Where we learn about the powerful intersection of creativity and healing.
Spotlight: Kimmi Joy Colvin
Kimmi and I met several years ago through our work at NAMI Ventura County. She is an amazing speaker, activist, artist, and writer among many other talents. And for the last several years, she’s been NAMI-VC’s program coordinator. Her job description: to coordinate stigma-reduction and early-intervention programs including those funded through the Mental Health Services Act. That includes everything from working with volunteers, community outreach, and developing new programs and initiatives.
Oh yeah. She’s also a badass roller derby babe! The Brawlin’ Betties can be found on Facebook and Instagram @brawlinbetties.
Tracey: First, I know some of your story, but many readers might not. Will you share a brief history so people understand your journey with mental illness and what you’ve endured to get where you are now?
I have a long, complicated history around mental illness. I came from a hardworking, blue collar family. My parents didn’t believe in mental illness. My mother, despite working in a hospital’s emergency room, believed that “those people” were lazy. “Those people” needed to get a job. And, while my mother could be my fiercest ally, often she was unpredictable, volatile, and abusive.
My older brothers coped with drugs, alcohol, and the occasional felony. I went the other direction. I was the family perfectionist. On the outside, I looked like the golden child. On the inside, I was living through a particular kind of toxic hell. I had no words to explain it and no support network where I could talk openly about it.
At this point in my life, I am not embarrassed to come right out and say it. I live with multiple serious mental illnesses: Major Depressive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
But the road between those two points was long and intense. That path wound through a full decade stacked with trauma after trauma, dangerously toxic relationships, a serious suicide attempt, and multiple psychiatric hospitalizations. All of it eventually brought me to the realization that I needed to start over. I had to rebuild my life from the ground up.
I’ve spent my last ten years remaking my world into a place that is supportive and healthy for a person with chronic illness. I’ve been learning how to and practicing living my best life despite the challenges of mental illness.
Tracey: Recently, you shared a picture of a new tattoo on Facebook. It’s a traditional origami crane pattern on a watercolor background. About it you wrote:
I have a love of (and a bit of a knack for) origami. Origami was something that helped bring fun and confidence back into my life after I hit rock bottom. It was the first thing I remember feeling really good about and proud of when I started rebuilding. All of my tattoos have a purpose. Each tells a story: reclaiming, rebuilding, and reminders of love, strength, and resilience. This one is all about finding my spark.
Would you expand here on your rock bottom?
My rock bottom was a suicide attempt. I’m lucky to have the privilege of hindsight. At the time, I was going through the kind of hardships that would challenge just about anyone’s mental health. I’d been laid off from my job as a newspaper editor, my car had been repossessed, my student loans were going into default, and my adorable, bespectacled preschooler was on the verge of being kicked out of school. I was also in an emotionally abusive relationship. Years of constant gaslighting and negging had broken me down. I had no self-esteem left. I was so isolated. I had no close friends or support system.
I have a very clear memory of sitting on my bed with hundreds of pills laid out in front of me. Calmly and clearly, I told myself I had a choice. It was an easy choice to make with certainty. In my mind, I was the problem. Without me, my preschooler would be more stable. My boyfriend would be happier. My parents would be less disappointed. It was a problem I could fix.
I woke up restrained by my wrists to a bed in an ICU. I’d had my stomach pumped, aspirated vomit into my lungs, and been put into a medically induced coma and on a ventilator to protect my breathing and brain function. I checked myself into a locked psychiatric unit and my boyfriend took our son to Hawaii. Yes. Really.
That week changed me. Something had been knocked loose. It was a dusty shoebox hidden away on a high shelf inside of me. Inside was a tiny little glimmer. That wee spark had been trampled and hidden and ignored but I was about to unleash it.
Would you expand on how creativity helped you find your spark?
When I was discharged, the hospital paid for a taxi to take me home. I had to break into my house through a window. Yes. Really. Then I did something I’d never done before.
