Next weekend, I will have my first show of my collages at a friend's beauty shop here in my hometown of Elwood, Indiana (Event Info). Photos of that show will be up shortly; for now, here is my artist statement:
In high school, I nearly failed an art class because I couldn’t seem to draw a dang realistic conch shell to save my life. Around the same time, I discovered a nerve for poetry, a practice that allowed me to call myself an artist, albeit of the word. My romp in the playground of poetry led me to the Surrealists & the New York School, in whose examples I discovered the most democratic visual artform: the collage. With scissors, glue, & found materials, I was finally able to create my own visual artworks. I dabbled in collage beginning in 2013, mostly as a therapeutic process, a grounding technique for my then-undiagnosed bipolar disorder, something safe & constructive to do among the haze. In the last couple years, it has transitioned into a true artistic practice, always hunting new methods & wild combinations to create pieces that are first & foremost playful & exuberant. These past sixteen months back in my hometown of Elwood, Indiana, I have been utilizing magazines, maps, pamphlets & other materials discovered collected in my grandparents’ home, as well as discarded frames, unhung paintings, & forgotten farm gear, to showcase these methods. Created in the luminous late-night hours, these are pieces of transition--settling in back home, learning to live with a mental illness, moving on without certain loved ones (including my recently passed grandfather). These are collages that speak to the disjunction of my head & the conviction of my heart, in honor of the mess I find & make. Make no mistake: this isn’t fine art; it is alright art, “I’m-doing-just-fine” art.
for Grandpa Fred, Aunt Martha, Cousin Tony
I hope the poets are writing from deep within their Covid caves. I was mid-conversation with a friend the other day, & they said, “One of the few good things about this pandemic is that it has forced writers into a space where they can do their writing.” It took me a second to realize that this was an alley-oop to talk about my own writing in the Covid era. Socially & publicly over the last four years, I have felt very little like a writer, very removed from the poetry community that I once held so dear; instead, I peck away in my cave, these minor blips let out via this blog as a way to let off some steam. It wasn’t always this way, though.
Before my mental health completely tanked--from my last couple years at Ball State through my first two years in Austin--I was all over the place in the poetry scene, hosting reading series & workshops, performing a couple times a month, & revolving my social calendar around times to meet up with other writers to swap manuscripts, read to each other from our favorite books, & scout out possible collaborations over beers & laughter. I was also so stoked to edit for several magazines over the years--providing editorial feedback, publishing reviews, & letting some wicked work out to the world. Oddly enough, these editorial positions validated me most as a poet, the extreme privilege of getting to work alongside great writers on honing their own language.
That all changed on September 26, 2016, the day after my 28th birthday, when my ex-girlfriend LR published her essay “I Shouldn’t Have To Write This,” chronicling a period of abuse on my behalf, linked my undiagnosed bipolar episodes. That essay unleashed a picture of me that was unknown to much of the writing community I was a part of, including at the magazine/press & MFA program I was currently involved with. It also brought to light many details of my own psychological distress that I had never heard before. To put it lightly, it completely recalibrated my relationship with poetry.
I think LR & the crew that saw me as a loud, abusive prick assumed I would just go away from poetry, give up the craft, & be someone else’s burden. In truth, I was a scared-to-shit twenty-five year old when it happened, juggling a major illness, a support system that was turning its back on me, & the loss of the career path I was heading towards. But that terrified young man, over the last few years has leaned into poetry, not as a community-builder or a friend-giver as it once was, but rather as a therapeutic tool to release the dissociative cross-sections & psychosis-driven delusions that I’ve been carrying much of my adult life. Poetry has become the place to remainder my excess.
It doesn’t mean I don’t miss it, still in mourning over the sudden loss of many dear friends, a possible career, & the joy of publishing / performing poetry. I often think of the glow on my friends’ & co-host’s faces watching some incredible writers & performers at my Everything is Bigger reading series. I think often of the authors I was lucky enough to publish in various roles, as they would post on social media when their author copies came in the mail. I often think of the writers--from third graders to the elderly--I got to teach in workshop. I think often of the books, both my own & other beloved collections, I got to hand-over to curious poetry minds. That’s what I miss the most, being out & about in the community, adding a little ring to the symphony.
For many years, that wasn’t possible or responsible, with the combination of the stigma from LR’s essay & my own awareness of the volatile nature of my undiagnosed mental illness. Like I said, I was better suited to a private poetry life. But what about now? I’m much better off psychologically. I have attempted (& will continue to) multiple times to make amends for the harm I’ve caused others in the writing community. I wrote my open letter to the poetry community. Am I ready to be out & about in the poetry community?
