Creativity and Mental Illness

This past week I rediscovered something that has the power to calm my mind and lift me out of a deep depression, even if only temporarily. I was struggling to find joy, purpose, connection, and stability. I felt lonely, but reaching out felt too hard. Depression changes the way I view myself and my life. When I am depressed, my problems seem huge and overwhelming. I obsess over things I can’t control–others’ behavior, past mistakes, fears about the future, or outside circumstances. I begin to feel powerless, frustrated, and discouraged. When others are unkind, or when I feel disrespected, judged, unloved, or ignored, I start to doubt my worth. I cry and feel sorry for myself, or I get angry and push people away. I forget to look within. When I do, I often find that the answers I am seeking are already inside of me–my intrinsic worth, my faith in God, my ability to love, my creativity, my gifts and talents, and my inner strength.

Last week, I rediscovered my inner artist. I remembered how much I love to draw, play with patterns, express my creativity, and brighten my world with color. When I give myself time and space to express my creativity, without judgment or expectation, I find joy! There is definitely an artist inside me, but it rarely comes out. I guess I am afraid. I’m a beginner–art is not something I have studied or practiced. I worry about being “good enough” and being able to create something beautiful. I compare myself to others who have practiced and developed their skills. I doubt my own abilities. But then I just start drawing and creating. It is fun! It starts to flow. I stop caring about impressing others and I just enjoy the process of creation. I give myself permission to experiment and try something new. I am practicing and learning and having fun! It doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s just for me.

Since being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I have wondered about the link between creativity and mental illness. Mania seems to spark in me an intense desire to write. This symptom, called hypergraphia, is sometimes experienced by people with bipolar 1 disorder during a manic episode. I also write at other times too, not just when I am manic. Mania just seems to speed up the process a bit! My mind is flooded with ideas and information, and it needs somewhere to go! I have noticed that many people with bipolar disorder also like to write. I wonder why?

Depression isn’t known to “spark” creativity, but I find that art has a way of soothing me when I am stressed, anxious, or feeling low. I’ve noticed that most mental hospitals use art therapy for their patients, too! It is interesting to me that the line through which I inherited mental illness is the same line through which I inherited my artistic, creative, and musical talents. My dad’s mom was a musical prodigy. She started playing the violin at age 4. As an adult, she played for many years in the Utah Symphony. She had perfect pitch and could tell you the name of any note just by hearing it. I remember how she would sit down at the piano and play familiar hymns from memory, without needing music. It was incredible!

I wonder if my grandma, who suffered for much of her adult life with depression, used “music therapy” in a similar way that I use “art therapy”. When I do art, my mind seems to switch gears. Instead of ruminating about past mistakes, over-thinking, or feeling stress or anxiety about the future, my mind goes quiet. I stop “thinking” and I just focus on doing. That is an unusual thing for me! I have an active mind that is constantly going. It is hard to turn it off at night and I have struggled for years with falling asleep. It is exhausting to have a brain that can’t shut off–it literally makes my head sore!

I haven’t felt much like writing lately, but I just wanted to share this insight! Art and creative expression are lifting my mood and helping me to feel better about myself. If you are going through a depression, feeling extra anxious, or just needing a distraction to calm your active mind, maybe art therapy could help you too!

What are your unique gifts and talents? How do you feel when you express them?

Creating Safe Spaces to Share our Stories

“Telling your story—while being witnessed with loving attention by others who care—may be the most powerful medicine on earth.”

The Healing Power of Telling Your Story by Lissa Rankin M.D.

This past weekend, I had an amazing opportunity! Surrounded by my husband, mother, mother-in-law, sisters, friends, and new acquaintances, I had the opportunity to stand up and share my story. It was empowering!

Usually, I get really nervous about getting up in front of a group. Writing comes much easier to me than public speaking. But when I was asked if I would be willing to give a presentation to women in my church about how mental health affects us spiritually, I took it! It just felt like something that I needed to do. I looked forward to it!

I spent a week writing down and organizing my thoughts and preparing a PowerPoint presentation. A few key experiences came to mind and I felt that God wanted me to share them as part of my presentation. Normally, I am quite the perfectionist. I edit and edit and edit until things are perfect. But the inspiration of what I should share just came and I wrote it down. I have learned so much and had so much that I wanted to share and discuss!

And then, out of nowhere, a depressive episode hit! I was grateful that my presentation was already planned out and saved on my computer. I put it aside and didn’t look at it for weeks. In the meantime, I became so depressed that I could barely get out of bed in the morning and make my kids breakfast. I was completely checked-out as a mom and struggled to engage with my kids and meet their needs. Just getting dressed for the day took more energy than I could muster. I was so tired! Soon, I couldn’t drive my kids to school because I started having panic attacks while driving. I really wasn’t functioning at all and it was completely debilitating!

