I am what I am (a.k.a Self Portrait 2018)

Five years ago I posted the photograph below with the words written upon it describing my journey recovering from Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), self-hate, and low self-esteem. Today things are very different and this entry describes how things are today. If I am honest I still did not think I could ever reach the point of body and self positivism as the negative hung around like a bad smell I could not get rid of. Looking at old photographs I can see and feel my pain with part of me wishing I had the keys to a time machine to reassure myself but know I probably would not believe myself or recognise the person as me. The ogre that once lived in my head has been truly vanquished, such are the incredible healing properties of self-acceptance and happiness. Actually, I thought I was not allowed to be happy as was meant for others and not for me. Now I realise happiness takes many forms, and I have the right to that as much as anyone else on this planet.

In an age when judgement is made so much on our physical form it makes me still at question if I fit in. Judging on physical form deeply saddens me as know there is so much to us than our shell of many colours. To those that think looks are everything consider the following: when you see an iceberg you only ever see the top of it not what it actually looks like in physical form (this is like judging someone from the clothes you see them in and only desiring the slimmest of figures); equally consider a swan that as a child looks very ordinary but becomes a beautiful and majestic bird (this is akin to judging someone based on their past alone, not who they are in the present and what they may have overcome); and finally consider if the music remained only oral and never visual with those you judge their music based on their sex appeal you could never see (this is like basing your attraction on a walking puppet controlled by someone unseen where nothing is actually real).

I know I am not an ogre but I am equally not a Hollywood A-list celebrity, but then again I would rather be the ogre than the Hollywood star! Accepting me as me has been far harder than academic study; although on saying that my PhD was one of the greatest stresses of my life to date. I am me, not the love child of Frankenstein’s monster and the Hunchback of Notre Dame as I used to think. Which was replaced with Pablo Picasso’s ‘Woman in Hat and Fur Collar’ for a bit as I attempted to readjust the mental image in my head. This was followed by a patchwork doll made up of patches that represented all the different things that make me, me, and stitched together with love from those that are special in my life. However, now I see the same image others see in my photographs and smile like I never thought I could, it used to physically hurt my face for starters. If I was to have any other visual of me it is of a Matryoshka doll, because there is more to learn about me even when you think you know me well I will always surprise you with another layer to what makes me the uniquely beautiful human being I am.

© Fi S. J. Brown

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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

The Last Rose

She is now the solitary rose of summer,
All alone in the evening sun’s lonely slumber.
Her friends now gone are but memories,
Only footnotes captured in someone’s pictures.

Never to become part of a wedding bouquet,
But made that garden special every single way.
Hearts and souls of many she has touched,
With a fragrant pale pink sweetness they loved.

Counting the days till all her petals will fall,
As the trees’ leaves change for the autumn ball.
Each one a tear over another summer gone,
Will anyone remember her as the world carries on?

© Fi S. J. Brown

Dreaming

You may hear the birds in an early evening sky,
I’m listening to the myths and legends they tell.
There’s a hidden truth to what they foresee,
I’m listening for change and hope for Earth.

You may see a world filled with many colours,
I’m painting a brave new one with my eyes.
There’s a fire up in the sky warning of danger,
I’m painting the signs with words and pictures.

You may feel frightened of the endless dark,
I’m reaching out to link our hand together.
Beyond the high hills troubles melt like snow,
I’m reaching for the top of its highest peak.

There’s a wish and a hope with every new day,
I’m dreaming for an end of the lies and spin.
Joining the other birds flying so high and far,
I’m dreaming of freedom far from this cage.

© Fi S. J. Brown

Dreaming

Mirror…reflections

What is a mirror? To most people it is something that shows their reflection. If we think beyond that, it is a silent mime act following our every move. If we go a little deeper, it is showing us in live action motion how the outside world sees us. Deeper still it is a magnifying glass that highlights all we dislike about ourselves. However, is it all of these things and none of these things? It physically may show these things but how we interpret what it is we see is another. Furthermore, it is said if we met our own double we would not recognise them, as we have an image in our head as to how we actually look. So does a mirror really reflect the real us and how we look to those we meet in the workplace, streets and malls?

