The six merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail have nothing on the nurses who “took care” of me when I was interred in the mental hospital.
In three mental hospitals at that. All interred. Horrible nurses. They ranged from yelling in my face to stealing art from me; many of the “best” were apathetic or tried to be chummy while providing poor medical care, with a few gems. But then, aren’t there always gems on murderer’s row? Isn’t there always the innocent?
It’s hard to remember the innocent ones or the doctors who didn’t just pass me off. I learned the drill. Check off the correct boxes each day and get out quickly. The system is stark and scary and you get fed too much sugar and not enough exercise. Some of your fellow interdits are in to dry up; some have what you have and stay busy: don’t know what to do in group sessions, the outside’s just been too much, it’s all a crushing blow. And then there are the ones who are going to the state hospital. And they scare you. They downright scare you.
Pop. Your father’s assaulted you. Six. There’s aspirin waiting at the place you’ve been staying. Squish. You’re admitted and the new psych meds feel like the worst upper ride you’ve ever been on. Uh uh. You did nothing, you really did nothing. Cicero. You’re stuck here and you can’t get out without the right steps, the two-step, the back step, the Oh-God-Why step. Lipschitz. Shit, and now you’re making art.
I’ve made art before. I crash landed in an arts atelier in college, a collective that held a whole floor in a downtown building in Atlanta. It smelled like paint. It sounded like Tosca turning on the record player. It was called the Ballroom. At first, I understood paper. I was a poet and, inspired by another poet, I would not only read my work on stage, but I would frame my work and hang them on the wall. They sold. My friend invited me to exhibit in a miniature works show and I again turned to paper. It also sold.
So, I sold and I went fallow for a few years and I left Atlanta. And the Ballroom closed and it was horrible, but a house opened, a new Ballroom, and all was well again. In New York, I took up embroidery. I went to a free workshop in the park and I stitched up two cherries and I was a natural. I started to make miniature embroidered jewelry and mixed media jewelry and I sold them in a small boutique where I worked. I went on to make fabric and mixed media jewelry, which I sold in the gallery I ran for a time in Bushwick, and eventually on to fabric artwork, which I lit into and exhibited in Philadelphia.
Fabric artwork and mixed media stayed with me through Philadelphia and back to Atlanta, where I kept exhibiting, now for trade. I liked trading with other artists. I liked exhibiting in open call shows. The pressure was less. While I’d been featured in several papers in Philly for my last exhibition there, I hadn’t sold and I’d felt very out of place and I wanted to shrink back from everything. After all of that—the failed show, the relocation, the group shows—I took another break. I’d like to say it was as nice as the first break—a trip to France, years in New York, a ton of good marijuana, video games, fun and laughter—but it wasn’t. It was another failed marriage, an eviction, some transience and homelessness, the street, the shelter system, and the hospital system.
The hospitals had one thing going for them: art supplies and/or art rooms. The shelter in between had nothing; I thought the paper in the bookcase was free, but it was another woman’s and I got in trouble with her and apologized and let it all go, much like the coat I tried to take when I first arrived and didn’t realize the hooks were for people and the free bin was the only free spot for clothing, unless the Chaplin took you to get clothes from the store, which she did. It’s horrible being a newbie in a shelter when you’re staying for a while and there’s no one to guide you, because there’s not anyone at the shelter in Huntsville. Asheville’s shelter was good but not Huntsville’s, though I did make a friend. Still, apologies run true and I was able to navigate quickly. I was soon bumming cigarettes with the best of them and smoking the butts in the ashtrays when there was nothing left to be bummed.
The first and second hospitals were good for me. If you take the medication roller-coaster as good. It felt like taking speed, what they put me on. I went through waves of rushing symptoms in terms of gnashing my jaw and producing at lightning speed. I don’t remember what they put me on, but it was strong. I think it’s some of what they have me on now, some of which I’m currently tapering off because of the lasting effects. It’s taken a shift in psychiatrists, but that’s another story. They were horrifying, those initial doses of medication. But I made art through them.
By the third hospital, which had crayons and colored penciled and all the like, seven months after the shelter and the second hospital, I was too tired to produce.
I picked up something then that I use even now: a rapid, almost manic creative process using only what’s available on hand, basic office and school supplies. If it can be used in an office or school, it’s fair game to me. If not, it’s not. I started on abstract art and collage in the first hospital. I threw pencil on paper and tape—dirty, mucked up tape. I developed an intense love of using layers of white on white. It was like a great unlocking; and, while I hate that the medication did it, I can at least say I got something out of it. I got something out of all the turmoil and trial.
In the second hospital, I started documenting. I drew everything I saw: orange juice lids, cones in the gym, crayons. I drew paper hearts taped to the window. I drew and drew and drew. I drew through them holding me down and shooting me with sedatives. I drew through my first cornrow braids, done by another patient. I drew through friendship and interminable TV and an art row where I painted little white mold objects—forgive me, I do not have the name of the material, it cannot come to mind—for members of my family. I drew through visitations that were awkward and hopeful for everyone. I drew through the pajamas my mother gave me that she used to wear.
The third hospital was another fallow time. I was exhausted and struggling to let go of my first career and become a full-time artist. I watched a lot of TV.
But I was able to come through again in the summer of 2017, able to re-center and settle into the life my soon-to-be husband allowed me, able to make art full-time without any other responsibilities. As I healed from my final stint in the hospital, I began to thrive.
And I’m still drawing. I draw dilapidated signs now—anything around Huntsville that catches my eye. And I make multi-layered collages about race and parity. And I write about disability and mental health and ponder mental wellness and using that term instead. It’s all therapy and psychiatric appointments for me and revisiting my diagnosis and understanding whether I’m just an artist and this is why I am the way I am, or if I do need some of this medication because of something bigger, for survival. We’ll start a family soon and I want to be able to tell them: Mommy is a fighter and we all need a little help sometimes and we all manage to get through holding each other’s hands.
