Written and photographed by Marie Smith
CW - sensitive content regarding mental health and bereavement.
I didn’t realise the side effects would be so severe. Sometimes I’m a bad reader of my body and state of mind, I can show a complete lack of self-awareness. I’m also inconsiderate towards myself and this can be projected onto others.
I didn’t mean to stop my taking my anti-depressants, I just did.
I should have done this gradually over a course of time so I had control and awareness of what was going on.
It started with the dizziness, heart palpitations and this constant feeling that I was getting the flu. I remember waiting for a train at E&C station, it was around 10pm and I had several layers on, none of this could stop my body feeling like a block of ice. I was shaking and shivering even walking up and down the station platform didn’t get me warm. This was only magnified by seeing non one else as in much discomfort as I had felt. My body ached and my feet felt like they didn’t exist.
I felt numb, totally dead inside.
Later that week, I started to feel angry, pure rage! I hated everything and flew off the handle at the slightest inconvenience, this was personified whenever I got on public transport and I found myself shouting at innocent bystanders to get out of my way.
The dizziness and heart palpitations persisted and I was convinced that i was getting the flu, my body felt in limbo. Sleep brought no solace as my dreams were so vivid and anxiety ridden that i was convinced they were real. During this time I had completely forgotten about the anti-depressants as I had dissociated from them as I hadn’t taken them for 5 days, it still hadn’t occurred to me that I was in the grips of anti-depressants discontinuation syndrome.
As the week continued I became angrier, more depressed and I had lost any sense of self, I became completely detached. I became an emotional void, I felt myself fading away.
After 7 days the symptoms stated to ease but I had felt myself estranged from everyone. My boyfriend was aware that I was not quite myself, I had not been the easiest person to be around that week and it was only after making a passing comment to Maciej that I had stopped taking my medication that he realised what the problem was. After talking and much googling I recognised the symptoms that I had been suffering from.
Why hadn’t I realised what was happening? Was I in denial? I was astonished that I had been so careless with my mental health, so blasé!
I felt guilty and very stupid for causing a situation that could have been avoided, I was now dealing with extreme physical and mental implications of my decision.
It has been at least 3 weeks since the physical symptoms have worn off and it’s only now that I’m able to process what happened, why I chose to do what I did and why I didn’t choose to withdraw from the medication gradually and go to the doctors for advice.
Despite this I feel good, I’m not feeling depressed or anxious at the moment and I don’t regret coming off the medication, just the manner that I did it.
I’m writing this as way to track my thoughts and to also process my decision making, this is something I rely upon as a photographer. I usually create my work by taking photos first and then writing about it afterwards. I will try a different approach in this instance in order to document my mental health as an on-going photo/essay series.
I’ve been thinking about starting therapy again but this time I would seek out a black female therapist as this woman would have shared experience with me. I’ve been looking at The Black, African and Asian Therapy Network (BAATN) for a possible therapist. I had no idea BAATN even existed until 6 months ago when I listened to a Radio 4 documentary called Black Girls Don’t Cry, the Journalist Marverine Cole spoke to two black women about their struggles with mental health and the lack of support they’ve received a black women when accessing NHS mental health services, Cole also spoke to a therapist at The Black, African and Asian Therapy Network (BAATN) which was the first time I had heard of them.
This still blindsides me! Why wasn’t I aware of BAATN previously?
Listening to this show was a revelation. At the time I had just started taking my medication again and was acclimatising to my physical and mental state. I have listed to this show several times since my first discovery and not only did it validate my experience but had also provided me with valuable information.
Why aren’t NHS mental Health services in UK making ethnic minority patients aware of BAATN? Why isn’t there more readily available information about BAATN, even at your local GP in UK?
When I went to see my GP last October I was told about local mental health services but there was no consideration that perhaps BAATN might be beneficial for me. I appreciate that the service provided by BAATN are not free as this creates a barrier for some to access treatment. From researching therapist on BAATN, I know that several will offer discounts to those accommodate their financial situation.
However, I appreciate that the NHS is free and has experienced a decade of austerity has eroded its capacity to really serve society. In saying that it’s still important that we are given choices to inform how we can treat our mental health and I believe that I had known about BAAT I would have been given an alternative instead of relying upon NHS.
Having options and autonomy over your mental health is paramount.
When my mum died in 2015, I waited a year on NHS Mental Health waiting list before I was assigned a therapist, for treatment. I was prescribed 13 weeks of talking therapy of Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) for grief, depression and anxiety. I was also taking anti-depressants, as well as working full time and studying for an MA part time.
