For one patient, the road to wellness was also a creative journey.
SPECIAL REPORT: CREATIVITY & PSYCHIATRY
As a child, I never thought creating art was something I would excel at. I had no inkling of ever even trying it. I did, however, dress up as a painter in third grade. Perhaps that was a premonition of what would become. But first, I had a dark journey to endure.
Bipolar disorder runs in my family. We lost our sister, Judy, to her illness in 1978, when she was 27 years old and I was 23. My parents tried to find solutions to my sister’s struggles since she was 16 years old. So I tried to hide my mental discomfort when I started feeling different at age 14; I didn’t want to further burden my parents.
My upbringing was very positive—even privileged. I grew up in Denver, Colorado, and I was the youngest of 4 children in the cocoon of a loving family. Everything came easy to me; I did well in school and excelled in sports like tennis, skiing, running, biking, and golf.
Things started to change when I was in junior high. My sense of self was compromised and I struggled in school. By college, I felt like I was in a fog, like a shade was pulled down in front of me. I also struggled with bulimia nervosa, which made me feel even worse about myself.
In my junior year of college, I spent a semester abroad in Austria, not because I wanted to but because many of my friends were going abroad and I couldn’t imagine trying to find new friends who would accept me. Unfortunately, school abroad turned out to be extremely difficult, and my mom had to come to Europe to bring me home. I was immediately put in the hospital, and I could no longer fake that all was well. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, just like my sister, and I spent 2 weeks in the hospital.
After college, I embarked on a pattern of doing well (enough) only to dip way down. Soon, my depression was paired with episodes of mania.
In 2010, at the age of 54, I found myself in a 6-month period of extreme mania. I summarize my time as the 3 Es: expensive, exhausting, and embarrassing. I had visions of grandeur. I was invincible and unstoppable. I was spending crazy amounts of money and associating with very unusual suspects. Then I dropped into an extreme depression that lasted for more than a year. Medication after medication was not helping, and after some time, my doctor suggested electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
After 15 treatments, the light went on. I literally woke up one morning and thought to myself, “Is this what life is supposed to feel like? Is this what it feels like to be happy?” The depressive thoughts were gone and there was a quiet stillness of mind. I was in a place unlike I had ever been before. Fortunately, that has remained to this day. I had a total of 22 treatments spread out over months, but have not needed any additional treatments since then. I take an antidepressant and mood stabilizer daily. I also eat right, exercise, and continue to enjoy family support.
Not only did ECT change my life and bring me back to the happy-go-lucky little girl that was clouded by bipolar illness at the age of 14, but it also opened up an artistic flow and a sense of intelligence I never knew I had. I went from feeling like I had nothing to say and no ambition to feeling like I can accomplish most anything I set my mind to.
Art is now a very big part of my life. It brings me incredible joy to bring pen to paper, to create intricate collages, and to take photos. I really enjoy combining all 3 of my mediums for some pieces. When people tell me that my work is “happy art,” I know I am on the right path. Many of my pieces speak my mental health journey. I donate pieces to a variety of nonprofits for silent auctions, as I love giving back to the community. I have also had 2 one-woman shows and have had my work accepted to juried shows. At this point, I am not sure where my love of creating will lead me, but I know that every day is a gift.
Read more about Ms Alterman’s story here.
Ms Alterman is an artist who is very involved in nonprofits that focus on the mental health community, as well as various causes, including animal welfare.