I know for a fact that others on the spectrum and people with mental health issues feel just as alone and hopeless as I do. I hope they will read this story and it will inspire them to paint.
By Amanda Porche
On the very first day of March 2020, it felt as if my entire life were falling apart. The global COVID-19 pandemic was gaining momentum and everything seemed to change very suddenly. My city would soon be “the Global Epicenter.” As a realist and logical person, It was easy to predict that New York City would be hit hard. After all, it’s a densely populated international travel hub.
However, I never could have predicted the true scope of tragedy that would soon unfold.
I am a highly sensitive autistic female and could sense the panic in the air since day one. I feel the feelings of those around me and I can more so now than ever before. I consumed all the negative emotions and was instantly weakened. Life had changed from green to red. All activity seemed to just stop abruptly. We were expected to embrace the “New Normal” and be okay with that.
Like many people, the pandemic ruined my life. Within the time span of three weeks my routine had been murdered. I lost my job, some of my friends left the city and I was informed that I could no longer see my remaining friends. I could not go to my ASD support group which helped me immensely and it felt as if my entire support system was gone. My obsessive compulsive (OCD) tendencies were at an all-time high. I would wash my hands until my flesh peeled off. I obsessively counted to 20 slowly as I washed my hands. I would clean everything with a toxic amount of bleach.
I had meltdowns and panic attacks every single day of March. I would self harm by beating my arms and legs with my fist. Sometimes I would hit myself in the head and just lose control of my body. I would self harm without realizing it and soon started to purposely self harm. The pain would make me feel as if I had some control over my life in times of very little control. As the tears fell down my face, I would hit myself until my arms were all discolored and bruised. I cried multiple times a day and had panic attacks where I could not breath at all. I would hyperventilate so badly that my heart would race to what felt like the speed of sound.
By mid to late March the city and state of New York was issued a “Shelter in Place” order. We were told to stay at home all day and only leave for essentials. This means I could no longer see anyone outside my home. It also meant that I would feel cut off from society. I had moved to NYC the previous year and made a life for myself and had a circle of friends among the autistic community. I worked too hard for it to be taken away. I have lived in multiple cities and this is the only place that ever felt like home. I have felt some degree of isolation all of my life but it was never this bad. This was an unbearable feeling of loneliness. It made me feel as if all hope was gone and there was nothing left but frightening darkness. This is the type of isolation that can kill.
My life had shattered everything into a million broken pieces. As an autistic person, I thrive on routine and sudden change can be catastrophic. With the pandemic everything changed all at once. I also had been living paycheck to paycheck and now I had no job. My state unemployment application was in pending status for 7 weeks. I worried about my bills and paying for food.
My room is tiny and was I expected to just sit there for an undetermined period of time? It felt as if all hope was gone. For three weeks I did nothing but sleep and cry. I had fallen pretty far into depression. It was so bad that I even thought about how I would end my life if ever I felt that I could take no more. I made a plan on how I would off myself if things would worsen. All I could focus on was my loneliness and the horror that surrounded me.
That was until I found an unexpected coping mechanism and life got slightly better. I discovered that I had a passion for painting and drawing.
As I looked over the fire escape searching for a place that could secure a hanging rope, I stepped back and had the strange idea to draw how I felt.
I had not drawn or painted since I was a child. I am now in my 30s. I had just ordered an adult coloring book set with a pack of colored pencils. I never once used the coloring book. I found that boring and uninspiring. What I did do was pick up the pencils and draw on a moleskin travel journal. I started moving the pencil, and I suddenly felt my feelings flow out onto a sheet of paper.
My feelings translated better on paper than they ever could in words. It felt as if my art works were an extension of my actual self.
I drew about the only things I could focus on at the moment “COVID-19” and isolation. Everything around me was about COVID-19. I spent most of my day watching the news.
I heard the countless sirens. At the height of the pandemic one could hear the death sirens on an average of every 2 to 5 minutes. At the start I would count all the sirens. I sometimes counted over 200 sirens a day. Some of my friends had desensitized themselves to the point where they could tune out the sirens. I could not.
Being submerged in an environment where so much death and illness existed broke my heart. When I saw one of my neighbors being taken away in an ambulance, I broke down. It was now literally at my front door.
