Being Authentic to Myself and Others, Both as an Artist and a Therapist

It is not easy to be honest with oneself, to confront strengths and weaknesses, to take off the masks and see ones’ true Self and be authentic to oneself as well as others.

What does this really mean? I read something recently about “right speech”, as in mindful speech. One key is to ask yourself if what you are saying to yourself or anyone else is “true”, “kind”, and/or “necessary”. We may not always be able to do all three, but I think it is a safe bet that if you are aware of at least two of these, what you are saying is more likely to be authentic and “real”.

What are we all doing on this planet? What is life truly about? What is meaningful and how do we spend our brief time on earth in as meaningful and authentic a way as possible. What does it mean to contemplate your life’s “purpose”? I think these questions are important ones at every age and stage of life.

I am at a turning point in my life, which I have realized more through the process of really contemplating the passage of time and the new year. In my process with my patients of joining some of them in writing down what we are ready to let go of from last year and what we are wanting to focus on and embrace in this new year, I have learned that I want to be more true to who I am, and more authentic to myself and others. I read a great blog post about how therapists often put a lot of “baloney” and fakeness in their public profiles and even the photo can be hiding more than revealing. I think the patients over the years who have confronted me about what I am about and what I have to offer. Sometimes being a bad fit with a patient can teach you a lot about what and who you are as a therapist and person and what your limitations are.

It is always strange to come to an awareness about myself, I have found, as usually it hits me over the head and then I say, “wow, this is so obvious, how come it has taken me so long to figure this out. what kind of fool have I been, etc.”

Maybe the truth about getting older is that you come to see more what you are about and what you have to offer as a human, a parent, a family member, a partner, an artist, a therapist, etc. How can you have self-acceptance without being real about who you are.

This blog post I mentioned above: https://girlintherapy.wordpress.com/2015/01/03/dear-potential-therapist/, as well as the reflections on the passing of the old year and the coming of the new year actually led me to look long and hard at my therapist profile on Psychologytoday.com, the sort of Yellow Pages of therapists website. I had an ok photo, but I updated it to reflect that I am older and do look older, as much as I may be vain about my hair and like it better in the older photo. Then I rewrote my personal statement, trying to follow some of the advice of Girl In Therapy, to avoid a lot of intellectual garbage and boring explanations, and take a risk and show something of the Real Me, that my patients all see anyway. And to make it more personal. I may not have shared my interest in Chakra and Tarot and other things, but I talked about my tea, as the first thing you will be asked when you come to my studio office after the preliminary greetings, is, “Would you like a cup of tea?”

I thank my colleague Nadia Jenefsky at ArtSpa (https://nycreativetherapists.com) for many years ago introducing me to the idea of sharing tea with whoever comes to the studio, when I went to her first office for the first time, probably about 8 years ago, and she offered me tea. (FYI, for those interested, they are having their 8th annual Open House at ArtSpa on January 16, 6:30-8:30pm so if you’re in Williamsburg, I recommend visiting, quoting their invite: “Try your hand at art therapy. Dabble in drama therapy, Eat good cheese. Drink a little wine. Network the old fashioned way—in person!
Every year for the past eight years, we have welcomed friends, colleagues, and other Willliamsburg business owners to make themselves at home in our creative arts therapy studio. We hope that you will join us in anticipation of a healthy, happy New Year.” Knowing my colleagues there, I am happy to say that they have a great thing going on there, really unique in the field of creative arts therapy, so I am always glad to send people their way!)

I lived in Japan for two years when I was 11 for fourth and fifth grade, and that was when I learned/discovered the ritual of tea and that drinking tea with others is a lot more than just sharing a hot drink on a cold day. Tea has always been associated with ritual, connection and camaraderie, with the sharing of current news of your life with another person. It’s cosy, full of variety, warming on a cold winter day and cooling on a hot day. From collecting teas and being given great new teas, I have developed an array of flavors of herbal non caffeinated teas as well as a supply of a variety of green and black teas. For a long time, I saved tea bags, and collected and displayed them all around my studio with dolls I had made. I was inspired by seeing art made on tea bags, and I have used tea bags in my art, from gluing them onto canvas, including them in altered books, painting them, adding them to dolls, even gluing tea bags together to form a doll’s body.

Anyway, that blog post got me thinking that when people see your profile on psychology today, they want to see what you really look like and what you are about. This makes sense as all the studies on the effectiveness or lack thereof of therapy point to the fact that people feel they are comfortable with their therapist and making progress in their therapy when they feel good about their therapist and actually “like” their therapist. Everything seems to point to it being NOT as some would think about what you studied, what your “approach” is, whether you are psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral or “eclectic”, but just how the patient feels coming to your office and sitting sharing with you for the session time. Of course one’s training and education and professionalism are all important, but the human element is too.

