Me, Bipolar, and the Arts
Written by: Tonya J. Williams, B.A., J.D.
Bipolar disorder is characterized by extremes in mood – highs that are called mania, and lows that are called depression. Both require managing and treatment. Many of us who live with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder manage it through medication, support from our families and friends, and psychotherapy. I have also personally found that the arts make coping with my bipolar disorder more manageable. In this context, when I refer to the arts, I am talking about painting/drawing, poetry, dance, music and theatre.
I consider the role dance has on my life. Many experts extoll the role of exercise in the treatment of mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder. Engaging in dance is a fun way to accomplish this; it can be an activity to do at home, just listening to the radio and dancing like me, or you can actually take a dance course, which I have also done. Depending on the area you live in, some lessons may be cost prohibitive, but others are relatively inexpensive and you can always take a friend with you so that you are not alone. Lessons span the spectrum from the tango to the waltz to hip hop. There is something for everyone! Also, if you are suffering from depression and need that boost to get up and get out, attending the ballet or another dance performance can lift your spirits. Taking someone with you can also heighten the experience.
Similarly, painting and drawing have assisted me in coping with my mental illness. When I have a more significant amount of spare time, I have visited the local library (it’s a great resource if money is an issue) to borrow books about artists and to look at works they have produced. The best part of this activity is that there are books for adults, for children who are relatively young but can read, and for teens and other youth. In this sense, this activity can be something for the entire family or for an individual to enjoy alone.
One author I’ve read a lot of books by is Mike Venezia, who is an artist and illustrator. He has a series of books where he introduces children and their parents to famous artists, including Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keefe, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and many others. I have learned that the mere act of looking at replicas of their artwork can be uplifting because of the bright colors in the pictures, but also because of what I learn about the artists themselves. There are also books at the library that can teach you how to draw or paint. You don’t need much in the way of supplies, and you can be as serious or recreational about it as you like. I am not much of a painter, but I love looking at the vibrant colors of certain artists, and really enjoy learning about their lives – some of them even suffered from a mental health condition during their lifetimes, and so, are more relatable (such as Van Gogh).
One of my favorite art forms is music. I find that listening to music has been more helpful to me than participating in any of the other art forms I’ve mentioned. I generally listen to songs that are uplifting and have lyrics that in some way speak to my own experience or are simply encouraging as a general matter. India Arie is one of my favorite singers and musicians. Her song, There’s Hope, is one of my favorites and lifts my mood anytime I listen to it. While every single lyric isn’t exactly applicable to my life, certain aspects of it speak to my own experience and I imagine that others who have suffered with bipolar disorder and have had financial setbacks because of it, can connect to this song. There is a really uplifting verse in which Arie encourages the audience to not measure themselves by their material belongings:
Back when I had a little
I thought that I needed a lot
A little was over-rated
But a lot was a little too complicated
You see zero didn’t satisfy
A million didn’t make me happy
That’s when I learned a lesson
That its all about your perception
It ain’t about the size of your car
It’s about the size of the faith in your heart
It doesn’t cost a thing to smile
You don’t have to pay to laugh
You better thank God for that
These lyrics are uplifting and encouraging to me each time I listen to them. Similarly, artist Kelly Clarkson sings a song, Broken and Beautiful, that is inspiring from a different perspective. Like the previous song, not every verse is relevant, but the song is heart-felt and really lifts my mood. One of my favorite verses is:
Can someone just hold me?
Don’t fix me.
Don’t try to change a thing.
I’m broken and I’m beautiful
It’s especially meaningful to those of us who live with a mental health condition because of the stigma and resulting loneliness that comes with it. This for me is the best way to lift my mood or find something that I can identify with that helps me if I am depressed or even when I am in a good mood and want to stay that way.
The medical profession still has work to do in terms of providing consistent evidence that the arts can assist in managing and coping with bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions. Personally, I am certain that the arts play a role in my life and definitely make it easier and more manageable to cope with my illness.