From Illness to Thriving Creativity: One Woman’s Journey


How does a patient process their illness and move their way to healing and even creativity?


Nancy Alterman

Nancy Alterman

The thing I have to keep reminding myself is that all this is indeed happening to me. Life just seems like such a bother. My thinking must be screwy, though, or no one would be bothering if everyone felt like me.

Nancy, can you really change? I guess I just want it to happen overnight.

I’m scared.

I wrote this passage in 1980 when I was 25 years old. It was during a dark time in my life when I was suffering from a deep bout of depression.

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.

Fast forward 40 or so years, and now I am an artist. It truly took that long for me to find my mental health footing and to become who I was always meant to be—an artist happily involved in the art community. As a child, I never thought creating art was something I would excel at. I had no inkling of ever even trying anything artistic. I did, however, dress up as a painter in third grade.

Nancy Alterman

Nancy Alterman

Perhaps that was a premonition of what would become. I now have incredible joy bringing pen to paper, creating intricate collages, and taking photos. I really enjoy combining all three of my mediums for some of my pieces. When people tell me that my art is “happy art”, I know I am on my right path.Many of my works, unintentionally, reveal my mental health journey.

I grew up the youngest of 4 children in the privileged cocoon of a loving family in Denver. Everything came easy to me; I did well in school and excelled in sports like tennis, skiing, running, biking, and golf. I always joked with my brothers that I received the best athletic genes from our father. He was an All American basketball player, playing professionally for the Denver Nuggets in 1947-1948.

Nancy Alterman

Nancy Alterman

As I entered junior high school, my sense of self was very much compromised.I no longer felt comfortable socializing with my friends, yet I struggled to do just that. Senior high school was also very challenging.My looks and my athletic abilities seemed to help me to fit in. I was on the tennis team, which was part of my identity. But I felt that I couldn’t do any of my own work. I relied on my siblings and friends to get me through my school assignments. When it came time to graduate in 1973, I had no idea what I wanted to do, let alone pick an area of study in college. All along I felt I had no imagination, no original thoughts, and no smarts. I decided to go to University of Colorado, which was the closest university to my home. I couldn’t imagine being away from the support of my family.

College was, once again, a very hard time for me. I felt like I was in a fog, like a shade was pulled down in front of me, which made it very difficult to participate in activities. I chose recreation as my major because it seemed like the easiest path to take. Just like in high school, I needed help from others to get me through my assignments, projects, and papers. I was not taking any medication for relief from my negative sense of self because I had not shared with anyone just how much I was struggling. I also had bulimia, which made me feel even more terrible about myself.

Nancy Alterman

Nancy Alterman

I went abroad to Austria for a semester during my junior year, 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 for who and how I was. I was very quiet, and I am sure not that much fun to be with.

Austria turned out to be extremely difficult for me, and my mom had to come to Europe to bring me home. I was immediately put in the hospital; I could no longer fake that all was well. Just like my sister, I was diagnosed wit bipolar disorder, and, my parents were on the road to help me find relief from my struggles, just like they did for my sister. I spent 2 weeks in the hospital. One thing that still stands out to me is that only 1 of my mom’s friends came to visit me. The stigma of mental illness was, at that time, very prevalent, much more so than today. To this day it brings tears to my eyes when I think about how much that must have meant to my mother. In the hospital for depression, I was not interested in seeing anyone, but knowing that someone was there for my mother was so kind.

Nancy Alterman

Nancy Alterman

I was put on a medication that helped enough to get me back to my college senior year, and I was able to graduate. But then I was overwhelmed with the fear of what I was supposed to do next. In my mind, I thought my parents were always going to be there to support me, to care for me, and to provide for me. I didn’t equate going to college with preparing me for adulthood. I kept wondering, “What is wrong with me?” All of my friends were going off to law school, medical school, and graduate school, and I hadn’t prepared myself for anything.

I moved up to Winter Park, Colorado, where my father owned a condo, allowing me to live rent free. Yes, my parents were taking care of me. I got a minimum wage job in a ski shop; even, as a college graduate, I felt that I was not qualified to do the job. When I was skiing, all was well. When I had to talk to customers, that veil of being uncomfortable was ever present. After 2 years in Winter Park, I dipped into another very deep depression. My parents, once again, had to bring me home to Denver.