So here is what I put in my new revised profile. Let me know what you think. 2015 for me is all about taking risks and trying to be braver, so even if I fell on my face or went too “out there”, I am happy to be trying hard to be as authentic and true to myself as possible.

As an artist, it is easy to be myself, because I just make my art and let it come from my creative place and I follow where it wants to go. I love making stuff because it is such a free and playful process. I hope I can be more free and playful in other areas of my life as well!

Here is the link to my profile: http://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms/name/Natasha_Shapiro_ATR-BC,LCAT_New+York_New+York_65057

This is what I said:
We all have a creative spirit within us; I strongly believe that depression anxiety and other imbalances are fundamentally a wound in the creative spirit. Art therapy with me involves our embarking together on a journey to find and nurture your creative spirit; we may make art together; we may talk about what’s missing in your life and reconnect to your life force energy and find images within you. The journey is yours. I can help you find your true self and open up to awareness, self discovery and self acceptance.
Art therapy includes a variety of approaches It is useful for exploring emotional issues as well as other goals and relationship challenges. Mindfulness, sitting with yourself and being in the here and now, is one important key to growth and increased self awareness.
When you come to my studio office, I will offer you a cup of hot tea in winter and mixed flavor herbal ice tea in summer. I have collected all kinds of teas and believe in the sharing of tea! Also, I love to work with culturally, ethnically diverse clientele.

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The Birthday Self-Portrait: My Birthday Post, 2/1/2014

A long time ago, I was looking through a book of some artist’s work that I admired, it might have been Adolf Gottlieb, but I’m not sure, I’ve tried to figure out for sure which artist this was, but I never succeeded. Anyway, I read that he whoever he was, had an annual habit of making a birthday self-portrait every year for his birthday. I thought this was a really great and fun idea. I started doing it, but now I can’t remember how many years ago it was. I’m pretty sure I did a “Shoe Portrait” self-portrait the year I was making my series of Shoe Portraits. I can’t remember what shoes I picked to paint but I remember making a weird doll and sticking it in the painting. I think I cut the canvas and somehow put the doll in. Must have been about ten years ago in 2004 maybe. Anyway, every year after that I’ve done a birthday self-portrait, usually inspired by whatever kind of art I happened to be making at the time. I know last year I did a doll with a small tiny “clock” in her, from a watch ring I had. I made the doll from scratch. I will find a photo to post of it. The year before, 2012, I’m not sure what I did. I have two of them in my house from recent years, but I’m kind of annoyed at myself that I didn’t pay attention to what I did and document it better, since it was a fun kind of annual ritual and a fun creative gift for myself on my birthday. Usually I start them about a week before. This year for the first time, I made something I didn’t like and then changed the project completely. I started with a collage with a lot of cut out and ripped images, beads, an old drawing and other stuff and put it up on my studio wall. The next day or two after, I decided I didn’t want to finish it and that I didn’t think it was a real self-portrait, so I decided it would make sense to make an altered book, as I have been making them all year and very obsessed with them, as anyone who reads this blog regularly knows. I ended up cutting up that first collage and putting some of it in the book.

So I chose a book I had already worked on, a little children’s book with each page split in to two halves, originally the book was for matching the top image with the bottom, so it was fun to play with the format. I had already done a lot in the book and decided it had enough in it to build on and that it already had the feeling of a self-portrait, so I started altering it more, ripping out stuff and adding in stuff over the last week. I put s a few photos of myself in it and ended up using one on the cover as today I decided the cover didn’t seem right, so I ripped off an image of a person with a mask and put a photo of myself on it with the other images. I continued working on it today, which sometimes happens, that I end up finishing the self-portrait on my birthday, but I usually get it done by the day before. Of course as this is an altered book, I still don’t feel satisfied that it is finished, but it definitely feels right as my self-portrait for 2014 and reflects some of the past year’s experiences, both losses and rebirths.
I will post a few photos of the project…

