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How I Use Performance Art to Explore Healing From Schizoaffective Disorder

It was a day that lives on in my mind. I remember that I was at a computer doing data entry for a private collection that had been donated to the university’s special collections and archives. I remember when I found my supervisor to tell him I needed to get help, his face looked lost somewhere between pity and helplessness. I remember leaving the library building on campus to find that there was a stale smell to the air. The weather sat heavy, a little grey and a little chilled. When I realized I needed help, I was already at a breaking point, and the scales tipped beyond their balance well before I knew it.

I grew up drawing. I also grew up with a deep love of poetry. I don’t know exactly what fostered this in me, but I do know that my parents did what they could to encourage it. I remember visiting the natural history museum on the university campus my father was attending. Drawing the stuffed polar bear, standing upright on its hind legs with its paws out front, was one of my favorites. A snarl on its lips, but lacking the energy to actually leap off of its pedestal. The danger always a safe remove away. It was these little trips that eventually germinated as a desire to be an artist.

I remember the day I was told I had bipolar depression. I remember what it was like to start taking medications I wouldn’t have been able to afford if the doctor didn’t have samples. I remember when the doctor told me I had responded well enough that I could try not taking the medication anymore. I remember the horrible crash that followed and the long drive across the state to find better care. I also remember the day that my diagnosis changed to schizoaffective disorder, and the ensuing regiments of pharmaceutical cocktails. Each little change in the diagnosis, or the medication, or the side effects seemed like a death sentence. The world around me already fell apart, little crumbs of reality scattered along the carpets and roads, waiting for me to reassemble something that might look like a life.

None of the great leaders of our time heard voices, or at least the ones that did always seemed accompanied by acts of self-violence. I loved my ears enough to know I wasn’t going to be a van Gogh, and although suicide had crossed my mind I knew I didn’t have the capacity to carry anything out like Sylvia Plath. It seemed I was doomed to either a violent end or a life beyond repair. There weren’t any role models with a serious mental illness. Elyn Saks hadn’t given her TED Talk yet. YouTube and most social media had not come into existence. There were few networks to really feel connected to any type of normalcy, let alone feel like a real part of a community. I sequestered myself, knowing that the sentence I had been handed would live itself through a new type of caged normalcy.

I remember the day that my PSR worker suggested that we go see some galleries in town. She knew that I had a love for art, though my interest and ability had wained around the time of my diagnosis. I remember she suggested a few galleries that I was not aware of, but then again I had not been leaving the house to do anything, my awareness was pale and quite frail. I want to say that deep down I knew she was really just trying to get me out of the house, but I also know that deep down I was aware I needed it. We walked into the first gallery. It was a modest size, but the artworks were uniquely displayed and quite interesting. I couldn’t get myself to move beyond my own paranoia to talk to anyone, but my PSR worker proudly introduced me to one of the owners of the gallery. We talked about many things and left with a kind gesture to visit again and share my artwork with them. There was always a beautiful generosity in the people of my life who offered small kindnesses when I needed them.

There were several trips to psychiatric facilities. There were horrifying side effects, like tardive dyskinesia, where I found myself uncontrollably chewing my own tongue. I found myself locked in isolation rooms, cowering with fear on the corner of my bed, or losing the ability to vocalize. These facilities were notoriously lacking; like most care centers, they lacked the funding to offer much more than a bed for a week. After that week, I was out again and on my own. Not totally on my own, as I found myself fortunate enough to have family and a strong support network which did allow me some freedoms.

I remember, as a child, I once drew an entire zoo. It was replete with exotic animals like giraffes, elephants, lions, monkeys and birds of many colors. Each was carefully considered and drawn with crayons, detailing as much as I knew of them. The bars were placed last, over top. Just below each cage, I drew a little button which was the part I was most thrilled about bringing to life. When I brought my family into the room to see this zoo I had to instruct them that the button would play the sound of each animal as if they were present with a real animal. With, what I can only assume was anticipation, my parents pushed each button, and sure enough from behind my young cupped hands, each animal roared to life. I felt elated to have recreated this with so much precision and with, clearly, very lifelike impersonations.

I remember some of my breakdowns. I remember the fear and the shame. I remember leaving many of my college classes early, or skipping them outright because I could not handle what I perceived the other students to be saying about me. I remember the way my hands would tremble, the way my mind would hit a rut, like a vinyl record which just kept skipping. I knew all too well that breakdowns would lead me back to the facilities which I so desperately wanted to avoid and which always made me realize that my life would be a series of recurring letdowns. Those facilities reminded me that what I thought was progress was really just a cul-de-sac. It was in the midst of a breakdown that my social worker informed me of a type of recovery house. A step before a psychiatric facility. I was willing to try anything and if this was a chance to step somewhere new, I wanted it. It was a small house. There couldn’t have been more than six bedrooms and a common living area. The nurses’ station at the front of the house was always occupied, but otherwise, we were free to use the space, make our own meals, lounge as we wished, or as in my case, isolate in our room and read.

