My Unfiltered Life

This week I noticed mental health charity See Me Scotland had a campaign on social media called “my unfiltered life“, for which people post a selfie and tell their story. It made me feel proud of each and everyone of them for taking that selfie, as that can be far from a ‘simple’ tap on a phone, and being so open in a way I felt I could not; for I am not someone that likes to say hey look at me but more look at her or him and what they have achieved.

However, it felt like it did when I first saw an ad to post a picture of your smile as part of Yoko Ono’s Smiles film four years ago, which in taking part in led to the ripple effect of accepting, appreciating and loving me. I am also reminded of the photo I took two years ago without my wig, showing my bald head, during the no make up selfie craze, which showed me there was nothing to hate or fear now. I am me, not an artificial, edited or manipulated person but her free spirited, open minded self and rag doll not ogre self.

So yes I have posted a photo on Instagram, and below. However, I do not care one way or the other as did it to inspire others to learn to find acceptance not for personal gain in the hope of a 15 second taster of fame. This week coming marks a couple of personal milestones, major ones that will be on the highlights reel of my life, so makes a fitting addition to them.

Next time you see a selfie, remember it can maybe a simple touch of a phone to you but to them it maybe a whole story you don’t know, so don’t judge but admire the beautiful differences slight changes in our DNA make to create the creatures we are.

© Fi S. J. Brown

me hat

What you don’t see

This week is Depression Awarenesses Week, which this year is focusing on #whatyoudontsee. As open as I am with acknowledging I have depression on social media it is not as look at me but more a listen to me not judge or mute me.
By writing about my experiences it helps give them a voice of their own that can be heard by others and thereby lose the power they try have over me. Another reason is the stigma many of us with depression (and other mental health illnesses) still suffer from and it is about time that this taboo was shattered for good. A final reason is not everyone has a voice or able to talk about depression, so I am trying to open doors in order that people feel welcomed not judge or mocked.
To anyone reading this that thinks that depression is abnormal, consider this; if I asked everyone of my friends to make a cake I would have a variety of cakes with no two being exactly the same, each one is representative of the individual that made the cake but none of them would be abnormal. In the same respect we are all shaped by our experiences, traditions and beliefs. Imagine wearing our neighbour’s underwear every day as we both live in the same neighbourhood or feeling the odd one out at family gatherings despite sharing genes. Equally, we may share the same experiences but how they impact upon us varies, and sometimes we cannot “just get over it” as the trauma is still deep even decades after the event(s) may have occurred.
When the black dog calls, it is like a dog barking constantly at me from the garden until I give in and let him in. Then he licks my face all over till it is wet, but in reality these are my tears. In the past I would sit in silence for days as not even my favourite music that got me through my teenage years would bring me comfort. However, now I get out my pen to write or put on my walking boots armed with my camera to go for a walk, sometimes take a piece of clay to make my feelings 3D, other times I go to one of the many musical instruments I play to let them become a song and also cooking or baking as help me focus on the present moment, especially making bread by hand. So for me finding coping mechanisms like these as well as loyal, loving and trusting friends is what helps so I do not give up and remembering there are stars shining and ringing even when it looks pitch black outside.
© Fi S. J. Brown

Therapeutic Photography

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

 

 

B.I.A.

I’m like the pieces of a broken glass vase,
So many shards that there is no glue to fix.
I’m dizzy from all the circles walked,
And the games from the amphitheatre,
Not able to escape.

I feel like all the paths ahead are blocked,
Filled with more false starts and wrong turns.
In the forest of my mind,
I’ve been looking for an axe,
To find where I belong.

Tired of jumping hoops and skipping beats,
As I try to play life by the rules,
Bitten by bugs growing in number at my feet,
And strangled by words in tears.
But believe it again echoes on.

I’m just the outsider watching the world,
And it seems like I’m forever to be sat in the wings.
I never wanted to be a leading lady,
But at least wanted to be on the script.

How many would walk a mile for a day in my shoes,
With a ball and chain that interrupts the rhythm.
Feeling like a bird who wants to fly,
But there is nobody to set her free.

Tired of jumping hoops and skipping beats,
Looking for a break but not in sanity.
Drained so that my battery is always red,
Why can it not be green like in nature,
With birds echoing believe it again.

Tired of jumping hoops and skipping beats,
Time to skip with hoops and jump to beats.
Rising like the phoenix one more time,
Burn down the trees and find that path,
Whilst singing believe it again.

© Fi S. J. Brown

Breaking the invisible wall

As someone with a visual mind I often found when studying for scientific subjects it was easier if I had a visual reference or way of seeing them. It is perhaps for that reason I was drawn to the environmental sciences, not just for my love of the environment and nature but the anthropogenic (human) impacts upon them could be seen, whether that be at the present time with my own eyes or elucidated using proxies for the past such as pollen, seeds, charcoal, diatoms etc under a microscope. When it comes to mental health for many it is the invisible nature of the illnesses I feel that contribute to the continued stigma associated with them. For unless we ourselves or have a close friend/family member it can be very hard to understand let alone empathise with. We see someone with a broke leg or having treatment for cancer we wish them a speedy recovery ot luck with their treatment, with diabetes or asthma although unseen too and for life we accept that they are common human illnesses; yet one in a four adults and one in five children in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, with 1 in 100 being diagnosed with bipolar or schizophrenia at some point in their life. What can be done? How can we break down these invisible walls that we have built to create a them and us scenario?

