Crohn's Disease Awareness · health · life · mental illness awareness · opinion · Photo essay · photography

Photography and Mental Health

A lot of people have asked the question, “Can getting into photography as a hobby help mental health issues?” The short answer: yes.

I have written before about my struggle with anxiety and depression as well as my constant fight with Crohn’s Disease, which all go hand in hand. I also mentioned how much film photography has helped me regarding my health issues. Check out those posts here.

My Story

My entire life I have suffered from severe anxiety. As a little girl, I would literally puke in school every morning. You can imagine I had no friends after that. Teachers didn’t seem to know what was wrong and they weren’t telling my parents this was happening. They only embarrassed and humiliated me in front of the class. Due to this ignorance, I wasn’t even aware of the name of what I was experiencing until I was an adult. The only name I could put to what I was feeling was nauseas, because my mom told me the feeling I was having before I threw up was nausea. So little five year old Aly usually just repeated “I’m nauseas” over and over to people through tears because I had no idea what was wrong with me.

Once I was an adult and in therapy, it was seemingly so simple. I had severe anxiety that comes with being from a broken home, among other things. I had many fears that grew from those years of untreated anxiety that still haunt me as an adult. It has come and gone through out my life, depending on what I am going through at the time.

The anxiety hit an all time high in 2010 when I was diagnosed with, what doctors called, a severe case of Fistulized Crohn’s Disease and Colitis. This rise in nervousness was mainly due to the horrific experiences I had leading up to my diagnosis and the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that resulted from them.

I had a burst appendix for two weeks without realizing it. The doctors later told me they had no idea how I survived that. After two surgeries and a two month hospital stay, I returned home half the human I was when I went in, both physically and mentally. I weighed 120 pounds when I went in to the emergency room and came home a whopping 80 pounds. I didn’t recognize myself when I walked into my bathroom and looked in the mirror.

I quickly started having nightmares. I couldn’t sleep in my room anymore because it reminded me of the long nights spent laying sick and near death that lead up to my stay in the hospital.

I slept on the couch in the living room with pillows piled under me, because my body was so bony it was painful to sleep without cushions. I had to wear children’s clothing, and I ended up back in the hospital not long after.

Smells such as saline or rubbing alcohol still transport me back to the hospital bed and rough textured sheets remind me of the ones I slept on for two months in the hospital. These triggers got so bad at one point, that in 2017 I was going to physical therapy at a rehab located in a wing off the emergency room and the smells alone triggered me into panic so bad I couldn’t go back there. I even had to change hotel rooms on vacation one time, because the front door and lighting triggered my memory of that hospital stay.

Soon, these panic attacks culminated into a fear that I would have them anywhere, and I didn’t want to leave home. I still struggle with agoraphobia.

I have always actively sought out help from mental health facilities, but unfortunately when you are on the state funded insurance I have to be on with disability, access to quality healthcare, let alone mental healthcare, is non existent, at least where I live. I would sit in crowded offices for hours just to be yelled at and treated like an addict for needing anxiety meds. I was being judged by a juror before they even spent time enough to know anything about me.

Sitting in these tiny waiting rooms with so many people only made my panic attacks worse, and soon going to doctors appointments became another fear I couldn’t conquer.

On top of the horrible experiences with psychologists, the therapists I had to choose from left me at square one. They often would spend the appointment telling me their problems. Then I found a place that actually had therapists come to your home for sessions. I loved that but didn’t love that every single one I had would just disappear. They would all one day not show up for an appointment. Then I’d call the office and find out they quit and no one bothered to tell me. This happened four separate times. No wonder so many feel there is no where to turn sometimes.

I didn’t know what to do or where to turn for help. It was my own private hell waking up, and the first thing I’d think about was what doctors appointment I had to fear that day. Every night before bed I couldn’t sleep until exhaustion took over and I finally passed out. Even medication wasn’t helping. I tried self help books like Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway I used an app called Dare where a man with an accent spoke to me in a calm voice. These things helped for a minute, up until my next doctors appointment, or my next stint in a hospital.

It wasn’t until this last hospital stay in the summer of 2019 for a Crohn’s flare up that something positive finally came from all the suffering I have been experiencing.

