Using Art Therapy for Good Mental Health
by Mara McWilliams
© July 2005
The key to living successfully with bipolar disorder is realizing how your disorder benefits you. For me, bipolar disorder allows me to tap into my creativity. Sometimes in a mania I can produce six inspired paintings in one week. Although bipolar has many downfalls, we cannot ignore the benefits. I suggest you too look at your life and see where your disorder adds something special to your life.
Don't get me wrong, living with bipolar disorder is not an easy feat. I know this because I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1989. However, it wasn't until 2000 that I began to understand my responsibilities as a bipolar woman. Before that, I viewed myself as a victim of an illness. It wasn't until I claimed responsibility for my recovery that my life changed. It took ten years for me to find a way to manage my illness. For most of my life I fought most of the demons associated with mental illness: self-injury, self-medicating which led to addiction, and eating disorders. I initially found recovery at 17 through a 12-Step program.
Growing up, I never felt like I fit in anywhere. I did well in school and swam competitively throughout high school while silently suffering from severe depression and a preoccupation with death. This would have been a warning signal to the doctor treating me at the time if bipolar disorder and depression were better understood and openly discussed. For the next six years, I cycled between euphoric manias where I suffered from both auditory and visual hallucinations to the lowest depths of suicidal depressions. All of these behaviors went undiagnosed and untreated until I became preoccupied with calories, withdrew from eating and began over exercising.
At age sixteen they diagnosed me with anorexia. My first experience with a psychiatrist was so overwhelming and terrifying that I refused to go back for treatment for three years. At age nineteen they then diagnosed me with bipolar disorder, with major recurrent depression and borderline personality disorder.
Although I was already diagnosed, my twenties were more difficult than my teens. During that dark time, I fell into an abusive marriage with a recovering alcoholic, divorced him, remarried, gave birth to a beautiful daughter and then I experienced the worst psychotic episode I had ever experienced. Diagnosed as post-partum depression or more accurately was a bipolar post-partum psychosis. A year after my child was born I began self-medicating. My prescribed medicines simply weren't working. This downward spiral led me to the point of being a regular in the local psychiatric ward. I had been a patient of every rehab within a 100-Miles radius at least once. Miserable with my marriage and my life, I left my second husband. My life was completely out of control and suicide seemed to be my only option. My life wasn't a chore, it was a life sentence with no visible chance for parole. I wanted out.
It wasn't until I required hospitalization that I was given the gift of art therapy. It was my second involuntary admission in this hospital's psychiatric ward. I was in so trapped in the vicious trap of denial that I truly believed that I was the healthiest person in the ward. Each day they required all the patients in the ward to attend several therapy sessions. Individual and group therapy, meeting with a psychiatrist, and then we had art therapy. I had never taken an art class and wasn't thrilled about trying my hand at drawing while I was feeling particularly vulnerable.
Despite my apprehension and the hostility I felt toward the assignment, art therapy began. The nurse instructed us to divide our page in half and on one side draw where we were and how we felt now. On the opposite page we were to draw where we wanted to be and how we wanted to feel.
Grudgingly, I picked my colored chalk: black, dark blue, red, blue, and brown. At first I began the project lethargically, slowly separating my page in half like a robot following commands. Then I thought of my life right at that moment, locked against my will in a hospital where nurses were assigned to monitor me while I showered. My lethargy turned into energy and I became 1 with my anger. With rage boiling over I quickly scribbled a woman with tears following down her cheek locked away behind thick bold black prison bars. When I was done with the left side, I felt a release. Some of my tension melted away.
Then I sat and thought of where what I wanted out of my life. I wasn't entirely sure how I wanted to feel aside from better, yet I could envision what happiness might look like. I picked up some chalk and on the opposite side I drew the sun and a tree and a heart I believe. When I was done, I leaned back and looked at my drawing. One drawing with two completely conflicting images, yet both of them were me; my hell and my dreams. I immediately saw I would never move forward if I didn't change something. Yet it would be a long time before I was ready to accept that realization.
