Painting and writing help transform the confusing, agitated mental activity of mania—or the heavy thought loops of bipolar depression—into something expressive and creative. My art provides a sense meaning to my struggle and a bit of freedom from my mood episodes.
Creative Energy & Bipolar Disorder
Like many people who live with bipolar disorder, I’m a creative person. I’m not happy in life unless I have an outlet to express myself. I chose a career that lets me use my imagination, designing movie set props and signs. And in my spare time, I write, paint, and draw. Creativity is part of my DNA, and releasing this energy helps keep me stable.
When I’m depressed, I turn inward. I get lost in my mind. It’s like I have a heavy burlap sack over my head; I’m no longer able to see the world around me. I become incredibly self-critical. I obsess over everything that’s “wrong” with me. I believe I’m a failure. The thoughts in my head are so overwhelming, I feel as if I’ll be crushed beneath them.
Bipolar Depression & Creative Writing
Years ago, when struggling through a depressive episode, I mustered what little energy I had and began writing my thoughts in a notebook. I’d heard that journaling is a healthy outlet, so I figured I’d give it a shot. I was desperate for some relief.
I recorded the horrible feelings that had been swirling around in my head, tormenting me for weeks. I wrote about my insecurities and my anxieties. Statements turned into stories.
I recounted my childhood, my dad, my past relationships. Everything that had been locked in my brain came spewing out onto paper. I acknowledged fears that had been hiding in my subconscious for decades.
By externalizing my anguish, I felt a sense of release. I felt serene.
I kept going. The more I wrote, the better I felt. I filled up the first notebook and started a new one. Before I knew it, I’d written hundreds of pages.
Writing & Recovery
My depression subsided. This creative writing exercise became a fundamental part of my recovery. I hadn’t intended to turn my notebook into anything more than a tool for self-reflection. It was just an exercise to exorcise my demons. But what began as a coping mechanism to discharge internal pain turned into a memoir.
It was rough, but once I emerged from the depression, I started editing it. By 2019, I had polished my book and gotten a literary agent. The entire process boosted my self-esteem. I experienced a wonderful and welcome sense of accomplishment.
By expressing myself through writing, I stopped holding onto my pain. I stopped ruminating. By telling stories of my past, I freed myself from guilt and anger. The feelings that once smothered me didn’t seem so ominous. I let my burdens go. Writing my memoir helped me come to terms with my life. It healed me.
Even if I hadn’t turned my writing into a book, I know I’d still feel a thousand times better. Writing liberated me from my feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. Just by creating something, I simultaneously escaped my grief and expressed my feelings. The exercise gave me something to concentrate on that was productive and engaging. Focusing on something outside myself forced me to mindfully concentrate on a restorative task. And in the end, I had something to show for it.
Hypomania, Mania, & the Meditative Experience of Painting
Sometimes I don’t have the wherewithal to write. My bipolar disorder comes in waves. When I experience mania or hypomania, I go through bouts of frenetic energy in which I can’t read or write. Words dance around on pages like frolicking fairies, elusive and impossible to absorb. That’s where painting comes in.
Painting is a relaxing, free-flowing creative outlet that unleashes my energy in a constructive way. There’s nothing more stress-relieving than spreading huge expressive brushstrokes in bright, bold colors on large canvases. Creating visual art helps me transform the confusing, agitated activity in my brain into a visual picture. The resulting image gives meaning to my struggle while removing some of its power over me.
Painting takes my mind off my mind, if you get my drift. I go into a sort of meditative trance. The lightning bolts in my brain have an external focal point. Once the paint is applied, I experience a feeling of emancipation. Creating visual art calms me down. It helps me cope with mania in a way that other methods don’t. I’ve even turned some of my paintings into finished products that I’ve been able to sell, and that’s given me enormous pride. I have something I can point to and say, “I made this with my heart and soul.”
Freedom, Joy, & Validation of My Experience of Bipolar
Even if I didn’t design fine art, I’ve discovered that just doodling, drawing, or coloring in adult coloring books provides the same level of relief and joy. The simple process of transferring my internal turmoil into an external visual expression—especially when using color—helps me release complex thoughts that can’t be captured in words. I can transform the invisible, tumultuous thoughts in my mind into something I and others can see. Creating art gives me validation. I have proof that what’s going on inside me is real, and it looks like this.
Art therapy is an effective recovery tool. Now, when I struggle with powerful, painful emotions, I no longer get caught in the tornado of spiraling chaos in my brain. Writing has helped me recover by telling my story and then letting it go. Creating art has helped me heal by expressing my feelings visually. No matter what your creative outlet—be it music, dance, poetry, or photography—find what speaks to you. Explore creative outlets that allow you to release yourself. I’m sure you’ll find it just as therapeutic as I have.
Carrie Cantwell is an Emmy-nominated film industry graphic designer with bipolar disorder. She grew up with a dad who had bipolar and whom she lost to suicide. She has written a book entitled Daddy Issues: A Bipolar Memoir, about how accepting her diagnosis taught her to forgive her dad and herself. Her blog is Darkness & Light.
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