Creativity and Mental Illness: Hobby or Vocation?
By Fake Zappa
American MultiMedia Artist and Mental Health Activist
When I was asked to write an article about mental health and the arts, I ask myself the same question I do whenever I dump my mind on the internet: what’s everyone telling me, what is nobody telling me, and what do I think people need to hear? Also, am I mentally ill? If a nice subject like this goes into depressed ranting – indeed. I’m totally batty. Be aware that some of this art-icle is simply the voices in my head that happened to find their way onto my computer.
I’m religiously (devout) unaffiliated, and my spiritual beliefs have a tiny place in this article to try to get one of my theories into your head: a reason why creativity and insanity are so often linked is that people like us have probably been, in some degree, mentally and emotionally, “hacked” into. Somewhere along our sadly fascinating and volatile lives, someone, or something, traumatized us to the point where our brains had to come up with ways to cope until we landed at a safer place in life to heal. Chances are, we never find that place – partly because it’s rare, and that trauma typically breeds more trauma. That’s another subject. Being mental can come at birth, and can also develop through long term exposure to unsafe environments and most importantly, abuse. (Often, one leads to another.) There’s also an element of being overpowered (this also occurs in oppressed people groups: the less power they have, the more trauma, the more intuitive and creative they often are as a result). So, what does this have to do with being hyper-artsy? Is there any good coming out of this suffering? Here’s the cool part: hacked people often get super-powers!
Here’s my only spooky-spiritual part: I believe there are realms of creativity that exist beyond our space-time. Ideas that come as a flash of inspiration – that often penetrate our world, are things most people can relate to, or at least we’ve heard other people having experiences like this. Very often these ideas are ahead of their time (Mr. Tesla was supposed to be born in 2020) simply because, they very well – literally – might be for the future. Creativity often comes by some sort of mental impairment, whether chemically-induced, insanity-induced, or sadly: a combination of the two (in fact, as I write this part, I’m reenacting a sort of “Smoking Caterpillar” thing, and listening to my favorite L. Shankar album in a remote cabin with trippy lights). One of those “Super Powers” is access to these coveted creative realms. (Power-addicts and greedy producer-types rarely have these abilities, or had lost their access to pure creativity as a result of their exploits.) Depending on how fucked up someone is in the head can determine how accurately, and how easily they can get direct inspiration from creative realms, and other invisible places as well. Skill and talent also plays a role as well. Trance-channelers, mediums, and folks like that often have had prolonged exposure to traumatic environments as well as the chronically-artsy.
[For those of you who are more able minded, there’s hope. Hope without dope. Skip to the end of this article if you just can’t wait. That’s totally cool with me. The fact that you’re still reading this makes me like you a whole lot.]
Unfair Disadvantages and Unfair Advantages
You know those double amputees that win track races because they have those metal bouncy-leg-things? Yeah, they rock. A real-life-Tigger (I’ve never seen them with tops made out of rubber, so for the record I’ll change that to Half-Tigger). In fact, according to some important people that write about these “Blade Runners”, they have an unfair advantage to some of the finest sprinters, and their handicap makes the able bodied people look like they are the ones with the handicap! In a similar way, those of us who are wonderfully crazy can exceed higher functioning people in many areas, especially with creative stuff. But wait, there’s more… there’s also those guys who can tell you that a random date a century ago was on a Tuesday. I can’t do that. I barely remember what day today is.
The problem with super-powered people is that we often lack every other kind of “normal” power, when it comes to our roles in this complicated social system I call Civilization. “We decorate your skyscrapers, and we are not allowed to even visit the top floor,”- if that makes sense. It sucks. It really fucking sucks. But, that’s probably the depression talking, so feel free to filter out what you want. I will say that whenever there’s a hyper-creative hacked woman, man, or child; there’ll be a line of greedy, uninspired producer types there to exploit them. This is also not just based on a gift, but on their skill and discipline as well. I call those things “talents.”
Is Art Good For Your Mental Health?
I have heard mental health providers talk a lot about how important creativity is. Duh. (I think that’s the subject of the article I’m actually supposed to write, not this one.) Having spent nearly a decade working in various degrees within nonprofit organizations – that kind of talk gets pretty boring, especially because a vast majority of the time, in fact I can’t even think of a time that leaders of these lovely institutions noted the difference between hobbyists and professionals. To quote my Mighty and All-Powerful Commander and Chief’s epic tweets: “sad.” But it’s not just what they are not saying. It has to do with years of battling this very issue with some very powerful and influential people and getting nowhere but hurt, and wasting time and money in the process. (Well, I didn’t actually waste much money on this, but I’d rather lose money than suffer years of being unfairly ignored.)
