The Self-Portraits That Show What My 'Invisible' Illnesses Feel Like

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Why do I always say “fine” or “good” when asked, “How are you?”

Why would I muster up a smile on the bad days when I feel like crying? Why would someone who prides herself on being a morally upright and honest person deliberately lie so often?

Because, if I was to really explain to people how I truthfully feel on the bad days, they would be shocked. They probably wouldn’t even be able to believe it if I was to show them that the girl they think is always bright and bubbly, put together and strong, is actually feeling battered and bruised, to drop the mask and let them see the tear-stained face and quivering lips that often appear behind closed doors.

Those who do not experience depression, anxiety, or chronic pain do not understand the daily challenge of simply acting normal. Most try their very best to empathize (like my amazing husband) and be kind, but there are some who seem irritated or uncomfortable if you express painful and deep emotion – I like to hope this is because they do not know how to react or what to say. Personally, I am so thankful many of my friends and acquaintances do not understand because I hate the thought of others living life with this challenge, especially those whom I care deeply about.

If only there was a way we could make the invisible visible, to help others to see without them experiencing the pain themselves.

Up until last year, I was a professional photographer. It was not just my career, it had been my passion too. To be able to capture memories and emotions for others was rewarding, to see their surprise and joy when they received their images was heartwarming. There is something beautiful and haunting about the way the camera can capture feeling, the magic of emotion.

Today I wanted to do something a little different to what I would have done for a client – a project that wasn’t about joy and wouldn’t be heartwarming. This collection of images would be about understanding, to show what it looks like when the inside is displayed on the outside. I set about taking a series of self-portraits that showed how I sometimes feel, the overwhelming emotions I wish I could express if I could guarantee the person I was sharing them with wouldn’t be upset or judgmental of them.

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Images that show what it feels like to suffer from mental illness. Bringing the inside to the outside.

Tearful.

Overwrought and exhausted. The tears come without sobs, just silently spilling out, trying to ease the pressure inside. There are times these quiet messengers continue to seep out for hours after the worst is over.

Images that show what it feels like to suffer from mental illness. Bringing the inside to the outside.

Battered.

The hurt inside is so vivid, like a darkening bruise or the redness and smeared makeup from trying to dash away the tears. The thoughts swirling in your mind assault you and cause scars that will take years to heal, if at all.

Images that show what it feels like to suffer from mental illness. Bringing the inside to the outside.

Ashamed and silenced.

Avert your eyes, close them, hide what you feel.

Silent for fear of judgment or criticism, of not being believed, or for contaminating someone with your pain.

Afraid. The hope you cling too seems to slip away on these bad days when everything is crashing around you. Unsure which way is up and which way is down. Heart racing and head spinning, unsure if things will ever be “normal” again.

Images that show what it feels like to suffer from mental illness. Bringing the inside to the outside.

Alone.

The emptiness is consuming. The loneliness clutches at the heart like a trap, holding on tight, making it bleed, threatening to stop it beating. The tightness in the chest is painful and numb at the same time. Scared you will never shake off this feeling of isolation and pain, that you will never feel whole.

I wonder what those people would say if they could see the inside on the outside like this. Would they try to be more empathetic and understanding, maybe ashamed or sorry for the times they thoughtlessly commented things like, “You just need to think positive,” “It will be OK in the end, just don’t worry so much,” or “Pray more,” and left it at that, suggesting they were thinking that someone’s ailing mental health was all a little dramatic to be believed?

The problem and the blessing with having a so called invisible illness is that to most people the symptoms are impossible to see. If we did wear our emotional pain on the surface, chances are those of us with these conditions would never leave the house – so ashamed of our “disfigured” bodies that we would hide away from others eyes.

I am thankful my art can be used show how it can feel, to maybe help others to understand in some small way what those of us with mental illness can experience. My photography can be helpful in giving me a creative outlet for the emotional deluge. But even more so, I am grateful I can mostly choose to camouflage my distress – make my mouth smile and my lips tell the little white lie of “I am fine, thank you.”

Follow this journey on The Art of Broken

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Tables Turned: How My Mental Illness Helped Me Take Care of My Partner

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In the beginning of my relationship, my girlfriend was unlike anyone I had ever met. She was unrelentingly kind and empathetic. As we began our journey, I had a strong wall up to protect myself and more importantly protect her. To avoid any misunderstandings, I was quite adamant she know I have a mental illnesses, specifically rapid cycling bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

I knew she was special when I had my first panic attack in front of her. I was dizzy, disoriented and desperate to leave the shopping mall we were in. She immediately put back everything she was carrying, guided me by the arm to my car and drove me home, no questions asked. Her clear-headed approach, in combination with her empathy, made her my other half.

However, little did I know I would soon be in that very same role. After dating for some months, my girlfriend began to experience insomnia, crying uncontrollably and unable to concentrate at all. Recognizing something was amiss, her good friend suggested she see a medical professional. I came along for support and sat in the waiting room at her request. She was prescribed an antidepressant.

