How Doodling Helped Me Cope with My Mental Illness — and, Ultimately, Start a Business

Jenna O'Brian, the creator of lifestyle brand Twenty Seven, shares her journey with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) and how it inspired her to create art that brings awareness to mental health.

Photo: Jenna O'Brien

I got my period on my thirteenth birthday. Like most girls, I felt a mix of caution and excitement. But the thrill of officially graduating to womanhood was shortlived. Soon after I started my period, my mental health, something I'd always struggled with, spiraled out of control. What I didn't know, at the time, was that it would take me years to find a solution.

Recognizing My Symptoms

Anxiety has been my friend (or, rather, enemy) since I was a child. I was 11 years old when I first went to see a primary care doctor about it — or what I could best describe at the time as a tightness in my chest. Based on that description, I was sent to a cardiologist, where I didn't get any answers.

As I grew older, I remained an anxious person. I was never officially diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, but anxious thoughts consumed my existence. And in an effort to cope with these wretched worries — and the feelings that followed — I journaled incessantly, going into great detail about what was passing through my head. Why I couldn't stop worrying about what other people thought of me? What was causing this sense of impending doom? I just wanted to understand. In an effort to cheer myself up, I doodled all over my notebooks, covering every inch of pages using vibrant, eye-catching colors that brought me joy. Having a creative outlet gave me a sense of control; when the aching pit in my stomach demanded attention, I could make it disappear (at least for the moment) by drawing. But as I neared the end of high school, my anxiety became debilitating.

For many, the months (days, minutes, seconds) leading up to the fateful day you leave home for college — or whatever your next step is — can feel heavy with stress. And I, like so many other high school seniors, carried that weight throughout most of the year. But even after getting into college, finishing finals, and officially graduating, I couldn't shake off the intense feelings of uneasiness, worry, and fear. Now, I know what you're thinking: that's pretty normal. And, yes, I guess I would have labeled my feelings as "normal" too...except for the fact that they were accompanied by a constant need to cry — and I mean constant.

Completely unprovoked, I would start bawling in the most random times: while shopping at the grocery store, sitting in my car, or even in the middle of conversations. It got to the point where my emotional state became detrimental to my personal relationships. For instance, things would be going great with my then-boyfriend-now-husband, and out of the blue, I'd start asking questions such as, "When are you going to break up with me?" or "do you even love me anymore?" To top it off, I started having terrible nightmares that would end with me waking up in a full-body sweat. These restless nights left me exhausted, and made me irritable and frustrated at my inability to control my random outbursts. (

So, I turned to what I knew best: doodling and journaling. I powered through notebooks, trying to put my feelings into words and drawing manifestations of happy thoughts. I found uplifting phrases that spoke to me and brought them to life using different fonts and colors. I filled pages with child-like shapes and drawings that made me feel a little bit brighter, a little bit more joyful. But I couldn't journal and draw all the time, and when I was alone, anxietyconsumed me.It got the point where pushing my feelings into the margins of pages just wasn't working anymore — and I knew I needed help.

Learning About PMDD

The summer before college, I went to therapy for the first time. After walking through my symptoms, my therapist said it sounded a lot like Bipolar II Disorder (BPAD) — and it actually made sense.Sometimes, weeks would go by and I'd feel completely normal, and then out of the blue, I would go into a deep depression, struggling to get out of bed—and often, I experienced severe mood swings that made me angry and extremely irritable. This unexpected rollercoaster of feelings is characteristic of BPAD, but my therapist didn't want to draw any conclusions just yet. (

As we continued treatment and I relayed more of my symptoms, my therapist tried to establish a timeline to determine if my feelings were sporadic or there was a pattern we might be missing. She then asked if I had noticed any behavioral changes around my period. I hadn't because I'd never really kept tabs on my cycle. She instructed me to track my period because my symptoms could also point to premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) — something I had never heard of before.

