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How Shel Silverstein Poignantly Addressed Mental Illness


Ah, Shel Silverstein. Remember his poems he wrote about bizarre things such as sidewalks dangling off the edge of the Earth, camels wearing bras, and sarcastic alphabet books encouraging children to play pranks on their parents (which led to uptight librarians banning/challenging his books)? Remember his morbid sense of humor combined with twisted fables that charmed adults as well as kids?

Like any kid, his poems had me rolling on the floor laughing with their absurdity and at times general reliability. There is one poem, however, that still speaks to me today as an adult.

In his book “A Light in The Attic” (a book that I initially wanted nothing to do with due to finding the cover to be too weird), there is a poem entitled “Whatif.” It describes the perspective of someone who as they are trying to fall asleep is hit by an onslaught of intrusive, anxious if not irrational and over-the-top thoughts. As a child, this poem made me laugh due to the preposterous nature of these worries. As an adult… not so much.

Don’t get me wrong, it still does, but as a person with generalized anxiety disorder, I find this poem way too relatable. At times I find myself barraged with intrusive, self-defeating thoughts not unlike the narrator’s. They range from realistic to irrational but still manage to convince me they are true. As unpleasant as it sounds, the poem is oddly validating. Silverstein has managed to address a common issue within the mental health community, intentionally or not. It reminds me I am not alone in this struggle and showcases the intensity and frequency (if not oddity) of anxious thoughts. Silverstein presents it in a way that helps readers feel validated in a humorous way. Humor is a good way to cope.

Much love to Silverstein.