Changed for the Better · Mental Health

Changed for the Better: the power of arts in education, episode 19

Robert Lee

This episode of Changed for the Better focuses heavily on mental health, specifically the experiences of someone with the diagnosis of Bipolar I Disorder. I want to be clear that this is one person’s story, and is meant to be shared as an example of his personal journey. If you or a loved one are experiencing emotional trauma or issues that you don’t understand or cannot process on your own, please ask for help from a trusted person in your life.

At the end of this post, I have included some mental health resources that might be useful for anyone in crisis or need of support.

That said, enjoy the episode!

Of the many adolescents I’ve had the honor to work with, most of them, in some way, shape or form, have been performers onstage. But there’s another, just as important group of kids with whom I had connected who never stepped foot in the spotlight, preferring the “silent ninja” moniker and working behind the scenes. It’s these kids who are the designers, technicians, board ops and running crew members who help to assemble the pieces and make our productions function like a well-oiled machine.

Robert Lee, graduate of 2007, was one of those kids. Like Graig Kriendler (Episode 13) before him, he had no interest in the spotlight, preferring to operate in the shadows and quickly move set pieces on and off the stage in less than five seconds. I relied on him to understand and execute those crew tasks that always made Thespians productions work so well. I remember his shadowy figure running and doing a front roll off the stage at the last possible second just before the lights came up.

Side note: after our official interview was over and we were just chatting, Rob reminded me that he actually did step foot in the spotlight, if but for a few moments. It may have been a last-minute insertion for a walk-on part named Horace, where he wore a suit, drank a vial of poison and died. It was his brief claim to fame onstage.

Since graduation, he’s been in and out of academic programs and the work force, all while navigating some significant mental health struggles. His ultimate goal is to continue his own path to healing, go back to school and finish his studies so he can work in the field of psychology and make his contribution to the world from a “holistic, trauma-informed mental health approach.”

The Center for Health-Care Strategies (CHCS) published a brief called “Key Ingredients for Successful Trauma-Informed Care Implementation” which takes a comprehensive look at mental health care from a trauma-based perspective.

Trauma-informed care acknowledges the need to understand a patient’s life experiences in order to deliver effective care and has the potential to improve patient engagement, treatment adherence, health outcomes, and provider and staff wellness.

Implementing trauma-informed approaches to care may help health care providers engage their patients more effectively, thereby offering the potential to improve outcomes and reduce avoidable costs for both health care and social services. Trauma informed approaches to care shift the focus from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”

Menschner and Maul, Center for Health Care Strategies (2016)

At the time of this interview, Rob was living on an ashram, which is a community retreat for spiritual or religious practices.

Each ashram community has a leader, or guru, and usually people go there to either find peace, to simplify their lives, or to practice a discipline like yoga or martial arts. While the practice started in India over a thousand years ago, the experience of staying in an ashram in the west has developed into many different forms. Where Rob is, there is a set schedule of activities that is followed including meditation, meals, Sanskrit lessons, yoga, but you also have the option of skipping anything or everything offered in any given day. It’s a no-stress, no-expectation environment where people can enjoy the moments of peace while they are learning there.

Rob’s backstory

Rob struggled greatly in school, as early as fourth grade. His academics started to suffer then and he did not have an outlet for either dealing properly with his limitations or finding success in his strengths. While his academic struggles followed him into high school, he found Thespians as the outlet for celebrating the strengths that he had discovered in technical theater.

In fact, he was such a strong contributor to Thespians that in his junior year, I had offered him an officer position on the Thespian board. His natural tendencies as a leader, his dedication to learning about his craft and his clear love for our activities, made him a natural fit as a student representative of our leadership team. Unfortunately, he turned it down. Though we were surprised, we thankfully handled his needs with respect.

At the time, I was really struggling, I just didn’t know I was. I never quite knew how to ask for help. But, I had a lot of fun in high school, despite the other side of things. There’s a balance. Especially when it came to Thespians; there’s a special place in my heart for that experience. I didn’t feel ostracized or that I had to leave and I was still part of Thespians, which was very important.

Eventually, Rob was diagnosed with Bipolar 1 Disorder, which is characterized by “manic episodes that last at least 7 days, or by manic symptoms that are so severe that the person needs immediate hospital care. Usually, depressive episodes occur as well, typically lasting at least 2 weeks.” (National Institute of Mental Health)

Medical definition aside, I was curious to know what Bipolar Disorder looks and feels like. It’s one thing to read what the medical community says about it; it’s another to actually experience those symptoms, especially when you are young. Rob admitted that it was hard to go back now and document those experiences because the layers of discovery are peeled over time, but this is what he remembers:

The biggest thing for me was that I felt so forced and compelled to do everything, and I was a rush-seeker at the time. That rush that you see in adolescence, a lot of people who are driven to drive at extreme speeds and look almost reckless, there’s this pull. I guess that’s the one thing that you may be able to easily recognize and resonate with. When you’re toward an extremity, that could be a sign to start questioning a little bit.

