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How My Mental Illness Launched a Creative Community

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From what I can remember, I’ve always been a “worry wart” — until it became something bigger than me. I remember my first pang of anxiety being about aging. I was only five and I didn’t want to turn six. It probably seemed harmless at the time, but it’s something that has stuck with me for years. I always remember disliking my birthdays. They always came along with this looming sense of dread, even if I was having fun. Then, as I grew older, so did the anxiety. Most notably, I started to worry about global warming and natural disasters, and I still do from time to time. Even at 26-years-old, a nightmare about a storm made me wake up in a panic the next day and I immediately rushed to Target to buy a few supplies to keep me safe. At the time it seemed like the right (and smart) thing to do. There was no question in my mind that it was completely irrational given I live in Southern California and it was definitely a sunny, storm-free weekend. This was a huge learning curve I experienced with my anxiety. Anxiety doesn’t factor in whether it’s being rational or not, because it has one goal in mind: to keep you safe.

Rewind to my teenage years — I didn’t really speak about it that much because I didn’t have the right vocabulary for it. I didn’t know how to explain the things in my head or why I came off as “overly emotional.” It was a mix of things from mild depression, to generally not understanding myself, to various traumatic situations I experienced. It all came to a head after a bad relationship when I officially “split off” from myself, dissociated and became emotionally numb. I don’t remember a lot from that period of time, other than falling into the habit of narrating my own life because everything felt like a movie. I stayed in this detached state of mind until I was 24 when I decided it was time to see a new therapist. Before that, I had only seen a therapist for about a year when I was 18 after a car accident. I didn’t make much progress with her after she tried convincing me to go on unreasonably expensive medication. It didn’t feel right and I had to listen to my gut about that. (Spoiler alert: I was right.)

Fast forward to 2015 when I still wasn’t talking about my mental health. I was at another low and I still didn’t have the vocabulary for anything. I felt angry. I felt powerless. I felt overwhelmed. I felt like there wasn’t any room for my emotions/needs/wants, whether it be in my own head or my actual everyday life. I stayed quiet to make things easier for people so I wouldn’t be considered “too much,” but that backfired. I found out later that silencing your needs doesn’t make them disappear and it doesn’t simplify anything. By not standing up for myself and by not vocalizing what I needed, this exacerbated the anxiety, the depression and the separation from myself. It all came to a head one day when I got to a level of anger I had never felt before. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, nor did I want any kind of “revenge” to make things right. I wanted to make space for myself, so I did.

I started a project called “How Am I Feeling?” (HAIF). It is named after a journal I started when I wanted to learn how my emotions functioned. I started asking people to share their stories so I could feel more comfortable talking about mine. I knew I couldn’t speak about my struggles on my own and that I needed the support of other people. I didn’t know how to do any of this, but that didn’t stop me. I was fueled with the type of (useful) rage that makes you want to build something out of a deeply felt injustice. I started asking people what they wished others understood about their mental health. Along with their stories, people began submitting their artwork, which portrayed different aspects of their mental illness. It’s been a little over two years since the project has launched and I have received countless “thank you’s” for creating HAIF — all of which I photograph and save because I’m mushy.

Nowadays, I talk about my mental health freely, and sometimes even the really bad parts. I wouldn’t be in this stable position without the help of the people who continue to grow this community with me. I wouldn’t have found the courage to approach my own mental health as if it’s a fact and not something that’s “wrong” with me. If there’s one major thing this experience has taught me, it’s that creating something out of a bad situation can save you. And I hope the project continues to inspire people to do exactly that — to create something out of their pain.

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"‪I explore my mental states and mood swings struggle through art journaling. Journals are the place where I can be free and use art materials to communicate with inner self, the self that is suppressed by daily and external forces. There is an intimacy of the book- its personal aspect and the fact I can always close it and let go. For my feelings and emotional states there is only one relief that I find in getting involved with creativity, flow state and creating art. I know I am alive when I create and when I create that aliveness happens to be clear and manifested." -By @honorata_artlysing __________ Want to be featured on our instagram? Visit our website for more information:

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Lead images via How Am I Feeling Instagram

Artists featured include: , @t.m.s_art , @honorata_artlysing and @andrew_a_rees

Originally published: September 8, 2017
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