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Diary of a photographer: Entry 10.10.20 World Mental Health Day

So I know I promised to write the final blog about composition. But as today is ‘World Mental Health day’, I decided it was more important to raise awareness of that.

So go brew some coffee, this a long blog and it gets deep!

Coffee brewed, lets go!

I have both General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Major Depression Mood Disorder. I have probably suffered from these two since late adolescents but was formally diagnosed when I was 24. I suffered for so long before I even knew these conditions existed. I had no clue about mental illness outside eating disorders in ballerinas and depression in alcoholics. I was woefully uninformed and this led me to suffering for so much longer than necessary.

Since I was neither a ballerina nor an alcoholic, I just assumed I was worthless and the constant pain, fatigue and anxiety was just normal. Turns out, it isn’t.

Photography means joy to me:

I got help, I did the work, I got treatment and life got better. Much better. One of the things that made my life easier was photography. When I had to go out events, I brought my camera, it gave me a safe way to interact with people in situations I felt overwhelmed in. It gave me a reason to leave the house and go for walks in my local park. It was the final thing, my sick brain held on to joy, a reason for being and a creative outlet to try and figure out the misfiring mess in my brain.

Mental illness is complicated, vast and brutal. But it doesn’t have to be your sole existence. You can chosoe what to focus on, learn to reframe the narrative it gives you and take on the lessons the hard times teach you, and develop from the negatives! See how many camera puns I slipped in there :P

Whether right now, you feel like you are the problem or you have just learnt you have a disease or whether you have been battling this disease for years like me, just know it gets better, it will pass and help is out there, and you are not alone.

My story and some of the lessons I have learned:

So here is my story and some of the lessons I have learned from living with mental illness for roughly ten years. I found great comfort in hearing people's stories and knowing I was not alone, and what I was feeling was normal for someone who is sick, and not normal for someone who is healthy. So in case you need to connect, maybe my story will be the link.

For years, I lacked the words, awareness and understanding of what I was suffering from to know I was even sick. I spent years feeling completely worthless, I was full of self loathing and everything felt so hard. Like I was constantly carrying a wrecking ball chained to my leg everywhere I went. There was no reason for me feeling so low, so down. So I thought I must just be worthless, I thought I was being so objective, looking at the facts - No one liked me, I am not smart enough, I was always awkward, I was unwanted, unlovable etc. I spent hours in bed thinking about everything I did wrong that day, every mistake I made was amplified and imprinted in my brain. (I later learnt this is called Rumination and is a common symptom of many mental illness disorders.)

I felt on edge all the time, which left me completely exhausted. I was worn out and extremely sensitive. This made me lash out and become very irritable. Which further fueled my feelings of shame as I was lashing out at people who cared for me and did not deserve it.

But then in a weird rare moment of clarity, I thought this can not be it. Life can not be this hard for no reason. So I sought help. I found a counsellor (after having a bad experience with one first - I will come to this), I struggled to explain why I had sought help since from my perspective my symptoms were not that at all, they were characteristics of me, they were just my faults. But in time, and with her help, I learnt many positive coping techniques, read up on depression and anxiety disorders and got a diagnosis that allowed me to finally view myself with an objective view. I learnt my faults were symptoms, my pain was an illness and with a diagnosis came treatment and help.

I was not worthless. I deserve love. I was loved. For everyone out there, that thinks they are not worthy please hear me

You are not worthless, You deserve love and happiness!

So why did I suffer from mental illness?

I had been bullied extensively in both primary and secondary school, I had had a friend die in the summer between secondary school and college and then got into an abusive relationship in the first year of college that removed any shred of self esteem I had left. These all contributed to my illness. I had never spoken up about most of it. Most people didn’t know about the abuse in my relationship, about the bullying. Since my friend died, but I was in college, I had the opportunity to ignore the pain and throw myself into college where no one knew I had recently lost a friend, and no one knew that friend. But I don’t think that alone caused it. I think also how I chose to deal with those events allowed my brain and my brain chemicals to develop bad habits and negative effects. I also think I am deficient in certain hormones. (I did say mental illness is complicated :/).

This is perhaps the hardest lesson for those who don’t suffer. There is no one single cause, and as such no one single magic cure to mental illness.

How did I get better?

It took two years of therapy before I even felt somewhat better, I was able to function, set boundaries and start to tackle all the negative behaviours I had developed as coping mechanisms. I started to tell people too. I spent 18months approx in weekly therapy before I told my first friend.

His reaction changed my life. I thought I was admitting to something shameful, something embarrassing. But he was so kind, so compassionate and so understanding it reaffirmed a lesson I was only starting to accept - I was lovable and loved. (Thanks Mick if you read this.)

