I’m an illustrator! How my life took a dramatic turn (once again)

I feel like it has been ages since I last posted. I should say that it was not because of something bad happening, but it was because of something normal. More than just normal, but good. I’ve been very busy.

I have some good news- and it is especially good because it is about my career and where it is headed. I mentioned before that I was struggling quite a bit to find out what I was going to do for the rest of my life, and I know now. Not fully, but well enough to feel pretty secure. And it’s a cliche, but it had been under my nose all along.

It was this one week, you see, when everything changed. When everything clicked. When it felt like it was a sign from the universe, or God or what have you. It was a validating hug that came from all directions.

First, one of my classmates from the art class I was taking reached out to me to ask if I was interested in some illustration work. She knew a friend of a friend who needed illustrators. My illustration so far had been only for my own pleasure, or what someone might describe as “just a hobby, nothing more.” It had been more than that; it was my therapy- it was where I found peace. I constantly sketched, painted, inked- mostly animals, especially my cat. But a year had passed and I found my skills good enough to draw professionally! The guy wanted animal illustrations (in my own style!)-I was stoked because I could not call myself a commercial artist or illustrator until this day, technically. He liked my portfolio on instagram, and we got to work. I was so proud and happy at the thought that I could maybe make money while doing something I love. I took it as a sign.

The same week, I got another commission. It was for several pet portraits. This time, it was similar- I was at church, and I showed my instagram (which is basically my portfolio) filled with ink drawings and watercolor paintings of animals, and she wanted some of my work for her bedroom! I was so excited to have not one, but two projects come up when I least expected it. I usually don’t believe in this stuff, but this was the universe giving me a thumbs up to what I have been doing with my time, and perhaps a sign that I was heading in the right direction.

My therapist was not surprised when these boons came my way. She had the “I told you so” look on her face. She said that she told me before that I was a good artist, and she knew something like this would happen. She said that she saw a lot of clients who struggle with their creativity and artistic abilities because society isn’t very accepting of us creatives. Instead the message is, “get a stable high paying job, start a family and retire early” and not “do what you do is best suited for you.” I don’t think my math degree and my subsequent job in finance was a waste of time. But I am rather glad that I found out early enough that I had something better waiting for me.

The next step for me would be to keep taking classes, get better at my craft, and above all, create more places online in order to reach out to people to sell my art.

My attempt at a normal life

When the inevitable is asked, as part of an introduction, I tell them that I’m “taking a career break before rushing into anything.” Which is a glossy version, and not at all a lie, but certainly not the whole truth. I get it: what is a normal looking woman in her mid-twenties doing in an art class made up of mostly retired middle aged/senior men and women on a weekend when she should be having mimosas with her other friends from work? I’m sure they wonder. But I don’t give them a clue- not even when the lady at the easel next to me talks to another lady about her real world job concerning psychiatric medication research- because what follows is the belief that psych drugs make people violent, said by the another lady, and then comes rushing in the Dylan Roof theories, and so on and so forth. I’m a coward, so I don’t let my intimate personal experience with mental illness be known as a point for counter argument, as it was only my second class, and I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as the mental ill girl, because for some people, that’s all they see once they know. And I certainly did not want the second lady (who strongly believed that all mentally ill people are inclined to shoot a lot of random people)  to think that I was going to shoot the whole class one of these days. (By the way, I’m getting pretty tired of ignorant people grouping together violent people and mentally ill people together, which are very independent characteristics.) Instead, I’m pigeonholed into something more mundane- math major, ex-financial analyst who is taking a career break and who now is back at art to pass the time until she feels like getting a job again, like a normal person.

I feel slightly embarrassed that I have to lie/leave out about a very essential part of my life at the moment, but at the same time, frustrated that even if I wanted to reveal it, it might do some damage to my character (when I have done nothing wrong.) I also feel embarrassed that I still don’t have the balls to stand up for myself. But I so desperately want to be back to normal, that desire is getting in the way of advocacy- For the 4 hours I’m there in the class, I want to feel like a normal person again, whether if I need to be incognito for it or not. So I keep pretending, But who isn’t pretending? We don’t go blabbering about all our troubles and tribulations to the strangers we meet, and they’re not entitled to that kind of information, anyway. Maybe I’m just so used to being transparent that hiding a piece of me from the world is difficult. That is one thing I don’t like about getting older- it’s the secrets. And as time passes the secrets snowball, every time we avoid talking about it. We cover it up with something else, patch it up with another lie there.