People have asked me why I think art therapy works and I'm not entirely certain. Yet I do know that humans have been using pictures as a form of communication long before the written word. In fact, the earliest forms of language were in the forms of hieroglyphs. Artistic characters meant to symbolize greater things.
I think when we allow ourselves to tap into our creativity we are touching on our true instinctual selves. The first logographs date back circa 4000 BC and are pictures of objects and activities. We used pictures as a means of record keeping and storytelling. It wasn't until 2000 years later that man invented the written word. My point being that expressing ourselves through pictures is nothing new to the human animal. As a species, it is something we did long before we wrote. As an individual, think back to when you were a child. Didn't you draw or scribble long before you spoke?
Through the use of art therapy, we are just drawing upon a primitive skill set to express our lives, activities, and time. Painting and drawing, is in a way, a more primal form of communication then writing. This allows us to tap into our true feelings about ourselves and our lives.
Art therapy has been the one form of therapy that has really opened my eyes to who I am and what I feel. Since finding this form of expression, I have healed in ways I never thought would be possible for me. I used to be a cutter. One day, I decided that instead of slashing at myself with a razor, I would slash at the canvas in blood colored paint with a paint brush. The release I felt was incredible. I was still able to express my rage and anger with all the intensity I needed by slicing away at the canvas instead of my body. Since I found that tool, I have not harmed myself. It sounds simple and it really is.
There are no rules with using art therapy which is one of the many beauties of this form of therapy. In addition to being on call, immediate, instant gratification, it's also intensely personal. There are no rules. You can use crayons, colored chalk, paint. Use brushes or even your fingers. Just follow your feelings. The point is to express yourself without rules. The art is the key that unlocks that unlocks the door. You don't have to limit art to painting or drawing alone. There is music, poetry, writing, computer graphics. Find a way of expression that makes you appreciate who you are. The brilliance that I savor from art therapy is that it captures a moment in my life, a feeling, an event. Instead of suffering through life's trials with nothing to show for it, I get to produce meaningful art.
When I first began using art therapy to express myself, most of my paintings were not only dark in color but in subject matter as well. I had just survived one of the most traumatic periods in my life and I clearly reflected it in my work. After my apartment burnt down, my grip on reality was failing me. I was overwhelmed with pain and guilt over the fire. I painted every day, one painting right after another, in a manic depressive state. I painted to keep from harming myself. I painted to keep from drinking. Now when I look at those pieces, the memories of that dark time wash over me like a tidal wave. Painting gave me a harmless way of expressing that anguish. In other words, it gave me a voice. Learning to own and claim responsibility for my fears and feelings without acting in a harmful way is one of the most empowering feelings I have experienced.
In 2000, in addition to suffering from bipolar disorder, I also suffered from severe agoraphobia triggered by the apartment fire. Although I suffered severe anxiety when leaving my home, I worked through my feelings of confusion about the outside world in my acrylics and watercolors. I couldn't travel outside my home, but I did watercolors of sexless alien like beings in space, as I learned to accept myself as a woman, I painted watercolors of women in beautiful bright colors. For me, painting is the ultimate life journal. Feelings are often too hard to describe in words, but in painting, the expression of feeling is much more personal and subjective, yet in a very powerful way.
The beautiful and maddening thing about bipolar disorder can be the unstoppable racing thoughts and ideas that launch many big projects. I have found that directing that explosive energy into a painting or drawing allows me to focus my energy without limiting the powerful creativity flow I am experiencing.
After my life began to balance and I had a small collection of paintings, I decided to launch a website that featured my artwork from my bipolar perspective. It was the only way that I could think of to reach out to others with Bipolar Disorder and show them that not all of this illness is bad. I had no idea the blessing the website would be for me. Almost daily other bipolar individuals contact me who happened to stumble upon my site and find peace in my paintings and my approach to my illness. Who, most importantly I think, they related to what they saw and read, showing them that they were not alone. It's true. One doesn't have to cope with bipolar disorder alone. It's true you never know what is possible for your life until you try.
