By Colleen Shoop

I tend to overdo it in just about everything. Now… I overdo it right. It’s called recovery. It used to be that I didn’t do it so well. It’s my manic energy. If it isn’t channeled in the right direction, all hell breaks loose.

I always had psychiatric problems. I’d have periods of intense sadness, unexplained periods of high energy, drug abuse, alcohol abuse; they just never had a name. In 1992, with the mid-life crisis of divorce, the “problems” were finally given a name — manic depression, or, as it is known now, bipolar disorder. I had a plethora of symptoms. Panic attacks, mood swings, spending sprees, long periods of depression and alcohol abuse were all part of the picture. The problem had been named, but it would be another 10 years for it to be solved.

My divorce and subsequent diagnosis sent me into a tailspin. While hospitalized for severe depression, I decided to return to school to get a degree in Social Welfare, with an emphasis in mental health. So, at age 41, I became the single parent of a 12-year-old daughter and a college freshman living on disability. It was not an easy combination.

My divorce isolated me. I had moved to back to the suburbs of Milwaukee, but all my friends had moved away. I no longer had the social network from when I was married. I needed to develop a new social life. In 1993, I saw an ad for a “Poet’s Monday” held at the Café Mélange in Milwaukee. I went in, alone, and read. They liked my words and invited me back. I came back every Monday night for the next three years. My social life was born.


I met him in 1994. He was cute. A poet. An artist. A photographer. My kinda guy! He was to be the harbinger of and support for my transformation from someone in the throes of a mental illness and alcohol abuse to the person I am today. We were friends at first. We had easy conversations about life, poetry, art, our kids, and our youth. We had a lot in common and the friendship evolved into a relationship. We were made for each other.

In 1995–96, I did my social work internship with Grand Avenue Club in Milwaukee. I loved the organization. As a vocational, social, cultural and educational rehabilitation center for adults who have experienced a mental illness, it was my ideal placement. I worked closely with Rachel Forman, the executive director. We developed a good working relationship and I made Dean’s List that year with a 3.8 grade point average. I served on several student committees that were involved with improving mental health care on campus. On one committee, we were instrumental in bringing in a psychiatrist to head the health center. However, I was way overextending myself with goal-directed activity. I was having constant panic attacks and sleepless nights. I wasn’t eating right. I was living on cigarettes, Diet Coke, and coffee. (I have, since then, quit the cigarettes.) I knew that depression was an illness; I didn’t realize that my goal-directed activity was also part of an illness. I needed to slow down. I used booze to do so. My relationship was starting to be affected by the drinking and in October of 1996, I was given the ultimatum: booze or the relationship. The relationship lost and we broke up.

The next 18 months saw me through the hardest part of my life. I was still a student, but I was starting to falter. I was going in and out of psychiatric hospitals every several months because I would work myself into states of total exhaustion, then crash into suicidal depression. With the exception of school and my daughter, I dropped out of the rest of my life. I lost total contact with Grand Avenue Club, the poetry scene, the committees I had served on, and, the poet. My social world revolved around bars, parties, late nights, and endless days of hangovers. My grades slipped. By spring of 1998, when I was due to graduate, I had to drop the semester because I was again in the psychiatric ward and couldn’t finish the course work. My spring graduation was put on hold until December of ‘98.

Miraculously, I did finish that fall semester and graduated with a still decent grade point average. But, it all really felt meaningless. I had no idea what I was going to do. I knew I was not psychologically capable of working. I also knew that my alcohol abuse and mental illness were out of hand and had to stop. I just didn’t know how to do it. That question was answered for me when I received a letter from my poet. It was just a casual letter telling me how things were going and seeing if I was okay. Of course, I wasn’t. I didn’t let it stop me. We started to see one another again. My journey to recovery was dawning, but was far from over.


By spring of 1999, he and I more or less picked up where we left off. I moved in with him during the spring of 2000. The only condition was no drinking. I was ready to handle it. I did better and really worked to get booze out of the picture. I was having a moderate success at it. I could go weeks and then the urge would get to me and I’d have to find a martini. I was threatening my wonderful relationship. I wanted to stop, but had not yet found the courage to do so.

My medications were a mess. Between 2000 and 2001, I had a doctor who had me on 14 separate meds, all at the same time. There were meds to cure what ailed me. There were meds to rid the side effects of meds. Then there were more meds for sleep, for pain, I forget what they all were. I had a shoebox filled with medications all prescribed by the same doctor. I’ve come to the conclusion that part of the reason I wasn’t getting well was not only the drinking, but I was on TOO MUCH medication. I was in and out of inpatient treatment every few months and in a day treatment program the rest of the time. I wanted to get better, but I didn’t know how.