Today is a Wednesday, by the way. Coolness. I remembered that. Anyhoo… Why am I so grumpy? Quite simply, I’m not getting my way. At least, that’s how it seems to be received when I try to voice my opinions, so I’ll share a few stories about a colleague of mine. She’s a self-taught professional artist who has a perfect balance of imaginative brilliance, and skilled realism. Her visual art can be stunning, provocative, and she also does a lot of marketable “decorative” art, commission work, and some clever crafty stuff too. She should be making a living at it; however she’s stuck in places in her life that is by all means, very unfair. (Also being past retirement age, she’s also had to work some very stressful jobs in recent years just to survive.) But it’s not just her life that’s unbearable: trying to seek support from mental health nonprofits has been counterproductive. These organizations offer some good services, for instance, featuring local artists and curating an occasional exhibit, fundraising event, and “tabling” at various street fairs and stuff like that. At the same time, she has gotten very little back from all the effort, and (this has been my experience as well) doing more to promote the agendas of powerful people while not significantly contributing to the artist’s career.
At a fundraising auction, some of her art pieces were just put in a gift basket and the bidding started questionably low, and the winning bid was still far below the reasonable prices she typically sells her original works for. I Just found out recently that she also never got paid for those particular submissions. On another occasion, at a different organization, her professional artist’s easel disappeared and was replaced by a cheap aluminum display thing which is useless in comparison. Another time, the organization actually misplaced her submissions, only to find them sometime after the event had ended. Even a hobbyist would have trouble with that kind of disrespect, however treating a disabled artist with a professional background with these kinds of incidents – it’s unthinkable. But most of what she suffers from with these groups is not just what they do to her, it’s what they don’t do (or maybe I’m just talking more about myself). A lot of it, in my opinion, comes from a “survival mentality” that makes a nonprofit group place fundraising at too high of a priority. There’s also this dirty little secret that nobody seems to talk about as you get higher up in these institutions: let’s treat professionally-created art as nothing more than a therapeutic hobby. For some beginners, having opportunities to do some original art (and even having it displayed and for sale) is quite empowering, and for professionally minded artists, these same opportunities can often have the opposite effect, especially when all thrown into the same “basket.”
Another colleague of mine, a naturally gifted vocalist/songwriter and peer, came to Portland to do a couple of gigs a few years ago. He got to the nightclub an hour before the event, let the staff know that he had arrived, and then waited the whole hour with no sound system. I arrived a few minutes before the show and found that I had to follow a bartender around just to get a key to the PA. All they were willing to do was write his name on a sandwich board outside, yet with no marketing or any kind of support, except for maybe a few beers. I found it sad that a lot of brilliant artists like him are expected to assert themselves just to get a venue to do their job (or maybe Portland is simply the land of flakes) not everyone has the social functioning to handle situations like this without the right help (or artist management, which is totally unrealistic for an “emerging” performer like this). On other occasions, when he was in a mental health crisis, he’s start to break down on stage, and the management would as a result, ban him from ever playing there again instead of actually discussing what was really happening. A venue will spend ten thousand dollars to build lifts and ramps for accessibility, yet it costs nothing to simply take a few minutes to listen and understand someone with cognitive disorders. In all my years of clubbing, especially when I’m producing an event, I’m so often disgusted at how much disrespect I get. As I talk to other producers, they can either handle this kind of stress, or so often they actually get do treated differently. There’s a sort of “bully” vibe in a lot of these places, even coffee shops, and mentally disabled people are treated like they are vulnerable and easy targets for this kind of treatment; similar to how school kids pick on certain kinds of weaker children.
I have been able to mask most of my symptoms while I work in these kinds of environments (being raised by psych majors, I kinda had no choice but to do whatever I could to act like a sane kid) but there’s been a few times where I’m so triggered and cornered that I have to get out of the situation or I’d almost totally lose control. I spent most of 2012 deciding that I’d never play live again, and didn’t return to the club scene until the end of that year because a particular band needed me back. Although that band was willing to forgive me, thinking back, there was nothing to forgive. If they had listened and understood that I walked off stage mostly due to a panic attack, and being yelled at in front of a crowd didn’t help me either. I was so humiliated that it took months to even show my face in that community. Because my symptoms are regarded as correctable character flaws, for those of us living on support, it creates a double-whammy of bigotry: I’m not only excusing myself to act like a total asshole, I’m collecting fraudulent funds from the government as well.
So, is art good for mental health? Not necessarily for the professionally minded, in certain environments. Is art for everyone? I’ll get to that toward the end… Having gone through a lot of similar experiences like hers, it really begins to mess with my mind. When I used to sell art for $400.00 and then after getting on disability I find that the value of my work has gone considerably down, if I’m not careful, I’ll begin to feel (and even behave) as if my life itself is cheap.
