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MANAGING ANXIETY THROUGH THE POWER OF ART THERAPY

Updated: Jul 25, 2023




I am about to get real y'all. If you don’t like that then you don’t have to read this post. Simple as that. As a follower, admirer, friend, or potential client for my new art therapy coaching program (coming soon!), I want to share this story with you — my story. I hope from reading this, pieces resonate with you but most of all I hope it motivates you to take action with your mental health.

Thinking I could manage and live with anxiety and depression without a creative outlet was to put it bluntly, dumb. My mid-to-late twenties (the beginning of “adulting”) was typical of a tech millennial still struggling with high functioning anxiety and bouts of severe depression in the work-space, where any sign of a mental disorder was taboo and frankly, not spoken of at all.

What was not typical? I was also recovering from severe the trauma I experienced in my late teenage years to my early twenties. When everyone was turning 18 and celebrating their last year of summer post-high school graduation, I was watching my mother change before my eyes, and sadly it was not for the better.

Sudden episodes and hospitalizations for a mother of two in her late forties all eventually led to a stable treatment of prescribed medication and therapy, to complete what is now know to my mother and our family as bipolar and anxiety disorder. I had heard of these disorders before, all in the casual passing of conversations with friends, but now those labels and names would forever be part of my new reality.

My mother was changed. I was changed. My family was changed. We were living with mental illness. Our loved one was living now with mental illness.

Her life as a mother and wife was forever changed. Her personality was forever changed. I do blame a lot of the medical professionals who were so keen on increasing my mother’s dosage of medicine for permanently fucking her brain up even more, but I digress from that (which could be a whole other medium article).

Having been first in my family to the scene to watch her early symptoms, which were more indicative of schizophrenia episodes in the beginning due to her insomnia, I knew my life would never be the same. I knew I would never be the same. Already having an extremely close bond and similar nature, my mother’s story became my story.

Seeing someone who you love go through such mental upheaval shakes you to your core. Their trauma becomes your trauma. Mental illness would always be a part of my life and part of my family. It changed the dynamics. It changed my relationship with my mother. Daughter took care of the mother instead of the other way around. From those initial episodes, I shared her journey as I went with her to her appointments, the psychiatric wards, the ER, the therapy sessions, and advocated for her when she couldn’t be an advocate for herself. Much earlier than I had ever anticipated, and way earlier than what society dictates is the time in our lives in which we take care of our parents, I was called upon, maybe by the universe or God, to care for my mother.

But trauma does eventually catch up with us — we can’t run from it forever. That’s why they call it PTSD, “Post-trauma stress disorder.” Yay…another label and another name I was about to get familiar with. Freshman year of college, it was this trauma that caught up with me. And because I didn’t have the tools, the knowledge on how to express what I had endured and seen with my mother, I sought what I thought was the only option available to me. I attempted suicide and I am so glad I failed. To this day, I am proud of that failure. That failure led to a medical diagnosis of PTSD and severe depression. It led to my first ever experience of therapy. I of course was put on antidepressants and had regular visits with my own psychologist and psychiatrist this time.

But here’s the ticker, professional medical help and medication was just a launch point more than anything, it was not the endgame and certainly wasn’t I saw as a sustainable way to keep the demons at bay.

My love for creating art and expressing my heart through art was how I truly found a way to come alive again. I no longer escaped into my academic work (at the time I purposely overloaded myself with 20 units, a death sentence for some freshman college students alone). My first summer home since starting college was a chaotic one, to say the least. My mother and I both had anxiety about it since we were each other’s triggers and reflections of those painful memories that altered our lives forever. I had left in the quake of things running off to the start my fall semester at college and so returning to a live living under the same roof with my parents hard enough, so imagine what came with that history. A lot of fighting. A lot pretending everyone was okay. We weren’t, we were still just learning how to survive and function as a family.

But my resolve to fight mental illness and the damage it had wrecked was to be challenged a second time in my life. Little did I know, I had a long road ahead. Fast-forward to graduating college(another significant milestone) I once again faced those same fears. Dread, anxiety, and memories of trauma still lingered just in new forms. Once again, I was living at home with my parents, sharing the same roof.

Unfortunately, because the circumstances were seemingly more permanent (no plans for me to go to graduate school yet), I was there longer. And it seemed the longer I stayed, more was triggered between my mother and I. Son we were both reliving the nightmare that first occurred when I turned 18. Now 23, I was witnessing her episodes and panic all over again, like a version 2.0 but worse, for both of us. Only this time, I was the dedicated punching bag for everyone.

I bore it so they wouldn’t have to. I took on the responsibility of taking care of my mother during this time because I had done it before, at the age of 18. I knew I could, so I did. I also did it so my father wouldn’t break. And even though he ended up a bit in the end anyway, I wanted to bear some of it so he wouldn’t have to bear it all.