I did not remember one of the health workers when I sat down to check in about my time at the home. She asked me some questions and filled out her forms. She asked if I remembered her from outside of the house. I did not and when she recalled the time that I walked into her gallery I began to recognize her, but I also began to recognize how much of my own experiences were clouded by the stupor of medications and the fog of illness. As luck would have it, she worked at this home and coowned the gallery space I had visited. It is always unique to find someone who believes in something about you before you can see it. These may be the people who ultimately saved my life from my own perception of my diagnosis.

It really didn’t take much to convince me to begin making artwork about my illness. I had such a difficult time explaining to others what it meant to live inside this caged world. I knew, ultimately, that there were not words that could adequately express the depth of delusion, or the piercing pain of vague whispers and paranoid expressions. The experiences were too abstract for language to have developed a concrete explanation. The closest language had come to a true expression was the DSM and its cold codified explanations seemed too robotic to be personal. So, I began to explore what I could find in my own language. I began to explore the necessity of my own trauma and its relation to a world beyond the pale layer of skin which did little to protect me.

I remember what it felt like when I realized my own importance. My PSR worker had always tried to teach me about being assertive, but to her chagrin, I always seemed too passive. However, when I made my own language, my own symbol system which represented the boundless interiority I felt, I found a unique validation. A validation of my own making. A validation which taught me that I not only had a voice, but that my voice had meaning in a world which too often doesn’t seem to be listening.

As an adult, I have built my life around the discoveries that my diagnosis has offered me. I found vitality in my own persistent thoughts and voices. I began to explore their depth and in turn my own rich identity. I built an art practice in this exploration and find that each new work describes the complexity of all my past and all of my future.

For so long, I thought I was the stuffed polar bear in the natural history museum. I was to be perched on a pedestal, out of reach of anyone, and with nowhere to run. I thought I was the polar bear with some semblance of life, but really lacking any of the reality to move myself off of the plinth I was relegated to. People would come and go, look at me or study me. Perhaps a child would sit on the floor before my feet and draw my outline. For so long I was like the crayon zoo with the false bars and the exaggerated cries. I was subject to the stigmas which society had convinced me to be true, and which I drew over my identity with clumsy crayons.

I created a performance art piece which is titled “what learned about healing.” It was designed to be the type of group therapy I always wished I had received. I never did like group therapy. I never felt like I got a lot out of those sessions. I often felt like I left with a bag I didn’t know I needed to carry. Yet, I always felt a need to sit with a community, in solidarity. “What I learned about healing” is set up with a circle of chairs. Anyone is invited to join the circle and sit as long as they desire. The only rule is that they are not allowed to speak, they are asked to remain silent and to consider what healing is in their life. I am occupying one chair, and to my side there is a small table with broken ceramic pieces. I am choosing pieces carefully and gluing them together. Like a complex puzzle, I sit and try to find how each piece’s edge fits together with others. Eventually, somewhere around three to four hours later, I have finished gluing the ceramic pitcher back into shape.

black and white photo of artist assembling a broken pitcher or jug

It is remarkable when looking at a broken pitcher how much we can see of ourselves. There is no possible way for me to get the pitcher back to its original state, and so I am tasked with the idea of putting it back into a shape. Something which may resemble the original state, but which contains its own power. Its own function. The new pitcher will not hold water, at least not for long. Yet, the new pitcher has fluidly moved from functionality into beauty. It is not an object which offers any utility, but it endures beyond that to become a poetic notion of belonging.

Much like the pitcher, I find the crumbs of my life have been put together in a way that tells me I will never be what I was before my diagnosis. In turn, that allows me to become something more. My power lies beyond utility, and arises from the human tie which reminds each of us that we are all broken ceramics. We do not need to be what we were before. We do not need to seek a normalcy that existed once upon a time.

I remember what it felt like when I realized my own importance. I imbue my artwork with that feeling each day and invite others to find their own validation as well. I still draw with clumsy crayons some times. I still do performance work which may sound like desperate animals. But, in each unfolding act of creativity, I find my voice growing more assertive and more confident. I belong. It was the small kindnesses, the efforts of strength on my behalf, and their vision of potential which led me to rediscover my worth. Now, in an effort to join my voice with others who have stood up to say “we belong,” I seek to be the leader I wish I had known when I needed it most. A leader with a diagnosis, with strength, with conviction, with bad days, with emotions, and with potential. It isn’t every day you are told that is possible.