When my poet looked at the box of pills, he went ballistic. He went into the doctor’s office and demanded to know what they were, why I was taking them, and what they were for. The doctor didn’t know. What finally sent me to seek different help was having to go for a brain scan to see if I was having seizures. That scared me. On the first floor of the hospital where I was having the scan was a “Behavioral Medicine” department. I walked in and met with a nurse, told her about my problem and she booked me with a doctor for a couple weeks later. I ended up as an inpatient for a two-week period. I was weaned off the old drugs, which weren’t working, and was put on Lithium. But something else, something better, was happening. I was discovering art. I had always found the art therapy in the hospital to be an effective means of expression for me. I decided to do the therapy on my own. I would spend my hospital evenings in my room with a sketchpad and draw until I was tired enough to go to sleep. Little did I know how much this would grow.

The Lithium was stabilized. It required daily blood tests to check the levels in my system. I reached a therapeutic state and the drug started to work. I left the hospital with the first sense of a stable mood in my life. It was strange adapting to the evenness of the days. I was able to do more and started to feel my confidence return.

A few days after leaving the hospital, I thought I’d like to have a drink. So, while I was out and about, I stopped in at a bistro and ordered my usual martini. It came to the table. I sipped. Then I realized how totally stupid I was being. How much I risked losing, and just how sick and tired I was of the whole thing. I set the drink down, left a generous tip, and never touched a drop again. It was a feeling of total freedom having made that decision. The addiction no longer owned me nor had power over me. I was finally free. Free to get well.

I was gaining more and more stability as the lithium took hold. It’s a tricky drug because too much can be toxic and too little doesn’t work at all. I had to continue periodic blood testing to assure its safety. They were augmenting the drug with one of the atypical anti-psychotics. I started to gain weight. I didn’t care. If being heavy was a price I had to pay to have my mind back, I was willing to do it — I thought.

The best thing that happened at this time was that I started to paint in earnest. I would dabble at first: a watercolor here, a canvas there. Then I discovered the mood-stabilizing factor in making my art. I was able, with the aid of medicine, to remain in stable moods. I painted continually from 2001 until 2002 when I had my first major gallery showing. My art career was being born. Art — creativity — was giving me my confidence back, my sense of control and destiny. I had found the thing in life that I could do and do well.


Then things started to go awry, again. I started to have ulnar nerve problems in my hands. They would go numb and I wouldn’t be able to hold the brush. The doctor recommended surgery for each arm. The surgery required general anesthesia, which is known to set off episodes in people with bipolar disorder. I had two separate surgeries so was put under twice. The surgeries were a success, but the general anesthesia screwed things up for me physically and mentally. It seemed that the Lithium was no longer working. I started to cycle into the anxiety and panic attack phase of my illness. I was at my peak weight at the time and becoming obese. I was tired all the time, my vision was blurry, and I was very thirsty and peeing constantly; all side effects of Lithium. (And, as I found out later, the symptoms of diabetes.) The Lithium was starting to go toxic on me. They reduced my dose dramatically and the mood swings started to come back with full vigor. I was no longer drinking, so I knew the mood swings were bipolar related. I had tried the gamut of medications that doctors were using and none seemed to work. I decided to do my own research. I went online and began to look for a new medication that would work and get me off the Lithium and anti-psychotic.

The anti-convulsants are often used to treat bipolar disorder and I found one I hadn’t tried. I decided to ask for it. Depression and anxiety were setting in. The anxiety was always a signal to me that things were going haywire. I called the doctor to get in and see him to discuss the new med. He was an independent psychiatrist so had only an answering machine and no assistant. I had to call five times to get a reply. (In the interim, I had a brain MRI to see what was behind the double vision that I was developing.) Finally, the one day I wasn’t home, he called and left a message for me to come in on a Friday. I called right back and got his machine again. I left a message that I would be in on Friday and I needed to discuss my medication. My moods were swinging wildly with depression closing in fast. I really needed to see him. I showed up for the appointment. He didn’t. I lost it. I ended up as an inpatient.

During intake, I had a battery of lab work done. As I was being admitted, a new doctor, who didn’t look at the lab reports, met with me. He walked in the room and, without even talking to me, had me diagnosed as a Borderline Personality Disorder. He had never met me, yet changed my diagnosis. I explained my situation about the no-show appointment. He showed me a paper from the doctor I was supposed to be seeing. The doctor said I never called him back. I was shocked. I was furious and felt defeated. I was about to give up on psychiatry and go back to self-medication with booze.