Devastated I had not seen the warning signs of her spiral, I was determined to be vigilant in reminding her to take her medicine, taking her to the gym with me and anything else I could think of or Google to help her. I had taken on the role of caregiver for a moment. She had cared for me in moments I did not think I was worthy enough to be alive, and I would be the rock she needed. While I was not the “perfect” partner she needed, she knew I had been in that place before. That dark place we all know too well, devoid of any stimulus, save for our racing thoughts and deepest fears lying to us. I had battled it since I was a teenager as part of my cycles. I helped her navigate the ins and outs of the doctors, medicines and the treatment plan her medical professionals outlined for her.

There are days we struggle with depression. Her “good” day might be my “bad” day, or vice versa. Showing your love can be as simple as showing up. Show up to that doctor appointment, show up with takeout when we are too tired or in pain to cook or show up with an open heart and mind. Her example of loving someone through the crying jags, mania, anxiety attacks and unpredictability allowed me to use her as inspiration so I could help her too. Love is sometimes simply being there.

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Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from the author’s partner.

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What Two Bags of Potato Chips Taught Me About Mental Illness Recovery

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Recovery is a journey. Yet, no map or compass is provided to aid in this journey. I alone each morning have to figure out the steps I will be taking that day. I have to decide on the supplies I’d like to carry with me as I’m trekking and leave the unnecessary behind.

Setbacks happen, because logic. And sometimes those missteps are overwhelming and affect my ability to see how far I’ve come on my journey. Setbacks make me believe I am at the starting point all over again. They make me believe fighting isn’t worth it, that my effort in holding on is futile. I forget I am so much less suicidal today than I was six months ago. I forget, when I am feeling suicidal, that I am so much stronger now in fighting those thoughts. I forget I used to be in the ER every other night for anxiety and severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. I forget. I forget. I forget.

And when setbacks are overwhelming, all I want to do is curl up in a ball, stay in bed and just cry until my tears run dry. And sometimes, I do just that. Like yesterday. I was depressed and angry at myself that my schedule became messed up again. I’ve worked hard to keep a schedule, and I’m trying to adjust to my meds. And yesterday, sleep wouldn’t come and at that moment, that meant my hard work was pointless.

I stayed in bed all day, ate two family-sized bags of potato chips, didn’t shower or brush my teeth and delayed my medication intake by a few hours. Not good. Not good. Not good.

I woke up this morning feeling horrible. I figured I might as well stay in bed another day and have another bag of potato chips. As I was debating the idea, I remembered how far I’ve come in my journey and the small successes I’ve celebrated each day. I remembered my old self and the newer one who incorporates coping skills to the best of her ability. I remembered the warrior in me, the obstacle fighter, the mountain climber, the untrodden path hiker. Real hikers pause their journey too sometimes. They set up their tents for the night and resume when they feel recharged. I must not let my bad choices of yesterday influence my choices of today. I will accept my yesterday because it’s part of my recovery. It is a part of my journey; my life.

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One day I will tell the world how two bags of potato chips made me realize that setbacks are OK and I can fight again tomorrow.

I ain’t giving up that easy. My journey is important to me, setbacks and all. And I am slowly learning to make new and better choices each day.

Follow this journey on Tea or Lemonade.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Why Being Honest About My Mental Illness Was So Important

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There is power in being honest. Take it from someone who spent decades keeping her mouth shut. There is a glorious joy in not being ashamed of who you are.

I’m not just talking about telling the truth when someone asks – which should be the human default but usually isn’t – but in starting the conversation. Talking about something just because the words need to be birthed and sent out into space.

In a world where speaking the truth will get you killed in some countries, I spent decades silent and alone because I chose to. Well, that’s not really fair. Depression, anxiety, and later, complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are not choices. They were (and still are from time to time) a very real prison. Well, maybe more like a prison guard, who stands over you with a blackjack. Any attempt to speak – or even stand up – is greeted with a swat to the extremities, and down you go again.

Eventually, you stop trying.

When I was finally let out – through a combination of medication, therapy, and some miracle of God — I read a lot. The Mighty. To Write Love on Her Arms#ImNotAshamed. I loved reading the honest stories of people who had struggled — or were still struggling — yet faced their pain like heroes.

And the more I read, the more I felt like it was OK to talk about my condition to my friends. And the more I talked about it, the more empowered I felt. Most of my friends didn’t care either way, and some of them became more understanding of my sudden disappearances during a panic attack.

Like most people, I like lists. Driving into work today I came up with four reasons why being honest about my mental health issues has changed my life.

During the decades I spent trying to be a “good girl” and fit in, I didn’t let people see the real me, which resulted in being lonely all the time. Every day. Now I’m honest about who I am, and while a middle-aged woman who’s obsessed with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and quotes Nietzsche still isn’t going to be prom queen, there’s at least the possibility that I might run into someone looking for nerdish companionship.

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Being honest is a virtuous act. And philosophically, I believe that virtue is its own reward. Every intrinsically good action we take changes us for the better. Lying about who I am is wrong, and that includes saying I’m OK when I’m not.

I can help people. I can show them how empowering it is to speak up. Even if they can’t speak up for themselves, maybe they’ll find comfort in hearing someone else’s story. I did.