Affecting around 5 percent of women of childbearing age, PMDD is a severe form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) that includes physical and behavioral symptoms in the week or two leading up to your period and come to an end once your period starts. We're not just talking about the token PMS posse of tender breasts, cramps, bloating, moodiness, lethargy. Rather, PMDD can cause extreme mood shifts, including sadness, hopelessness, irritability, and suicidal thoughts — all of which can disrupt everyday life and relationships. Those physical symptoms are often more pronounced with PMDD, too, according to The Office on Women's Health. (

To find out if I had PMDD, I started tracking my period and writing down how I felt on each day of the cycle. At the end of the first month, it became clear that my mental health symptoms were exacerbated when I was ovulating and about five to seven days before my period. When I was on my period, it was like a fog lifted and I started to feel more like myself again. Based on that, my therapist was pretty convinced that I had PMDD and sent me to a psychiatrist to officially get diagnosed and determine if medication could help stabilize my moods.

Getting Diagnosed and Finding the Right Treatment

The idea of seeing a psychiatrist was a bit nerve-wracking mostly because it felt (keyword) like such an extreme measure. I mean, did I really need to go on a mental health medication when the issue was caused by my period? My mom decided to take me to see an ob-gyn for a potential alternative fix.

From the get-go, I was told to try birth control (the Pill) because it can regulate hormonal fluctuations and, in turn, my period. And the more stable my cycle, the more stable my emotional rollercoaster — or that's the idea, according to my doc (and research). So, despite a gut feeling that the Pill was not the right choice for me, I filled the Rx and started taking the meds as recommended.

After about a week, however, my emotional symptoms skyrocketed. Even on "normal" days, when I wasn't leading up to my period, I found myself feeling even more anxious, panicky, and depressed. Worried, I called my doc, who, despite learning about my emotional state, told me to stay on it for at least a month so that the pills had a chance to regulate my period. (

A month passed and I continued to feel worse. My doctor adamantly recommended switching to a different birth control pill to see if that made a difference. It didn't. This time, I started experiencing intense (and totally unprovoked) panic attacks. Out of the blue, I would struggle to breathe, crying aggressively as though I had just gone through some tragedy. Then, to top things off, I woke up every day feeling like I had morning sickness. It was so debilitating that I dreaded walking to class because I wasn't sure I would make it without throwing up along the way.

My ob-gyn had me try one more birth control pill before my parents, doctors, and I unanimously decided it wasn't for me. The pills did absolutely nothing for my symptoms — and that was the whole reason I went on them in the first place. (Note: The FDA has approved a specific birth control pill to treat PMDD. While they didn't help me, other women with PMDD might have a different experience.) For six months, I felt like my body and mind had been put through the wringer, and I was finally at my wit's end. I knew it was time to stop avoiding the inevitable and finally went to see a psychiatrist. (

My psychiatrist was the first male I had seen throughout the process of getting diagnosed. That made me nervous because I wasn't sure he would get it. But after a few minutes of speaking with him, I wished I would have visited him sooner. Upon hearing about my symptoms during our first session, he promptly diagnosed me with PMDD and assured me that my feelings and experiences were completely normal for someone with this diagnosis. He made me feel understood and said that with the right treatment, my symptoms could definitely be controlled. I walked away from that appointment with a prescription for a low dose of antidepressants. And for the first time in a long time, I felt hopeful.

How My Business Was Born

I started taking antidepressants the summer before my sophomore year of college. My psychiatrist told me that the pills would take a few weeks to go into full effect, so my symptoms didn't just go away. Throughout this time (birth control saga, included), I was still going to therapy, which proved to be profoundly helpful. I developed coping and problem-solving skills and continued journaling and doodling to escape and self-soothe when I felt my anxiety creeping in — something my therapist actually encouraged, because creativity can help manage negative emotions in a productive way. (

In fact, during my freshman year of college, when I was battling the side effects of birth control and had yet to see a psychiatrist, I journaled to live and lived to journal. This is not an exaggeration; I took a journal to every class and couldn't sit through a lecture without scribbling what was on my mind, whether jotting down how my day was going or detailing the negative emotions I was feeling.

By then, I was also doodling on a tablet. With years of experience on paper, I knew how to visualize what I wanted to create and was good at making composition choices. I also took a course on color science while at school, in which I learned how humans perceive and interact with different colors. Digital drawing helped me hone those skills, allowed me to draw faster, fine-tune my technique, and experiment more. (

Having a creative outlet gave me a sense of control; when the aching pit in my stomach demanded attention, I could make it disappear (at least for the moment) by drawing.

