Exploring mental illness through artistic expression

By KATHERINE GILLIS | November 15, 2018

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COURTESY OF INSAPPHOWETRUST/ CC BY-SA 2.0 

Maria Bamford’s comedy has influenced Katherine’s own artistic work.

I both love and hate the idea of coping with mental illness through artistic expression. On the one hand, it’s a great way to “pass” an emotional imprint of something negative out of you and turn it into something you’re proud of. A sort of metaphysical turd, if you will. 

It can make me feel really good to journal or paint or to write a screenplay about something that is such a constant in my life, to externalize the internal and realize that my depression or my anxiety isn’t the summation of who I am.

On the other hand, I worry about feeling beholden to the things I write or make in moments of catharsis. If I write in great detail about being sad and scared, and then put that work out into the world for others to read, am I just further pigeonholing, identifying myself based on something that is really only a small part of my identity? 

Am I poetically waxing myself into the Misery Chick? Will people even relate to my work if I talk about such intimate experiences this stuff, or is airing my personal issues just a straight shot to alienation? 

When I was fifteen, I discovered the comedian named Maria Bamford. She’s not extremely well-known, and her material is not for everyone. On top of your garden-variety depression and anxiety, Bamford also has Bipolar II disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome, a little-known condition that causes the sufferer to have frequent, disturbing intrusive thoughts. She talks about all of this very openly in her work.

I first came across Bamford on YouTube, watching a web series she had made entitled The Maria Bamford Show. Aesthetically it is a piece of crap; it’s all shot in Bamford’s bedroom on a low-quality camera, with her playing all the parts (her talent for voices, especially those of her family members, really shines here). 

In my opinion, however, the content is pure gold. The series chronicles Bamford’s move back into her parents’ home in Duluth, Minn. following a nervous breakdown. She is recovering, or, as she puts it, “staying on [her] meds and drinking lots of Diet Coke.” 

The show is inherently about mental illness because its creator and star is saliently mentally ill. In terms of recommending it to others, it’s hit-or-miss; I’ve shown it to people who loved it and people who didn’t get it at all. I think that’s because it can feel uncomfortable to watch someone who self-identifies as mentally ill put on a “show” in her bedroom. 

To me it is hilarious because while it deals so heavily in depression and anxiety, it assumes a common language about those things that, when spoken the right way, can get a genuine — albeit knowing — laugh from the right audience. 

Take, for instance, the song Bamford sings to her therapist, which includes the lyric, “If I keep the ice cube trays filled, no one will die!” She expresses these dark anxieties and absurd idiosyncrasies in such a whimsical, ridiculous format, it’s hard not to join her in her playfulness. And it feels good to laugh about something that people so often insist on treating with the utmost gravity.

When I first saw Bamford’s videos, I was writing a lot of sad, treacly poetry about ravens and the woods and wanting to die. It wasn’t necessarily how I felt all the time, but it was the only format for expressing feelings of sadness with which I was familiar. 

Watching this goofy, soft-spoken woman perform a scathingly hilarious impression of her Midwestern mother or sing in a major key about leaning into the darkness within made me realize that I didn’t have to be Edgar Allan Poe in order to express myself. 

My mental illness is a constant presence in my life, and I have many ways of managing it: I take medication, I see a therapist, I exercise, I communicate openly with the people in my life that make up my support system. 

Art — especially of the comedic variety — is probably the most difficult, the most fun and the most personally rewarding technique I have of dealing with depression and anxiety, and I want to thank my queen Maria Bamford for showing me that sad and happy are not mutually exclusive.

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