In time I told more and more people and what amazed me was so many people turned around and said they too struggled in some way - some with diagnosed illness and others with not formal diseases, but had pain in their lives too. I realised by shining a light on my pain, I gave permission for others to be honest about theirs. In sharing pain, we both felt better, stronger, more able to cope. This was so empowering to me and to everyone I encountered. It is the reason I write blogs about this, I have blogged before and I will continue to tell my story to anyone who listens.

That was my first lesson - Shine a light on your pain, is the first step to alleviating it. Mental illness thrives in the dark. In the silence, shame is amplified.

I tried for years to ‘fix myself’. I went on diets thinking if I was skinnier I would be more worthy. I tried to just tough it out. I kept thinking in secondary school, once I get to college things will be better, then in college, once I have a job then things will be better. Once I get a boyfriend, once I have some money, once I do this, or buy that. Nothing worked, and each disappointment led me down a deeper chasm of depression and absence of hope.

Then when I had my moment of clarity, I googled counselors. Since I was overweight and that was a source of unhappiness I found a counsellor that specializes in young adults with eating disorders. I figured since I was never able to get to my goal weight maybe that was what was wrong with me. I knew instinctively my life was harder than it should be but I had no idea why.

But that meeting was terrible. She was late, asked me to explain exactly what I was unhappy with and when I was not able to verbalize it quickly, she basically said if I wasn't able to talk about it, it probably wasn’t that big a deal to me and I shouldn't waste her time.

I remember sitting in the car after that appointment, crying, and just berating myself, I was so harsh, so brutal with myself. It was one of two of the lowest moments in my life. I felt ridiculous and ashamed and just so appalled that I had sought help, that I had thought there was something wrong with me. It was obvious - I was just a worthless being. But that one moment of clarity stayed with me and I promised myself I would try again.

So I took one more shot - tried a different counselor and she was kind, patient and allowed me to open up in my own time. She saved my life.

That is lesson two. Sometimes things just don’t work out, but you can always take another shot. Always try another way.

In time we tried various techniques - a lot of what people call self care, we did a lot of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and honestly we just talked a lot. We discussed medication but I was resistant at the time. I need to gain confidence in myself and I just had this need to be enough in myself. I made quick progress because once I started to open up I couldn't stop. I felt the weight lift off my chest and my soul and that was so quenching to someone who had been weighed down for so long. I worked through my grief, my fears and all my traumas I had bottled up.

CBT was critical in my recovery, changing the thought patterns in my head was the hardest part and the part I still need to work on daily. Constantly catching the spiral before it takes hold and brings me down again.

For the first time, in my mid 20s, I felt like I could maybe enjoy life. I moved to Denmark, got my masters, I felt strong. I met someone who ended being my husband and life was right. I was fixed at last. Or so I thought.

I ended up with a PhD in Canada and I went in knowing academic life can be extremely hard on one's mental health but I smugly thought I have been through it and I can handle it. Short version - I could not.

I slipped into a deep, deep depression. I struggled to get out of bed, a lot of days I didn't leave my bed. I had massive panic attacks multiple times a day. But I knew enough to know this was just the same darkness I had faced before.

So I asked for help again. This episode of depression was more acute and severe than my previous episode that led to my diagnosis. First time around it was over years I slowly was getting pulled down but with help I recovered quickly, this time is was a free fall over a few weeks and a long climb back to the light.

With my doctors recomemndations, I accepted medication and I will probably be on medication for life now. And that is ok. Since my first diagnosis, I have done so much research into mental health, talked to so many people who have experienced mental illness in so many forms. I now know and truly believe mental illness is an illness like the flu, cancer and diabetes. I wouldn’t refuse medication for any of them, though they don’t always need medication. The same is with depression (and the many other forms of mental illness). Medication is not for everyone with mental illness, but for some it is essential.

But medication is not a cure. Therapy is not a cure. They are treatments.

That is my third lesson. Mental illness is a lifelong illness that needs good management and will inexplicably have recurring episodes. There is no cure and no one single cause.

But I do know for sure, no one chooses it. And you can’t just choose to get over it. Everyone's experience is different and I am weary of saying do this or do that. I had many people over the years tell me to exercise more, to take meds, don’t take meds, try meditation, sleep more, sleep less etc etc. The only thing I want you to know from my story is you are not alone, help is out there, and asking for it will be the hardest thing to do when you are already struggling so much. But it will be the best step you take.

If you are in Ireland I have linked a few resources and organisations that can help you:

If you are worried about someone, I hope you know, it matters! Even if they push you away, they care about you. Here is some resources for you (the ones above can also be of help I am sure). It can be so hard to care for someone struggling with mental illness. So there is support for you guys too.

Final sips of coffee:

I know that got deep, and perhaps no one bothered reading this far, I know it is not photography related and I promise I will be back empowering everyone to master their cameras next week. But this topic is important to me and I couldn't pass the opportunity to bring some awareness to it in my little corner of the internet.

Wishing everyone on World Mental Health Day, happiness and hope!

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