As a blog post on my art therapy blog, this is a more personal post than usual, but I will end the verbal part by saying I recommend it as an art therapy project for doing with an adolescent or adult patient for their birthday. You can invite them to bring in a recent or old photo or several and then ask them what kind of medium they want to use. Anything can constitute a birthday self-portrait. A box with the photos incorporated into it, an altered book of course, a drawing or painting or collage on paper or canvas. Other interpretations of the self-portrait for those who only think of a painting of their own face and might feel discouraged and not interested in that, there are so many ways to make a self-portrait and it doesn’t have to have a picture or drawing of your face in it at all. Make a doll or a birthday pillow. A clay bowl to put flower petals in. A box that you can add small notes about what you want for yourself for the coming year into. Knit a birthday scarf. Buy a journal/sketchbook and decorate the cover and start your journal on your birthday. Have your patient make him or herself a birthday card. I have done this often and made a card for my patient while s/he made a card for him/herself. Making a card for yourself whether for your own birthday or for any other day is always a good art therapy activity. I usually give my patient a list of affirmations to choose to copy on the inside of the card or that could inspire you to make your own affirmations and write them inside your card to yourself. Collages with tiny mirrors are a fun twist on the self-portrait. I have one in my altered book. I encourage my patients to get themselves a special birthday present, whether an object or something like a massage, so doing a self-portrait can be an added way to feel special about marking for yourself your own arrival on this planet. It is helpful especially for depressed patients and people who claim to not like their birthday. I don’t always feel super excited for my birthday lately, so I understand when people want to forget about it or make it a day they don’t do anything special, but in art therapy this can be an opportunity to take better care of yourself and reclaim your birthday as a special day, which it is after all. Doing something special for yourself to mark the day you arrived here and that you are still here, no matter how you are feeling, can be very healing and self affirming. It’s kind of like the concept of “The Artist’s Date” from the book, “The Artist’s Way”. As a young 4 year old child once told me, “You have to love yourself of course.” and “You are your own best friend.”

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Photos: from top
First Photo: page from book showing the split page format
Second Photo: page from book top matching bottom
Third Photo:Inside front cover. QUote says: “How many are silenced because in order to get to their art they would have to scream.” -Ann Clarke
Fourth Photo: Current cover of book with photo and plastic doll in model magic
Fifth Photo: older version of front cover
Sixth Photo: Inside page of back cover
Seventh Photo: Image of doll, last year’s self-portrait

Is This Art My “Art Therapy” Art or my “Artist ‘Real'” Art?

This post is probably mostly of interest to other art therapists and those who are curious about art therapy and its connection to “Real Art” or “Fine Art”. There is also a big topic of “High” Art vs. “Low” Art and so called Outsider Art vs. “Fine” Art… Labels labels labels. We like labels when they help us define and differentiate, and we don’t like them so much when they limit us…

So, to begin with, for people who don’t know much about “art therapy” or “art psychotherapy”, there are usually two roads to becoming an art therapist, or two “Main” roads. One is the person who majored or minored in Psychology or took a bunch of psychology classes in colleges and got interested in becoming some kind of therapist. This person finds out about art therapy and realizes s/he also has a creative side and is interested in art making and how it impacts psychotherapy, so this person continues on the road to learning more about what art therapy is, and becoming an art therapist. Along the way, this person may have had his/her own personal therapy or even sought out an art therapist to try out art therapy as a patient. Some of these people skip going to therapy as a patient and end up in some art therapy graduate program after s/he has taken the extra art classes that are prerequesites to starting grad school in art therapy. Those who skip being a patient themselves are usually encouraged to go to therapy and at some point in their time as a grad student start therapy with a therapist, art therapist, psychoanalyst or some combination of these… This person may enjoy art making and even have a media s/he prefers working in but has not really identified as an artist before becoming an art therapist… There are many variations of this type of road towards becoming an art therapist, not in the scope of this post, so I don’t mean to have this description seem limited.

Then there is the other road, that of the “Artist” who then becomes an art therapist. Some of these people are what is called a “wounded healer”. S/he may have gone through therapy of some sort at some time in his/her life and had much more experience being a “patient” than some other art therapy students and art therapists. In any case this person usually finds out about art therapy at some point in his/her career as an artist and decides to obtain training to be an art therapist because of his/her experience as an Artist and Patient or as an Artist who is interested in the healing professions for some reason. Perhaps s/he has found art making to be transformative and healing, whether or not s/he has experienced the therapy process. So this person if need be, takes the psychology courses they may not have taken in college as prerequisites for going to grad school for art therapy…

OK. So now you’re in some art therapy graduate program. You might have gone through some training by attending some sort of Art Therapy Certificate Program to see if art therapy is for you or you just dove right into grad school. While in school, no matter what the philosophy of the school is, and there are many different kinds of art therapy programs with many different philosophies, slants, approaches. Where ever you are studying, at some point in some classes, you will be asked to make art. Some might be art directives from the teachers to get across some points on the subject they are teaching. You will probably make art in supervision class, either what’s called “Response Art” responding to your work with your patients at your internship or art work in response to a classmate’s case presentation. In some programs, there is a lot of art making that takes place in your training in the classes themselves. At the program I went to, my favorite class was my first year “Materials” class, in which we learned about all kinds of art materials and their uses with different client populations. The class was a place to do a lot of “experientials” which basically means you learn through experience of using the materials in your own art work in class and at home for class assignments. As a self identified “artist”, I loved the class as it was the class with the most art making in it, and I learned some new techniques and ways of using art materials that I considered useful both in my own personal art work and in the art I made with patients or witnessed patient making.

