Artist, interrupted

Work in Progress

Emily Bi/Staff

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Life is really funny: I watched “Girl, Interrupted” for the first time just a few weeks before I landed myself in a psychiatric ward a month and a half ago.

At the time, I was more or less exclusively focused on Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. The relatively contrived plot that has little to say when it comes to normalizing discussions of mental illness wasn’t at the forefront of my mind, and I definitely wasn’t contemplating whether its depiction of a psych ward was true to life or not. Times have changed, I suppose, because the ward of Susanna Kaysen’s narrative is alien, a little sterile, rough around the edges — mine just looked like a fancy dormitory. It was an expensive, but desperately needed, getaway.

I started seeing a therapist when I was 9 years old. I’m still seeing one now. It took a painfully long time to find the correct diagnosis, but now that I know, it feels like I should have always known. On top of “Girl, Interrupted,” I’ve seen “Silver Linings Playbook” at least twice, and it’s one of my dad’s favorite films — shouldn’t having witnessed these mental health narratives make me an expert on mental health and bipolar disorder?

If only it were that easy. It isn’t, especially when part of bipolar disorder is not recognizing you have it.

But my diagnosis doesn’t get to take the stage right now. What matters is how much I’ve genuinely changed for the better after being set free into the real world again. The time I spent in a psych ward was the most healing experience of my life. How do you go about everyday motions and pretend you haven’t just been in the hospital, especially when it changed me enough that I feel like I’m waking up to myself and am no longer the shell of sadness that used to pretend she was a real person? I want to stop pretending, and I want to wax lyrical to everyone around me, telling them that things can and do change.

So long as you, of course, are willing to change as well.

I guess I was willing to change when I arrived at the psych ward. Not, of course, before a healthy amount of freaking out over unexpectedly being ripped away from my abundant academic and extracurricular responsibilities. But still, I was willing to pause and change.

Once I had accepted entry to the psych ward, there was nothing to do but look for something to do. To my happy surprise, art therapy was offered every day. Clad in fashionable scrubs and only wearing socks, I walked into the art studio — a surprisingly good one at that. It was my first day — I still felt like I was being scrutinized by the regulars, and my racing thoughts were full of anxious ruminations. Still, I managed to settle down enough to do a watercolor diffusion project.

If you’ve never done watercolor diffusion, you should. Sure, it’s a thinly veiled way of getting patients to be OK with not being in control of everything that happens in life, but it was fun. It was incredibly fun.

I used pipettes to drop water-diffused paint every which way over a soaked piece of paper; it was mesmerizing to watch the paint move around and spiral, defying my expectations each time. I wrote the word “alive” on my project, deciding it would be a reminder of why I was there.

And so it was in a Santa Clara psychiatric ward that I, the archetypal bipolar artist who textbooks talk about, rediscovered my ability to create art after months of living life in shades of gray.

My mission was clear: to find myself again in the haze of mental illness. I journaled every day, I read a few books, but most of all, I created. In art therapy and out of it, I was doing some form of art at all times. Not as a frantic, obsessed, manic madwoman — as I usually am when I get in that “artistic” mood — but as a calm, collected person who was willing to put down projects for necessary things such as food and sleep.

One afternoon I had an “inspiration” — not like Kaysen’s suicidal “inspiration” in “Girl Interrupted,” but a poetic one. I wanted to make poetry out of words cut from my old therapy handouts, the ones I received when doctors thought I had panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxious depression. We weren’t allowed to have sharp objects, so I spent hours carefully ripping the words apart with folds and careful tugs.

After months of being too physically agitated to write in the way that used to be my coping mechanism, I was able to write and finish a poem.

That gave me hope again — a hope I’m hoping will stick around.

Alex Jiménez writes the arts & entertainment column on consuming art as an artist. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @alexluceli.