— “What It Looks Like” is an ongoing photographic exploration into the stories of individuals who have experienced depression, anxiety, grief, mood disorders, or any other mental illness. This project aims to share awareness, end stigma, and create dialogue and open communication around mental health. Instead of asking what it feels like, I’ve asked each person ‘What does it look like?’ —
“I had to realize that it wasn’t possible to chase ‘better’, that it wasn’t a race to finish”
Today is World Mental Health Day and I thought that it would be the best time to add my own story to the ongoing “What It Looks Like” series. I started this project to connect people who may experience similar emotions, struggles, or illness through visuals that may make it easier to understand or feel supported.
Last year I acknowledged in myself my struggles for the first time and while it was scary and fueled my anxiety for a short time, I realized that there was a huge breath of empowerment, understanding, and healing in being open. Some people questioned or worried about being so open with mental health struggles but for me, I saw the benefit in my openness. It connected me with people who understood, who supported and shared and it helped me shake the idea that something was WRONG with me and learned that something was just DIFFERENT with me.
What It Looks Like – When I’m Anxious
Anxiety was never something that I assumed I was experiencing, I’d come up with a lot of terms that would describe it instead. I was stressed, scattered, nervous, tired, having trouble sleeping. There were a lot of other things that I could tag to my fast heart rate, my thoughts fixated on every single conversation I’d had over the past months, my sleepless nights. It wasn’t until I read an article about anxiety that I realised that it was exactly what was going on in my head.
High functioning anxiety is almost as invisible as you want it to be. Before I’d realised and had myself diagnosed I assumed anxiety looked like rapid breathing into a paper bag or sweating or bursts of uncontrollable shaking. But it wasn’t and it hasn’t ever been those things in me. My anxiety shows itself silently, almost like a ghost softly entering my mind. I withdraw, I become almost a robot on the outside so that nothing looks different but my eyes glaze over and all of a sudden I’m in a labyrinth of thoughts that I can’t find my way out of. It lasts hours, sometimes days, where I fixate on a sentence someone said last week, or an email I forgot to write, or if I’m being my best self. It’s a never ending maze.
When I sat down to brainstorm ideas for how I wanted to portray it in this series I was feeling particularly anxious, stressed about an international move, planning a few months of travel, balancing myself with everything. My anxiety lately seems to be in the form of questions, I question everything, again and again in my mind. I panic about what I can’t find the answers to and I have to move through each question like bubble wrap, popping each worry as I can find the answer to it. I get exhausted and worry that people are upset that I’m withdrawn and distracted, I feel like I have to apologise for not being myself, even though this is be being myself.
Anxiety to me looks like a big black moving question mark, it grows and it drifts, it both follows me and presents itself in front of me at the worst of times. It looks like a thundercloud, heavy and dense and energetic. It looks like birds, fast moving and frantic, swooping in and out of my mind as swiftly as it can.
What It Feels Like – Better
I’ve learned over the course of the last year or so that acknowledging my struggles both to myself and to others is the first step in getting better. When I would try to hide what I was going through it made it so much harder, it was like carrying a backpack filled with rocks and telling everyone else that it wasn’t that heavy. When I started to let people know when I was struggling, it was a relief and it felt like they were helping take some of the rocks out of my backpack.
I would say that I feel anxious every day, some days it’s light and I can distract myself quickly by television or coffee or running, some days I feel electric with anxiety, I feel that I am being spun and can’t see clearly, but I know how to cope now. I know that I need to be alone or with people that will let me just sit in silence, I know that I need to be outdoors and to let nature calm my mind.
To me, when things feel better, when they are quiet, it’s like I’ve managed to bring the colour back in. I feel like the stormy clouds have passed and it’s time for some blue skies and light again. Better for me feels and looks like colourful adventures, I feel energetic and optimistic, I feel lighter inside my mind and my body reflects it, wanting to jump and run and see as much as I can. I want to paint the colour back in.
Awesome! This was extremely excellent story. Thank you. It made my Thanksgiving Day.
Such beautiful story and amazing images. Thank you for being so brave. If it wasn’t your example it would be so hard for me to be open about myself. Thank you.
You words were like a mirror to my experience. It was amazing to read what I have felt everyday of my life put into such expressive words and images. Thank you for sharing your story, it will be so healing for other, like me, to read it. Be well my new friend. Wishing you joy and peace on your journey.
Joel you have such a wonderful face. Possibly not a very profound comment. I first saw you in a lovely photo of you and Lulu hugging. I wish you health and serenity. Thank for sharing your journey.
Thank you for posting this, Joel. I just discovered this project of yours and it’s really important and wonderful.