Nancy Alterman

Nancy Alterman

This pattern of doing well (enough) for a period of time only to dip way down continued for many years. Honestly, I don’t remember what cocktail of medications were given to me to try to break this cycle. In 1982, my brother Phil recommended that I go with him to a Vipassana meditation retreat to see if it might help. It was a 10-day seminar that involved meditating for 12 hours a day with no talking and no eye contact. For me, the idea of no talking was perfect. All those years I felt like I never had anything to say, so not having to force conversation seemed ideal. After 10 days, I was flying high. I believe this was the first time I experienced the mania of my illness. I remember going cold turkey on my medication, which may have been part of the reason I experienced mania. I thought meditation was the answer to not only my illness, but to every ailment that anyone might have. I was trying to convince everyone I knew, or had just met, to go to a 10-day meditation course. Of course, what goes up, must come down. The high I felt from the meditation seminar only lasted so long and, once again, I was in another dark place.

Fast forward many years, my depression became paired with many 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 3E’s: Expensive, Exhausting, and Embarrassing.

I attended a business conference and, having had no business experience of any kind, found myself thinking I was going to be the vice president of new network television station.

Yes, I had visions of grander, I was invincible, and I was unstoppable. My brothers were very worried that I was in mania. I was spending crazy amounts of money and associating with very unusual suspects. I was able to convince my psychiatrist that I was fine, which, of course, I wasn’t.

Once again, what goes up, must come down. I dropped into an extreme depression that lasted well over a year. Medication after medication did not help. At that point—and many points throughout the years—I really didn’t want to be here, but I knew I couldn’t join my sister. I knew the devastation it caused our family, and I couldn’t do that to them. My thinking was that “I want to die” not that “I want to take my life.” Those thoughts were forever present throughout the years. My doctor finally told my brother, who was overseeing my care, that he felt that the only thing left to try was electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). My brother ultimately made the decision to go ahead with the treatment. I signed the consent form, not even knowing what I was signing, because I just didn’t care.

I received my ECT treatments at Centennial Peaks Hospital in Louisville, Colorado, administered by the late Frank Guerra, MD.

I was in the hospital for 1 week to receive my first 3 treatments.

I went home with the support of my incredible cousins who stayed with me and took me back and forth every other day to receive additional treatments. After 15 treatments the light went on. I literally woke up one morning, looked around my room, and thought to myself, “This is what life is supposed to feel like? This is what it feels like to be happy?” All of the depressive thoughts of “ I want to die, what is wrong with me, I have nothing to say” were gone. It was replaced with a quiet stillness of mind. It was a place unlike I had ever been before, and it has remained to this day. I received an additional 8 more treatments spread out over the year. I am so appreciative of my friends and family who took me to my appointments 40 minutes away—at 6:00am! I feel that although my deep depression was gone, the extra treatments solidified my recovery. I haven’t had the need ECT for 13 years. I do take an antidepressant and mood stabilizer every day, and I eat right, get lots of exercise, and have amazing family support.

To say that ECT was effective and successful would be an understatement.

ECT changed my life and brought me back to the happy go lucky little girl that was clouded by bipolar illness at the age of 14.

An added bonus is that ECT opened up an artistic flow and a sense of intelligence that 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.

At the ripe old age of 55 I felt like my life was just beginning!

Creating my art brings me so much joy! I donate many pieces to a variety of nonprofits for their silent auctions. I have had 2 one-woman shows and have had my work accepted to various juried shows. At this point I am not sure where my love of creating will lead me.

Nancy Alterman

Nancy Alterman

I am also very involved in the mental health community in Colorado. I have shared my story at several events and volunteer for many organizations.

For the past 13 years I have been on a journey that I never thought was possible. I now lead a life of purpose. I’m 68 and know that I still have a full life ahead of me. Every day is truly a gift. I believe that my days of depression are behind me and my times of mania are in the past. In times of slight depression, when my thoughts of “I want to die” creep in, I am confident that they will pass, which they do. I have my tools to help me. I put on music, take my dog for a walk, play tennis with my boyfriend, or I call my support network of friends and family. And times when I feel like I might be revving up into mania, I remind myself to slow down and to just breathe. And I hope that I am making a difference in the lives of others who may be suffering from depression to know that recovery is possible.

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.

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