This particular mentality (about all unknown-peer-artists being treated as hobbyists) reigns not only in nonprofits, but in clinical providers, and basically most higher-functioning-non-peers I’ve discussed this with, and even members of my own family. Sad. After all, why should we enable a crazy person to pursue a stressful career that will make them all-powerful, dangerous, and greedy? Chuckle (with a little crying too). Once a mentally ill artist gets famous, apparently they never get treatment and die of drugs and suicide. Just look at Brian Wilson, Patty Duke, and Yayoi Kusama… Oops, bad examples. Let’s just forget about those who have tools to cope with their illness and success. If a mentally ill artist wants a career, they have to generate a lot of exposure, and who wants to help with something like that? Crazy people say crazy things. We can’t possibly be a part of that. If they get a crazy obsession to get famous, they’re on their own! They either die in obscurity while trying, or they die when they are popular with no resources to get care – only to prove the statistics. Mentally ill hyper-creative women and men, like Vinnie Van-Go, die trying. Yup, just another reason not to enable them… (I don’t know where all that came from. One of the voices in my head perhaps?)
If a mentally disabled artist wants to follow their dream (instead of supporting the agenda of an institution or an individual) unless they are lucky enough to get the right kind of help and support from powerful and influential people; they have no choice but to try to compete with those who are cognitively and socially high functioning. Otherwise, they have to cope with giving up on their dream; and some cope better than others while for many of us, we don’t.
A Bit About Me
Creative expression for me can take many forms and have therapeutic purposes as well as being part of my business or activism. Often there is a mixture of all three of these elements. It’s just that when I do a creative thing that promotes healing, I don’t want to sell it – especially when it’s a visual art piece. I studied art therapy beginning in early high school, and was blessed to have attended a hippie school where I did just about every creative thing I can think of: from Raku pottery to producing musicals (with backdrops made of old bed sheets and duct tape). Although I did spend a few periods in my life working in music related jobs, and even made a living for a while at it, I have never actually had the privilege of having “multimedia artist” as my actual vocation (labeling myself with that doesn’t really count when we’re talking about the real world). Doing art and music were some of the things that enabled me to survive straight camp when I was in my early 30’s. That’s another story (see footnotes). If I didn’t have my creative outlets, I would have probably traded it for what most crazy old American men use to cope: booze and firearms.
As young as 13 years old (or maybe 14) I was talking to a buyer at a gallery on the Oregon Coast while on a family vacation, and she was intrigued about my work and was willing to carry some of my textile art on consignment. She was also willing to overlook my debilitating speech impediment I had at the time and did not expect me to function like a professional. My family went to the beach often so I was able to bring orders of my work and pick up the money from past sales. I designed my own labels on a 1984 Macintosh calling myself, “Another Day, Another IMAGE,” and my work was a blend of wax resist (Batik), bond resist (tie-dye), mono-printing, and customized hand stamping; mostly on cotton t-shirts. I remember how terrifying it was to call and do business with the gallery, but luckily, when I’d go silent and unable to speak due to my stuttering problem, they wouldn’t hang up on me. At age 15, I had my first paintings on display; followed by a year later when I produced my own music, consigning my home-made tapes at a downtown store called “Locals Only.” At age 17, I was featured on a community radio station and even got to commission my own live and recorded compositions at a prestigious performing arts center for an artsy version of a Shakespeare play.
In my senior year of high school, I was able to take some classes at a higher-funded school and composed my first notated chamber piece to be performed at my graduation. The couple that had helped me when I was younger to perform some of my original music rudely backed out, but I was lucky to have two amazing violinists to play the string parts while I had to cover the piano part myself. The piece was very well received but unfortunately no records exist of the score or recordings. I was very discouraged to only get a $50 check for all my work with the Shakespeare company and after graduation, I found myself alone and very discouraged. (My illness was slowly developing during high school leaving me with fewer friends every year until I was so far “gone” mentally, nobody wanted to be around me.) Later that year I got on the radio again, this time also performing live with a small ensemble I put together with people twice my age. The only replies I got from my radio play and tape sales was a prank call left on my mom’s answering machine.