And there’s always art to be made.
I would like to think I didn’t murder my life through this horrendous and gut-wrenching process—that I’m being let out on parole and not put away for life. I’m dancing with myself. And I’m dancing for myself and for justice and for those who have given up hope.
And documenting it all the way.
top photo: “trashcan 3” by Alicia Cole
Makers on Making features printmakers, writers, knitters, crafters, painters, photographers, textile artists, and anyone else involved in art. These pieces delve into the psychology of making, the lessons we learn from success and (often more usefully) failure, and what it is to be a human authentically and emotionally involved as a maker in our world.
It’s always been assumed that I’m a “strong” person. The seductive dream of the Strong, Independent, Self-Sufficient Woman envelops unsuspecting black girls like veils of opium smoke.
You keep killing yourself so that others will live, as if you are a brown-skinned Joan of Arc, riding high on a chorus of persuasive voices, fooled into believing that you are learning the rites of warriors and not spells of decay and self-immolation. You keep thinking that to burn is to display a force beyond resolve, a dedication to stoic holiness. You are by no means a god but a sacrifice named “martyr.”
Black girls are rarely, if ever, held in the same regard as other minorities. Between respectability politics and misogynoir, the space to exist is limited, constricted enough to turn a diamond-bright mind rabid. We are not the model minority, which is another form of racism and friend of white supremacy. We are not regarded as superhuman, but inhuman, impervious to the violence of unpredictable emotions because we were not born with sensitivity.
How long before I’m no longer asked to carry all this weight?
In a revealing interview with Pitchfork, recording artist Janelle Monáe mistakenly confesses to the interviewer that she’s sought therapy for emotional issues, which were possibly exacerbated by a breakup while attempting to work on a new album. “I really wanted to grow into this person who could handle everything,” she says, “and I didn’t know that that’s just kind of impossible.”
The Kansas City native, who grew up and still is a devout Christian, adds that therapy was taboo in such a religious and cultural environment. She notes, “I didn’t like the idea of therapy at first. In the black community, nobody goes to therapy. You go to your pastor or you go to the Bible.” Mainstream American culture and black culture have little patience or empathy for mental illness. Mental illness is viewed as a weakness, a lack of self-control, as serious as a child’s temper tantrum dotted with forced tears.
To say that I grew up in a household that understood religion to be the shepherd to my immortal soul would be an exaggeration. On the other hand, my parents may not have shared religious practices, but the sincerity of their beliefs were equally fierce. My mother, who is Filipino, was born and raised in a country where the vast majority of the population identifies as Roman Catholic. She desperately tried to get me to mimic her unquestioning loyalty. In a way, my mother was just passing along what she already knew. Despite years of CCD classes, I didn’t pick up my mother’s enthusiasm.
In contrast, my father hadn’t been pushed into religion by familial pressure to preserve traditions. My father’s mother did make him tag along to Sunday services. Yet no matter the consistency of her efforts, my father rejected the Episcopal Church. When he reached his midtwenties, he ignited his interest in religion and spirituality. He considered himself a Born Again Christian. The specifics of my parents’ beliefs may have greatly differed, but they practiced them with similar fortitude and humility. Neither liked the idea of playing around with a Ouija board; both cringed when someone admitted they didn’t believe in God.
My parents never could fully grasp the realities of living with a mental illness. I internalized a lot of things, bottled up darkness to feast on later, a form of self-sabotage. They couldn’t understand how I could be so depressed. I had grown up in the suburbs with a dog and an impressive Barbie collection. There was a roof over my head, I had my own bedroom, there was always food on the table. What was the problem? I knew my enemy, but I couldn’t flesh him out for my confused and frustrated parents. He was a lonely figure who could slip out of descriptions. He was a language I couldn’t articulate.
How do we escape this weight that seems destined to break our backs? It’s enough to make you wish for a fatal dose of oleander to drink.
Due to various barriers and the stubborn bigotry of gatekeepers, pop culture has yet to fully move away from harmful, emotionally compromised, stereotypical depictions of black girls and women. This is not to say that nuanced protagonists don’t exist. They’re just rare and under the radar.
In the case of Janelle Monáe, resistance meant moving away from the super-fly cyborg persona of her debut and embracing a much more vulnerable perspective. The aloof, technological sensation hailing from another galaxy traded in visuals reminiscent of George Lucas and Octavia Butler for multilayered R&B grounded in emotional fluidity. For example, in the track “Electric Lady,” Monáe mentions spaceships and outer space, but the core of the song is about women’s empowerment. She sings,
She’ll walk in any room have you raising up your antennas
She can fly you straight to the moon or to the ghettos
Wearing tennis shoes or in flats or in stilettos
Illuminating all that she touches
Eye on the sparrow.
If anything, the conflict between persona-heavy mythology and lyrical openness seems a bit more balanced.
I can’t help but think that Monáe’s decision to reformulate the sci-fi-heavy aesthetic is the result of a shift in her thinking. Now that she no longer feels the “impossible” urge to be her own savior or no longer feels that she has to do everything, it has opened new possibilities in her art. She is no longer using the cyborg persona (as much) to filter the emotions and ideas that shape and inform her music. The world looks different when you feel as though you don’t have to constantly be on guard, vigilant against cracks in your appearance.
I grew up believing that seeking help was the coward’s impulse. But the Strong Black Woman and her sermons never brought me back to life. The Strong Black Woman consciously and unconsciously contributed to my shame. The preachings of the Strong Black Woman did not help my art or my will to live. The Strong Black Woman wants me to be Superwoman, but I would rather be a woman, receptive to the contradictions of being human.