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A Renovated Mind

By Laura Gross

Below is a personal essay that was displayed as part of my art exhibition at Cre8ery Gallery. My journey to better mental health and better art practice are on going, I share this as a reminder to look at where you've been and where you are and where you're going.

What is mental illness to me? It’s the part of myself I have had to learn to circumvent and exploit to live my life. It’s the challenge my brain provides me on top of going about my day. Given the opportunity, it drags me down into dark places and it is always supporting itself with my already limited energy. It is my constant companion, and after a lifetime of fighting against it, I have spent the last few years working very hard to understand how to coexist with it.

Art has also been a constant companion in my life. These two pieces of myself are so deeply intertwined that, for a long time, I wasn’t sure it was possible to change my mind without damaging the artist inside. The fear that comes with the possibility of feeling better is unexpected, indescribable, and not talked about nearly enough.

As it would turn out, it was entirely possible for me to work on my relationship with my thoughts and come out the other side still fundamentally me. Even better, the act of creating art is one of my best tools against that creeping darkness. As I learned how to embrace self-care and mindfulness - not just creating art, but allowing myself to enjoy the time and process and to be present while creating art - I found myself to be more patient. More deliberate. My understanding of what was possible began to shift.

I have a long list of diagnoses that I have been able to apply to my brain and body over these years, but I give Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder the most credit for impacting my life. OCD, for me, in the briefest explanation, displays itself as a series of unusual or unnecessary behaviors that are acted out to prevent or minimize the anxiety caused by disordered and catastrophic thinking. It’s exhausting. ADHD, on the other hand, is a disorder of focus. Too much or too little, and never just the right amount. Auto pilot, mind wandering, and forgetfulness are common. Combine the two and I found myself in a constant state of panic and unease.

Medication takes the edge off, but Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is what I credit with my transformation from functioning to thriving. CBT is a long, challenging road. It left me the most raw I have ever been in my life. It forced me to examine, analyze, and reframe every thought and feeling I had. But the reward is ongoing.

The transformation was slow, but I (with the help of some amazing medical professionals, a kick ass group therapy group, and my incredible loved ones) taught myself skills and habits that the majority of people take for granted. Post-it notes were everywhere, recipe cards with emergency coping plans were in my purse. I was surrounded by constant reminders of how to process my thoughts and how to get back to being ok.

And all the while there was art.

The first big change to my artistic self that I can step back and identify is a change in perception about my abilities. It was the transition from believing I could only take on simple projects that could be completed in one or two sittings to taking on projects that take weeks or months to complete. This faulty belief, that I was incapable of accomplishing anything too challenging, prevented me from trying more complex and complicated ideas. But then I did. And I found this deeply validating success. The piece, “Wings of Stained Glass” was that first project.

Then, I learned how to pace myself. To better listen to my body. To persevere when it felt like I was failing. To lean into my idiosyncrasies and exploit them for my benefit. I even learned to love my art without caveats and let others decide on their own if they love it too, and to not take it personally when they don’t. I learned to love myself this way too. That one was harder.

Today, I am still tired. My body aches. I still experience anxiety every single day. But... I now have coping skills that allow me to get through my self-inflicted terror with less impact to my life. I have come to terms with the fact that I require a midday nap to have the energy for a productive evening. I have learned to accept help and that I have limits. I have learned to stop fighting the dark times, because they will pass. The evidence shows they always pass. All of this has given me so much more time and energy to spend on the things I love and with the people I love.

Feelings are not facts - this mantra is very important when your feelings are constantly betraying you. Yet, I confidently feel that I have come a long way because these are the facts: the works of art at Cre8ery right now serve as a beautiful, visible metric of how far I have come and are a preview of what I’m yet to accomplish.

So here before you is the aftereffect of tearing it all down and building it back up - the result, so far, of the still ongoing renovation of my mind.

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