Since starting my art journey, I’ve been struck with how many of my fellow artists have opened up about their struggles with mental health. Having a supportive community who are willing to open up and share their own trauma has been very helpful in coming to terms with and healing from my own battles with mental health issues.
Making art also works as a sort of therapy for me, and I’ve come a long way in my recovery. In recent months, I’ve decided I would like to pay it forward and share my story, for those of my friends and followers who may be struggling and feeling isolated.
I’ve been diagnosed with chronic recurrent acute anxiety disorder and depression, the latter as a result of the first.
If you are a close friend or family member who interacted with me regularly during the period between 2006-2014 or so, much of the following may come as a surprise to you. Please don’t take this personally. I carefully guarded the worst of my struggles. I felt broken, defective and alone. However, I desperately wanted those around me to perceive me as whole.
I went to U of T and studied civil engineering. In the space of a few months after I started university, I went from confident and curious overachiever to nervous, panicky mess every time I had an exam or midterm. In a challenging engineering program, this was a large portion of the year. I quickly degenerated from there.
Even in my first term, I found myself forgetting to eat or sleep for days at a time during exam periods. I would have manic episodes where I would sit for hours on end in the middle of the night solving problems, only to forget everything I’d studied entirely in the exam room the next day, amnesia brought on by nerves, sleep deprivation and lack of food.
Nausea and Vomiting
My exam anxiety started manifesting as nausea, getting worst right before exams. In 2008, I threw up before an exam for the first time. I walked into the hall where my fellow students were hurriedly running through formulas and problems. I felt a wave of panic and nausea hit me, ran to the washroom, threw up, gargled some water and walked in to write my exam just as everyone else was taking a seat.
Over the next few years, this became so much of a routine that I started packing a toothbrush in my pencil case. It was a good day when I had enough time between vomiting and exam to brush my teeth before walking into the exam room.
The nausea and lack of appetite weren’t limited to right before exams. I would go days forgetting to eat, and if I did eat, I often couldn’t hold it down. I started losing dramatic amounts of weight each term. At my worst, in late December 2010 I weighed in at 103 lbs, a 21% drop from a few months earlier.
I started having panic attacks. At first it was a day or two before exams, then randomly throughout the term, and then in exams themselves. By this point, my anxiety around exams had spread into everything university related. As I couldn’t function properly in exams, I started putting pressure on myself to do perfectly on midterms, then on quizzes, problem sets, etc. I became anxious and panicky about these as well.
By 2010, only a few credits away from graduation, I was barely functioning. Anxiety is not logical. I would randomly have panic attacks (hyperventilating, heart racing, chest constricting,crying and scratching at myself) about increasingly bizarre, minor tasks, such going to campus to turn in a problem set I had already completed.
In order to numb myself, I started spending increasing amounts of time watching braindead reality TV shows in order to distance myself from the panic. Many problem sets weren’t handed in because they were sitting complete on my desk while I watched TV to keep from crying. Many others weren’t completed, for similar reasons.
The long slow road to graduation
I initially started university in the class of 2010, and re-enrolled later that same term to graduate with the class of 2011. However, by 2010, I had failed or withdrawn from enough core classes that I was not allowed to enroll in my final design project. Instead, I was told I would have to take a regular courseload in 2010-2011, followed by my design project in 2011-2012. This rejection sent me into a tailspin.
After a particularly gruesome term in Fall 2010, I took a term off of school, delaying my expected graduation until 2013. Most of my closest friends assumed that I did graduate in 2013. I did not graduate in 2013. Although I did finish my design project, I wasn’t quite free.
I finally received my engineering degree in 2015. I had repeated panic attacks during exams for one of my other classes, so I didn’t complete all of my courses in 2011, or 2012, or 2013. Only after 2 years away was I finally able to successfully sit my final exam. I had trouble talking about my panic attacks without triggering more panic, so I didn’t share these struggles with my friends.
From Anxiety to Depression
The worst of my anxiety was in 2010-2011. I had spent 6 years focused on surviving an engineering degree. In 2012, with all but a couple of classes behind me, I could catch a glimpse of life post-university. As the anxiety subsided, what replaced it was…nothing.
I’d scarcely paused to think about what I really wanted after. Completing my degree felt like a do-or-die hurdle. Once at the finish line, however, I felt uninspired. I had trained for years, fighting tooth and nail for a prestigious engineering degree. However, I found the concept of working as an engineer boring and mildly stressful.