During graduate school at some point, the phrase “art therapy” artwork or something like it comes up and is understood to opposed to the concept of personal art work or art work that you are in process of making as an artist. I went to grad school many years ago, and a lot has changed since then. At the time, I continued to have my own art studio outside of my home, and I continued to have my open studios and continued to exhibit my work in various settings and to pursue exhibitions to further my career as an artist. I made this same distinction in the sense that most of the time, as far as I remember, I was working on some series of paintings or drawings that were very different from what I made in classes and at my internship. However, I also remember making some things that I thought of as my “regular” art work even though it was made as a class assignment. I also remember being surprised that so many of my classmates did not like making art in our classes. Even in the classes that involved more lectures than actual experientials, I would be drawing in my journal anyway, as I find drawing helps me focus on what the teacher is saying. Even these days, when I attend some sort of Professional event, such as a talk or conference, I usually draw pictures as I’m writing notes in order not to lose focus on what the speaker is saying!

Anyway, at some point in studying art therapy and then beginning to work as an art therapist, I saw there is a kind of division that exists between what people term their art therapy art work and their “actual” art work that they make at home or in a studio in solitude. I did not go to art school, but my first exposure to making drawings and paintings on paper was a very unique class that I have described more in another post, so my first experience of making art was in a room with a lot of people in it, including grad student assistants to the drawing professor as well as the professor. After I graduated college, I had the great fortune of having my first art studio, a very tiny studio but my own. I immediately began paintings that involved having friends sit for me while I painted. These were more than simple portraits, but I think, looking back at my very young beginning artist self, I see that I liked having people in the room while I made my art. Along the way, I eventually developed a taste for solitude and spending time making art alone. However, I see now that I began the process without a need for solitude and that making art among others or with others was very comfortable for me, so making art in classes at graduate school did not seem so different from making art in my studio or at home. I also along the way, probably during grad school, developed a liking for making art while watching TV, even though I always had an art table at home and an art studio seperate from home in which to make art.

As I developped my private practice, I noticed this split between art therapy art and so called more “personal” art, though maybe the art therapy art is more personal as the person is more loose and open while making it. However, I have always had art therapy grad students as patients over the years, as they sometimes want to try out art therapy as a patient, and I very much enjoy working with all kinds of students. With these art therapy grad students, they either had great discomfort making any art in my presence despite what they were doing in classes and would prefer to talk in session and make no art, or they would be quite comfortable making art in session with me, but tended to see the art they made in our sessions as their “art therapy” art, which basically means they would not think of putting any of their “art therapy” art in an art exhibition, while they might have work they were making on their own at home or in a studio that they would consider as art to put in their portfolio or an exhibit. They looked upon the art they made in school and in supervision much the same way.

Probably not everyone makes such a strong distinction in their work. However it is made enough that the topic has caught my interest and brought up questions for me as an artist and art therapist. Is there a difference between the two kinds of art? For me the blurring of the distinction began in my own therapy a number of years ago when I began bringing scribble drawings and other more “unconscious” drawings to my therapist. I noticed that a theme started emerging which I then developed in my “regular” art work. However, I still kept this sketchbook of therapy art work separate from my “regular” art work. At the time I was working with a great therapist who was not an art therapist but who enjoyed free associating with me about the drawings that I would bring in. Many of them I did on the subway on the way to therapy. A while ago with a different therapist I decided to try the same thing, with scribble drawings and bringing them in to therapy. However, this time what happened was quite interesting for me in terms of the complete blurring of the boundaries between these two types of art works that we art therapists tend to make. The sketchbook was started with making traditional scribble drawings, some of which I have exhibited in this blog. I would make a scribble with whatever I had on hand, pencil, pen, sharpie, etc. and then try to find people, heads, animals, fish, or something “representational” inside the scribble. Then I jumped to continuing that process and adding collage from magazines. My first scribble drawing with collage was a kind of bridge between the traditional form of scribble drawing and something new that began to emerge. I think the photos I’ve posted here show some of this transformation process.

