“Prickly, Gurgling, Soft, Spikey, Bouncey, Thorny, Garbeled.”
“I’m 68 years old — time is against me.”
“Nothing to be ashamed of.”
Hundreds of cards with phrases like these were strung and displayed in an installation the lobby of the Cedar Rapids Public Library last week, responding to the prompt “Mental illness is … ” in an attempt to expose the realities of living with illnesses to the greater community.
The installation, which ran during National Mental Health Awareness Week, is part of the library’s quarterly “Reality Bites” program that dives into various subjects, patron service specialist Mary Beth McGuire said.
The library expects to get back between 250 to 300 cards back by the end of the installation’s run, hung on the installation and on bulletin boards around the lobby. It distributed boxes to local institutions for notes, from churches to not-for-profits to jails.
“Only being locked up has kept me under control,” one card read, accompanied by a face boxed in by gold tape. “Destine (sic) is to never be free.”
Veronica Fernandez, another patron service specialist who worked with the project, said she and McGuire read every note that was returned, but had to read them all in small batches because of how emotionally heavy they were, and how so many of the responses mentioned feelings of isolation.
“For me, the general overall trend was that people were hurting, and just how prolific it was,” she said.
Beth Krayenhagen, a social worker with Horizons Family Services Alliance, said there were “quite a few” clients and staffers who wrote notes for the project.
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Although the notes are anonymous, Krayenhagen said it takes courage for patients to release their thoughts and feelings into a society where stigma still surrounds mental health.
“I think it’s personally cathartic, in some ways, to put into words what’s going on in your head and in your body on a day-to-day basis,” she said.
Krayenhagen also said the wide range of responses reflects how mental illnesses affect people differently, and how individuals cope in their own ways. Some authors drew pictures to describe how they felt instead of using words, like an author who identified himself as Sonny on the card. He drew a mask over a stick figure, saying it was how he disguised his symptoms and pain from others.
The strength in the installation, Krayenhagen said, is that it gives onlookers a physical representation of the illnesses that play out in people’s thoughts and emotions. That vulnerability just might give community members fighting their own mental health battles the courage to seek help or tell their stories.
McGuire said the community response has been overwhelmingly positive, drawing in people running other tasks to read the notes and experience the scale and intensity of what people around them are going through.
“It’s both beautiful and heartbreaking,” she said.
McGuire also said the installation could become an annual display at the library. However, the long-term hope for this project is not only to make talking about mental illness easier, but to give those suffering hope that they can find solace, as one person wrote on their card:
“Mental illness is … Conquerable.”
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