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

 

 

My “real self”

I was reading an article posted to Facebook on “Depression is the unavoidable by-product of not being who you really are?” I decided to ponder this and reflect on my own experiences of depression and self hate.

Looking back on my days pre-therapy I hated every part of me, frequently dreaming that I would have every part of me surgically changed, as thought I must look at total freak for the way people pointed and laughed at me in the street. My self image was so bad in waking life that I thought that I must look like the love child of Frankenstein’s monster and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, I mean why else would people do that or call me ugly to my face? I decided that as heard it so often, it must be true, I must be truly have something repugnant about physical appearance. However, at no point in time would I ever have considered plastic surgery to change it for real. At the same time I was not allowed the freedom to express myself; I always Frances’ daughter not an individual in my own right, and she always wanted the final say in how I looked from my wig (I have alopecia universalis) to my glasses and how I dressed. Any medical appointments she would come to, encase I said something she did not want said. It took me a long time to realise I am the daughter of a narcissist.

Shortly after moving to Loughborough in October 2006 I began therapy, at first I had no real reason for feeling depressed as just always seemed to be there like raindrops in my tummy as I put when I was a child. It was then I started to unravel all I kept inside and found I had razor blades inside my stomach too, as often beat myself up emotionally for things that were not my fault and/or had never had a voice to say stop or no. I had been hurt so much by life that I almost gave up just before Easter 2008 as came close to suicide, I felt like the puppet mistress would never let me be free to be me. On my return to Edinburgh in October 2009, I had begun photographing, but nowhere near as much as I do now, with a feeling of sickness and dread. I had tried to turn the camera on me for around a year by then, perplexed at the woman that appeared on it as she was not the ogre in my head. Gradually over the next few years as I returned to writing combining with my photography and finding supportive friends I saw me as a person and learnt to appreciate, respect and love this unique person that I am. I belong not in a laboratory but helping others, writing and photographing, and dressing the way that suits me!

So was my depression caused by not being who I am? Yes and no. I am far happier internally than I have ever been, I can look in a mirror and say it’s just how I am at this moment and that’s okay. Equally, I can delete or edit a photograph based on it being a picture and not make it feel so personal. However, I still have depression as there are still things from my past that hurt me and in my present but try not to let them. To me mental health conditions, including depression, are far more complex than a simple and singular explanation. I have mentioned before that we let things take root and suddenly faced with a tree and sometimes a forest of issues we should have dealt with at the start. To me it is this forest that overwhelms us as we do not know where to begin to cut it down; borrowing an axe from someone else is like trying to use their methods to solve our issues it may work but not always; and often a combination of many things help, but the most important is living for today as per mindfulness so that the roots can take hold of us. So be true to ourselves, but equally be gentle with ourselves, as we’re not all meant to be Jennifer Lawrence, Kim Kardashian, or Kelly Brook, but also note the images we see of them are heavily edited and may also have just the same insecurities as we do!

© Fi S. J. Brown

F is for…

I seem to have an issue with the letter ‘F’. My own name of ‘Fiona‘ sent tears of bitterness and sadness to my teenage self, bullied and abused for being myself, which others found something to pick holes in till I felt I resembled more a Swiss cheese than a human being. “Nobody is friends with Fiona” any new pupil starting my year of high school was told, one that tried was reputed to have been pushed and shoved along a corridor for daring to try to break this. Depression often called.

This in turn lent to me turning ‘Fiona‘ into ‘Freak‘, for who would want to befriend or date this girl that looked like the love child of Frankenstein and the Hunchback of Notre Dame? I could not look in the mirror for its contents scared me that felt it would laugh back at me or even shatter to cause seven more years of misery. I had people stop and laugh in the street or in their cars pointing and laughing at me, so thought why do I not just die and end this miserable existence?

It was only through using my camera to record the world through my eyes that things started to change. I took a picture of myself in Italy and saw the real me staring back at me; nobody was laughing, pointing fingers or mocking me for having my eyes shut. However, I did not understand who this woman was and nearly did not stop to find out as decided the next year whilst on antidepressants to finally end it, jumping under a train seemed the best way to make my curtain call on life.

I was caught just in time but the misery was far from over. In the following few days I was told by family they were coming to “take me back to Scotland where I belonged”! I never felt so frightened in my life, ringing round social services to mental health helplines, nobody would answer me what I should do. Eventually I got a brother based in England to get them to stop and finally I could breath, and put down my dressing robe rope that was in hand to hang from the tree in my garden.

