Even before I knew I had bipolar disorder, I have always loved art. I used to spend my afternoons in high school (I was unschooled) wandering around the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, where I grew up. Since moving to Saint Louis for college, I have spent many mornings, afternoons and evenings in the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Pulitzer, the Contemporary Art Museum and the Sheldon Art Galleries. Something about art makes me come alive and opens my eyes to life in a way that nothing else does (though a good walk in the woods is a close second).
When I was first diagnosed with bipolar type II on January 28, 2014, I found fitting the new diagnosis into my identity to be a struggle. So much of my life had been thrown to wreckage by my pre-diagnoses (i.e. pre-medication) episodes of depression and hypomania. I felt overwhelmed by all that I had done and all that I would need to do to put the pieces of my life back together again. I needed to find a way to fit bipolar into my new identity – not to let it define me, but to accept it as part of who I am.
I ended up doing this by creating a series of self-portraits titled the “Bipolar Series.” Something magical began to happen once I began sharing these portraits with the world – people wanted to tell me their stories and everyone was very supportive. I got Facebook comments and messages from strangers who also live with bipolar disorder, telling me about their history with it and what it has been and is like for them. I got emails from people who said the images had touched them, had made visual what they had had a hard time understanding from lists of symptoms read in medical texts or online. By letting myself become vulnerable in creating and sharing this series of images, I had opened myself up to so much love and support from total strangers. It was a beautiful thing.
Even though I have been medicated since January and feel so stable at this point that I sometimes even manage to forget that I have bipolar disorder, I still use art to cope with things in life that I have trouble accepting or cannot understand. I don’t think it matters what your medium is (photography, writing, sculpture, painting) but I believe the act of creating to be innately healing and full of catharsis.
When I am in a really depressive episode, it is hard for me to create anything at all. I have gone months before without taking a single picture because I was too depressed to want to create anything. When you can’t see any beauty anywhere, what is the point of making art? At times like this I need to call my psychiatrist so he can adjust my meds and help pull me out of the black hole again. But once I can breath again, art is a way to understand my experiences and to rediscover my voice.
We people with bipolar are often stereotyped as being highly creative, and I wonder how much of this is due to the fact that our more intense moods give us something that calls out to be expressed (I long ago decided that, in many ways, art is like curated exorcism).
Anyway, dear readers, I am curious to know if you use art or creating (building or gardening or anything else really) as a way to help you make sense of and cope with your diagnosis of bipolar. Leave a comment below and tell me about it?
All photographs included in this article are part of my “Bipolar Series,” more of which can be found on http://www.kaitmauro.com/bipolar-series/