Depression sucks. Put another way, depression is stupid.
Depression is on my mind because, as of late, depression has been in/on/around my mind. The last month and a half - since my last posting - has been largely defined by the presence of depression. Now, before you feel pity for me, remember that I (like you) am a human replete with my share of mental, emotional, physical and spiritual strengths and deficits. Some people suffer more, some less, but all suffer. I am in what I consider to be a privileged position of having a general sense of control over my mental health and have developed the requisite emotional/mental/social supports in place to withstand the storms. Since a mental health diagnosis in my late teens, I have been building my toolkit and skills in order to be better prepared for those storms. Therapy, anti-depressants, regular outdoor exercise and social engagements form the base of my toolkit, but every now and again, for reasons known and unknown, things slip and the storm overtakes. And so you weather it. That’s what you do.
Now, here we are: 2020. I feel deeply uninspired to delve into photographic goals for the New Year. Rather, it seems worthwhile to explore something more substantive and urgent. Thus, I’d like to examine the role of photography as a healing tool. Any creative act could be swapped out for photography and I suspect similar results would be achieved, but because this is a photography blog this will be through lens of photography as a tool. This is the anatomy of a depressive episode and creative recovery.
Before the Storm | Early-to-Mid November
Following the excitement of fall photography and birthday celebrations (mine and many of my friends) at the end of October, I found myself relieved by the newfound sense of free time. The first few days of November passed with relative joy as I basked in the sense of accomplishment from a successful fall and relished unscheduled moments in the day. I continued to go out on shoots, but found myself less and less inspired by the scenery. This has become a cyclical challenge for me in the shoulder seasons: finding photographic inspiration in the landscape. “It’s all good,” I told myself. Time for a break. Simultaneously, in the beginning of November, I found myself more and more exhausted after work. The first few days, I fought against the urge to go home and nap, instead opting for a hike (something I never regret). As the days passed, the urge to nap became stronger and my willpower weaker. Finally, after a week of resisting the urge, I succumbed. I napped. I napped deeply. This, of course, made it difficult to sleep that evening, resulting in an even stronger urge to nap the following afternoon: the sleep disturbance cycle begins…
The Storm | Mid-November to Late-December
Interest in photography, mountain travel and yo-yoing all but disappeared. My daily routine shifted from a balanced day of activity to sleeping through my alarm, often missing breakfast and other meals, going to work, digging deep for motivation at work, napping deeply for several hours after work, passively watching 3-5 hours of TV until I fell asleep again and then finally, my actual bed and another fitful night’s rest. Repeat. I ate very little and drank way too much coffee. Invitations for hikes, ultra-hikes, photography and backcountry skiing came and went: most days I had little-to-no interest in getting off the couch for such activities.
In periods like these I tend to feel a deep numbness. I lack motivation and interest in activities that typically make me come alive. I become very quiet and withdrawn socially. It is an odd place to find oneself. Things that, a few days or a week ago, would produce great joy elicit nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders. Pep talks from close friends and loved ones often produce the opposite desired effect. Instead of perking up, I turn inwards and further shut down. “Leave my alone, I just need space and time!”, tends to be my inner dialogue during those conversations. My poor wife, Linds! She has to live with this garbage, the negative energy in the household. Fortunately, she is an incredibly patient person and, after living together for 7 years, has come to intimately know this side of me and responds with a perfect balance of compassion and proximal empathy.
Thanksgiving passed joylessly. So too did the beginning of December. My thoughts grew darker: “I am never going to feel joy again?”; “My photography days are over.”; “I will never create anything again!”; “How was I ever a photographer?”. Highly negative self-talk pervaded the moments. There is no history or future, just a painfully numb now. Photography, a creative act, held no interest. It was hard to imagine how it ever interested me. This is the peak of the storm. In these times, the Persian adage, “this too shall pass,” undergirds my days. Seventeen years of experience with depression has taught me that I always come through the other side. Thankfully, suicidality - save for my late teens - is not a feature of these depressive states. Just like a real storm, my strategy is to hunker down and ride it out.