I sometimes liken my situation to another group. I imagine how the gay community did it, when they first came out to their fundamentalist parents, to a mostly religious society- that must have taken immense courage, and I respect the LGBT community for taking that big step. They’re getting normalized to society now, after that hard work. The movement didn’t start overnight of course, and not by one person. So sometimes I think that maybe as an individual, I risked taking that first step to speak out, come out, and educate, I wouldn’t be seen as this would-be-murderer, but as rather as another normal 20-something year old, who happens to have the misfortune of catching bipolar disorder along her journey.

 

 

Escape

Think for a second- how many of the things you do in a day are considered “an escape”? An escape from annoying or dark thoughts, avoidance from bad habits you’re trying to cut back? An escape from a life situation? How much of your life are you spending to escape from these unpleasant things?

I asked these questions myself, and shockingly, I spent most of my time in this way. Escaping from the unwanted thoughts by doing something that was distracting enough for the time being. When one distracting activity was done, however, I was back to square one. Back to the suffering.

If one acknowledges this, and is fine with it, there is no reason to read further. But this fact bothers me so. The fact that I’m living my life in spite of something. That I’m running not to run, but to run away. I don’t like that my purpose is to avoid, and not to live. Action, and not reaction.

But then I wonder, are there truly things that one does for the sake of doing them? Or is everything thing we do minus the essentials, at least a little bit, a distraction from our lives? How much distraction is healthy, and how much is too much? Can we truly be present with so many distractions? Is writing a blog post an escape for me right now as I wait in the car? Maybe.

Importance of the Physical in Mental Health Recovery

It’s called the mind-body connection, and much used in holistic Eastern medicine. We hear how patients with physical ailments become depressed from immobility and the lifestyle changes that specific illness brings. Cancer, for example, comes to mind- a lot of those diagnosed with it become depressed, researches show. Mental illnesses work in a similar fashion- when the mind is not well, the body cannot function at its fullest.

Such has been the case for me as well, since even before the beginning of my official bipolar diagnosis. I was an avid runner, crossfitter, and was just all around, very athletic back in the day. I was a walk-on student athlete for a while in college, and trained professionally during that time. I could lift a pretty impressive amount in weights and run quite fast. So needless to say, I had high standards for fitness and know what I need to do in terms of training to achieve it. So falling from that level of expectation for my body due to lack of energy and motivation from bipolar was absolutely devastating for me pride and for my body. I atrophied in every way imaginable, muscle mass, stamina… you name it. I felt like I aged a few decades in a few months post-hospitalization. So this is what getting old overnight feels like, I thought.

The endless depressive episodes were bad enough, but my disintegrating body was another hit I had to take. As someone who ran half marathons for fun, being able to only walk 20 minutes a day due to floundering energy level from the illness and the medication side effects was disheartening to say the least. For a while I told myself that it was pathetic since I compared my current self at the point to the past self, and how I when HAM back in the day.

“Lower your expectations,” says Dr. Low from Recovery International. And lower it I did. It was only 20 minutes a day at first, then 30. I was able to push 30 to 35 one day, and after months of doing the same thing (walking instead of taking the bus or the train,) I got to an hour, then and hour and half. I made myself do it when I hated it the most. That in itself took 3-4 months to achieve. Why so slow, you ask? Before, I could have increased by running miles by 2-3 miles a week. But it wasn’t just the energy level of course that hindered me from working out. It was also the mental aspect- the anxiety of being outside from my PTSD (or the anxiety of being at the gym, attacks can happen anywhere), the negative self talk kicking in at full force, and the depression, telling me that what I was doing wasn’t quite worth it since it was only a few minutes, and that it wasn’t going to make a difference. I felt the difference that regular work outs make to the mind- I felt lighter, and the negative thoughts swirling in my head quieted. Anxiety was reduced. I was realizing the benefits of regular exercise at last.

