Artist Victoria Charleson is “a stigma warrior.” For as many years as she can recall, she has struggled with co-occurring mental illnesses, searching for tools to mask what she couldn’t escape. Despite living a high-functioning life, Charleson remembers many unanswered cries for help as a child — like starving herself so her family would notice her sick appearance, the precursor to a lifelong eating disorder — forcing her to carve a path to wellness alone.
“I view me, what’s wrong with me, as a medical condition,” says Charleson. “Just like with diabetes, or any illness, I follow a map — I take certain meds, I live a certain type of lifestyle, I get enough sleep, I don’t drink alcohol, I go to therapy, and I do all of the things that are assigned for treatment.”
Along with adopting the necessary lifestyle choices, Charleson has shed her fear of stigma and shame and found healing in expressing herself through art. This May — Mental Health Awareness Month — she has banded together with Arts + Literature Laboratory lead curator Kel Mur and 15 other artists who identify as having mental illnesses to create a new exhibition.
“Collateral Damage,” a term Charleson uses to describe the fallout from living with borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder, is the title of the installation she has co-curated with Mur. “Collateral Damage” opened May 1 at the Pyle Center and runs throughout the month. On Gallery Night, May 6, there will be an opening reception with a panel discussion at 7:00 p.m.
Charleson, a photographer, provides a window into a world where weight dictates sense of self, and how underlying mental illness drives physical and mental chaos. Her images include a single piece of toast on a plate, a purse full of appetite suppressants, and shots of Charleson appearing paralyzed inside her home. The message Charleson would like others to walk away with is that mental illness should not carry a price tag of shame.