This is the one page artist's statement I wrote to go on the wall for my art as therapy exhibition which opens in a few day's time. With some of the artworks.
Speak is a second solo art as therapy exhibition by Xanthe Wyse. Xanthe’s first art as therapy exhibition, Spinning Orbit was two years ago. Spinning Orbit was messy, raw and intense artwork to help calm Xanthe’s mind while on a challenging journey towards stabilising bipolar disorder with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
My brain is currently struggling to be organised enough to speak or write, so I will probably keep this short. Because I am exhausted and I have been getting breakthrough mania and mixed episode symptoms. And also because I am waiting for sedation to kick in enough for me to go back to sleep as emergency self-care.
I have seen people say 'I have bipolar' and others say 'I am bipolar.' Is it just semantics?
Or is 'I am' identity language? For example, I could say, 'I am a woman,' and 'I am a Kiwi (New Zealander)' and 'I am a mother' and 'I am an artist' (even though I'm a 'hobby' artist not a 'professional'). I could say 'I am a merchandiser' (working part-time helps my self-esteem).
I had a big bipolar mania episode two years ago. I'm still recovering. I told my psychiatrist that the medications were like putting a bucket under the Huka Falls. The Huka Falls is a powerful waterfall in Taupo, New Zealand that could fill an Olympic sized swimming pool in sections. You can hear the roar before you see it. The intensity and energy of emotions being released that had been shut down with PTSD was so powerful that it was a huge challenge to try to harness.
I have finally started trauma therapy at the age of 46 after suffering PTSD since I was a child and untreated bipolar disorder since my teens. I was misdiagnosed with 'treatment resistant depression' and in my twenties I was started on antidepressants which can (and did) trigger mania. Yet I still went incorrectly diagnosed until my forties. This journey for me has had a lot of suffering. I have had some extremely painful experiences physically, but the psychological pain has far outweighed extreme physical pain (that morphine hardly took the edge off).
Recently, news of teenager Noa Pothoven's death has been circulating on social media. Noa suffered from PTSD and anorexia after sexual trauma. The English-speaking media misrepresented the cause of her death, saying it was 'legal euthanasia,' which was not true. Pro-euthanasia campaigners jumped on this story. Noa died after refusing to eat or drink. She described her suffering from trauma as 'I breathe but I am no longer alive.'
I can understand that, as I felt like I have 'died' from sexual trauma as a child and again as an adult. The reason I legally changed my name was because my former name became a trauma trigger - I would have flashbacks re-experiencing trauma when anyone said my former name. Changing my name was part of trying to survive. Up until the effects of the adult sexual trauma, I had been surviving by 'shutting down' - the childhood form of PTSD. Plus avoiding. Then it morphed into something very complex with the co-morbid mania and depressive episodes of bipolar 1 disorder.
There is currently a euthanasia debate in New Zealand and I have found it to be very triggering. I have been tearful and withdrawn and dissociating. I know the reasons why it is triggering for me. One of the reasons is connected to the death of a beloved pet cat, Tommy who was severely injured in an accident at the time I was sexually abused as a child. The vet said he would suffer in extreme pain for the rest of his life if we tried to keep him alive. I am still processing that loss, but now as an adult, I would have still chosen euthanasia for a pet with the extent of injuries that Tommy had. I have written a book (still editing it) called Pet Purpose and these are some of the central themes - suffering and loss and trying to survive with trauma and bipolar disorder.
I do not see the topic of euthanasia as black and white. I have been grateful for that option when pets have suffered terribly at the end of their lives. To me, it would have been cruelty to let my pets die a 'natural' death when they were suffering so much.
People have asked for it as a compassionate choice for humans, so I am not opposed to giving them that choice for certain situations. There are valid concerns for the vulnerable but I do not see it as being compulsory. Noa was refused euthanasia and told to complete her trauma therapy and wait until she was an adult. Noa felt she could not wait that long.
Every day, I make a choice to stay alive. Part of staying alive is finding meaning in life (and religion does not give me that meaning - it is another trigger - for example people telling me I needed demons cast out of me and that I would go to hell if I killed myself). It takes courage to live with bipolar disorder and PTSD. Bipolar disorder and PTSD both have a much higher suicide risk than the general population.
Recently I painted a self-portrait - my first since I was a teenager. I called it Painting Courage. I chose a selfie where I had a convincing smile as a reference photo. I can mask a lot of the time. I can smile and people think I'm fine. I can usually mask that I have invisible disabilities and that I am still processing a lot of pain.
For me, painting semi-realistically takes courage too. Lately, I have been doing that as I have been having trauma therapy. It was a very long process to be finally approved for therapy. I continue to hope that things will improve.
I intend to get back to completing my book, but I feel afraid and anxious at times about publishing it because the themes are very personal. Even though I have changed the story-line, the essence and emotions of my story are still in there. But for a while there, writing the book was one thing that gave me a sense of purpose. My wanting to help people understand some of what it is like to suffer from bipolar and PTSD. To try to survive.
Over the past few years, I have been on a journey of processing trauma. Finally, I am seeing a trauma psychologist, and she agrees that I have been finding ways to process trauma on my own.
I am a very sensitive person and I can feel very intense emotions. So intense that I would 'shut down' all the emotion and the trauma would be locked inside, still there - frozen and stuck. It has been a process like in waves, to get unstuck. Sometimes there would be intense waves of intense emotion, like I expressed in the scribble below today. Scribbling messy words helped discharge intense emotions like anger.
I had a therapy session last week for PTSD. When I first started therapy, my emotions were shut down and I talked about trauma like I was a news reporter - factual without emotion. But last time I cried and cried.
I said, "I'm such a failure - failed in my career, can't work full-time, divorced, hardly see my son, own practically nothing."
The psychologist replied, "You're not a failure. You have bipolar disorder and trauma which has made things very difficult for you. You've been doing the best you can."
One thing that is a common theme when talking to other people with bipolar disorder and PTSD is loss. Loss of a spouse, career, income, house, children, friends, dignity. I lost all of those. I am still processing the devastating loss after a pre-diagnosed bipolar mania episode. The sun went down on me in Australia. Most painful of all for me was that I had no choice but to leave my son in Australia and return to my birth country of New Zealand.
"I think adults who paint are brave. They need support to shine." Sue Graham, artist.
Art was one of my favourite activities as a child. I have memories from kindergarten slapping on thick layers of brightly coloured paint at a stand up easel. I won a poster competition when I was around 10 years old. It was judged by a well-known landscape artist whom I met. She told me my poster stood out because of the colours and composition.
When I was a teenager, my art teacher at school said, 'you always paint differently according to what mood you're in.' I felt criticised but thought, 'isn't that the point?' The same teacher said, 'you're going to have a nervous breakdown one day.' She said it was because I was busy doing so many activities with no down time to rest.
It's usually hard for me to get up in the mornings. But today I had something to do. Yesterday I decided to purchase a domain name and I started setting up this website. Today I wanted to continue to get it up and running.
Having some sense of meaningful purpose helps keep me going even though things are very challenging for me (unable yet to work full-time and live independently after two decades of being away from home). I was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder, PTSD and social anxiety in my forties. Previously I was diagnosed with 'treatment resistant' depression and anxiety in my early twenties.
Xanthe finds creative expression including writing and painting to be therapeutic and helps her to manage her mental health diagnoses of bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).