When I tell my story to others I sometimes mention how I overcame years to decades of self hate, self loathing, low esteem, and general dislike for who I thought I was to how I thought I actually looked to the outside world. For readers that do not know until I was about 34 I used to think I looked like the love child of the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Frankenstein’s monster.
I could not look in the mirror, and when photographs were taken of me there were always problems. When I was a pre-teen my photograph from school showed the photographer’s umbrella reflecting in my eyes, it looked like I had mushrooms growing from them, which planted a seed in my head. By my teens I had developed Alopecia universalis, I had no hair anywhere on my body, which combined with bullying and my ultra controlling mother left me feeling like the Victorian freak of old. When in my twenties my eldest brother would continue to point and laugh at me as he had since my earliest days, like many did in the street. When he took a photograph of me, usually for graduation from university, 99% of the time my eyes would be shut; he would find this funny and equally not understand how someone could react that quickly to a flash. I am highly sensitive to many things including light, so yes my eyes seemed to break this rule, and leave me in pieces. I would be called moody as did not want my photograph taken at all, why should I when it always ended up the same way?
By the age of 28 I was having psychodynamic therapy on a weekly basis and had begun using a Fuji camera to take the town I was living in and for fieldwork in Italy. In May 2007 I decided to try take a picture of me with it against some Roman remains, with all the emotions of the past racing to the present combined with thoughts of what do I look like and how do you smile? As my camera was a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) I could see immediately the result, which made me jump back hitting the Roman bathhouse with my head and stared at the image it showed for a good five minutes. Was that really what the rest of the world saw when they looked at me? I showed it to one person, my supposed then boyfriend, on my return from Italy. He laughed in my face as he acknowledged it was indeed me. I was scared by what this meant but at the same time I knew the image was of someone deeply unhappy.
It was not until my breakdown and suicide attempt the following year that I began using therapeutic photography in an attempt to see me and begin to repair all the years of hate to perhaps learn to learn to love me for me. Judy Weiser defined therapeutic photography as the name for photo-based activities that are self-initiated and conducted by oneself (or as part of an organized group or project), but where no formal therapy is taking place and no therapist or counsellor needs to be involved. Why use photography, aside from it being one of my hobbies? Photography shows how I actually appeared to others, not the horizontally-reversed image from a mirror or distorted one in my head that I would have drawn. Also, a photograph could let me see parts I would not ordinarily be able to see, e.g. my profile or back, when asleep or in action, or simply being me. Unlike drawings, which are highly subjective, photographs are regarded as non-subjective as fixed in time and space.
It was not an easy road, even looking back on those early photographs now I can see how far I had to go and come. The first part of me I began to appreciate were my eyes, they are grey-green but appear more grey when depressed, and remembered the old phrase – eyes are the windows to the soul, which I was now beginning to understand. Gradually over the years I saw this woman developing in them that I could relate to and see as the me the world did, she was not a freak or ogre nor was she this glamorous movie star, and you know what I was almost fine with it.
In 2012, Yoko Ono launched her #smilesfilm, which I decided as I was developing my creative self as much as learning to embrace my full self why not enter a picture of me smiling? I did and in that moment I no longer saw the girl or woman of the past, I saw me in the present moment smiling and content. By March 2014 I had grown so much from that photograph that during the no make up selfie craze for cancer I made a split second decision to post one without my wig as I next to never wear make up as burns my skin if I try and do not see the point in having a chemical mask, I felt like it would be my most honest picture ever and another milestone in the journey. The photograph has 112 likes on my Facebook profile with 142 comments, as well as messages on inbox, e-mail and text, all full of encouragement. I looked at that photograph last month and smiled at what doing that had meant to me then as it does now.
I do not manipulate images like they appear in magazines, websites and the media, so my photographs are the truest representation of me at that moment. Many of you now reading this take a selfie with a mobile/cellphone several times a day may never understand this journey but others may be where I have been. We are all beautiful in our own way and accepting how we are without resorting to extreme change can be tempting but all they can be band aids over deep wounds. I highly recommend trying therapeutic photography, do not expect results today but explore and learn to love the most amazing person you will ever know, yourself.
© Fi S. J. Brown
Yesterday I was asked: how do you explain mental health to a child? The child in question being 4 years old. Although I will never have my own children, it is an important to realise with an increase in mental health that we consider it from a child’s point of view and not ignore their questions. So, I felt it was an important point to ponder. N.B. I am not a trained counsellor but considering a basic course in 2016 as many have said I should be one, but use my own experiences to offer support and advice to friends.
