by Liz Wood
An essay on the most meaningful painting that I have ever produced, and a way to explain to people that they are stronger than their sadness. Essentially: my journey and advice for dealing with depression and mental illness.
Dedicated to Mom, Caroline, Auntie Nola, Dean, The Chant Brothers, Pop Pop Birdie, Josh, Skyler, Sam, Freddie, Derek, and everyone who has impacted my life, taught me a lesson, or needed someone in a time of hurting.
To whomever is reading this: Hello. My name is Liz, and I’m going to take a wild guess that I am very similar to you.
I’m 17 years old, and if you’re a teenager, you’re probably aware that it can suck sometimes and it can be fun sometimes. I am an artist. This means that I love to create, I love to express myself, and nothing gives me more gratitude than creating something I love and watching people around me appreciate what my brain created. I have lived in Washington D.C, New York City, Albuquerque New Mexico, San Antonio Texas, back to Albuquerque, and finally, San Diego. Consistency is something I haven’t really ever known. And, like a large amount of teenagers today, I have suffered from depression and anxiety.
As I mentioned, I’m an artist. I have loved drawing and arts and crafts since I was practically conceived. I liked to doodle and draw and make things, but until recently, nothing I ever made really had any meaning to me. Everything I created was something I liked because I thought it looked pretty. Recently, this changed. From the span of November ’17 to February ’18, I hit rock bottom with my depression and anxiety. I hit an all time mental low. I’m talking self hate, suicidal thoughts, crying in bed every night, complete isolation and sadness.
In February, out of nowhere, I decided I wanted to make a large-scale painting. I wanted to paint on the largest canvas I’d ever worked with. So I did.
Like all of my other work, it started with an image I thought was pretty. But it was a huge canvas, and I had no idea how to fill it, until one day, something clicked, and I decided to paint my journey with depression. I am here – now – to decipher my art for you, tell you my story, and hopefully, if you are dealing with a struggle similar to mine, to tell you how I overcame this, healed, became strong, and learned to love myself.
Basically this painting works from the bottom up. It shows my journey from complete rock bottom to the new sense of self-love, creativity, happiness, and strength that I feel now. I’ll be exploring it in sections.
Blue devils is a synonym for sadness, and it’s what I have titled the lower section. The first image I would like to bring you to is the crying girl. Yes, this is a depiction of me. This is intended to show the sadness, despair and emptiness I felt at this time. This particular experience I had with depression and anxiety happened during a time which I felt like my whole world was falling apart. My grandfather passed away and it hit our family like a truck. Around the same time, my grandmother started showing evident signs of the dementia she would be fighting in the upcoming months. My mother was incredibly stressed with the weight of the world coming down on her, as a result of her father’s unexpected death and having to deal with his estate. Obviously, I was very sad about this. I was struggling in school and some inconveniences in my family occurred as well that made me sad and stressed me out like it would for any other teenager.
In the midst of everything else, I experienced heartbreak for the first time and lost the person who completed me. My boyfriend at the time was my first love. He was a year older than me and a senior. He was my first boyfriend, my first kiss, and I was completely and utterly in love with him. It sounds stupid, but he taught me things that no one else had, made me feel loved like no one else had, made me happier than anyone ever had before, and losing him made me sadder than anything else had.
I met him during a past depressive episode. He quickly became my favorite person to be around, and I fell for him. He was positive and bubbly. He was funny and different. He made me feel confident and pretty and like I was the most important girl in the world. And at the end of my sophomore year of high school, we started dating.
The next few months were ones of intense love. He made me playlists, and little gifts. He spent time with me almost every day of summer. My pain, struggle and sadness was his and vice versa. He had the most beautiful soul and he treated me like the princess that every teenage girl dreams of being treated as. My family, friends and myself were foolishly convinced that I’d lucked out and found my soul mate in my first boyfriend.
