This blog post has been a long time coming- especially since I announced my intention to do a project on mental health and perceptions a month ago. Sorry for my tardiness, this has just been quite difficult to write. The following contains potentially very triggering material about depression, suicide and self harm. It does get to the point eventually. Take care. For those who would like to skip to the bit directly about the project, you can click here.
I have been taking photos consistently for around three years now. I owned a camera and enjoyed photography before these three years but rather erratically and without much meaning or intention behind the photos.
I didn't start challenging myself until I was going through my first major depressive episode. I started university in Bristol in October 2011 and had a great -if somewhat whirlwind- first term. Come January though, I found myself back down south, facing exams, homesickness, a complete lack of energy, and a complete inability to justify my existence. If that sounds extreme and sudden and inexplicable, it’s because it was.
Words, photography, or any medium, will never be able to convey what it is like to be depressed. And I am actually glad about that: I would not want to inflict experiencing depression on anybody. But I think these modes of expression can give a taste. And a taste is very useful: for people struggling to understand what is making their loved one behave the way they are; for mental health professionals to understand from a more personal perspective what their patients are going through; and for those suffering themselves -to know that they are not alone and they and their feelings and thoughts are legitimate. (By legitimate I mean that it is okay to feel and think the things you do when depressed. That those things are very real and very persistent and don’t just go away when you tell them to. What I do not mean is that they are correct or helpful.)
Before January 2012, I had questioned what I was doing here on earth, as most people do, and come to the conclusion that since I was alive I was going to do my best to enjoy it and also make the world a better place. This plan didn’t hold up for very long at all against depression. I was soon convinced that my existence wasn’t justified: I was taking a lot, having a huge environmental impact and giving nothing back. Or at least what I was giving back was rendered negligible in the face of the damage I was doing. I didn’t actually try to quantify my weighing up of my worth in any kind of way, not because it is impossible to do but because I was so convinced of my lack of it. What didn’t help this thought process was that by this time I was spending most of my time sobbing or just zoned out with my head thinking the same thoughts again and again. I went from sleeping five to seven hours a night to ten and found I didn’t have the energy to walk into university. When I got there talking to people was bizarre: I felt incredibly detached from my body, day to day life and friends. It’s hard to focus on a conversation about assignments or books when you can’t stop thinking that the world would be a far better place without you and all these other people who just consume and give nothing back. I couldn’t remember how to smile. That sounds overly dramatic but it’s true. When you feel so detached and numb smiling becomes an incredibly abstract and awkward manoeuvre. Luckily all those years of grinning during ballet shows whilst my toes were bleeding kicked in and I somehow managed to convince people I was engaged and enjoying what they were saying as I hoisted my mouth into a kind of rigor mortis grin.
What I’m trying to say is that my already negative sense of self worth was further compounded by me being a huge drain on any friend I hung out with. I was convinced that if anyone was talking to me I was taking up their time and that they would eventually realise I was a terrible and useless human being and leave me alone. You will be unsurprised to hear that I was very suicidal at this point. What stopped me then from acting on all those thoughts, and what still stops me now when I am down, is my friends and family. I have read a lot about the stigma that people face when being honest about their mental health issues and I am, and always will be, hugely grateful to my loved ones who have only ever expressed concern, support and love. It is thanks to them that I saw a GP, a counsellor, then a psychiatrist, that I am still here today and feel so loved. Thank you.
This first major depressive episode lasted around three/four months. It began very suddenly but took a long time to crawl out of. I took suspended study from university at the beginning of February and went home back to Scotland. As well as feeling incredibly sad or numb I was also very frustrated with myself. I was incredibly pissed off that I was -in my opinion- being so pathetic and useless. I mainly expressed this in unhelpful ways -berating myself constantly, self harm- but I did come up with one positive outlet. I was annoyed that I couldn’t seem to see or feel the many beautiful and wonderful things that I knew existed in the world anymore. I knew they existed because in the past they had been a huge source of happiness and joy for me but I just couldn’t feel that excitement or passion. So I decided to work on it. I set myself the challenge of taking a photograph every day of something wonderful, beautiful, weird or just unexpected, even if I couldn’t get the same thrill I used to from it. I started a blog and called it ‘There’s something beautiful in every day’ and put my pictures up there. It gave me a sense of achievement every time I posted a picture and made me, literally, look at the world in a different way.
