Danielle Hark

@danielle-hark | contributor
Danielle Hark is a wellness writer, professional photographer and certified life coach whose work has been featured in The Huffington Post, Psychology Today, Dr. Oz’s YouBeauty, and Beliefnet, as well as various books. Danielle is a mental health advocate, and the founder and director of the non-profit Broken Light Collective, which empowers people living with or affected by mental illness using photography. For more information, visit www.DanielleHark.com, follow her on Instagram at daniellehark, and on Twitter @DanielleHark.
Danielle Hark

Through the Lens of the Photographer With Bipolar Disorder

As someone who has struggled with mental health challenges for much of my life, I have been through many types of treatments. I have taken countless medications, and I have been through both group and individual therapies. I have been hospitalized, and I have done magnetic and even shock therapy. There is value for some people in every kind of treatment, but for me, one of the most valuable tools has been photography. For me, photography is not only a form of self-expression but it is also a form of mindfulness. It helps me to be present in my body and in the current moment instead of lost in negative thoughts worrying about the past or the future. Photography helps me to be grounded in the now, and when you live with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses, it is easy to lose contact with the now. The following photographic images are from a series I created using multiple exposures that were combined to more closely capture my complex moods and visually represent my various mental health disorders and challenges, which include depression,anxiety, addiction, panic disorder with agoraphobia, borderline personality disorder (BPD) and elements of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention deficit disorder (ADD). These photo composites represent darkness and light, despair and hope and the various peaks and valleys of living with mental illness as captured through my bipolar lens. If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA ‘s hotline at 1-800-662-4357. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here. Image via contributor.

Danielle Hark

Letter to a Person Feeling Sad and Alone

Dear Self, If you are reading this, then you have fallen into that void of darkness once again. You’re feeling sad, anxious, scared, alone. You don’t understand what is happening or why. You are probably in bed right now not knowing when the last time you left the house was, or when you last showered or changed your clothes. Your thoughts are spiraling down a negative path, and your cheeks are stained with tears. Or even worse, you are numb to emotions. But listen to me… I know you’re feeling like a horrible wife/friend/daughter/human, but you’re doing the best you can right now, and your friends and family love you no matter how badly you feel. I know it’s hard to believe, but they do. If they don’t, they’re not worth your energy. Stop telling yourself you’re a bad mom. You’re not perfect, that’s for sure, but no one is. Your kids are beautiful, bright, and happy. They deserve to have you in their lives for many, many years. They love you. They need you. They are not better off without you. You are a worthy human being. You have helped countless other people struggling just as you are struggling right now. They have gotten through it, and you will too. I can vouch for that. Tell yourself what you tell others who are struggling… Bring yourself to the present moment. Use your senses. See the beauty in the world around you. Distract yourself. Watch a funny show. Create. Take photos. You love taking photos, even in your room. Meditate. Be around other people who empathize or care. There are people in your life who love you and want to support you. Let them be there. Use them for a nice conversation or even a silent hug. They won’t care what you look like or how shitty you feel. Your dog is good for that too. Use your online supports, like Broken Light Collective. Share your story and photos, or view those from others who have been there and are now in a better place. Do the opposite of whatever you want to do right now that is negative, which is probably pretty much everything. If your mind’s stuck in the darkness… find the light. Find something positive to focus on, no matter how small. If you want to hurt yourself… hug yourself. It doesn’t have to be an actual hug (I see you rolling your eyes), but find a way to do something caring for you. You may think that self-harmful behavior will make you feel better, but it will not in the long run. If nothing else, it will lead to more feelings of shame and guilt, which is pretty much the last thing you need right now. If you want to stay in bed all day… get your ass up. Take a walk. Bring your camera. Even a brief walk to the end of the block is a step in the right direction. Opposite action works. Above all, get help. Accept treatment. Don’t let shame hold you back. Screw shame. Screw labels. Screw all those who don’t get it. Do whatever you have to do to get back to the real you. She’s still in there. She’s worth it. Lastly, remember the positives… You are not your diagnoses. You are not bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder or any other diagnosis thrown your way. You are not your traumas. You are not anything that anyone has ever done to you. These conditions and experiences are not you. They are just a small part of you. You are so much more. You are a warrior. You are brave. You are creative, talented, smart, and capable. You are radiant, strong, and compassionate. You are beautiful at any size. You are loved. You will get through this. It may not be today or tomorrow, but you will get through this. Stay safe and believe. Things will get better. Love,Me If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 .

