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The art of Charles Mountain.

Charles Mountain is a self-admitted perfectionist. Although it's unclear if this trait has exacerbated his battles with major depression, it helps explain the drive behind his many diverse passions. His perfectionist streak has driven him to earn multiple degrees in music, with a focus on the violin. He felt compelled to go to seminary and become a rural evangelical Lutheran minister. He is now a community college professor, marketer, freelance graphic designer, and artist. He also reads Greek, Spanish, and German, and he once wrote a newsletter for translation companies.

In addition to doing the graphics, layout, and marketing for a book on bipolar disorder written by his wife, a physician with the disorder, he homeschooled his son, who also has the disorder. He did the work on the book while recovering from triple-bypass surgery and managing his type 1 diabetes. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the main symptoms of his depression was extreme exhaustion.

Mr. Mountain is based in Denver, and his work can be viewed on several Web sites, including the Artists Registry of VSA Arts (, the Washington headquarters of an international organization devoted to exhibiting the work of artists who face physical and mental challenges. On the registry, he credits the computer with being his "brush and canvas, my violin and bow, my silent voice, and my creator of little worlds."

He has exhibited at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, Colo., where he teaches part time, at Metropolitan State College of Denver, and at VSA Arts of Colorado.

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I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and lived there for 25 years. In Los Angeles, I was a professional musician--a violinist, and I had a master's degree in the violin. I was trying to get a job in Minneapolis, where my in-laws were living, and while there I felt a need to go to seminary, so I pursued that, and graduated.

I served 8 years in the ministry in South Dakota, and then my family moved to Denver. Once here, my wife became ill, my son became ill, I became depressed, and I had triple-bypass surgery. It's been something of a wild ride. I was casting around for another career. The pastoral one wasn't working out. I didn't get a call [to minister] here, and my son was so ill I homeschooled him. I was looking around for another job I thought I could do, and I was torn between graphic design and being a paralegal. I'm really glad I went with graphic design. It turned out I could do it very well. It draws on the same part of my head as the musical arts.

I was diagnosed with depression right after we got here. We arrived in Denver in 1989, or was it '87--that time's fuzzy. I underwent both drug therapy and talk therapy. I just take medications now--they're the latest class. I went right to the top, the most expensive stuff. I take Effexor, and the other one is Remeron. Combinations of those two have worked the best. We did try maybe eight or nine of the others on the market, but with my brain chemistry these had the best results. The talk therapy helped. I saw a psychiatrist for at least 8 years--a very long time. Between medication and talk therapy, I was able to get myself together and then my life together, and to the stage where I would even consider another career. Up to that point, I was incapacitated.

My symptoms were typical and atypical. I did have the extreme fatigue. I got my first major depressive episode under control, but it was with the second major episode that the symptoms got directly to the bottom of what was going on with me. They overlapped to a certain extent. With the second episode, I didn't have the typical sleep problems, but I would still feel exhausted all of the time. My mentation slowed down. It took a long time to formulate thoughts, and I was just missing stuff. Meanwhile, I auditioned for the Boulder Philharmonic and got in. I hadn't touched the violin for about 10 years, and then I took it out again. I think part of my disease is I think in extremes. I have a perfectionist streak. It's very annoying. I don't know if I learned it or if it's structured into my head. It really gets in the way. I had to give up playing eventually because I developed a severe shoulder problem called adhesive capsulitis. I was in the Boulder Philharmonic for three seasons. I missed most of the last two seasons due to extreme pain from this shoulder problem.

The most characteristic aspect of the second episode was extreme anxiety. It just felt like someone had put a fist of fear in the pit of my stomach, and it would not go away. It was there day and night, no matter what I did or didn't do. It was extremely uncomfortable. At times, it was like a physical sensation. It was based in my emotions, but my body began to manifest actual pain, which I found really weird. That was the only time I ever felt suicidal. With the first episode I never got to the point where I wanted to hurt myself. With the second episode, it never led to any action, but the suicidal thoughts started. But I didn't formulate a plan. It never got that far.

I'm now fully functional, at least to my ability. I did have some performance anxiety when I first started teaching. I think it was just the newness, more than doubts in my ability. I started teaching this September at Arapahoe Community College. It's a brand new job. It's very part time, but it does pay. I enjoy working with the students and being a mentor. I have an exhibit right now at the school because I'm in the graphic design department. I submitted five pieces. One is the "I Am Not My Disorder" poster, and another is "Depression Erodes My Mind." I try to suggest what depression feels like, which is out of focus. I've never sought out disability benefits. My wife when she opened her own practice took out disability insurance. It's much more limited than the income, but we do have a base income, and she applied for SSDI. I teach and do graphic design--my income is a combination of those two.

My wife and I self-published a book that she wrote, called "Bipolar Disorder: Insights for Recovery," and I designed the cover and did the layout. My wife has bipolar disorder and is a physician, so she combined those two perspectives in the book. She's in family practice, but unfortunately, she's disabled because of the disorder, so she no longer practices. She was diagnosed about 6 months after my son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This was back in the 1980s. My wife stopped practicing because of the effect of the treatments. She had to undergo electroconvulsive therapy, and that probably did some brain damage; we're not sure. My son was 11 when he was diagnosed.

I don't pretend to be an artist in the sense of drawing something. I download photos, open them in Painter and add some strokes and some depth to the photos, and then I use PhotoShop tools on the image. I go back and forth until I'm finished. Then I have a kind of digital art piece. The poster "I Am Not My Disorder" came about because once someone said to me, "Oh you're diabetic," and I just rebelled. I said, "I am not diabetic. I'm Chuck with diabetes." I have type 1 diabetes along with all of these other interesting various and sundry disorders. That poster is autobiographical, and all the images on it are drawn from some aspect of my life. Another important image is called "My Grandfather." I've continued to improve that image, with the same computer techniques I spoke about earlier.

Psychiatrists should remember that when it comes to depressed patients, behind the built-up negative thinking, the self-defeated thinking, and low self-image, there's actually a precious core of the person that's waiting to burst out. The disorder is getting in the way of that. When I was depressed and I tried to form thoughts, it felt like there was a fog or a translucent glass wall surrounding me. I perceived things, but I couldn't seem to break through to the outside.

As told to Deeanna Franklin by Charles Mountain.
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Title Annotation:VISIONARY ART
Publication:Clinical Psychiatry News
Geographic Code:1U8CO
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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