Robert Schoolfield is an artist from Chattanooga, TN who lives with bipolar disorder and uses his artwork as one of his coping strategies. In the following article Robert describes his passion for art and why artistic expression is key to living a happy, fulfilled, life.
What can I say that hasn’t already been said before? Words often get in the way of what I really want to say, which is one reason I create my artwork. Words can say a lot but not everyone thinks or feels the same things and while we can get a good idea of someone else’s emotions, we really don’t know exactly how it is to think or feel like someone else.
I thought about churching up everything I am going to say but then I decided I should probably stay true to myself and reflect my raw, imaginative, complex, honesty, like I do in my art. I’ve edited this writing numerous times, kind of like how I paint over my paintings multiple times. My obsessiveness is on display for you to see because I’m trying to translate how it is to be me so that you will have a better understanding of my art.
I am someone who has been labeled as being mentally ill. People who speak their minds, and use them, are sometimes dismissed as being crazy, or something weird like that. Who knows? Maybe those kinds of people have some kind of genius about them.
While I don’t like to claim mental illness, I do accept it. I like to share that, and make a point of it, hoping that it might encourage others and reassure them that they are not alone and that they can pursue anything they wish to pursue. Anyways, art gives me a reason to live, and, through all of the madness, it is a way for me to show that there is still a sign of life inside. There’s actually quite a bit.
When you display your own personal experience, through art, you catch a glimpse of a moment of how it is to be you, displayed for others to see. Any specific piece is up for infinite interpretation and those interpretations may lead to infinite conclusions. While that last statement may be a valid point, if you do analyze artwork, all different types, you might realize that all creativity comes from somewhere. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are all regurgitating the same source of life in our own unique ways. There is a deep sense of connection with past lives, and past people, who were all expressing themselves creatively. Everything about you reflects a certain story, and style, that is uniquely you while also being ‘one’ with everything else. To me, that source of creativity has something to do with the reason for existence. I am expressing every aspect of life in every mark that I make, or even by just ‘being’ me, all of which is a never ending conversation. Creativity is an explanation of life and all of its magic, and mysteries, and I am in a constant state of describing what that source is.
Over the years I think that I’ve crafted a style that is significantly unique to the art world. I am primarily a mixed media artist and a lot of my work is very experimental. I really like layering, to create depth and texture, and painting over things to create an ongoing story that can be viewed numerous times and still have something new to see. I also use a lot of materials that I find relatable or interesting, such as things I’ve written down, pages of books, or other objects.
I go through phases of applying materials, to writing and drawing, and also painting, but not necessarily in any specific order. I am always looking for ways to break out of my own boundaries to make something new that sets itself apart from the rest.
I also like writing on the back of my paintings, almost as if it were a journal, and I call that aspect “Tales from the Backside of The Canvas.” There is an innate intuitive instinct about what I do and I don’t really have to premeditate on it, it seems to be very natural. As I change, and continue making art, my style is always evolving and expanding and reinventing itself.
Like all things though, my art will eventually be buried in history, and I like that because it’s artistic and it’s a reflection of life, in a sense that even the artwork will dissolve and fade away one day. What’s important to me is that the spark, where it all came from, will go on forever and hopefully ignite other flames along the way.
I create because words often get in the way of what I really want to say.
More of Robert Schoolfield’s artwork can be found on his website at www.schoolfieldart.com
Note: Many authors on BP Swing Sets reference that they have Bipolar Type I. Bipolar Type I is often referred to as the "most severe form" of BP. The following article explains the specifics of BP Type I, although other forms of BP also exist.
From the DSM-5, the formal diagnostic manual that clinicians use to diagnose bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses (abridged):
“For a diagnosis of Bipolar Type I disorder, it is necessary to meet the following criteria for a manic episode. The manic episode may have been preceded and may be followed by hypomanic or major depressive episodes.
A) A distinct period of abnormally and persistently elevated, expansive, or irritable mood and abnormally and persistently increased goal-directed activity or energy lasting at least 1 week and present most of the day, nearly every day.
B) During the period of mood disturbance and increased energy or activity, three (or more) of the following symptoms are present to a significant degree and represent a noticeable change from usual behavior:
C) The mood disturbance is sufficiently severe to cause marked impairment in social or occupational functioning or to necessitate hospitalization to prevent harm to self or others, or if there are psychotic features.
D) The episode is not attributable to drug use.”
