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DeKalb Artist Manages Mental Illness By Celebrating Small Wins

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Laura Szymanski
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"If I am bipolar, there's little room for me to really be myself."

A northern Illinois artist credits her mental illness for being one of the things that help shape her creativity.

Laura Szymanski is a multi-faceted artist. She does illustrations and caricature drawings, writes poetry and creates other types of art. She said artistry is a means of communication for her.

“It's like the trusty best friend. It's the, like, the outlet that I use,” she explained. “And honestly, art is interesting for me because I did not pick a painting major or a drawing major or a sculpting major. I picked illustration.”

She received her bachelor’s degree from Northern Illinois University.

Szymanski grew up in Bolingbrook but moved to Genoa when she was a senior in high school. She said being in a smaller town helped her dive into her art.

She was first introduced to drawing when she was 4 years old after she observed her father drawing a lobster.

“And I was like, ‘this lobster looks real.’ And it just made me very excited that like someone's hand can make shapes that look realistic,” she said. “And I loved coloring even at that point, too.”

Her mother bought her a book on how to draw realistic portraits and that is when she started refining her craft.

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Laura Szymanski

Szymanski was diagnosed with Bipolar 1 disorder when she was 19 years old. She said having this mental illness helps her connect with people through depth of emotion. The diagnosis led her to take part in a national nonprofit organization called This Is My Brave.

In 2019, she produced a show for the organization at the Egyptian Theatre in DeKalb.

“And they have people from the community tell their stories on stage, like five minutes or less,” Szymanski said. “And so, I got two of my bosses to audition and they were in the show and like I feel like that experience is one of my proudest memories.”

But Szymanski didn’t always thrive when dealing with the condition.

“I was unemployed for a year and a half because the mental illness just took away my legs,” she said. “I couldn't stand on my feet for a while.”

Volunteering at the DeKalb Area Women’s Center helped her get through. She said this made her feel more connected with what she was doing. She mentioned that where a person lives can impact their mental health.

“I was living in Belvidere, and I wasn't interacting with my community. And I just, I didn't even decorate my walls that much. It didn't feel like home,” she explained. “Like I want to live in a place that I could stand behind and help you know, like, that's why volunteering is important to me.”

Szymanski lives in DeKalb now. These days she works full time and does caricature art at different events.

“I love being part of someone's -- like, their events because the energies there,” she explained, “And like having talked about bipolar and hypomania, I know how to ride a high and to be very gregarious, and like, able to charm people like, it's part of what I like about myself. So, it ties the art with the getting to know people.”

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Laura Szymanski.
Caricature Art by Laura Szymanski.

She also loves doing book illustrations because of the camaraderie between herself and the author.

Szymanski said she doesn’t say – quote -- “I am bipolar.” Instead, she expresses that this is merely a condition that she has.

“If I am bipolar, there's little room for me to really be myself. Like labeling myself as I am bipolar. It's one dimensional, and it hurts me,” she said.

Szymanski wants to remind people that no matter what they are going through, they can persevere by making a choice to do something positive, however tiny it seems.

She suggests writing down small wins and looking at that progress at the end of each week. She said this practice gives her more control of her life, and she’s learned how to make her mental illness work for her.

  • Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.