In early November, something happened completely unrelated to him that saddened me deeply. My boyfriend was at work that night and the following day he picked me up and kept me at his house the whole day. He comforted me and fed me all day until I found myself crying in his arms late at night because I didn’t want to go home and I just wanted to stay with him. He promised he would always be there for me, he would help me get through this, and that no matter what, he loved me. He was late getting home after dropping me off, and let me know that he’d had to tell his mom what was going on to explain why he was late getting home. He told me she’d said I was welcome at their home regardless of whether my boyfriend was there or not and that she would make me an extra key in case I ever needed to get in. I was overjoyed by this offer. I felt a love for him and his family that had me bawling in my shower at midnight. I felt that we had truly been verified and that I had a safe haven in him, his family, and home. This night marked the last night that things were normal. This marks the last time I would step foot in his home, the last time I would see his mother and father who I loved dearly, and his younger sister who I considered a friend and I loved like my own little sister.
A disclaimer: I am not writing and publishing this to be petty or vengeful. I do not wish to hurt him and this is in no way meant to be a stab to him. I am sharing my story because I believe that I lost him to depression and mental illness.
The weekend following my day under his care, I was promised I would be eating dinner with his family on Sunday. It was a three day weekend and he spent the 3 days partying, spending 2 nights in a row passed out on some random kids couch. I waited patiently for dinner on Sunday. Sundays were my special day with him. They were reserved for us. On Sunday evening, when I asked him to pick me up for dinner, he refused. I lost my patience.
I broke down. I locked myself in a volvo parked at the in-n-out parking lot, screaming about him and screaming at myself. Why was partying prioritized over me? Why was he not inviting me to these parties with him? Why was it that the previous weekend I was practically taken into his custody while the next one I had been rejected?
My boyfriend was sad and afraid. He was a senior in high school who had realized that his future was approaching fast. The reality of college and being an adult and the new responsibility that would come along with that crippled him. His biggest fear seemed to be saying goodbye to his youth and this fear seemed to impair his ability to act the way he used to.
Quickly I became his last priority. He refused to come over to my house after school. He refused to go the beach which had previously been his safe haven. I wasn’t acknowledged at school. He was no longer listening to our music. I was being left on read and practically ignored.
My thanksgiving break was a living hell. Everytime I asked him to spend time with me, an excuse was made. He managed to squirm out of every plan that I tried to make with him. I refused to leave my house to do anything because I feared I would be busy the moment he was available. I had no appetite, stayed in bed for most of the day, and became very sick. The following week I told him I absolutely had to speak to him. He came to my house, we worked it out, and by the time he left, I was convinced that he had gotten through his rough patch and that he still loved me and our relationship would go back to normal. I was wrong.
He continued to party and was grounded practically every week. He started to slip back into the way he was acting before thanksgiving break. I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t want to be around me and I started to blame myself for what was happening. I picked myself apart and became my own bully. I hated myself. I was in so much pain that I wanted to die. He was hanging out with other girls and I felt worthless because of it.
When we first started dating, he made me a playlist. It was titled “Liz”. For the 6 months of our relationship, the voices of Nick Rattigan, Austin Feinstein, Morrisey, DIIv, Paul Anka, and Beach House became a musical safe haven he had built for me. If I was missing him, or feeling down, I would listen to the songs he had curated for me and feel comforted. The week after Christmas I was hopelessly sad and went to listen to the playlist. I couldn’t find it. I asked him where it was and he bluntly told me he had changed the name. I was devastated. I wept in my car in the driveway for a good hour because I knew that the end was near.
On NYE, he went out partying with other girls and kids from school. Meanwhile, I stayed home crying in bed, hurting myself, hating myself, and wanting to be gone. I felt completely alone, embarrassed and worthless.
On the night of January 1st, I drove to his house and he ended our relationship. He got rid of me, who he had once reminisced about a future with, spoiled, loved, and protected. He, who once claimed that he was confused as to why a girl of such beauty could ever fall for a foolish boy like him, dumped me. He claimed that it was his senior year and he just wanted to spend time with his friends and didn’t have time for a relationship. That was the most surreal, numb, and nightmarish night of my life.