Immediately I remembered my step-mum after my breakdown and suicidal thoughts said I could not stay with her, my dad and step-sister as was not fair on my step-sister as she was too young (I was almost thirty where as she was twelve). My own parents split up when I was eleven, so thought when I was her age I had already gone through a major traumatic experience. Equally, she was of the age when lots of changes would be occurring and have questions about life. Was she really too young to understand why I felt the way I did or was this the stigma of mental health kicking me at my lowest ebb?
My step-mum also would never let me explain fully why I was depressed to her and events had become the way they are. I was having therapy at the time so I could understand my past and how I got to where I was today. So what I had learnt from therapy, I could never put into practise, for as soon as my mum’s name was mentioned, she’d go deaf; my mum had painted her (wrongly) as a scarlet woman thus could not hear a bad word about her. It was incidents like that every time I saw her that lead to my re-estrangement with my father, as she would corner me to ask me again and again, but not give her the answers she felt I should be saying. How could I explain when what needed said was not being heard?
My family never talk about things, so all sorts that hurt me from physically to emotionally and mentally can still trigger or impact upon me decades later as cannot always move on from them. Only the other week I had a panic attack at the dentist, partly through a fear I was choking as I nearly blacked out and my fear of people coming in my face after things my brother did to me thirty years ago, which my parents never punished. I once nearly punched an optician as he came close to my face when helping me try contact lenses and my head kept thinking he was going to strangle me like my brother kept trying to do. I would never knowingly hurt anyone, so both incidents left me crying and shaking at being a fool to let the past strangle my present and possible future. However, it also tells me that I also need further therapy to move on from them.
Going back to the original question I was asked. I feel honesty is the best policy, especially with children, but just how do you tell a small child about something many adults do not understand or accept? The friend told me the child already knew they cried, got angry and took medication, but as children often do, wanted to know more. It made me consider both my nieces, one almost 4 and the other almost 5, how would I explain how Auntie Fi’s health? The eldest already asked why on why I did not do certain things. I also felt that children need reassurance and that it is not them, but their parents still love them and always will.
I thought back to my own childhood, how I used the Care Bears to show how I felt. When I was seven, my tummy felt like Grumpy Bear with a cloud on it with the drops feeling like the tears I had in my tummy. He was the only Care Bear I was never allowed to own, as my mum found his image too depressing! Ironic given it was me trying to tell her I was depressed from events at home and the bullying at school.
I looked up an image of Grumpy Bear on the internet, and immediately hit upon an idea. The friend could colour in with and/or supporting their child the image of the bear, describing how sometimes they felt like the bear, the raindrops were like the tears he cried and medication the hearts that stopped the raindrops falling as much, which together with their loved made more hearts form. My friend felt this was a good idea, but reminded them they knew their child in terms of development and sensitivity required.
Discussing mental health is not easy, whether it is with a child, teenager or adult. However, it is by discussing what it means to us and impacts our lives with family, friends and colleagues that will end this terrible stigma, which I believe should have been left in the 20th century. In many ways discussing mental health is like discussing having cancer, diagnosis under either umbrella term can change lives forever but they do not have to mean the end. We all feel like Grumpy Bear some days, needing the love of others to be the hearts when sometimes we forget to love ourselves and know it is okay to cry like the raindrops, as the sunshine after the rain is almost worth dancing in the street!
© Fi S. J. Brown
The German philosopher Nietzsche describes how art can be a force for healing the wounds of emotional trauma. His words illustrate the link that exists between creativity and spirituality. He points to the usefulness of art making as a form of communication that can access the depth of human suffering and in so doing allow the artist to transcend pain and re-experience existence from a new perspective.
As someone that uses creativity as therapy at times I can relate to this. From my earliest years I have been known for my emotional sensitivity, which to those that do not understand call it extreme. Thus it makes sense to express myself in creative form, freedom not from judgement but to be me. For example turning my camera on myself showed me the person not the distorted image the logical part of my brain kept trying to paint as muted the creative part.
From writing to photography and music, or visiting galleries and museums, art continues to help me cope with pains past and present. They give a voice to what I or others cannot say aloud through muted fear to visuals in my mind that paint life as I see it. By being creative I see things from the different perspectives I see in the world; seeing the larger picture of multicolour and multisensory not tunnel visioned to paint it black and white with all being x or y it is often depicted as.
Art to me is self expression using different media to show how life is between the extremes and a snapshot of how life is in our world. So write, paint, photograph, sew or knit wherever and whenever you like, we set the rules not anyone else as it is our life lived our way, warts and all.
© Fi S. J. Brown
This week I have been considering the journey I have made the last decade with my mental health, the stigma I have encountered to the breaking point I reached and the help I got through therapy. A good friend posted a link on Facebook to a newspaper article with Kate Winslet’s negative view of therapy; she could outsmart the person giving her therapy and decided it was not for her. To me, I felt was very out of touch attitude and only added to make the stigma of mental health and addiction worse as could not look beyond what she felt was someone inferior to her.
