Art with Mental Illness by Michael Pementel

There has always been more to me than balancing my day job and my art. I knew something was up around the age of ten, that was around the time I had my first suicidal thought. Throughout my life there have been days with feelings of loss and hopelessness, waking up and hating myself. Day in and day out crying, not being able to see or feel hope, sometimes self harm. I became aware at a young age of what depression, anxiety and OCD meant. Art became that means for me to express my feelings, express my passions and suffering.

It was in high school when music started to really impact me. I had always loved music before then, but had never put much personal significance into it. It was a Slipknot song called “Wait and Bleed” that became the initial shove to becoming an artist. Here was me feeling alone and cold, and then these strangers across the country were screaming and saying exactly how I felt. I had never experienced anything like that before, that is the first time I remember experiencing the magic that is art. It was then when I became obsessed and began seeking all the art I could. Music introduced me to poetry, which introduced me to writing. It was those three which became my ultimate tools of escape; expressing how I felt with a pen, getting behind a microphone and tearing out my vocal cords. But where as art had become a way to help me cope with the various illnesses in my head, so did those illnesses get in the way at times.

There have been many days where I’ve sat at my desk, staring at the blank page, pen in hand, and I can’t get a word out. My head would go blank, the muscles around my neck would tense, and I would feel this cold shiver around my heart. These periods still happen from time to time and can go on for a day, couple of days, a couple of months. When I started creating I told myself that I must create something that would change lives, that could help people. When I would think of that goal in these moments of stagnancy I would begin to hate myself. And with that I would find myself in this cycle of despair. In these moments life would feel like utter hell. I believed that I was a waste and that I was failing at all my goals.

There are a lot of people who get the same feelings in these moments, but the important thing I learned is that sometimes you need to take a step back. The only way you can create and make good work is if you have a clear head, so you got to take care of yourself first before you can create. The key to fighting things like depression is just like working with art: determination and faith. You push through with your art, you create what needs to be created and you keep going on no matter what. That’s how it works to take on depression: you have to keep on fighting. You try to learn that all that negative hell in your head means absolutely jack, that it isn’t you. Art has done more to help me face my suffering than anything else, and it’s because of art and the loving people in my life I keep on going. If you suffer with some sort of mental illness the key is to remember that it doesn’t define you. As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten a better grasp on that notion and no longer look at myself as an illness. Art became a way for me to better understand the world and myself. Art taught me how to have a better control over these moments of hopelessness.

Depression can be romanticized at times when involving art, but there’s nothing romantic about wanting to kill yourself. There’s absolutely nothing beautiful in hating yourself. No one truly enjoys being sad or feeling lost. I reached a point a couple years ago when it all really hit me and I was done with always feeling like hell. I made major changes to my lifestyle and it took a long time, but I find myself happier. Not perfect, but certainly happier. What I find helps when taking on these moments of dread is remembering all the beautiful things in my life, in particular my art and the people who love me. I take a lot of lessons I’ve learned from these illnesses and put them into my art and vice versa. I only want to create to help people who have felt just as lost, or just as hopeless. The art and love in my life shows me how much I have to look forward to, all the good that’s ahead if I keep pushing myself.

To me, a starving artist isn’t just the idea of balancing your day job with your art, but being able to stay strong and face life and all its various struggles. It means that I have to keep going and be able to take the hits life will throw and to keep on moving forward. It means that whether I’m writing or singing I have to keep believing in myself and that I am good. Living with a mental illness in no way makes you weak, it doesn’t define you, you can take it on. The starving artist strives, they endure, and they remember what it is they are fighting for.


Michael Pementel is a published essayist whose work has been featured in Chicago Literati, The Curator, and Columbia College Chicago’s Watercooler Journal. He is currently working on his book I am Good, and in his spare time works on lyrics for his future punk band.

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