So, now, I will explain this piece of my art. The girl at the bottom represents the numbness and sadness I felt at the time. Above is a celestial scene of stars and constellations. These constellations are representative of my dreams throughout the three-month span of my relationship falling apart. I was having vivid dreams, and every morning would write them down in my sketchbook. The top left is the face of my ex boyfriend, with an image of a skeleton and the quote “eat your spaghetti”, representing how my sadness made me feel dead and how I had no appetite. There’s an image of a pregnant belly, representing a nightmare I had where I became pregnant with his child. The quote “You told me you loved me and I think you might have lied” is in the center of the sky for obvious reasons. I also had a nightmare where one of the girls he was hanging out with had kidnapped me, so I decided to portray her as the devil in my dream. And lastly, the sailboat, because I dreamed I was floating on in the middle of the ocean alone.
Blue Devils is the representation of what happened in my brain as I hit rock bottom.
Epiphany is defined as a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential meaning or nature of something. It is an intuitive grasp of reality through something usually simple and striking. It’s an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure. A revealing scene or moment.
In march, I decided I’d had enough. I realized that happiness was a choice and the only way that I could save myself was by choosing to be happy. I began to love myself and I realized that I had a beautiful mind. I had the ability to create images in my brain and put them on paper. Not only that, but I wasn’t bad at it.
I began to appreciate myself and gain confidence. Instead of putting myself down all the time I learned to love everything about myself. I loved my sarcasm and my dry sense of humor. I loved my creativity and taste for everything. I loved my friends and my family and I found a new appreciation for everyone in the world. I found love for simple things like the plants around me, the ocean, and the place that I lived in. I realized how much I had learned from my failed relationship and realized that what I had experienced strengthened me, teaching me and preparing me for the next relationship I would embark on. I realized that being sad was simply not worth it when there was so much to be happy about around me.
My epiphany showed me that I was progressing on my mental health journey. It gave me the hope I thought I had lost. I had felt so dark, so hopeless, so 100% sure that I had peaked in high school and life was on a downhill slope. Not locking myself in my room and sulking all day taught me that there were other beautiful people to meet, beautiful places to see, and beautiful experiences to have.
So… now that I’ve realized I’ve accidentally started writing a 4-step program based on my experience beating depression… I will reveal to you the concept of strength. I know you’re not stupid, and you know what strength is, but it’s absolutely crucial that you come to terms with just how strong you are.
As I mentioned before, I have lived all over the United States. In this section of my painting, I have The Pentagon in the bottom right corner. I was born in Washington D.C. and my family lived only a few minutes away from the Pentagon. We lived there during 9/11 and my parents had to deal with having an infant in the midst of one of the worst terrorist attacks in American history. We were also located in D.C. throughout the Anthrax crisis, when my parents would refuse to open their mail out of fear of them and their baby girl dying from anthrax poisoning. Though I was too young to remember this experience, it shows strength in my parents, and is a part of who I am.
The next location on my transcript of places I have lived is New York City. There isn’t really much to say here, but that my three-year old self got to live the life of a manhattan hotel brat. I was basically living the life of Zach and Cody before Zach and Cody were living the suite life of Zach and Cody.
The next stop on my journey was one of culture shock. This is represented on my painting by the adobe buildings of the Santa Ana Pueblo. My family moved from the bustling metropolis of New York City to the somewhat shabby yet charming southwestern city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. For the first time in my life we owned a house. I started going to a small christian preschool and developed my own friends for the first time. Albuquerque is not really considered to be an ideal place to raise a small child due to the failing economy, high crime rates, and lack of things to do. However when I look back, Albuquerque was somewhat of a dream for me as a small child.
Almost every morning I looked up to the sky and was met by a cluster of colorful hot air balloons. I was captivated by the culture and mystery I found in the Santa Ana pueblo which my father’s work was located within. I lived on a street where we were close with all of our neighbors and I considered all of them to be my friends. In winter, I was typically met with a light snow that allowed me to make snow angels in my yard. Every fall, my dad took us to the International balloon festival where I scarfed down the balloon fiesta delicacy of cinnamon sugar mini donuts and gazed at the hundreds of balloons that filled the morning sky. I learned to ski in the Sandia mountains with the company of my dad, and watched local rodeos on the weekend.
