Healing Through Art

At age 14, I first became ill. I heard voices over a course of 9 months. I became extremely disoriented and withdrew into my own world, thinking students and my parents were plotting against me. Taken to hospital, I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. I was in and out of hospital throughout high school. I struggled, but kept trying.

During the following years, despite taking medication, I continued to have symptoms. However, through perseverance, I completed high school, a Fine Arts Diploma at Langara College and a degree in art history at the University of British Columbia. I worked for a number of years and married a supportive husband. Family has given me a home, supported and cared for me over the years. I learned to ask my husband for reality checks to maintain objectivity. He is forgiving and patient. He encourages me to make independent choices and to find my own circle of friends and occupations on my own. A caregiver should support their loved one to make their own decisions, be responsible, find meaningful activities and live as independently as possible.

However, I became very depressed and went through a medication change which caused a major relapse. I was re-hospitalized, and re-diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Now I had a mood disorder as well as schizophrenia. A double whammy! I had to quit my job. I had exhaustion. I couldn’t leave the house for more than an hour. I felt I was back at square one, angry, frustrated and depressed.

So I joined The Art Studios, a rehabilitation program that provides art classes to people in recovery from mental illness or addiction. With encouragement from others, I rekindled my interest in the creative arts. Surrounded by others with similar issues, I realized I wasn’t alone in my struggle.

When I put graphite to paper, tension released from my body. I felt relaxed and enjoyed the camaraderie in the room. I made friends for the first time in a long time. We laughed and encouraged each other. In the studio, I escaped the conflicts and disappointments in my daily living. The Art Studios gave me a foundation for me to grow as an artist in a safe environment.

I started to connect with other artists in the mental health community. I joined a group of artists who met regularly at a café to draw and socialize. We exhibited together at the café, other venues and galleries.

Talking about my art helped me come out of my shell. I felt less stigma and self-doubt. I was happy because I had an identity. I was an artist!

Studies have shown that the arts can aid people in all types of recovery. It can decrease anxiety, stress levels and depression, and increase wellbeing and social inclusion. It can prevent health conditions from developing, recurring or worsening. In my case all that is true.

I poured my energies into my art. Over time, my work changed from psychological portraits to floral paintings reflecting joy and positivity. Now when I paint, I feel a sense of euphoria and freedom. I found healing through art. Art is my passion, leading to changes in my thinking, purpose and life direction. Painting is a way of life, opening my mind to possibilities and sharing my personal vision of optimism and hope.

Also I joined a writers group at The Art Studios. I began to write articles and taught creative writing at The Art Studios for a year. I wrote a memoir titled My Schizophrenic Life: The Road to Recovery from Mental Illness. That book connected me with people around the world. I received messages from the UK, Australia and the USA from people who were inspired by my story.

More recently, I wrote Chop Shtick, a humorous novel about a Chinese schizophrenic artist (based on myself) and her artist friends who receive a commission to build an upcycled sculpture in downtown Vancouver. I also co-wrote a collection of novellas titled, From New York to Vancouver: Stories on the Fly, with New York author, James D. Young.

Writing about mental illness led to public speaking. I was able to give insight into mental illness to high school, college and university students, families and mental health professionals.

The coordinator at The Art Studios nominated me for the Courage to Come Back Award, which I received in 2012. That award is given to people who have overcome severe adversity and given back to the community in British Columbia. I became a Face of Mental Illness in a national campaign. That led to receiving the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.

So through this journey, I became empowered, gained more control over my life and my self-esteem increased. And because of my new sense of hope, I wanted to give back to the community through volunteering and giving talks and painting beautiful art. So you can see how all these things in my life built on each other.

If the arts can keep me well and be an alternative therapy, that’s 100 times better than medication increases and hospitalization. I have not been hospitalized for 21 years and have been on the same medication since 1998.

My suggestion to people with lived experience of mental illness living in the community is to surround yourself with people and activities that affect you positively.

Volunteering for a cause, creating, playing music, singing, exercise, coffee with a friend, etc. – all these things can give you a richer life. Self-affirmations and completing a project or task can give a sense of confidence and satisfaction and a better outlook on life. Be kind to yourself and take care of your physical health.

Years ago, I didn’t know what was in my future. It took a long time to develop insight into my illness and make steps forward to find peace. So stay hopeful, because opportunities are there if you look for them. Be proactive in your recovery and be your own advocate.

For more info, visit Sandra’s website at: www.symackay.com. Her books are available on Amazon and Amazon Kindle.