I am the photographer who initiated the Celebrating Resilience project. It all began with sharing my own story as I struggled with anxiety and depression before finding help. I found healing through opening up and telling people about my experience, but also found most people identified with parts of it and were more willing to open up about their own journey.
I hope this project helps us better connect as a community and be more open about sharing our struggles. Openness with ourselves and others is the first step to creating change.
What does this portrait help you celebrate?
It helps me celebrate the balance I have achieved in living with anxiety and depression. The darkness will always be there - there is no cure - but with the education I have acquired for myself in how to live with awareness of it, and the major life changes I implemented for myself, I feel confident that the darkness will not take over the light.
Tell us about your history with mental health challenges. How did your symptoms manifest, and how did that affect your life?
Until a few years ago, I was a mathematician. Today I am an artist. Here is how that happened:
I have a Master’s in Applied Mathematics, and I was working for the government - solid 9-5 job, great salary, four weeks vacation, all the benefits, wonderful boyfriend, homeowner, two cars, two dogs, decent health, good family. Yet more and more often, I found myself driving home from work, blasting the music and singing obnoxiously off-key, enjoying the beautiful scenery as I approached home in Ladner - only to suddenly explode in tears, out of the blue, for no apparent reason. Just a hit of intense sadness that I had less and less control over with time. This is what my depression looks like.
You know how sometimes you see a person jaywalking, and for a split second you have that gut wrenching thought that the car around the corner might hit them. Actually, in that same split second, your brain puts together a full feature visualization of the car hitting the person, complete with a series of horrible images of mangled body and gore. Later in the day you are sitting at home enjoying a nice cold one watching random Netflix, and suddenly a similar scenario plays itself out in an instant, your brain not giving you a chance to turn it off, but this time it is your partner and your dogs mangled and dead in the street; ambulance approaching but they are too late.
This is what my anxiety looks like. (Although the theme of the thoughts can change from car accidents to something else over time.)
Combined, the depression and anxiety left me exhausted - physically I had no energy to do anything around the house. I didn’t want to socialize. I called into work sick multiple times out of fear that I’d burst out crying in front of everyone - I had already had to run to the bathroom multiple times to have my crying in private. It affected my relationship with my partner big time - neither of us knew what was going on and felt helpless to change things.
What steps did you take to create change in your life?
I finally went to see my doctor about this - I felt like it was overtaking my life completely. After having myself a big cry in her office, she immediately diagnosed me with severe anxiety and severe depression. This was the FIRST time it occurred to me that *I* could be depressed. It made no sense - on paper, my life was perfect! Yet here I was, slowly falling apart. But now I knew, and that meant I could do something about it.
I started medication immediately - for me, this was a huge help in giving me the headspace to make all the other changes I needed to make. It slowed down all those negative thoughts enough to let me think.
I saw a few psychologists and counsellors until I found the one that was a good fit for me. I wanted to give up after meeting some not-so-great ones, but I’m glad I kept looking. I took a Level 2 first aid course to learn all that first aid accident stuff - that actually helped with the anxiety thoughts by changing the scenario from death and gore to minor injuries I could manage on-scene. I went on an intensive therapy retreat. I took part in a cognitive behavioural therapy group therapy study. I quit my job, which was a big contributor to my stress levels - I grew up being the best student in the class, always looking to excel at everything, feeling worthless when I didn’t, and being good in science meant I HAD to be a big fancy biostatistician.
No more. My wonderful father-in-law gave me a fancy DSLR for Christmas around this time, after I shared with him I am on a quest to change careers to pursue something I’m passionate about. I had told him about my love for photography in the past, and he went and made that a reality for me again. A few months after, as he was slowly leaving this world due to cancer, my last conversation with him was my promise to stick to my newly found passion and become a photographer full time.
It took a couple of years of hard work to get myself out of the deep hole I was in. And now that I am much better, I live with more awareness. The anxiety and depression creep in now and then - but I recognize them coming, I take a step back and don’t let them take control of my life. I use those moments as inspiration to create some of my fine art works.
Was there an “a-ha” moment that helped you take charge and create change for yourself?
My first such moment was when I was sharing how I was feeling with a close friend, and he opened up and told me that he had struggled with similar issues as well. He shared how dark things got for him, and promised me that it does get better. Somehow, in that moment, the way he said it - I chose to just believe him. Even though I wasn’t able to picture things getting better - I took his word for it and kept going with my psychologist and with my plans to change careers.
Another a-ha moment was one of the first meetings I had with my psychologist. She asked me a simple question - she said that now I am depressed, OK, but can I tell her about a time when I was happy - what did that look like? I was stumped - I couldn’t remember a single instance. It really spoke to me about how much depression clouds our reality. This was the start of my Celebrate Yourself portrait concept - helping people photograph their strength, so they can literally have a picture to refer back to when they are going through a hard time and can’t remember.
What are some of your coping tools to deal with your anxiety?
Mindfulness is a huge one. Knowing that your problems will not be fixed in the next hour - why not take that hour and do something totally unrelated. For me, it’s creating art. While I do that, my brain gets to focus on the task at hand, thereby letting go of the negative thoughts. This gives my brain the much needed break to shake off the anxiety.
Another coping strategy is something I do in the afternoon - that’s when I usually start feeling like I haven’t done enough today to build up my business, or whatever nagging thoughts I have going on at the time. So, I take an hour and put away the clean dishes from the dishwasher, load it up with the dirty ones, etc.. This way I am not only giving my brain a break from the thinking by focusing on some simple tasks, but I also end up feeling accomplished because I’ve cleaned the house up a bit!
Finally, my dogs. I just let myself play with the dogs, on the floor, becoming one of them. It probably looks ridiculous if anyone were to walk in, but I don’t care. It calms me down and makes me laugh.
What advice would you give someone that is currently having a hard time with anxiety and/or depression?
Don’t be afraid to talk to someone who has had experience with this. Ideally, speak with your doctor about it, but if they are not much help - don’t give up - find another healthcare professional to talk to. Find a counsellor or psychologist who will listen and be helpful. They can help you devise coping strategies to take the load off, alongside a long-term plan to change things for you. Everyone’s experience with mental health challenges is unique - having someone on your side can be a great help! The journey may be tough, but take my word for it - it can get better.