Drawn away from depression

Published 9:28 am Thursday, May 24, 2012

Austin's LIsa Birk shows off one of her Zentangle designs, which she uses as therapy in battling her depression. -- Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Austin mom uses art to cope with mental health issues

Depression, anxiety and nervous habits used to cloud Lisa Birk’s thoughts, but she’s moving away from that chapter in her life. She has sought help.

“It’s really not a big deal to talk about it,” Birk said on Wednesday about discussing her issues — something she once wouldn’t have considered.

The Austin native and single mother who broke her leg nearly five years ago, was in a hospital for more than a month, and was trying to take care of a daughter with developmental disabilities allowed depression to consume her. In recognition of May as Mental Health Awareness Month, she opened up.

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Birk was dwelling on negative thoughts, worrying about a menagerie of things and judging others. Her thoughts became destructive, and she started picking her skin, as well.

But Birk’s situation changed with the help of a few people. And a pen.

Through counseling groups and in-home therapy visits, Birk rediscovered something simple but life-changing: drawing.

“It’s just retraining your mind to think differently,” Birk said about her new, constructive hobby that keeps her from constantly worrying.

Birk has amassed a stack of books, cards and pages during roughly the past two years. She started making designs through Zentangle, a form of art that starts with a simple shape, bisecting it with lines and then filling those small spaces with finer art.

“It’s just a variation on doodling is all it is,” she said. “It’s just addictive when you start doing it.”

Birk — with a little encouragement from therapist Carlton Frank — put her drawings on cardstock and now displays them at places like Frank’s counseling office at Community Technologies & Services, and the Gymocha coffee shop. She even developed her own stamp on the back of her cards, designating them as “Hand Drawn Healing.”

“It was just a little thing, but a pretty good, big thing,” Frank said about the new hobby.

While Birk admitted to Frank she was a little nervous about talking on Wednesday, one could hardly tell. Birk also joked about her personality, and how people have recognized her as “snarky.” Still, one couldn’t tell.

Frank continues to meet with Birk throughout each month at her home, where he employs a technique called dialectical behavioral therapy. The approach recognizes that there is indeed a problem but alleviates it with mindfulness of the situation and focusing on what positive skills one has.

Birk also attends weekly DBT-based group classes.

“It helps to see other people’s lives,” she said. “Everybody has different problems.”

While many find it difficult to seek help or have judgments about attending classes, just like Birk did, Frank said the DBT approach is one in which those seeking help can be much more comfortable. Furthermore, Frank’s clinics in Austin and Albert Lea are nonprofit — run through grants and a lot of help from the United Way. But that doesn’t limit the quality of service or face-to-face time, either, as Frank dropped by for a longer-than-expected visit on Wednesday.

“A lot of what we do is sitting in people’s homes with them: ‘What are you doing with your time? How are you going to regain your independence?’” Frank explained.

That approach has not only pushed Birk to be constructive with her time but to recognize a bigger picture. She wants to work with her hands, make things for a career and, more than anything, provide for her daughter.

“I’m just trying to keep things together, so I can take care of her,” she said.

For now, she will keep working toward that goal, one week at a time, a stack of cards at time.