Bipolar disorder (BP) is a lifelong, chronic disease. Someone once told me that about 1 in 3 people with BP end up committing suicide. That’s a horrifying mortality rate—for comparison, the current suicide rate across all Americans is about 13 in 100,000 (according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention).
I’m not positive how accurate that “1 in 3” statistic is; this type of data is extremely hard to track. This is actually a key limitation of evaluating and resolving the prevalence of mental health problems in our society. Especially because many people with mental health problems go undiagnosed throughout their lives.
If “1 in 3” really is the case, though: F*** off, brain, I’m still in the world of the living.
I rarely have opportunities to speak candidly about my experiences with BP. The social stigma, misinformation, and emotional heaviness that surround serious mental illness (SMI) make it a sensitive and awkward topic to grapple with in everyday conversation. Sometimes, I offhandedly mention past manic experiences to my friends and they’re not really sure how to respond, despite having known me for many years.
The only people I always feel comfortable discussing the disastrous, bizarre, and sometimes even morbidly funny throes of BP with are my psychiatrist and therapist.
At the time of this writing, I have been relatively mentally stable for about five years. I emphasize “relatively” because there are mild mood lifts and drops that I still experience throughout the course of each year. This is normal for people with BP, even for people like me who take mood stabilizing and antidepressant medications. I guess these fluctuations would be most accurately referred to as “low grade depression” and “hypomania.” I have not experienced a full manic episode in about five years, but I did experience a major depressive episode that lasted three to four months within these past five years.
From the DSM-5 (Abridged): Major Depressive Episode:
A) 5 (or more) of the following symptoms have been present during the same 2-week period. At least one of the symptoms is either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure.
B) The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
C) The episode is not due to other medical conditions or drug use.
“Baseline” is what doctors and therapists call a person’s normal functioning level. Some people tend to be more calm and mellow when they’re at their baseline, others like me tend to be more active and hot-headed but not in a way that would be much different from a mentally healthy (i.e. “neurotypical”) person.
Bipolar (which translates to “two opposing poles”) means that sufferers periodically experience major drops in mood (depression) or major lifts in mood (mania). These periods can last for weeks and even months. The vast majority of people with BP do not experience the stereotypical “laughing one minute, crying the next” type of symptoms that you may have seen in television shows and movies. Often, symptoms will remain dormant for long periods of time and a person with bipolar disorder will appear no different than a neurotypical individual.
Even though the mood shifts become extreme, they creep up on you and you often do not notice them until your symptoms start becoming exponentially worse over a very short period of time and reach a dangerous, intense level for long periods—at least, that’s how it works for me; everyone with BP experiences these shifts a bit differently.
“Hypomania” is simply the clinical term for what can be thought of as “mild mania.” Some people have a form of bipolar called “Bipolar Type II,” wherein they only experience hypomania and depression but not full manic episodes. This does not mean that Type II is “better” to have than Type I (I have Type I); they are equally disruptive but in different ways.
You may have noticed in the excerpts from the DSM-5 that when we say “mania” or “depression,” we do not necessarily mean “happy” or “sad.” The symptoms are far more complicated and often involve different aspects of negative feelings and positive feelings simultaneously. For example, when I experience severe manic episodes, the best way I can describe it is it feels as if you are on cocaine or another stimulant drug—if you’ve never done cocaine (hopefully you haven’t), it feels euphoric but like everything is happening very rapidly, you talk nonstop, you feel full of energy but also strung out and highly anxious…it’s really not great…I strongly recommend staying away from both cocaine and mania, if possible.
Bipolar disorder tends to have comorbid disorders as well. “Comorbidity” is the clinical term for when you experience multiple disorders at the same time and that are related to one another. To use physical illness as an analogy: it’s like having cancer and also an associated heart problem. Using myself as an example, I have experienced drug addiction and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as comorbid conditions with my Bipolar disorder.
Now nearing age twenty-seven, I can look back on the early stages of this disease and identify key moments where things started going south. Most of the red flags started between ages nineteen and twenty-two, which is the prime time when bipolar disorder begins to truly manifest (according to the National Institute of Mental Health).
It is still not understood exactly what causes bipolar disorder. It seems to be genetic, but environmental factors can greatly affect the progression of the disease. Researchers are still trying to whittle down the different components of brain chemistry (i.e. “neurology”) that are behind bipolar disorder.
Hunter Keegan is an author, musician, and visual artist based in Greater Washington, DC. His works have been featured by National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Shatterproof. He recently published a new book about bipolar disorder titled, “My Brain Is Trying To Kill Me.”