The silent mime act may make us laugh as children, as there is someone doing all we do. As we grow we get worried how the outside world sees us as fear the fingers of judgement and rejection. Then we find it to be a truth sayer, telling how much weight we need to lose to how old we now are, reflected back at us. However, what we forget is it does not have a voice, and I don’t mean our own internal one, for if it did it may say something very different. It would not massage our egos but tell us how well we are doing with life; like a scar we see above our forehead, the mirror may show a small scar but our insides know it hides the painful memories it tells. So perhaps it gives us a version of us or hologram of our mind’s image?

These days we put so much emphasis on physical appearance that the mirror may reflect back to us. However it is what it does not show what is on the inside, from our personalities to the colour of our auras. I remember one of the early photographs I took of myself in Italy mid-May 2007 and asked someone “do I really look like that”? To which I got laughter of “erm yes Fi, who else did you think it was?” It hit me hard as realised the image I felt of myself was not the girl in the photograph. The girl in the photograph looked sad and in pain, needing a big hug to say all would be all right, and I knew in that instance I had to find my true self if was ever going to be free. Now I know a mirror does not reflect the full us; best viewed like a child, as a mime act copying all we do in that moment and nothing more.

© Fi S. J. Brown

A new canine friend

Met a lovely West Highland Terrier outside Starbucks in Edinburgh today, full of hugs and sniffs, returned the hugs and gave tickles. Staff told me he and his owner are regulars, with the manager keeping dog biscuits for his visits. Perhaps this is something coffee or tea shops could consider, a dog for hugs on your visit!

© Fi S. J. Brown

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Memories of Plavecky Hrad

Plavecky HradDeparting from the village with a stream and air of times past I began my ascent. My journey was joined by cornflowers, clovers and cowslips marking a path with flashes of blue, purple and yellow lights to guide my feet to the edge of a forest.On entering the forest it was like I had completed level one of a secret test to locate the castle. The climb now because very steep and enclosed by trees, which were trying to prepare for their autumnal ball or awaiting a Prince Charming for a dance. Steeper and steeper every step seemed, I felt like I was missing an equine friend to enjoy the journey together. I stopped five times to rest and refresh, with each one my legs felt like they were climbing Everest five times over such was the distance and steepness climbed.

Then level two cleared as the ruins first caught my eyes and I felt at one with those who had made the journey before me. The light of the sun caught the remains of every window to the highest tower, giving each one their moment in the spotlight. The view with a hazy filter caught my breath, it then felt like it was that which covered my view. Through the haze were fifty shades of green, like soldiers standing guard over the land. The human settlement that shares the land appeared to be singing nature’s songs along with her, a far cry from the fifty shades of grey that I often saw back home. I then saw a solitary tree beside where I stood, he whispered in the wind he now guarded this view, which once human had; Mother Nature told him it was the most important role in all the land, so he took great pride in his work. Then I returned to the remains of the castle which glowed in the sun, almost showing off medals of past victories against an enemy now nowhere to be seen or heard. Looking out of her ruined windows was like looking into her soul and how much the view had long been part of her; she was as much part of the land as the tree who guarded her.

The descent felt like I was on fast forward, although watching for branches and roots with every step, the steepness seemed almost to have been a mirage, perhaps it really had been part of a test to see if I was worthy of rescuing a princess, which in this case was the castle herself. Soon I was met by the floral friends I met on my my ascent, who I felt were cheering my way for seeing what few of them ever could or would. My final step down was accompanied by the rushing of the stream, almost applauding and toasting me on behalf of the village as I had seen their princess. On meeting the mayor of the village I felt like I was meeting a relative or colleague of the tree in human form, a foot soldier at the the bottom of the hill. I smiled as I now knew a secret that the world did not of this village and her castle, which I then realised were twins as there would not be one without the other.

© Fi S. J. Brown

Life is a ladder

One of my favourite pieces of art at Danubiana by Jozef Jankovič reminded me of life being like a ladder: It is best taken one step at a time, with the freedom to move up and down at our own pace; sometimes we fall off and need to start again but that is only natural; and it is not how far we climb up the ladder but go as far is comfortable for us.

© Fi S. J. Brown

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