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PHOTO SERIES: coping through self-portraiture

Feb. 1, 2018
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Following the emotional ending of a relationship that was almost as tumultuous as my mental state during said relationship, I thought I was losing my mind. Intrusive thoughts of suicide led me to seek intensive therapy because Prozac and meeting with someone once a week for an hour wasn’t cutting it. I was severely depressed, heartbroken, and a complete anxious wreck. I began treatment at a partial hospitalization program, where I heard the word recovery used almost daily. For the past eight months or so since then, I have grappled with this word and idea. 

When I went to residential treatment, an even higher level of therapeutic care than partial hospitalization, in October, I was told that I wouldn’t be able to have my trusty film camera with me due to HIPAA laws that are set in place to protect patients’ privacy. While I understood this, it didn’t change the fact that having my camera taken away from me was heart wrenching and earth shattering, especially when it was my main coping mechanism for so many months. Without a camera to document my feelings, I found solace in a pen and paper, talking and listening to others in group therapy, and using other media to express myself in art therapy. Still, nothing comforted me as much as holding a camera in my hands.

A few weeks ago I went to see a neuropsychologist to undergo psychological testing, which involved four separate sessions. These lengthy and emotionally exhausting sessions would help me learn more about myself and how my brain works, in order to understand what sort of treatment might be beneficial going forward in my recovery. During a series of questions, my neuropsychologist asked about my sense of identity. After giving arduous answers about everything that has impacted me emotionally throughout my life, I suddenly found myself at a loss for words. I told him that I wasn’t sure how much of me was comprised of my mental illnesses and how much of me was me. I have been dealing with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember, not to mention several suggestions of diagnoses and some misdiagnoses throughout my course of treatment. This made it hard for me to have an understanding of what my “normal” is, seeing as my life through the lens of mental illness is all I know. 

Had you told me just over eight months ago that I would have to withdraw from some of my last credits of my senior year of college, attend three different intensive mental health treatment programs, work with countless therapists, psychiatrists, try taking eight different psychotropic medications, and that I still wouldn’t feel better, I would have probably given up right then. At the time when I hit my rock bottom, I had no idea that recovery would mean months of ups and downs, endless trials and errors, constant breakdowns, hours and hours of therapy, and still no real answer or sense of normalcy to show for it. 

I still struggle with this idea of recovery: the idea of returning to a “normal”. I don’t know what my “normal” is, and I’m not sure that I ever will because my mental illnesses have shaped so much of who I am. I believe that I might always be struggling to work with myself, with my illnesses. However, I have learned that there are tools to make the recovery process easier. For me, it was with cameras. Like I said, my sense of identity has been clouded by the fog of various mood and anxiety disorders. For this reason, self portraiture became an incredibly powerful tool. It helped me to see me for me. My photos have shown me visually what I could not otherwise understand. My photos spoke for me when I didn’t have the words to speak for myself. Cameras have not only been therapeutic, but an integral part of my treatment. Even if a return to a “normal” state isn’t attainable because of normal’s relativity, I still believe in the process of recovery, especially when I get to have my cameras by my side through it all.