Thursday, October 9, 2008

Creativity and Mental Illness

Alice Neel

Louise Bourgeois

Sylvia Plath

Jackson Pollack

Vincent Van Gogh

Edvard Munch

Going back to art school in my late 40's was an intense, wonderful, frightening, exhilerating, exhausting, crazy making, life giving, soul satisfying experience. I think that I have been recuperating these past two years since graduating, hibernating at some level, and now I am inching my way out to sniff the air again. My senior thesis project slayed me. I was making 1-3 large portraits daily for several months, plus writing my thesis paper, putting together my book, orchestrating Roll Models, an after school print project with local high school students, in addition to taking my remaining academic classes. I felt like the plate spinner at the circus. And then there was some serious internal strife in the Print Department during my final semester that really pushed all of us over the edge. I knew things were bad when I came into the department one day to find one classmate, who up until this point had been The Rock of Gibraltar, sobbing in her studio. We were all stressed beyond what is sane and reasonable. I crashed at the end of that semester. I was in good recovery from Panic Disorder - I hadn't had a panic attack in years and then all of a sudden they came back with a stunning ferocity. Stress and the hormonal madness of menopause took me down. I was standing talking to one of my professors one spring morning in the final weeks of my senior year when I felt my arms go numb. I excused myself and ran to the ladies room, heart beating furiously. Holy Fuck, I thought, I'm having a stroke. Then I had the Mother of all panic attacks. I ran down the four flights of stairs to the sidewalk on Congress Street and phoned my husband to come get me. I sat waiting on the bench and one of the MECA professors saw my stricken face and asked if I was OK. I told her that I was having a panic attack and she gently put her arm around me. A young man who was a painting major came over and knelt beside me, cigarette pursed between his lips, and silently rubbed my back. Those two angels stayed there with me until my husband arrived. I'll never forget their non judging kindness. The following weeks were rough. The panic attacks were back with a vengeance. A dam had burst. I had to get back into therapy, and I had to take a sedative to get through the last few days of school and my graduation (now I understood why so many students smoked and drank and did drugs...I finally had to get a prescription...)
I got into an anxiety support group. I lost 10 pounds. The end of school felt like the end of a thrilling but addictive relationship. I went through serious withdrawal.
Ha. That's funny. WithDRAWal. With drawing all, I crashed and burned. I am now at the beginning of a new portrait project and I vow here that I will never work at that manic pace again. MECA pushed me to my limits: I was exhausted but still had to dig down deep and find more when I felt completely drained and empty. But I also did this to myself. I felt that I had to prove to myself that I could do it and get all A's. I had one professor say to me, You know, Martha, you don't have to get SUPER A's, plain A's will do...
Insecurity, low self-confidence and difficulty setting healthy boundaries - these all feed into over achieving. These are some of my challenges.


Dean Grey said...

Thanks for the honest, candid post, Martha!


Martha Miller said...

you're welcome, dean.