Creativity is Healing for Artist Living with Schizoaffective Disorder
A New York artist finds healing in designing greeting cards, writing, music and connecting with others
"Art is my love, my joy and my therapy," says 66-year-old Rose R. of Forest Hills, New York. Known as "Rosie," she is a woman of many talents – an artist who has designed and sold hundreds of greeting cards and self-published books, a writer with dozens of journals filled with musings about her life.
Psychotic symptoms often rendered her unable to function, and she was in and out of hospitals, sometimes for months at a time, for the next thirty years.
She is an amateur singer and pianist and an advocate for mental health. She is also someone who has been living with schizoaffective disorder, which according to the National Alliance For Mental Illness, has a lifetime prevalence of only 0.3%.
This illness is characterized by symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations and delusions, and those of a mood disorder, in which the individual experiences depressive or manic symptoms or both.
In late adolescence, valedictorian of her high school and a student at a prestigious New York City art college, Rosie's latent illness exploded, wreaking havoc. Psychotic symptoms often rendered her unable to function, and she was in and out of hospitals, sometimes for months at a time, for the next thirty years.
Yet, amazingly, except for a brief medical illness last year, she has had no hospitalizations since 2001. Clozaril, a wonder drug for those who have not responded to more commonly prescribed medications, has been one primary reason why. The other reason, according to Rosie, is her art.
Rosie's cards, printed on her home computer, are folded, stamped with her name, and put in plastic sleeves by Josh Rubin, whom she proudly introduces as "my creative technician and life partner." Her whimsical, psychedelic-looking creations, drawn in pencil and colored with thin magic markers, have been sold in over 50 stores and eateries.
Her larger prints are displayed in restaurants, psychiatric offices, and public libraries. Rosie's artwork, which appears on her website, is reminiscent of the work of Picasso, Paul Klee, and Peter Max, three of her favorite artists.
Mental Illness and Creativity
Emotional pain, especially when intertwined with disordered thinking, one of the hallmarks of schizoaffective disorder, is not easy to articulate. Nevertheless, the experience of living with psychosis, depression, and other mental illnesses has long inspired artists to depict these experiences with paintings, sketches, or other forms of artwork rather than words.
An article published in Schizophrenia Research stated that patients with schizophrenia produce art with extraordinary visual attributes (such as color, form and configuration) that perfectly describe Rosie's artwork.
The fact that Rosie had 18 psychiatric hospitalizations before age 50 shows how seriously ill she was. There were many episodes of psychosis in which she had delusions, one of the most frightening being that her mother was the Wicked Witch from "The Wizard of Oz."
She is a shining example of resilience and, to some degree, recovery.
Another time, frozen in fear in an isolation room, she thought she was in a spaceship, destined to be sent up to outer space. Then, having heard the word "love" spoken so often ("we love you, dear," her mother told her every night at bedtime), she thought her name was love and that the romantic songs on the radio were about her.
"Why are they singing about me all the time?" she would wonder, distraught. She thought the TV blared out messages to her and believed that people on the street could see through her body and read her mind.
When she tells someone, without a tinge of self-pity, that she had electroshock therapy (ECT) many years ago and lost her memory, she explains, "I knew I'd make new, even better memories, and I was right."
With grit and determination, Rosie has constructed a life that includes not only (Zoom) therapy but also lunch dates with friends, visits to a monthly poetry group where she often reads her creative writing, and jaunts to a local coffee shop, where she indulges in frozen concoctions with whipped cream ("even though I have prediabetes and really shouldn't," she admits).
She and Josh splurge the most on going to concerts, especially those of her favorite musicians, two of whom had her design their CD covers and who she corresponds with regularly.
Before the pandemic, she attended a monthly "schmooze group" run by NAMI (the National Alliance On Mental Illness) and went on the organization's bowling trips, picnics and outings. She also attended a weekly art class at a program that held workshops for people with psychiatric disorders.
Now, she spends hours on the phone, catching up with friends, most of whom have mental health issues, listening to music, writing letters to family, relaxing with Josh, and, of course, doing her artwork.
"Josh and I never run out of things to talk about, and we are each other's biggest cheerleaders," she says.
Rosie had been essentially well since 2001. Some oddities of appearance and thought, vestiges of her disorder, remain. But, considering that she has lived with a severe chronic illness that can be managed but not entirely eradicated, she is a shining example of resilience and, to some degree, recovery.
The Support of Others
Rosie attributes her continuing wellness to several things besides her relationship with Josh – a supportive family; including a brother in California who calls her three times a week, longtime friendships, antipsychotic medication, and the support of mental health professionals.
"I am very lucky," Rosie says. "I have always had people in my life who cared about me, and my zest for art has always brought me joy, even when I was at my sickest. I journeyed through some very dark tunnels in my life but always managed to come out the other side."
Although she refers to art as her therapy, she has been diligent about continuing with weekly psychotherapy sessions and monthly check-ins with her psychiatrist, who monitors and titrates her medication when necessary. In addition, she tries to do the things needed for her continued mental and physical health – getting enough sleep, exercising at home and controlling her weight.
And always, always, she returns to her drawing pad, her "happy place," which allows her to feel creative, productive and fulfilled.
Things, however, are far from perfect. Rosie worries about how she would manage if something happened to Josh.
She doesn't think she could live alone because she depends on him for many daily activities – he does the food shopping and meal preparation, pays the bills, charges her cell phone, sends emails, orders her clothing online and many other things.
She worries about money. She thinks she would probably end up living in an adult home for people with chronic mental illness, a thought she finds both frightening and reassuring because at least she would have people around and social workers who would help her with her basic needs.
"Yesterday is the past, the future has not yet happened," she reminds herself.
She has had some medical issues in the last few years, including problems with her legs that sometimes necessitate using a walker or, occasionally, a wheelchair. "I guess it's all part of being older," she says ruefully.
But even those things have not managed to dampen her indomitable spirit. Rosie believes in a Higher Power who watches over her. As a result, she strives to stay in the "here and now" and not worry about what tomorrow might bring. "Yesterday is the past, the future has not yet happened," she reminds herself.
Despite her many struggles, Rosie has always been able to hold on to her tremendous capacity for gratitude, to feel grateful for simple but precious things like sleeping in a comfortable bed with Josh every night instead of on a hospital-thin mattress with a stranger in the bed next to her.
"Mental illness is not a dead-end street," she says. "There is always hope. I do believe life can be beautiful."