Shades of Recovery:
Glen Ellyn studio helps mentally ill heal through art
by ANN HANSON
OCTOBER 10, 2003
GLEN ELLYN SUN

Although there's no sign identifying it as the Awakenings Project, the second-floor space at 413 N. Main St. is clearly an art lover's haven.

Colorful oil paintings, detailed drawings and attractive abstracts adorn the walls.  It seems deserted on this Sunday afternoon, but the Beatles songs drifting down the hallway indicate that, somewhere, there is an artist lost in the "Strawberry Fields" of his work.

At the end of the hall, in a small room, Glen Ellyn resident Ben Beyerlein is just about to throw something on the pottery wheel.  Beyerlein has been a member of the Awakenings Project since its inception in 1996, and comes to the studio every Thursday and Sunday to work on any number of projects.

Like the other artists in the organization, he has been diagnosed with a mental illness and art has played a major role in his recovery.

"That creativity, that's just always there, so (even when I was sick) I'd always be writing or collaging or just looking at artwork except there's not a lot of concentration at all," Beyerlein said.

He first discovered he had schizoaffective disorder about 12 years ago when he was in college.  His disease is a form of schizophrenia where symptoms of major or manic depression and schizophrenia are present at the same time.

"When I've been hospitalized, I lose control of your life and you really have to get stable again," he said.  "You have to start from square one every time you get sick."

Beyerlein was last hospitalized six years ago.  His illness is now under control and he is being treated with medications.  He said that, somehow, he always found the strength to get better.

"I guess it's just resiliency," he said.  "...I don't know.  One day, you wake up and the sun's shining and you have a different outlook."

Now that he is healthy, he has a much clearer vision of his future.  "There's more long-term thinking (now)," he said.  "I don't totally regret getting sick because that's part of life, but there definitely were a lot of pipe dreams.  I guess you get a little more realistic about things and accepting and thankful for what you have."

Group founder Robert Lundin of Glen Ellyn has also been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.  "It's very painful," he said.  There are two areas of pain.  One's the actual psychological pain of fear and delusions and anxiety - anxiety like you can't believe - and fear...And then there's the social pain of not fitting in with your peer group."

The Awakenings Project provides a social setting where people with mental illness can connect, Beyerlein said.  The group has several divisions, including music and drama.  Prose and poetry are also highlighted in The Awakenings Review.  Writers from around the country contribute to the book, which can be purchased for about $15.

Lundin said he hopes the Awakenings Project will dispel myths about mental illness.  "I think it's a big stigma-busting project," Lundin said.

One of the ways to help eliminate the stigma is to be open about your illness, he said.  He described that there are depressed times, when he couldn't get out of bed - and even attempted suicide once - and manic episodes.  During those times, he thought he was a British spy or thought he could communicate with animals.

"They were relatively harmless, but they completely rendered me disabled," Lundin said.  He has now had a long period of recovery, and is being treated with medications that are working very well.

He said the project illustrates how people with mental illness can be valuable members of society.  "We're actually giving back to the community and we're creating things of beauty," he said.  "We're showing that people with mental illness can create beautiful things."

Copyright (c) 2003, Glen Ellyn Sun