By Holli Harms
“NEW YORK LIVE ARTS PRESENTS OPEN SPECTRUM: BRILLIANT DARKNESS, A Conversation with Artists About Mental Health, Curated by Brian Tate
A panel of young women, moderated by Dior Vargas
, Latina feminist and mental health activist, came together to discuss how artists negotiate their day to day in this constant onslaught of negativity: racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia and other attacks on humanity. The panel: Caits Meissner
, Sydney Magruder Washington
, and Loubna Mrie
, spoke of their personal struggles with mental health, how they weave it, when appropriate, into their work, and how they are spokespersons for others who suffer.
Loubna Mrie is a Syrian photographer and journalist. She started taking photos in Syria at age 20 after she took to the streets with so many thousands of Syrians marching against the Assad regime. What she witnessed that day triggered her to take a stance and start documenting what was happening to her fellow citizens. But her photography, her tool as an activist, was also her catalyst into anxiety. She is writing a book about the experience and said that the writing is a healing for her.
That came up several times in the evening. The healing of writing. Keeping a journal to put down your thoughts and feelings, interpretations and observations.
Loubna also talked about the stigma of therapy in her country. How Syrians look down on it. Even when she was visiting a neighborhood in the States made up of Syrian immigrants, many of them having lived in this country their entire lives, they frowned on the idea of therapy. She talked about the bullying that goes on in Syria in the schools, and not by students, but the teachers. Teachers openly beat students for not doing their homework. She said, “We are so good, we Syrians, at avoiding therapy.” The idea is that It’s okay not to be okay.
Sydney Magruder Washington, ballerina, actor, singer and self described mental health warrior, discussed mental health as something that we need not hide but embrace and in the embracing find our way through it. She said she was the only black ballet dancer at the time she was first learning. She was told by dance teachers that she would never be a professional dancer, because she was too short, too fat and not pretty enough. Here it is again, bullying at the hands of those in charge. She decided with her blogs and instagrams to not hide the fact that she sees a therapist and that she is a constant work in progress.
Aren’t we all constant works in progress? Growing, learning and changing. And aren’t we in need of help? In need of talk with someone(s) outside ourselves? To know that our complications do not define us, should not hold us down, kick us out of the game?
Caits Meissner is a New York City-based poet, artist and cultural worker, and the author of the illustrated hybrid poetry book, LET IT DIE HUNGRY. She works within prison rehabilitation, taking writing to prisoners; The Humans That We Are: A Prison Poetry Tour. She believes exponentially in the strength of journal writing. Putting feelings and emotions down on paper releases their power. Pain can be channeled to produce good work. She talked about her work on self and work with others and how that has been so fulfilling for her.
They all brought up labeling and identity and how it needs to stop in order for healing to happen. To be kinder to ourselves and others. Get judgement out of the equation.
I kept thinking that if we were more open about our struggles, maybe Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade would not have made the choice they did, instead could have reached out and overcome the stigma of needing help with their mental health and realize that it does not define us, but is simply another aspect of ourselves.
It is a privilege to have the opportunity to be able to consider your mental state, having the finances and the tools to work on the parts of us that aren’t working. That too was discussed and it was emphasized that there are professionals who will take individuals on a sliding scale. You just have to do the research and interview the therapists. And it was encouraged for us to go and start our own discussion forum, a group of our friends whom we can talk with, share with.
At the end of evening there was a q & a with the audience. Many asking how to move on when they feel that society puts them down or they themselves are doing the putting down. Sydney Magruder Washington said it all in this phrase, “ I’m not a quitter, a punk, nor a doormat.” “Know that to sit in discomfort has power.”
Our emptiness can have power.
Overall, remember to be decent to one another, to acknowledge each other, not to label and as was said – let’s remake American culture as one of inherent worth and dignity, instead of American culture as one of success. Success as money and star making, does not bring fulfillment. Remember Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade.