Header image: Gerald Prokop Art Studio and Prokiev Projects + Publishing headquarters at Stevens Square Center for the Arts, ca. 2004.
Last year, I returned to my blog after a decade of almost complete inactivity to post an obituary for my cat. Facing life without my trusty companion, as well as being on the cusp of getting reevaluated for ADHD, it was feeling like there was a lot up in the air. For better or worse, things were going to be different.
I did not have positive associations with my blog. I started it at a time of optimism, resourcefulness and opportunity, only to end up using it as a vehicle for my bitter resentment as I saw that optimism get pummeled by daily life. Blogging was supposed to be a fun way of documenting my creative life. Instead it became a sinkhole of negativity, which defaulted to a weird little dumping ground for posterity. I continued to post sporadically, but the stink of failure lingered.
Now, with the possibility of recovery on the horizon, I thought that maybe I could paint again. Maybe I could write again. Winter was on the way, I was being prescribed stimulants. It seemed like the natural time to redesign my website. Except that my motivation took a gut punch every time I crossed over one of those old posts keeping me tied to the past.
So I hid them.
I quiet-quit my artistic pursuits somewhere around 2010. My hunger for a career was gone, and my tolerance for self-promotion was anemic. I committed myself to things closer to home – an animal, cycling, vegetarian southwestern food, and a business repairing vintage windows. Music and art were hobbies. As healthy as this felt, I knew in my gut that there was a habit of avoidance going on. Limiting myself would start to feel unnatural, so I would start expanding my ambitions a little bit, and then immediately start feeling like I made a grave mistake. There was an automatic emotional backlash to any enthusiasm that I did not keep firmly bottled up.
I recently discovered the therapy-speak term for that exact dynamic. It’s called “Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria.” A little more wordy than “I suck,” but I’ll take it.
Tubing Down Neurodivergent Creek
I was first diagnosed with ADHD in the 3rd grade, and I progressed through high school with medication and accommodations. I was pressured to pursue college by teachers and family, and kept an open mind despite how much of a struggle school was. As it turned out, higher education was a much more positive experience, so I dismissed ADHD as kid stuff. There were challenges, but I always found my bearings. There were even things besides art that I excelled at.
I was a fairly successful student, and as I closed in on the credits I needed to graduate, I felt a sense of adventure and opportunity. With what I thought was a good mix of employable skills and creative drive, I set off to build my career in the arts.
Cue the footage of Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff, not realizing it until he looks down, and then falling to the ground. Sticking out of the coyote-shaped hole at the bottom is a wooden sign that reads “Powered by WordPress.”
You don’t graduate from art school without receiving countless, unsolicited warnings. I took them all to heart. I knew how to write, kept slides of all my work, did research on business development, and kept my resume and artist statement up to date. In therapy-speak, this is called “executive functioning.”
It came in really handy when I filed my own bankruptcy case.
I was also warned that art was not going to pay the bills, which is why I stacked my resume with graphic arts production work right out of high school, and then followed that up with a two year degree in graphic design. As it turned out, this experience accounted for little more than grunt work, and I was constantly swapping out one dead-end job for another. I got through each day on the idea that the misery was temporary and I was just paying my dues. But increasingly, I had no energy left when the work day was done, and the misery started to feel permanent.
I had insomnia. I had a stomach ache for ten years. I had a habit of punching myself in the arm when I got overwhelmed. If I wasn’t frantically building a spreadsheet about how I was going to get my car fixed and pay my rent, I was hyperfocusing on a project to the point where I hated it, after which I would spend the entire weekend walking around town and chain-smoking to avoid the toxic funhouse-mirror that was my apartment. This aversion to my own work eventually morphed into total burnout.
It took a while to see it, but these weren’t the consequences of artistic ambition – they were the symptoms of mental illness. I was struggling with untreated ADHD – and the resulting anxiety and depression – making it impossible for me to manage my life in such a way that I could pursue my skills and passions. I thought that giving up on those passions was the answer. And life did seem to get slowly easier once I started my window business and carefully mediated my environment and daily habits. Eventually, it felt like I was ever so close to normative functioning. And then came COVID.
When the pandemic started, everything got harder for everyone. Hearing people complain about daily life being a hassle, I couldn’t help but think, “yeah, but that’s how hard it is for me normally.” And once everything did go “back to normal,” my life looked like the aftermath of a tornado.
Cue the footage of the local news reporting on the tornado damage. The chyron at the bottom reads, “Hey, dude, you still have ADHD.”
Into the Weeds
The process of resuming treatment involved a long period of what I like to call “waiting list hell,” during which those old blog posts started to look a little different. They weren’t embarrassing. They were the rantings of someone who needed help. Hiding them was a way of telling that person, “OK, calm down. Help is on the way.”
I’m putting that part of my life away while I rebuild my perspective. I’m taking off my pack and setting it down for a while so I can wander into the weeds. There, off of the trail, are all the interesting things – some thorny, some beautiful. There are fragile flowers and there are things that will never die no matter what. Underneath it all, there are just conditions. Sun, silt, shade, clay, moisture, etc. A tangled web of cause and effect, and an opportunity for curiosity and discovery, as long as you set your baggage aside.
That is the theme of this writing project, for which this post is my introduction. I want to look into my mental ecosystem and do some citizen science. I want to write about the creative’s role in society, how creativity interacts with capitalism, the psychology of falling through the cracks, and how our healthcare system creates negative feedback loops that prevent or stifle the progress of so many of us. I’ll take my adversity, crack it open, and see what’s inside.
As I do this, I’ll bring back my old posts. I can stuff them and display them like prehistoric monsters. I just need some bright museum lighting, some well-researched wall plaques, and some time. Looking forward towards recovery, I’m giving my old ambition a tune-up. I’m making new work, and hopefully expanding my creative career. I want to share all my skill sets on YouTube, publish ideas about social business practices, and maybe get my theory of aesthetics in writing. I’m going back into the landscape, this time with some field notes.
When I graduated from art school, this is not the story I thought I was starting, and I didn’t think it would take me 20 years to get a handle on such a foundational part of who I am. But it did, and there is a lot to unpack about why. This is the story I have. Welcome to the weeds.
Cross-posted on my Medium.