COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and a central Ohio man is opening up about his struggles to shine a light on the many people who battle bipolar disorder.

During his time at the Ohio State Harding Hospital for Behavioral Health, A.J. Heckman discovered healing through art in a series of drawings he’s now titled “Clarified Mania.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that 7 million people in the United States are diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Heckman said if he can help just one person who might be undiagnosed and plagued with dark, intrusive thoughts, it’s worth it to share his journey, documented through his drawings.

With fortitude and newfound strength, Heckman described the dark thoughts and the mania he was feeling this past February when he took crayons to paper as part of his therapy.

“And I was having thoughts of suicide,” he said. “Nothing that I dwelled on, but they were intrusive thoughts and kind of taking comfort in the idea that there’s an exit, you know if I chose so.”

As a preschool art teacher, loving husband, and father of two, Heckman said he was in denial about how serious his mental health struggles were until his coworkers noticed he wasn’t himself.

“I kind of felt like my life wasn’t my life, you know,” he said. “It was kind of hard to explain.”

He found the words through art. While he was being treated at Harding, Heckman found healing through his bipolar diagnosis, proper medication, and drawing.

“I started drawing and before I knew it, it became a great outlet and focus,” Heckman said.

His doctors said they have a team of occupational and recreational therapists who integrate art as part of patient interventions.

“They use art to express how they feel, to make sense of what’s going on and move the treatment forward,” said Dr. Lacramioara Spetie, psychiatrist with Ohio State Harding Hospital.

Heckman said that at the beginning of his treatment, his artwork showed a lot of chaos and towards the end, it expressed the clarity he found.

“My thinking got so proportionate and not sort of stacked or tangled,” he said.

Heckman kept 35 of his drawings in his Clarified Mania collection but said he gave away close to 50 drawings to his fellow patients in gratitude for their help on his journey to finding himself once again.