“My name is Colleen.
When I was 22 years old I had my first nervous breakdown and was diagnosed as bipolar, with PTSD and anxiety. After initial bad experiences with doctors and medications, I refused to take any medication for years. And I refused to accept my diagnosis. There was more prejudice back then so I tried to think, drink and self-medicate my way out of the depression and anxiety. I’ve got a big scar on my left arm as a reminder of the times I really couldn’t climb out of my depressions.
Although it can be exhilarating, the manic perception of life is one without bounds and you forget you’ll crash eventually – like this time you won’t. But you do. You always crash. And you always forget how bad it will be. The weight of the pain is like you’ve lost someone close to you. And as hard as you try, you can’t just snap out of it. It took a long time to come to terms with it being a life long illness and that meds are a must.
Most of the time I’m good at acting like I’m ok. Normal, like my friends. So I acted like I could manage to hold down jobs, despite regularly calling in sick with migraines. Some were migraines. Some were the anxiety attacks keeping me from leaving my apartment, or even just getting out of bed.
I would cry my eyes out while I was getting ready for work. Then disconnect from my body and go “out among the living” as I call it. Staring out the bus window with my music piped into my ears to fight the anxiety (thank you universe for walkmans and mp3 players!!!) before having to switch back “on”. But once back home I’ve stared at the floor for hours.
Meds are not a cure. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. And sometimes they work for a long time and then just stop. Swinging from mania to depression and back can be very traumatic and energy depleting. The next worse thing is changing medications. But you do what you have to, to stay sane(r).
For me making art has always been my one constant source of peace – reprieve from all the noise in my head. And music. Painting with music is my own private nirvana. It leads to self discovery. And while the meds keep you “comfortably numb”, creating art helps you remember who you are. When you’re ill, its very difficult to reach your soul. That’s where The Art Studios comes in.
I started off taking classes and as my confidence increased I took on volunteer positions, then teaching. When I teach, even though I stutter my way through classes and lose my train of thought, teaching is my medicine. I blame the gibberish on my meds. That gets a few laughs and leads to conversations about weird side effects.
Now I teach a variety of classes and workshops. I have found my purpose. Not just teaching what I love, but week after week I get to see the transformation in people and hear their feedback about how the class affected them. “This class is my medicine”. “The Art Studios saved me from suicide”. I hear that one a lot. However, the other day, I was reminded of the fact that some people have feelings of shame and embarrassment about going there. I forget that for some it’s all too new. It just reinforces my need to be there. Teaching there is definitely my medicine.
On one hand we are too high functioning for other programs and not high functioning enough to go back to work. For some, just getting to class is a challenging task. Then they talk, laugh and leave with smiles on their faces, a testament to The Art Studio’s program. We belong to a community that speaks the same language through our art, our stories, our support and empathy for each other.
I live to paint and paint to live!”