It wasn’t all gloom. I was able to force myself up Mount Sentinel a few times in this period. Those outings provided a brief respite from the storm. Additionally, the Christmas concerts at the elementary school that I work at produced glimpses of joy fueled by deeply lodged nostalgia. These brief lulls in the storm, while hinting at joy, operated in the context of reminding me that I, in fact, was in a storm.
The Storm Recedes | Late-December to Early-January
I came down with influenza B while Linds and I were enjoying a post-Christmas getaway in Whitefish. In a strange way, the advent of the flu served as a welcome reprieve from the mentally exhaustive process of depression. Finally, a socially acceptable excuse to mindlessly watch Netflix for 6-10 hours a day! We returned home on December 30th. New Year’s Eve included a visit to Now Care, where the flu diagnosis was confirmed and a treatment regimen provided. New Years Eve and New Year’s Day passed without fanfare. Lying on the couch, joy did not come when the clock struck 12:00AM, January 1st, 2020. Passing into the New Year did little more than remind me of the time I felt that I had wasted in this depressive state.
The funny thing about depression is that just as sneakily - and inexplicably! - as it creeps in, it can recede. A hint of blue sky!
On January 2nd, after three days on the couch, I forced myself to go outside. What a delight! The fresh air cycled through my lungs breathing new life into the new year. The storm was clearing. Although my energy remained subdued, things felt different. There was a tinge of hope in the air. Hope, it strikes me, is the antithesis of depression. And with hope, a little is enough. I took a short walk around the block, relishing in the beauty of the fresh snow on the trees. I thought about how nice it would be to take my camera for a walk. I thought about how wonderful it would be to create something new. The thought of making a photograph, for the first time in a month and half, excited me.
The next day, I took my camera for a walk. I didn’t yet feel connected enough to any scenes to even take my camera out, but it was a good exercise is positioning myself to be ready for a shot. Landscape photography, after all, is an exercise of being in the right place at the right time. The right place typically falls to good planning and preparation: knowing what subjects and scenes exist where and their relationship to light. The right time falls more to chance. Sure you can set yourself up for sunrise and sunset, but how the light breaks relies on the vagaries of atmospheric conditions. The only way to make ensure that you are there at the right time, is, well, to be there as often as possible. The only certainty is that you will not be successful if you stay at home.
I repeated this cycle the next two days: pack my camera bag, set a walkable destination in mind and go for a walk with my camera.
Blue Bird Day | January 5th
On January 5th, something special happened. A breakthrough. Eager to investigate the interesting textures of the river ice, I walked down to Brennan’s Wave, my favorite river photography location in Missoula. The clouds were setting up for what looked to be a dynamic sunset. I scouted a section of ice fissures near the wave for about 45-minutes, looking for interesting south-southeast facing compositions. My vision for the shot was to find a deep crack in the ice that could frame either the Old Milwaukee Building or Higgins Avenue bridge. Nothing clicked. I begin to consider checking out another section of river closer to California Street, but was concerned that I didn’t have enough time. Instead, I scoped out a section of ice a couple hundred feet downriver of Brennan’s Wave. After a few minutes at the new location, I found a large fissure that ran perpendicular to the river all the way to its edge. It appeared to be exactly in line with the Old Milwaukee Building. I got down on my stomach, laid my camera on the snow and looked through the viewfinder. Voila! An image!
A special thing happens when I go from scouting for compositions to finding a composition that excites me. In an instant I switch from a feeling of uncertainty to total enthusiasm. When the rudiments of the composition are present - lines, color/tonal contrasts, foreground, middle-ground, background, framing, triangles, etc. - an autopilot takes over. Time falls away and flow settles in. Instinctually, I frame up the shot, take a test shot, examine, recompose, shoot, examine, recompose.