His full works can be found at hhkeegan.com
What does it mean to be bipolar? If you asked me this question fourteen years ago my answer would be far from the definition I would give today. Fourteen years ago I had never even heard of a mental disorder or had I even been in the know about the notion that a mental illness existed. I would probably just shrug and tell you that it means you're off-the-wall crazy. A response of clear ignorance compared to what I know today. At the very start of the new year in 2007, I, myself, was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder, something that I continuously define and redefine to this day as I march forward and discover what this illness is truly all about. My first manic episode came when I was a sophomore in college at the age of 20, and it changed my life. At the start of the second semester, a year and a half into Boston College, I stopped eating and sleeping to an extreme extent. I got caught up in my own little world. It did not take long before my roommate suspected something was amiss. I was acting erratically, talking to myself, and skipping all my classes. Luckily my roommate was able to get into contact with my mom after about a week of strange and destructive behavior. She rushed out, pulled me out of school, and went about having me checked into a mental institution where I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Type I.
The recovery after being diagnosed took five years. I was out of the hospital in three weeks and given a leave of absence from school for as long as I needed. Although I ended up graduating only one semester late from college, the road to recovery after the initial diagnosis took many years past graduation. First, I had to get ready to go back to school. With a new medication regimen, I quickly gained about seventy pounds. School was never the same. I lost a lot of who I
was after being diagnosed; I lost a lot of confidence. Confidence I really could have used as I went about fighting the negative stigma of this illness. Instead, I was a shell of myself. Even classes, something that always came easy for me and something I took for granted, became a tremendous challenge. It didn’t help that I was in an atmosphere where it seemed like the whole world knew of my bipolar diagnosis, and so many already had their own preconceived notions about what exactly was wrong with me. It felt like all eyes were on me for all the wrong reasons. For the first two years after sticking it out and graduating college, I ended up living back in my parents’ basement. I was still not prepared to take control and confront my bipolar disorder as I was still struggling to accept it as part of my life.
A change of scenery can really help put things in perspective. Early in my mid-twenties I moved to Hawaii. For the first time after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was leaving the stigma behind me and getting a fresh start where no one could have these ‘preconceived’ ideas. I learned to feel like my old self after being in Hawaii for nearly a year. After being diagnosed you battle the stigma of mental illness with other people, but you also battle the idea of having a mental disorder with yourself. It takes a long time to come to grips with the diagnosis. You fight it until you can’t fight it anymore. Then you learn to live with it; oftentimes out of shame as you can cower from the sheer weight of the whole thing. Moving to Hawaii, getting a fresh start in a new place with new faces all around me, made me ready to own the disorder I was dealt with. It made me want to fight and able to fight the stigma I had been dealing with since the earlier
After my time in Hawaii came to an ironic and abrupt end (I ended up leaving due to a manic episode), life has taken me on twists and turns or ups and downs that have made me cry both of defeat and utter joy. They say that bipolar disorder will do this to you. I asked earlier what it means to be bipolar. Of course it means intense manic episodes filled with grandiose thoughts and some crazy stories that go with it. Of course it means being left alone in utter and intense sadness battling depression. More importantly, it means a constant battle to push onward, and have the resilience and fight from within to push onward despite the glaring obstacles.
Being bipolar means to have a story worth telling and worth listening to. It means being counted out but never crossed out. People with bipolar disorder, myself included, are faced with a challenge we sure as hell never volunteered for. We were chosen because we are strong, intelligent, and striving to change the negative light that bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses are stuck with on a daily basis.
Will Morro is the author of Nobody Believes Crazy
LinkedIn: Will Morro
By Ryann DeLisi
In this article, Ryann DeLisi, a young woman living with bipolar disorder, discusses the significance of art therapy in managing her symptoms. She also shares her thoughts about social stigma and other issues surrounding BP.
Van Gogh's, "Poppies" is what heavily inspired me to make this piece. Since I was a little girl I've always been in love with art and colors. Painting forces me to be present, it's almost a form of meditation for me. Being diagnosed with Bipolar Type I, I experience both Manic and Depressive episodes and painting is a healthy way to keep me focused and let out my emotions productively.
Honestly, I was hesitant at first about having my name next to a mental illness on the internet because of the stigma that goes along with having Bipolar Disorder, but I think it's really important. It's so much more common than you'd think, but there are a lot of people out there too afraid to say anything for fear of being judged or seen as "crazy". I think most people see having Bipolar as something aggressive, like we are all a bunch of ticking time bombs -- but that's really not the case. In my years of therapy and group therapy, people with Bipolar Disorder are some of the most creative, empathetic, compassionate people I have ever met.
