Jan had an important message to share with her audience at Norristown State Hospital (NSH). She, too, had been a patient there nearly 20 years earlier.
She credited her psychiatrist and the support team at the state hospital for helping turn her life around. It was the beginning of her recovery journey where belief and encouragement from caring individuals helped her to transform her life.
“I had so many people that played a role in my recovery,” Jan said. “There is life outside of this hospital. You can recover. There is hope.”
Jan, along with four other artists from the ITE/MH’s Faces of Mental Health Recovery Public Art Project (FoMHR) agreed to travel to NSH to share the public art project in recognition of Mental Illness Aware Week in October. The NSH event featured portraits from the FoMHR exhibition that happened over the summer at the Montgomery County Community College and was organized by ITE/MH, the college’s POWER program and HopeWorx Inc., a consumer driven advocacy organization in Montgomery county.
At the hospital, the FoMHR artists shared memories of the photography project, which included a two-day photography workshop where 13 participants learned about photography, shared poignant stories of recovery, and took photographs of their experience. The hospital had invited the artists and organizers from HopeWorx, Inc. to bring the portraits to NSH and speak to people at the hospital about it .
On October 7, 2014, Sue Shannon, director of HopeWorx, the five artists, and I attended the one-day event at NSH. Edna McCutcheon, NSH CEO, opened the event, welcoming guests and introducing MHAPA’s executive director Sue Walther, who spoke about FoMHR and the Campaign’s values.
About 75 people from the hospital attended the presentation, which included an exhibition of large and small portraits of the original 13 artists who participated in the Montgomery County project along with their personal stories. In addition, patients also exhibited art work they had created to accompany the project’s theme of recovery and hope. The exhibit was displayed for a week at NSH.
“My son, Jason, invited me to participate in FoMHR,” Chalkley told the group of patients and staff in the community building auditorium that the experience impacted their lives in ways they could not have imagined. “I found it helpful for me. It was more mental health exposure for me. I would recommend it to anyone. I am so happy how things have turned out in my life and Jason’s. Jason’s recovery was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I’m proud to have my photo up there.”
Some of the artists, like J.B., never enjoyed having his photo taken. So participating in the FoMHR project was a courageous step to agree to have a supersized photo of his face hanging outdoors for all to see.
“I’m still not comfortable with getting my picture taken today,” J.B. said. “I had my supporter with me. It taught me that this is a growing process. Bring other people into your life.”
JB said his recovery journey included multiple hospitalizations, getting over denial and self-medicating, and learning to ask for help.
“It took me a while to get to the point where I had courage to be up here and have my picture up there,” JB said. “It’s okay to ask for help. We can move on to the next level.”
For Jason, recovery was a blessing in disguise. After losing his 14-year business, hating himself and not understanding what was going on, it was a back injury ironically that turned his life around. The injury got him into a hospital where he had an epiphany that led to the beginning of his way back. He went from being mad at everyone and a life of mania, to becoming a passionate and caring Certified Peer Specialist and a grounded, loving son and friend.
“My life has changed in a way that I can’t even explain,” Jason said. “We don’t have to remain hospitalized. We’re not less than anyone else.”
After years of making bad decisions Jason is learning to make new decisions and minimizing his stress.
“It’s about recognizing my limits,” Jason said. “I can now set myself up to succeed.”
Jason’s dad also had a message for the audience. Chalkley had spent time prior to the presentation viewing the art work that patients’ had created to accompany the recovery exhibit. One painting particularly touched him deeply. It was a painting of hearts which represented the individual and his family. The artist’s heart was the smallest.
“Don’t make yourself a small heart,” Chalkley said in a quavering voice as he wiped an eye. “Don’t ever. You are just as valuable as anybody. Don’t give up on yourself.
Kathie Mitchell is director of advocacy at HopeWorx, Inc.