Mental health, addiction, and art

I’m exploring the themes of mental health and addiction a lot more lately. I think it first began when I was in previous recovery groups because of my relationship to other people in my life who were battling addiction. I haven’t participated in such a group in a couple years now, but I was interested in doing something with my life related to that.

I had been accepted to grad school to pursue my masters in social work to become an addiction counselor when I got sick with my worst-ever MS relapse last year. (Literally, I got the acceptance letter to begin that semester while I was still in the hospital; I can still see it on the timeline on my social media.) That relapse required months of physical and occupational therapy to even learn how to use a pencil again, so that dream was put on hold.

I thought it would be on hold indefinitely, but now I’m not so sure. I think I had to go through an additional period of darkness that would allow me to learn more about how to heal myself before I could understand how to help others. The seriousness of my relapse last year took me to a new low point and I had to regain my desire to truly live.

I’m not certain that I’ll still pursue the grad degree because I did apply for disability and I don’t know if I can work full-time. And although I’m not sure I qualify as an empath, I am very prone to taking on others’ problems as my own and not being able to shake them off. I’m not sure I’m strong enough yet to heal someone else.

What I’ve realized over the past few years (and especially in the last one) is about the link between mental illness and addiction – and the fact that they’re often both more prevalent in artists. Nobody becomes an addict if they don’t also suffer from mental illness. The addiction is generally a very crude coping mechanism the individual develops just in order to survive the torture in their heads.

I haven’t ever had an addiction problem, but I’ve definitely had mental illness problems that haven’t been helped by much of anything. I’ve tried all kinds of ways to stay numb to distract myself, though. The arrival of the internet in my life in 1995 was the perfect distraction. But I’ve always had either the gift or the curse of being incredibly self-aware, even in the midst of my attempts to distract myself. I mostly stayed functional but had periods in which I was hanging on to life by broken fingernails, not sure I would make it.

Somehow, I did. I never really lost the belief that I could get better; I just didn’t know how to do it. Little did I know that more pain would finally teach me. Facing each painful experience was peeling back another layer of unhealthy dysfunctions I had used as a shield.

I went through a very difficult period in the past few years, culminating with the devastating MS relapse last year in which I lost a lot of function. Yet, for as difficult as those times were, I can see now that they had an important purpose. I came through them with a new, greater degree of wisdom. I changed a lot and can tell that I continue to do so. I have developed the ability to have greater control over my emotional reactions: bad things are no longer the end of the world and often they don’t even ruin my day anymore.

I’m getting a better sense of my responsibility to help others. I can now look at what they really need, instead of imposing my own way of “helping” on them. I’m learning how to listen.

In short, I had to go through a lot of pain and deal with it before I could get to a point of being more mentally healthy. (Still a relative measure, for sure, but I’m leaps and bounds beyond where I used to be.) And as I’ve done so, I realize that the artistic side of me that has always been there is re-emerging, stronger than before. I write things that I want to every single day, which I haven’t done in years (decades) and that feels like a rebirth in itself. Art and faith are both becoming prominent parts of my life. I finally feel like I’m becoming a more whole person; I’m becoming okay. And now I’d like to help others learn how to be okay, too.

One of my role models for what I’d like to help people achieve is John Frusciante. For people who don’t know him, he was the guitar player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers during several different time periods. He battled heroin addiction successfully and has maintained sobriety through spiritual self-discipline and healthy living. He’s one seriously wise mofo, from everything I’ve read about him.

Whether you’re a fan of the Chili Peppers or not (I appreciate several of their albums, but the last one I really enjoyed was By the Way in 2002), this performance was when I think they were at their peak. If you want to watch it, the music starts at about 2 minutes in. Frusciante also does this cool thing where he switches from electric to acoustic guitar part way through. He’s immensely talented. The song is “Venice Queen” and it’s about death, but beautifully so.

This song is not only the band’s peak in terms of musical style and lyrics (seriously, they’re amazing…one of the commenters on the YouTube link posted them) but it is forever linked to the day I had my third son. The pregnancy with my third son was the hardest experience of my life up until that point. I felt lucky to have survived it because my mental health was so bad. I had to have a scheduled C-section with him, so I had to drop off my older two kids with my mom and drive to the hospital alone, which was 20 miles away. I was so afraid I was going to die in surgery, yet also so depressed that it didn’t seem like it would be so bad if I didn’t make it.

This song was what got me through. I remember listening to it on repeat the whole way there and it took me mentally to a spiritual place, somewhere new that made me feel calm and like I was going to be okay. Certain songs tend to stay in my head and that one did. It carried me through a tough birth and having a baby who was briefly in the NICU and a long period of postpartum depression.

There’s another song that speaks to me as deeply for different reasons, but I don’t think it has any component of addiction among the artists who created it. The lyrics to this song are really moving, about what happens when mental illness goes untreated and how much damage it does to the people around them. The song is “The Alien” by Manchester Orchestra.

Art has helped me immensely with my mental health, whether it’s creating my own or enjoying what others have created (especially music.)

I think that you have to understand the big picture in order to see what causes mental illness and how to fix it. Some people may be more inherently wise than others from the start; others may get there through therapy or training in mental health.

But there’s nothing quite like having hit rock bottom and clawing your way back to health, to the world of the grateful living, to give you a road map to share with others.

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