Bipolar Disorder is a very serious lifelong illness that often takes lives. Due to financial issues, finding a doctor has probably been one of the hardest parts of having Bipolar Disorder for me. Your quality of life should not be determined by how much money you have in your pocket. Finding quality help should not be so hard and it is a huge issue that needs to be addressed.
If you are diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, I think it's important to realize that you are not your illness. You are not Bipolar, you have Bipolar, so please don't let it define you. I genuinely think that we see the world in a different way and while that can sometimes be painful, it is also beautiful, there is balance to everything in life. There's a quote that sticks with me, (I can't remember where I heard it) "Don't deny your mental illness, embrace your mental skillness," and I think that's a good way to look at it.
To see more of Ryann's artwork, check out her instagram @yeti_rex
Note: Ryann's creative work featured on BP Swing Sets and elsewhere is her intellectual property (IP) and cannot be released or redistributed without her express permission. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
However, just months later he confusingly stated that he had stopped taking medication for bipolar disorder. He said that felt that he wasn’t actually bipolar.
Shortly thereafter he had a spiritual awakening wherein he embraced his Christian beliefs to the extent that he decided to scrap other musical projects he was working on. Instead he decided to release a hastily composed album album entirely centered around his religious beliefs. He titled the album, “Jesus Is King.”
Kanye West’s relationship with his own mental health appears to be inconsistent. In his art, Kanye often references mental health — I even quoted one of his songs, “FML,” in my own book about bipolar disorder! This is why his actions are compelling to people who live with various forms of SMI. Many of us find it easy to relate to the strange and sometimes disastrous headspaces mental illness can take you to. We find hope in his successes and tragedy in his failures.
When Kanye West erupts like he did last week, numerous posts speculating about his mental health begin showing up on internet forums and other media. We begin fearing for his safety and fearing for the safety of the SMI community.
Our preoccupation with Kanye is not solely out of the spectacle of his actions, his fame, or his notoriety. Our concern also becomes: Will this blowback affect all of us?
A core mission that myself and many others with SMI actively work toward is destigmatizing SMI. Instead of focusing only on the negative aspects of diseases like bipolar disorder, we seek to educate the general public about what it’s like to live with SMI on a daily basis. We work to show people that our diseases are real, treatable, and are not a death sentence.
One of the primary reasons we work toward this goal is in order to be taken seriously. Because many people misunderstand the nature of hidden disabilities like bipolar disorder, educating the public and destigmatizing mental illness is paramount.
While having celebrity spokespeople can bring attention to lesser known topics such as bipolar disorder, they’re also double-edged swords. When people like West have ambiguous relationships with such sensitive subject matter, the resulting discourse is often distracting and counterproductive. Even harmful.
When I see high profile figures like Kanye West embracing the label of “being bipolar” and bringing attention to it, I naturally become excited. But I become frustrated when I see the same high profile figure backtracking on such statements and effectively muddling conversations surrounding SMI. I think this notion is shared by many in the bipolar community. This is because we, the group of people with this dangerous disease, are directly impacted when mainstream media begin haphazardly introducing buzz words like “manic” or “bipolar” or “certifiable” or “psychotic.”
The reasoning behind Kanye West’s rants from last week is, perhaps, known only to West himself. He could have been experiencing mania. Or maybe he was intoxicated. Or maybe he was experiencing symptoms of a different type of mental illness altogether.
Because we don’t know — and we can’t know — we have to leave it up to West to spearhead his own narrative. He has claimed to be part of our unique community, yet has gone on to actively disrupt the conversations around this complex disorder … and it’s upsetting.
The public deterioration of a celebrity who has, at times, spoken about being bipolar and how it’s “awesome” is toxic. My hope is that West goes on to speak more about his relationship with his mental health and clarify some of the problematic statements that he’s recently made. I hope that he will provide context and explain what was behind his meltdowns and that he will hold himself accountable and relay those thoughts in a coherent and tactful way that supports the SMI community.
Most of all, I hope that he is able to get healthy and keep his life on track (or, if you prefer, get it back on track). No healthy person wants to get themself hurt, and no healthy person wants to hurt their community.
Hunter Keegan is an author, musician, and visual artist based in Greater Washington, DC. His works have been featured by National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Shatterproof. He recently published a new book about bipolar disorder titled, “My Brain Is Trying To Kill Me.” His full works can be found at hhkeegan.com