if it’s just a way to help you get through.

My advice for anyone with anxiety is to remember that what feels like the end of the world in the moment is only fleeting. It will pass. The feeling always pass. You’ve survived every hard moment and feeling of discomfort up until this point, and you’ll survive this one and all the ones that come next too. I’d also invite anyone who struggles with anxiety and avoids things as a result (i.e. avoids intimacy, confrontation, social situations, food, vulnerability, taking a chance, following your dream) to reflect on the following questions: If you didn’t feel this fear and worry and self-doubt, what would you be doing differently? Who would you show up as? Can you make room for your fear *and* still move in the direction of what’s important to you? Because chances are, you’ve tried to control whatever it is you fear – and it hasn’t worked. You’ve tried to numb and avoid and distract and micromanage so that you don’t have to feel/ experience it. How is that working? (It’s not). And how much longer do you want to spend your life avoiding the things you value? The things that would make your life feel more full and free? How much longer do you want to keep handing your life over to fear and self-doubt?  To keep living in a small box? Another year? Three years? Five? And what will your life look like if you make the hard choice? If you step forward, even though there’s fear? Yes, you might fail, but what if you thrive? Yes, you might get rejected, but what if you find connection? Yes, it could be awful and too difficult, but what if it brings your life joy and the hard pieces end up becoming easy and routine? It’s okay to feel afraid, and it’s so normal to want to avoid feeling scared and uncomfortable. But your anxiety can’t kill you. It’s unpleasant, but it won’t actually harm you. You don’t have to solve your anxiety today or fix your life overnight. You just have to show up and try; to decide that you want something different for yourself; to make a small shift in a new direction. It isn’t easy, and it’s okay struggle. But there’s freedom beyond this, and you deserve to discover it. The worst of this will pass. You will find your way. Better moments are coming. [cw-mark]