I also realized this: recovering your physical state from a mental illness is so much harder than increasing your mileage or shaving of a few minutes off your time for your marathon training. It’s a steep learning curve, and for every amount of effort you put in, you only get a meager amount out. But no one else is there to do the work. No medicine can get your body back in shape. I think the most difficult thing, by far in my recovery in general hasn’t been the trial and error of the drugs, and the side effects that followed, fighting the suicidal thoughts, riding out the dissociation, sitting with the anxiety, the stigma, losing my past identity and who I used to be (and these things were also extremely difficult to endure), but it was  rather coming out from the physical paralysis the illness brought. The loss of some of my free will over my body.

I’m not at all “fully recovered,” as you may have see in my previous posts. I’m not at the point where I am stable, and I know which meds I will be taking continuously for the next few months or year. I am still on my way. I am definitely more at peace with what I can do and what I can’t. I won’t be able to join the neighborhood running club off the bat. But I did walk for 2 hours today, and that’s more than just one, which is progress for me. And that means so much more, and so much more work than qualifying for the Boston Marathon, in my mind.

 

My last relationship and bipolar disorder

I don’t talk about my last relationship much, because there was so much uncomfortable guilt I felt when I couldn’t be functional with my depressive episodes that comes with having bipolar in a relationship- this would be a major reason why I eventually left.

The guilt came from the fact (loosely defined, thought would be more accurate) that it was my fault that I was sick. That I was broken. I did things in my life that got me here, I thought. And that he didn’t sign up to be with a broken, broken thing that I was, and it was all on me. It took a lot of therapy to rid of the guilt, and the self blaming thinking pattern out of my system. Because after all, you don’t choose to have trauma. And yet, some of it remains to this day and still is one of the major things that I’m working on. That some things (most things,) aren’t my fault just because they happened to me- my illness, my separated parents, and my pain.

I always firmly believed that without my breakdown, and the subsequent hospitalizations, and the diagnosis, we would have made it through the storm. If both he and I could be cloned, and my clone didn’t have my bipolar gene, so to speak, the cloned couple would have made it. Because that couple, sans bipolar, were so happy together. They had so many similarities that made them a perfect team. They also had enough differences that made them interesting to each other. Ignorance wasn’t bliss in this case. Looking at the situation more objectively, in third person: she had a traumatic childhood that she had wiped from her memory. She didn’t know why there were strange thoughts in her head (that were separate from her own thoughts) were always criticizing and attacking her. She always felt unsafe, except when he was with her. This changed after the breakdown- she always felt unsafe. He had a relatively happy childhood with several siblings in a loving home- he had a healthy view of marriage and partnership, unlike her. He was in a word, wholesome in those aspects plus more. For this she felt undeserving of such a good thing.

So what happened? Besides being unhinged and unstable, I started to feel unsafe with him emotionally. It was his first time seeing someone depressed and suicidal up close, he didn’t really have the experience or the tools to be helpful. He just didn’t, and couldn’t comprehend- not that that was even possible by someone without the disease. You have to understand, a depressed person is fragile, and any harsh word, even if not intended, could shatter their trust in a single blow. And fragile people don’t take chances- they are often full of fear. Their choice is not fight but flight. So I reacted out of this fear. After a quarrel, one that was becoming more frequent because of the recent change in my mood and my drastically different life style as a depressed mental patient than him, or  our mutual friends (unemployed, seemingly lackadaisical), I said I had enough and a short good bye.

Shy of one year since we parted ways, I am realizing that maybe, just maybe, he did truly care for me. Past tense. There is no way to know what is going on now because we fell out of touch, and I moved away to another city where my family lived. This isn’t something I had considered before when I was unstable and broken, because it was unthinkable- but thinking back to all the things that were said during those heated conversations, I can now see the possibility that perhaps he didn’t mean me harm, he just wanted me to get better. Some of it could have been phrased a bit more delicately, but he didn’t know how to handle someone in that situation. I also didn’t know how to hold on during such a situation, when I wasn’t his equal in a relationship. I didn’t know how to be the sick one. I didn’t know how to trust someone to stay, as I had been betrayed so many times, and disappointed by so many that came before him, when I was at my lowest.

What “could have been,” is something we all think a few times after days, weeks, or years have gone by. We reanalyze with new data and new information about ourselves in the present state in the old situation. But that situation couldn’t have turned out any differently with the old me, and the old him. It takes two to tango, right? So I’m letting him go, a little bit every day, and opening myself to embrace what will come next with my less broken self.


Here is a poetry version of what I just wrote, if you prefer terseness.