Many people in our society have a skewed view of individuals diagnosed as “mentally ill.”
I am one of those with that diagnosis. Society sees us as having bizarre, even dangerous… murderous, thoughts and behaviors, and regards us with fear and suspicion, or patronizing pity. We are given special names…crazy, mad, maniacs. Societies’ children gone bad are often thrown in with us as a way of society to excuse itself for their behavior. Creative and visionary individuals those who experience life differently than most of societies’ children, and those who who are not limited to the experience of one reality are also considered to be mentally ill, their work admired and their lives pitied all in one breath.
The problem with this type of thinking is there is no such thing as “mental illness.” There are illnesses (many and varied) that affect the way a person thinks and behaves that are quite destructive to that individual. The etiology of these illnesses is yet unknown. It may lie in the brain functioning, or individual genetics, or in the individual’s personal environment, (the classic blame it on mom and childhood approach!), or any combination of the above, as well as demonic invasion! Whatever the source, these illness are still not understood and are classified as “mental” because the main symptom seems to be the impact they have on the individual’s mind and way of thinking and/or believing.
Our society claims to highly value individuality and especially ”thinking outside of the box.” But there are parameters, go too far outside of the box and the individual may be labeled “mentally ill.” The destructiveness of this “mental illness” lies in the attitude of society toward the individual’s differences and the learned attitude of the individual toward their differences…their WRONGNESS!
We, who have been branded “mentally ill”, and who have the courage to embrace this title, live lives of improvisation. The prompts of our lives are the moments of joy, sadness and pain that come suddenly, unexpectedly and unscripted in ways unfamiliar to the more “able minded”, who tread the more acceptable, written paths. Our world is at once refulgent and dark, sibilant and musical. We don’t spend much time preparing for life, we just fiercely go with the flow and experience it all! Sometimes this life of improvisation, when we have been beaten down enough by those telling us that there is something wrong with us, leads to the total erosion of our being. We become locked inside ourselves and have a long and lonely journey to reclaim ourselves. Other times our life of improvisation takes us closer to our origins, closer to the source of life itself, and grants us the ability to accept what is given, and slip between realities.
I feel that I do not belong in this world. I often feel I just want to go Home, but Home is somewhere that may not even exist in this realm. I have met many people who are also “mentally ill” who express this same feeling. We are missed placed persons.
Calls to me from deep inside
And from distances far away.
I cannot yet answer.
I am still bound to this life, this world,
Held in place by physical being.
Myself, others I love,
Hold me fast.
But my Spirit, my Soul wait
And mutely yearn for that
To follow it and
Travel the winds of the
Joy and Sadness walk
Hand in hand through this life.
But what companions are they
That come in the next…?
Many individuals who are titled “mentally ill” have access to creative gifts most people in our society safely deny themselves. My experience has been that the artists who have followed the accepted script and received professional training, regardless of the quality of their work, are treated with much more deference in the mental health community (as with the world in general), than individuals who have no professional training, but who work with heart and natural skill. I have always been attracted to visual art, but was discouraged from pursuing it, and reluctant myself to take the risk of exposing my inner world to criticism. Numerous hospitalization and the art therapy groups therein did open a door for me to art. I often feel with mental health organizations that I am getting a little pat on the head and “oh isn’t that cute you do art for therapy!” It is very patronizing and disrespectful. I now name myself an artist. I work hard at my art and at this point in my life it is more than therapy, although that is still a large part of it.
I value art therapy a great deal, but I do disagree with a lot of the approaches to art therapy that I experienced. Many times I find the art therapist values the completed work and tries to draw symbolism and meaning out of a completed piece, when, for many people the value of art therapy is the actual participation…what the individual is experiencing, feeling and thinking as part of the creative process! Art should be a living experience not a completed product!
I’ve also discovered that when people learn that you are an artist with a history of “mental illness,” they want to see Sturm und Drang! They want to see the mental suffering they think “mental illness” is all about! If you happen to be in a good place and produce a happy painting focused on beauty, they are disappointed. Maybe that’s because these people are so out of touch with their own feelings in their dull worlds they need shock treatment in order to feel anything!
I am an artist, I am self taught, not professionally trained, and because of that often get a very patronizing attitude from mental health organizations. That’s okay. I now know who I am and what my gifts are. I paint for myself, not to impress others, though admittedly, appreciation is appreciated!
As I always say in my artist statements, “art is my life, not my livelihood.” (That’s a paraphrase from Harry Chapin.)
I have already written my Death Poem and until then, I just fiercely go with the flow…,