15 Self-Portraits That Show the Stages of My Mental Illness
I paint self-portraits when I am battling my mental illness. Some are realistic, like on my good days. Most of the portraits depict aspects of my illness. I recently went through my portraits and found pictures of the stages of my mental illness. So here is my version of bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), dissociation and psychotic episodes.
I have painted many faces like this one — all lines and abstract shapes, some in color, some black and white. I paint these faces when I feel only emotion and am unable to speak. I feel broken and hurt. Sometimes it’s not safe to speak or show my self. I paint these faces to show the pain I feel inside.
I don’t often paint while depressed. I feel weak and have so little energy. Creativity doesn’t flow. But in this painting, I am rising from a long battle with depression and anxiety. My mental illness is behind me and in front of me. But I still stand and look ahead to the future.
This is another painting created as I was coming out of depression. I felt lost. Everything was the same shade. I wanted to feel something. I used sand in the paint to give it a gritty texture. The paint felt real and powerful as I laid it on the canvas with thick strokes. I was lost in the background, but I was still there. I kept my voice.
My anxiety was thick within me. I was angry. I wanted to carve into the canvas, to destroy it in order to express the overwhelming anxiety and frustration I felt. I painted in red. I was angry with how the painting ended, but it felt real and complete somehow, so I left it and moved on to another canvas.
When I am manic I have a million ideas at the same time and my mind is spinning frantically as the emotions chase after. I created this collage in a frantic, feverish state of mind, dancing around my apartment and flipping between anger and euphoria. Finally, after eight hours, it was finished and I collapsed with exhaustion.
This painting followed the other. I became even more frenzied. I painted thickly on the canvas, mixing the paint with gritty sand, not patient enough to blend colors. The colors weren’t right and I kept getting angrier, but I couldn’t stop. I painted a dark face and then covered it with parts of comic books. The strong intensity of the comic heroines felt right. They felt powerful and intense, like my manic self. I kept switching between loving and hating the collage, wanting to destroy it and then frame it. I kept pacing around the room. Finally I decided it was done. It had been hours of art-making with no breaks for food or rest. I was exhausted and finally rested, trying to get something to eat.
I feel something self-destructive inside of me. I feel forces inside me that want to destroy me. When I look at them too closely I get frightened. I painted this while feeling intense anger and anxiety. I didn’t like looking at this face. So I quickly painted over it.
The face I wear
I painted this blank, safe face on top of the last face, to hide the inner turmoil I felt. I can make my face blank and be peaceful and no one will know my inner struggles. This face is safe, but she feels empty since she is hiding so much inside.
My two selves
This depicts my inner and outer self. My outer self on the right, is polite and refined. She is nice and knows what to do to get along in life. My inner self has tumult and chaos, the raging storms of bipolar disorder, the emotions and anxiety, all of the swirling thoughts that fill my head. Yet the inner self feels very alive and interesting. The outer self is kind of boring.
Sometimes I hear voices. Some are good and some bad. This painting/collage shows me distressed by all the voices I hear, looking to the sky for some peace.
Sometimes things trigger memories and I become a former self. Suddenly I am 14 again or 20 or eight. I see myself in the small box of the memory. Like the self depicted here. She doesn’t look much like me but that’s OK.
Sometimes when I am under a lot of stress, I disappear into the sky. I lose myself somewhere. Several times I have woken up in a city with no memory of the drive there. Sometimes I feel as if I leave my body and I am floating in the sky, watching myself below. Sometimes my life doesn’t seem real. It’s freeing but terrifying at the same time. Thankfully I always come back home in the end. This painting shows me dissolving into the sky. But I’m not lost.
When I am under extreme stress, my mind splits into parts. Suddenly I am two selves or three or five. Sometimes I speak from other selves. Under extreme stress, my mind splits and doesn’t work right. I painted this during a time when I felt very split into different selves. I looked at myself in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself. I thought painting a self-portrait would help me come back to myself. But when I drew the face it didn’t look like me. I painted over the face. I recognized myself in the blank face. I was happy to see this blank face, it was me in that moment and I felt like I knew myself again.
I don’t have red hair in real life. Red doesn’t work on me. But to me red is the color of confidence. I painted this after I had finally conquered some mental battles. I saw beauty in myself again and was hopeful. I was starting to like myself again. The colors in the background represent the complications of my life with mental illness. I am strong enough to stand in front of them and have my own voice.
My husband is a photographer and he took this photo of me. When I look at it I remember how loved I am. All the paintings show my brokenness due to my mental illness, but I look at this photo and I see beauty in myself and the love of my husband. I believe everything will work out in the end.
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All photos via contributor.