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Why Taking Photos of Myself Helps Me Cope With My Illness

When’s the last time you took a selfie? Taking photos of ourselves is reflexive. We photograph medical procedures and fun moments with friends alike; we slap pictures on every account from Uber to Snapchat.

However, this is something I struggled with when I became seriously ill.

Oddly enough, my family took the first photo ever of me when I was sick. Among my childhood pictures, there are some images of me when I had scarlet fever. The first few are unremarkable; they’re simply photos of a kid doing her school play (Yes, I did a play while I had scarlet fever. Yes, the adults knew about it. I could probably write another article about that decision — needless to say, I should have been kept at home — but my mom had been given some bad information, the teachers didn’t turn me away, and since I was 7, it was not my call.

young girl lying in bed crying

In one image, however, I’m obviously sick. My lips are bright red, my eyes are barely open, and I appear to be crying. I don’t remember that specific moment — scarlet fever was a painful blur. I spent most of my time asleep, with my dog Cindy curled up at my side. It was less than a year after I’d had Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and I was secretly terrified that I’d land in the hospital again.

Why would someone in my family have taken a photo of me when I was half awake and in visible pain? I don’t know. I don’t even remember being photographed. However, it served a purpose: it truthfully documented a specific moment in time. It wasn’t a nice photo, but it was an honest one. At my school play, I’d done a very good job of pretending I was well. Here, the mask was off.

The image was quietly taken and put away. My mom didn’t put it on her desk at work; it wasn’t reproduced on the family Christmas card or framed for posterity. It didn’t even make it into the photo album; it was relegated to the box of extraneous pictures. I recovered from scarlet fever and life went on.

There were many more photos taken during my childhood; there were very few taken during my late teens and early 20s. Once it was left to me, I simply neglected to get photos of myself most of the time. I traveled the world and went through entire countries without ever taking a single photo of myself. There are, however, thousands of photos of buildings, works of art, neon signs, pets, landscapes and other people. I did a great job of documenting everyone and everything but Denise.

Eventually I realized I wanted to be included in the photographic record, too. I began pointing my phone at my face; putting my camera on auto-timer and scurrying over to get in the frame, and asking others to take photos for me. When my health took its drastic turn for the worse, however, I once again stopped photographing myself. This time, it was completely deliberate. When I did take a few pictures, there was so much backlash that I regretted it.

However, my friends kept taking pictures of everything — and that included me. And as I spent more time with them, I realized they were documenting honest moments in time, just as my family had when they took my scarlet fever photo. Being ill was part of my reality. All my photos didn’t have to be great. I had the right to evade the camera, but would I regret that later? I started taking selfies of myself and jumping in group photos again.

As time went on and I returned to my pre-illness comfort level with photographs, I discovered they served two new purposes for me:

Documentation: tracking healing of surgical sites, the progress of unusual features, or new problems that have physical manifestations. These photos and videos can be really helpful for my doctors if they show specific symptoms or problems.

Amusement: I have to wait for doctors on a regular basis, and I kill time by noting what’s in their exam rooms. I’ve become intrigued with the anatomy models that are often on the counters; I not only study them and play with the moving parts, but photograph myself with them for fun. They’re there for “patient education,” after all, and it’s hard to ignore big plastic brains and hearts when they’re right in front of you.

As a result, I have documentation of my continuing journey. Others may see it as narcissistic, or attention-seeking, or what have you. They don’t have to like it. As long as the images mean something to me, it’s all good.

Like my second-grade photo, most of these images never see the light of day. I ensure that nothing is uploaded to the cloud. Every now and then I do share one of the amusing anatomy model photos to a very select audience on social media, but I’m not yet comfortable enough to post the “real” medical images, for the most part. When I do choose to share one, it’s on a very tight filter. Most of my friends on social media only see me smiling.

Take the photo. It’s what I continually tell myself. I can always delete something if I really don’t like it; I can always choose not to share. However, if I’ve never taken the photo to begin with, my choices are gone.

So I take the photos. I document myself when I’m crying, when I’m in pain, when I’m in stark doctors’ offices. I let my cameras capture the surgical suites and surgical sites on my body and the sunlight in the hallway of the medical building; I document progress and regression. I might never share 99 percent of these pictures, but I have a record of where I’ve been. It’s not always pretty; it’s not always nice. But it’s there.