Anna Banana gave me a good prompt in the comments: “Do you think doing art facilitated/facilitates your transformation? Can you say more about how you got from there to here?” This requires a much longer answer than I can do justice to in the comments, so here it is.
I guess that to explain this adequately, I need to give a touch more history. I haven’t had a panic disorder for only eight years, I’ve probably had anxiety/depression since the fifth grade, and in retrospect my first symptoms of panic disorder began in my mid-twenties. I was diagnosed with anxiety at that time but I had no clue about what the panic attacks were until they became disabling in my early forties. I just thought it was part of my general craziness.
I’m very happy to say that my last panic attack, was, I think, a couple of years ago. I was already going through a very tough time when Squirt got sick and died, and that was pretty much the worst thing that could have happened. I’ve just now stopped reeling from it, but I still dreamed about protecting him last night.
Did art facilitate my healing? This answer might surprise you. I don’t think that it did. I’d like to think that, but if I’m truthful then I’d have to say that it was the other way around. I think that my healing facilitated my art. And now that I feel healthy most of the time, I think that my art energizes and nurtures my soul, and fuels my growth.
I’ve been an artist all my life, but I’ve struggled with it. I was always very uptight or I was crocked. Once I got my “self-medicating” under control, I had to let go of a lot of other things too. One was my best friend. One was my self-loathing. I decided that I had to look within and become my own best friend. I had a strong visual affirmation that I got from a stop-smoking hypnosis group – imagine seeing yourself as a three-year-old child. Are you going to let your three-year-old play in the traffic on the street? I decided to love my three-year-old and guide her to safety. I was very proud of this strategy.
But what I didn’t realize that I was doing at the time was that I was slowly corraling my wounded 3-year-old into a corner. Agoraphobia is a behavioral disorder that often develops as a response to panic attacks. You begin avoiding places and situations where you’ve had an attack, and then places where you might have an attack, until your life pretty much revolves around avoiding living outside your own self-constructed ever-shrinking bubble.
And I was doing art during all of this. It was very processed, tight art. I beaded obsessively. I wove, a very process-driven art, and during my worst time, I wove traditional patterns. I did make some pottery as I began to force my way out of my hole. And I really thought of it as a hole. I remember saying that I felt like as soon as I peeped over the edge of my hole something kicked me back to the bottom. Leaving the bottom of my hole was one of the hardest things that I ever did, but I read about agoraphobia, and I knew that it was up to me to do it. Drugs do not cure agoraphobia.
So I enrolled in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies at UNCG. My thinking was that if I couldn’t drive to class, it was possible to finish the degree online. The second class took place at a location where I had to drive 45 minutes through heavy traffic. I forced myself to do it. The class also was extremely soul-searching, taught by a behavioral child psychologist and a lay minister for the location, called Healing Ground. I was often a real basket case in this class. I told the professor upfront that if I slipped out, that I was probably having a panic attack and that I would stay outside until I was over it and either come back or go home.
As hard as that class was, I believe that it was the real beginning of my healing. Ironically, I took my last class from the same professor in the same location, and I was, again, a real mess, but it was due to outside influences (Squirt) more than inside.
I drove to the classes held in several far-flung locations, made friends with like-minded people, and along the way became involved with Slow Food. I gained my confidence back and was able to travel to Italy with one of my classes. I learned to prioritize my life and pursue what was meaningful to me.
Once I learned to love myself as well as protecting myself, I was able to free my mind to play. And that’s what facilitated my new direction in art.
I won’t discount the good that the right anti-depressant has done for me. I had to try several medications over the last eight years, and for some of it I refused to take any. Anxiety and panic disorder is hereditary in my family. It has physical causes, as does clinical depression. Anti-depressants are literal lifesavers for some people. I am one of those people. I tried natural remedies for years that didn’t work.
I’m open about my mental illness, and in a way, I am grateful for it. It is part of what has shaped my life and made me who I am. I hope that anyone who is struggling like I did will try to find an understanding doctor and stick with trying different treatments until one works. It is a rough road but the destination is well worth the effort.