A bit of background to my own story. I was diagnosed in January 2007 aged 28 with depression and anxiety, however, you can look back to almost 25 years before and there were signs of both due to my acute sensitivity and bullying I experienced from when I first started school in 1983. I had counselling from 2006 to 2007 and psychotherapy from 2007 until 2009, which I have mentioned in previous entries on this blog. In the last few years as I have learnt to respect, appreciate, forgive and I guess love myself for who I am and who she’s not, I have also developed deep friendships that give back what I give them in love, respect and appreciation, which help me daily. The name of this blog is a tribute to one of them who encourages me and my creativity, so my little thank you back to him. For me, one reason I write, photograph, play or make music, and model with clay, is to let the feelings I have their own voice or become beyond what is inside me as would keep them bottled and been told in therapy how much they suffocated me for doing so, thus needed an outlet. I found creativity a great outlet, not just for my aforementioned visual mind but it allowed what I was feeling a way to be seen, they could no longer strangle/suffocate or even hurt me as they were now real and had their voice, but I retained the power that they were trying to take away from me. I also realised by sharing some of my creativity with others it meant it was no longer invisible to them, with some inspiring others to realise their battles were not alone or show how far I had come to become the person I am today.

I am currently job hunting, my past feels like a giant noose around my neck as found many do not understand that we do not fit simply into boxes and some of us do fit two at the same time. I am fed up feeling like the outsider watching in. Equally, having achieved academic qualifications while battling physical and mental illnesses is something I am proud to have achieve, but feedback I have I received is my past is intimidating but impressive…so what can I do? It is not helped by people thinking they can decide what is best for you, when you have tried and tried but just want to give up and only your closest friends saving you from going under completely. However, one thing I know is that I am determined to help inspire and help others, so they do no give up and break this stigma or invisible wall around mental health. As another way to break the wall is for us to work together, showcasing what we can and not what we cannot. In the past to try break the stigma we have created a glut of diagnoses that are really just descriptions of certain patterns of human behaviour, and have not helped. My dream? I am not sure, maybe one day I will be a creative and/or eco therapist of some kind using my passions to help others. Until then here is my hammer breaking down the invisible wall for today, will you join me?

© Fi S. J. Brown

Therapy…!?

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

The power of three

For three minutes I would like you take time out your day to do the following. Sit down, read all through then shut your eyes, doing each bit in turn.

As you shut your eyes count to 3, 1…2….3… Good now repeat, 1…2…3… and repeat one last time 1…2…3…

Well done but before you open them pause a little longer. Now think of three friends; can be anyone, thinking of why or what makes them matter to you. Now think of three special gifts you have; perhaps somewhere to live, access to running water, or the ability to read and write. Now think of three luxuries you have that may forget actually are luxuries; a car to drive to travel from A-B at any time, access to the internet to find anything you want to know or buy in seconds, and freedom to be ourselves not what someone else wants or says we should be.

Now as you open your eyes look right; what three things do you see that you have bought, do you ever or will you ever use them? Now turn and look left; find three things that were a gift from someone else, what makes them special and priceless? Now look forward; what hopes and dreams do you have, what’s really stopping you fulfilling them? Now as you stand up, take a glance behind to see how far life has changed the last three years.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, the dark feelings associated with it are extremely painful; it is not selfish or easy to say we just cannot cope anymore. However, it is important to remember we are loved by others near or far, and more than we realise at times. These cannot ever be bought or sold, unlike the gifts that don’t have to be bought to show appreciation or love, and luxuries we all too often take for granted as forget not everyone has.

Nothing in life lasts forever, so call/message/write to three people you thought of above, even if not physically here now, still write. Think of three things that make you special to others by being in their lives. Finally, take three steps forward, these are three steps towards your hopes and dreams.

© Fi S. J. Brown

The Tunnels

What is depression? If you have not ever experienced it, as it is not physical disease like heart disease or high blood pressure, or visual so others cannot see internally what damage it is doing, so therefore is hard to explain in a way for others to be empathetic and try to understand. For me at my worst it was like a series of tunnels, constantly under attack by forces unknown, whilst scrambling on my hands and knees trying to find an end with a light that was the end. When pulled from the tunnels by some incredible friends it felt like I was pulled from a well. At first as I was adjusting to what could be light, I often could feel my fingers slipping back down only for them to grab me and pull me back. I am now free from the tunnels and learning to enjoy the light, even if it burns my eyes at times. I know I do not want to fall back among the maze of tunnels, so found writing and photography give both a voice and image to how I feel and give hope to others still stuck among the tunnels.

© Fi S. J. Brown

tunnels