“Maze on Fire”
©Christine Hager-Braun, Fiber, 39 x 38 inches
Today is “World Mental Health Day”. In this post I share a very abbreviated version of my story as I have been using my voice as an artist to raise awareness about mental health. Why do I share my story? The reasons are many, but most of all I want everyone who struggles from a mental health condition to know that there is help available and improvement is possible. Moreover, I hope to inspire others to accept themselves and those around them with greater kindness.
Back in 2003, I created my first art quilt. It was based on my own design, pieced from 400 little squares and free-motion quilted on a simple sewing machine.
In “Maze on Fire” I expressed how I felt at that time. I struggled with depression and felt surrounded by darkness. I was walled in by the taboo, facing the dead ends of a maze, which was on fire as I could not find a way out of my misery. I did not know who to turn to because of the stigma attached to mental illness.
While my husband supported me tremendously, it took a long time until I had the courage to seek professional help. I started psychotherapy and received medication.
Yet, there was one other component that contributed significantly to my healing: art quilting.
For the seams to line up properly, I needed an accurate ¼-inch seam allowance. Focusing on the seam allowances left no space in my head for negative self-talk. When I stitched two pieces of fabric together, I felt a sense of accomplishment. The softness of fabric and the tactile quality of the process were soothing.
Before long, I had created an entire art quilt.
Art quilting allowed me to express my feelings when shame and guilt resulted in silent suffering.
Since then, many years have gone by. I have learned to recognize the early symptoms of depression and the importance of the many small elements which contribute to emotional and psychological well-being:
Healthy eating, exercise, and sleep.
The support of my family and friends, but also letting go of those people in my life for whom I didn’t seem to be “good enough” as I struggle with a mental health condition.
Becoming aware of my ways to sabotage myself, setting boundaries to the critic in my head, being patient with myself on this journey, accepting myself with kindness on the days I feel down.
I learned to recognize my resilience. I learned to see the light around me and the light within me.
And I learned that there is no need to be ashamed when we struggle from depression or any other mental illness. Silence is dangerous, and therefore, I speak up, through words and through my art.
Every time I present a talk about my mental health art pieces, members of the audience come up to me to share their stories. I’m a complete stranger to them, yet they open up to me. As I listen, I’m deeply honored by the trust they put in me and I admire their courage and strength. Revealing our experiences allows us to become allies for each other, even if it’s only for a short time. Through the shared understanding we feel less alone.
While we all need to start on a personal, individual level, together we will eventually establish an open conversation about mental health and expand the care we all need and deserve for our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
It is time that we remove the stigma of mental illness and turn the Maze on Fire into a clear path forward.
I encourage you to take good care of yourself, not only in times of crises, but today and every day. If you feel overwhelmed, reach out for help as allies make the process easier. And maybe quilting, drawing, writing, dancing, or any other form of creativity, will help you too, on your journey to a healthier and happier you.
* You can watch my short presentation for the panel discussion at the Rubenstein Art Center at the Duke University, Durham, NC on Dec 6, 2019, in conjunction with the visual art exhibition “The Art of Mental Health” curated by Dr. Melissa Miller here.