I bought myself a big, basic set of chalk pastels. I parked myself smack dab in the center of my driveway and started drawing. I drew these big sunrises and sunsets over water. I used my hands to smudge and blend. Sitting there in the sun with hands smeared with orange and yellow and a spectrum of blues, I felt joy and calm. Joy! It felt foreign.
For a whole week until my boyfriend and son came home, I spent time every day in my driveway. I created these chalk sunrises and chalk sunsets. They weren’t a master’s work of art. They had no high-brow art value. Creating them simply made me happy.
When my boyfriend came home from his vacation, he shamed me for spending money on the chalks. Yes. Really. And a funny thing happened. That little glimmer exploded. My fierce spark would not be put away again.
My self-preservation started right there. Within a month, I ended that relationship and moved out.
Would you expand on how practicing the art of origami helped you begin to rebuild?
Before I got really sick, someone had given me one of those starter origami kits that come with some paper and a book of basic patterns. I had tried to make a few things. The attempt ended with a lot of colorful language and me resentfully shoving the kit into a deep drawer.
Transitioning to living alone and being a single co-parent was a big adjustment. Taking care of myself and my mental health was my full-time job. I had no money and too much time. One day I came across that origami kit (buried again in a deep drawer). I don’t know what made me try it again. Boredom, most likely.
To my complete surprise, I was able to work through the patterns. Much like dealing with my mental health, successfully creating origami was a matter of going one step at a time. Some steps are harder than others. Some take more time and more attempts. At some points I needed to do some research, ask some questions, get some help. I had to accept that sometimes I was going to fail. It was okay to wad the failure up in a ball, toss it in the corner, and start again.
Shortly after, I fell in love with one traditional origami structure in particular. The Kusudama is 60 individually folded pieces crafted together. The flowery structure looks delicate but is incredibly strong. I began creating hanging Kusudamas using recycled materials like dictionaries, buttons, and discarded jewelry.
Just a few months after my suicide attempt, I was invited to participate in the annual Mental Health Arts Festival organized by Santa Barbara’s Mental Wellness Center. The reception was overwhelming. The kusudamas made people smile. They sparked curiosity and encouraged connection. I felt, and still feel, proud to add some joy to the world.
That experience encouraged me to continue rebuilding my life in ways that are inherently mine. It reaches into every part of my life. My Before was devoid of flavor. I spent so much time wearing the serious black pants, running on the treadmill (literally and figuratively), and making myself small in so many ways. I’ve spent the 12 years since my suicide attempt becoming uniquely me.
You might find me (my current ginger mohawk is easy to spot) wearing one of my favorite retro-1950s dresses and converse sneakers at a high school or college telling my mental health story. You might spot me on skates with my roller derby team at a parade. I am probably that person you saw in a Michaels store laughing uncontrollably because my husband is making snarky jokes about my disturbing love of glitter. I’m the mom who is always game to make an over-the-top cosplay costume and the friend who will jump into any wacky, messy project.
My After is not always easy but it never lacks in color.
A word that comes up a lot around creativity is “cope.” It sounds like that is true for you and origami. Can you talk specifically about how, exactly, looking back on it origami helped you cope?
I’ve been teaching NAMI classes for adults with mental health conditions for several years now. One of the things I see often is people with serious mental health challenges struggling to accept their diagnoses. There is a certain stigma where people are made to feel like those diagnoses are labels and are limiting. I have come to view it as an AND/OR problem.
If a person looks at their diagnosis as limiting it comes out in our self-talk like; “I can have bipolar disorder OR get this promotion”, “I can have anxiety OR start dating”, “I can have hallucinations OR get a job”.
I think what origami did for me, especially early on in in my journey, was convince me that I didn’t have to be one or the other. I can have serious mental illness AND create amazing art. It was a gateway to acceptance. Acceptance is an incredibly important step in living in recovery. Having the AND mindset is a big part of how I’ve coped. I can have panic attacks AND be a great parent. I can have PTSD flashbacks AND inspire others by telling my story.
