Everything you do prepares you for the next step
How collage and appreciating every experience benefits my mental health
When I was an art teacher, I taught an art camp for one week at my local children’s museum. I made a collage as an example for my campers that we didn’t end up using, but I loved it, so I kept it to use in my classes later.
Fast forward a year and my mental health began to deteriorate. My anxiety and depression started to interfere with my everyday life, and I began to exhibit psychotic symptoms. I heard secret messages through the radio and TV, and I thought that my friends were having coded conversations on Facebook that pertained to the Apocalypse. It was an incredibly dark time for me, and one of my outlets to deal with my new reality was collage. I chose certain colors and built compositions around them that created surreal fantasy worlds much more preferable to the one I was living in under the constant fear of the end of the world. Collage allowed me to take unrelated images, create new relationships between them, and place them in environments that made sense to me. It allowed me to create something beautiful from the horrible ordeal my brain was putting me through.
After several years, I discovered mindfulness as a way to cope with my depression and the intrusive thoughts that made it difficult to function. Collage complemented my mindfulness practice because as I sorted through images, cut them out, and placed them in new, more beautiful worlds, I wasn’t thinking about messages from aliens and the horrible role that I would play in the end of the world. Cutting carefully around each picture held me in that present moment, and nothing existed outside of the precision and attention required for that action.
The process of creating collages is meditative like putting together a jigsaw puzzle is meditative. You analyze every picture by color and shape and try to find its proper place. It’s a quiet activity that requires attention to detail and imagination, and it is still one of my absolute favorite things to do. What originally starts as a picture of a turtle with algae growing on its back becomes a grassy hill for fantastical creatures to tread upon. The possibilities are endless.
Collage was a much needed, necessary part of my mental health recovery. In addition to other strategies learned in therapy like journaling, gratitude, or self-care, it allowed me to use my creativity and distract from my current situation.
All of this is to say, I was in the depths of despair. Now, three years into recovery, I still grieve for those years. However, I am now grateful that I went through a powerful experience that has changed me forever and has equipped me to navigate life, however tumultuous it may become. My experience with my mental health issues taught me that I am strong, that there are things I can do to make life better for myself and for others, and that nothing, including reality, should be taken for granted.
Life is so, so hard for all of us, and I want the art that I create to provide a bright spot of color and beauty in someone’s day. It provides that same benefit for me, and I want to encourage others to make things just for them, just for fun, just because. People put so much pressure on themselves to only do things that garner a wage or otherwise make money, but life is so much more than that. It is meant to be enjoyed. And if an activity increases your enjoyment of any given moment, that activity is worthwhile.
Making the collage for the summer art camp I taught opened the door to a coping strategy that I still use as a practice in mindfulness and as a part of my professional art practice. Three of my collages have been accepted into shows, and one of them even won an award! If I hadn’t made the example for the one week art camp that I taught, I might have been less equipped when the worst happened, and I wouldn’t have one of my favorite creative outlets. Furthermore, because the worst did happen, I am now capable of managing my anxiety and depression, listening to and encouraging others, and understanding that so many of the hardest things that affect a person’s day to day life is invisible. I have no idea what is going on in someone’s head at any given time, so I operate under the assumption that they are probably struggling and that they have good intentions despite that struggle.
Every experience, no matter how small, prepares us for the next phase in our life. And that means that whatever happens, we will be able to handle it. So whatever you may be going through, I want you to know that you will make it through, that change will come, and that one day you’ll wake up and realize how far you’ve come and how much you’ve grown.