After missing several days of work, my husband called his mom and asked her to come help me. She has been such a blessing and I am so grateful that I have family support! Not everyone has that! Because of her help, I was able to ride out the emotional roller-coaster at home instead of going to the hospital. It was rough, but I had the support I needed and we survived!

I worry sometimes that people might thing I am being dramatic or lazy when I describe how depressive episodes affect me. I worry that they’ll judge me as being weak. I worry they might think I just need to stop being so selfish and get up and starting DOING things again. Unless you have personally been through a deep depression, you simply don’t understand. Depression can be just as debilitating as the flu, cancer, or a broken arm! (I actually got the flu while going through a depression–it was miserable! But it was easier for some reason to tell people that I was home with the flu than saying I was depressed!). Depression is a real illness that affects not only your thoughts and emotions, but also your energy levels, your appetite, your sleep, and your ability to function day-to-day. It is one of the most difficult things I have faced!

When I first started sinking into a depression, I felt discouraged and frustrated. I didn’t know if I would still be able to teach the class, but I hoped that I would get feeling better before then. It was ready to go, I just had to get feeling better! I had one month. (For anyone who has gone through a manic or depressive episode, you know that you can’t predict how long they will last! You just have to ride it out!). I prayed that I would get better soon and asked others to pray with me. I wanted to do this! I felt that God wanted me to have this opportunity as well.

A week before the scheduled date of the presentation, I started to feel better. Those who were in my home and had watched me go through a debilitating depression were amazed that I was able to get back up on my feet and teach that class with confidence. To me, it truly was a miracle!

The day of the conference came. When I opened my mouth to speak, I felt God blessing me with a new-found confidence and with the courage to share my experiences. I felt Him with me and urging me on! My nerves were held at bay simply because I was so excited to talk about mental health in a church setting. I could feel that those in attendance wanted to be there. They chose to come to my class. They wanted to talk about this! They were supporting me and encouraging me to share my story and start the discussion. I was among friends. This was a safe place!

In case you were wondering, here are a few things that I shared in my presentation. It was titled “Finding Joy and Feeling the Spirit in Times of Mental/Emotional Stress”: We all have struggles! One of my struggles is mental illness. It is my battle to fight! Mental illness has taught me, changed me, broken me, healed me, filled me with compassion for those who suffer, and prepared my heart for service. Looking back, I can see how my struggles have helped me to come closer to Christ and to become more like Him. They have helped me to understand in a deeper way why He chose to suffer and die for me. Because of my struggles, I have come to know that I have a Personal Savior who loves me and feels compassion for me when I suffer. He desires to run to me, to lift my burdens, and to take away my pain. He is my Healer, my Light, my Strength, and my Song!

I also shared my experiences in 2016, when I went through my first manic/depressive episode following the birth of my third baby. The scary part was that I didn’t know what was happening to me! I couldn’t sleep. I had a racing mind and crippling anxiety. I had this new-found energy that made me feel super-human! I didn’t feel like eating, because I was too distracted by the many thoughts in my head. I wanted to do a million things at once! Plus, I had boundless energy–I felt like I didn’t need food! I would wake up in the middle of the night with bursts of energy and an intense desire to run or clean my house or write so I could expend all of that pent-up energy! This manic episode escalated over a period of 4 months and I ended up in the hospital. It was there that I was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder and that my journey with this mental illness began.

I shared how hard it was to go back to church after that experience. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in God anymore. It was because I wondered how many people knew that I had just spent a week in the mental hospital. I wondered what they would think about me and if they were gossiping about me behind my back. I know that most of this was internal. People were kinder to me than I expected, but there were also moments when I felt judged or hurt by someone’s words or actions. Or even sometimes by their “inaction”. It hurts when people don’t approach you or ask how you are doing because they think you “don’t want to talk about it”. I did! I wanted to talk, but I still felt so vulnerable. I needed to know who I could trust and who I could open up to. I needed to be reassured that my friends loved me and didn’t judge me. It was hard at first and it took time, but eventually I started feeling stronger and going to church became easy again.

