Sam de Armas started having bouts of deep depression followed by hypomanic episodes in high school.
“It would be wild, like reckless vibes or drinking and stuff like that,” she explained.
The diagnosis was bipolar II, which has the same wild emotional swings as bipolar 1, but they’re tamped down and not as dangerously extreme. Still, bipolar is not something to shrug off, whatever the type.
Now on medication, there aren’t any more reckless detours, said de Armas, who graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in May with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts.
There’s no drinking and, when the symptoms hit, she may experience insomnia. Bursts of energy still happen but lower in intensity and more controllable. Regular trips to the gym help reroute them.
Facing bipolar disorder has a positive effect on de Armas, she said. It created a pathway to an essential part of her life—her artwork, which incorporates bipolar disorder and her experiences with it.
“I speak a lot about it in my art,” said de Armas, animated, with an abundance of energy, though not frantic.
Aspects of her work are so daring and personal, they caught the attention of ArtsBuild, the organization that promotes art in Chattanooga with grants, education initiatives and advocacy.
ArtsBuild selected de Armas as one of five local artists to receive a Racial Equity Grants for Individual Artists (REGIA). Grant funding is for up to $10,000 per recipient, and the actual amount awarded is based on demonstrated need for materials to complete the proposed art project.
De Armas received $6,300 based on her request for a new laptop, virtual-reality (VR) headset and iPad, all of which she will use in completing her art.
REGIA supports Latino artists living and working in Hamilton County and focused on three categories: artist works, equipment and professional development.
“National reports done over the years have shown funding inequities in the nonprofit arts sector. REGIA was designed to provide more racially equitable grant funding in our community,” ArtsBuild officials said.
De Armas used the ArtsBuild grant to help her complete her senior thesis, which focused on “derealization,” a symptom of bipolar disorder in which she said she felt like she was the only real thing in a virtual reality world.
“It’s kind of like I think I’m in a simulation, kind of like you believe everything around you is fake,” she said. “That’s why I really like virtual reality because I feel like it’s a forced version of simulation that I use for my practice.”
Her thesis placed viewers in a virtual world that explored elements of being bipolar. ArtsBuild’s grant helped her buy the equipment needed for the project, including a VR headset.
“I am going to create a virtual reality video that will bring the viewer through four different stages,” she said.
She’s intentionally vague about what each stage will encompass, preferring that viewers come to the experience with fresh eyes.
The first is one of general reality, she said. Everything is as it should be. Stage two creates a sense of deja vu; you’ve been here before but everything is a bit skewed and otherworldly.
She described stage three as “Disney World.”
“It’s the real world, but it’s just completely altered into this weird reality,” she explained.
The fourth stage is a full dive into “something that’s just completely its own.”
The completed work was one of several senior thesis projects exhibited in the Institute of Contemporary Art in the UTC Fine Arts Center in May.
Her future is nebulous for now. Maybe graduate school. Maybe a year off to decompress.
Her ultimate goal is a career in virtual reality, however that plays out.
“I want to do anything that I can within virtual reality,” she said. “I love technology. When I started, I knew really nothing about technology, and now I’m here trying to learn how to code and do modeling and stuff. So it’s pretty cool.”
This is an updated version of a story that first appeared in the spring 2022 issue of The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Magazine.