I spent the next two years carrying my paintings on the “rat trap” on the back of my bicycle showing my work to snobby downtown galleries, dropping off slides, and only getting a few shows in tiny obscure places. I put together a handful of bands in my teens and produced some multimedia performance art noise/jazz events (along with my homemade instruments) and was even featured with a group containing members of Smegma and seniors left over from the beatnik era. During that time, my illness was progressing to where I had to be hospitalized at age 19. I often had the emotional intelligence of a six year old, was hearing voices, and even pretended to be other people in addition to other undiagnosed and untreated disorders. There was no follow up care, the little bit of help I got ended up being very counterproductive, forcing me to leave home. That led to greater trauma, delusions, and getting myself into some very cultic relationships which led to years of being exposed to unsafe environments and unable to do my work. Not having the privilege to have a life of my own (and often unable to take care of myself) I basically had no choice but to give my will and my mind over to those who were more powerful than I. From a young age, I was accustomed to easily giving myself over to whomever and whatever was handy. This time, it was Christian Fundamentalism. It was my second childhood, and the only place that made me feel like I belonged. (I might still be with them if they were more accepting of gays.) I do admire that they are strong people and willing to cope better with the mentally ill without always being so hyper-sensitive. They also gave me a reason to live when nobody else did. Funny that whatever is powerful enough to save us can also be powerful enough to kill us – and after five years enduring forms of anti-gay practices, including a traumatic residential program, I was once again looking for a reason to live. I found myself going from one abusive relationship to another, easily giving myself to anyone who might accept me.
I’d get healthy enough and restless enough to try to start another business, only to fail for the same reasons. Every two to four years, I’d do a visual art show, or maybe produce an album, only to remain in obscurity. Aside from my obvious character flaws, I believe that the main contributing factor to three decades of failure has to do with illness related issues. (I come to this conclusion based on how many powerful producer-types I’ve served who exhibit similar character flaws, like an out of control ego, an oversensitive temperament, and an obsession to try and micromanage everything; yet they work the minds of people to blame-shift as well as finding ways to hide these flaws while maintaining their success.)
Soon after turning 40, I went on a very challenging journey to find cures for my many (trauma and anxiety-related) physical ailments. Amazingly, I found that through educating myself, diet, exercise, and various forms of meditation and self-care, that I could do a lot of things that I was not able to do in my 30’s. However, there were not people lined up to congratulate me nor did anyone open doors for me. In fact, I think people liked me better when I was sick. Also, having all this new energy and weight loss (some guys thought I was sexier when I was fatter) seemed to trigger a lot of bipolar mania which made me more unlikable. Because of changes in my ideology, I slowly transitioned from a church musician and worship leader to a nightclub accompanist. I didn’t have any other choices available unless I had a high amount of social status and hyper-organizational-business-skills. I also quickly grew tired of “gay” churches. Through a series of devastating events trying to do art and music, plus current relationship trauma, I experienced the third major breakdown which included feeling banished from my current communities, and unable to function enough to take care of my basic needs. Looking for another reason to live, I found that following my dream was all I had left, however based on what I know and what I’ve experienced, it was the impossibility that has haunted me most of my life. When it came to my career, I was “darned if I do, darned if I don’t.”
The crisis lasted for nine months, and at the bottom of that depression, I managed to register my business with the state, get a federal grant, business training/consulting, and try to get whatever resources I had available. All I got was the same things: useless advice that didn’t apply to my functioning level or vocation, dead-end referrals, stuff, and money; but none of these individuals and organizations bothered to help me through any doors. Basically, they throw down to me whatever they want to, but I was not allowed into their world; which seemed to hover over me in some kind of higher class of existence. They wouldn’t take me seriously until I had websites and business cards. So I got websites and business cards. They wouldn’t take me seriously until I produced events. So I produced events. I did a little artist-in-residence out of town June 2017. I did street art. I bought a lot of new stuff. I reformed my band which had fallen apart and even got rid of my living room furniture to build a television studio with a green screen and fancy lighting. The next thing I had to do was undergo penis enlargement, which is where I gave up trying to impress them. But whenever I approached people whose careers and projects I’ve supported, it hurt even more to suffer rejection. On top of that, dealing with west-coast-urban-educated-progressive culture (the tolerant and affirming people) they were unwilling to have the honesty to tell me “no.” They just disappeared. One by one, they talked big, then poof: they’re gone.
The more I pursued my dream, the more stress I was exposed to, that contributed to more disorders, which affected my relationships, my physical health, and eventually my ability to work. No matter where I sought help, nothing could stop this downward spiral. I started suffering with crowd anxiety to where I have not been in an airport in years, and avoiding large public events to where I started avoiding just about everything and everyone. As my symptoms progressed, I could not stop from being delusional, paranoid, and reacting to things with more and more anger, fear, and frustration. Small tasks became more frustrating until I would postpone important things while one by one, I started experiencing loss. Then it happened. One of my worst fears came true. On the first day of spring, late that morning I heard the smoke alarms go off from the other side of the house. By then, it was already too late, especially considering I had a faulty fire extinguisher. I reached for my phone and burned my hair so I had to find neighbors to call 911. The rest of the story I might share later. (In fact, while editing this, I still haven’t told anyone all the details yet.) Losing the vast majority of my stuff, and my companion pet, wasn’t the end of my loss. What happened after the fire was almost as devastating. That’s another story. I’m glad to be alive. I’m glad to still be following my dream, and although I wish there had been other ways of dealing with some of my disorders, I did discover an involuntary way to cope with hoarding and agoraphobia.