My presentation went better than I expected! It was a packed room and what followed my sharing was a great discussion about how we can help those that are going through times of mental and emotional stress. We talked about simple ways that we can reach out, lift burdens, and show love to those who are suffering. We talked about loving and not judging. We talked about how we can show the same care and concern to those dealing with mental illness as we do to those dealing with any other “physical” illness. It is the same! Mental illness is not a sign of personal weakness or a lack of faith or spiritual striving. It is a sickness! Urging someone to “pray harder” or do more spiritual activities isn’t helpful and won’t make them better. It is not a spiritual problem, so focusing only on spiritual solutions is ineffective!! (Not saying that prayer doesn’t help–prayer is powerful! But instead of telling someone who is struggling to “pray more”, you could offer to pray in their behalf, that they will get better!)

I realized after that presentation that there is something I feel really passionate about–we need to create safe spaces where we can share our stories! We can start in our own homes. My kids, at a young age, know what depression looks like. They know that when Mommy is depressed, she is sick. She stays in bed a lot and feels tired. She can’t do all the things she normally does with them. They have to help out more at home and be more independent. They have to go to Daddy when they need something. Sometimes Mommy needs extra help at home. It’s ok!

My kids also know what “anxiety” means. They’ll even throw around the term “panic attack” because they have heard me talking about it! I don’t think that they are “too young” or that they should be sheltered from these “adult topics”. We haven’t discussed suicide with them yet, but someday when they are older, we will have that conversation too! Mental illness runs in our family, so I want them to be prepared! I want them to know how to recognize signs of struggle in themselves and others. I want them to know how to help a friend who is struggling. I want them to have tools and coping skills in place, as well as safe people they can talk to. I am showing them by example how to get back up after a period of depression and move forward. I am showing them how to face the darkness and get through it! I want them to know that they can live with a mental illness and still find joy!

Where are your “safe spaces”? Where do you feel comfortable sharing your struggles, whatever they may be? If some places feel “unsafe”, what can you do to change things? A few years ago, I created a private Facebook group called Mothering with Mental Illness. I needed a safe place where I could share my struggles with other moms who understood and wouldn’t judge me! When I started blogging this year on WordPress.com, I found another safe space! Another place where I felt “safe” was actually in the mental hospital! I was among strangers, but we all had one thing in common–we were all there because we needed help! We didn’t have to pretend that we were ok. We were all at our wits ends trying to deal with the ups and downs of mental illness. We were there to heal and to support each other in our recovery. It was a safe place! I hope that as we move forward, the world can become a little kinder and more welcoming. I hope that we can learn how to create safe spaces where we can be vulnerable and where we can connect with others. I hope that we can have the courage to stand up and share our stories!

Be Kind

“Kindness is a gift everyone can afford to give.”

Unknown

Today at the gym, an older lady who was passing by me on the track made a hurtful comment.  She saw my two girls running on the track with me and told me in a stern tone, “They shouldn’t be here!!”  If I had been feeling stronger, it probably wouldn’t have hurt so much.  I could have just shrugged it off.  This was a family rec center, after all.  Kids are allowed on the track.  But my three-year-old wasn’t staying in one lane—she was zig-zagging back and forth.  She was getting in the way.  Maybe that lady was right—my little girl might be too little to run on the track!  But like all parents learn, you can’t control your children’s behavior.  You can teach them and love them and enforce consequences, but they make their own choices!  My daughter wouldn’t come back when I called her. She has boundless energy and she can outrun her mama!  I was just trying to catch up! 

That experience made me reflect on a few things that I want to share today.  What we say matters.  We can choose to spread love and kindness or to spread negativity and criticism.  You never know what people are going through.  Do you ever stop and ask yourself if your words will be helpful or hurtful?  Do they convey love or judgment?  Once those words leave your lips, you create an impact.  You either send out positive or negative energy into the world.  What that woman may have thought was simply “constructive criticism”, or a needed correction, cut me like a knife. 

Here’s what that stranger didn’t know about me… 

She didn’t know that I haven’t been able to go to the rec center and get in my morning workout for weeks.  She didn’t know that I was so proud of myself for even being there today.  She didn’t know that today was the last day before our family membership expires.  I’ve been too sick to come and I’ve missed it so much!! 

She also didn’t know that I am just coming out of a difficult and debilitating manic/depressive episode.  She didn’t know that my anxiety has been at an all-time high.  She didn’t know that just venturing out in public takes a lot of courage right now.  She didn’t know that every day I am fighting back the negative voices in my head that tell me “You are a bad mom!”.  She didn’t know that I am trying to recover and to regain a sense of self-worth after being a checked-out, knocked down, sick and depressed mom.  She didn’t know how much those words hurt. 