Well, obviously, the current pandemic stops that from happening, but what about from a distance--the publishing & the reviewing & the championing of others’ work--can I do that? I will tell you the truth about something. From the moment I first found out about LR’s essay, I was not so concerned with the effect it would have on my poetry “career,” nevermind the death threats & vandalism. I was most concerned with the impact it would have on others--the shocking disappointment, the blatant fear, & the expected backlash for those who knew me & even more so, those who would continue to know me. You can see it even in this post, my refusal to include the names of those folks I was previously involved with.
I know people bullied my support system in the years following that essay. What about now? What if I try to publish, either my own poems in magazines or starting a magazine to publish others? I am concerned about the bad reputation & backlash those seemingly innocuous decisions would have on those writers who get involved with me. It is the same reason I kept my name away from the work I was doing with DS’s theater projects; the risk never seemed worth the reward.
The other day, Saturday October 10th, was World Mental Health Day, a day to promote awareness, understanding, & advocacy for the millions of people around the globe struggling with mental health issues, ultimately to increase investment in mental health resources & programs. As I’ve learned through my own struggle with my mental illness, as well as the symptoms, diagnoses, & treatment for other disorders & afflictions, I’m becoming more comfortable advocating for mental health in general. In this post, I would like to offer a reflection on my experience, show gratitude for those folks who’ve helped me along the way, & provide some resources that might be valuable to others.
If I had to pinpoint when these mental health struggles started for me, I would say around 16 or 17; it was then that my negative reactions, such as in anger & disappointment, began to take on inflated, difficult-to-control characteristics. As the years ticked on, I began to suffer both time & memory loss, dissociating & becoming consumed by my emotions. Multiple friends in college pulled me aside to check me on my behavior--nonsensical yelling at others, disappearing in the middle of normal situations, irrational text messages or emails--concerns I, at first, brushed off as misunderstandings. I remember one good friend CD & I having a long talk outside of the library where he listed in detail several moments that I had very hazy, vague memories of, situations where I had “blown up” seemingly over nothing--randomly shouting at my partner, attacking a friend on a camping trip, shoving someone in line & running off screaming incoherently.
This was when I realized something was wrong; the stories, once lost in my haze & kept in secret by others out of respect, began piling up. I remember the first time I ever hallucinated a voice. It was my senior year at Ball State & the creative writing department had taken a few students down to a poetry festival in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Overwhelmed by all the people & the pressure, I went for a stroll through a nice neighborhood. I heard someone say, “Hello.” I looked around & saw no one. I heard it several more times, me crouching to look under cars & behind bushes. I stood in the middle of the street, freaked-out, pouring sweat. One last time, more personal this time, the voice said, “Hello, Tyler,” & then my head turned to static. I awoke what I believe to be several seconds later on someone’s lawn.
What I did next was the mistake I made for the next decade over & again--minimizing the situation & simply moving on. I rejoined the Ball State crew & went on my way. Oh how I wish I had pulled my trusted professor aside & told him what had happened. Even in therapy & my most intimate relationships, I long avoided the hard facts of what was happening--I was being undertaken by hallucinations, delusions, & mood swings--instead attempting to rationalize my way out of it. Oh how I wish I had taken my symptoms more seriously.
Back in April of this year, when I finally received my proper diagnosis, I was elated to finally have a disorder to name. My psychiatrist urged me to focus instead on the symptoms & how we can alleviate those symptoms rather than worrying about what is & isn’t confined in the name of my disorder. If I had been more honest about my symptoms earlier, I could have avoided the DID misdiagnosis that led to misguided & possibly harmful treatment & mania-inducing anti-depression meds. If I had been more mindful of the symptoms--receiving proper medication & behavioral therapy sooner--it could’ve prevented the physical & emotional abuse that I caused several loved ones. I say this, not to pile on the regret, but to stress the importance of honesty & self-awareness, even when it is embarrassing & terrifying.
I want to honor those loved ones who took the brunt of my unknowing. As I was tangled in worsening psychotic tendencies & greater mood swings, I subjected two wives, one serious partner, & several roommates / best friends to, I’m sure, scary & confusing episodes. I wish every day that I could take back the strange tirades & the Tasmanian-Devil whirlwind, the broken promises & the baffling switches; oh how I wish I could take away the trauma & pain I’ve caused others. The thing I can do now here is thank them for sticking with me, pushing me to get help, & leaving when they couldn’t handle anymore, saving us both untold aches & pains.