What about art therapy groups? Yeah, they rock. As grumpy as this article is, I want to be careful that I don’t knock art therapy patients and providers. I believe that anyone, even high functioning people, no matter what artistic level can benefit from doing simple art and craft projects. (Again, duh.) Some of this I thank to a bizarre trend. You can find them next to the Extra gum and cigarette lighters at the grocery check stand: Adult Coloring Books! The biggest problem I have with this craze is that, for the most part, they are G-Rated. Sad. Those should be called, “coloring books for adult skill levels containing no adult-related-content.” However, we all know what they mean. It’s Celtic Crosses instead of PowerPuff Girls (intricate designs that take forever that I’d rather scan and fill the lines in Photoshop). (Also, they are guaranteed to be more therapeutic than those fidget spinner things.) (Also found at the checkout stand.) (Especially if you’re a chick.)
Men, Mental Health, and Art
What about us dudes? When it comes to being a statistic, we have our Kurt Cobain stories, Robin Williams, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nick Drake, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, (honorable mention: Karen Carpenter) and countless other tragedies that we like to point to, and throw our money into the wind as a result of our guilt. (“Look! I’m helping!” –Ralph Wiggum) There is hope though. (Hope without pope?) In the last few years of hanging out in drop-in centers, support groups, and other places where peers (mentally ill folks) hang out, I’ve noticed a good trend in us: the all-powerful-egocentric 49%… Men! For some reason, just because we so often stand up when in the loo, somehow makes us exempt from mental health services? Could it be that healthcare can be typically more female-centric? Instead of Thomas Kincaid prints and faux orchids in the waiting room, should we now put arrowhead and fishing lure collections, gunracks, and old license plates in the place where you are waiting to see your shrink? (You can quote me on that, just leave out the gunracks.) But, regardless of the pink carpets, men show up anyway. Go (non) girl!
What’s wrong with art therapy? Nothing. Just as long as they make their groups more inclusive, starting with gender issues. Give a guy a photocopy of a unicorn to color (yeah, I had one of those in an art group last year) and I’d say you might as well give him a huge glossy piece of butcher paper and chocolate pudding to do some finger painting on. (At least he has a snack. We really like to snack.) I have in fact seen a few brave guys sit with us in a female dominated craft circle and try their best; however most of the mental health related groups I’ve been to that get close to 50/50 men/women in attendance are not art-related. I’d propose that we give him a log and a chainsaw and encourage that dude to make something resembling a bear in the back parking lot. Not that’s therapeutic! (Even if it ends up looking nothing like a bear.)
(I must add that being openly gay in most urban healthcare institutions has actually gotten most people to be nicer to me.) Aside from gender inclusion (and it’s tacky for me to give examples of how a male-dominated society needs to include us better) there’s something I’ve never seen: skill level inclusion. Basically, art-related programs in the world of mental health that differentiate between hobbyists and professionals. I’m sure it happens somewhere; it’s just that from my experience, and my prospective, I’m not impressed. There’s an exception though, but I’m tempted to start writing in all caps, but I’ll try to restrain myself.
Therapeutic Hobby Or Career?
The purpose of art therapy is to promote wellness. Yes? A professional artist seeks wellness in other ways, for instance, doing what she loves. Following your dream is a pretty nifty form of wellness, ain’t it? Now, I have seen these agencies work pretty closely with popular/influential/established artists, and there’s another dirty little secret I’ve discovered, based on my experience. I’ve seen them promote established artists bigly in big ways. After all, if their organization needs additional exposure, why not find the big-guy, to promote the other big-guy? (This is also vanity, and grasping the wind.) There are artists who get a lot of exposure, and those who, no matter how much stuff is on the web, or on display, get very little exposure. The principal of “the rich get richer” applies here, and the lords of the mental health world, in my experience, have been on the wrong side of the fence in this area. The attitude seems to be more of “get the big-wig to draw more attention to the organization, instead of letting the organization be a platform for the little guy to become a big guy. But that doesn’t help raise funds as much. Perhaps there’s a middle ground… As the big get bigger, tether on a few worthy little guys to be brought up on the way. From my vantage point, although I’m just a half mile from that big guy on the other side of the Grand Canyon, it’s still the Grand Fucking Canyon, and I simply can’t hop over there unless I have the right kind of help. Some can make it on their own. For many of us, It’s a trauma-induced impossibility, and can… not… be… done… alone (some of us have tried for decades).
