What Mental Illness Looks Like to Me: Drained of Colour

Drained of Colour 2.jpg
“Drained of Colour”, E.Thomas 2016

A few weeks ago I was challenged to engage in a photography project: “What does mental illness look like to you?”

Intrigued, I puttered around for a few days wondering what in the world I could photograph that would be an accurate representation of something so touchy for me. And then the first of many “AHA!” moments hit me:

It doesn’t have to be fully accurate.

No single photograph will fully narrate anything for me, no matter what the subject’s about.

Released from the Big Picture Burden, I began to carefully pull apart a few strands of thought here, and some strings of emotion all balled up into a snarl there, and massage a tightly held intuition now and again. This wasn’t going to be easy. In fact, I was afraid that put into the wrong hands, a small project like this could make my world unsafe.

But that fear led to a second of many “AHA!” moments:

If I’m afraid to talk about what mental illness looks like for me, the logical reality is that chances are I’m not the only one.

If I took a small leap of faith and captured my truths as best as I could with the materials that I had, maybe I could start a conversation. Maybe I could explain better what happens when the rest of the world tilts awkwardly from where I’m standing. Maybe someone else could look at the picture and scream: “That’s IT!” (or not)

Soooooo…let’s start a conversation.

This is “Drained of Colour”. I don’t normally title or name my photographs as I much prefer that they speak for themselves (such as they are, me being a kinder-photographer still and all). But this series seemed to require some narrative definition; a kind of story, if you will.

You see, I struggle with bouts of severe clinical depression. I’ve been on lists of medications, some of which have worked for a time; others of which have served only to torture me when I’m trying to wash them out of my system. As is so common, my depression is exacerbated by extreme anxiety — mostly social — but I didn’t really understand that as everyone seemed to be focused on the depression. But if you want to see a world collapse, add a change to mine and you’ll be in for the show of the century. I can change my clothes, change my laundry from the washing machine to the dryer, and even make change for a twenty. Ask me to change plans for the day on the fly?

Don’t you dare.

Ask me to make small talk in a group of strangers?

A pox on you.

Tell me that I need to learn these skills to be happy or positive?

I’ll tell you where to go (if I’m not in hiding already).

Several clinicians have also agreed on an Asperger’s diagnosis. Sure, I’m high functioning (technically not an Aspie anymore, but on the spectrum somewhere), but this diagnosis spins the anxiety and depression into patterns that don’t fit into regular treatment methods. The added stress of friends not believing me that I’ve been told that I have AS, and… yup. Up goes the heart rate, there stops the breathing, and blank goes the mind and heart.

Pause the back story.

The photograph.

Obviously I’m not a professional yet by any stretch. Please give me an ounce or two of grace.

I found some plain old crayons lying around. Colours speak to me in multitudes of ways, and I know life is not well when the world goes grey. Some people speak of feeling blue when they’re sad. Depression isn’t blue for me. It’s grey. It’s monotone. It’s drained of colour. There’s no vibrance or shimmerings or tones. It’s drab and monochromatic and two-dimensional. And there’s nothing I can do about it. Even if I wanted to care or tried to care, I wouldn’t be able to do a single damn thing about it at all.

And yet… even in that lack-lustre state, I know there’s something out-of-sync. In the photo, you can see the red crayons. Red-red-red-red-red-red-GREEN!! Something broke the pattern; something interrupted life; something invaded where it wasn’t wanted or needed and yet I can’t break the circle. It keeps going.

Here’s one of the many kickers: even if you interrupted my red pattern with a million dollars, the chances of me needing to manage some severe anxiety is high. The probability that some kind of depression after the fight with anxiety is also high.


I don’t know.

It just is.

My photography Master in the Arcanum suggested getting rid of the black vignette around the picture as the image was strong enough on its own. I chose to keep it. Why? Because it shows accurately how it feels when I have no control over why the world’s gone grey, but I can still sense that horrible invasion from somewhere. The blackness descends and I suffocate; I can’t breathe. What little I feel I have to offer is muffled and muted by a thick black shroud, heavy and unyielding.

Dramatic, you think?


And unstoppable.

Some of you readers will now want me to tie up this post with some hearty positive affirmations; some ways of emerging from the cocoon of depression or frazzle of anxiety. But that’s not how I can be honest with you.

In my experience, people are so eager to move ahead towards happiness and positivity that they forget to allow the darkness to breathe, to give it voice. While we don’t want the darkness to own us or claim us forever, refusing it its voice does just as much damage.

In order for there to be healing and hope, the darkness must be brought up from the inside, shown in the light, and…

…and let be.

Maybe there are things I haven’t seen before; maybe there are ways I’ve grown over the years of battling these secrets; maybe it was far darker than I realized, and the poison was consuming me more than I knew. But for me to understand and accept these truths, I have to let these truths be.

In conversation with my photography Master, I explained how frustrated I was when people would tell me: “Just trust.”


Just what?

I have come to realize that pithy sayings are not only frustrating to me because they’re shallow and fluffy, but because they are incredibly abstract. Pithiness expects that we’ll have developed a level of intuition that will kick in whenever we really need it to. Pithiness expects that we’ll just ‘get it’. Pithiness blows sunshine up our asses and refuses to let the darkness have an actual voice.

When the abstract isn’t meshed with the concrete for me, I struggle to decode what people are really saying. We use metaphors and similes all the time; we use imagery and narrative and verbal tricks. And I love these things! As a writer, I use them all the time! But for me to use them, I have to anchor them in the concrete world of tangible people and things.

Telling me to “just trust” is useless and painful. It wounds more than it heals. Please understand that. Please understand that my journey to healing and wholeness is going to be different than yours. Please understand that everyone’s journey is going to be different. And please understand that if you’re uncomfortable with my pain and feel the need to say anything to make me feel better, the wiser choice is to keep silent.

That’s where I’ll leave it for today, friends.

It’s okay to bring the darkness out for you to see, to examine, to feel, to know, to accept. It’s okay to need people to affirm that. It’s okay to ask people to stop pumping us full of platitudes and positivities that mean nothing, especially when those same people then blame us for why we aren’t “getting better”.

Sit with the darkness. If you can see it, there’s already a glimmer of hope. For none of us can see a thing without a little bit of light.

4 thoughts on “What Mental Illness Looks Like to Me: Drained of Colour

  1. I appreciate this piece.

    In December 2014, for the first time in my then sixty-one years, I experienced a thin sliver of depression resulting from some very strong meds prescribed for post-op pain. I was and remain astounded by my utter helplessness in the face of that chemical onslaught. Up to that time, I had had no idea of the depth of suffering that depression routinely serves up to those of my fellow creatures who must deal with it.

    I am no longer inclined to “help” such folks. On the other hand, I would be honoured to contemplate the darkness in silence with those who want the company, or to engage in some sociable weeping. Or not. I care.


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