After two weeks of extremely high doses of steroids, the doctors were beginning to really worry that they weren’t going to be able to get this flare under control. It really scared me. I had many different Gastroenterologists on my case, and none of them were communicating with each other, so they were all giving me differing opinions on my state and what I should do about it. As always I had to take my health into my own hands and make my own decisions.

Eventually, the steroids started working and I went home, but not before it took its toll on my body and my mind. I have mentioned in past blogs that when I came home I quickly found out my legs were weakened significantly by the strong steroids and the two weeks straight that I spent in that hospital bed. The pain I had any time I tried to walk, even to the bathroom, was so intense that I had to get a commode to put by my bed, and I couldn’t walk to the kitchen without needing help getting back.

A Turning Point

As I lay in my bed during those days I worried I’d never walk again. Doctors couldn’t give me any real answers, and still haven’t, as to what is really going on with my body. Could it be the Crohn’s, the steroids, or both? I only get the look of uncertainty from every doctor I’ve seen. You can imagine the amount of anxiety this uncertainty gives me.

In the beginning, the prednisone kept me up until late into the night and woke me up at sunrise every morning. I decided to start taking advantage of the energy it gave me by getting up and walking at first just out the front door, and take pictures of the sunrise with my digital camera.

As you can imagine, I spent a lot of time on social media during my time in bed. I joined a vintage camera collectors page on Facebook and everyday the pictures posted on there of the cameras cheered me up and kept my mind preoccupied. I decided to start looking at my collection again, and see if there were any I could shoot film with.

First, I purchased an Argus C3 because it was one I had always wanted to have in my collection. I even learned how to take it apart and clean it up. I decided to make a video of it and even started a YouTube channel. I never thought I would ever do this, but I really want to help people the way this hobby had been helping me. Two friends of mine Tabbie and Vicky, encouraged me to start the channel and I am glad they did. I can still remember how happy I felt after I finished that first video. It felt like an accomplishment. I was so weak and tired and in pain at the time, that I collapsed in bed afterwards, but it started something for me that I will continue to do as long as it continues to help myself and others.

My Argus C3 Matchmatic

Then I saw IT. The camera that would start it all. On the Vintage Camera Facebook page I started seeing many posts about the beautiful Nikon F modular system of cameras. It was love at first sight. If you go back to July of 2019 on my Instagram pictures, you will see this love unfolding when I got my first Nikon F camera from eBay. My arms were still very weak from the hospital, especially my right arm that had the IV’s in them for two weeks keeping my arm immovable at times. So it was difficult to even lift the camera to my eye, but I didn’t care.

You can see in those pictures that I lay in bed just playing with the camera and reading about it online. I started to drown myself in film photography and cameras and it gave me something to live for. It gave me a reason to get up and push my legs and push through the pain. I was still so anxious, but this time it was a good anxiety. I was anxious to get outside and shoot some film with my, new to me, vintage camera.

Pic I took of my first Nikon F while stuck in bed

At first, I would have Kelsey walk me out the front door where I’d take two or three pictures of the flowers there before my shins would tighten up and the pain would become unbearable, and she’d have to help me back to my bed.

I looked forward to these two minutes every morning.
The rest of the day I spent researching more about film and different cameras while I lay in bed waiting for doctors to get back to me about what to do next. I had no idea if I should be forcing myself to walk through the pain. At this point, they weren’t sure if I had necrosis in my hip or shin splints because of my symptoms. I started having horrendous spasms in my hips and knees so bad that my doctor’s medical assistant told me to go to the ER. I couldn’t bare the thought of going back there though, so I dealt with the pain until I could get in to see my doctor using a wheelchair, and had some tests done to rule out anything serious that could be happening.

Once those tests were done, and serious things were ruled out, the doctor put in for physical therapy. My insurance gave me a very hard time, but months later I did recently get approved. In the meantime, I continued to get up every morning and go out in my yard to take pictures. Little by little, it strengthened my arms and my legs enough to where I can at least walk without assistance around the house. I talk more about this in my video about the Canon TX. I still need a wheel chair in some instances when a lot of walking is involved, but progress is progress.

I started bringing a camera with me anytime I left the house. It has been like having a support animal. My mind is occupied on what pictures I can take from the car window on the way to my appointments. Check out my article on how I shoot street photography from my car. This has helped me tremendously with my anxiety leading up to appointments and even during them.