Low functioning, especially low-socially-functioning emerging artists, mostly depend on institutional support. This brings me to another form of inclusion I’d like to see: to place more emphasis on those needing more assistance. Even the Special Olympics don’t throw all amputees in the same ring to compete against each other. (Most creative-professionals require a lot of salesman-type-skills and personality types, for instance.) Having lost two limbs compared to four makes life a bit different, or perhaps I’m wrong… Therefore, I’d like to see additional super-empowerment stuff pointed at those who have debilitating disorders, as compared to peers with acute disorders. But it’s impossible to tell, isn’t it? She walks and talks, so she must be okay. But can she maintain long term careers, relationships, and housing situations? That should be a clue. Also, why should we help needy people? Won’t they just keep being needy, drain our resources, and annoy the crap out of everyone? We should promote artists that are polite, well mannered, and likable… Like, Jackson Pollock!
There’s another league of super-powered-peers I have not given much credit in this article: those needing residential care. I’ve actually seen some good things in this area; however, it’s rare that a peer at those extra-low functioning levels gets lucky enough to have this kind of vocational support. There’s also a weird invisible exchange of power I’ve noticed in some cases. When an artist is totally dependent (and especially if they are heavily sedated) they are very easy to control and very vulnerable to abusers who are addicted to power.. (Try controlling one of these people when you get a chance, they’ll never complain about it, and even if they do, who’s gonna listen to ‘em?”) Eugene Landy, ain’t he swell? (See footnotes.)
So, here is my article. I hope I made you laugh – not to make you happy necessarily, but to inject a little novocaine while I push my depressing views on you (and some of my guilt-trip agenda). After all, mental illness isn’t an illness. It’s an illness plus a reason to be annoyed by the suffering of others (don’t you dare quote me on that one. I’m full of shit). If you see a gifted artist, feel free to ease your conscience by dangling a carrot of false hopes and throw us your advice, referrals, stuff, and funds; as long as you don’t endorse our art – because if you help a little guy rise above the noise of obscurity, you’re endorsing their entire lives in the same way that me voting for Hillary endorses everything she believes and does (except that in the little girl’s room, Our Lady Clinton wads toilet paper instead of folding it).
“Jason, thank you for sharing your interesting drawing. If you pick up your crayons, we can tape it on the wall of the activity room where the other patients and workers can see it… Time to take your meds…”
A Kentucky Psych Ward, circa 2007 (paraphrase)
(And here’s the epilogue where the ending credits of an Avengers-related flick is interrupted with something kinda important…)
Art therapy isn’t for everyone. If you get me on a volleyball court, chances are the ball will hit me in the head, hurt me, and if I do manage to hit it, the ball will probably fall in the wrong place. I hate feeling pressured to be athletic, especially because it can be triggering for me. Some people feel pressured to be creative when, based on their experience, it can do more harm than good. Also, art therapy can be something that mental health providers can push on people instead of taking the time and money to find out what the real pressing needs of the patient are, and seeing if art is a good fit. It could also be another cop-out in an ever cheapening part of the healthcare industry: “hey, we can save money if we just keep referring them all to groups like these…” (Free bonus tidbit: if you get sent to too many self-care-education type groups, after you’ve learned all you can, ask yourself if this might be an example of Cheep Mental Health.)
A recently disabled factory worker may not need a paintbrush to help him heal. He may only need someone to listen. There are alternatives to visual art when it comes to creativity that a lot of providers don’t often cover in art groups. Creative writing and forms of journaling can be just as therapeutic.
Predicting the Future
Here’s a false prophecy about any particular artist you might know that’s in a predicament like this: if an artist’s work isn’t worth anything close to what it is reasonably valued at (especially when under-qualified-hyper-social-influential people get overcompensated) even if they are coping with their illness; they will (probably) self-destruct (eventually). If their vocation is undermined without any acknowledgement of whether they have something valuable to contribute to the world of arts and entertainment or not; they will self-destruct. If an artist does get a boost in exposure and attention (especially if suddenly) without coping with their illness in relation to their growing needs; they will self-destruct. Self-destruction can begin in subtle ways: often beginning with behaviors that undermine their relationships, and so often lead to our favorite pet problem (that everyone enjoys to point at as being an actual legitimate problem because it gives them a tangible thing for them to point at…) Substance Abuse! If an artist survives suicide attempts, overdoses, and other lovely forms of self-harm, unless they are lucky and privileged, they typically end up homeless, or involved with criminal behavior (in order to survive, having been banished from the workforce). The other option is the Sam Quinton approach to dealing with the mentally-hacked and overly-traumatized (especially if you’re black). The rest of them end up committed, or dead.