It is has been my desire to share my bipolar life experiences and express my feelings through painting, poetry, and mental health consumer articles. We can help de-stigmatize the illness. Since being diagnosed, the time that I have been the healthiest and most productive has been since I began using art therapy.
Before using art therapy, I was a great art enthusiast, but whenever I attempted to paint or draw anything, instead of just accepting what came out of me, I judged it and myself. Frustrated, I wouldn't attempt any art project for months. Now I know that any artistic creation that flows for me is a gift. Mere creation is healing.
I believe that for a bipolar person to live up to their potential, they have to accept that they are different from other people, without judging themselves for those differences. Instead, capitalize on the differences. Some of the most brilliant and creative minds of this world have had bipolar disorder, Salvador Dali, Buzz Aldrin. It's also very important for the family to be knowledgeable about this brain disorder so they can give the diagnosed person appropriate support without lowering their boundaries.
Accepting you have this illness is the first step in living successfully with it. Followed by therapy, medication, and a sincere willingness to look and listen to all input your friends, families, doctors and therapists have to say about you and your behavior and even more importantly an ability to let yourself "go with your body's flow."
For me, one of the beauties of bipolar disorder, unlike that of depression, is that when I do get depressive, I KNOW, just because of the nature of the illness that I will inevitably cycle back into normalcy or hypo-mania. Either way, I'm no longer depressed. I think during the dark times of the illness, it is good to allow yourself to express the black and grayness you are feeling. Art therapy allows you to actually get it out of you and onto canvas. Perhaps it works for me because of the connection between the subconscious, ritual, and visualization, all I know is that by taking the colors I am feeling inside and expressing them outwardly is a joy for me.
Living with bipolar isn't easy, but it can be managed. You can find peace and contentment if you work on yourself and believe in yourself. You are strong enough to take the necessary steps to take care of yourself, just do it one step at a time. There are so many forms of therapy, types of medications, and self-help tools available that giving up on yourself should never be an option. If it does at some point you feel you have run out of options, reach out for help. It's sometimes surprising the people who are ready and willing to support us. Always ask for the help you need.
Living according to my doctor's suggestions, taking my medications and using art therapy have enabled me turn my dreams into reality. I strongly believe that all individuals diagnosed with a mental illness should, for lack of a better term, come out of the closet. By hiding in the shadows, we only perpetuate the ignorance, fear and myths surrounding mental illness. As a mental health patient and advocate, I believe that it is through sharing our experiences with society that we can change the world's perception of those diagnosed with a mental illness. By simply admitting and accepting one's illness, public support for the mental health community will strengthen. By not living in fear or being ashamed of who we are, we can effect change on a massive scale. We can change the way the public views those with brain and mood disorders. We can increase government funding for mental healthcare that over 90 million Americans are suffering without. It may be a cliché, but it's true: One person can make a difference.
It all begins by accepting your diagnosis followed by a willingness to find out what tools you will need to create a healthy and productive life. Ultimately, it is my goal to raise the awareness of bipolar disorder using art as my platform. I would like to make difference in how individuals with bipolar disorder are viewed. When words fail me, like they have in the past, I will let my art speak for itself.
Mara McWilliams resides peacefully in Northern California with her daughter and her wife, Renee. She has dedicated her life to raising her daughter; volunteering, preserving her mental health, and helping others improve themselves whenever she can. She expresses herself through painting, drawing, and writing.
Mara is the author of Outta My Head and In Your Face. The poetry and artwork of Mara McWilliams reflects a journey that led her through the darkest depths of mental illness, to a place where she more often experiences a peace that is the result of tremendous hard work and dedication to a better, balanced, life. This book of selected poems and paintings by Mara McWilliams chronicles that journey. She hopes to give the reader a view into the tortured mind of the undiagnosed mentally ill, as well as to give hope to those whose lives have been touched by mental illness, that a full and beautiful life is possible.
© 2006 Mara McWilliams, All Rights Reserved