When you see Darren M. Jorgensen’s “296.44”, you feel for anyone who has ever engaged in a battle with an illness through medication. The visual connection is instant. “Managed Care” takes on a new meaning. The on-going frontier of medicine is apparent, it’s not a one-size-fits-all science.
“296.44” rejects the stigma of mental disorder and attacks the complexities of managing it through medication in a straightforward, shameless account with an honest voice rare among today’s privacy-conscious society.
Not surprisingly, an e-mail conversation with Jorgensen after spotting “296.44” at a gallery in Ann Arbor, Michigan over Memorial Day Weekend, reveals a complex individual reconciling the interruption of his life by a debilitating condition.
What is the title of this piece?
296.44, which is the diagnostic number from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, version IV. This number corresponds to my diagnosis--Bipolar I Disorder, Most Recent Episode Manic, with Psychotic Features.
Would you be an artist without your mental health condition?
I do not think that my choice to be an artist is dependent upon my mental illness. As a child, I was always creating, destroying and deploying things in ways other than that for which they were intended. My obsessions with understanding truth claims, and interrogating them began at a very early age. I was never popular because I could always see through the illusions that my peers told to themselves, and to others. My identity as an artist grew from these behaviors and tendencies. In contrast, my mental illness developed as an adult, which is very common, after my identity as an artist had developed. With that said, my mental illness does inform very directly some of my artwork.
What truth claims does this piece make? What testimony does it construct?
This piece addresses the truth claims made by the medical community, families and caregivers who insist that this disease is easily managed through medication. From their perspective, medicalization of the disease means that it is easily containable, relegated to a discrete realm, and controlled. This is not the experience of many, many individuals with the disease. It has not been my experience. The rows and rows of prescription bottles represent the hours and days and years of sleeplessness, ataxia, dizziness, diarrhea, drymouth, and mania that I have experienced as a result of this "easily" managed disease. Each bottle cost me much, both in the realm of my already compromised mental health, and, just as importantly, in my pocketbook. This disease is not, simply put, easily managed. This piece is testimony to these facts, as I have determined them to be.
You spent a year as part of the United Nations Special Commission, at the Baghdad Monitoring and Verification Centre, how has that experience contributed to your art and/or interest in documentary projects?
My time working for the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) in Baghdad, , taught me that all kinds of truths are coexistent, that multiple truths exist simultaneously. Born from this experience is my desire to document multiple truths regarding the same event. Through this process, I hope to construct a unifying system of truth claims that adhere various voices into a singular experience of witnessing a particular event. This is evidenced in my most recent video, "At The Hands of Another: When Someone You Love is Murdered". In this video I document the experiences of five members of two families that both lost sons to murder. From exploring their differing experiences the video attempts to untangle truths into varying threads that can be stitched together to form new cloaks of understanding and compassion.
You obviously struggled with the "stigma" of your disease and work against it. What do you think is the root of mental health, and specifically depression, stigma? Ignorance? Generational gaps in education?
More and more scientific evidence indicates that mental illness is genetically determined, including Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Schizoaffective Disorder and Depression. It also appears that there are psychosocial stressors that trigger particular episodes, or flare-ups, of an individual's particular disease. The challenge for the person with the mental illness is to be able to prevent these episodes, and live a healthy life despite their reoccurrence. Living with mental health is a product of many factors. Exercise. Proper nutrition. Adequate sleep. Looking after other medical issues that need to be addressed, such as Diabetes control, addressing infections, addiction issues and stress control. There is one more element to maintaining mental health when you have a mental illness: when you begin to become symptomatic, these symptoms must be addressed immediately. Looking after all the physical issues I have already spoken about is imperative, in addition to working with your health care provider to try to stem the onslaught of increasingly debilitating symptoms. Gaps in education and lack of economic resources may certainly exacerbate the poverty that some persons with mental illness live in, but they do not cause Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Schizoaffective Disorder or Schizophrenia.
You cope by managing your care. Do you also believe your art is part of that coping?
In some ways, my art does help me to cope with my illness. I live with a very rich interior life, with extremely tumultuous emotions with sometimes devastating results. I use my art as a way of organizing my beliefs and my emotions, and compensating for some of the more destructive aspects of my illness. I cope with that illness by managing it through all kinds of elements in my life. I get to bed on time at night. I feed myself well.
I take my insulin. I exercise when I can. And I take my medications, working closely with my team of doctors. Part of looking after myself is working through my obsessions with my art. But it is important to remember that working on my art is not a form of therapy, any more than any other artist does therapy through their art. Therapy is therapy. Art is art.
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Benjamin Pezzillo is a photographer and occasional magazine writer living in Los Angeles.