That mindset is something I carry with me and have built on over the years. My mental illness might mean that I need to do some things differently. It might take me longer than someone else. I might need to get creative about how I get there. But it’s never a question of IF, it’s HOW am I going to make it happen.
Tracey: I don’t watch Ted Lasso, but I understand that the main character on that show, Ted, had a panic attack. People in his life and, specifically, where he works started to treat him differently, as if he wasn’t the same person, not as capable suddenly, as he was before. 1 in 5 adults has a diagnosed mental health condition, so, whether they are aware of it or not, literally everyone knows someone who is struggling with and/or has a mental health condition.
From your perspective, related to working in our society and living with mental illness, what do you want people to know? What can the workplace do to dispel the myths and support people to feel more comfortable, able to succeed, while living with mental illness?
After my first time telling my story in public, an older gentleman approached me. While thanking me he said, “I was so surprised. You don’t look mentally ill.” It struck me absolutely speechless. That moment has stayed with me for years and still makes me stop and think about how the world sees me and why.
The fear of being treated differently is so real. It’s intimidating. My mental illnesses affect my life every single day. But most of the time, you’re not going to see that. I’m completely comfortable talking candidly about the experience of suicidal ideation and self-harm, panic attacks and flashbacks, insomnia and debilitating hyperawareness. But that’s entirely different than letting you see it in action. No matter how comfortable I am telling my story, when those horrible moments strike I still hide them from everyone but a select few in my immediate support circle.
I will leave events rather than have people see me break down hyperventilating and sobbing. I will bite the inside of my lip and dig my fingernails into my palm during a sudden panic attack where I can’t make an inconspicuous escape. I will insist I’m fine after you accidentally startle me even though every muscle has seized painfully and I can’t actually get my body to move. Yes, I know that you know I am not fine.
I don’t hide because I’m ashamed. I don’t hide because I don’t trust you. I hide because, in that moment, I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to make sure you’re okay. In that moment, I don’t have the capacity to guide you through how to help me. In that moment, I am mentally working to the point of exhaustion just to get through it. I’m also hyper aware of traumatizing, even inadvertently, everyone around me. I don’t want to scare anyone. I don’t want anyone to worry about me. I don’t want to be the center of attention.
Can you actually imagine anything worse than a moment when your body is completely out of your control AND your mind is racing AND everyone in the room is staring at you? I’ve been there. It feels horrible.
The people in my life who I don’t hide from are amazing. They’ve popped “the question” before the sugar inevitably hits the fan. How can I help? There’s not one big magic right answer. Every single person is different. For me, often I just need someone to be there. Remind me to breath. Make me laugh by cracking some snarky jokes and use a lot of expletives. Those people know I’m not broken or fragile or helpless. They continually remind me, especially when I can’t remind myself, that I am amazing whether I need a time-out or not.
I have experienced judgment. I’ve been treated differently. During the mandatory meeting with a professional mediator while my son’s father and I were divvying up custody, the woman actually asked me, pointe-blank, if I had the emotional capacity to raise a child. I had a family doctor take one look at my medical history before dismissing a rash spreading from my hands up to my face as stress hives. Spoiler alert, not stress hives. Our house was crawling with bedbugs recently acquired after a hotel stay. I’ve had more doctors than I can even count look at my list of medications and assume I’m drug-seeking. You can hear the exasperated tone change in their voice.
Experiencing stigma drew me to working in mental health advocacy. There are plenty of statistics around mental health. In fact, because of the pandemic, right now 1 in 3 people are experiencing anxiety or depression. But I’m not a statistic. The person you encounter experiencing mental illness is not a statistic. Knowing mental illness is out there is not the same as knowing how to address it. That is what I want to tell people. You have to go beyond Google or WebMD. Beyond the memes you see on social media.
Please seek out places where you can hear honest stories from people living it. Take the free classes or webinars offered in your community. That is how you learn to support rather than marginalize the person in your office having the panic attack.