Danielle Hark

10 Ways to Support a Loved One in a Psychiatric Hospital

Sitting in a circle of weathered brown chairs in a psychiatric hospital, I looked around at the other patients, mothers, daughters, nurses, artists and survivors. It was a diverse group of women, each fighting her own battle toward healing and recovery. I had been a resident for several days. While I still struggled to adjust to life behind locked doors, I saw the new people enter, shaking, fear dripping from their tired eyes, so I forced a smile, introduced myself and let them know I’ve been there and it will be OK. I have been hospitalized several times to varying degrees due to my challenges with depression, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. It’s not easy to be suddenly thrust into a hospital setting. Movies and the media have led us to believe this is a terrible thing and should be avoided at all costs. People often envision scenes from movies like, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” with padded rooms and straitjackets. Movies like these portray psychiatric hospitals as scary places, reserved for those who are damaged, unfixable and extremely violent. When in fact, these portrayals are far from the truth. This treatment can be exactly what we need to heal or at least start us on a healing path. A hospital setting can provide a safe, controlled environment for treatment or monitoring. If someone needs medication adjustments, for example, then being in a hospital can allow doctors to make sure the medications are doing their job. They can more efficiently address any side effects. Being hospitalized is difficult for us as patients, but it can also be difficult for our friends and family. Those who love us are often unsure of what to do and how to help. The negative stigma associated with mental hospitals and psych wards can cause them to act in a different way than they would if their loved one was in a “regular” hospital. It can be a confusing time for everyone. Here are some easy ways to support a loved one who is receiving treatment: 1. Use encouraging language. First and foremost, make sure your loved one knows you are there for her no matter what, even if she tries to push you away. Be careful of your language and tone. You want your loved one to feel heard and understood, and not pitied or condescended. Try to steer clear of phrases like, “You’ll be fine,” “Snap out of it,” “It’s not a big deal,” “Chin up,” and the ever-popular, “Be positive.” Instead, let them know you hear them, their feelings are real and you care about them always. Perhaps the most important phrase of all is, “You’re not alone.” A psychiatric hospital can feel like a lonely place, even if there are a lot of people around. 2. Make them laugh. Don’t act like her illness is contagious or like she’s behind some sort of isolation bubble. She’s still the same person. That behavior can make someone feel worse or more misunderstood and alone. Treat it like a regular hospital visit if someone had a broken arm. You don’t need to talk about the broken arm the whole time. Talk about the silly things you would normally talk about. Talk about pop culture or a funny story or joke you heard. One of the best things you can do is make someone laugh or smile. 3. Know your visiting options. Be there, literally. Visit or arrange a time to video chat if permitted, but recognize she might not want visitors some days. She might not even want to talk. Respect her wishes. Treatment can be tiring. Let her know you would like to visit whenever it works for her, and she doesn’t need to put on a happy face or make any extra effort. You want to be with her as she is. Some people can feel embarrassed for others to see them in a hospital setting because of the stigma. Make sure she knows you will not judge her or think less of her. 4. Get creative. Create something for her. Make a music mix, a collage using personal pictures and inspirational words, or learn a song to play for her. Even a handwritten card or letter can feel special and personal. You can also opt to make a project together when you visit. This can actually be therapeutic for her and for you. Bring art supplies (minus scissors) and magazines to read. Then, rip them up and use them  to make a paper collage. You can also bring jewelry making supplies, such as stretchy string and beads. Adult coloring books can be fun and cathartic too. There are mandala coloring books, inspirational ones, nature, animals, or even humorous ones in which you can color curse words. There are coloring books for every personality type. 5. Play games. Bring a card game or board game to play with her if she’s up to it. Then, let her to hang onto it. She might be able to meet other people that way. Interactive games such as Pictionary, Charades, Apples to Apples and Mad Libs are fun and can break the ice with other patients. 