Living with Mental Illness
You Are Not Broken: An Artists Journey
Living with a mental illness can feel like your brain is flawed in design and composed of fragmented pieces; but that’s the thing, even if pieces feel broken, together they form something whole.
When I was 17, I experienced a manic episode. I neither ate nor slept for approximately 14 days. In this manic state of psychosis, I was hospitalized and diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder. Bipolar I disorder is indicated by a manic episode that lasts at least 7 days. It is usually followed by a depressive episode. As if the hospitalization was not already a frightening experience, after returning home I experienced my first tonic seizure. Prior to this, I had thought of epilepsy only as a reaction to flashing lights, which had never affected me. I felt that my brain was further failing me because I didn’t know why I suddenly had a seizure. I would later learn that not only epilepsy, but mental health doesn’t look as though our preconceived notions make them seem. All of this occurred in July before my senior year of high school. I was extremely determined to finish school and continue on to college. My mental health journey would continue to evolve with many, many, detours.
I remember the confusion, shame, and isolation that I felt after being diagnosed. I knew the stigmas regarding the disorder: uncontrollable and polar opposing emotions, flaring up at any time. I didn’t know how I would ever exist “normally,” knowing that I would most likely have a lifelong dependency on medication, and an entirely new facet of life to monitor daily. I was fearful for how my friends and extended family would react to my diagnosis.
At first, the diagnosis of bipolar disorder felt crippling. I felt trapped and as though I had a new permanent mark on my identity. I soon reached the realization that not everyone is aware of the impact and prevalence that mental illness has; approximately 1 in 5 adults in America experience mental illness. Although this is a large amount of the population, micro-aggressions are all too common. Hearing my friends use the term “psycho,” to describe instances where someone did something funny, and using the word so freely struck me. Because when I was in a state of psychosis, I thought that the hospital was trying to poison me and the television and newspaper were trying to communicate secret messages to me. There was nothing casual or colloquial about this term to me.
Receiving a diagnosis of a mental illness has shown me a unique realm of empathy. Mental health disorders are connected to brain activity and must be considered equally as significant as physical health defects.
The brain is a complex organ, and any defects within it are a matter of physical health, though society does not approach mental and physical health with the same level of importance.
We must acknowledge; you have no idea what someone is going through just by looking at them. Someone you love, vaguely know, or idolize could be suffering in ways you cannot comprehend. Therefore, we must approach every person, and every conversation with an open understanding that we cannot always understand.
As an ally, when attempting empathy we must be aware of our preconceived notions and always listen. I am extremely grateful for the support system that I have developed through the years. Talking about your mental health with your friends will not always be easy.
They may not fully know what you are feeling, but as long as they are willing to listen you will find a greater sense of security, honesty, and emotion in your relationships by being transparent about this. No one should live in fear of judgement about an aspect of their identity.
I have also learned that mental health is a continuously developing thing. During my sophomore year of college, despite consistently taking medication and monitoring my illness, a depression that had been brewing reached a catalyst and I took a medical leave from school. I went to a treatment facility where I was diagnosed with PTSD attributable to my hospitalization experience. I was then introduced to the concept of Prolonged Exposure Therapy, which I later completed. It almost completely stopped the PTSD flashbacks I experienced. However, in this treatment facility, my symptoms worsened and I experienced frequent and extremely negative intrusive thoughts.
The longer I stayed in this facility, the worse it got. I experienced my second (and only other to date) tonic seizure immediately after returning home from the facility. Yet, it wasn’t until I got home and started working with a structured routine again that I felt more comfortable in my mind. Even the smallest semblance of a routine, such as waking up at the same time every day, can go an extremely long way.
It can be overwhelming to receive multiple mental health diagnoses. Comorbidity is extremely common with many mental illnesses. I now have received the diagnosis of anxiety, depression, juvenile myoclonic epilepsy and PTSD. However, I think that a diagnosis can be comforting: seen as an answer to the open ended question of where symptoms come from, and a step toward solutions. I would eventually complete a 72 hour EEG which revealed that I had frequent tonic and myoclonic seizures, lasting up to 3 seconds, occurring throughout the day and mostly at night.
The diagnosis of epilepsy was extremely comforting; it explained the quick muscle spasms/full body jerks I had been enduring for years. It allowed me to understand that the two tonic seizures I had experienced had a cause. With any diagnosis, it’s very easy to feel that your brain is designed to work against you; as though you were born with predisposition for failure. Whatever predispositions and susceptibilities my brain has, I remind myself that it is still a beautiful thing. Maybe, having a seizure after each time I was in treatment was my brain's way connecting to energy within me, and releasing the extreme amount of emotional stress I endured. And, maybe my brain was designed this way for some reason, maybe being that I needed to experience these hardships to become the person I am today, and to understand the world in the way that I do.
I have found great solace in creating art. In my darkest times, pen and paper have always been there. I think of the characters I draw as self portraits; with skulls cracked open they may feel broken, but they still function as unique beings.
In my conception of these characters I think of their fragmented skulls as a means of greater receptivity, they can absorb more from the outside world in a hauntingly beautiful way. Art is therapeutic and should be utilized by everyone, there are an abundance of mediums that are waiting for you to express yourself through them.
Every person has insecurities that make them feel less than, yet those differences make us individual. Although I take medication everyday this is not necessarily the solution for every person experiencing mental health treatment. I encourage anyone reading this, who may be afraid of the impact that treatment will have on their life to not let these stigmas stop them. There is a misconception that medication will numb you out and limit your creativity.
When you start anything new in life, such as a new job or exercise routine, it takes some time to get used to. Side effects will eventually subside, and even if one medication doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t mean that another one wont. Medication saved my life and doesn’t stop me from reaching my goals but rather helps me stay stabilized so that I can reach them.
There is no one set treatment plan for any type of mental illness. Whether it is medication, one of the various forms of individual or group therapy, practices of mindfulness, or alternative non-western forms of treatment, no one deserves to suffer from mental illness and there is a formula for treatment out there that is right for you.
In today's world, mental health needs our attention. COVID-19 is not only impacting our physical health, but could have detrimental effects on our mental health. People with pre-existing mental health conditions are vulnerable and the illness is breeding an environment for a major mental health crisis.
So, if you have been feeling extra anxious, or experiencing new symptoms that you’ve never had before: your feelings are valid. Now more than ever, it's crucial for us to check in with our friends and family’s mental health. Amidst the isolation of COVID-19 give yourself credit for how far you’ve come just by figuring out how navigating around this disease and isolation.
It’s important for us to acknowledge what we’ve experienced to get to where we are today. I remember that time is unforgiving, and will continue whether I let my illnesses consume me or not. I don’t monitor symptoms based solely on the severity that I experience them but rather on a spectrum of my continuously developing relationship with my mind and body. Remembering the words of Leonardo Da Vinci, “Art is never finished. Only abandoned,” I am struck with an additional way to view our ever evolving relationship with our minds and bodies. Just like an oil painting, our souls are a canvas that we continue to layer with experience. With each layer it doesn’t come closer to completion, but to a holistic composition. I am extremely lucky to have received the medical treatment that was given to me, and I attribute my life to my psychiatrist and the support of my loved ones.
When living with a mental illness it’s crucial to remember that no matter how lonely the thoughts in your head may feel, you are never alone.