Homeless people choose to live on the street. I’ve heard that funny little statement more than once. Although I don’t have a lot of experience being homeless (and “at risk” homeless) I’ve had just enough experience and seen enough to say a few things. Find some homeless people, and ask them what their choices are. Sometimes death is their only other reasonable option left. One way I view the homeless community is: it’s full of the traumatized, constantly getting re-traumatized. Suffer or die? Is there another choice? Self harm. It’s a way that someone in unbearable circumstances can die (a bit at a time) without killing themselves in a singular event. It’s part of a lot of cultures like this. It’s a common way to cope with a life that’s not worth living. A church van herding a bunch of bored bums on a Sunday morning gives enough hope until they are brought back to their tents full of booze.
I have a weird obsession about visiting homeless camps. I’ve lived within just a few blocks from some of these encampments. Many of them leave a lot of trash behind. It’s garbage that has been thrown away twice, from people that have been thrown away as well. I often visit these camps after they have been abandoned and think about a lot of thinks (see footnotes) as well as document a lot. I’m reminded that I live in a class system. I hate it that there are people in lower classes than I am and how helpless I feel to create a safe and productive bridge between us. It makes me feel that I exist in a class just above them, while I look above me and see: the working poor, the educated class, and the ruling classes of people. I remind myself how grateful I am to be lucky enough to come from a white upper-middle-class family, because if not, I’d be living in one of these various piles of rubbish.
People that are trapped in a life of self-harm (addiction) simply might need to be given a reason to live, and perhaps also allowed to exist in a class above where they were at, especially if that’s the only place they can find their reason to live. The type of creative work that I do consists mostly of an audience that exists in a class of people that I am not allowed to function equally in. They throw me crumbs from the table (a lot of crumbs! Yummy crumbs! Gluten-free crumbs!) while I can’t simply take a seat and fix myself a slice of bread. There have been a lot of times in my life that the torment that my mind gives me, along with the reactions of others as a result, makes me question whether this kind of suffering makes life worth living – and I see this in so many other peers.
Therefore, if people are in a predicament like this, and we don’t end up homeless, dead, incarcerated, or some other dead-end; here’s a fun factoid I’d like to shoot at you – absolutely free! Did you know that a lot of things in this world operate like a cult? There are financial-guru cults, political cults, intellectual cults, and so much more besides just cultic religion. They can be more addictive and more destructive than some of the most powerful drugs, and they thrive a lot on outcasts, especially the ones who have gifts to contribute. That makes mentally disabled creatively gifted people extremely vulnerable targets. Hard drugs offer some temporary relief from the suffering of debilitating mental disorders, and where there’s no adequate mental health care, you’ll find lotsa dope. (But heroin and cocaine don’t have their own clinics offering help.) I have found, especially in my own life, that when I’m denied reasonable and affordable mental health care, that there are a myriad of opportunities to receive services that basically do the same thing as psychotherapy does. Most of them are free or at a very low cost; but the real price of some of this work lies in a few harmful elements: most religious environments don’t have qualified workers doing this kind of work, and (even if you already prescribe to a particular ideology) all the counsel you receive will be tainted and motivated with various doctrines with different degrees of harmful ideas that are counterproductive to your mental health. It’s amazing what some of us will do just to find someone who will listen.
I believe there are also mini-cults that loosely operate around the social group of a central figure who uses cult-like tactics to gain and keep friendships. When someone in the group is no longer useful, they are discarded. This could be anything from a small shared housing community to a volunteer or activism group, and also ongoing creative projects can operate this way. I also believe that there are such things as micro-cults. (Remember, an abuser only needs one victim to be considered an abuser.) A cultic relationship only needs a Sith Lord, and a Darth-Something do be obedient, and voila – you’ve got a micro-cult! Gifted people and disabled people are the best targets: resourceful and not-listened-to. In my country, I personally believe that our current administration is using cultish tactics. Weak-minded, desperate and afraid sincere people are vulnerable to leaders like this – even if a massive population allows someone like this to rise to power. These kinds of charismatic bullies are addicted to power, and like a parasite, they drain the attention, the will, and other resources from their growing numbers of followers.