6. Bring them comfort items. Something soft and comfortable can feel really nice, just ask Linus from Snoopy. You can opt for a lovely shawl, which she can wrap around herself to feel more secure, or a throw blanket. Those items can also make a sterile, white bed look a little “homier.” Pillows and stuffed animals can do this as well and be nice to hug when she is feeling sad or lonely. My favorite is the Anxiety Blob from Sweatpants and Coffee. I can’t hug my family, but I can hug my Anxiety Blob every day. 7. Bring them clothes. Clothing is an option, if you follow the rules. You definitely don’t want to include anything with belts or clothing with drawstrings. You might think cute PJs or a hoodie would be perfect, but if they have drawstrings, then they will likely get taken away. Comfortable clothing like yoga pants and layering tops are good options, or cozy socks and slippers. 8. Use sensory items. Sensory items can help ground people in the current moment, which can be especially challenging at a hospital. If you bring something to stimulate her senses it can help with grounding. You can bring herbal teas, which are warm and appealing to smell. You can also bring a nice smelling lotion or oil, especially one with a calming element such as lavender. You can bring something squishy for her to squeeze and manipulate in her hands, like a squish ball, clay or model magic, which won’t make her hands messy and may even be permitted in groups. You can bring something smooth that she can hold, rub or put in her pocket, like a small smooth stone. You can even write an inspiring word or phrase on it, like “hope,” “believe” or “You’ve got this.” Inspiring jewelry or meditation beads are nice because she can wear them, hold them or pocket them. You could even include a guided meditation or mantra. If food is allowed, then a yummy treat may hit the spot. Some hospitals have strict rules because of eating disorders, but if permitted, a favorite food or snack can be a nice refreshment. 9. Ask questions. Most important of all, ask what you can do to best support her. Ask open-ended questions, such as, “How can I support you? What can I do to help?” Otherwise, there’s a good chance you will end up with all “yes” or “no” answers. Ask these questions not just once, but throughout the experience, as her needs, likes and dislikes may change. It helps to be specific and suggest things you can do, since depressed brains can work a bit slower at times. “Can I help with laundry or housework? Can I walk your dog?” You can also ask questions to the nurses and care providers at the hospital. Your loved one will likely have a caseworker and psychiatrist who will head their team. They can only speak to you about the specifics of treatment if the patient has signed a waiver, but you can still get information about supporting your loved one. Many hospitals have packets of information geared toward family and friends. Some will even have support groups. 10. Be forgiving. A person in a psychiatric facility is going through something extremely challenging, or she would not be there. She may not be receptive to your attempts to connect. She may seem out of it, cold or downright nasty. This is about her and her process, not you. Accept her as she is in that moment, even if it’s hard for you. Even if she yells at you or pushes a well-intentioned gift back into your face. Forgive her, and forgive yourself. You didn’t do anything wrong. Keep supporting her and loving her anyway, unconditionally. As she heals, she will hopefully become more receptive and appreciate your efforts, but remember giving while someone is being hospitalized is about love and caring during hard times. It’s not about receiving, as much as you might want credit for your awesome act of creativity or sharing. Every person is different. Her likes and dislikes are different. Her needs are different. Be sensitive, and don’t give up on her, even if she is not responsive at times. Be patient. Also, be patient when she is released. It is a big adjustment going in, but it can also be a big adjustment getting out and getting back to “real life.” All of the tools in this article can be helpful for when a patient comes home as well. The world can seem like a loud, overwhelming place after you have been in a quiet space for an extended period of time. Don’t push her to do more than she is ready to do. Let her take things at her own pace. Lastly, pat yourself on the back. Supporting someone with mental illness can be challenging at times. What you are doing is an amazing gift to your loved one, even if she doesn’t appreciate it in the moment. Helping someone in treatment, even if it is just helping her feel heard or making her laugh, is important. You can affect the trajectory of her day and, ultimately, her healing process. So keep it up, and don’t give up! *Please note: These are just guidelines and tools to help communication with a loved one in a hospital. Every person and hospital is different, so please take these suggestions. Adjust them to your situation. Make sure to check with the hospital before sending or bringing gifts. To understand more of what your loved one and other people with mental illness experience through their own photography and words, please visit the nonprofit I founded, Broken Light Collective. Image via Thinkstock