Then something new happened. I continued to add collage from magazines, but I started going over the initial scribbles and making them darker and filling them in next to the collages. I think of these as a kind of “meta” scribble drawing, as suddenly the marks of the initial scribble, instead of being deemphasized in service of creating some kind of image with some of the lines, became emphasized on their own as ovals and curved lines which I then began to fill with collage elements. It progressed further to the point where I began seeking two kinds of images in random magazines. The first was patterns that resembled scribbles or marks or other kinds of black and white dotted circular patterned collage pieces that went with the repetitive drawing and filling of the scribble lines with tiny circles. This is what I see as the “abstract” “meta scribble” portion of these new works on paper. The other kinds of images started to develop repetitions, and I noticed I was looking for specific images of actual things, to be very specific: arms and hands disembodied, other body parts, animals, especially elephants, owls and birds, fish, peacock patterns, and also such things as light bulbs, dolls, strangely drawn faces, and I’m not sure what else will join this list. I also brought back a drawing of a face that was used in work I made a few years ago, so that some of these scribble collage works had drawings of this “face” that is probably thought of as a kind of self-portrait. Often I also find figures of females that are put in with everything else and often they seem to be watching the entire image or dreaming it. Words cut out from magazines have also emerged in some of these works.

It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss the ideas of Outsider Art versus Fine Art and other such topics, but I think these works represent the closest I have ever come to merging my “therapy” drawings with drawings I put up in my studio as part of a series of works I am engaged in. In fact earlier today, for the first time, I took a bunch of these Scribble Collages and put them up on my studio wall. In taking them out of the sketchbook and putting them on the wall, I make the leap from the personal to the Personal Art I Want The World To See… The other sign of this transformation was that I went from the small sketchbook to a larger one and challenged myself to do these pieces on much larger paper. This happened in the same time frame that I began to actually work on these drawings in my therapy sessions on the suggestion of my therapist even though my personal therapist is not an art therapist. So this is uncharted territory for me… To be continued…

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People Who Live with Mental Illness

I have talked about several memoirs of mental illness that I’ve found to be absorbing and brave. I just in fact read two by Marya Hornbacher, in reverse order of when they were written: “Madness” about her struggles with severe bipolar disorder and alcoholism, and “Wasted”, her first book about her serious long bouts of “bulimarexia” before she found out about the bipolar illness.
Anyway, I think one of the most challenging topics around mental illness, (besides acceptance that you “have” the diagnosis, which in itself is big and can take many years of illness for someone to finally accept it as a biological illness that needs to be treated with medication), is the day in day out living with your mental illness.
Many People are remarkably resilient and can return to their everyday lives quickly after a bout with psychosis, or an episode if some sort or relapse.

However the constant battle to stay stable and healthy, to keep up all the self-care required to keep illness at bay, that requires a dedication and perseverance of a rare sort. As these memoirs show, it isn’t enough to just be taking your medications as prescribed, although that is a big step forward, but usually, there needs to be some sort of consistent therapy and/or peer support group or group therapy. Along with that, people taking meds need to be aware of mixing them with alcohol and other substances. Part of regular self care involves regular exercise of some kind, engaging in soothing and relaxing activities, and eating healthily. Soothing self talk is key, especially for people hearing mean voices and those who have a running judgmental commentary going on in their brains. Many mindfulness meditation techniques are very useful.
For some, even after severe psychosis and several hospitalizations, life returns to “normal” and taking ones meds becomes like brushing your teeth. These people tend to take good care of themselves and push the mental illness to the side as they go about their day.

For others, it is quite the opposite. For example, for many people with eating disorders “under control”, there is a daily battle with the mind obsessing about body and/or food intake, and it can be frustrating to have mastery over the self destructive behaviors but not over the “sick” thoughts. For these people each day is a battle with their demons.
The same is true for many with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder. Taking morning meds begins the day with the reminder “you have to watch yourself. Be vigilant. This could happen again…”
For these people just having or struggling daily with a mental illness can be exhausting. Self care plans can seem daunting and overwhelming. There is a certain kind of “burn out”, for lack of a better word, that occurs. This person is doing everything s/He is supposed to do. But, “I’m sick of dealing with this. I want it to go away. It’s too painful to try to be stable…” These kinds of thoughts can lead to suicidal ideation. In this case the fantasy of suicide is not directed outwards at wanting to hurt someone else by means of the ultimate form of self destruction, but is really a response to ones situation and being too drained and exhausted by the constant battle of ones own mind. For these people , every day starts with the profound ultimate choice:”Do I still want to live or am I ready to die and thus admit defeat over my illness.” S/hemust recommit to life every morning and choose the hard road of continued extra work, pain and exhaustion. Unfortunayely, once in a while the answer is clearly “no”, and then a well thought out suicide is planned. This is usually not the type of suicide “attempt” cry for help. In this case the person has already shouted and received help and support, but the illness wins over as it is simply too much to bear.

A Calling or A Choice?