I think that one of the greatest lessons I learned in Albuquerque was kindness. In pre-school there was a little boy in my class who was extremely quiet. He was picked on, and played by himself, and I took it upon myself to befriend this boy. Through lunches and playdates, we quickly became the best of friends. He went from being sad and quiet and hating going to school to enjoying school and having friends. At the time, it didn’t seem like much, but to this day my mother uses it to humble me and remind me that there is kindness in me.
When I was six, the time came for us to pack up and leave Albuquerque. I was devastated to leave my first grade class. I cried when I had to pack up my Disney princess themed bedroom and leave my yellow house on the west side of town. The next stop was San Antonio, Texas, represented by the riverwalk where you could access the alamo and eat shaved ice and mexican food. Here, I learned the danger of materialism and money. I lived in an area where from a very young age, girls were taught to judge people based on the clothes they wore, the house they lived in, and who their parents were. My mother was pressured to befriend a particular group of women so I could have the best experience possible at school.
In third grade, if you wore the same outfit more than once in a week, you were pretty much destined to have the other girls talk about you behind your back. In fourth grade, every girls’ parents were coughing up money to buy their daughters Vera Bradley bags and Ugg boots so they could fit in. By the time I reached fifth grade, girls were gossiping about each other in terms of how much money their families had. I had been in this environment since I was in first grade and it was all that I knew. At the end of fifth grade, I found out that we were moving back to Albuquerque. I was heartbroken that I wouldn’t be able to go to middle school with the group of kids I had worked so hard to be a part of, and would have to start over in New Mexico.
In New Mexico, I attended a very small and very liberal private school. On the first day of school, I carefully curated a texas-worthy outfit consisting of Abercrombie and Fitch with a Vera Bradley bag and Steve Madden sandals. I showed up to school and to my surprise, the majority of kids were wearing t-shirts from their summer camps and cargo shorts. What was funny about this was that they were probably the nicest group of kids I had ever met. They didn’t care about what you wore or who your family was and what kind of things you had. Money was not something to judge each other about, and I quickly learned that most of my classmates were struggling financially because their families were committed to giving them the best education possible.
While this school was enlightening and taught my many lessons to cherish for the rest of my life, sixth grade was the beginning of my journey with depression and anxiety. My school was rigorous, and we were held to academic expectations that I was not equipped for from my elementary school experience. My grades suffered and I always felt inferior to my classmates. My parents were stressed, I was sad and felt hopeless, and I had no motivation. I suffered from panic attacks, was harming myself at age 12, and felt like I was my worst enemy. My parents took me to therapy where I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and it was decided that I would leave my school. The next school was an even smaller private school where there was only about 28 kids in my seventh grade class. With lower academic expectations, my family was hoping for this to be a better fit for me. But the class was so small that I found it hard for me to find kids that I related to and could truly connected to. Very quickly, I wanted nothing more than to return to my old school, be with my old friends and take interesting classes.
The sadness crept up on me again. The following year, my parents sent me to an even smaller school where I dealt with bullies, rude boys, and a schizophrenic girl who threatened to kill me. All in all, not a great experience.
Finally my dreams came true and my parents told me they were sending me back to my original school. I was overjoyed, and felt like everything was falling into place. For the second semester of eighth grade, I was back with my friends, learning about the things that interested me, participating in plays and art shows, and going camping with my class. I was happy as could be and could not wait to take on high school.
The problem was, Albuquerque had a failing economy. There was a chance my dad would lose his job, and my family would no longer be able to send me and my sister to private school. Albuquerque public schools were rated #49 out of the 50 united states.
The summer before freshman year, I found out we were moving to San Diego, California. While most people would be thrilled to live in sunny San Diego, I was devastated to be leaving the life I had built for myself in Albuquerque. I had worked so hard to get back to my original school and felt that I had finally settled down and achieved happiness. Leaving my friends was hard but what was coming was even more difficult.
