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I was so incredibly in love with the work. The pure joy I felt in being a part of such a magical community defies description really. Watching the project grow was something I never really expected. Of course, when magic happens - you just follow where it goes and flow with the evolution.
And evolution indeed happened. What began as a means of working through some of my own issues became a project that showed the authenticity we all possess within us. What started as a girl with a camera capturing a moment, evolved into a movement that quickly took me out of my own locale and into other cities.
As evolution progressed, I stayed pretty visible. I was (and still am) highly interested in staying in touch with those that have participated in this project. At one point, I was doing a daily live stream, interacting with people and was able to witness the magic of the project move even beyond the borders of our own country.
It was magic. It still is magic.
I started traveling. I visited other cities, I met with other magical amazing women. I did interviews and podcasts, speaking engagements and guest lectures. The community grew. A few phenomenal folks jumped in and started helping me out, which I am still so incredibly grateful to. We collaborated with some truly magical people.
We started a fourth cycle of images and then something happened. A something that I think it's important to talk about. And also a big reason my visibility shifted for a little bit.
Mental illness happened. Mental illness is happening.
For many years now, it has been common knowledge in my circle that I married a man with generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. Recently a diagnosis of ADD was added, giving us a perfect storm of symptoms.
My husband was diagnosed nearly seven years ago, but it wasn't until early September of this year that meaningful treatment became a pursuit. For many years, the disease was just present, while my husband was just....not. I had learned to be here to pick up the pieces while he wasn't present. I had learned to fill up my time and to live without affection and an emotional connection. I focused on my children, my household, my career, activism, and art. I filled my time and learned to live without some aspects of my marriage. I became a caregiver instead of a wife and held a delicate balance of emotions in a household with two daughters and a depressed spouse who had checked out. I almost checked out myself.
So what happened? In short, The Awakenings Project happened. As many know, and as I've said on multiple occasions, TAP began as a means of me working through my own shit. Part of the shit I was working through was learning to empower myself, because I was at a point where I could only rely on myself (so I thought). In taking a photo to empower myself, I discovered that connecting to who I am (vs who I was to everyone around me and following the societal checklist) was something that I had avoided for a long time. While I originally made the excuse that since no one else was helping me, I would help myself, the real discovery was that I needed to be helping myself all along. This knowledge pushed me into a space where I was ready to fight to be a wife again. I wanted to show up as my absolute authentic self, and not just a caregiver.
As this project progressed, I shared the stories of sessions, the amazement and endearing admiration I hold for all the participants I have shared space with, and the finished images in all their powerful wonder. Time, as it is said, is a powerful healer. The TAP Tribe grew, and with it, my view of how to support mental illness also grew. I opened my mind to the many options for treatment and shared them with my husband. And then it happened. A shift started. My husband wanted to draw something based on the TAP words. (Note: yes, two artists in one house can get interesting.) He chose a word from the list I provided him. Realistically, we chose to draw Resilient as the first word inspired piece. It is the most used word, and only made sense.
Within that week or so, the depression and anxiety reared its head and showed up in a big way this time. There was no soothing or talking through it this time. I had reached the end of what I could do, and my soul was tired. We pulled out the big dogs.
Cognitive behavioral therapy.
The days became chaos as both he and I worked through emotions towards each other and learned the value of emotional connection as spouses, and not just as caregiver and patient. Some days were great. Some just ... weren't. But we kept moving. Our days revolved around getting the right balance of medication, therapy, and rest. Days turned to weeks. Weeks turned into a month, then two. We discovered how much had changed in our lives since he had checked out. We approached patterns together and are actively changing our perspective towards not just our marriage, but how we parent, how we collaborate on art work, and how we move through our days as a team, and, more importantly, how we support each other.
But he kept drawing. He kept working on what resilience looked like. It took nearly 9 weeks and several restarts, but he channeled the word into his art. And in doing so, it became a therapy for him as well. He connected with the word, and in doing so, he found his own resilient spirit.
It has been 2 weeks since he completed this. There has been a bad day or two since then, some really great days, and one election. But he is still resilient. Even in the midst of a bad day, he knows he is resilient, and that nothing is permanent. When the storm rages on, he chooses to bend, instead of breaking. And I bend with him and weather the storm with him, whether that storm be a medication change, a therapy session that dealt with "ugly" topics, or identification of stressors. And in my support, I carry with me the words and spirit of TAP.
I have spent years focused on empowerment, to the point where I was SURE my entire household was like "okay, okay, we GET IT ALREADY!". Seeing the impact of a positive message in a household living with the effects of depression and anxiety is a powerful thing. Hearing my husband tell me how the project changed HIM, just by being a witness to it, is indescribable. Depression and anxiety, and the symptoms that come with it, are uncomfortable to talk about. I get that. No one likes to talk about their mental illness. No one like to talk about how they may support someone with mental illness either. (Note: There is literally ONE support organization I could find for spouses of those with mental illness.) But we have to talk about it. In addition to the relief of talking about it, mental illness is not something to be ashamed of. There is a horrible stigma attached to mental illness, and we simply need to talk about it to raise the awareness that even though we can't see it, it is still a disease.
My husband is in treatment in for his depression, and he is actively engaged in his treatment and looks forward to marriage counseling and cognitive therapy. We both do actually. It was simply time for these things to happen. As we navigate this new path of resilient loving support, the work continues. This project may have saved me, and allowed me to be part of a tribe of strength and determination. I am grateful to every woman with whom I've shared space. You have gifted me the will to keep moving forward and to bend when the storm hits.
We know that depression will never go away. It will always be here.
And so will resilience.
Artist Note: The art piece drawn by Brian Southards will soon be available for order, with 50% of the proceeds being donated to the National Alliance for Mental Illness. Learn more about their mission at https://www.nami.org/About-NAMI