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Learning Through Art and Others

Apart from the mental conditions I was diagnosed with and am being treated for, I am a recluse and an introvert by nature. Even so, neither of those make me remorseful nor ashamed. I admit though, whenever I am “comme ci, comme ça," I still do try to be a chameleon — blend-in so as not to emit eccentric vibes which may make some people uneasy, or worse, appalled.

Growing up as an only child, I am accustomed to lots of “me-time," and I spend it doing art, poetry, music and written-reminiscence of my day or whenever intense emotions hit me. I tend to keep things to myself — I don’t share it with others as I feel like there’s no point in sharing pieces of me. "Who am I anyway?”, my head mutters. I do stuff that pleases and appeases my inconsistent self; a sanctuary where I can turn to in times of bliss and/or despair.

I gathered the courage to paint in 2015. It was scary, as I was used to scribbling or drawing on paper all my life. Scary, in the sense that I don’t know why I attempted to divulge in painting as I have no formal art training. I feel unequipped, inadequate and plainly self-critical of whatever I do. I am not good in colors, my life has been so noir. Still, I tried painting anyway, because I WANT TO. Free — no rules for me, I just don’t want to care for what’s apt. Non-conformity in art generates joy in what I am doing. Most of my subjects are about how I feel or what I’m thinking at the moment. Mental and emotional stuff. It’s like I’m writing in the form of painting. Expressing myself through colors and brush strokes instead of writing like I am accustomed to, for a change.

I became a part of an art exhibit, with the theme “Despite My Being _____”  at Sining Kamalig Art Gallery in March 2016. We are a group of artists who endure mental conditions; artists battling and surviving diurnal existence who channelled our feelings through art and aimed to raise awareness regarding mental illness in the Philippines and to garner support for the petition of the Philippine Mental Health Act.

I learned a lot from people who visit the exhibit:

  • Parents who explain to their kids who ask about the paintings. I heard a mother tell her children that the paintings depict what the person who painted it feels.
  • An accountant, who told me that she is a frustrated artist. She wanted to study Fine Arts, but her parents discouraged her telling that, “There’s no money in art.” So, she ended up taking Accounting. She said she has never forgotten her passion for the arts as it is her way of relaxing. Whenever they have conferences, at times, she finds herself sketching people around her.
  • A woman who has a friend whose daughter self-harms — I admit to her that I do harm myself, too, whenever things get overwhelming or I feel numb and dissociated. I told her that there are times I can fight the urge to self-harm through diverting myself into painting. She thanked me for opening up and thought of suggesting to her friend to encourage the daughter to express herself through art or writing, perhaps it would help.
  • A special education art teacher, who confessed that she is having difficulty with her students who have learning disabilities. As she said, no matter how much she tries, she can’t elicit any response or expression of interest from them. She tried teaching them abstract art, sketching and other art forms, but nothing worked for the students to express how they feel. She asked me if I pre-meditate or plan what I paint. I said, “No, I just face a blank canvas, then paint what I feel at the moment.” She thanked me for the idea — next time, she will modify her teaching methodology by not being too structured; she will just let her students be, give them a blank paper and let them draw what they want, maybe letting them be free would encourage them to express themselves and she will be able to know them and their needs better.
  • A woman who told me that sometimes she feels like all those depicted in the artworks — it was heartbreaking, but she needs to be strong.
  • A woman who wasn’t sure what the exhibit was all about asked me why all the paintings and captions have this certain form of deepness. She was amazed that despite having mental illnesses, we can still paint.
  • A man who was surprised to know that the paintings were by people with mental illnesses. He said if he didn’t ask me about the theme, he wouldn’t have thought that the artists are combatting depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, etc. He has never heard those terms before, so I discussed it with him. He said that he thought a person who has mental illnesses should be confined in a mental hospital, but he was enlightened that not all people with mental illnesses are fully dysfunctional.
  • A single mother nurse, whose son suffers from depression and social anxiety. She shared that, despite her attempts on being there and giving positive advice to her son, she doesn’t understand why her son still says, “You don’t understand how I feel, Mom. You never will because you are not going through this.” I told her that for people who are going through depression, sometimes telling them to “Be positive” does more harm than good. She just needs to make him feel that she is there for him; acknowledge and validate how he feels no matter how hard it is to understand. I also learned a lot of things from her, like how being a battered wife made her assertive. Her son panics whenever he witnesses how she asserts herself as her son thinks about the worst that could happen if she keeps being assertive. She told her son, “You may just be one voice, but nobody can speak up for you but yourself.” Her son, who is also an introvert, once asked her if he is not normal because he is not comfortable socializing with people as he worries a lot about what others will say. She said, “I told him that he is special. He doesn’t have to talk to people if he doesn’t feel like it. He just has to be himself, and be with people who can accept him for who he is. In this world, we cannot please everyone, but as long as you respect people and are not stepping on anyone’s foot, you are doing good.”

I was surprised by how people opened up freely and actually “talked” about mental, psychological and emotional issues and saw them from a different perspective.

It’s all about awareness. After that, everything else follows, including acceptance and, hopefully, the eradication of stigma regarding mental illness. It is one step forward when my fellow artists stepped up and vulnerably admitted that:

Despite our being _________, we can help change the face of mental illness.

Read more of Zaeli's posts here. Basahin dito ang blog sa Filipino.

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