Do you wear a wig Auntie Fi?

Do you wear a wig Auntie Fi?” This was a question to me from my eight year old niece. She is super observant and sees things many of us wouldn’t at her age or older. When she asked part of me wanted to deflect it, but realised she was of an age that I should be able to tell her, and her sister (aged 7), such things. However, doing so would become the probably the hardest conversation I have ever had.

It was not as though I could take my time to plan what I was to reply, but knew I had to use kid friendly language and not make them upset by what I said, especially as I was meant to be giving them a bedtime story and did not want to cause nightmares. So with a deep breath, I looked her in the eyes and answered her – yes I do and took off my wig.

Both girls came onto the bigger bed beside me as we chatted. What followed with both was like no other conversation I have had about my hair loss, as most of the time previously I could not, or was silenced by certain family members for opening my mouth (even to doctors treating me). Their first questions were not at all childish – why have you no hair, how did it fall out, why does it fall out? Explaining that my is sick body, and likes to kill hair cells like it would kill a disease, which both understood. The youngest was shocked but did not laugh or joke, just sat beside me as though it was just another bedtime story.

The eldest asked me what the proper name for it was and how does it happen, would it happen to her? So I reassured her, and introduced them to the concept of our immune system. In return both showed a compassion beyond their years – it doesn’t look like a wig Auntie Fi, you’re just as beautiful with or without your wig Auntie Fi. I had to stop myself crying at their beautiful and humbling replies. The only time I lied was when they asked if another family member wore a wig as knew she’d make my life living hell for saying yes she does. She doesn’t talk about it, even when mine fell out there was no compassion or loving support, and she later prove to me yet again how vile she can be.

I was explaining how sad it can make me feel, and how hard it is to actually talk about it, with both curled up around me to reassure me as their dad (my brother) came in the room to see if they were asleep. Both explained to daddy what had happened, and this made me break down in tears. The youngest asked if it was tears of happiness to her daddy – he said how brave I was and how hard it was, which made him hug me followed by both girls. Together the girls continued to reassure me, as I hugged them both goodnight, and said how amazing they were.

I decided I’d better tell the other family member as we were all at her house. Her reaction as ever was vile – of course they could tell it was a wig as you badly need a new one (she loves to make me feel bad about myself and be insecure in myself)…problem is she cannot understand it is obvious to her as she knows it is a wig and will always be obvious to her when someone is! Then the narcissism turned up a notch – you did not mention me, you’d better not have mentioned mine! As I turned after saying no, I felt weird – on the one hand I’d been brave, but on the other felt shit from the remarks she’d made, and wondered why I had bothered to tell her. I went to my room and cried aloud. My brother knocked on my door to see I was okay…I said yes apart from those remarks as he hugged me then let me be.

The next morning I awoke to a card from the eldest (see pictures), which she wrote with no prompting from anyone. She said I was to read it when only us in the room, which I did, and began to cry again. I put my arms out for a hug – she does not always give or want hugs – but this time came leaping into my arms and I reassured her once more that she was not upsetting me, and how amazing she actually is. With a big smile she returned to her seat as we plotted that day’s activities!

This all has reminded me that my hair loss is nothing to be ashamed of, and is just part of what makes me, me. If that family member wants to be that way it’s her business not mine. Equally, if children ask questions – being honest with them is best, but explaining in ways they will understand, and they may surprise you with what they do/say next.

© 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

 

 

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

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