How I Came to Paint My Mind: The Story of TEDx Speaker Amelia Halls

Photo and art by: Amelia Halls

Photo and art by: Amelia Halls

By Amelia Halls

Anyone who has ever experienced depression knows how hopeless it can feel. It’s like a tunnel of nothingness that can’t be penetrated by anything light or positive. You’re simultaneously in pain and numb, as paradoxical as those things sound to someone who hasn’t felt this way. This hopelessness makes you feel as if you’ll never achieve anything in life. I’m here to tell you that your mind is lying to you. 

There’s nothing wrong with feeling like this, for having depression, because depression is an illness as valid as anything physical. No, the part of you that’s accepting this lie is the part of your depression telling you that you’re alone, that you’re unloved, that you’ll never achieve anything. You can achieve so much, and I’m an example of that.

From what I can remember, I was about 13 when I developed depression. It started as a self-esteem thing, and I began to develop a chain of self-loathing thoughts that wouldn’t leave me alone. I became irritable around my friends and my family, I started isolating myself from everyone and convinced myself that everyone would be better off if I died. Each day was a struggle just to stay alive. The worst part is… getting better terrified me. I didn’t want help. 

I’m so happy to say this didn’t last. It doesn’t. 

I still have depression, and I still have very bad days. I have days when I don’t want to talk to anyone, when I can’t get out of bed, where the world feels like too much to face. But generally, I’m considerably better. I’ve stopped isolating myself, I’ve found a way of doing things I enjoy again, and I have taken steps to get better. I’m writing this as someone who’s been in an extremely bad place, but has worked through it. So, believe me when I say that from personal experience, things can get better.

I recently had the opportunity to do a TEDx Talk at the TEDxTeen conference in London. Even saying that sentence feels surreal to me, because I thought I’d never be able to achieve anything in life. 

I turned to self-harm as a coping mechanism. It was a way to try to get through the days when I first developed depression, but didn’t know how else to cope. Self-harm is something that for a long time I thought was the only thing that could give me any relief from the way I was feeling. I would frequently hurt myself whenever I felt like I couldn’t cope with my feelings, and eventually it became a kind of addiction for me – it would be the one and only thing I would immediately turn to for “help”. 

It is for a lot of people. But, eventually I started relying on it less and turned to painting my skin as a way of coping instead. I started creating beautiful images on my skin instead of damaging it, which left me with something I could be proud of and show people. I still have the self-harm scars, and I will likely have them for most of my life. But, I can look at them now knowing that I made it past this phase of my life, and found a much more positive method of coping.

On January 14th, I painted a copy of Vincent van Gogh’s “Café Terrace at Night” on my thigh. When I posted it on social media, it quickly caught people’s attention, being shared and going viral. This in and of itself shocked me as I’d never gotten this much attention for my art before. My depression clouded my ability to realize the full potential of my talent. 

Soon this painting caught the attention of a Buzzfeed journalist who interviewed me on Twitter saying that they wanted to feature my story about painting instead of self-harming. I immediately agreed, hoping that talking openly about self-harm would help to reduce some of the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. What I didn’t expect was for it to end up on the front page of Buzzfeed News on Facebook. Hundreds of thousands of people were reading my story, telling me I’m inspiring and that I helped them find healthier ways of coping with their mental health. It was absolutely incredible.

It was exactly what I hoped for, although on a much larger scale than I ever anticipated. There is so much stigma surrounding mental health that it’s important for us all to talk about it openly and unapologetically, refusing to adhere to the social rules that seem to say, “No one wants to hear about how messed up you are.” Because the truth is, we’re all a bit messed up in our own ways. And it wouldn’t be such a taboo thing if we spoke about how we feel to each other, acknowledging that feeling bad is valid and serious instead of a sign of weakness.  

When the article died down I thought that would be the end of it, that I’d done all I’d ever be able to do to challenge the myths and stigma surrounding mental illness, and I slowly slipped back into the mind-set that I wouldn’t achieve anything else. So, when I got the message from TEDxTeen asking me if I’d be interested in doing a talk at their conference, my immediate instinct was that it must have been a mistake, that they must have gotten the wrong person. 

But they hadn’t. They specifically wanted me there, and that’s a feeling I’m never going to forget. This was my chance to talk about finding healthy ways of coping with mental illness, to share with everyone how much art helped me, and to show that mental illness does not have to be restrictive. I took this chance and ran with it. I’m so glad I did. I was one of the least experienced public speakers there and I was terrified, but when I was on the stage it didn’t seem to matter. I was passionate about everything I was saying, and everyone could tell. I got nothing but overwhelmingly positive feedback at the end.

So here I am telling you that depression lies. It lies and tricks you into believing it’s telling the truth. Trust me, I’ve been there. But I’m proof that you don’t have to believe these lies, and that there is hope amidst the darkness. I spent the entirety of my teenage years hating myself, believing that I wasn’t worth anything and that I’d never amount to anything. Now here I am at 19 years old having done a TEDx Talk. How bad you feel does not dictate your ability to achieve great things, so don’t pass up opportunities that come your way just because you don’t think you’d be any good at them. 

Now that mental illnesses are beginning to get more awareness, we have to make sure we keep talking to each other about them. Ask people how they are with sincerity and concern. Tell your friends you love them. Say yes when people offer you opportunities. You don’t know how much you can achieve until you force yourself to open up, to accept that you are strong because, to quote the end of my TEDx talk, “Being mentally ill is not synonymous with being weak.”

Watch Amelia’s TEDxTeen Talk – How To Paint Your Mind


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