I actually shot the images for this self portrait back in 2012 sometime, as I recall, and it just kept getting pushed down on my list of photos to edit. I generally prioritize images which have other people modeling in them, since they took the time and energy to come model for me, so sometimes my self portraits get a little forgotten. This was one which I definitely did not want to let get completely forgotten though, so as soon as I had the time, I eagerly jumped into editing it!
I don’t think many of you will be surprised when I say I’ve had my share of troubles with clinical depression. Even as a teenager, the seeds were being sewn. It’s something I’ve struggled with on and off for most of my life. I’ve been to many therapists, tried countless treatments, medications, alternative therapies, read books, talked it out, journaled, and, of course, done art therapy. Art therapy and submerging myself in nature, with animals and my friends and loved ones are the things that seem to work best for me, but everyone is different. I have mostly accepted that it will probably be with me to some degree for most of my life, which is an easier future for me to face than one where I’m constantly disappointed by finding myself under its shadow again.
***Side note: ME/CFS/fibro are often tried to dismiss as simply depression or other mental health problems. They are absolutely NOT the same thing. I have experienced both and they are completely different. Where it gets tricky is that people with ME/CFS and fibro often develop depression secondarily to their physical illness, but it’s usually because they feel terrible every day, many people refuse to believe they’re actually sick and they suddenly lose huge, important parts of their life to their illness. I challenge anyone to not become depressed in those conditions. What drives me crazy is that no one suggests that patients with cancer, for example, who develop secondary depression are “simply” mentally ill, but it’s an extremely common conclusion for doctors to jump to regarding ME/CFS and fibro patients. I’ve had doctors tell me the problems were all in my head.
None of this is to say that mental health problems are somehow less important or real than physical health problems, they are simply two distinct things and require completely different treatments. The simplest explanation I’ve come across to illustrate the differences between the two is this: ask a person with depression what she would want to do the next day if she woke up feeling completely well. She’d probably have trouble answering you. Depression robs you of all joy and motivation. Ask someone with ME/CFS or fibro the same question and they’d give you an entire list of things they’d like to do. ME robs your body of the ability to do things, but doesn’t take away the desire to do them.***
Since the severity of my depression waxes and wanes, I tend to think of it as an entity which I am periodically under the attack of. Sometimes I imagine it as a malevolent cloud, sometimes a huge dragon; something which is dark and dangerous and can completely envelop me. When I find myself thus enveloped, I repeat a mantra over and over to myself; “The clouds will lift. The clouds will lift.” It might be hours, days, weeks or months, but I know that at some point this battle will be over and I’ll have made it through to the other side.
I’ve written about him before, but Andrew Soloman’s incredible Ted Talk on depression bears repeating. It’s beautifully insightful, hopeful, even when I’m under the darkest cloud and most importantly, lets me know I’m not alone in how I feel. It’s also supremely excellent at explaining clinical depression to those who have never experienced it firsthand; an invaluable gift. As Mr. Soloman states, “half the purpose of art is to describe [depression.]” I could not agree more.
I don’t know whether we’re friends because we all share the same demons, or if I just happen to have a large percentage of good friends who have their own mental health struggles, but I wanted to create this image to show not just my battle, but theirs… and indeed, the battle everyone with depression finds themselves flung into.
When you’re in the throws of it, you don’t feel strong or brave, but I know that we are. We bear terrible burdens which can break the human soul and every time we don’t succumb to it, we should celebrate. But mental health is still greatly stigmatized in our culture, so there is rarely any celebration; there is rarely any acknowledgement of the battle that rages at all. I feel it’s important and part of my job as an artist to discuss these issues which we would like to pretend don’t exist. If we deny depression, then we will lose the battle. The only way you can fight it is by first saying that yes, it exists; yes, I am under its cloud; no, that does not me a less worthy person; yes, I am brave and strong even though I don’t feel like it right now.
So this image is dedicated to all my dear friends who have been under that same cloud. To my friends who have not experienced the cloud themselves, but support us when we’re in the throws of it. Who love us, accept us and keep us going. Shame and secrecy feeds the depression monster. Truth and soul baring disarm it, love and strength defeats it. Many, many thanks to my dear friends and loved ones who help me through these battles. I just hope I can do the same for them.
Let’s take a step toward making the world a better place. Let’s finally let the stigma around mental illness die. No one would ever, ever choose to be like this. We fight unimaginable battles to overcome it. Instead of shaming those covered in battle scars, let’s celebrate their success. They made it through. There may be more fights, but they will make it through them too. They will if we start supporting them instead of shaming them.
To everyone who knows this malevolent cloud firsthand, you are beautiful and strong. And the clouds will lift.
If anyone would like to share stories of their own mental health struggles, please share it in a comment! Talking openly about these problems is the first step to erasing the stigma.
Just a few more days!!
For the month of May, I am donating 50 percent of profits from all my sales to The Microbe Discovery Project, a group working to solve the mystery of ME and find a cure for those afflicted. And what do I sell? Well, what do you want? Because my images come from the frameable to the wearable and in every price range.
– museum-quality, fine art prints
– iPad/iPhone/iPod covers
– blank greeting cards
– post cards
– shirts and hoodies
– wearable art
– throw pillows
– INTROSPECTIVE: my eight-week, on-line, course of self-discovery through photography.