Nothing is simple when it comes to mental illness — there are no easy answers, no political slogans, no webcomics or awareness campaigns that can encompass the full and difficult reality of living with a mental condition.
Yet the truth is that many of us, and many of those we love, live their lives in fear of their own minds. We live in terror of the idea, the possibility, that we are damaged goods, incapable of bringing anything but pain and shame to ourselves and those around us.
I believe that no one “goes crazy” on their own — that we live in a society that is crazy-making in its capacity for trauma, denial, and rejection of its own complicity in the creation of disturbed and violent individuals.
If everyone had access to security and healthcare, if our social systems were more open to diversity of psychological experience and expression, I truly doubt that mental illness as we know it would exist.
This is what we must strive for: a greater understanding of how social oppression and intergenerational trauma breed violence and more trauma. We must come to the realization that everyone exists on a spectrum of mental health and illness, and that no one lives without being affected in some way by the “illness” side of the scale.
Let’s focus on the ways in which oppressive social forces such as poverty, racism and systemic violence, as well as personal traumas like child abuse and neglect, are actually responsible for creating and maintaining the symptoms of mental illnesses.
Finally, we must learn to recognize, and love the madness we find within ourselves so that we might better hold and heal the madness we encounter in the world.
The first thing I remember drawing was a large smiling sun with my canary yellow crayola. I was around three and still potty training. I was so serious about it that I insisted my Mother put the potty next to my work station. My ‘art studio’ was fashioned from a large square slab of cracked marble propped up on two crumbling cinder blocks but it felt like another planet to me. My whole world. Nothing could force me to abandon the details I had planned for this drawn landscape until it was molded to my exact specifications. Not even a basic human need.
That was 32 years ago and I’m still just as obsessive about my work. I have only completed two or three pieces out of hundreds that meet my standards of perfection in 32 years of pursuing life as an artist.
I’ve never had extreme judgement when I admire the work of other artists. I always find something within the concept, the technique or the emotional content that inspires me to say…”Damn, I like their work.” I never expect perfection from other human beings. Never. That’s impossible. So, why do I expect it from myself? Massive Insecurity. The ego can be a harsh mistress that controls every human impulse we have. Hell, I’d still rather piss myself then leave my art when I’m on a roll.
But things have changed since I willingly left everything I’ve ever known behind me. It is the craziest thing I’ve ever done and in the wake of that impulsive decision…a strange and almost unnerving calm has slowly crept up into my ego’s domain from the softest parts of my being. For the first time, I can see myself as that 3 year old child from a 36 year old woman’s perspective. She is here with me. Always with her tiny furrowed brow; her tongue sticking out the side of her mouth in tortured concentration as she grips her crayon so tight it breaks in her small, trembling hand. She’s still trying so desperately to achieve something she can just be proud of for once. She’s never been allowed to color outside the lines. Not by anyone. Not even by me. But, flinging myself into the unknown also means I need to let her, and in turn myself, make mistakes.
And so, as I sit on a creaky motel mattress in the middle of the noisy, crowed streets of Vietnam I realize that I can be her soft place to fall. I am all she has ever had. And when it comes to the deep-rooted pain of my childhood..she is all I have. She is finally enough.
I am starting a new painting soon. An Asian landscape with a large smiling sun overlooking a rainbow colored lake. I’m gonna wing it this time:)
We believe that letting go of our material goods somehow means we won’t be a whole human being. But does donating or even trashing that haggard teddy bear our eighth grade boyfriend won us at a carnival really mean we are less than we were before? When I decided I needed a drastic change and began paring down my thirty-six years worth of baggage into two suitcases, a strange thing occurred. It slowly felt right to finally be free from defining myself by my possessions. I felt I was returning to a natural state of being.
Many mementos held cherished memories. Others held the worst of my life’s traumas. For so long I had to hold on to them to hold on to myself when in actuality the opposite was true. I had to let them go to find myself and that was terrifyingly freeing.
Perhaps we hold on to the past because if we didn’t who would we be? We would finally stand fully in our present power and actually have to take responsibility for how our lives turn out each moment. The scariest part? Trusting yourself with yourself. The fact is, we are not our past. The past and the future are not real. They don’t exist. All that is…is right now…and right now…and right now.
Insecurities don’t get left behind with that couch you gave to charity before you moved or that box of cookbooks you sold at the garage sale. They’re always with you; like a terrible 70’s song stuck on repeat and drilling into your temples until you think you’ll go full werewolf if you don’t find respite from it.
No matter what their culture or background, I haven’t been to any country yet where the people weren’t desperately trying to hide their own insecurities from the rest of humanity. It is the human condition and always will be. Accept it or let it grind you to dust. It doesn’t change a thing. Others will try to make you feel small to make themselves feel bigger. We are all absolutely terrified of others seeing who we believe we really are-which is usually the worst possible view we can have of ourselves.
I am guilty of the same facade. It’s exhausting to keep myself in check in the moment and not let the reflexive display from others probe me to react. It is easier to lose my sense of self by playing the blame game. Our sarcasm, cynicism and judgements are ultimately successful in distracting others from seeing our own perceived flaws. If we’re pointing out what’s ‘wrong’ in others, it’s almost impossible for them to see what’s ‘wrong’ with us through the ruffling of their own feathers.
But the more I travel, the more I notice it happening in myself and those around me. By recognizing it more I’ve actually been able to change my automatic responses to all the Houdinis trying to trick and misdirect me away from SEEING them. The fragility of the human ego is all-consuming. A monkey on our backs doesn’t even touch the epic power of the ego. It is an alpha silver back; violently whipping broken tree branches around and bearing its teeth to prove its bigger then any self-love we may acquire. And beware when things actually go our way! Then it turns into fucking Kong Kong; beating its chest on the highest peak it can climb and roaring in our ears that we’ll never be good enough.
But sometimes…once in a while…you meet a person who, even if only for a split second, show their true self in all it’s Technicolor terror and insecurity. In that moment it’s not only incredibly refreshing but also heartbreaking beautiful. That is when I love people as I would an abandoned puppy or a dear friend, or a lover. We are all terrified of revealing our vulnerable filthy selves for other people to crush with their opinions of us. Why? Because we truly believe that we are a failure…stupid…ugly…dirty…worthless. When the truth is…we are all scared, struggling children.
To see ourselves and love ourselves as we would a dear child is the final step to being comfortable in our own skin. And, my God, can you imagine the freedom and wonderment life would hold if we simply let it happen?