Chris Dean, aged 44, lives in the state of Indiana, USA, with her husband and four adult-kids, in a self described “petting zoo” of cats, ducks, geese and chickens that she and her family have made into their home. A self taught artist who relies on her gut instinct when creating. Chris writes a humor blog and is a contributing author to two anthologies (Clash of the Couples and It’s Really 10 Months: Special Delivery), and she has had work featured on In The Powder Room, Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Midlife Boulevard, and Bonbon Break. With this extensive portfolio of writing and contributing, ASLI felt that Chris not only created emotive and inspiring visual art but is a creative who has something to say and is actively seeking platforms to express herself. We admire Chris for her openness on her recovery from dark thoughts and emotions.
Here is our interview with Chris Dean:
What motivated you to deal with your chosen submission subject?
At the time I made Emerging From Darkness, I’d spent the last couple of months in a really dark place. Emotionally, I’d bottomed out and had been using art as a way to explain to my family where I was. When I started to come out of the dark, I felt like I needed to share with them how it felt to reemerge and all the hope and renewal it brought with it.
What is your process when creating?
I think most artists speak in their own language of symbolism. I’m no different. I grasp for whatever images, metaphors and medium can best describe what I’m feeling at the time and then combine them to tell my story.
Who are you influenced by within your artistic discipline?
This is gonna sound weird, but I’ve been the most inspired by art my brother and kids made in grade school. I mean, if you give a small child a pile of supplies, they don’t worry about how you’re supposed to use them or what’s supposed to go together, they just make things. It’s purely from their gut and their imaginations. That kind of freedom and art-without-borders is what I love most about creating.
Who inspires you in general?
My husband is my biggest inspiration. The guy has put up with so many of my quirks over the years and always been nothing but supportive. Regardless of what’s going on, he’s always there, trying to understand whatever I’m dealing with. And when he can’t understand, he’s there with a hug. He loves me just as I am, cracks and all.
What causes and world issues are you passionate about, campaign for, volunteer for…?
I’m passionate about patient’s rights, advocating for yourself, and ending the stigma surrounding mental illnesses.
What do the statements “art saves lives” and “art creates change” mean to you?
Art can give a voice to the things we can’t find the words to say. Those feelings that are so big, they feel like they might tear us to pieces from the inside out? Art can be that conduit …that release. It gives our thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears a place to go and a way others can understand us.
Have your artistic and creative outlets saved your life in anyway and do you think your message within them could help create change in the world?
There have been a few times I was so low, that I’ve thought about ending my life. I felt like I was isolated and lost without any way to get back to “me”. Instead of doing the unthinkable, I poured all of it out on paper and in clay. I let myself ask for the help and understanding through my work, that I couldn’t figure out how to ask for any other way. And then I shared it with my online community. The number of people who reached out, not just to support me, but each other was astounding! For me, just knowing I wasn’t alone gave me the strength I needed to start climbing back out of the darkness. I truly DO believe art can not only save lives but create change by promoting understanding and providing a common ground.
What are your present and future goals for your art?
I want to learn to weld. I have boxes and piles of things I’ve found while walking in the woods or digging through bins at thrift stores. I would love to be able to put them together into a giant story you can touch. Mostly, I just want whatever I create to open the doors to a little more understanding and acceptance and a little less stigma.
The following question are about mental health:
Can you tell us about your own experiences with mental illness?
I carry a diagnosis of bipolar II, borderline personality disorder, panic disorder and moderate agoraphobia. I kept it to myself for the longest time because I was ashamed. But the more I heard people crack jokes or spreading inaccurate info about mental illness, the madder I got! Eventually, my big mouth got the better of me and I started talking openly about it, not for myself, but for those who can’t find their own voices. I always figure if I can help one person understand that it’s a diagnosis, not a decision – or dispel the stigma, it’s been a damn good day.
How does your artistic /creative expression help you with your mental health?
My art gives me a place to put the emotions and thoughts that my head is too small to hold. It also gives me a universal language to express and explain some of the more chaotic emotions of BPD without the need to search for the right words. When you’re trying to explain a mental illness from the inside out, it seems like people respond better to the emotions of images than they do the explanations in words.
Have you ever experienced being stigmatised or marginalised due to your mental health or have you seen this happen to someone else?
Sadly, yes. Last year I had an interview about my piece in an upcoming book (Clash of the Couples). The reporter was very interested until she asked about my advocacy work. When I mentioned my diagnosis, she physically leaned away from me. (Not even joking!) Needless to say, the interview was over and the article was never written. That’s just the most recent fun. People fear things they don’t understand. Unless you either live with someone or you yourself live with it, most folks just want to pretend it’s not part of their world view. Personally, I hate feeling marginalized for something I have no control over. It’s a feeling I don’t want anyone to ever experience! So I talk about it and try to explain it through my work.
Have you ever received treatment for mental health and if so, what was it, did it help and was it private or state funded?
