Making Peace

By Ryan Burns

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Every time you look at a white page, see something that is endless, and is at your whim. It is at your whim.

Four years ago, on the summer day I set foot on UCSB’s campus for the beginning of orientation, I said goodbye to my parents, sisters, grandparents, and smiled up at the opportunity I was lucky enough to enter. My little sister and mom cried, my dad stayed calm, and my grandpa sent me off with a short bit of advice: ‘learn how to learn.’ He went on about how people his age never learned to learn, and that I should take advantage of the adventure I was about to embark upon.

That summer day, I had no idea that this blank page I stared at would open my mind to new depths. The page would manifest demons and dreams I could have never imagined. The page would be covered from corner to corner with words and colors that could never be replicated. In a blank page I learned to see a mirror.

The struggle to claim a space as my own gives me a sense of purpose, a purpose that helped me through the looming darkness of depression or the paralyzing ringing of anxiety. Mental instability forced me to reconsider my decision to attend a research university after the stresses of failing became too much. So halfway through my junior year in Santa Barbara, I took a nine-month break from it all.

When I made the decision, I felt like it was the end of something, I thought of the possibility that I drop out of school for good, or, worse, that pursuing higher education was a mistake in itself. I cried to a group of incredible friends I had met six months earlier, telling them that I was going home to Sacramento to talk to my parents, and that I didn’t know when I’d be back.

Before going home, though, I was certain I wanted to be in the sunset disco of Isla Vista with these beautiful humans who shared an honest love for originality. The other support system I had built for myself was a sense of community, a sense of belonging, that allowed everyone around me to seriously explore artistic avenues. A few of my closest friends made music for all of their college lives, and hearing the beat pulse on encouraged me to do the same.

After a long, rock-bottom-type week in Sacramento, filled with doctor’s appointments and calls with potential therapists, it was decided that I’d go back to IV, work part-time to pay rent in a hole of an apartment, and spend a couple quarters out of classes. I soon realized that for the first time in fifteen years, I had no academic restrictions, and could set my restless mind out on a new, learning adventure.

With my wide-open schedule I spent day after day writing in my journals, taught myself Illustrator and made a couple dozen visual pieces, my first independent foray into the arts. In a sort of call to my imagination, bringing my deepest thoughts to physical form with a focus on expression over precision, my attempt to create offered a way of coping with the difficulty of becoming myself.

I’d been working on InDesign and Lightroom extensively since high school, with a bit of experience in Photoshop, and through revisiting the programs for the first time in three years, I began seeing my laptop as an peaceful escape from crippling panic attacks and social anxiety. When the screen gave me headaches, I began turning the pages of nearby magazines–mostly Vogue and the New Yorker–intrigued enough to chop up the pages hoping to speak through pre-existing beauty.

I looked for the coexistence of opposites, and things entirely their own. I started to feel a fire within, with direction and intent, I carried on through this period of unknowing. Collage and writing continued to give me an outlet for emotional expression, and gave me a sense of identity in the wake of leaving school. This new page was a simple practice in self-teaching. Channeling creativity may not have cured my anxiety or depression, but prescriptions and counseling didn’t do that either.

I realized that multimedia projects offered me a physical representation of my mental battles, using pages seen by others as finished or refined to give myself an imperfect beginning. In the repetitive process of cutting and pasting fashion ads and political essays into something that makes sense, I’ve taught myself to read the world more critically than any lecture could. The habit of collage and writing allowed for a smooth transition into balancing classes and shifts upon my return to finish what I began.

Going back to school was undoubtedly the right choice for me; with three years of experiences invested in Isla Vista, quitting before the approaching finish would’ve been foolish. Though I’ll always believe that taking a break to find peaceful thoughts was more rewarding than any ceremony, award, or grade in my entire life.

I knew learning was the only way to continue; in this continuation, my mind and eyes now have new places to wander without hesitation. Every time I look at a white page, I see something that is endless, and is at my whim. It is at my whim.  I have a home with scissors and paper, or sitting on a computer in silence or sound; in this new home I’ve been loved and lonely, heard and ignored. There’s a mind behind everything balanced, and even though one mind can’t comprehend the world, something must have brought it to order.

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