Tracey: Brené Brown writes in her book Rising Strong, “Creating is the act of paying attention to our experiences and connecting the dots so we can learn more about ourselves and the world around us.” Can you talk a little bit about this related to yourself? Especially now in your journey and, perhaps, as it relates to life during a pandemic?
I love the phrase “paying attention to our experiences”. Through arts I’ve discovered so many affirming things about myself. My favorite is that I still love learning. I feel the most alive and connected when I’m figuring out how to make a project work. It doesn’t matter if that is a tricky origami pattern, teaching myself airbrushing, or creating teeny selfie sticks for dinosaurs (Yes. I really did that once). Partly, it’s a practice in frustration tolerance. I remind myself often that there’s never just one way to accomplish anything.
The pandemic has been a massive test of that philosophy. I started back to work fulltime at NAMI Ventura County just before the pandemic hit full force. Pivot quickly became the catchphrase in our office. My goal was to find ways to offer our educational programs virtually, safely, and effectively. Pretty quickly, I set to learning new technologies, problem solving, and being the voice of encouragement for our volunteer teachers.
I’m really proud that work meant really important mental health education and support programs were available when Covid really started taking a massive toll on everyone’s mental health.
Tracey: Can you share about what the intersection of creativity and authenticity looks and feels like to you?
For me, authenticity starts by honoring creativity however it blooms.
I was raised with this idea that creativity should be utilitarian. The mandate went like this: Go to college. Get a serious degree. Get a real job. Need a hobby? Fine. Knit some mittens. What are you doing? Stop doodling. Make some mittens. Mittens are useful. Conversation over.
I harbored a little, sneaky worm of guilt when I would joyfully create something less-than-utilitarian. I had an ongoing internal game of whack-a-guiltworm. I would squirm when someone would refer to me as an artist.
Then a project fell into my lap. I began taking a lesser-known psychiatric medication which has the side effect of creating a dissociative high for about an hour. It was not an altered state I particularly enjoyed and only tolerated because the medication was wildly effective in controlling my more challenging symptoms.
As a means of coping with my discomfort, I turned it into a project. First, I made a master drawing. Every evening, during this altered state, I recreated the drawing. For over a year, I filled sketchbooks with page after page of that drawing. It was such a tiny thing really. But it kept me focused on moving forward. I actually also memorialized the project as a tattoo. It sits on my right forearm, masking scars created from years of self-harm.
I think that was the point though when I stopped thinking about creativity in terms of results. It doesn’t matter that those sketchbooks are sitting on a shelf and may never be opened again. The process was the point.
Tracey: Mark Nepo writes in his book drinking from the river of light, “We need to practice these deep arts so we can recover our kinship with all things.” Does it resonate for you that an effect of following your creative passion rippled out beyond yourself? How so?
The ripples do resonate with me. I’m always quietly thrilled when my enthusiasm inspires someone. I really love showing people that they can do it too. I’m not some miraculously, magically gifted creative unicorn. The only superpower I have is that I’m willing to try just about anything. If it epically fails? Oh well, onto the next messy adventure!
Tracey: Can you talk about how your relationship with yourself has changed through creative expression? In other words, how the work of creative expression is self-care?
Somewhere in the time after my suicide attempt but before I got married in Las Vegas by Elvis (Yes. Really.), I realized that I took myself (and everything else) way too seriously. Life is too short to waste living in a constant state of stress and frustration. Every year that I see another birthday is a gift. Far too many good people don’t have the luxury of time.
My various forms of creative expression are a constant reminder that joy is important. Creating brings me happiness and helps me continually find my emotional balance. But it also brings joy into the world. And I love that.
Right now, I’m creating edible-glitter lollipops themed around my roller derby teammates. My team gave the first batch out to some kiddos at Girls Inc. last week during an event. I heard one little voice gleefully exclaim “OHHH! THEY’RE SHINY!” before trailing off into fits of giggles. If bringing that kind of energy isn’t self-care for my soul and the good for the world at large, I don’t know what is.
Kimmi (or Kimberly, NOT Kim) can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org