This is my fifth Stations of the Cross series. My goal for each project is the same: to challenge viewers to a greater understanding of those on the fringes of contemporary society through the narrative of Christ’s execution. In creating a new series each year, I hope to sustain meaningful, theological dialog on human rights.
The 2015 Stations are deeply personal. After years of misdiagnoses, medication side effects worse than the symptoms they were meant to treat, and the patronizing disdain of health care providers, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It has been five-years since my diagnosis, and most days I’m overwhelmed by the sheer force of color in my life. Friends often comment on the bold colors present in my work, even in seemingly gloomy subject material. Because at the age of 25, with the help of talk therapy and mood stabilizers, it was like the color was switched back on. I began to experience the world in a profoundly new way.
I speak from my own experience and truth. My story is mine alone, and it is not the purpose of this series of work to project onto anyone else this story. I have experienced wide ranging degrees of mania and depression, and infinite feelings in between. So have, I imagine, most of you. The needs of Americans struggling to find quality behavioral health care are difficult to meet because our health care system operates from a “one size fits all” mentality. Holistic wellness does not fit into one standardized cookie cutter shape system or treatment.
The artwork in this series begins in an attempt to express some of the experiential quality of mania. As the colors darken, I hope to illuminate the darkness of depression as well as some of the implications for social justice presented by American society’s mistreatment of those with mental illnesses. The narrative shape of the series comes from Kay Redfield Jamison’s magisterial book Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. It’s this book that shepherded me through the first year after my diagnosis. It helped me to understand the central point of this new series of work: people with mental illness experience the world in ways that illuminate great truths about the very nature of the human experience.
The stations illustrate the words of the artists profiled in Jamison’s study of creativity and bipolarity, as well as some mentioned in another of her excellent books, Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide. Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, August Strindberg, A. Alvarez, and Virginia Woolf are just a few of the artists included in this series. Many of their life stories have sad endings; they lived lives on the tightrope between the electric genius of just a little madness and the shattering horror of too much. The legacy left to us by these immortal empaths is their writing. We have their words, their stories of great joy and deep sadness. It’s from these words that we know that the experiences of those with mental illness are deeply human and, in that way, part of all human experience.
As a Christian, the story of Jesus Christ is at the heart of my understanding of what it means to be human, so it makes sense to put his story into conversation with mine, with Virginia Woolf’s and with the one million people who commit suicide every year. The church has a special moral obligation to educate itself on the social realities of people living with mental illness. I say “special obligation” because I believe that, too often, it is the church that most contributes to a society that devalues the lives, experiences, and wisdom of people with mental illness. For me, the most horrifying aspect of my depression is the feeling of separation from Christ that it leaves in its wake. When I feel this way, going to church only makes the feeling of separation that much more painful. I worry that my depression is an offense to God, that my inability to pull myself out of my pity means that God hates me. I open my mouth to sing hymns of praise and the words turn to ash in my mouth.
This isn’t to say that churches should never sing praise hymns, that caring for those of us who live with chronic mental illness means to dwell in the darkness. Rather, we should live out the Scriptural understanding that there is time enough under heaven to tear and to mend.