My psychologist was Dr Jeraj, he was a man of South Asians background. I was glad that he was a persona of colour I felt that this allowed me to talk about my race and cultural nuances in a way that a white British person would not necessary be able to associate with.
Overall my experience was positive, Dr Jeraj was a nice man and being in a space talking to a man and not a women did lead me to questions certain things within my own interpersonal relations ships and how I communicate with men.
The difference of gender did not pose a problem but on reflection I think my experience might have been more beneficial if I had spoken to a black woman, this thought had been at the back of my mind the whole time, especially as this particular bough of depression had been about my mum’s death and my role now in the family as an orphan the eldest child out of my siblings.
Now that I know about BAATN and now that I’m finally come to terms with my new status and am off anti-depressants perhaps I can pursue therapy again as I now know that I have viable options for me.
I spent some time searching for a female therapist, it was empowering being able to have some autonomy over my treatment.
After searching BAATN for a therapist, I have found someone who I think might be suitable for me. She’s a woman. She’s a woman of dual heritage. She has short hair and wears glasses. She looks young but judging by her experience I doubt she is. She looks androgynous. She looks kind but serious. She comes from a creative background and utilises this in her practice, I wonder what this entails?
She seems to be able to help with many aspects such as depression, identity, anxiety, stress, anger management, race experience, self-esteem and bereavement and relationship issues. For me these are the things that I have struggled with and I feel hopeful.
She looks a bit like me, this was part of the reason why I choose her. Am I being narcissistic? This felt like a weird decision initially but this will be my first experience talking to someone who has had a shared experience of me, I suppose having therapy with someone that resembles me will hopefully make it easier to talk things through, breaking that formal barrier that has previously stopped me from being totally open.
I’m wary that I’m not looking for a mother type figure and I didn’t want to go to seek therapy from someone who looked too clinical.
Maybe I am looking for a reflection of myself to finally address and put to rest some of the traumas that have been haunting me for years.
My first session is in two weeks.
‘I don’t want to go’, this is my first thought when I realise that my first session of therapy is due. Today!
‘I’m actually feeling fine today’, this is another though which comes to mind.
Both are accurate - today I don’t want to go because I’m feeling ok, however I can’t guarantee that I this feeling will continue. I still feel slightly emotionally vulnerable.
I know I can’t, this makes me very unreliable sometimes and this is not a characteristic that I would usually associate with myself. I have been feeling a bit of social anxiety, not enough to paralyse me but enough to find that I’m avoiding social events, dinner with friends and generally avoiding any opportunity to be in a room full of people. When I am with friends, I feel resentful, tired, angry and occasionally bored. This is not a nice feeling and not a nice thing to think of when I’m around people who only have their best intentions for me.
This lack of motivation also extends to my photography, which I’ve been feeling rather apathetic about, the thought of starting my hair series projects feels me with dread, I can’t face taking any self-portraits which only aides my lack of discipline.
I’ve been off my medication now for nearly two months, and I don’t miss taking my medication anymore and I don’t miss the fatigue and drowsiness that haunted me every day. Drowsiness that would come in woozy waves which would end with a massive yawn, and which usually resulted in making my head spin.
If I’m honest with myself I’ve kinda been looking forward and dreading this moment. I hate trying new things, making myself vulnerable to new experiences and people. It’s exhausting.
However I need to go to see if I need therapy, I’m not sure if I do or not and this is the first time that I’m engaging with therapy with some semblance of clarity so I owe it to myself to try. Just try and see what happens.
She seemed nice, more serious than expected. She was petite, her clothing was casual. Her feet didn’t quite touch the ground when she sat on her chair. The room was large and there was a clear distance between where she sat with her patients and where her desk was. The desk was today and had the hallmark of someone who worked methodically.
The view from her window was somewhat bleak, a lonely tree in front of a brick wall. The wall was too high to see what was behind it, not even a glimmer. I spent some time wondering who resided on the other side of the wall.
She was direct with me and gave me clear eye contact throughout our session. She didn’t offend me in anyway but I didn’t warm to her. I’m not disappointed by my experience, I didn’t even want to go in the first place.
Although, as I’ve had therapy before I knew what to expect but I still found it difficult and somewhat tedious to talk over my life and experiences again. It’s always triggering to some extent.
I told her my mum had died three years ago. Ten minutes later she asked me where my mum was, I explained again that she had died. She apologised but in clumsy and confused manner.
I went to therapy with a lack of clarity and I hoped she would help bring some resolution and place to start tackling issues that had yet to address, but I left thinking that I would never see her again and I got the impression that she also felt the same.
I’m feeling disengaged from being creative today, I have an urge to create something and be positive but I’m overwhelmed with the feeling of apathy and doubt. I feel anxious and upset about myself and about my creative process, I feel I need to shake this off and just carry on making.
