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Out of the ashes: Self-portrait series depicts a young artist’s struggle with psychosis

This spring, a collection of Uma Oswald’s self-portraits was hung at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health, a center that brings together researchers to study the latest research on mental illness in young people.

Uma Oswald
Uma Oswald
Something was terribly wrong. Susan Oswald Holter could see it in her daughter Uma Oswald’s paintings.

When she was younger, Oswald was “full of joy,” her mother recalled, but now, in her late teen years, it seemed like her girl’s life had turned bleak. It was reflected in her art.

Oswald had always been artistic. Starting at a young age she’d excelled at painting and drawing. Her early work was colorful, playful and sophisticated: Holter recalls her daughter’s preschool teacher saying about an early self-portrait, “I’ve been teaching for 23 years. Never in my life have I’ve seen anything like this. Your daughter is an artist.’”

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Now Oswald’s art had taken a frightening turn.

“Everything she was creating was so dark and scary,” Holter said. Even Oswald’s grandmother noticed: “My mom was telling me, ‘I’m worried. Something’s wrong.’” When pressed, Oswald could only describe her symptoms in vague terms. “Uma kept saying that her brain wasn’t working right,” Holter said, “that she didn’t feel right.”

Desperate to find an answer, Oswald’s parents had her tested by therapists, psychiatrists and neuropsychologists. “No one could tell us what was going on,” Holter said.

While experts searched for answers, Oswald’s art was earning praise. She was producing painting after painting, a series of striking, jarring self-portraits that showed a young woman struggling with some sort of inner turmoil.

Susan Oswald Holter
Susan Oswald Holter
“I was being told by everybody that these paintings were very artistic and good work, but it was so disturbing for me to look at them,” Holter said. “It seemed clear to me that Uma was in pain. I just didn’t know how to help her. It was eating me up.”

Oswald said that she considers the years she spent creating her series of self-portraits to be a dark and difficult time. She can now say that she was actively struggling with psychosis, hearing voices, believing that she was the target of a government conspiracy, but at the time she was afraid to tell her parents exactly how she was feeling. So she asked for help the only other way she knew how: through her art.  

“At the time I struggled to articulate or was learning how to articulate verbally how I felt,” Oswald said. “The visual was a way to tell people how I was feeling. I think people knew I was in pain when they saw the paintings, and in a way that was the whole point.”

This spring, a collection of Oswald’s self-portraits was hung at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health (ITR), a center that brings together researchers to study the latest research on mental illness in young people.

It’s a fitting place for the work to be displayed, said Chris Bray, ITR associate director.  

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“Our mission is to improve the quality of mental health care for children and families and make sure that the latest evidence-based research on preventions and interventions related to children’s mental health get into widespread practice,” she said.

The paintings, which depict Oswald’s struggle — and path to recovery — are an example of how serious mental illness in children can be overcome.   

“Uma wanted to display her art where other people could see it and learn from it,” Bray said. “She wants people to see her story, to know that there is hope.”

Dark days

Hope felt out of reach to Oswald when she was consumed by mental illness. Though she now understands that her hallucinations were a result of psychosis, at the time they felt as real as anything else in her world.  

“I got wrapped into the idea of government conspiracies and thought that the government was out to get me,” she said. Normally a straight-A student, Oswald started failing classes on purpose. “I thought that was the way to avoid the government,” she explained. Though her parents had always assumed Oswald would go to college — they’d even sent her to a college-prep school — she told herself that she wasn’t going to go.

Oswald was so consumed by the voices in her head that she began acting out. “I was running away from school, struggling with suicidal thoughts, throwing temper tantrums at home,” she said.

Her moods shifted constantly, her mother recalled. On a day when Oswald’s mood seemed stable and positive, she and her mother took a trip to the grocery store.

“She had a meltdown in the store thinking that the government was following her,” Holter said. “She ran out of the grocery store and I had to chase her to the park. It was really horrible because I was stuck between, ‘What is wrong with her? Is this just high school adolescent angst? Or is this something so much worse?’”