The years that followed I did end up back in Scotland but some things were different, I end up seeing me the woman not the ‘freak‘ of my head. She was and is highly intelligent, quirky and creative not a freak of a mad scientist that needed to be put down like a sick dog. I also learnt instead of ‘Fiona‘, my friends could use ‘Fi’ and I was mostly alright with that even if didn’t feel always me. However, the F decided it wanted to change from ‘freak‘ into a new word – ‘Failure’.

I have spent now three years with this F word teasing me like the others before it. I feel a failure to humanity, that some how I am not living life the way it is meant to be, always an outsider watching in. Unable to do the ‘normal’ things people do like gain a ‘proper‘ job or move away from where I don’t belong to having partner/companion of my own. My high school physics teacher remarked on how I could always do the advanced stuff but not the basics, which feels like an echo of my life.

However, tonight something has clicked in my head, I feel a new F word is dawning, that word is ‘fine‘. I am ‘fine‘ the way I am, not everyone leads life the same way and it is okay to follow our own path not going the same as every other one. I have no idea what my purpose to what my dreams really are, but that’s okay as I am not frightened. Where will I be this time next month or year, I do not know, but what I do know is that all will be just ‘fine’ in the end and suitably Fi-shaped.

© Fi S. J. Brown

Thirty Six Years

As I approach the thirty sixth anniversary of my birth, I walk up the hill with an observatory that I have climbed many times before, often in the company of a four legged friend of fur and bark. However, today I walk alone to reflect not the lens of a telescope to the stars but my mind on the journey I have taken so far to reach the point I am at today.

As I walk, I look out to a city that became my place of birth after an eleventh hour decision meant I was not born where my journey had biologically started. This city of birth is also the place of many childhood memories that now echo across where I look and make trees sway as feel their vibrations. Many of the trees look on fire, not with passion but as a warning not to dwell on the past for too long. If look close some are shedding their leaves in empathetic tears to the memories they now feel from my memories, good and bad.

I think back to my earliest days, filled with wonder to the world around me and curious to its ways like a newborn puppy yet as wise as an owl in what I seemed to know. I remembered a world that was filled with many colours, but school and family taught me that it was black or white; they replaced the songs of birds and rivers with their own drills and guns; they said I had five senses but I was sure I could pick up at least twice that; and gave me pills to sedate me from asking the questions I wanted answers to, as could or would not answer them. The grown-ups ultimately told of a world of them and us, where the humans ruled over all that l could see and deeper, wider and higher than my eyes could; they were only judged by a man named god, who had created it all and forgave if I did wrong as long as I asked him to.

As I became a grown-up myself I felt a boomerang effect, in whatever I did and wherever I went this city would bring me back. Sadly, I never wanted to be back, in fact quite the opposite, I longed to explore the world like the explorers I read about in childhood books and was not content to do it from a seat any more. At the same time, those around me were settling in “normal” life: getting a job, finding a partner, setting up home and having kids. I felt like an alien in a world to which I did not or would ever belong. Restricted to a tourist visa but not granted citizenship to this world.

Like a circus freak in Victorian times since my earliest teens I wanted to hide away, as my head said I looked like the love child of Frankenstein’s monster and the Hunchback of Notre Dane, an unloveable ogre with growths over my body, and faults greater than San Andreas. I often wondered on making my curtain call, I had enough of being a player in someone else’s movie and being used by those I thought I could trust. When I took what I wanted to be my final bow, I fell not on concrete but autumn leaves, leaving no visible scars but many scratches that I could not itch. Picking the pieces up I knew only I could glue them as there was no one but me there to add glitter or shine.

Much of my life I felt like a donkey among the thoroughbred horses in a race of life, but against the odds I completed a degree, masters two and PhD before I reached the age of 32. When I signed off my final word on my doctorate, I took my own Hippocratic Oath, never to work or study in a laboratory again! The relief felt like I had been given the chance to start again from where I had last saved, which turned out to have been almost twenty years before. So I picked up my pen and let the colours, visuals, sounds, tastes, feelings and smells of that moment release like a series of tributaries forming one big river with each ones strengths and weaknesses.

Now I return my thoughts to today, spinning around on where I stand, thinking where in each direction I could go next without the boomerang pulling me back here. I thought of people that I knew in every one, the special people who’s emails, texts, and phone calls make me smile like I could never have imagined but two years before, for it hurt my face to even try. Whereas now I could share my journey with them, sharing in tears of both pain and laughter. I do not know what tomorrow will bring, but I know where I have been. Life has a bittersweet taste but the colours, sounds, visuals and things that belong beyond my wildest dreams are within my touch, so I’m going to take a leap and follow them wherever they may take me next.

© Fi S. J. Brown