For the first time in a month and a half, time fell away. I was outside of myself. It was the opposite of depression, it was living freely, outside of my head. I started with a broad stroke composition decision: portrait or landscape orientation. Because of the interesting ice formations on the right side of the frame and the way the lines worked towards the opening in the ice, landscape was the logical choice. Next, micro-adjustments to the composition. I worked to find the right balance of sky and ice. The ice possessed so many interesting lines and patterns that it made sense to anchor the lower 2/3s of the image with the ice formations, leaving a window for the building and then just enough room for the sky to breath. Because the camera physically needed be on the ice, I carved out a little spot for the camera to rest securely. The composition determined, I moved on to technical considerations. I knew that I wanted to capture cloud movement: a long exposure would be needed. I opted to use a 6-stop neutral density filter (a dark piece of glass) to allow for a long exposure. On the aperture side of things, maximizing depth of field was a critical part of this image. The closest park of the composition - the ice - that needed to be sharp was a mere 4 inches away and the Old Milwaukee Building, a hundred yards. I considered focus stacking, but instead decided to see if I could make f/22 work utilizing the hyperfocal distance. After some experimenting, I found the sweet spot. Everything that needed to be sharp was. Ultimately, I landed on 20-30 seconds at f/22 with an ISO of 50.
This is my happy place: a composition and exposure locked in with ample time for the light to transform. Lying there in the prone position, snow melting into my clothes, I was smiling. I was thoroughly enjoying myself. With the 2-second timer, I fired off a shot every 10-30 seconds as the light changed. Although the sunset did not transpire in a dramatic fashion, the cool soft blues of the clouds ultimately added the cold winter element that seemed to help with the shot. I proceeded to shoot in this fashion for about 45-minutes. Eventually, it became clear that there was no longer enough light to adequately balance the deep shadows of the ice fissure. The moment was over, but the joy of making an image had just begun.
Walking home from the shoot, I felt lighter. The heaviness of the depression was lifting. For the first time since early November I felt hopeful about the future. Blue sky abounded: the storm was ending.
After the Storm | Mid-January
To be clear, I don’t believe this photoshoot was the sole cause of moving beyond this depressive episode. As I mentioned in the introduction, I take a SSRI along with several supplements aimed at supporting my brain chemistry and have strong social/emotional supports in place that assist maintaining balance. Photography, or the act of creating anything, does fulfill an important role in my anti-depressant toolbox. Namely, the ability to exist outside of myself for a moment and to express myself creatively. The very act of creating seems to be antithetical to depression: it hinges on hope, that something new can exist in the face of seeming entropy. What’s more, landscape photography is defined by the lovely combination of physical movement, time outdoors and creativity. These three elements possess strong anti-depressant qualities.
The act of making an image is just the beginning. Processing the image provides an extension of the initial creative process, whereby the photographer makes creative decisions about the final look and feel of the image based on their interpretation of the scene. From there, a photographer may choose to share the image on social media, websites, prints or simply keep for their own joy and edification. It is a moment in time that cannot be taken away. The photographer bore witness to that scene, captured its likeness, and, in that moment, established themselves as a living being with expressive agency. Depression despises this. It cannot stand the idea of its sufferers having creative agency.
If the onset of the storm was mysterious, the passing of the storm was less so. Through social supports and photography outings, I had cultivated enough energy to schedule a counseling appointment, which, the very thought of, further boosted my sense of hope. And now, nearing the middle of January, the depressive episode of November and December feels like a distant bad dream. The future, for the moment, is bright. The storms will continue to come and go. The best I can do is keep on this path: getting outside, looking for the beauty in our world, focusing on the positive, surrounding myself with good friends and photographing as much as possible. For the moment, I am incredibly grateful to feel joy. When the next storm comes, I will be ready, camera in hand.
If you, a friend or a loved one struggles with depression simply being present (even if it means not talking) can be enormously helpful. In my journey a therapist and anti-depressants have been invaluable in providing guidance and chemical stability. Of course, if you are a loved one are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. The folks there are there to listen and love. The storm will pass. Know that you are loved and, regardless of how dark the moment feels, blue bird days lie ahead.