In 2012, at the age of 33, I decided to follow a life-long and long abandoned desire to pursue an art degree. In 2015, at the age of 36, I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art Studio and Print Media from the University of Kentucky.
I carried a 3.9 GPA while at UK. I earned the prestigious Ross Zirkle Memorial Award and Scholarship for excellence in printmaking and for service to the University of Kentucky and to the community at large. I earned a research fellowship to study iconography and to develop my creative practice and image transfer printmaking technique.
I represented the student body by giving a speech at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new School of Art and Visual Studies building. I helped to start a student organization, I sat on the BFA/MFA governing committee, and I served as the student representative for the Dean’s Advisory Committee. I also exhibited my art locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally during that time.
In short, I kicked ass.
The University of Kentucky issued a very nice press release for my graduating BFA solo exhibition, Imago Dei. The publicist wanted to focus, in equal parts, on my accomplishments as a student and artist, as well as the obstacles that I had overcome to achieve my success.
There were a number of things that I had “overcome”. I had gone back to college in my thirties, which is quite uncommon. To do so I had to balance work, class, and the parenting of four children. That was a heck of a thing and the University wanted to communicate that.
But to me the most important obstacle that I was and am overcoming is living with bipolar. This is something that I expressed to the publicist. Her article reflected that, with one glaring issue. She wrote a line that incensed me, and still bothers me today.
She wrote, “The artist suffers from bipolar.”
Suffers from bipolar.
I wanted bipolar to be included in my promotional material because I work, through my life, to combat stigma through education and normalization. I had been open about my experiences living with bipolar throughout my academic career. My peers knew that I was bipolar. My professors knew that I was bipolar. The administration knew that I was bipolar.
That was the way that I wanted it. I wanted to be a visible representative of those of us who live with mental illness. I wanted everyone to see that those of us who live with mental illnesses like bipolar are not the dangerous stereotype or helpless pity cases that we are often believed to be.
I wanted to show that we are normal people, living normal and even extraordinary lives. It’s just that we have chronic medical conditions that sometimes requires us to step back, take time off for self-care, and maybe even be hospitalized. And that’s okay. That’s life with mental illness. We’re just people living life like everyone else, just under some different conditions.
The inclusion of “suffers from” in the press release did the opposite of this. Instead of framing mental illness in the context of some pretty darned remarkable accomplishments of mine, it made it sound like I was weak and to be pitied.
I am not to be pitied. My art is not art to be pitied.
Bipolar is not just “suffering”. I live a full life. Like anyone there are ups and downs. My ups and downs may be more severe than some other people’s, but that is no big deal.
I’m bipolar. I’m also a spouse, a parent, an artist, a musician, a writer, and an advocate. Bipolar has given the ability to see the world in a different way than other people do, which helps in a number of my creative endeavors. Sometimes bipolar is an asset instead of a liability.
We need to work on the way that we think about mental illness. We need to work on the way that we speak about mental illness. This “suffers from” trope has got to go.
I do not “suffer from” bipolar; I live with it.
And life can be pretty darned good.