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The medical experts that evaluated Oswald came up with a number of diagnoses, including ADHD, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.  She doesn’t blame them for not being able to give her an accurate diagnosis, because she was keeping her hallucinations to herself. “I didn’t tell them about any of the wackadoodle thoughts I was having,” Oswald said. “I didn’t know how to articulate it and I was afraid to tell the truth.”

Through all of this chaos, Oswald kept painting. Her self-portraits became more and more abstract and complex. “All of the paintings that I made during that time were when I was actively psychotic,” she said. “I was in a period of prolonged struggle with symptoms.”

A self-portrait Uma Oswald created when she was a preschooler.
Courtesy of Uma Oswald
A self-portrait Uma Oswald created when she was a preschooler.
At some point in her senior year, Oswald’s symptoms abated enough that she improved her grades and decided to apply to college. Her mother encouraged her to study art, so she pulled together a portfolio and applied to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She was accepted at the prestigious institution, and she decided to go. She was ready to put the past behind her.

“I was an angry person at the time,” Oswald explained. “I figured going to school in Chicago was better than staying at home. I thought I might do better if I was somewhere else.”

But things did not get any better for Oswald in Chicago. Away from home, her hallucinations came back with a vengeance. “I was disassociating a lot,” she said. “I’d get really confused and talk about really bizarre things. I went to the ER a few times. I was getting distressed a lot.”  

After her third ER visit in a month, Oswald was admitted to the hospital. There she finally began to open up about what was going on in her head. She told hospital staff about her thoughts of government conspiracies — and about how she thought that trees and cicada bugs were sending her secret messages.  

“The doctor looked at me and said, ‘You’re psychotic.’” Oswald recalled. It was the first time that anyone had used that term to describe her behavior.  She stayed in the hospital for a week. When she left, Oswald had a diagnosis: depression with psychotic features.

In the spring of the same school year she ended up in the psych ward again. “I was experiencing night terrors, and my mind was really very scattered,” she said. “I was not eating, not doing well at all.” The medications she had been prescribed during her first hospital stay weren’t working. If anything she was feeling worse than ever.

During her second hospitalization, doctors began talking about a diagnosis that felt like it made sense. “They said that my working diagnosis was schizophrenia,” Oswald explained. Though this label felt scary, she said that having a name for what was happening was a relief. “I felt comfort in having a label and knowing a diagnosis. I felt like I could be more in control of my life.”

Finally, a diagnosis

When her daughter was hospitalized, Holter rushed to Chicago.  

During Oswald’s second hospital stay, her mother arranged to bring her back to Minneapolis and have her admitted to a hospital here. Holter was determined that this time they were going to get to the bottom of what was happening to her daughter. “I said to the doctors, ‘I’m not taking her home until you tell me what’s wrong,’” she said. “She was in there for 12 days.”

In Minnesota, doctors finally settled on a diagnosis that felt accurate. While the earlier schizophrenia diagnosis was close, the Minnesota doctors concluded that Oswald has schizoaffective disorder, a chronic mental health condition characterized by symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations or delusions, and symptoms of a mood disorder, such as mania and depression. That explained her rapidly cycling mood swings as well as her psychosis.

When Monsters Come Out to Play
Courtesy of Uma Oswald
"When Monsters Come Out to Play" is one of Uma Oswald's paintings that depicts some of the darkest days of her illness.
Once Oswald’s diagnosis was solidified, her care team was able to identify medications designed to treat her specific condition.

“When they narrowed it down I finally got good meds,” Oswald said. She also found a psychiatrist who she felt listened to her and helped her find the right combination and doses of medications. “It took a while, a couple of years, to get things figured out,” she said. “I have a good therapist who really cares about me. My life started going up from there.”

Oswald believes that one of the reasons it took so long for her to get an accurate diagnosis was that her case was so unusual. Schizophrenia is not known to be a childhood illness. Men, on average, develop symptoms of the disorder in their 20s, and women usually show the first signs in their 30s.

Oswald’s symptoms began to appear when she was still in her teens. She hopes that by telling her story she can help more medical professionals and families be aware that teens can also develop schizophrenia and schizophrenic-like disorders. If doctors observe young patients closely for signs of psychosis — and treat them with appropriate medications — they can give them an opportunity to live as normal a life as possible.

