“Wow! Thanks for the amazing sketch and wonderful idea! You’re an inspiration!” the Facebook poster said.
“Thank you! That’s what I was hoping for!” was my response. Only in that moment, did I realize that my coping strategy for COVID-19 might benefit others.
My name is Danei Edelen. I am president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Brown County Ohio affiliate. In February of this year, my three-part series, “What are the warning signs of mental illness?” won first place in the Ohio News Media Association Hooper Weekly Newspaper Awards in the original columns division. However, I was still wrestling in my recovery from 2019.
That year was tough for me because of three hospitalizations including electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). My recovery hit me hard. The most painful part was being hospitalized during my son’s graduation. Fortunately, my husband is tech savvy and provided me an iPad so I could watch the graduation virtually. The nurses on the floor were great. Everything worked. With tears streaming down my face, I strained to see my son stand when he was recognized as salutatorian of his class. All the activities we had planned for my son’s graduation I missed. I can readily empathize with this year’s graduates and their families over the disappointments they are feeling.
A reduction in medication, taking an art class, and doing some volunteer work was helping me get back on my feet. I had just returned to giving my Friday talks at the Behavioral Health Unit at Clermont Mercy. Then COVID-19 hit. Like everyone I was in shock. Suddenly, my son was coming home from his freshman year in college, sharing the internet with my husband who works virtually from home. But, what about my art class?
My virtual assignment came from my teacher. A drawing a day for 20 days. For extra credit, we could draw the alphabet. My first assignment? Draw your eye. I decided to post it on Facebook. What happened? People responded with likes, comments and even a share. My family and friends were commenting on how talented I was.
“You definitely got your Dad’s eye for detail & texture!” one relative said. My father was a self-taught artist.
Suddenly, amid this scary situation, I had a daily focus and purpose. Let me be clear, I am not a trained professional. Could I do it? Drawing each object represented its own unique challenge. All I had were my supplies from class: my pencils, my drawing journal, and my colored pencils. Yet, I was learning. Each day, I would work on my assignment, despair at least once that it I should give up, finish the drawing, and then post it on Facebook. More people started responding and commenting. I heard from people I have not heard from in years. Was I always pleased with every picture? No. You should have seen my cat. People said it looked hurt, wounded and fat. But I got 32 comments. “Love your drawings — they enliven my day,” one commenter said.
What a contrast from when I had been in class. Plagued by a constant sense of calamity, I had trouble speaking the first time I walked into that art class filled with bright young college students. After one class, the teacher had to give me a pep talk to keep me in the class. I am so thankful that I did not drop the class.
Recently, I met virtually with my new nurse practitioner after my psychiatrist retired. “I am really glad you are doing so well,” she said. “When I first met you, I really wasn’t sure what to do for you.”
I am convinced that drawing daily and overcoming each little challenge is helping me rewire my brain. All the positive support I have received online has helped rebuild my confidence as well. Am I cured? No. Every day I wrestle with my mental illness.
Living through a global pandemic is something none of us has done before. We all have been struggling. According to Time, “Last month, roughly 70 percent of Americans experienced moderate to severe mental distress — triple the rate seen in 2018.” As a person living with a mental illness, I am familiar with this struggle.
This last week, events unfolded in ways no one anticipated. I am just a thoroughly Midwestern woman with a mental illness living in the heartland of this country. I am not a politician or a movie star. What can I do? I feel powerless. Sound familiar?
Yet for the last 50 days while I have been drawing daily, I have not felt powerless. Although primarily untrained, I have been doing something positive and constructive during this chaos. I have also been posting it online. People tell me that my drawings make them smile: People tell me my drawings inspire them. I am a big Brene’ Brown fan. She gave me the courage to speak and write about my mental illness. According to Brene’ Brown, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”
The drawing with this column is called, “A is for Apple.” I took the pictures, composed and arranged it myself. The daily challenge? The apple slices got brown so quickly I had to eat them. After I finish, however, I see so many things I could have done differently. Do you ever feel that way?
Why am I doing this? Because we are living in divisive times. Because my heart is grieved for what is going on in our nation. What can I do? Recently, I have learned that I can create beauty during chaos. I cannot solve all the problems that afflict our nation. But perhaps, through art, I can bring some solace to your soul. Perhaps then we will all begin to think creatively and bring about innovation and change.
Danei Edelen is president for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Brown County Ohio affiliate. NAMI Brown County Ohio provides support groups for individuals and their families living with mental illness. For more information on NAMI Brown County Ohio, call 513-436-0010 or email daneiedelen@gmailcom. Find it on Facebook at @NAMIBrownCountyOhio.