I’ve been to therapists off and on my entire life, starting as an inpatient when I was 15. (All private.) When I was younger, I went because my parents wanted me to. When I got older, I went because I wanted help! I wanted to understand what was going on and how to fix it. I don’t like talking much about therapy, because I don’t want to be the worst kind of example (which I totally am). I’m a…difficult patient. I want to understand the whys and the beginnings of the thing so I can unravel it from the bottom up. I’m also not medicated. Not because I think meds are bad! It’s just a personal choice. (See? I’m a horrible example with this one.)
Do you think society and culture is accepting of people with mental illness?
I live in a small town in South Central Indiana. People are not very accepting of anything they see as different. Especially mental illness! If what I see on television is any example, the rest of society isn’t much better. Sadly, people really do fear what they don’t understand. It’s why I feel it’s so important to talk about it. Every little bit of myth-dispelling knowledge helps!
How do you feel your Government in your country helps people with mental illness and could they do more?
Right now, I’m not sure how much they do. I mean, they have PSA’s and one month a year there are more pamphlets available, but I don’t see a lot of community outreach programs. The only time mental illness is really a topic seems to be when a tragedy occurs. There really needs to be more emphasis on erasing the stigma, making it as normal for parents to seek help for their kids’ mental health as they would for childhood cancer.
Have you ever had any creative therapies as part of your treatment, did it help?
I’ve never tried creative therapy. I wish I could’ve! The one thing I have done is take a portfolio to session and show it to my therapist as a way of helping her understand where I was at.
Do you think artistic / creative expression can be used to help people with mental health problems?
I talk to a lot of people who feel like they have problems explaining their emotional states to their therapists. It’s terrifying to talk openly when you’re worried about something being misinterpreted. I tell them to write a poem, draw or paint a picture, free-write – anything that helps them express the things they can’t bring themselves to say. Not only is it an excellent way to communicate, but just the process of creating is therapeutic in and of itself.
Do you think artistic / creative expression could help raise awareness and communicate how mental illness affects people?
YES! It’s like when you hear a piece of music that moves you to tears or see a piece of choreography that fills you with joy. You’re not distracted by words, you’re connecting to the creator on a gut level. Some part of you just gets it without worrying about things like their social standing or whether or not they heard voices. If more people could connect on that level to the artist and what their work represents, I think it would erase a lot of the lines that divide us and create a space that fosters understanding.
What made you want to get involved with ASLI’s MENTAL ILLNESS, HEALTH AND RECOVERY CAMPAIGN?
I love what you guys are doing! I’ve used my art to explain and express things to my small, online community. The thought of an International Group bringing together artists from so many different backgrounds and disciplines to do the same thing? Was one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a long time!
Do you believe in more rights for mentally ill people in the workplace and for equal opportunities?
Absolutely! Yes, there are laws in place that make it illegal to discriminate against someone due to a mental illness, but it’s still a major problem. It all goes back to the fact that people fear what they don’t understand and when all they see in the media is fear-based and worst-case-scenario, it’s never going to improve.
We at ASLI want to de-stigmatize diagnosis labels within mental illness so that people treat others and their own mental health label as that of a diabetic or any other chronic “physical” illness, as we know the brain is physical and this would further improve stigma and marginalising mental illness. How do you feel about diagnosis labels?
I think labels are a two-sided coin. On one hand, they can serve a purpose. If I know what’s going on, I can begin working on how to live with it/around it. I can form a treatment plan. I have a starting point. On the other hand, there’s the danger of forgetting I’m a person, not a diagnosis. It’s also a label that will follow me my entire life. The real problem with labels is the way people look at them. Like you said, a diagnosis of Depression or BPD shouldn’t carry any more stigma than that of diabetes.
Everyone within ASLI is affected in some way by mental illness, with our MD having several chronic mental illnesses and other members either caring for or dealing with mental health issues. Would this make you think twice about working with ASLI? And does this make ASLI “less professional” in your opinion and if so why?
For me, it makes me want to work with you more! To me, it means you understand the problems from the inside out. As someone living with a mental illness, it means I’m in a space where I can relax without worrying about what you’re thinking when you read my laundry list of a diagnosis. It also means you’re giving people a chance to work hard at a job they’re passionate about – a job where they don’t have to worry about the break room gossip if a coworker finds out they have a mental illness. I’m not sure how anyone could ever see that as anything but good.
Are there any artists/creatives/performers which you admire, who suffer from mental illness that you feel use their work to discuss or highlight mental health?
I’d say most of the people who come to mind use their work more as therapy than to raise any kind of awareness. It’s only in recent years that performers and celebrities have started speaking openly. Oddly enough, society doesn’t seem to mind mental health issues in its creative types as much as it does on a day-to-day basis. It seems like they almost expect it. Using that strange place of allowance to openly discuss can only be a good thing for all of us!
Finally is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself or your experiences?
I can’t thank you enough for the opportunity to share my work for something I believe in so passionately! Art doesn’t just beautify the world, it really is it’s own language. Thank you for letting me share that.
This article was written by @lisareeveart
Edited by @artistcharlottefarhan
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