I went out once a week to buy groceries. Each time out was a panic inducing experience. I would endure sensory hell and wear a mask. Every time I wore a mask, I felt horrible pain. The mask hurt my skin and also made me feel as if I were suffocating. Breathing became immensely difficult.
I continued drawing with colored pencils but soon added other mediums. My themes continued to be social isolation, my own mental deterioration, death and the virus. It is all rather dark topics, but it gave me a distraction and a way to release my emotions.
I soon started painting with acrylics, oils and watercolors. I found that I can express my feelings better with paint than pencil. You can mix paint and get better smudging and fading effects. Smearing the paint was the best way to express the emotions I was feeling. It was also easier to cover mistakes using acrylics or oils. I don’t have a steady hand and could never color in the lines as a kid. This made me think I was bad at art as a kid.
I soon learned that art is not about coloring inside the lines. Art is about expressing what you feel and how you perceive the world around you.
I would often start painting or drawing with no outlines, plans or expectations. It was as if I let my feelings take the lead. If I messed up, I would just continue and turn my work into something entirely different. I used bright reds and blues to show intense emotions. I also used blacks and greys to emphasize the darkness of the current times.
I create texture by painting in multiple layers and using gesso. I would splatter paint and while doing so I felt a wide range of emotions as the paint hit the canvas. As all else was falling apart and people were dying, my art had become everything to me.
At first I thought my work was terrible and had little confidence that anyone would like it. Apparently, I was wrong. My work got a lot of attention among my friends on social media. I had people offer to buy it. One of my friends used it in her anthropology lecture at NYU that she was giving to undergrads. I got word that the undergrads really liked it and some followed my Instagram page. I was really touched that people enjoyed something that is so personal to me.
I was complimented on my use of color and emotional intensity exhibited in the artwork. Though my mental health was hardly intact, I was able to channel my emotional pain into painting.
People often forget that loneliness and panic are not good for your health. Mental health can hurt you physically and can even kill. I had to do my best to not let that happen, so I had no choice but to continue my art. Judging from social media comments, all care about mental health had been thrown out the window.
Now, it is a month and a half later, and my mental health has slightly improved. I produce at least one piece of work per day. Painting is really all that I do now. Since lockdown started I can not watch films or read books and I just got to the point where music brings me joy again. I simply can not focus on anything but painting. Until now, I have always used music as a way to cope. It was devastating to not be able to enjoy something that was so dear to me. Thanks to fine arts, my passions are starting to slowly return. I am now looking into online art degree programs to pursue my passions.
Am I better? Yes, but am still deeply affected by the unspeakable tragic events. I am not finished with this episode of depression but i no longer have plans of committing suicide. I self harm far less than before and the intense feelings of despair now come in waves.
I am in the global epicenter of the pandemic, and to be honest I am traumatized. It has been the most tragic thing I have ever experienced. Even taking a nice spring time walks can be tragic. On one walk I saw a body bag being loaded into a U-haul size truck. How can anyone be okay when this is now a normal sight? I can’t unsee these things but I can express my despair through art. This outlet saved me.
Everything has gone very dark and art is all that I have right now. I don’t care how my work looks or who likes it. I do it for myself. I do it for my own sanity and survival. With the COVID-19, we have learned that humans have very little control. Nature will do as it pleases. Art allowed me to have some control back in my life. I would even go as far to say that it saved my life. Now art is my life.
I have read multiple articles about ASD and COVID but could not relate to any of them. None of them were even remotely dark enough to even express a fraction of my feelings. Some autisitc people seem to enjoy the isolation. Others were just upset by the loss of routine.
I know for a fact that others on the spectrum and people with mental health issues feel just as alone and hopeless as I do. I hope they will read this story and it will inspire them to paint. Art could also save their lives.
If this article helps just one person, then my life is complete.
Amanda Porche is a New York City based artist and photographer. In addition to autism, she also has anxiety, depression and undiagnosed OCD. Amanda traveled the world non-stop for 4 years right after leaving her parents house in her late 20s. It taught her much about life and allowed her to develop social skills and independent living skills. Amanda is currently writing a book about her past nomadic lifestyle. Amanda recently discovered a passion for painting as a means to cope with COVID-19. Her other passions are music, international travel, NYC, photography and lengthy walks. She is also passionate about raising awareness and acceptance about autism and mental illness. Her paintings often express these topics.