It was an otherwise unremarkable day in 2011, as Mary Odom recalls, when the email from the psychiatric hospital in Australia appeared in her inbox. The email revealed a photocopied note from her then 24-year-old son, Sam Brown, an itinerant artist who had been traveling abroad to share his brand of provocative, self-expressionistic art with the world. To her horror, the note suggested Sam had suffered a debilitating mental collapse and needed serious help.
“I still struggle for the proper words as to how it felt to read that,” she says. “I immediately switched to, ‘How do I get there so I can bring him home?’”
Although neither Odom nor her son knew it at the time, Brown was struggling with a serious illness. Upon returning stateside to his home in the Pittsburgh suburbs, he received a formal psychiatric analysis, which in turn produced a troubling diagnosis: bipolar 1 disorder, a form of mental illness characterized by episodes of mania—typically accompanied by outbursts of self-destructive behavior—and bouts of severe depression.
“I felt kind of defeated after that,” Brown remembers. “I entered a black period for about six months, and I got myself stable working at Starbucks and learned a lot. Once I felt like I was back on the path, I started thinking about what I really loved and wanted to do with myself.”
Invigorated by the idea of returning to his artistic passions, Brown went to Quito, Ecuador, to work with María Escudero, a photographer he had met at the Sculpture Studio at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. Together, the two artists created “Trans-Meat,” an exhibition featuring a series of visceral photographs that became “a huge deal” in Ecuador, as Brown recalls. The exhibition earned praise from critics and ample exposure through local news media—and it even acted as a catalyst for social change in the South American nation.
Then everything crashed.
As the exhibition was drawing to a close, Brown’s illness returned with a sudden fury, the medication to treat the symptoms no longer doing its job. Horrible panic attacks sent him reeling, and in late 2015 he returned home to Pittsburgh, feeling more fragile than ever. Even with his medication correctly adjusted, Brown had to endure a few more episodes before he and his supportive family reached an accord: he needed formalized evaluation and observation in an environment staffed by professionals who fully understood his illness.
A trusted therapist friend of his mother’s offered only one suggestion: The Retreat, part of the Maryland-based Sheppard Pratt Health System. There, among other residents who had arrived at some sort of crossroads—young adults unable to make the transition to adulthood, adults failing to cope with significant life changes, accomplished professionals struggling with co-occurring disorders, such as a substance use problem paired with a serious mental health diagnosis, etc.—he would try to heal.
After determining it was, in fact, the right place for him, Brown entered The Retreat in April 2016, in the care of a team of medical professionals devoted to helping him overcome the illness. The team included Don Ross, M.D., formerly The Retreat’s medical director and currently a senior psychiatrist.
“Like Sam, a number of bipolar patients are very creative,” says Dr. Ross. “Many of them are not sure how much they want to treat their illness, because they are afraid they will lose their creativity, so the first step is showing them that [losing their creativity] will not happen if they receive treatment. They often have years of experiencing a chaotic life, and they don’t believe it’s something they can manage. They have to learn more skills through things like dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which can be very helpful in helping them be more capable and confident handling day-to-day life.”
Healing Through Art and DBT
DBT and other forms of intensive treatment helped Brown learn how to manage his illness, as well as confront other “roadblocks,” such as feelings of inadequacy resulting from years of bullying over his distinctively colorful personality and issues surrounding gender identity. He also gained a deeper understanding of his bipolar 1, confident in the knowledge that treating the illness effectively would not hamper his boundless creativity.
“It’s important to offer an environment where people like Sam can feel safe to open up and talk about themselves and about things they might have hidden away from even themselves,” says Dr. Ross. “Often people are taught these areas are not acceptable, but here we’re truly delving into the whole person, including the parts that may be in the shadows.
“[Brown] realized he is a wonderfully open and remarkably generous man, and he had a very positive effect on the people around him at The Retreat,” says Dr. Ross. “He had to shift his center of how he understood himself, to a more stable place. Nothing new about him was created, but he learned to ‘own’ himself in a more solid way and was left feeling more confident and balanced about his future.” Like every patient who comes to The Retreat, Brown participated in a form of nonverbal psychotherapy that utilizes a rather familiar tool: art. At its core, art therapy helps clients become aware of thoughts and feelings that are affecting them in ways of which they may be unaware, according to Terry Wilpers, an art therapist at The Retreat.
“I saw a big transformation with Sam,” Wilpers says. “From the get-go he was very free with his expression, and he was very verbal about what his pieces of art were showing. He was doing a lot of abstract pieces, and I think the turning point with him came when one of my colleagues, [art therapist] Christy Bergland, challenged him to direct his energies to representational work. So he started doing portraits. He made many portraits of his fellow residents, and they were absolutely marvelous.
“He was very engaging, very dynamic, and he added another layer of connection and relationship building,” she continues. “I think [art therapy] was a very positive experience for him, because it helped him and it helped connect the whole community.”
Gaining Hope Through Recovery
Brown completed his six-week stay at The Retreat in May 2016. In the months since, he has been in a state of “constant movement, without any firm geographic roots”: spending time with his mother in Sewickley, a suburb of Pittsburgh; traveling to Europe; catching up with friends and family members; and, of course, working on his art.
“There’s a lot of hope in the story of bipolar 1,” says Brown. “When I was diagnosed, I thought the world had ended. I had this chronic illness I thought I would always have, and I thought I had ruined my life due to my own choices. I now see that bipolar 1 allows me to see the world in a way most people can’t, and I feel genuinely blessed.
“For other people who are being diagnosed [with bipolar 1], I would tell them to feel hopeful and that they possess a lot of special gifts,” he continues. “Being able to manage it with medication allows you to explore the magical qualities while keeping a firm foot on the ground. It might sound strange, but I now see that the world is truly a wondrous place to have bipolar.”
His mother, Mary, is happy to have her son back. More so, she’s happy to see “good things” starting to coalesce around him. As of late August, he had found a nice apartment of his own and a job doing what he loves at the Arthur Murray Dance Centers in Pittsburgh.
“When he came home from Australia [in 2011], it was almost like having to re-parent a young child,” she says. “He had totally lost touch with all the people who knew him and could say, ‘Sam, you’re way off base.’ I wish I had known it at the time, how someone who graduated magna cum laude could be acting this weird, acting not like himself, but now I know it was the illness.
“It's amazing how far he's come. I know he's stable, and I know how capable he is...it seems like all that suffering has turned itself around, and it looks like a promising, exciting future for him."
"He’s so ready, and I’m really proud of him.”
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