Yesterday I was finally able to get behind the wheel again and drive my son to school.  It was a big deal! I haven’t been able to drive my kids to school for the past two weeks!  The only way they are able to get to and from school right now is because my mother-in-law is here helping.  She drops them off and picks them off when I can’t do it on my own.

Why did I stop driving?  Honestly—because school pick-up became too much for my anxiety.  Yes, I’m being completely real!  I was already struggling so much inside and that environment felt threatening to me.  All of the other parents, trying to find a spot to park along the curb, impatiently honking their horns when you get in their way, literally made me start having panic attacks.  It was too much!! 

If you have never dealt with anxiety or had a panic attack, you may think I am being dramatic or that I’m a weakling.  Who flips out just because someone honks their horn?!  Get over it!  You may think I need to toughen up or grow up or stop being so sensitive.  You may think I need tougher skin. But if you have dealt with anxiety, you understand.  I had to avoid that situation until my anxiety levels lowered and became manageable again. 

Mental illness is an invisible illness.  I bear no physical scars or outward signs of my internal suffering.  You can’t see emotional wounds.  They are hidden deep. You don’t know that they are still open and raw.  You can’t see how fragile and vulnerable I still feel, even though I am getting stronger and feeling more like myself every day.  I am up and doing things now, but I am still healing and regaining my strength.  Your words can be kind, helpful, and encouraging.  They can also be hurtful. 

Please, let’s choose to be kind!   Let’s choose to spread love.  Let’s choose to have empathy toward everyone we meet and give them the benefit of the doubt.  You don’t know their story.  You don’t know their struggle!  I may not be able to control my environment or other people’s behavior toward me.  But I can try to make the world a better place.  I can choose to be kind.  I can withhold judgment and speak words that convey love. 

I can choose to be kind, even when others hurt me.  I won’t pass on the negativity or judgment. And this is my super-power!  Because of my own personal suffering, I learned empathy.  Because I have doubted my own mothering skills, I don’t pass judgment on other moms whose kids are acting out. 

I’m not saying that I am a better person than anyone else.  I’m no saint and I’m definitely not perfect.  I simply believe that we are all capable of being kind and showing love, no matter what kind of day we are having.  I’ve just been through a lot and I have learned that you can’t always judge a book by its cover.  If you can’t say something nice, maybe you should hold your tongue!  If you are feeling impatient and are in a rush, you don’t need to push through the crowd or honk your horn.  If someone does something that bothers you, you can speak up, but do it in a loving way!  People are fragile.  Let’s treat each other with care and with kindness!

What Depression Feels Like to Me

I have been in a depressive episode for the past week or so. I feel tired. So tired that it is hard to get up and get going in the morning. I just want to keep sleeping, but I have three little kids who need me! They are what keep me going! I feel sluggish and foggy in the head. It is hard to think and make quick decisions. I have very little energy, so I’m just focusing on the basics right now. I have to push myself to do things that I normally feel motivated to do–get dressed, clean up the house, exercise, eat. At home I look around and feel overwhelmed at everything that needs to be done. I fall behind on housework and hope that my husband and kids will pick up the slack. I wish things didn’t depend so much on me, but at this stage of life, they do. When Mommy shuts down, things just don’t get done at home. Laundry and dishes pile up. It’s ok, I’ll be back up and running soon! And in the meantime, we’re surviving just fine. My house looks good today because it’s the weekend and my husband is home!

I rely a lot more on my husband during these times. He cooks dinner and takes care of the kids so I can have a break. Yesterday we had a family day. We took the kids to play at Discovery Gateway and they had a great time! Then he stayed home and let me go grocery shopping without the kids. It was glorious! I wasn’t in a rush. I could go as slowly as I wished and take my time to make decisions. I picked up a sugar foot scrub for myself because I need to make time for self care right now!

If you have seen me up and about and you had no clue I was depressed, it’s ok! It’s hard to tell from the outside. It actually makes me feel better knowing that I don’t look like a total mess–because I feel like one! I just keep going and doing and trying to smile, even when I don’t feel like smiling. Just know that I’m fighting. I don’t need you to “fix me” or to tell me how to stop feeling depressed. I’ve learned a lot so far on my journey and one thing I have learned is that there is no “magic switch” to turn it off. You just have to ride out the storm, doing the best you can to keep afloat, knowing that eventually the depression will lift. I’ll feel like myself again, hopefully soon! Keep inviting me to do things. I’m not one who likes to hide away when I am depressed. I need people in my life! I need to feel safe saying that “I’m not ok right now” and having that be ok! And don’t think that I can’t do things. If it is important to me, I’ll still do it! I’m stronger than you think! Depression has taught me how to be a fighter.