For some reason, the simple act of speaking truth makes me feel like a combination of Xena Warrior Princess and Joan of Arc. In being brave, I realize I can be brave, which makes me do even more brave things, which makes me feel stronger. And feeling like you can take on the world after years of lying on the floor at the mercy of a blackjack is indescribable.

It’s like escaping prison.

Follow this journey on www.christinekillmer.com.

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The Ways My Animals Help Me Face Mental Illness

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There are times when I am too tired to get dressed, too melancholy to bother to eat nutritional food, or to anxious to care about anything because I’m caring about everything. These times are exhausting, and life tends to slip through the cracks when I am experiencing these feelings.

But there is something that is always guaranteed to drag me from the couch and into the great outdoors – my animals.

Our dog, Darby, my dear sweet fur daughter, will make me feel guilty and frustrated with her boundless energy if I don’t at least take her out for a short walk. Her boundless energy can be infectious. She is my constant companion, and on the bad days, her intuitive ability is at its finest. She will be my shadow, sitting silently at my side or at my feet, lying on or under the bed if I haven’t managed to get up. Seeing her bright eyes looking up at me with concern helps me to push on when things seem to be too hard to handle.

Then there are my dear cows, Daisy, Budda-Bing, Cow, and Mavis. They are my playful and affectionate visitors who often drop in unannounced. They come up from the paddock and proceed to sniff around the house and bellow until I come out to them with carrots or apples. They like to be fed by hand, be petted while they eat, and they are always appreciative. They don’t care if I am still in my pajamas, if my hair is unwashed and unbrushed, or if my breath stinks. If I don’t answer their call, Daisy will bring it upon herself to tap on the cement at the front door, like a knock. She is determined that she must be rewarded for her lengthy journey up the hill.

Images Copyright: Kat and Steve Smith | ks-photography.com.au

Our chickens are tame too. While they don’t eat from my hand like the cows do, they will stand right at my feet and demand their food by pecking at my toes mercilessly. And when they bring their tiny, fluffy, cute little chickens home from their bush nests, it brings a warmth and joy to my heart.

And last but not least is Brewe, our Merino sheep. He was left here a year or so ago when the rest of his flock was moved on and has made himself part of the family. He amuses me so with his standoffish nature, which obviously wars with his natural curiosity. When the MooKids come for their visits, he comes too. I bleat at him, and he comes closer, until he is close enough to see I am not a girl sheep — but simply a girl — at which time he huffs and walks away. There is much to be said for the humor he brings to my life, although he would be likely unaware of it!

Some assume that animals are not intelligent creatures, but I would disagree. They have much more simple lives than us, but they are still complex in their ability to nurture our very own souls. They make me see joy, they make me laugh at their amusing antics, they warm my heart when it feels cold and numb. Their playfulness and the gentle understanding they seem to have makes me smile; they are so pure in their affection, wanting nothing more than a pat and a meal.

People assume that these animals rely on me, that they need me for their care, but the truth is far from that. I need them.

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What It's Like When You Can't Separate Your Mental Illness Diagnoses

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I have four, count ‘em, four diagnosed mental illnesses. I struggle daily with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, with heaping spoonfuls of borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder. It’s definitely a lot to handle. I’ve been seeking professional mental health help for 10 years now, although I could have definitely benefited had I started earlier… maybe when I was 13 or so. I’m 28 now and just got my most recent diagnosis of bipolar.

The Mighty is my group therapy session. I can pick and choose which illness I want to hear about today, all without having to contribute my own feelings and emotions to a group of strangers who may or may not judge me. Today I have to courage to share what it’s like having four diagnoses.

Every day, I hungrily lap up the latest Mighty article that relates to me that finds itself in my Facebook newsfeed. It’s so relieving to read someone else’s words and feel as if I’d penned them myself; it’s truly cathartic. I’ve always wanted to extend myself in that way, and The Mighty even prompts me on Facebook with questions like: “If you struggle with bipolar disorder, how would you describe it to someone who doesn’t understand?”

That’s where I get hung up. Which is the bipolar again? Is that the one that makes me want to sleep all the time or the one that makes me fear abandonment? I struggle with trying to put into words what it’s exactly like living with each disorder; all I know is how I struggle with the collective of disorders.

The good news is, living with a mental illness, or two, or more, isn’t living in box. Your emotions and experiences and perceptions are uniquely yours. Certain aspects of a mental illness may align with the way you think, behave or otherwise live, and that’s OK. That’s where diagnoses come in and lead you to the proper people for the appropriate help.

And a lot of people without mental illness don’t understand or even stigmatize mental illness. And that’s OK too because generally, people fear what they don’t know or understand. We have the power to educate others about mental illness, or, if you’re like me, find the proper resources to educate them when the words aren’t forthcoming.

That’s why I have to thank all of you for speaking out, writing it down, sharing it with the “group.” Because without other people who have had similar experiences, we wouldn’t continue to learn about our conditions, grow, be able to educate others, or find solace.

So keep on fighting, sharing, caring, and asking. We, as a community, deserve to have our voices heard, no matter how small of insignificant you feel. Because somewhere, someone is finding strength in your words.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

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