According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, millions of Americans are affected by mental health conditions every year. Mental illnesses do not discriminate regardless of age, ethnicity, sex, socioeconomic status, etc. As such, it is imperative to create a society where we feel more comfortable talking about and helping each other through mental health setbacks, as well as supporting our loved ones who have mental illnesses.
As someone who has lived with anxiety and depression from a very young age, in addition to having C-PTSD due to traumatic health experiences, I fully understand how difficult it can be to live a harmonious life when your brain and body are creating a hostile inner environment.
One important way that we can figure out how to navigate life with mental illnesses is by channeling our energy through art of any kind. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing A.S. Minor, an Army veteran, spoken word poet, and mental health and mental illnesses advocate.
Read our interview below to learn about his amazing story of overcoming mental illness and helping others do the same through art and expression.
What is your background with mental health both personally and professionally?
I am a United States Army Veteran, and deal with issues from my time in service as a Mortuary Affairs Specialist. I also deal with mental health issues stemming from my childhood. After I got out of the service, I found myself in a very bad place that lasted a few years. I found performing, and doing mental health outreach through that, was immensely helpful in overcoming that bad place. I travel the country doing spoken word poetry performances on mental health awareness, both in an effort to educate the uninformed and to remind others that they're not alone in their mental illness.
How did you get into speaking publicly about mental health?
After I got out of the Army, I found myself in a dark and scary place. In the few years following my discharge, I was hospitalized a number of times. I was becoming increasingly reclusive, and someone close to me recommended a writing workshop that was free to veterans and concluded with a performance at the end. I immediately fell in love. I began doing open mics and poetry slams. I floated the idea of working together with the small group of veterans that had accumulated from that workshop, and they agreed; we called ourselves The Combat Hippies. We toured all over with our hour-long stage performance entitled "Conscience Under Fire" for a couple of years. We even went on to do a TedX Talk.
I realized, however, that due to the fact that we were all veterans, that the bulk of the crowds attended our events were from that demographic. Our message was aimed at bridging the gap between the veteran and civilian populations, but the very nature of our group was leaving a large part of the mental health community out, unintentionally, of course.
I ventured out on my own under the name A.S. Minor, and I began leaning more on my experiences with mental health in general, as opposed to just veteran mental health. As a solo artist I've traveled across the country, performing on stages, in VA hospitals, and in classrooms, all in the effort to bring awareness to mental health.
What is your opinion on the relationship between art (in any form) and mental health?
A good friend of mine always says, "The opposite of Depression is Expression." I find that alienation comes naturally to a lot of people with mental health issues. It just seems easier that way for many of us. So we try our best to keep our heads down and mind our own business. But the problem with that is our minds are the issue. Without any external releases, we sink further into our own thoughts, wherever they take us.
For me, I've always been a writer. I've written short stories, novels, essays, and poetry. It was my escape - to be able to put the words on the paper and out of my head. It was almost like having a conversation with a therapist, just written. But when I got off the stage the first handful of times and heard people tell me how my words saved their life, that's when I realized that many people have never found that, and so, like a volcano, they're forced by their own circumstances to hold all of that emotional lava inside.
For some people it eventually explodes out, but for others it simply burns them away from the inside. Art of any kind can often help to give that explosion a direction and a purpose, even if it's only to an audience of themselves. That's why I began doing poetry writing workshops after some of my performances, especially in schools.
How do art and mental health intersect in your life?
That's an interesting question, because many people confuse "mental health" and "mental illness," but they are not synonymous. Everyone has mental health, because we all have minds, while only a portion of us--though a growing amount--deal with mental health issues, AKA mental illness. So mental health and art run along the same track in my life. Art is what keeps me mentally healthy, and I use my experiences with mental illness nearly every day. For me, there is no distinction; I am a mental health awareness advocate above all else, so I do my best to integrate my talents and knowledge into everything I do.
How can others use art as a way to better their mental health?
I feel that many people put too much pressure on the abstract idea of artist. They think it's painting or writing or playing an instrument. I've always felt that we're ALL artists, but some people either haven't found their art-form or they don't realize that they have an artistic talent. Art is really just anything you enjoy creating, and it doesn't have to be creation from nothing. I've met some jigsaw puzzle artists who can take a 10,000 piece puzzle and put it together while having a conversation. I've met some garden artists who can look at a bunch of flowers and organize them into the most beautiful bouquets. And, I've met some mechanical artists who can diagnose an engine by listening to it for 10 seconds.
Art can be anything, if you're passionate about it. But the key is that we have to FIND that art-form. That means going to a cooking or dance class, or even joining a book club, because with the latter, there is even an art to reading and dissecting a book that many people dismiss.
What is one piece of advice you have for someone struggling with their mental health?
The biggest piece of advice that I give people is to hang on. That sounds cliche, but it's the most important thing someone can do for their mental health, whether they have issues or not. That's why meditation is so influential in much of the world. Life is an ever-turning wheel, and that means we WILL pass this spot.
Someone told me that they're only hanging on because their family needs them. I said, "Good! That's fine." Even if it's an external reason that keeps them here, that's great, because as long as you're alive there's always a chance to change something. And small changes can yield big results over time. Then, one day you'll be able to look back and say, "I can't believe I survived THAT!"
Anything else you'd like to include that my questions didn't tap into?
I am available for booking through my website and representation. I have been as low mentally as someone can get, and I love to share my story to help others know that they are not alone.
Throughout my six-year health journey, my relationship with food has changed time and time again. I started out eating the typical American diet full of dairy, gluten, processed foods, meat, sugar, and unhealthy snacks. Given that I'm 100% Italian, I was raised to eat foods (e.g., dairy and gluten) that would now cause my stomach to bloat to the point where it'd look like I was pregnant with triplets.