I’m still not exactly sure how much doing my photo challenge directly helped me but I do know it definitely encouraged me to go for walks, to not just look down, and to see familiar objects in a new way. And after a while I got something else from it- a sense of pride. I liked the photographs I took and believed they were good. Gradually, I began to feel things again, to get enjoyment out of life, to be able to connect with friends and to smile naturally.
I say I don’t know how much the photos helped me directly because it’s impossible to separate out all the factors at play in my emergence from that episode. Now that I have seen a psychiatrist and lived through three more extended low periods, and one high one (each around a month) I believe that time is the main factor. However, I do believe that taking those photographs did help and continues to help me even when my mood is stable.
I still, as you probably know, take a lot of photos, and each one still means a lot to me. The pictures I take of my day to day life are my way of trying to show myself and others how beautiful the world is- even the personal, unglamorous world that people often think of as mundane. I strongly believe that you do not need to be in an ‘exotic’ or dazzling place in order to appreciate beauty in the world, or to take good photographs. You just need to take a bit more time to see.
I love sharing awesome, unnoticed details of my world with the people I’m around -both directly and through photography. There are so many! Endless clouds, pretty window arches, birds, trees, brick patterns, funny cracks in concrete, beautiful vegetables (especially aubergines)... and so many colours! I love colours so much.
Before I start rambling about how luscious and svelte and sexy aubergines are I’ll move on...
Despite the fact that my day to day photographs mean a lot to me, I know they won’t necessarily have a lot of impact on others. This is why I have been trying to do some more obviously ‘meaningful’ photography recently. I’m still working on the Body Hair Project but I thought it was time to do something different too. Mental health is always something I’ve planned to talk about through photography, and I’m sure this won’t be the only project I do on the subject, so if you have any suggestions please fire them at me! It’s a huge topic, so for now I’m going to focus on perceptions.
One of the things that scares me most about my mood swings -whether the ups or downs last for hours or weeks or months- is how abrupt and all consuming they are. I can go from what I call my ‘stable’ state -thinking I’m a good person, fun to be around, smart, doing well, loved and so on- to crashing into ‘low’ -I’m a shitty person, achieving next to nothing, of course people don’t like me- and all in less than an hour. It’s terrifying.
It’s terrifying to have your reasons for living, your motivation, your self-esteem, your connection with loved ones, all vanish for what seems like no reason. It’s not that I all of a sudden can’t remember any of my achievements or reasons for living, but rather that I can’t believe or feel them like I usually do. And when you don’t believe in those things, and can’t feel any kind of connection or warmth with your friends, partner or family, then it becomes incredibly difficult to fight the voice(s) of depression.
Imagine your day to day life, as it is now, and then, all of a sudden, everything is in black and white. You don’t know why. You don’t know how to change it back. But you do know that everything used to be in colour. You can recall colours but you can’t see them anymore which makes it difficult, and then impossible to recall them after a while. You’re scared you’ll never see colour again. Everyone else is acting as though the world is still full of colour but you can’t see it. Time passes until you don’t believe colour exists anymore. At least not for you. And then, one day, the colour comes back. Sometimes it comes back all at once so you’re overwhelmed. Other times it gradually seeps in, taunting you.
That’s a rather blunt analogy I’m afraid. What I’m trying to get across is the feeling of your whole perspective on the world suddenly changing. Now think of that quote, ‘your perception is your reality’, only your control over your perception feels non-existent.
Of course, I’m well aware that I am just one person with a mood disorder, and that, though there are many similarities between people with the same illness, there are also big differences. So I’ve created a survey for people to fill out -anonymously if they wish- if they would like to contribute their experiences to the project.
What I am aiming to do with this project is to try and portray -even if it’s just a little- what it’s like to experience these complete changes in perception. To try and show how it affects how you see yourself, other people and the world around you. How it changes your actions. How it changes you.
I’m aware that this is a huge challenge but I am going to give it my best attempt and then keep trying! My hopes are that this project will help those who interact with people who suffer from mental illness (i.e. everyone) understand a little more. I’m hoping to encourage a bit more empathy for those people who can’t get out of bed -or haven’t showered in a week, or who keep cancelling those social events- due to mental illness. I’m hoping that this increase in empathy will come from loved ones, co-workers and the sufferers themselves, and will be based on more of an understanding of how debilitating mental illness can be. It may well evolve into something else, which I am all for. For just now though, if you would like to be involved, or have any questions or suggestions (both very welcome) please either e-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or fill out this survey.
Thank you very much for reading this. I hope you have a lovely day. Here are some more old photographs of mine in case you're interested. And here is my favourite description of depression ever. It's a comic and so much more succinct than just words. There's also a part two.