What Mental Illness Feels Like—Images & Stories
What follows is an abbreviated version of the exhibit held in May 2018 in St. Cloud, Minnesota at Gallery St. Germain. The original exhibit was partially funded by Central Minnesota Arts Board, thanks to funds provided by the McKnight Foundation.
What's this project about?
The goal of this project, "What Mental Illness Feels Like—Images & Stories", is to create a connection with the viewer through photography and storytelling, decrease stigma and increase awareness of mental illness; and, ultimately, to humanize it.
The first phase of the project involved an art exhibit. Due to the wonderful response to that, in the works is a book that will include the interviews conducted for the original project/exhibit, plus more interviews and photographs that are currently in progress. The goal is to have a book put together and released in 2020.
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I am interviewing people living with mental illness and asking them what their mental illness feels like to them (plus some other questions, too). I then interpret their response through creating a visual analogy photograph. Each person’s story is included. I've also created portraits for some of the people interviewed.
Interested in displaying the exhibit?
EXCERPTS FROM THE PROJECT
Below are snippets from some of the interviews. Portraits are included for many, but it wasn't anything I required to be a part of this. In fact one person used a different name to help preserve their anonymity. There are also visual analogy photographs that I created for each person, reflecting my creative interpretation to the answer to “what does your mental illness feel like?”
Bella, age 12
“We are all different. Different maladies. Different things that go right and wrong, but you always have to try to understand others, because maybe one day it might happen to you.”
How does Bella's mental illness feel? “Kind of like static or moving pixels. A sense of strangeness or something wrong. Like fuzzy and confusing, nothing seems real. I go to my own mind and sometimes get trapped there.” She says one of the hardest things to explain is when it feels like something or someone is out to get her, even though no one is.
Gary, age 66
On a bad day, especially in the past, Gary described his mental illness as “feeling like a constant storm over him, with impending death and disaster, always looking for the worst” in situations he faced.
His advice to others living with mental illness is to “look ahead, go forward not backwards, there is life ahead. Do your medication. Don't stop because you think you're cured. Find someone to talk to that you can 'get your ya-yas out.’”
To those unfamiliar with mental illness, Gary says “people that have mental illness, there's a difference between mental illness and retardation. There' s a difference. The more you pick on a person with a mental illness, the more they put themselves down. We're human, too.”
Karen, age 44
For Karen, living with mental illness is a constant struggle. She’s been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, anxiety, a depressive disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder with hoarding. She describes her mental illness as feeling like “a constant problem. I can't help the way I feel, and that's confusing.”
Richard, age 65
An Ivy League graduate, married, and by age 30 Richard's life took an unexpected path when he had what was then called a psychotic break. He was hearing and reinterpreting things, like thinking the sound of the refrigerator running meant something, or what a person was saying wasn't what Richard actually heard. Sometimes the meanings were reinterpreted positively; on a bad day, negatively. He was eventually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder with bipolar. Today, at times, he still struggles. When delusions occur, everything seems as real to him as to you. Imagine the frustration?
When asked what his mental illness feels like to him, he said, “The color red. Red for love. And red for anger.” There is a duality to his life. And just like red represents two very different emotions, it also serves as an analogy for Richard's experiences.
Tammy, age 38
Tammy said, “I don't let anyone behind the wall, even those closest to me.” Yet this fascinating interview with Tammy gave me a glimpse of her life, even though I only saw the public side of that metaphorical wall. Tammy lives with depression, anxiety, dissociative disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder), and schizoaffective disorder, as well as a traumatic brain injury (likely caused by Tammy banging her head out of frustration). She endured a series of sexual abuses, by men she knew, starting at age five. Her step-father was verbally and mentally abusive as well. Life worsened for her after another molestation at sixteen.
Tammy feels that she didn't make any real progress in life until she began her relationship with her partner. Her emotional support helps keep Tammy on the straight and narrow. Tammy also takes her meds regularly, has social support, and sees a counselor. She also expresses herself beautifully through poetry.
Tammy wants you to understand that, “I may look fine on the outside, but inside I feel like I melted and died.” Also, “Not everything you see or hear about mental illness is true. How mental illness is misjudged. People think they know everything about it, and that's not true.”
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