I’ve been this apathetic since I stopped taking my medication, this feeling also persisted whilst I was on anti-depressants so I’m unsure how much of this is me or the depression, there seems to be no separation between the two.
Usually I can separate the two but at the moment I’m struggling to gain context. I’m finding it difficult to focus as I feel that I’m drifting with nothing tangible for me to engage with. Essentially I feel isolated and it would be nice to not feel so isolated.
I was just looking through my notes and I found this from Claudia Rankine talk at Tate Modern in 2017, these notes kind of make sense the reading back but I’m not able to sound as articulate as Rankine, a truly inspirational speaker who’s able to articulate the nuances of the black experience so accurately.
I’ve been struggling to find something to read recently and maybe I should go back threading Citizenagain or find something else along the same lines of Rankine to stimulate me.
I should make a to do list, that usually helps me focus and at least it will give me a sense of satisfaction once I’ve completed one of the tasks on the list.
So I made a list and that was satisfying, striking a line through the completed tasks helped me compartmentalise. I’ve been thinking about things outside of my mental health, less on the state of my mind and more about my productivity as a photographer.
How has my mental health been a help and hindrance?
I am slightly ashamed of admitting this but I feel that my anxiety has been a key driving force in my achievements to date. These past few years I have been very productive and I found many of the ideas that I have been procrastinating on coming into fruition, finding that extra energy sometimes from my anxiety has left me feeling fraught and exhausted.
Especially after completing my MA, my brain went into overdrive and it took me a good year for my body and brain to work in sync again. The experience of my Mum dying and completing my MA (my mum died three weeks after I started my MA) altered my identity, it changed me - physically and mentally.
There’s no going back.
I wouldn’t want to necessarily and I suppose I’ll never know how I would have been if my Mum hadn’t died so suddenly, I still would have done my MA and my brain would have altered due to that experience anyway.
In some ways it has been a help, more so than I care to acknowledge, it’s slightly scary to think that I’m not capable of working without the added tension that my anxiety/depressions creates as sometimes i can’t relax and I get panicked if I’m not being ‘productive’ even on walks in my daily grind I feel the compulsion to bring my camera ‘just in case’.
It’s like I’ve developed a photography FOMO syndrome unintentionally.
None of the rules that I’ve created for myself make sense they are only set in stone in my mind which can make me feel rigid and formulaic. I sometimes get lonely creating contenting and posting it online or on social media.
It’s not the most forgiving way of connecting with people, and I suppose exhibitions/private views are better but even then my social anxiety takes over and I find the moments between talking to people superficial and fleeting.
I get very nervous and my inner sensitive introvert seems to rear its head and overtake all aspects of my persona. I can feel it happening, especially if I feel that the person that I’m talking too has no interest in talking to me, when their engagement feels forced and disingenuous.
I had this recently and it sent my head into a spin, it actually made me feel really lonely and depressed. I hope I don’t see this person again. If I do, I will have to find a way for them not to undermine me, I suppose I could just ignore them.
May was a stressful month.
Exhausting and I was anxious throughout it. Even on my holiday I felt a cloud of anxiety, although it didn’t ruin my holiday, I did feel paralysed by it occasionally.
Everything has changed. I moved house. I moved in with my boyfriend. I’ve moved to different neighbourhood.
These are not bad things, in fact I’ve had some good experiences and my life is on a upwards trajectory - hopefully. I always find myself feeling guilty when good things happen, find it hard to process my emotions and accept when nice things happen. I’m not conditioned to good things happening and it’s hard to appreciate when everything is ok, especially if you’re used to feeling anxious/depressed.
Especially if you find yourself facilitating your anxiety/depression as a motivation. How to translate this energy in a way which is positive is I suppose a good thing but sometimes I feel I shouldn’t do this. It goes back to my previous point about using depression/anxiety as a motivation for my practice.
At least I know this is not entirely the case as I’ve been incredibly productive since I came off my medication and I know that I can be productive outside of the prism of my anxiety/depression.
Today I feel tired, mentally tired more than anything. Just breathe and take moment. Everything with be alright, and I must keep telling myself that the fog has lifted slightly further away than I anticipated.
I’ve been pretty quiet for the past few days, no idea why but I’m finding solace in saying less and doing more. Sometimes speaking feels excessive - ding something no matter how menial feels more satisfying. It’s nothing personal. I’m just decompressing, processing and when I’m ready to speak I will.
I wonder if this is because I’ve exerted quite a lot of energy recently with moving house, going on holiday, working on various projects and now my body is taking time to centre itself, to find a resolution.
