I recall my friend Donna telling me a few weeks ago that I seemed normal. I did not know if I should feel happy or sad about that. What does normal mean? That you are never depressed, never have to take psychiatric medication. Is normal that you never find yourself thinking weird? My relationship with my mental health diagnosis has changed over the years— I’ve been in a good place lately. A few years ago I was not.
Over the years, I have struggled emotionally – with multiple diagnoses. I am not at all sure how much this affects my life but the statistics say it all. Mental health and physical abuse victim? Check. Mental health and poverty? Check. Mental health affecting family and friend relationships? Check.
All I know is I have to persevere, be more tenacious, swing harder. Have things repeated. Basically, I go through situations over and over before I “get it.” These days, my recovery looks like this: I get to live my life, enjoy my family and enjoy my work. I get to give a presentation to one of Chicagoland’s largest mental health services providers about artwork for their various facilities. These days my recovery looks good. I recently had my last meeting with my therapist of three years. We both marveled how far I had come. When I first arrived I was somewhat stable but not thriving. I wanted to thrive. Bad. My goal was, “I want to make goals and reach them.”
I’ve come a long way.
As an African American woman, I have witnessed the loneliness of suffering in silence. I mean back in the day, no one talked about it openly. I was not prepared for the loss of friendships over the years – friendships very dear to me. My episodes isolated me from many dear people. Those people left and were replaced with other – strong friends.
Stigma is real, no doubt.
In my family, I have a strong support system and we talk freely about things. I am grateful for my family and my church family. In fact, today our message was about “Overcoming Depression.” It was such a timely message that would not have been discussed 15+ years ago.
Mental health facilities are different across the spectrum depending on one’s ability to pay for it. As a new mom, I suffered with postpartum depression and was admitted to a large mental health ward in a hospital. I did not understand where I was, and no one explained it to me, but I knew it was somewhere I did not want to be. One of my first experiences there was a cold room and I awoke to find myself in a straitjacket. The cold and the straitjacket were meant to calm me.
On another occasion, I awoke in a room kind of like a cell and there was one window in the door where the light was coming through. I tried to open the door and come out and was roughly told to get back in my room. The environment in the gathering room or day room was smoke-filled and very medicinal. I knew from the last visit that I was somewhere I didn’t want to be again.
That was my introduction to one of South Chicagoland’s finest mental health hospitals. I eventually found a Bible to read during that visit and that would strengthen my faith. After losing my Dad, the world slowed down, and I was deeply depressed. My mind could not cope and I was in an altered state of reality. My family admitted me to a facility with a very posh room, more like a country club setting. I remember the beautiful art because I paid attention to every detail.
Unfortunately, I did not stay there long because I had no insurance. I was transferred to a public institution in Cook County. There was no art. This was an answer for those needing mental health services and typically having little or no insurance. The only way in or out was the front and it was heavily guarded. People would come in and be searched and go out and be searched. There was a circle in the middle of the floor, much like a maze, which you could walk and get exercise.
This environment was the worst of all. I knew I had hit rock bottom. As Les Brown said, “When life knocks you down, try to land on your back. Because if you can look up, you can get up.”
Sometimes compassionate people were placed in my path. This was signified by my time at Riveredge Hospital. My time at Riveredge occurred after we moved and everything about my life changed. Friends and most of my family was further away. This led to long periods of isolation and eventually depression. Part of my care at Riveredge, included compassion. Let me explain.
After I started getting better during my visit, I was told that I could go into the “screaming room” and sing in the evening if it would help. In this room, one could get loud and no one would hear outside–hence its name. One evening, on my way back from singing, a staff member and I got into a conversation about life. He was on the night shift – a huge man. I knew he was into bodybuilding and looking after his health.
Also African-American, he reminded me of one of my uncles. He told me that in order to survive this, I needed fortitude — inner fortitude. It was an idea that one needed inner strength to get through things happening on the outside. He was holding a book by Bishop T.D Jakes which I asked to borrow. The remainder of my time there was spent reading and being transformed by Bishop Jakes’ words. The book was “Reposition Yourself.” I eventually painted “Fortaleza (Inner Fortitude)” as part of a painting series which paid homage to this moment. I will never forget this staff members kindness to me. It was a pivotal moment.
Today, my mental health is one part of my life. Today, I paint, speak and teach. A few years ago, I awoke from an amazing dream. In the dream, I saw people of all backgrounds around the table – like at Thanksgiving. Instead of saying “pass the potatoes” or “pass the butter,” people were passing the magenta and the blue and other colors to create this huge piece of art.
As I started the day, I recall wanting this idea to happen. I quickly called a friend and shared the idea. My friend, who worked at a foundation told me she loved the idea and she then shared it with others. Those conversations led to two youth groups coming together to create a community made painting.
This beginning led to numerous opportunities to create what I call Community Art Creations- a way of painting that connects people and engages them creatively. I am utilizing my own story to bring connection and creativity to others.
As an artist, my paintings are included in the collections of numerous community centers: the University of Chicago Lurie Children’s Hospital, The Markham Public Library, Acorn Public Library, Elmwood Park Public Library, Forest Park Park District, Austin Childcare Network, Berwyn North School District 98, Grand Prairie Services, Living Springs Community Church, New Life Community Church, Oak Forest Park District and the Oak Park Area Arts Council. I have worked with many private collectors as well – for which I am grateful.
Last year, I was accepted into JSS International School of Art in Civita, Italy for an art residency. Traveling internationally, was a dream come true for me – one I had held onto for 20 plus years.
Right now, I’m in a grateful place. No longer hiding, I’m without shame, anger and ignorance. Willing and able to speak and own my story, God has given me back my voice. It has taken prayer – lots of it – to get beyond and get through. It has taken the right environment and compassionate people to assist along the journey. And it has taken the pursuit of my life’s purpose – sharing my art – to see continued fruit.
One can overcome a mental health crisis. You may lose some people true, but the ones who stay are the best of the best. A mental health diagnosis is not the end. I’m proof.