While I watched these illnesses eat away at my mother, alter her identity and personality all over again, forever, it did so for me a bit too. While my friends were getting their foot in the door at corporate jobs or starting their careers at tech giants like Google and LinkedIn, I was living at home working 3 jobs to stay sane. I had to fulfill some sense of purpose while still trying to function after trips to the psyche ward or hospitalizations until 3 am in the morning with my mother.

Suicide was not an option this time, nor was it one I even wanted to think about. I’ll never forget the morning post her real major hospitalization. My dad and I were so grateful she stabilized at 3 am and that we could get some sleep at 5 am.

We got home, exhausted and I saw my father cry for the first time. The sadness on his face, realizing his wife would never be the same again, broke my heart more than losing my mother.

To this day I get choked up recalling that memory. But I try to see the beauty in that traumatic past and I see how much my father love his wife, the deep care they had for one another and how their marriage has stood strong even through all that crazy crap. That same morning I then went to interview for my first business development internship, which I got hired for, running on 2 hours of sleep, followed by a full work day at my retail job and 2 hrs of tutoring my students in the SAT. Now that schedule right there is the real crazy. Seeing the behavioral pattern of overworking there? I sure did, which is why that year, I firmly decided I wasn’t go down the victimized path

For the first time in my life, I was willing to take action and initiative to bring mental wellness into my core being and mindset. I wanted stability and sustainability in this area of health. So I entered into my own therapy, saw a psychologist regularly and even worked on some anger management issues (and trust me I had a lot of anger built up). I had to learn how to heal myself before I could heal a relationship with my mother.

Now with my MBA and a successful corporate job in the tech space as a marketing manager, I choose to be my own mental health advocate every day.

Creating a mental wellness lifestyle means surrendering and fighting all at the same time. Everyday I work to be resilient to my own demons but compassionate towards myself. I forgive myself when I fail and let go of that failure. I get back up and start anew. I push hard every damn day to stay strong, sane, happy, healthy, and emotionally agile.

How do I do this?

Well, I did go back to 1-on-1 therapy. Hell, I even took group therapy for those with high-functioning anxiety disorder and depression. I had my seasons of going back on antidepressants but I opened myself up to other ways I could heal. Luckily for me, my artistic side has always been at the rescue, but this time I fully embraced it and began to get creative again. While group therapy, professional medical help, and antidepressants kicked my butt into wanting to live and continue getting up in the morning, my hobbies and art are what got me back to more than just functioning.

I sought creative outlets in particular, to express those emotions I couldn’t and bring the rare moments of peace to my mind. Painting and making jewelry truly guided my recovery all the way through and empowered me to build up long-term resilience to the paralyzing thoughts plaguing my heart and mind. Other shifts like an environmental change and moving has helped me combat triggers for anxiety and depression. I am the type of person who needed a more grounded and artistic city, with easy access to nature right in my backyard without needing to drive an hour everywhere. And so I moved to Austin.

Beautiful, artistic and weird Austin fit my heart, so this change was the right step for me. I still actively manage my anxiety and keep my depression at bay in my new environment, I keep my thoughts in check and emotions in balance through art.

The creative process, self-expressive outlets, and self-care also keep me in the light away, out of the dark. In addition to using the creative arts as therapeutic tools and outlets for expression, there are other self-care and natural tools I have in my tool belt. I pull these tools out to help me find the beauty in all my past trauma and keep me on this journey of mental wellness and resilience.

And so I want to leave you with 5 core beliefs that have shaped my own opinion on mental illness and how to create a life of mental wellness and happiness:

  1. Self-judgement is the biggest limitation to personal growth, opportunity, and living life, and none of us come with labels so you get to choose how you show up in life. Letting go of labels allows us to accept and open ourselves to arrive at the place of true self-love.

  2. You have the power to manage your mental illnesses/disorders, they do not manage you. You have the power to choose the words that narrate your story. Words have great power; do not let yourself fall victim to your own words or words of others.

  3. One of the most accessible forms of therapy is art therapy. It is equally transformational and leads you to the same journey of truth about yourself as other forms of therapy. Art therapy should be used in junction with medical care, not in replacement of professional medical care (prescriptions, medicine, psychological therapy or group therapy), unless supported and recommended by your doctor/licensed physician.

  4. Art and the creative arts gives us the gift of space and freedom of creation/expression of the self. It’s a true therapeutic tool for helping us become more comfortable in our own skin. Working your heart through art allows us to be our authentic selves and this type of expressive vulnerability is unapologetic, resilient to anything or one trying to undo us, even ourselves.

  5. Never stop being both the student and the teacher. Keep working, keep learning, keep teaching yourself so you can better explore yourself and shape your own mental/emotional story. Only then can you step into your voice with confidence, cultivate authorship of your own life, and unleash your potential to awaken, find beauty in the trauma, and come alive.

If you are interested in following my journey and want to connect with a fellow mental health warrior who knows the daily struggle, feel free to follow me on Instagram or Facebook @madelyneoliver. Let’s change the stigma around mental illness together and provide others with ways to empower themselves!

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