Now, all the rolling, flipping, and obsession with climbing tall ladders makes sense. Apparently, he got into lighting crew because he loved the idea of climbing to the top of the 12-foot ladders we use to focus the lighting instruments. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have Bipolar Disorder (I like flipping and climbing those ladders too), but when you start to notice multiple risk-taking tendencies, perhaps it would be wise to start paying attention.

Going through the experience, especially as an adolescent, of Bipolar Disorder is confusing and hard to know what you are going through.

It’s complex. With Bipolar 1, there is a major manic episode, which basically means that includes a wider range of things that could include what mainstream calls ‘psychosis.’ That could be rapid thoughts, speech, grandiosis, delusions, no sleep, very agitated. Most people can feel it – they seem happy and elated, euphoric even, but there’s something off about it. As an experiencer, it’s really hard to pick up on that, but I think other people can reflect. If you are going through mood swings, that’s kind of a sign, especially with depression, that’s a big one. Anxiety, depression, mania – those are tell-tale signs that something is going on.

Later in life, he made the discovery that from early on, he didn’t have any real connection to or understanding of his own emotions. He often suppressed how he might have felt about something that was too uncomfortable to deal with.

I didn’t really know what I was experiencing in a way, even though other people may have seen that. Although I may have had facial and emotional expressions, I wasn’t really connected to that. My close friend would say, ‘Rob I love that you can never lie.’ and I was like ‘What? I don’t get that.’ It was because I had been lying to myself; I never saw that I was always presenting the truth in my facial and emotional expressions and tone, but I just couldn’t recognize that.

In his personal journey, researching about what he has gone through, Rob seems to be trying to balance the classic, traditional DSM diagnosis with his holistic beliefs.

The diagnosis of Bipolar, in my perspective, it’s not the best label or condition or way of conceptualizing what’s going on; it’s part of the picture.

He came across a book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. that resonated with him.

He [van der Kolk] really charted out what happens with co-morbidities (co-diagnoses) and why there’s so many things that seem to match up to why are people getting diagnosed with bipolar, ADHD, depression – why are they linking up? One of the big things is suppression, and it’s trauma.

Apparently there are other theories and diagnoses that aren’t currently accepted by the APA (American Psychological Association), relating to the suppression of emotions when dealing with traumatic experiences, particularly during adolescence, which can lead to a host of symptoms and diagnosable conditions. Rob talks more about this in our interview.

How did Thespians help?

Let me start this section by saying that school activities are not a substitute for proper therapy when it is needed. I will even go a step further to say that I personally think that everyone on the planet could benefit from sitting down and talking with a well-trained professional who understands the complexities of emotions, particularly those of adolescents.

That said, for a teenager who is struggling through any mental health issues, being connected to those around them is probably one of the most important tools in helping a young person navigate the nebulous nature of experiencing the world through their developing brain. For Rob, Thespians was a grounding and motivating force.

I think this is why I hold it in such value. One of the big things was community. Also, the acknowledgements. Prior to that, I didn’t know what it felt like to really belong to a community, and that was my first experience. My family dynamic was very different; nothing close to that. So that was very essential. Community is one of the most powerful elements when it comes to co-regulation. It’s probably the fastest-changing catalyst element when someone is struggling when you’re in a community because it can really pull you out and let you be yourself and share, especially when it’s a safe environment. That was very powerful.

Thespians enabled him to recognize his high technical abilities and utilize them as strengths in lighting and sound to help others in a way that he wasn’t able to in the academic setting. This resonated deeply with Rob, connecting him to the things that he had to offer the world, as well as the people around him, despite the ways that he had been suffering since elementary school. As he jumped from project to project, helping his peers struggle through the things that came to him naturally, his leadership abilities were able to emerge, which were quickly recognized by the adults around him.

Of course, when you are struggling yourself, it is hard to accept your strengths without feeling mired in your liabilities. Now, many years later, Rob is starting to acknowledge that aspect of himself. If I’ve learned anything in my own journey, it’s that everyone finds their path on their own time.

Rob recalled one specific moment from his Thespian experience that stuck with him. He and another Thespian were doing set construction and they were talking to Matt (our Tech Director) in a very disrespectful way.