I’m very aware that my mental health is better during the summer months and that as we prioress onto autumn and winter there will be testing moments coming up that I may need to prepare for so perhaps for now its best that I stay quiet and I will need to engage with this reserve of energy soon.
I felt anxious today, it just came over me all of a sudden. I couldn’t figure out what triggered me but I felt restless and a deep urge to run away, my brain was racing. Although this was happening my body didn’t move, I sat quietly at my deck at work unable to quantify what to do with myself. Was I having a panic attack? Had it manifested itself in a way I had not recognised before?
A new way that I found myself ‘managing’ my anxiety is to be silent. Say nothing then you feel nothing but that’s usually the opposite and I find myself feeling too much and having no way to express myself. It usually lasts a day or two. It does feel like fog, not as bad a previous fogs that I’ve experienced and one that is tangible unlike the episode I had today.
This happened a week ago bit it’s taken me a week to process what happened, I had my first panic attack in over two years. It wasn’t sudden, it came slowly and deliberately crippled my day.
A warm bank holiday day in Hasting, walking with my boyfriend in the relenting heat didn’t help matters but I had been feeling slightly on edge, my anxiety intermittently intruding my day over the past week.
I suppose the political climate hasn’t helped, watching the news is starting to make me angry and upset and there seems no let-up in the disfranchisement of people like me. I also know autumn is coming and that is always associated with my mum’s death, it going to be four years since she died. Time has gone by very quickly and that scares me.
As I had said before, I have been having these silent moments but this has now transferred to my body reacting to my lack of communication, so on that day in Hasting walking I found myself crying and feeling worthless but also sense of relief, my whole body shaking, wrinkled face wet with tears and feeling weak and pathetic.
Luckily I wasn’t alone and my boyfriend was very comforting but I was surprised that I cried, I suppose the anxiety that I had been harbouring had to come out somehow.
For the past few days I have been feeling very emotional, I cried last night thinking about shadowy online of my future which was in my mind at the time, feeling like a failure and too old to try anymore I sort of mourned for something that hadn’t happened yet.
My lack of confidence and feeling ultra-sensitive has meant that I haven’t left the house in a couple of days, I enjoy the peace and sanctity of home as I am able to rest and not over think anything. I distract myself with chores and recently re-organised my wardrobe in anticipation with autumn which is slowly encroaching.
I remember this time last year my mental health started to nose dive and I found myself back on medication again, but I also met my boyfriend so it wasn't all bad but the majority of it was pretty awful if I’m honest. I really need to nee honest with myself if I’m going to try not to revert to back to what happened to me last year.
It’s a Saturday morning and I’m in bed looking out into my garden, my boyfriend is playing computer games on his laptop and I’m sipping tea and slowly waking up to face the warm autumnal glow which is beaming through the french doors into my bedroom. It’s chilly so I pull the duvet up to my waist and I snuggle deeper into my bed, music is playing in the background and I feel calm.
I treasure moments like this, I feel calm and well rested. I don’t feel that anxious, although I know I can use my anxiety to help me get through to days to do list which isn’t grilling or overwhelming. I know my anxiety will always be with me but I’m slowly learning to work with it rather than bury it and not acknowledge what’s going on.
Sitting here now and reflecting on what has come and with some awareness of the challenges ahead of me, as it’s been four years since my Mum died and it would have been her 60th birthday in October.
This year has been tough mentally and physically but if I sit back and think to how I was this time last year - despite everything I am in a better space and I am progressing well within my life. I suppose this makes me feel hopeful and I need to remember this more ofter which is hard when I’m within the grips of my anxiety which means that I lose perspective and I can’t see through the fog that evades any rationale thought.
Autumn/winter are usually the roughest part of the year for me, this time last year I was very depressed and started taking my medication again and I was in a dark space which felt endless. I do feel that I have a better understanding of myself my mental health and I all I can promise myself is that I will keep working to not let myself get overwhelmed by my mental health problems and when I do feel anxious that I need to seek help - I have a good support network and I’m grateful for that.
Whispering for help
I’m currently looking for women of colour aged 18 years and over, based in the UK to participate in my forthcoming project, Whispering for help. The project involves recording women of colour experience with mental health, this will involve a mixture of black and white film portraits and hand written texts by the sitter.
You can read the project proposal below and if you have any questions or would like to participate please feel free to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for reading my proposal and I look forward to hearing from you.
Women photographers perspectives on mental well being
Marie Smith is also talking at an event in London on the 7th of October - How does ethnicity, culture, gender determine the responses and the services experienced ?
If you're interested in attending, please find tickets here.