Although I didn't recognize how much food affected me until I got sick, looking back, I have never had the best relationship with food. In high school, I was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (well, your bowels would be irritable too if you were constantly wolfing down fried and lactose-laden foods all the time lol), had a lot of stomach pain, and was gassier than a hot air balloon. I'm sure my diet also played a role in how horrible my mental disturbances were during high school and college. Unfortunately, I didn't know any better to change my diet, but thankfully, things are better now.
These days, I use food as a healing modality because I'd rather not consume things that make me feel and look like doodoo, putting it scientifically ;) At times, people see how I eat and many give me praise, but most don't know the full story of what led me to where I'm at today. More often than not, people have general questions for me that would take too long to answer verbally, so I wanted to put together a Yoolie-themed FAQ for those interested in learning more about my journey.
This post will be a little lengthy, so feel free to skip around and read the questions and answers that pique your interest :)
When did your relationship with food start changing and why?
In 2012 I had a copper intrauterine device called the Paragard placed inside of me. Within months, my physical and mental health deteriorated due to copper toxicity. I went to see a new doctor and he suggested that we test me for celiac disease (I don't have it, just a very strong inflammatory response to gluten), while also recommending that I try cutting back on dairy and processed foods.
I had gained a lot of weight at this time, my face looked like a swollen tomato, and I was constantly in pain, so I figured I could give up bread and cut back on dairy at the very least and see what would happen. Thankfully, the doctor's advice paid off and I slowly but surely started feeling better.
What different "diets" have you tried?
I have tried A LOT of the diets out there, and some have helped me and others have made things worse. I started out going gluten free, as I mentioned above, and then I cut out dairy completely. From there, I removed processed foods, and shortly thereafter went paleo. Then, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto's, which is an autoimmune disorder, so I started eating autoimmune paleo (AIP).
Unfortunately, AIP recipes include a lot of high-histamine foods, which negatively affected my health, so I focused on eating low histamine. Unfortunately, I started reacting to a lot more foods so my diet was literally anything I didn't react to aka roughly ten things. Now, I am vegan, and have been slowly reintroducing food over time.
What is your diet like now and why?
I currently eat vegan and am still gluten free. I try to eat whole food vegan as much as possible, meaning that I eat produce and try not to buy packaged products (except for those lovely bagged plantain chips I love so much <3). To be honest, I was one of those people who thought they would never go vegan. I thought I would always be hungry without meat in my diet. I thought that my health would get worse without it because of a lack of nutrients. But after some convincing from one of my health mentors, I decided to take the plunge, and I am SO thankful I did.
I've found that animal products + me = a HUGE NOPE. I just couldn't digest meat well and I was always bloated. It made my Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) symptoms flare. I could feel the food just hanging out in my gut. My cystic acne wouldn't heal when those buggers popped up. And once I learned how meat can putrefy in your gut and intestines as it's being broken down I got over my fear of not being able to "live" without meat pretty quickly.
I had already removed dairy years ago, but continuing to not eat it means I'm not ingesting the antibiotics and hormones that are pumped into dairy cows. Dairy is also mucus-forming, which creates an environment in your body that doesn't lend itself to healing. Now, I try to focus on astringent foods as much as possible. Plus, you know, there's that whole thing of not eating our furry friends and other animals <3
What have been your motivations for continuing to mix up your diet?
To be honest, to start it had to do with vanity. I am a tiny Italian woman. I am not meant to be carrying an extra 30-40 pounds, and it isn't healthy for me to do so either. So, at first it was weight loss, and then I realized a lot of the foods I were eating were inadvertently causing horrible cystic acne breakouts, which also motivated me to eat better.
Over time, I also started taking the advice of different healthcare practitioners I trusted, including a nutritionist.
What have you learned about your relationship with food?
Point blank, food used to be a drug for me. I'd use sugar for a boost of energy. I'd use carbs and dairy to comfort me when I was sad. If I needed to be happy I'd down chocolate. I was addicted to the way that food made me feel without realizing it. I wasn't using food as a means to survive but to gorge myself and dull the emotions and thoughts that I wasn't ready to deal with.
Of course, I believe you can use food to celebrate and to indulge but moderation is key ;)
What is your relationship with food now?
I view food as medicine, and recognize that sometimes that does mean emotional comfort. But more often than not, I map out my daily food plan to ensure that I am eating things that are promoting detoxification of all the lovely toxins I have in my body instead of either creating more or trapping them in mucus. Overall, I try to use food to sustain. I don't eat until I'm so full that I feel like I'm going to explode anymore, although of course that happens from time to time.
Unfortunately, there is also a dark side to my relationship with food, as I'm sure most of us can say. Since I started reacting to so many foods over the years to the point where I was eating less than 10 things, I began to fear food. I didn't want to reintroduce anything for fear of getting a horrible cystic acne breakout or a bloated belly attack that would leave me in pain. I still fear food, but I'm working on overcoming it.
I also had a lot of OCD surrounding food - it had to be prepared by me; I had to control every facet of my food. And, I definitely still have a lot of issues with orthorexia, which is defined as "an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy." I still have some work to do, but overall, my diet is MUCH better than when I started this journey in 2012.
So, how do you do it?
I get this question A LOT. Like, if I was paid a dollar for every time someone asked me this I would be rich for sure. Anyway! Here are my answers:
What is your advice for people just starting out with wanting to change their diet?
What is your advice for people who have hit a diet roadblock?
Well, if you made it to the bottom of this post I greatly appreciate it and thank you for reading my musings! Food is an integral part of our lives in so many contexts, but on the whole, we as a human race (at least in America) do not use food as medicine as much as we should.
It certainly isn't easy to make changes to move away from the Standard American Diet (I'm sorry, but it's pretty ironic to me that the acronym for it is SAD lolol), but it so worth it, I promise!