I had grand plans last week to do a post on motherhood or on the onset of mental illness and the difficult journey of learning to accept that one has a mental illness, which many of the books I wrote about cover. Both big serious topics. But then at the end of a session with a new patient I got to thinking of the idea of a “calling”, as this patient had asked, when leaving my studio about seeing my art on the walls and did I go to art school or some such question. I briefly explained some of my circuitous road to becoming a visual artist as the patient was leaving.

Anyway some other topics I’ve been thinking about got me thinking about the idea of the identity of an artist. Many artists knew from early on that they “were” artists or “wanted to become an artist”; these people as adults often report that their teachers and art teachers and sometimes also parents saw their talent early on and recognized and encouraged it. These were the people who in grade school and high school were known as something like, “S/he can draw and draws really well…” I’ve met many artists and art therapists who have this kind of history. lThey had the coolest notebooks with great graffiti-like doodles and lettering

However, there are certainly other roads to becoming an artist. Mine was a complicated or maybe actually simple one. But the main question I’m asking in this post is: “Do you decide that you ‘want to become an artist’ or do you figure out that “I am an artist.” These are two very different concepts. For example, most people say they did not decide about their sexuality, whatever it is; they found out about it. It was not a choice. Some others in the minority argue it was a choice. Most transgendered people report that they came to a realization that “I may have the body of a boy or girl but I’m actually not a boy, I am a girl, or I am not actually a girl, I am a boy. No matter what form of body one arrives here in, one does not choose one’s gender, even if the outside body turns out to be the wrong one. And of course there are people who say they are neither a man in a woman’s body nor a woman in a man’s body and believe gender is much less clear than that. That’s a whole other topic. I hope these statements aren’t too controversial. I find them to be an example of basic “identity”; ie. what do you think when you see or hear the question, “Who are you?” versus “What do you want to be?”

As a child, one is subjected to adults constantly asking one, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As a child, I did not like this question. I knew that I was excited to be a grown up for the obvious reason that then nobody could tell me what to do and I could, in my child mind, basically do whatever I wanted, which mostly involved the idea of eating ice cream for dinner. I also had a vague sense about going on business trips alone and staying in hotel rooms, which I thought would be very glamourous. But I had no ambitions to be a business owner or businesswoman. In fact, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my usual answer was, “I don’t want to be a lawyer.” It seemed to be needed as a statement as the only career I saw growing up was my dad’s as a lawyer and I knew that my mom had met my dad at law school. For some reason, I was dead set on the idea that no way would I be a lawyer, even though the only person I knew who went on frequent business trips was my father, who was one. When pressed to say what I did want to be, I always got grumpy and said, “Nothing. There’s nothing I want to do.”

For a brief period maybe in third grade, my friend and I decided that we were going to go to the Ringling Brothers Clown School and become clowns in the circus. We knew this school actually existed and were partly excited to go together there and be clowns together. After this clown idea wore off, I was back to my set answer, “Nothing. I don’t know.” You like to be in plays do you want to be an actor? No, definitely not. And so on with other professions. I went off to college with a vague idea that I might want to study film making and learn to make movies. I had a brief bout in high school of being interested in photography, but of course had no idea I could become a photographer and probably didn’t want to be one anyway. Soon after I arrived at college, I tried to sign up for the beginning film class and as they only took about ten people or less, I was rejected. Gone went my interest in trying out filmmaking. It was too much darn work to get to college and once I was there, I had no intention of fighting my way into any class, as I thought I deserved to be allowed to take it easy and be allowed to take whatever damn class I felt like. I chose my “concentration” (same thing as “major”) pretty much by checking out which ones required you to write a thesis. I knew a thesis was a long paper, and though I was good at writing papers, the length of a paper was directly proportional to my stress and fears about it, and I was not about to write something longer than 25 pages while at college if I could manage it. It turned out I could pick Russian Language and Literature and was not required to write a thesis, so it was a no brainer, as I liked both. Then the questions turned into ” What is your major? Oh, do you want to teach or become a professor, or do you want to work for the UN?” The question seemed weird to me. I had no desire to use my knowledge of Russian language and its poetry and novels to do anything. Four years of college seemed like a long time, and I still thought I could float along, staying interested in the kinds of things that are the least practical career wise and avoid this big decision.

