A true story: LEGO® saved my life

30 Oct 2021

Written by Grace S Stemp-Morlock

Content Warning: this article discusses mental illness, suicide and self-harm.

I was sitting in a psych ward after walking and hitchhiking over 500km from another psych ward when I discovered a small set of LEGO bricks in the rec room. I sat and built the small set, then disassembled it and built something new. I spent hours doing this and it helped distract from the chaos of the psych ward and my mind. 

A week later when I was discharged, I climbed on a Greyhound bus taking me to a friend’s apartment where I could crash on their couch. That week I slowly rebuilt my life, and the very first purchase I made was 2 small boxes of random LEGO from someone online. My roommate was incredulous. I didn’t have a bed, a bus pass, food, or any number of necessities. But for me the LEGO was essential.

Fast forward a few years, my LEGO collection has grown, my life has settled down and I have my own place. Like most adults coming out of their dark ages, I focused on building sets until I was reacquainted with the bricks. Once I had rebuilt all the spaceships and castles I could ever want, I wondered what else I could do with LEGO bricks and that’s when mental illness and LEGO merged even more deeply.

It started with an arm. My arm. My arm is covered in scars from where I self-harmed over years, so I tried to build my cutter’s arm. It wasn’t easy. It took me several tries, lots of tears, and a good deal of soul searching before I had a creation that felt finished. But what now?

Like most AFOLs, I had joined many different Facebook groups devoted to LEGO, but suddenly I felt like I had something worth sharing. The only question was how would people react? Would I be banned and blocked for posting material that was offensive or too graphic? Would my fellow AFOLs get it? I mean up to this point, I had never seen anyone post anything remotely similar and most posts were Star Wars displays or cities. 

I posted my creation side by side my own arm and my story, and the community didn’t let me down. Hundreds of people liked my post and in the comments dozens upon dozens of people shared their own stories of struggle and how LEGO had helped them survive tough times.

I was blown away, and it got me thinking that there had to be a place for people to share. I looked around on Facebook but couldn’t find any group, so with much trepidation I created a Facebook group called LEGO Saved My Life. I shared the link in other groups and with the people who had responded to my own story, and the group grew.

Within a month we had nearly a hundred people, well beyond what I thought would be possible. Moreover, people from all backgrounds and all beliefs were sharing stories of surviving abuse, mental illness, physical and learning disabilities, grief and suicide all thanks to LEGO bricks. It was a place not just to share the candy-coated success stories but also the gritty reality of struggling. Our only rule was simple: be nice to each other and don’t speak negatively about anything but knock-off bricks. 

At the same time that this group was growing, my own building style was evolving. In the psych ward I had found art therapy to be helpful. I drew and painted my struggle, and somehow externalizing it helped. In particular, I drew people with the top of their heads opened up so you could see the struggle going on inside. Sharks circling, fires burning, chainsaws chopping away at the precious forest of the mind. After building the cutter’s arm, I realized that I could turn these sketches into LEGO sculptures, and so I began a series I called “Out of my Head.”

A display of LEGO builds, with a head build that features aliens on the top, a head with technic on the top, a mosaic of the words PRIDE.
Grace’s display containing several builds from here “Out of my head’ series”

I built a handful and was looking forward to taking them to a LEGO show in Toronto, Canada (my closest LEGO show) when finances became too much of a struggle. Frustrated and saddened, I reached out to my friends in LEGO Saved My Life and I shared my pain at not being able to go to the show and display my work. I knew they would understand.

I was shocked hours later when I got a text from a friend telling me to check out the group’s reaction to my story, and I found people asking how to send me money to attend the show. Dozens of people sent me small donations and because of their generosity and support I was able to attend the show. 

At the show I displayed my mental health sculptures for the very first time in public, once again nervous and not knowing what people’s reaction would be. My creations were so different from the castles, cities, and space stations on the other tables.

Instead of being ignored or confronted with hostility, I spoke to many people that weekend who understood exactly what my sculptures were saying and could identify. I remember one attendee coming up to me and saying that it was the first time they had seen LEGO become art. One family spent about 20 minutes chatting with me and each other about which of the heads in my “Out of my Head” series they felt most like. As they moved on, the mother stopped and thanked me. She had three kids, and she told me that her youngest was severely autistic and had never once told her what he felt like, but my sculptures had got him talking and for the first time she could see what he experienced. 

Conversations like that convinced me that I needed to take the series out more often, so as a result I have taken my sculptures to Maker Faires, school events, seniors’ centers, libraries and art markets. I also continued to build more sculptures to exorcise my own demons and help show my own struggles. The “Out of my Head” series has now close to three dozen different sculptures depicting physically what mental illness feels like.

Meanwhile, LEGO Saved My Life has in the 4 years since it began grown to over a thousand members worldwide of all different ages, genders, and ethnicities. One of projects that I founded the group with was the goal of sending small LEGO care packages to people who were struggling. The rationale was simple: if I knew there was LEGO coming in the mail I wouldn’t kill myself, and delaying a suicide is a key to preventing one. So I sent small packages almost every month to our members and friends who were struggling, and the impact of those little bricks has been tremendous.

Now as part of the Brick Alliance, I look forward to seeing how LEGO Saved My Life’s acceptance and openness can be used to help further other causes and help other AFOLs. Mental illness never operates in a vacuum and is usually interconnected with other struggles such as racism, sexism, and poverty. Together we are stronger and hopefully we can build a healthier community.

This article appears in issue 68 of Brick Journal magazine.