Initially I tried to summon up some enthusiasm for my chosen profession. However, over the course of the next couple years I gradually lost motivation. In 2010 I spent months on the couch watching TV to ward off panic attacks. In 2014 I spent months on the couch half-watching TV because I couldn’t find the motivation to get up and do anything.
There is no magic pill cure for depression or anxiety. Most likely, I will struggle with tendencies towards anxiety and depression for the rest of my life.
I am extremely fortunate in that throughout my life, I’ve had one activity that has an incredible ability to motivate me and calm me down – art. After watching a documentary at age 6, I spent most of my childhood (and teens) telling anyone who would listen that “I’m going to be a biology illustrator”. How that kid ever ended up in civil engineering is a post for another day.
In university, I went months at a time where I didn’t do any drawing. Every so often I would find a chance to draw for a few hours. Each time, the effects were profound. For the next day or two I would feel noticeably more confident and positive. And yet, inevitably life, anxiety and depression would catch up with me. More months would go by where I made no art
In 2014, I attended a friend’s wedding, socializing with my engineering “peers”. They chatted excitedly about their new jobs and interests. I tried desperately hard to sound excited about building science and the projects I had worked on.
Several hours in, I broke down. My husband and I found a quiet spot on the rooftop and I sobbed for an hour about dreading a lifetime as an engineer. Jordan asked me if I could do anything, what would make me happiest. For the first time in nearly a decade I was able to say that what I really wanted was to chase my childhood dream of scientific illustration.
Jordan deserves some kind of award – I was snot-crying while making a decision that would severely reduce our household income. This was after years of depending on his care through panic attacks and vomiting and not getting out of bed for days. And yet, somehow, his reaction was to smile, hold me and tell me we’d find a way to make my dream come true.
Recovery through Art
Things started changing dramatically as soon as I started making art. Dragging myself out of bed became easier with each day I spent on art.
I applied to the SBA’s Diploma course and was accepted. Soon, I felt strong enough to start working part-time. I rented a small desk at a shared studio nearby. I was finally calm and motivated enough to write my very last U of T exam. When the art studio I was renting space from shut down, I was prepared to take over renting and managing the whole space, what is now the KW Artists Co-op.
Since then, I have shown my artwork at solo and juried shows. I’ve sold dozens of original pieces, and become a full-time artist and illustrator. Jordan and I bought and renovated a house. Starting this spring, I will be teaching classes in botanical art techniques at Button Factory Arts and Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery. This past week, I signed my first publishing contract.
Things are going extremely well for me and my art career, and yet the effects of anxiety disorder still linger to a large degree. I haven’t had a full-blown panic attack in almost a year, but I get panicky about large projects.
Soon after I get offered any large opportunity, I get an irrational feeling of dread, convinced that somehow the rug will get pulled out from under me. Each day I spend making art, and each project I successfully deliver rebuilds my confidence a tiny bit, but I still feel like I’m dangerously close to the edge.
Recovery through Therapy
Initially, in recovering from depression/anxiety, I shied away from dealing with my underlying problems, focusing instead on building myself a new life. Thinking about my most unpleasant experiences is difficult, and makes me cry, so I avoided it. Writing this post has been a roller coaster of a month, which has convinced me to finally seek long-term treatment.
Throughout university, I did use of short-term counselling and psychiatry services pretty frequently. The university, and other community resources, offer a lot more mental health services than they advertise, but a lot less than they need. In university, psych services appointments were capped at a relatively small number of visits, so I didn’t have ongoing care with a single doctor.
I am now looking forward to consistent, ongoing treatment. I’ve had some luck with cognitive behavioural therapy in the past, and hope to explore it more.
Recovery through honesty and acceptance
I’ve been making an effort to share my struggles with those around me. I am also making a point to answer honestly when people ask me how I’m doing. Many days, I am positive and upbeat and cheerful. However, sometimes I am an exposed bundle of nerves. I am trying to resist the urge to always say “everything’s fine”. I’m trying to be kind to myself and recognize that I certain kinds of social interaction and tasks are difficult for me.
I’d like you all to know that I am willing to talk, if you have any questions or are struggling yourself. We’ll get through this 🙂