I did not choose to have a crappy beginning of my sophomore year. Suffice it to say, without much thought, I decided to take an Introduction to Drawing class taught by DeCredico, a visiting artist from Rhode Island School of Art and Design. By then, choosing classes not in my “concentration” had a sort of impulsive feel. There were two intro drawing teachers there, and they were opposites. I watched my roommate freshman year suffer through an awful drawing class where she sat for hours trying to draw a bagel to look perfectly like a bagel. What an awful mean teacher she had. He was ruthlessly critical and liked nothing. It seemed like hell. Some friends of mine had taken the other cooky drawing class and reported that it was really fun, I should try it out, more like someone urging you to try a new drug or something than a class. I won’t go on and on about this class, but it was a pivotal event in my life. I walked in with no idea that I could make drawings or other art, not really sure what I was doing there except that I was sick of the typical classes involving words, papers and exams. I entered an alternate universe where we were told to find 10 sticks and put them together and bring them to the next class. In the next class, big paper and dark black ink was passed around and we were instructed to make drawings using our sticks creations as the “brushes”. Wow. I had no idea this was something you could spend a couple of hours doing at an Ivy League University where everything seemed to involve competition and way too much thinking. The class was like an art therapy experience for me. I had no idea what was going on or what I was doing or even why, but I was really enjoying it and something in me seemed to be awakened.

Suffice it to say that I ended that class with encouragement from the teacher and one of the teacher’s helpers, he must have been a grad student, and he actually knew my name. The teacher did not know anyone’s name as the class was big, but he would make a big sweeping gesture and point to a couple of images with a lot of ink or whatever on them and say “Why do I like these?” and point to some others and say the opposite. The ones he didn’t like were often the tightly drawn well drafter drawings that my poor roommate’s teacher would have loved!Often enough one of my images was up there. I never had the feeling before of someone looking at a picture I made and saying that. Probably it happened when I was 4 or 5, but I have no memory of that. The class ended, the summer came, and off I went to take my year off from college, toting a sketchbook everywhere with me and making lots of awful garish drawings in them among other typical “youthful” poems about suffering and loneliness.

Anyway I started my senior year in college thinking, “Am I an artist or a writer?” Or maybe I was thinking, “Which do I want to be, an artist or a writer?” I don’t remember how I formulated the question. The Russian stuff was now on the side as something I had to do to graduate, while I used my precious “electives” on a creative writing class and a painting class. They were both pretty difficult, not as fun as that drawing class, but the painting class changed for me after I figured out how to do my first painting. Go to the studio when nobody is there to compare yourself to and judge theirs as better than yours and work on it then. It was a a still life. I remember having an interesting awakening moment in the big empty studio when I walked around the room and looked at the work of my classmates, and it was as though someone had taken off a pair of glasses I had been wearing where I’d look at one and think, “Oh no. This person is doing such a perfect precise picture. It’s so great. Mine’s a mess, etc.” During this aha moment, I circled the easels and looked at the other paintings and suddenly those glasses were off, and I was thinking, “Oh this is just this person’s idea of this still life. It’s not that great or that bad either. It’s just different from mine. It doesn’t mean mine is bad.” And then the real awakening came when I looked at my painting and thought, “Wow. I like this. It’s really good.” Not a familiar state of mind for me in this unchartered area of image making…

Maybe at that moment knew I was an artist, maybe not. I continued to struggle with a Kafkaesqe short story in writing class and I definutitely liked the plot and ideas but it  seemed like too much work to keep editing it, and rich oil colors beckoned me.

College ended and life went on, but from that point forth I was an artist and did not really question it. I just kept on making a lot of art as much and as often as possible.It helped that I by chance had a tiny studio of my own right after graduation. It was the size of a closet, but it was a dream come true.  The more I went up there and painted, or stayed in the apartment and drew all sorts of things, all sorts of sizes and always carried caried decorated journal scketcook around with me, the more I got involved with the real difficult questions around a creative career of any kind. In this case it was, “What do I want to pant/draw, or is anything telling me to paint something. I stumbled around in the dark going in all sorts of directions, but it was still wonderful. I had been liberated from the complex depressing world of words and could no inhabit a magic land of textures and shapes and colors.

When I think about it now, it seems like I was covered in some kind of layer of some material that needed to be removed and underneath it, the artist had been hiding all along throughout my life, just waiting for me to need it enough to let it out. I continue to need it and I continue to be it. For me there is no choice… What about for you?

Psychological Memoirs Continued

Many of these memoirs have been made into movies. Most notable there are “Girl, Interrupted”, “Prozac Nation”, and “A Beautiful Mind”.

“Girl, Interrupted,” which came out in 1999, was based on writer Susanna Kaysen’s account of her 18-month stay at a mental hospital in the 1960s. I think I saw the movie before reading the book, which is unusual for me. I actually liked the film version and thought that it stayed pretty faithful to the memoir. In the story, Susanna was given the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, but it isn’t very clear that that was the correct diagnosis. The other characters in the memoir give a nice overview of a variety of issues that these girls got hospitalized for, especially the girl with the eating disorder who ultimately commits suicide when she gets out of the hospital obviously too early. Of course there is the great character played by Angelina Jolie who even won an Oscar for her performance. It is also a good period piece that portrays how different hospitals and society’s treatment of mental illness was in the 60’s as opposed to now.

“Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America: A Memoir”, written by Elizabeth Wurtzel about her struggles with depression while she was at Harvard was published in 1994. I do not remember if I have read the book or not, but the movie was ultimately disappointing despite some good acting on the part of Christina Ricci. The movie was released in 2001 and did not receive much critical acclaim, much less any Oscar nominations. I personally much prefer the psychologist and author Lauren Slater’s accounts of her own bouts with depression, which were covered in “Welcome to My Country” and “Prozac Diary” which came out 1998. Slater has always been a controversial figure in the community of psychology and psychiatry. The story of the controversy is well covered in the Wikipedia article about her many books and their reception. The fact that she stopped working as a therapist for the most part in order to focus full-time on her writing helps me deal with her unorthodox methods of discussing her own mental illness and her work with her patients. I get the sense that she is a much better writer than clinician. This is partly due to her strange boundaries. I remember reading an article of hers in Vogue magazine called “Divided Lives” which turns out to have come out in the January 1995 issue. If I remember correctly this is the article of her deciding to try an experiment and become friends with one of her patients who terminated the psychotherapy with her. As far as I remember, this experiment was a disaster, as one would have predicted. Anyhow, her depictions of her bouts with mental illness, including writings on her difficulties with pregnancy and medication issues are very interesting and well written. I think her metaphorical memoir of lying that I mentioned in my last post would actually make a great film. Christina Ricci might do well portraying Slater!

So “A Beautiful Mind”, which came out in 2001, technically does not go with these other films, as the book it is loosely based on is a biography (1998), not a memoir. However the movie’s portrayal of a man’s descent into schizophrenia seems to put it in the category of these other films as a biopic and portrayal of mental illness based on a real story. Many were disappointed in this film’s avoidance of John Forbes Nash’s homosexuality, and I would agree that it was a shame that the film steered clear of this part of his life. However, the film was very moving, and the acting by Russell Crowe was really stunningly great, from my point of view. While the film did not follow Nash’s real life closely enough, as a story of a young man’s descent into madness and semi recovery from schizophrenia, the film was excellent. The portrayal of the loss he felt when he on his own decided to reject his own hallucinations of, most notably, a young friend from college and a little girl, which seemed to be parts of himself that he could not internalize and integrate, this portrayal of the loss he felt while at the same time deciding to “ignore” them for his own health and sanity was a great commentary on an interesting issue about all kinds of psychosis. The truth is, people often do become attached to aspects of their psychosis, and then it can be a wrenching life or death decision to choose sanity and lose one’s very close companions, who have seemed very real to the person. There is a loneliness that follows, and even sometimes, people report feeling empty and flat without their invisible unreal companions, while at the same time they recognize that they have returned to sanity from a very dangerous inner world. This is a complicated and difficult crossroad which was very well and quite movingly portrayed towards the end of the film. In fact I found it to be the most important moment in the film. I found it a little hard to believe that genius Nash stopped taking any form of medication and used mind over crazy mind, so to speak, in order to remain sane. This seems highly unusual. I have worked with many people suffering from schizophrenia and schizoaffective illness as well as bipolar disorder, and these very biological illnesses almost without exception require quite a bit of medication to keep a person stable.it would be as though a person with diabetes decides to use her mind to control it instead of insulin…

In my last post on memoirs of mental illness, I failed to mention Styron’s brilliant memoir, “Darkness Visible”, a story of alcoholism and suicidal depression that interestingly comes late in the author’s life while he is in his 60’s, quite a contrast to the majority of these types of accounts which begin with the author having some kind of episode in their late teens or early twenties. Styron is a great writer of fiction, and this very personal non-fictional account of his struggles is really a great book for anyone to read and get a good glimpse into the world of depression.

“My Depression: A Picture Book”, written and illustrated by poet, children’s story writer and playwright Elizabeth Swados is also brilliant, as well as being quite funny, despite the serious topic and the writer’s very serious family history; both her mother and brother suffered from schizophrenia and both of them committed suicide. So this is a brave story of survival and a courageous battle with terrible depression. The illustrations are whimsical and delightful. She does decide to take medication and her treatment of this topic is great. I have worked with many adults suffering from depression, some of whom have taken medication for it as well as many who stopped their Ned’s or never decided to take them. This is a very controversial topic- medication for depression, as opposed to medication for the other mental illnesses mentioned above. Good topic for next week’s post…