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It’s My Mess: How I’ve Scrapbooked My Way Through Mental Illness

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I’ve always been terrible at journaling, which is a surprise to most. I’ve loved reading and writing for as long as my hands could hold a pencil, so wouldn’t journaling become a beloved hobby? I forced myself to keep journals and diaries for most of my formative years, thinking of any number of my favorite authors who have said that they write every day in a journal to stay creative. But journaling has just never appealed to me in that way. My biggest issue with it is that I have trouble writing about myself or my life if no one else is going to read it: the Type A, overachieving perfectionist in me always asks, why bother?

I recently found a diary I did keep from elementary through high school at the back of a closet, and it’s probably the most inauthentic I have ever been. I pretended to have crushes on girls, complained about which of my neighborhood friends was being a bitch that week, and how much I hated the humidity of summer. By high school, I started writing about having no friends and how head over heels in love I was with a jock in my gym class who probably didn’t even know my last name. (I still follow him on Instagram. He’s still gorgeous and still doesn’t know I exist.) But it was at this point that I started hiding my diary in a place I thought it was less likely to be discovered, because I would just never recover if someone else ever read these ugly, pubescent thoughts of mine. It didn’t matter anyway—the author didn’t know who he was or feel confident enough to find out. I gave up writing in it for good not long after.

Years later in college, as a literature major in a creative arts program, I was required to take a course called “Intro to Creative Practice,” where we were required to buy a book by Lynda Barry called Syllabus. Our teacher told us to pretend that it was our actual course outline and to use it as inspiration, despite the fact that she didn’t teach from it and that it cost an arm and a leg. But if we ever got stuck on any of her creative assignments, she believed the answer could be found in Syllabus. Everyone hated this frivolous book—and if you had seen the required reading lists for our other classes, you might’ve understood—but there was something about this course and this teacher that made me want to listen and believe her: maybe there was something hiding within the pages of this messy, incoherent collection of pages that would unlock something else creative in me that I hadn’t yet known. It was telling that I felt that way, too, since during that time my perfectionism and intrusive thoughts were at an all-time high and would send me into therapy for the first time that summer.

While my therapist would recommend journaling to me several times that year, explaining that even if what you write is messy and incoherent it still might help you make sense of your feelings, it was a concept I was in no way ready to hear. To me, at that time, there was no point in doing anything if it wasn’t going to be perfect. My college program felt like a competition, even if it wasn’t, where we were all silently competing against each other to be the most talented or creative. If being creative with words wasn’t something that came effortlessly natural to you, what were you even doing there? Before long, I’d managed to apply that mentality to almost every other area of my life. Everything had to be perfect, or life wasn’t worth it. So journaling was certainly not worth it.

Over the course of the following year, as my college course load began to lighten and I started feeling more comfortable and confident pursuing the things that make me feel alive, I’d saved Syllabus and was determined to begin a new creative project inspired by it: a scrapbook. At least, it started as a scrapbook. The author suggested keeping things like movie tickets, receipts, and boxes with funky designs for the purpose of staying inspired, and something about that spoke to me. I’d kept scrapbooks as a kid, but this was going to be different, because it was going to be whatever I’d want it to be. As well as pasting in random stuff I’d kept from everywhere, I’d intersperse around them my favorite quotes, song lyrics, and anything else I felt like saving. In short, it was something for my hands to do when I was feeling anxious or out of control. And for once, it didn’t have to be perfect.

But what started as a scrapbook soon became much more: I began relying on it for emotional support, and although I’ve never written down my own thoughts or observations in it, my scrapbook had become a makeshift journal. The only thing I can compare it to is when Paris Geller on Gilmore Girls refers to her crafts table as “emotional homework.” Through the quotes and song lyrics I’d wanted to save, I was able to decipher exactly what I’d been feeling but couldn’t articulate. Journaling in its traditional definition had always required so much effort from me, but this came more naturally than anything I’d ever done before. Which was a good thing, because although I had begun to start unraveling my anxiety, perfectionism, and intrusive thoughts, I had yet to fully come to terms with my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Starting university the following year was when everything really hit the fan, sending me into a prolonged depressive episode. It was then that my scrapbook really saved me, providing me an outlet I’d never had before where I could express what I was thinking and feeling through the words of others. It was also then when I started to learn that almost everything a human being can feel has been felt before (except for an unprecedented pandemic, but that’s a different story), and if you just look hard enough, you’ll find someone dead or alive who knows exactly what you’re going through and will be there to help.

The last year has proved to be a difficult time for both me and my scrapbook. (Second scrapbook, actually, and I’m just about ready to begin a third.) Our current global health crisis has obviously forced so much more excessive worry into our everyday lives, and as someone with an anxiety disorder, it has not been an enjoyable ride. The isolation and loneliness brought about by quarantines and lockdowns suddenly started making it difficult for me, a self-proclaimed professional introvert, to spend too much time alone, and as result I did not work on my scrapbook for the better part of seven months. But what I once thought of as time lost I now see as just time away—I was busy surviving a pandemic, which can obviously halt creativity—because when I did open it up and begin adding to it again, everything within its pages still made sense. No matter what messes life decides to make, my scrapbook is there. It’s my mess, and I’m proud of it.

In addition to Syllabus, Jenny Lawson’s You Are Here: An Owner’s Manual for Dangerous Minds was fundamental in helping me through that first period of depression, where I was learning for the first time that sometimes being messy is better than being perfect. “There is a place inside my head filled with the stacks of books I’ve read and the songs I’ve heard and the memories that make me who I am,” she wrote. “It is a refuge and a sanctuary where I keep safe the people I’ve loved. It is forever a cluttered mess. But it’s my mess, and I’m okay with that.”

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