My friends started to ask questions: Why was I seemingly always head-down and pen-in-hand? What was I doing, exactly, that required I furiously flick my wrist across pages (or an iPad)? This was the first time anyone asked about my writing or to see my art — if you could even call it that. While my work was (and still is) fairly personal, I started to share some of my pieces.

They were fascinated with my doodles, admitting they could totally see how the colors and inspiring words helped me cope with my mental health. They felt like my art deserved to be shared with the world — and I began to entertain the idea. Creative outlets brought peace and happiness to my life, so I wondered if they could do the same for others as well. (

The more I mulled it over in my head, the more I wanted to find a way to share my art and journaling with a bigger audience. I also wanted to create a resource for people with mental health struggles, whether PMDD or something else, to help them feel seen. The only logical way to do that? Start a blog — and so from my freshman dorm room, Twenty Seven was born.

The name was inspired in-pat by my favorite Psalm: Psalm 27. The verse is all about overcoming fear, which has been a very big theme throughout my life. Plus, the number 27 holds a special place in my heart as my husband and I first started dating on the 27th of July. Since making it official in high school, we've continued to celebrate the 27th of every month — and still do today. So, the name "Twenty Seven" just felt right.

How Twenty Seven Grew

As I started working on writing blog posts, I became equally focused on creating vibrant images to pair with them. Unexpectedly, I found myself becoming more passionate about drawing than writing and grew curious about the prospect of actually selling my art.

I had nothing to lose, so I created a shop tab on my blog and put some pieces up for sale. To my surprise, people started buying them. At first, my customers were mostly friends and fellow college students, but eventually, strangers started buying my art, which made me realize that my work really resonated with people. (

Still, Twenty Seven was just a little side hustle until the summer after my freshman year (about the time when I started taking antidepressants). After unexpectedly getting fired from one of my jobs due to scheduling issues, I fell into a panic: I could either scramble to find another part-time job or put my heart and soul into Twenty Seven. I decided to go with the latter.

Two months after being on antidepressants, I started my sophomore year. It sounds cheesy, but I was already starting to feel like a new person. My feelings weren't holding me down anymore, which gave me the bandwidth I needed to focus on my business. I started spending my weekends selling my art at local markets and building brand awareness. I also focused on growing my Instagram presence and spent every free moment drawing, painting, doodling, and writing to create more content to share with the world. (

By the end of my sophomore year, Twenty Seven was really gaining some traction — so much so that I was able to graduate from selling my art on the street to having my own booth at a local antique store. When I wasn't in class, you'd find me there.My pieces were selling out and at times I struggled to keep up with the demand. I also started selling products, including apparel, home decor, office supplies, and more — and I was constantly coming up with new ideas. People loved what I was putting out in the world and began sending me emails and messages on Instagram about how my work resonated with them and brought them joy in times of sadness.

Based on our success, I started looking for a brick and mortar location, and on August 27, 2019 (yes, the 27th — it was truly fate!), we opened our first store in Lakeland, Florida.

What I've Learned from This Journey

Few people are able to say that their job, their office, is their favorite place to be. I am one of those people — and, so, consider myself very lucky. I've found a way to turn my passion into something that's therapeutic not only for me but for others as well. While I know that a lot of hard work went into creating my business, I need to give credit to the fact that I was able to get the help I needed, at the right time, to bring my vision to life.

Being on antidepressants — and, in turn, being able to control my mental health — gave me the freedom and bandwidth to dive into such a huge project without overwhelming fear and panic. Don't get me wrong, though: I still have days when my anxiety and depression kick in. And I still go to therapy on the reg, which has helped me create coping mechanisms to better manage those darker moments — the most important one being art. Doing the work in counseling in tandem with taking the medication (despite my original hesitations) has allowed my PMDD to become an afterthought rather than what it once was: something that consumed every minute of my living, breathing life. (

Mental illness is not a thought process, and it isn't a disease that you can just will away.

If you're struggling with your mental health, remember that pushing through your symptoms is not a long term solution. Mental illness is not a thought process, and it isn't a disease that you can just will away. There is no shame in getting professional help so that you can live a life of fulfillment and peace. If there's anything I've learned through this journey, it's that no matter how difficult and overwhelming things get, you can never give up hope. Things do get better. I still have to constantly remind myself of that — but it's a truth I keep coming back to again and again.

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