It was a nurse who discovered it. I had an abnormally high blood sugar. I was diabetic and didn’t know it. Mood swings, blurry vision, depression, fatigue, thirst, and frequent urination are all symptoms of diabetes. I believe, to this day, that the physical and psychiatric problems blamed on Lithium were partly due to undiagnosed diabetes. I had to find some new doctors. The hospital recommended a nurse practitioner to me and she managed, WITH ME, a new course of medications that worked with little or no side effects. I got off the antipsychotics and the weight I had gained melted off.

I made a formal complaint against the two doctors who treated me in the hospital. I emphasized the importance of looking at systemic and well as psychological symptoms when treating people. My voice was heard by the hospital and the matter was resolved to my satisfaction. Since then, I have found excellent medical care with a great doctor for my diabetes and a good psychiatrist. I have stayed out of the hospital for seven years and don’t have plans to ever go back.

Through all of this, there was a constant. I painted. I painted my emotions. I painted my laughter, my anger, and my resolve. What used to well up inside of me or get buried under the cloak of alcohol now became paint on a canvas.


In 2004, after a couple years of stability, galleries started calling me. I was offered a solo showing at a coffee shop/gallery in town. I hung my art there and they put on receptions for me. It was great experience in marketing my art. However, something was missing. I missed my social worker roots. I decided to do a benefit art show. It would be a good way to expand my audience and do some good at the same time. However, I needed a beneficiary. Grand Avenue Club was the first place that came to mind. After 10 long years, I contacted Rachel Forman to ask if she would like to do an art benefit with Grand Avenue Club. She was delighted to hear from me and enthusiastically said, “Yes!” We did a three-day benefit in September of 2005. It was an event with the art show on Friday night, a music performance on Saturday night, and spoken word on Sunday afternoon. It was a success.

Grand Avenue Club was thrilled with the results of the benefit and asked me to do more work with them. I volunteered to do a show once in a while. Rachel Forman had more in mind. She wanted a gallery and art program for Grand Avenue Club. This time she asked and I delightedly answered, “Yes!” Since 2006, I have been volunteering at Grand Avenue Club developing their gallery, “Gallery Grand,” along with the GAC Art Collective. We do Gallery Night and Day four times a year and feature in-house and guest artists. In 2007, we did an International Art Show, via video, for the 14th International Clubhouse Seminar held here in Milwaukee.

Also In 2007, I found a series of photographs that the poet had taken of me during a manic break in 2001. All the photos were taken in a 10-minute time span. In the course of those short minutes, he caught the emotional scope and magnitude of an episode. (Most boyfriends call a doctor in a panic; mine grabs a camera. It’s an artist thing — never pass up a good shot.) I decided to translate the photos into the paintings that have now become known as my “Manic” series. They are eight compositions, all done differently, each portraying the emotional zigzag I was going through. I debuted the pieces in April of 2007 and two of them sold. It was hard to let the pieces go, but they needed to be out in the world telling my story.

In 2008, Gallery Grand did multiple shows for Gallery Night and Day featuring guest artists from the Clubhouse and community. In October of that year, I received an Eli Lilly Re-integration Award for Artistic Contribution. It is a national award for a person with a mental illness who has contributed artistically to the lives of people who have experienced mental illness. I won Grand Avenue Club a $2,500 grant that we are using for improvements in Gallery Grand. In 2009, we have planned more Gallery Night and Day exhibitions. In October, we are having a statewide show of artwork from the six Clubhouses in Wisconsin.

The first week of 2009 ushered in the busiest week of my life. I had my first showing in New York City. The poet took me there for a long weekend. We had a wonderful time. The experience of seeing my art on the walls of a New York City gallery will never be forgotten. But, that was only the beginning of the week. I returned to a jam-packed gallery schedule. In three short days, I had to hang a show at Gallery Grand, hang my art at another gallery, and hang a GAC Art Collective show at a local theatre company. Including New York, that was a total of four shows in one week. That wasn’t all! That Friday and Saturday, Gallery Night and Day, I had all three of the Milwaukee shows to attend. It was our famous subzero weather, but we braved it and made all three events. It was a week to remember.

The poet and I have been together, with the exception of the 18 months I was so ill, for 15 years this spring. It is a rich and wonderful relationship. We share, we laugh, we have many great friends, and we do art. Throughout this thing called life, I will continue to paint. It is my solace, my life, my avocation, my career, my soul, me.

I told you I tend to overdo it. Now, I do it right.
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Last edited by patricia obletz. Based on work by TeganDowling and Tyler Schuster.  Page last modified on April 06, 2009

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