“I was pretty young when I first started to experience psychosis,” Oswald said. “I think it is very important for children to get help early on so they don’t have to spend their teen years lost and struggling like I did. Because no one thought that I could have schizophrenia, I was lost for a few years. It took me so much extra time to bloom.”

A story to tell

Oswald asked her mother to hold on to her collection of self-portraits. She didn’t like to spend time with them, but she also wasn’t ready to throw them away.  

“They are painful to look at,” she said about the paintings. They reminded her of a terrible, horrible time in her life. “Now that I’m in a healthy spot, it is still hard for me to look at them. I don’t like to be reminded of those times. I even got rid of my photographs from those years. It pains me to look at them.”

Oswald now associates painting with psychosis. When her symptoms eased, she put down her paintbrushes and hasn’t picked them up again. Today she’s focused on new media as a form of art. “I explore computer games as a simulated reality,” she said. She’s busy developing text-based computer games.  

“I’ve been researching a lot about transhumanism, or the simulated reality theory that human beings are actually in a video game,” Oswald explained. “Transhumanism is the philosophy that humans can evolve further than their current physical and mental level with the help of technology and artificial intelligence.”

While Holter also wanted to forget about her daughter’s dark days, she knew that Oswald’s self-portraits were important, something that other people needed to see. She talked to Oswald about them, and the two decided that her work needed an audience.

“I wanted to not only get my name out there as an artist but to also show people in a visual way, without having to talk, that this I how it feels to live with mental illness,” Oswald said. “I wanted to say, ‘This is what it looks like if you are going through what I went through.’ I wanted other people could see what I was feeling.”

Holter, who works as chief development officer for the University of Minnesota, came up with the idea of displaying her daughter’s work at ITR. But the paintings, which had been damaged over the years through several household moves and casual storage, needed restoration and framing. Completing this work would be costly. Then she came up with a solution.

“I was having lunch with a colleague,” Holter recalled. “I said, ‘I have to figure out how to get these artworks framed.’ My colleague said, ‘I have a donor who could do that. I’m pretty sure that Uma could write a grant and ask for the money.’”

Oswald worked with Trevor Born, ITR communication specialist, to write a grant proposal for philanthropist Wendy Wells. Born also helped Oswald write descriptions of the paintings, a narrative about her own experience with psychosis, and the story of her treatment and recovery.

Defined and Described
Courtesy of Uma Oswald
"Defined and Described" is one of the final self-portraits in the collection; it shows Uma Oswald after the most painful parts of her mental illness were behind her.
Wells, whose family foundation supports mental health research at the University of Minnesota, was excited to provide funding for the project. [Disclosure: The foundation is also a contributor to MinnPost’s coverage of mental health and addiction.] Her grandfather was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and her family is now focused on helping to fund work toward better treatments for the condition. “Eventually he was placed in an institution, where he died at the age of 48,” Wells said about her grandfather. “It was a very horrific experience for my family.”

Wells likes the idea that by helping a young artist tell her story she might be able to help other people living with serious mental illness.

“It’s a brave thing to expose yourself through your artwork,” she said. “The more these paintings help to educate all of us about the experience of schizophrenia the more it helps change the stigmatization around these brain diseases. It is Uma’s journey and she documents it in a vital way.”

Though Oswald’s paintings can be disturbing for some viewers, Bray said she thinks that the message they express is important and ultimately uplifting. “I think there are a lot of families who deal with this kind of thing, who have children with something going on and they don’t know what it is,” she said. “I think it is important to say, ‘It’s tough but there is hope. It’s all about getting the proper mental health care.’” Oswald’s self-portraits describe that journey.

One of the final paintings in the collection is called “Defined and Described.” Painted in shades of blue and yellow, it shows a young woman who has been able to put the most painful parts of the past behind her.

For Holter, being able to see that her daughter has come full circle and can experience some of her childhood joy is a wonderful feeling.

“Not only does she have this talent, she can also share it with people and hopefully help them understand what it’s like to feel like she did in those dark days,” Holter said. “There is no way you can describe these feelings. These paintings tell the whole story. Uma went through such a terrible time and came out on the other side. It’s like watching your child die and rise back out of the ashes.”