When I moved to San Diego, I arrived one day, unpacked the next day, and on the third I was thrown into California public school, which are notorious for being huge. My new school looked like a college campus and was larger than any school I had seen before. I went from 40 kids in my grade, to 1,000 kids in my grade. The school was so large that most kids didn’t even realize I was new, and thought that I had just transferred from another class. I had no friends, no one to eat lunch with, and couldn’t really figure out why public school was legal. It took me a few months to find a friend, and the depression was back in full swing. I cried most days, I was fairly suicidal, and I spent every weekend and day after school locked in my room.
After a while, I realized my mom was not going to homeschool me, I was stuck at public school, and all I could do was figure out how to make it work. I branched out, made friends, and chose to make my own happiness at school. And, though the school part itself still sucks, I have plenty of friends I adore, teachers I love, and a new boyfriend who gives me hope for men.
In the painting, the girl with the pink face and the cacti in the background is a portrayal of me realizing my own strength. I realized how much I had experienced and overcome and learned in my short 17 years. I realized how well prepared I was for the real world and how many lessons I had learned from my experiences. The cactus is a plant very near and dear to me; I like to say that my spirit animal is the cactus (even though it’s a plant) because the cactus thrives in the middle of nothing. Surrounded by the harsh desert, the cactus is still able to grow into a grand and ripe plant, blooming gorgeous flowers and holding precious water.
After reflecting on my past, looking at what I had around me, and considering the potential of my future, I realized I was better than my depression and that I was going to enjoy life so much more if I taught myself to be happy. The focal point of this section is the mouth eating the spaghetti. This is symbolic of my journey with depression and anxiety, because between November ’17 and January ’18, I would get so upset that I couldn’t even eat my favorite food, spaghetti. But I was able to overcome this, celebrated by the large mouth eating the spaghetti. The rest of the area is filled with wacky designs that represent my happiness.
I realized throughout my journey that while my ex-boyfriend was my first love and I was heartbroken to lose him, we were both at a difficult time in our lives and it wasn’t meant to be. We had issues to work through and dragging each other along was not helping either of us. Meeting my new boyfriend taught me that there are other people for me, and there are people who see me for what I am and appreciate my quirks and flaws. I realized I am living in a beautiful world and there is love & beauty all around me, and so much I have yet to see. Looking at the world through eyes of happiness brings out so much more of its beauty than eyes of sadness do. I realized I was one of the strongest people I know.
In my short life, I have had to undergo what seemed like endless change. But this change has taught me valuable lessons and truly sculpted me into a better person. I have been forced to learn to love myself, and my mind, spirit, and body. I love my creativity and my humor and the way that I think and see the world.
I feel that my life is at a practically perfect point right now, but I know there is so much more struggle to come. Life is constantly throwing obstacles at you, but what suffering from recurring depression has taught me is that every situation I’ve been faced with has been one I have been able to overcome.
Enough About Me, Let’s Talk About You
In the United States, 1 in 5 teens suffer from mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. This number causes some people, particularly adults, to accuse many of us of not truly having a mental illness and using it as a label to get out of things, gain attention or receive special treatment. Please do not listen to them. Do not let anyone make you feel bad or guilty. Mental illness is something that is usually out of your control. It makes you feel hopeless, and there is no switch for mental illness.
All I can tell you, is that you are strong and you will overcome this. You are young. You have your whole life ahead of you. You will learn who is worth keeping around and who is there for you. All I ask is that you open your eyes and realize your worth. We all have worth. We all have some talent or feature or attribute that makes us special. We are all important to someone and sometimes you just have to open your eyes to those people. Life is not easy for anyone. We all live very different lives and we all face different kinds of struggle. But you have made it this far and you have overcome so much. All you can do is keep pushing and build your strength.
You are beautiful, you are loved, you are talented, you have worth. Thank you for reading this. It means a lot to me. I don’t know what kind of struggle you are going through but I hope this may have helped you, even just a tiny bit. Please keep pushing.
I am an artist.
I am a creator.
I am a messenger.
I am a visionary.
I am not alone.
I am all.
IF YOU NEED SOMEONE TO TALK TO