It is 2:30 a. m. I have been awake since midnight, in spite of the Trazadone I took at 9 p. m. that usually secures a good five or six hours of sleep for my tenacious brain.
I just finished a three day street art festival. I literally made art on the street, alongside some significant talent. To say I was humbled would be an understatement. I am new to the art community here in Florida, and had much hope for a three day fun filled art rich experience. Thankfully, the last two days brought much of that. But if I put aside my “How shall I present this through the fake filter of ‘I want people to think I have it together on social media’ appropriate”, I decided to get real. After all, it’s Mental Health Awareness Month and I have been at times painfully aware of my mental health or lack thereof for most of my adult life.
When I was thirty, I was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, type 2. My experience in the years since have been rich with creativity, agitation and a significant depression and anxiety. Through medication, a spiritual practice, a little yoga, beach life and a sturdy support network made up of therapists, psychologists and fellow travelers, I have survived a lot. But the story I want to tell here is about the favorite medicine for what ails my beautiful brain. Creating art.
This art festival was one where every artist was given a 10’ square of pavement upon which to art. I was ecstatic because I am currently obsessed with beach umbrellas, so I submitted an image and they signed me up.
About a month ago, I was diagnosed as being in an acute depressive episode. Always a mixed thing to be told. Like “Yay! I feel like shit and now I know why.” But also, “Fuck I am a mental case. My life will certainly go nowhere.” That last one is what happens when thoughts go through the filter of depression. Fortunately, I found a stellar new psychiatrist who put me back on a medication that has a great deal of success addressing these “bipolar depressions” for me in the past. Latuda. The cost to me, however, would be $500 out of my not deep pockets. But there is a God and that God put me with a helluva head shrinker who called my first month of success back on this drug “robust” and who has assured me that one way or another, I will have this medication, if I have to get samples for all of the two years until there is a generic available.
To try and make the samples go farther, she gave me a mg that was twice my RX so I could cut them in half and get more out of each one. Bad idea because these are time released, hence cutting into the protective coating that allows for the gradual release meant to happen over twenty four hours set me up for one rough Friday afternoon. In fact, I had been taking them cut in half for about a week and as I reflect, this marks one of several nights where I should be asleep but my brain has had me up and painting or writing or talking to my friend in England who is awake because it is five hours later there. So Friday, I had anxiety and panic like I have not seen since three years ago. Not fun. Creative, but not fun.
On Friday, I took my medicine with lunch and when that cut pill decided to explode, I went to hell in an hour. At 1:30pm, I got in my car with all of my supplies loaded up for this three day art festival.
On the drive there, I began to not feel grounded in my body. As if my car was on the road, but I was not there. Like disassociation on steroids. It is not a safe feeling. I got to the venue, parked my car and called a friend. The panic was erupting in me and there was not a damn thing I could do, except ride it out. I wanted to curl up in a ball in the backseat of my car, but that would not have done anything to help. Instead, I pushed my way to put my car into drive and drove through the beautiful shopping center where I had happily been for shopping just days before. When I parked my car, it was getting worse. And when I got to the info. booth to check in, that was as far as I got. I knew that there would be no unloading of supplies or meeting of new artist friends. Nope. I would be doing triage on what felt almost psychotic. The plan was to check in, find my space and commence to chalk art. Instead, I stood there, looking like someone who felt good, being someone who did not.
I looked at the event coordinator and said, “I am not feeling well. I am going home. I will be back tomorrow.” Words I did not believe to be true.
For the next four hours, I lived in hell between my ears. I called my doctor reporting that I was in a panic state and felt that the medicine was to blame. I called several friends, one who stayed on the phone with me while I drove home from the venue, moral support on the other end in Texas saying “Take some deep breaths. I am here with you.” When I got home, I could not wait to get inside my house. I felt like a horse running back to the barn for safety and security, things I felt I would never know again. Thoughts included, “I really am too much of a mental case to ever be a contributing member of society.” But fortunately, I have support from people who tell me that feelings are not facts and not all thoughts deserve to be believed.
When my doctor put me on the Latuda, she informed me that the bipolar label would have to go back on my chart, unless I’d rather pay $1300 for this drug that had been so helpful when I had better insurance that afforded it for $150 a month in the past. My bipolar label had always been a source of shame. So much bad stigma with that label. Arts and entertainment does some terrible things in their portrayal of manic depression in movies and books. It is a complex diagnosis with many sub diagnoses and somewhere along the way, I managed to get it taken off my chart.
“Commit to the treatment, not the diagnosis” the words from my new doctor to me, as she was sensitive to the fact that I hated that label. I have that up on my bathroom mirror now.
It took four or five hours to come down from the horror of that med exploding in my system and I gave myself complete permission to bail on the art festival if it seemed too much.
Happily, when I woke the next day, I felt better and I had a new resolve to show up for my art. That is what this story is meant to be about, but all this backstory is an important part of the context.
It was Saturday. Day 2 of the event. I got in the shower, dressed and off I went. I spent the day meeting people, cheering people on, crushing chalk with a wooden mallet to mix with water as paint to begin creating my current obsession of beach umbrellas on the pavement.
And I returned the next day, too. During the festival, I felt a little like a fraud here and there, as I was surrounded by some real fine artists. But I reminded myself that my art belongs to me. It is my gift. It did not get given to anyone but me and my practice of expressing that, particularly since the end of my 24 year marriage 6 years ago, has been exponentially healing for my grief, depression and anxiety. I am sure I could find science to support this, but my personal experience is enough for me.
For over two years, I have practiced my artistic expression every Thursday like a religion. This kind of commitment is far better than the psych ward and the doors are unlocked too. I have powered through chronic pain, insomnia, kicking benzos that I took for sleep for many years and heartbreak all through the action of making art. The part of the brain where the ideas come from is like a comfy chair. I love being in it. It holds me quite nicely, feeds me ideas and relaxes my mind because when I get centered in creating, I am FULLY PRESENT. That is my sweet spot. If you love to paint or to draw or to write or to bake or to entertain, you know what I am talking about.
Day three of the art festival was Mother’s Day. Families were everywhere. Some missing members who had passed this last year. I was missing my daughter, who now lives 800 miles away after just being in the room next to me this time last year. Others appeared whole and complete in their Sunday best of fine linen pants and Lilly Pulitzer dresses of lime and vermillion greens with neon pink tassel accents. It was a handsome crowd. Artists and spectators alike. I got a call from my daughter to wish me Happy Mother’s Day. It was one in a series of hour long delightful authentic exchanges. The kind old friends have and admire at their close.
The event was coming to its end and there were cash awards to be given. I had a secret hope I might get one, but was only a little disappointed based on those who did get recognized. One was Elle Farquhar, a little girl who, like me, recently moved here from Oklahoma who stayed out in the hot sun to the end to make her art in spite of a meltdown that her mother reported. I could relate.
My favorite of all those recognized however, was one Danny Kocher, whose work was announced as a winner as follows: “And the next award goes to someone who captured much of what we have all been feeling during this last year in his illustration called ‘Anxiety.’ ” Danny created for three days in the hot sun with the help of his precious red headed niece to commemorate Mental Health Awareness Month.
I may not have been given an award, but I recognized my own success for the fact that I showed up and stuck it out to practice my art. And I’d have to say, that much like that mallet did to that chalk, I crushed it.
Special thanks to Jim Clark Photography for some of these stellar images iamjimclark.com
and Danny Hocher for his bold contribution to Mental Health Awareness. instagram.com/dannykartist