Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Art saves Arizona woman with mental illness

From the intro to a long feature in The Arizona Republic. One of Lori Wilson's paintings is pictured.

The room is large, busy and crowded. It smells of paint, clay and sweat.

Many of the artists are talking. Some to themselves, some to others, some to their creations.

The noises bounce off the concrete floors and paint-splattered folding tables.
This downtown Phoenix studio is run by PSA Art Awakenings, a rehabilitation program for people with serious mental illness.

In this studio, art is more than just art.

It gives expression to their demons. It shows their progress and reveals where more work needs to be done.

In the middle of the 50- by 50-foot room, Lori Wilson is quiet and still.

She sits before a large painting. The background is blue; the center is an abstract form of a woman's head. The face is orange and featureless.

Wilson, 45, is not bashful about her condition. Her last show was called "I've Lost My Mind."

Does she think she is crazy?

"Of course. Yes, I am," she said. "Oh yeah, no doubt about it."

Wilson grew up as one of 16 children in Sandy, Utah.

Her mother, she said, was mentally ill. So was her mother's mother.

She has struggled with mental illness for as long as she can remember.

"I would say I was depressed my entire life," she said simply.

While Wilson was a student at Arizona State University in her 20s, her mother died.

Wilson went from being indecisive and sometimes apathetic to being a person who struggled to get out of bed. She was tired and felt empty. She started to think of suicide.

Her friends knew something was wrong. She needed therapy.

About five months into those therapy sessions, Wilson said she found her own demons, ones she hadn't seen, ones that were haunting her.

The sexual assault was violent, she said. A man from the neighborhood beat and raped her. She remembered losing consciousness and thinking she was dying.

She remembered not telling her mother because she was afraid she would be blamed. So she told nobody.

She was 7 years old.

Discovering the truth "scared the hell out of me," she said. "This can't happen to me."
Wilson was no longer dealing with only depression. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Yeah, I'll talk about it. I was assaulted and raped at knifepoint when I was 7," she said. "It's almost like somebody murdered your soul."

The recovery of these memories in 1993 began a process in which Wilson lost everything.

Still a student at ASU, she stayed in therapy through the school for three years.

In 1996, no longer able to study, she began to work full time as a custodian at the school, and she remained in therapy with her health insurance from work.

Those sessions were painful and left Wilson "an emotional mess. A complete wreck."

She remembers the time she was cleaning a bathroom in the basement of a campus building. She was screaming and swearing in anger, she said, as she cleaned the floors.

"One of my co-workers heard me, and he came into the bathroom and said, 'I guess it's good you work in the basement,' " she said.

By 1998, she could no longer get herself to work. She lost her job, her insurance and her therapy.

For seven years, she bounced among jobs and therapists and in and out of mental hospitals.

"I was a mess; I couldn't do anything," she said.

She left her last job in 2005.

Wilson was out of work, out of money and out of therapy. That's when she started receiving services from the county's mental-health provider.

Her therapist recommended her for Art Awakenings.

"I knew right away I wanted to join it," she said.

Always interested in art, she realized that pursuing it more seriously might help her access emotions she had shut down over the years.

"I can't cry," she said. "So I'll paint me crying."