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How Art Changed My Life With Chronic Pain and Mental Illness

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Dealing with mental illness, chronic illness, and chronic pain can be emotionally taxing. There are many methods to choose for emotional outlet, but the one I have found most helpful is art. I have always been a crafty person ever since I was little! But I was never really into “art.” Drawing, painting, sculpting were things I would do on occasion, but I really enjoyed the crafty life. Making bracelets from yarn, painting keepsake boxes, making origami, making animals of clay, and doll clothes from felt were some favorites! I was always working on some sort of crafty project.

In the beginning of my illness I slept a lot of the time, about 20 hours of the 24 hours a day. Once my time sleeping began to regulate I was dealing with some significant anxiety and depression. I attended therapy, but it wasn’t enough to help me cope. While working on homework for my art class, which was a painting class, I decided that while painting I could kind of escape my thoughts. Shortly after this realization, I ended up in the hospital. After four days in the hospital I was discharged with a variety of coping skills to help me manage my condition, as it was made worse by stress and anxiety, but none of those skills were good matches for what I needed. As a gamble, I went home and grabbed a sketchbook and started pouring my soul into it. I was writing pages and pages, scribbling random lines on the pages, jotting down my racing thoughts, and simply getting all of the “gunk” out of my brain onto these pages. It was an amazing feeling and a moment that I will never forget because it has majorly changed my creative practice!

From that point I started to put more energy and effort into my art homework. I also continued to work in my sketchbook and turned it into what I called “my external brain.” It was a book that I could do anything with. I painted with watercolors, acrylic paint, made collages, glued pictures and quotes into it, and just let my mind flow through my hands and onto the paper. I filled up the 200 page book in less than two months, and by the end of the book I was beginning to feel major changes in my mental status. I had finally found a perfect coping method for managing my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, and depression.

It has been seven years since I filled the first page of “my external brain,” and now my art has expanded in ways I never would have imagined! I have filled over 70 notebooks and sketchbooks with my ramblings, painting, poetry, and whatever else I feel like adding to the pages. I have created a watercolor series to reflect my depression at its various stages, and I have turned my feelings into multimedia collages! I am able to look back and see the peaks and valleys of my mental illness journey and I will forever be grateful for taking a gamble on filling that first sketchbook because my life will never be the same.

Art has changed my life. It has walked with me through some of the darkest times of my life, and has helped me cope with mindsets that I thought I’d be stuck in forever. I highly recommend picking up a sketchbook or journal and just start doodling, writing, gluing, or whatever you please! Create for yourself. Create knowing that you don’t have to share the results with anyone but yourself. It doesn’t have to be “perfect.” To be completely honest, I prefer my messy pieces more because I feel they represent my life more accurately.

Hopefully this article inspires you to try something new, or to pick up an old habit! Creating art has worked wonders for me, and I hope it will for you too!

Originally published: January 20, 2023
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