Essay: Mental Health and the Artist

Art Journal, Self Reflection, Thoughts

I asked a non-artist friend about their trip to the Met in New York, about their favorite artworks they saw; Van Gogh because of both his art and his mental health.

Of course.

It’s such a trope to correlate artists with poor mental health (not that my friend was doing this). I’ve read so many articles online of people in the art world trying to re-educate with the idea (the truth) that artists are not only not crazy, but also don’t have to starve (which is a different topic). Hot tip: artists are people. People accumalate damage. A good way to deal with that is by self expression: the arts. I strongly encourage anyone struggling with their head to try it.

I, like a great many people (both artists and non-artist), have struggled with my mental health. I still do. I clawed my way out of the worst of it by listening to other people describe what they were experiencing. From this I strongly believe that sharing my own story may help someone else through the dark (What does that have to do with being an artist? I’ll get there).

Overshare Warning: I’m going to tell you about me, a lot about me.

I once said something to the effect of our family being abnormal to my Father and he quickly corrected me. Our family was perfectly normal to him. I realize normality is subjective, but in this case normal is living with parents who are mentally stable, sober and supportive. I barely knew anyone on my Father’s side of the family and there was reason for that. A year before I was born my Grandmother was murdered and the residual anger settled in my Father for most of my early life.

I grew up the child of an angry withdrawn alcoholic. Papers came home from school telling my mother I was having trouble with math and showing signs of Dyslexia. I was a hyper child, prone to being impulsive. I had a horrible time learning to read. Analog clocks baffled me.

My mother doing her best (Mom I love you) did not seek help for anything I was having trouble with. Instead, fearing my father, I found work-arounds for all the things I couldn’t understand. I withdrew. To pay attention I learned to doodle on everything. The times failing that and I fell behind I’d sit down with the material and teach myself the text for tests. I couldn’t read the board they said my eyes were fine. I couldn’t handle distractions in the classroom. I got frustrated in a math class with a special needs student because I couldn’t focus past their tutor to get the lesson.

I was the target of bullying which by the time I got to junior high/high school I refused to put up with it. I couldn’t stand being in front of the class. Walking in front of people. People looking at me. I avoided having to do anything that required being in front of the class. Sometimes I just put my head down and cried. I felt like I was always the joke, sometimes I was (children and teens smell blood). On the weekends I slept. I’d sleep in for as long as it took to avoid my father. And I turned to art, which long fascinated me, but I could disappear in it. It’s going to be hard to say, hard to read. I had suicidal thoughts then. I felt worthless. I wanted to not be.

My home life deteriorated completely after I turned sixteen. My parents bought a bar. They fought. My mother became a different person. I was angry. A lot happened to me between sixteen to twenty-some years old. I tried to go to college and dropped out. The years were fuzzy. I made poor life decisions. Things happened that cannot un-happen. I accumulated more trauma, some from my own decisions.

It was my return to college I want to get to. I was sitting in my 3-D animation class and the professor wanted us to present our project to the class. IN. FRONT. OF. THE. CLASS. I wasn’t happy with my project, but I didn’t know how to ask for help. I never asked for help with any of the complex Adobe programs I was learning. I was just happy it animated. I don’t even know how I made it happen (remember finding work arounds for what I don’t understand). One by one each student was presenting their animation and they were all so good. I couldn’t breath. The walls were caving in on me. My vision was going tunnel like and the dark room was getting darker. My heart was pounding. THE WALLS WERE COMING FOR ME. I ran. I took my stuff and booked it out of there in a pure panic. That was how I was living. Going to class, going to work, speaking to someone I didn’t know, and even shopping brought on symptoms. But I didn’t know what was going on. On this day that I left class I did try to get help for the first time. I went to the student health something or another. I’m sure I was a mass of sloppy wet emotions. I always am when I try to ask for help. They said bipolar and wanted me to see a doctor.

I slept through that appointment. Because that was something else I did well. Sleep. Sleep through classes. Sleep through jury duty (got a nasty phone call informing me about those repercussions). Wake up to my boss asking me when I was going to come in to work (a pattern).

I didn’t get help then. It’ll be a few more years.

It’ll be when a friend of mine tells me about anxiety. And another friend makes me an appointment and I sit outside for an hour crying and shaking only to have the worst doctor ever. Then another friend recommends a doctor who is kind and gets me on some meds after an hour conversation in which I am a weepy mass of emotions triggered by talking about myself. I get treated for anxiety, more specifically social anxiety.

…and very slowly the clouds over my life lift. I notice the panic fight or flight feelings I feel just leaving the house lift. I can hold conversations with strangers and shop in new stores. I could make decisions. I was depressed most of my life and that also lifted.

Coming back around to tie this into a tidy bow, I realized when my friend said she liked the Van Gogh, that I may have freed myself to pursue art by getting help with my mental health. While pursuing my degree I was paralyzed to show my work despite the many opportunities, and now that the fog is lifted I am not afraid to pursue my goals. I’ve only been actively setting up my life as an artist for the last four years.

Mental Health is not an end goal it is a lifelong work in progress. Understanding and treating my brain for social anxiety is a game changer for me, I also have some other “stuff” going on in there that I’d like to eventually try to understand more about; from trauma, to being the adult child of an alcoholic, to possible attention issues (see the end results of my cars, funny and not funny: I could die). Mostly I want to keep this mental health freedom I have going, I don’t want to go back. I prefer not being trapped by my brain in a panic state.

Feel free to share your thoughts or stories in the comments. Everyone has pain, and everyone can be a light in the dark for someone else.