Taken outside of the doctors office

Turn Your Broken Heart into Art

The UK based website NoPanic.org says, “Taking up a hobby is a great way to ease anxiety or stress. It gives you something enjoyable to focus on, at the same time taking your mind off anything negative that you may be experiencing. Pleasurable pastimes can be a good way to calm down an overactive mind, alleviate anxiety and lower panic symptoms.”

I totally agree with this. Of course, there is so much more to staying mentally healthy, and I am not a doctor, but this has proven to be one tool that has helped me immensely when all other things had been failing. I highly recommend if you are thinking about getting into photography as a way to help your anxiety and depression, give it a try. Start small and do not put a lot of pressure on yourself. Especially being on social media like instagram, it can start to get overwhelming when you jump into the film photography community; it can be overwhelming for someone who is already suffering from anxiety. Wanting to be noticed on there and feelings of inadequacy can creep in, but there is also a great many people who are going through the same things and who understand, because they’re most likely using photography as some sort of an outlet as well.

Me with my Canon TX

Use your camera as a mask, a buffer to look through when you’re scared of a situation. It can feel like a protection in some instances. In the end, photography is a welcome distraction from all the thoughts that inevitably race through the mind of an anxious person.

Carrie Fisher, well known in a galaxy far, far away as well as for her fight with depression and bipolar disorder, once said, “take your broken heart and turn it into art.” Really, any creative outlet can serve this purpose. In the past, I have used drawing as a way to express myself. That is why the arts are so important. Find one that feels like an outlet for you and do it everyday.

My Drawing of a Mandalorian from Star Wars. The colors and strokes I used with the pastels show that I was feeling something and releasing something when I drew it.
My drawing of a lion in 2016. You can tell by the strokes I used in his mane that I was feeling something when I drew this.

So why film photography? With a digital camera you get that instant gratification. You see the picture right away, but then that’s it. It’s like taking a drug for pain. It numbs you for a short period of time, but then you’re usually right back where you started, with the same pain you began with. For someone with an exhausted, anxious mind, having to stop and think about your metering, your film choice, and making each shot count is, in my opinion, much more valuable. The distraction lasts all the way through the process of waiting for your film to come back and going through your scans. It can even go further with editing and posting to social media, all while you start over and do it again shooting another roll in the meantime.

Film isn’t for everyone. If there is something else you enjoy doing, do it. I lost my brother in law last year when he took his own life. The one year anniversary is in two days. I remember when he was so ensconced in his hobby of building his truck and racing at a local track. It kept him going until he hurt his hand and couldn’t do it anymore. The medical system failed him. The stigma put on mental health failed him. Of course, when you’re grieving you can find a myriad of things to blame. In the end, it’s never just one thing. Depression and anxiety are complicated. They are serious. Never forget they are common, and they are manageable. You just have to invest in yourself. You are worth the investment. Invest time to talk to someone, to journal, to pick up a camera and forget about everything else for a few hours.

I know it’s exhausting. I know when you’re anxious or depressed it feels like a dark cloud following you overhead, putting pressure on your shoulders zapping you of all your energy, but you are worth the energy.

Check out the Too Tired Project on Instagram. They offer a place for those suffering with depression to submit your work and to express yourself creatively.

Let me know in the comments how you express yourself creatively to release some of your anxious thoughts and deal with your depression and anxiety. I am always looking for ways to cope.

If you are feeling hopeless or need someone to talk to please call the Suicide Prevention Hotline. YOU ARE WORTH THE ENERGY. You never know how many lives would be affected if you weren’t in them.

7 thoughts on “Photography and Mental Health

  1. So proud of you and what you accomplish every day my friend. You truly are inspiring. My escape is my writing. It lets my mind wander for a few hours in a different world where I don’t have to worry about my own problems because I’m penning my character’s current situations instead. If I think back far enough I know it’s why I read so much as well when I was little. Using books to escape worked wonders for me, so it only makes sense that I want to write them now.

    You keep doing your thing girl, I love watching you thrive. <3 🙂

  2. Again, very brave of you to post publicly your experiences and emotions. You seem to be a very sensitive and creative person. Your post will be helpful to others with similar situations. Best wishes to you and your family for the new year and beyond.

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