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

Press pause

Stop where you are and what you’re doing, pause briefly, and note in your head: three things you see, three things you can hear and three things you can touch.

In your own time do the following:

  • The first type or write it down in pen on paper, in any language;
  • The second draw or paint, even sculpt it with clay, so can be seen;
  • The third say aloud or sing it in a song so now has a voice of its own;
  • The fourth mimic either in action or sound, is it easy or hard to copy;
  • The fifth note how it makes you feel, happy or sad, and also why;
  • The sixth what shape does it have, is it like others, can you compare;
  • The seventh what or who does it remind you of, past/present/future;
  • The eighth can you put a value on it, does it need one or is it priceless;
  • The ninth can you imagine a world where it was not here on Earth now.

Before you finish, I want you to think of a tenth thing – yourself. All you have noted above are aspects of your own character as you see them.

Pause at least once a day remembering that you matter too, how uniquely remarkable it is to be you, and try be a bit kinder or gentler with you.

© 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

Giving up

Some days it feels like the best course of action is to hide away from the world as fed up trying and trying again but seems to fall in pieces at our feet, shortly follow by ourselves. However, we must remember; as much as this world and its people may hurt us giving up is not an option. So take time out to do something we enjoy without feeling guilty about it, even if it is hiding out among the leaves so blend in or hide away, just for an hour or two.

© Fi S. J. Brown

Flowers

Normal…a redefinition

How a dictionary defines normal can be very different to how as people we do, ask hundred people and you will get a hundred definitions. Equally, ask the same hundred people what they define as abnormal, and you will get the same result. This is because our life experiences to the people we meet adding different colours and layers to how we see the world. With the advent of social media to the cult of celebrity these too add to this perception we have of the world. Seldom do we stop and think of what is normal and/or abnormal and do not question it.

We pass judgement every day; be it how best to serve tea or coffee to how to dress ourselves and the partner we choose to have in our lives (if at all). They all serve as means of self-expression, that is to say they say “this is my way” of living life. The choice of partner you will already have opinions on, some maybe tutting or swearing at the thought anyone may want a partner of the same gender as themselves to choosing not to have a partner at all. So which is the normal way? Simply put all of them are and none of them are.

Even people that claim not to be judgemental make judgements every day, knowingly and unknowingly. So on deciding if another’s choice partner as in the above example is normal or not we are making a judgement, not on morality or ethics but based on our personal sense of normality.

In defining what is normal, we need to look at our own lives, where we make judgements and where others judge us. Whilst doing this we also need to consider not just why we think this way, but what is the root of this belief and why we have these expectations of others and equally ascribe them to ourselves.

Expectations of ourselves and/or others can be due to our families, beliefs, and cultures we grew up in to the ones we find ourselves living in now, which by breaking these can lead to estrangement and even death. Equally, we need to learn not to be hard on ourselves and/or others for failing to live up to these expectations: For example, in some areas of the world you would be expected to be married with at least two children by 21, but we have to remember that may not happen for all and trying not to be judgemental on someone that by 25 is single and a virgin. How can we ascribe the actions or personality of ourselves and/or another normal and/or abnormal just because they are different to our own?

So should the word normal in this case be left like many prejudices and stereotypes be left in the past? Just because we do not agree with, have no knowledge, expect life/another/ourselves to be a certain way, is it really abnormal? Equally, should we expect others to agree with and/or collaborate with our ideas of what is and is not normal? Have they not also got their own, just as valid, ideas and ways of expressing what is normal to them?

Let us return to defining what is normal, a friend once said “it is a function on a washing machine”. Normal in real terms is what is right for us and our journey, trying to conform to the expectations and ideals of others is like wearing our neighbour’s underwear! We also try to put labels on ourselves so can find like minded people, only do this if you must to let them explore your world but remembering not to judge them by our ideas of normal, for we are not them, have not and never will experience their journey their way.

I am currently writing a short book exploring the above themes, to find just what is normal to us, the journey to find what it is but always remembering that one size will never fit all, and finally accepting what we have found, which can be just as difficult as the prejudice we can encounter from others.

© Fi S. J. Brown

Self-soothing

Why are we always so hard on ourselves? We need to be more self-soothing, i.e. comforting, nurturing and being kind to ourselves. One way to think of this is to think of ways of soothing each of our five senses: Vision, Hearing, Smell, Taste, and Touch. Take a minute to think of each sense before reading on, letting the words become visual and the visual reassure you.

VISION: Step outside or look out your window and look around you in every direction. Go to an art gallery or a museum and let at creativity past and present inspire you. Pick a flower from a park, take it home with you and put it where you can see it. Light a candle and watch the flame, let it give you hope. Follow a cloud in the sky and let the rain fall for your tears.

HEARING: Shut your eyes as, let all around you sing. Listen to your favourite music; let the rhythms relax your heartbeat and the melody become like a lullaby. Sit by a lake, listening to all that calls it home and the songs they sing. Listen to a baby gurgle and think of the positives you have achieved in your life so far, be proud of them without letting your ego grow.

TASTE: Drink a soothing drink like herbal tea, letting the taste run over your tongue and slowly down your throat. Take a slice of lemon, it will remind you that life can be bitter, and then take a slice of orange to remind you it can be sweet too. Have a special treat, and eat it slowly, savouring each bite and let every bite remind you that with small steps anything is possible.

SMELL: Notice all the different smells around you as you sit or stand. Walk in your garden or in the woods, particularly just after a rain, and breathe in the smells of nature. Light a scented candle or incense let them inspire and relax you. Even if you think you cannot smell anything, you can and this reminds you there is someone there at all times with you in spirit.

TOUCH: Pet your dog or cat or cuddle a baby or loved one, let their love reassure that you are loved and matter. Float or swim in a pool, and feel the water caress your body and massage it all over your skin. Take a bubble bath, take a bubble and blow it away as though what or who has hurt you is no longer part of you and will leave no scar upon your hands or feet.

© Fi S. J. Brown