By Tiffany Pan
The calculator has just spit it out: 40.7 percent. That’s the proportion of my life that I’ve spent with a mental health diagnosis. Almost eleven years of wondering if I qualify as having a disability for various forms, of waiting for people to react to the word ‘bipolar’, of scheduling appointments, and counting out medications. It is a slog, a constant Grouse Grind, to keep myself functional.
The list of things I can do to keep myself healthy is long. Medication. Meditation, and the varieties thereof: yoga, breathing, visualization, and so on. Counselling, individual or group. Exercise. Diet. Sleep. Self-help books. Religion or spirituality. Socialization. Coping skills, like journaling, setting up emergency plans, distracting yourself, etc. Treatments and therapies. In my mind, I must be inordinately vigilant – the mental equivalent of a rigid soldier on laughable alert outside Buckingham Palace – so that my mood doesn’t slide in worrying directions. Keeping myself well takes much upkeep and mental discipline; self-care has almost always been work for me, and never fun.
And then I tried art therapy through MDA. I’ve always been curious about art therapy, mainly based on enjoying art classes in high school and having occasional creative phases where I scrapbook, or knit, or draw for an hour here or there. But art as restorative, art as healing, art as something other than pure diversion has never been properly articulated in my mind.
I will not say that art therapy has been a cure-all. However, it has given me something that I had not even thought to ask for. There is finally a method of self-care which does not feel like a chore to me, a practice whose value comes from its ability to make me forget that I’m even doing therapy. It doesn’t feel like work to colour, and it’s strangely mesmerizing to create a mandala. The tangible evidence of whatever I feel on a page is validating, and freeing in the sense that my inner world is no longer just inside. I experience a sense of creation, which counteracts the way mental illness can destroy and chip away at my life. The wonderful facilitators of my group have also emphasized the need to let go of creating ‘good’ art, to not adhere to what good art is supposed to look like.
The immediacy of putting pen to page can be amazing. For example, I can scribble hard, angular marks to represent frustration. And all of a sudden, I am better able to visualize my inner tension, and I have also simultaneously let go of my angst. Sometimes the pieces have clear symbolic meaning to my life, and I’m surprised that I was actually able to express visually the ill-defined emotions in my mind. Then there are art pieces that seem to have no meaning, random colours and lines that were the only things that I could think of to put on the page. But that’s been a good lesson too – to just do something and not judge its outcome.
In other words, I finally realize that there are ways of keeping healthy available to me that I can actually enjoy and look forward to and which help me to feel more grounded, productive, and well.