So, here’s another prediction of the future: What if most of the “unusually tall” basketball players died (whether they played professionally or not) of cheese-disease (or whatever) while the shorter players got to remain healthy? I’d prophesy that a bunch of fans, sports executives and sportsy media, along with nonprofits, would create the Cheese Disease Basketball Foundation for the Unusually Tall (or CiDaB-FUT, for short). Why do we allow a particular industry (the arts) to be so fatal to certain minority groups (such as the mentally disabled) and do so little about it? An offshore oil rig is dangerous, and we don’t send those guys out there without a lot of precautions. Being a crazy artist is dangerous and those guys get sent out alone with no formal precautions. University might prepare some for a career like this, however most debilitating disorders (and economic groups) don’t allow for the privilege of funding and completing a formal education in the arts. (Also, college culture isn’t always the safest places for peers.) Art degrees are for art teachers, Taco Bell managers, and government paper pushers. Mentally disabled artists have a shorter-than-average life expectancy (but don’t tell that to life insurance companies) and there’s more stuff out there to make our lives shorter than longer. Us crazy artists have our own forms of Cheese Disease, and yet, there’s still no cure.
That was really depressing. I promised I’d give you some free advice for all you blessed people who don’t have an on-demand and free-flowing form of creative expression:
Some Super Fun Stuff Everyone Can Do
When I started learning art therapy at an early age, some of the exercises would include doing blind visual art and drawing with your non-dominant hand. That’s just a few of many forms of art therapy. Abstract art can also be freeing, if you dare. Try it. Do some nonsense. Maybe you’ll see what the other 90% of your brain is up to if you look close enough. Maybe you’ll access these creative realms by mistake. Study meditation. Practice meditation (then stop studying it, just keep doing it…) Dance! Do it sitting down if you have to (like some costal Native Alaskan men do) dance, dance, dance. You don’t even need music to dance to. (I like to call it “Me-gong.”) Find something easy for you, based on what you love to do. Instead of just a vegetable garden, plant a decorative rock garden. Car fanatic? Trick your ride up with a goofy hood ornament you design from a 3-D printer (ask your nerdy cousin at that university…) Don’t let the overly-educated intimidate you that “everyone should be doing art.” Fiddlesticks! (Unless you play violin.) Make up a form of creative expression that is simply a mix of what you’re good at. If you enjoy it: that’s therapeutic. Not necessarily what a snobby art therapist says. Just do YOUR art.
For those readers who have any influence over others, please understand the power that you have. If a hundred people listen to you, and a thousand people see what you post, you have a privilege that a lot of artists don’t have. Sometimes that’s all someone needs is a little word-of-mouth advertising, and it takes just a matter of minutes to find something unknown that’s worth sharing, and make it visible to others. That way, another person of influence might see it, and share it with ten thousand which increases the chances of someone sharing it to media outlets. Don’t wait for artists to come to you, seek them out! For those who don’t have that kind of power, one of the best things you can do, is go through your personal and social media contacts, and seek out people who you know struggle with their mental health, and see if they are either crying out for help, or often it’s what they are not posting. When someone disappears from a certain community, like a church or mental health drop-in center, it could mean that they are giving up trying to reach out for help. (Trying to advocate for yourself can be traumatic to continue to suffer while being denied care, so peers often isolate themselves as a result.) There are also situations where a peer might disappear to what might seem like a safe place (like a residential community, or a new relationship, for instance) only for them to be trapped in an abusive situation with nobody to help them out. Everyone has the ability to prevent suicide and violent crime. I personally believe that most of what stands in the way isn’t necessarily about funding the right programs, or even more laws; it’s about how our society fears us, controls us, and misjudges us. Be a voice for the voiceless. Do something small for someone. Do something big. Invest more time and less money. Afraid of being taken advantage of? Learn how to set boundaries. Afraid of being hurt? Wear a bulletproof suit. Afraid of making someone angry? Start with honesty. (Mentally ill people get lied to a lot because there’s a rumor going around that it’s okay to be dishonest to protect yourself.) Unlock a door for someone who can’t have the key. When you can no longer help, find another helper. Follow up with people. Don’t fix them. Don’t cure them. Be a friend and not a superhero.
Jason T. Ingram
“Duh” can also mean “yes” in Russian
I quoted the Bible somewhere in this article
Cheese Disease is actually a lethal form of IBS, caused by an over use of string cheese and has nothing to do with height or the sport of basketball
Maybe this time you should pick up the fucking crayons?
Video diary project about my story LINK
“Straight Camp?” Read my story in A Queer Disability Anthology, (2015) or visit HERE
For a good time, watch the movie (and read the book) Love and Mercy (also from 2015) or just google “eugene landy” and see what happens
Thinking about thinks is a Dr. Seuss reference
Looking for crazy artists to help promote? Get on social media pages of mental health organizations and see if any artists are active, or better yet, attend their art groups and find artists that aren’t being promoted
I only used caps-lock for THREE WORDS (including those two) minus the introduction
For more info, please visit Sunday Driver Productions