In Austin, I had one therapist, SW, who was incredibly kind, honest, & understanding of my struggles. Though she misdiagnosed me & made a pretty big mistake recently in consulting on my marriage separation, the steps she walked me through in interpersonally & socially handling my mental illness, especially in cleaning up the aftermath of my episodes, were invaluable. When I had a spell & screamed irrational judgements & profanities at a friend, she helped me talk through the shame to get to a point of apologetic gratitude. When I feared the worst--that I would harm my wife DS--she helped me parse out the triggers & make plans with DS for better transitions & preventions in the future. She also taught me some of my crucial grounding techniques, such as utilizing the five senses technique & recognizing thinking errors that lead to spells. Thank you to SW for the years of patience & guidance.
Since DS left, I’ve been seeing a local therapist, TT, who has done a fantastic job of helping me transition to this new journey in my life--living as a single man with bipolar disorder. She has helped me separate what is the grief of losing DS & what is the struggle with the illness. She challenged me to make a daily schedule to stay focused on the things I can control; she encouraged me to keep this weekly blog to process the things I can’t control. Perhaps most importantly, she facilitated my relationship with my new psychiatrist & got me on the right medications to lessen the symptoms. Thank you to TT for the support in this critical time.
I also want to thank all the folks who keep this easily lonesome hick active & with company. It is much easier for me to ignore the voices & tamp down the impulses when I’m surrounded by love & joy. I have an insatiable, sometimes manic need for human connection--through hanging out, conversing, & sharing. Hobbies have been crucial for me throughout this decade-long battle--the regular disc golf rounds, the cooking & sharing of meals, the discussion of art. As someone in a small town in the middle of elsewhere, it is helpful to have regular phone calls with my friends & family scattered throughout the world. Thank you to everyone who has explored & shared life with me; it literally keeps me sane.
As I move forward, I’m going to continue my cognitive behavioral therapy & medication routine. I will make daily plans to see someone I love for a constructive activity, be it a round of disc golf or a walk through town, a collage session or a good meal, recognizing that as an introvert I gain my positive energy from other people. I hope to find a guitarist to jam with on the drums, remembering how grounded playing with my friend MT in Austin made me. I plan to get a group of pals together regularly for both a collage & euchre nights, harnessing my passion for community-building. I am going to continue to research & test-kitchen kabobs for my food stand idea, seeking alternate means for a disabled person to make a living. I will continue on my physical health journey through weight-lifting, playing sports, & cutting out soda / alcohol / fried foods, knowing my mental health is served best by a fit body. I will continue to do my daily mindfulness, reading, & writing routines, in order to keep my mind sharp.
That’s where I encourage people to start, with the actions they can control. Set accomplishable goals. Make useful lists. Reach out to supportive people. Do activities that give you energy & zest. Beyond that, if you’re struggling with mental health, I always say start now, in terms of getting professional help. Unfortunately, our mental health care system is unnecessarily complex & aggravating, often taking weeks or even months to even get in for consultation if you’re not actively harming yourself or others. It is not easy, but it is necessary to be patient with the process. The techniques take many years to really sink in & benefit from; the relationships with therapists, psychiatrists, & the system as a whole take much practice to learn to manage. Most of all, if anyone needs someone to talk to, I’m here to listen.
Resources That Have Helped Me
SPECIFIC COMMITMENT ATTEMPT
To reinvest in the harsh music of reality.
To describe a chalkboard simply by sound.
To recap the luncheon through onomatopoeia.
To structure something in my own image, which of course, is yours.
To show others, in an historic singular way, the hardwood floor.
To harbor bitterness only where there is perfection.
To crimp the ribbons at the right moments on the calendar.
To intertwine my drowsiness with productivity, two rainbows.
To never spread an ugly rumor about a tooth.
To liberate whoever, for you, against you, or not.
To calm the clash beating my hometown to its pulp.
To surprise each exodus with my smile.
To operate my ancient lust with charm & kindness.
To sing from within my clay prison.
To quit mailing you fanciful envelopes of basic bones.
To never repeat the original lie.
To forget that I was previously at odds with the mathematics.
To be viscerally aware of what others have called the sun god & the rain god.
To bless the prospect of missing another.
To itemize my sense of things, one grain of rice, the replica football stadium.
To talk about hierarchy at length.
To find the collision of joy & a hatchling desire.
To locate my eyelashes, my spine, my shoulders each morning.
To sound great in everyday life, be it covered in sheep’s blood or riding a motorcycle through the desert.
To reflect the boat I am only original pieces of.
To translate, as needed, when the time isn’t quite.
To end more cooked than I came.
To explore these pristine reservoirs of hope.
To table unproven thoughts on upper-arm convulsions until further notice.
To interrogate whatever was said, if only to get a better view.