Welcome to my third installment of Creativity Corner. I’m excited for you to meet my friend, Jas Simons-Araya.
Jas and I met via Facebook two years ago. In the time between then and now, I’ve been blown away on multiple occasions by the grit, determination, grace, and honesty she’s shown on social media by writing about her struggle with mental illness and the rigors of life in recovery. She’s also shared writings about and pictures of her art, which inspired me to invite her to participate in Creativity Corner, where we discuss the intersections of art and healing.
Tracey: Jas, you’ve written so poignantly about your struggle with mental illness. Will you please share a brief history with readers so they understand some of what you’ve endured to get to where you are now?
Jas: I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in my 20's, but it was a lot of self-education that led me and my immediate family to believe my mental illness has actually been a lifelong struggle (I'm 34 now!). I was an incredibly angry and impulsive child. I used to play chicken with the cars that drove down the street when I was 7, with my little sister crying from the front porch worried that I was going to get hurt. I was diagnosed with depression at 9, after I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. When I was 12, I spent a week in the county mental institution because I was a danger to myself. The depression had hit an ultimate low. I was viciously bullied at school and the only answer seemed to be at the time to hurt myself. The real battle began when I turned 18 and ventured into the realm of psych meds. Because of the misdiagnosis I was put on the wrong meds and I distinctly remember arguing with my mom. She accused me of not taking my medication (because it wasn’t working) when I was taking it.
Years later we learned that the medication I was prescribed for depression and bipolar disorder don't gel well. Whoops. I also started to self harm at 18. I was 26, and had been in the care of a psychiatrist and very caring therapist who mentioned she thought I had bipolar. It’s important to be willing to be brutally honest with yourself when you hear things like this, even if you don’t want to; otherwise; you won't get the help you need. I was living with my grandparents at the time of my diagnosis and I remember my grandmother, who had been a psych tech, not letting me feel bad or wallow in self pity. I'll always be thankful for that.
Tracey: Would you be willing to share about your heritage and how you think it impacted your journey with living and addressing mental illness concerns?
Jas: My dad was born in Vina Del Mar, Chile and came to the states as a little boy. My mom was born in Chicago but was raised in Savannah, Georgia by her musician dad and Mexican-American mom. I have a pretty long history of mental illness in my family. I was never forthright about the bipolar with my dad's family, I wrote an essay about my diagnosis and what it meant to me and that's how they found out. After my hospitalization they ostracized me. I think in their heads they were being supportive by praying over me to cure me, but they felt that I just needed to be stronger. At least that’s what an aunt told me. If she could see me now!
Tracey: How does your heritage inspire your art?
Jas: I grew up in Long Beach, CA, which has a really great community of artists. My mom was really really great about sharing with us different kinds of art. I just happened to gravitate towards Mexican folk art with all the brought colors and religious symbolism.
Tracey: Can you tell us about what art meant to you in your childhood and if and how it helped you to cope?
Jas: My mom let us be messy kids, shared all kinds of mediums with us. She herself is a glass artist and potter. So early on we were taught that you used your artwork as an extension of yourself. She encouraged us to write or draw when we couldn't find the words to express our feelings. It meant freedom and an escape as a child. I miss the manic episodes of just creating, not giving anything I did a second thought.
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? I’ve seen the photos you’ve posted with your incredible art, please expand.
Jas: It’s important to know that at age 27 I had a double mastectomy to prevent breast cancer. My art has changed as my reality has changed. Figures became scarred, like me. The more I painted, the more it sank in the fact that this was my new reality. In art, it's hard to hide. Art is raw and real, like carefully written words.
Tracey: Can you expand on the poignant idea that it’s hard to hide in art and about how creating art has helped you heal physically, emotionally, and spiritually?
Jas: I believe in all art. There is no “better” art. Even the brush strokes in the painting of bowls of fruit will give away how the artist is feeling when they sat down to paint. There is no hiding in art. That said, when I pick up a brush or marker I’m aware of my feelings and what I want to convey, like a self check-in. Having that ability is irreplaceable. Creating, finding a headspace and picking apart my healing – what started it, why did I agree to this, what steps am I taking? It usually bleeds through to the spiritual. I happen to find comfort in the idea of the Great Mother, so my art is female based, different variations, scarred and imperfect and beautifully flawed.
Tracey: Another thing Brené Brown talks about is perfection and the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism and how perfectionism is really a shield that prevents us from being seen. We’re too busy being fake trying to be perfect. She says art helps us let go of comparisons because whatever we create comes from us, and could not come from anyone else. What do you think of this idea? And how has it helped you become more you?
Jas: Funny enough I was just having the conversation with my mom. I come from a family of artists. All 3 siblings are incredible artists, but we are all vastly different. She reminded me we are in fact all different, personality-wise, too. My art is me. There is something I hope striking about images of body consciousness and imperfections in bright colors.
Tracey: Man, Jas. As today’s biggest understatement: You’ve sure been through the wringer. We know that recovery (mental and physical) is not linear and there are many ups and downs. Do you feel that your art plays a role in your ability to do the work necessary to help you with your self-care?
Jas: I know I feel better when I see colorful things. I know I enjoy art when it’s a piece I can relate to. Being able to put ideas and thoughts and images together like a puzzle and to stand back and admire something you have created makes it all so worthwhile. Until now, I never really gave much thought to how that drive to create keeps me focused and in the now. Plus, it’s like a therapist, but cheaper. You can unload your thoughts and emotions to a neutral source. Your work will never judge you for feeling the way you do.
Tracey: This is a bit off topic, but not really. You've written on social media about the bullying you've received because of your mental health diagnosis and also the side effects of the medication you have to take. You recently went to the fair, and a similar incident happened. Will you share with our readers what you've written about side effects. Of medication and also the abusive treatment you've received? To help spread awareness and wake people up to the outcomes of this despicable behavior.
Jas: When I was younger I accidently read the ingredients of chorizo and swore to myself I would never read labels and warnings again. So when I started taking psych meds to treat my bipolar disorder, I didn’t read about the warnings, like the weight gain. And the higher my doses got or changing medication to find something that worked better, my weight would go up until I reached 312 pounds, and I’m 5’6. I’ve always felt uncomfortable in my skin, some days are better than others. I went to the fair with my parents to celebrate my mom’s birthday and when we were heading north there were a group of women laughing behind us. One laughed out, “People like that shouldn’t leave the house!” and they walked past us. The hardest part was trying to not let it bug me the rest of the visit, to hold myself together. Once I figured out about the weight gain I made a conscious decision – being on the medicine made it easier for me to repair all the damaged relationships that happened in my life before I got help. My family and I are close again. The weight gain is worth it in the end, but that doesn’t mean the bullying and teasing is any easier. Trust me, if I could have the best of both worlds I would be the first in line.
Click here to learn more about bipolor disorder.
Check out stopbullying.gov for stats on the effects of bullying and tips to respond and prevent it.
And this The Guardian article, "Creativity improves wellbeing."