As a college freshman, Amanda Lipp had a psychotic breakdown. Hospitalized in a Sacramento psychiatric facility, she slowly began rebuilding her mental and emotional health. One of her most long-lasting therapy tools was a childhood throwback: crayons.
Wielding a tiny box of colored crayons, the only safe implements initially allowed to patients, Lipp was able to finally express her inner turmoil. Today, she still finds solace in her crayon technique. Rather than coloring within the lines, she builds thick layers of solid color, then etches through them down to the bottom, creating images that describe her mood, feelings, sense of joy and accomplishment.
Six years after her breakdown, Lipp is a UC Davis graduate who’s immersed in mental wellness issues nationwide. At 24, she is the youngest member on the California board of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy group. A videographer, she travels frequently as a technical consultant for mental health programs in different states. She’s also spoken to more than 150 high schools, colleges and conferences on her experiences, including next month, when she’ll be in Washington, D.C., as a panelist for National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day.
On a recent weekday, we sat in her midtown Sacramento apartment to talk about mental health stigmas, therapies and the healing power of crayons. Here are some excerpts:
Q: You feel strongly that being labeled – bipolar, autistic or anything else – can be hindering. Can you explain?
A: We have a big roadmap for how to diagnose and treat people, with good intentions. I know people like to hang onto those words – mental illness, bipolar disorder. We all have varying degrees of mental health ... and mental illness. It’s just a matter of when and how much it inhibits your functionality and your happiness.
Some folks are very relieved when they get a diagnosis. It empowers them: “Finally I have an answer to the why of my behavior.” For me, it was disrupting. I didn’t want to be part of the stigma of mental illness. For me to get well, I had to decide that I’m not ill.
My diagnosis (bipolar) was keeping me in a box. I never accepted it. It never felt like me. I’m Amanda.
Q: You spent several years on antidepressants, but have been able to completely wean yourself from medications.
A: I’m off medications completely. One of the motivations was fear of the side effects of psychotropics. But it totally depends on the person. Medication saves many people. It curbs that anxious edge ... For me, it’s a last resort.
As I weaned off medication, I picked up other coping mechanisms ... and other ways of expressing myself. When I’m having a hard day, I’ll sit down and talk to myself as though I’m a therapist. “Amanda, you’re being too hard on yourself. It’s unrealistic to say you could have done better.” Or maybe I’ll go for a run or a walk. It’s a form of meditation.
Q: Describe how crayons helped you in the early days of therapy.
A: They gave us standard boxes of crayons. I started drawing on magazines because the waxy nature of the paper was a cathartic way of getting out my feelings. It was very cathartic: The sound of the etching, the smell of the crayons, the feel of the wax.
Crayons saved me. The drawing helped me tell my story and explain feelings that I couldn’t verbalize. It allowed me to face (childhood trauma) and admit it happened and forgive the perpetrator. If we can acknowledge (those things) sooner than later, then maybe it won’t feel like getting to the top of a mountain and tumbling off. The crayons became a medium through which I could reconcile my past with my hope for the future.
It’s a metaphor. Constructing the layers and etching what I want to expose and reveal is a way to see light behind the darkness.
Q: How do you use coloring today?
A: It’s an outlet to get me out of my own head. It’s a way to visualize what I’m feeling or thinking. Getting lost in art allows me to find myself when I’m feeling confused or overwhelmed.
It’s like adult coloring books. There’s some research about the mindfulness and neurological benefits of drawing in coloring books. There’s been some science behind coloring and crayons that they (help people de-stress) and can lower blood pressure.
I did a workshop where students made their own crayon drawings. One wrote on the back, “Art allows my racing thoughts to stop. It allows me to express myself and take my mind off negative things.”
Q: What’s your message when speaking to teens and young adults?
A: It’s OK to not know who you are and what your identity might be. … Sometimes we need certain identities to help us get somewhere: having a disorder or being on the LGBT spectrum or being someone who’s introverted or extroverted. Certain identities (diagnoses) can help us access treatment, help and support. But just because you need it doesn’t mean you have to walk around with that as a name tag on yourself.
Q: How did you transition from your breakdown to where you are now?
A: The first six months were the worst. I felt like bipolar was branded on my forehead. I was so embarrassed and ashamed to tell my friends. I dropped out of college (at Chico State) ...
For two years, I lived at home and went to community college. My mom encouraged me to share my story through (the National Alliance on Mental Illness’) “In Our Own Voice” speaker’s program. I went through their speaker training program and started giving speeches (at high schools and community colleges). ... Speaking was a big turning point. What helped me feel well was being able to pay it forward. What can I do to give back to the community that helped me get better? Maybe if I share my story, there’ll be a ripple effect. There’ll be that one kid in a classroom who’s struggling who will open up.