My own experiences of therapy tell their own tale: It is almost nine years to the day since I started having counselling. I remember well the fear I had to send the email to the university counselling service, it was admitting I had a problem but could they help and did I really need to see a counsellor? I had only done so as my so called boyfriend had pushed me to do so as felt I needed the help they provided. Although it was something I had considered as far back as eight years previously, I never thought the time was right. However, I had decided if I had not moved in 2006, I would not see Christmas as my depression was strangling me so much and living with a narcissist mother that only wanted to control every iota of my life. Therefore, it was certainly the right time at almost twenty eight, to start to understand why I felt so depressed and suicidal much of my life.
My first meeting with Anne was like stepping into someone else’s home with the way she lit her office to the pictures around the room, so immediately felt less like I was going to another part of campus. She had a caring face with a gentle tone of voice that like the lighting made feel at ease. Over the next few months we both realised my issues were far deeper than counselling could offer, she wrote to my GP who by that time had me on antidepressants after I had become suicidal over the Christmas holidays, but he simply asked me if it was true what Anne had written and as I said ‘yes’, the letter was crumpled and put in the bin. It felt like a metaphor for my life, crumpled up and nobody really listening to me; the lyrics to Tori Amos’ “Silent all these years” rang with crumpled paper now sat in my GP’s waste basket. Anne and I tried a new tact and a different doctor in the practice after I had self harmed when in hospital for a then undiagnosed ear infection. This time action was taken and was referred to a clinical psychologist.
To say I was apprehensive on seeing a clinical psychologist was an understatement, to me that made it sound like I genuinely was crazy or mad. Our initial appointment I had to rearrange owing to a visit from my mother that left me in a state of deep depression as felt I could never be free from her clutches or control. However, when I met Ginny I met someone that was willing to go with me on a journey to explore how I got to where I was today, psychodynamic therapy. It took me longer to warm and trust Ginny as felt like it was her not listening at times or full of questions. It was far from easy at times as felt like I was left at the edge of a cliff and then was expected to return to the world, continuing my PhD research, with all these memories and emotions going round in my head that somehow I had to leave them and focus on what I needed to. It was only after my suicide attempt eight years ago that I began to realise just what it was she was getting at. By the following autumn as we said ‘goodbye’ I felt sadness as realised she had given me stepping stones to move forward in life and most importantly was no longer afraid of my mother!
Since then I have found good friends that I know I can open up to but know I do need further help to deal with some issues still unresolved. I use creativity such as writing and photography to walking around nature as my self imposed therapy. Through it all I have grown to accept and appreciate me the person as I see my mother for the narcissistic woman she is and my brother that hurt me badly as an overgrown child that depends on her so much, neither able to see or accept how much they did and do hurt me still. I also accept why my father left my mother and my many issues I felt with him leaving, not being there when I needed to support.
In addition, I have learnt therapy is something we all need at times in our life, it is hard and dark, but with professional help we can find candles to hang that show there is light and where it hides. I would go so far it is part of healthy living to know and understand it is okay to ask for help in this way, as you would a doctor for a lump on a breast or broken ankle. I am currently deciding if this is not a path I should consider myself, to become a counsellor or psychologist, as love to help others and naturally empathetic, using my creativity and love of nature. I welcome thoughts from others on this, some I have asked say it is very me as already the empathetic ear or shoulder to rest that does not judge anyone and lets someone be themselves, allow them to grow and bloom to whatever or whoever they want to be.
© Fi S. J. Brown
Today sees the start of depression awareness week 2015. It is incredible how one word can scare us; a diagnosis that suddenly makes us seem different to others and/or not normal any more (or so we/others are tend to believe).
Just because we cannot physically see it, and unless we or someone we are close to does, it may seem unreal but it does not take away from the hidden torture, pain and tears it brings. Some self harm just to give these feelings a life, I choose to use creativity.
Someone with depression for example is unlikely to deliberately hurt others but may push someone away as cannot understand how we feel. Equally, not everyone spends every minute crying or want the pity of others, we just want to be accepted as we all do.
I have been depressed since I was a child; on the tummy of a Care Bear I saw with a cloud and rain, that’s how my own felt. From my teens to my twenties of hidden tears till reaching breaking point. My thirties are the happiest I have ever been.
My closest friends have helped me learn to smile; one told me recently to keep smiling and we all believe in you. Depression is part of me, but does not define me. It is a label or box like any other, which belong to foods not humans! So this week be grateful for all that makes up our lives.
© Fi S. J. Brown