You came over and gave us this little lecture and it just hit me so hard to be respectful to someone who is genuinely offering his time to teach you something and being patient with you. That was a powerful lesson.

How has Rob changed?

As a teenager, Rob often resorted to attention-seeking, risky-taking behaviors to offset his dysregulated brain. As he has matured, Rob has learned to regulate himself through meditation. It has become an important tool for him to manage the symptoms associated with his Bipolar diagnosis. He has also become more cautious and respectful of those around him.

I’m no longer driving a hundred and something on the highway.

Like Sofia Poe in episode 17, Rob also spent some time on an organic farm as a reset and learn more about who he really was. In that community, he felt safe to finally be himself and access his emotions for the first time in 30 years. That is truly the essence of the human experience – to feel the spectrum of emotions, while being able to self-regulate those that feel less-than-comfortable.

Now, as Rob is settling into the emotionally stronger version of himself, he offers an important piece of advice to kids like him who are struggling with confusing and extreme emotional experiences.

The biggest one is asking for help and realizing that there are a lot of people out there that do understand. We get caught up in our world, especially with the struggles. Sometimes we feel like no one gets it, [we’re] all alone in the world. But, there are a lot of people out there, especially the adults, that have been through a similar journey. When you feel comfortable with that person, that’s the one that you ask for help from.

What is Rob grappling with now?

The hard work of healing a disordered brain never really stops. As he has been doing that hard work of understanding and processing the complicated aspects of his mental space, his focus now is stabilizing and growing. For years, he wore a proverbial mask to hide everything that was stored up inside. Now, he is working on removing that protective mask to release a more authentic version of himself.

Part of that work is allowing his personality to grow and express itself in real time. At the ashram, he is finding himself back in a position of organizational leadership which on one hand feels daunting, but on the other, it is a true representation of a facet of that personality that he once shunned and suppressed back in high school. When you have leadership qualities, other people often see that in you before you see it in yourself.

There is a part of him misses the freedom and recklessness that his younger self represented. There was no worry or concern for the future then, so following his impulses, no matter how reckless they were, felt natural to him. Of course, his adult body is no longer receptive to the whims of adolescence; doing a flip is not accessible to him anymore. What was alongside that adolescent impulsivity was the problem of not feeling deeply connected, even when he was in a safe community like Thespians where he maintained surface relations at best. Now, he is much more present, in tune with feeling connection both to himself and the people around him. He no longer feels alone all of the time, which is a huge improvement from the younger version of himself.

Rob’s self-care

I am a huge proponent of having many self-care options. When one thing doesn’t work, it’s helpful to have other things at the ready. Throughout his emotional healing journey, Rob has assembled an ample self-care toolkit for himself which includes, but is not limited to:

  • Exercise (like yoga)
  • Dancing and singing
  • Channeling and chakra toning, (which correlates with the singing and dancing part)
  • Meditation
  • Journaling and reflection
  • Being around a safe community with friends and family

While it’s not for everyone, living in the ashram has been a healthy way to offer Rob the time and space to explore all of those strategies with no stress or expectations. When you are processing a lifetime of trauma, time and space away from the complexity of “normal life” can be a welcome respite that affords you the best environment to focus on what you need to heal.

Developing your own self-care toolkit, which may include talking to a professional about your “emotional stuff,” is an essential part of maintaining a healthy self-concept.

Rob offers some sage advice

I don’t know if it’s overused, but everything is going to be okay. It’s a journey and things are unfolding and they’re going to lead you to things that you’re going to work through; it may take time to work through.

Go with the flow, go with the changes and sometimes discomfort can be a good thing; it depends on the severity of it. A lot of growth happens in discomfort.

Be true to yourself. Explore as life comes at you or as it unravels.

Some mental health resources

  • SAMHSA Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: A free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
  • NIMH National Institute of Mental Health: If you or someone you know has a mental illness, is struggling emotionally, or has concerns about their mental health, there are ways to get help. Use these resources to find help for you, a friend, or a family member.
  • OMH The Mental Health Program Directory provides information on all programs in New York State that are operated, licensed or funded by the State Office of Mental Health.
  • Suicide Prevention Lifeline If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States.
  • Center for Safety and Change This is an organization in Rockland County, NY that supports victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault.

3 thoughts on “Changed for the Better: the power of arts in education, episode 19

  1. Never realized what he was privately going through. I only saw him at
    rehearsals and didn’t really get to know him well. He looks wonderful in
    the picture and I’m so glad that he is finally more at peace with himself.

    Liked by 1 person

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