Danielle Hark

The Secrets of a Girl With Bipolar Disorder

You have a secret. A secret you’ve been keeping for years, if not forever, from your family, your friends, your boss and maybe even yourself. A secret so secret if people knew, it might change your relationships. They might judge you. They might hate you. They might even fear you. You’re different. You’re weird. You’re sick. You’ve tried to change it, but it’s just who you are and you can’t keep it inside any more. You have bipolar disorder. Bipolar. Bi-polar. Manic Depressive. It doesn’t get easier the more you say it. You try to use “mood disorder” or “depressed” instead because you think it will have less stigma, but you know the truth. At the moment of diagnosis, you went from being that person — the eccentric-but-sometimes-sad creative — to that person: the “crazy” one. You’re unpredictable. You’re freakish. You’re scary. Pretty little cocktails of yellow, pink and blue pills abound. One to bring you up, one to take you down, one to keep you in the middle. One to wake you and one to put you to sleep, because you sure as hell can’t sleep right. Sometimes you stay up all night shopping online, taking photos or writing for hours on end, creative energy and ideas pulsing through your revved body and mind, and it feels great. Until it doesn’t. Enter the inevitable crash. You’re suddenly knocked over by a massive wave of sadness, isolation, self-loathing and hopelessness. You’re left on the floor of the shower trying to breathe through your tears. Sweating, trembling, heart palpitating. You stop answering your phone, and eventually it stops ringing. Your friends are no longer your friends, except for those select few who won’t let you push them away no matter how hard you try. Your family is tired of dealing with it all, and you can’t blame them. You stop going out. You stop taking care of yourself. Can you even remember when you last showered? Soon you’re stuck in your room. Your computer and your TV are your only true friends, an ever-present distraction from reality. You Facebook. You tweet. You blog. Pretending all the while that you’re doing great. You smile for pictures, if you can remember how to smile. Or you use old pictures from times when you were thinner and happier, at least in appearance. If your Facebook world doesn’t know, perhaps it isn’t real. That’s the biggest closet of all these days. Perhaps you are still the smiling go-getter everyone else sees and thinks you are. Perhaps this bipolar thing is temporary or a joke. But you’re not laughing. Things deteriorate. Not leaving the house turns into “a thing.” Anxiety, panic attacks, the whole deal. You stop working. You start making bad decisions and staying up through the night again. You’re erratic. Impulsive. Possibly even hallucinating or delusional. Are you really being followed? You stop driving. You stop taking the train. You stop caring about anything and everything. You start to think everyone would be better off without you. You feel broken and unfixable, so why go through it all? Why? Things are hopeless. You begin to feel numb or dead inside, so you drink or take drugs, or hurt yourself just to feel something. You think you deserve to be scarred or bruised on the outside to match your damaged insides. You contemplate the ways in which you might find release from the torment of this life. Then you see your perfect little daughter, your partner, your mother or your friend, and you remember you are not alone. You think of how much your actions affect others. You start to feel guilty for even having the thoughts, which only makes you feel worse. Frustration. Anger. Guilt. Shame. Sadness. Repeat… Frustration. Anger. Guilt. Shame. Sadness. Repeat… Then comes the psychoanalysis and everything else they throw at you — dietary changes, magnetic and shock therapy, hospitalizations, more meds… You see modest if any results. You’re ready to throw in the towel, until one day something happens — you’re listening to Pandora while feeding your kid or walking the dog, when Sam Cooke comes on and sings to you… “It’s been too hard living but I’m afraid to die, ’cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky. It’s been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.” You feel a shift, and realize you can choose to live. Or at least try. It’s not easy. You’ve been flooded by emotional ups and downs, crying and then laughing maniacally, throwing things, feeling totally out of control. But in this moment, you finally realize that a change might possibly come. Not today, but some day. You were not given a death sentence. You can find a way to own your recovery, stop ignoring advice and stop hiding in that damn closet — take your meds, see your doctors and be more self-aware — you can actually take some control, and start moving in a positive direction. One baby step at a time. You look around you at the shambles that your life has become, and you see that there are still a few people in your life that find you worth fighting for, and that perhaps you should fight through this for them, and maybe one day you will even do it for yourself. You are strong. You are capable. You are talented. You are worthy of a life worth living. A change will come. So you get your butt out of bed and make a sandwich. It’s a start. – – – Please note: This account of bipolar disorder does not represent everyone’s experience with bipolar. Every experience of mental illness is different, and in many cases more than one illness can coexist. This piece, while primarily about bipolar disorder, also contains elements of borderline personality disorder, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. To join Danielle in the fight to raise mental illness awareness and eradicate stigma, visit Broken Light Collective. Together, we will make the change come! A version of this piece originally appeared on Huffington Post. If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world. The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.