Faces of Mental Illness 1 : My struggle with Anxiety

Everyone has their own perspective. We all see the world just a little bit differently than the person next to us. It is because of this that we all form opinions, one way or another, about other people. This isn’t inherently good or bad; It just is.

When I was approached for this project, I felt a deep creative spark. Rebecca, the woman behind the idea, and I spent hours talking and sketching out different ways to accomplish our goal. We wanted to show the difference between what people see on the outside, and what happens inside the person’s mind. Our goal is to interview and photograph people with different internal struggles to help show their daily life, inside and out. The first photograph will be of the person, as they are seen by the outside world. The second will be a composite, fine art picture showing what it feels like inside of them.

I wanted to start with myself for a few reasons. First, this allowed us to play with different ideas and start us off on the right path before interviewing others. Second, I wanted to show my own struggles before asking other people to share theirs. I chose Anxiety for myself, as it is the most prevalent mental illness in my life. I have dealt with other tendencies throughout my journey, but Anxiety has stuck around the longest. What I’m sharing today is deeply personal, as the future posts will be about others. I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

Let’s start with the exterior. What do you see?

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My name is Sarah Chase. I am a photographer, an artist, a mother, a wife. My son is homeschooled, and I spend a lot of time guiding him through learning and driving him to play dates, co-op, and field trips. I work with photography clients to capture family connection, couples in love, and even boudoir to show women how beautiful they are. As a family, we love to travel. It was a dream of ours for years, and we are finally making it happen one trip at a time. When we’re home for long periods of time, we love to get out in nature and hike, or go to Boston for a field trip.

I have heard many opinions from other people about me. Some are kind, while others are not. In the past year’s examples I’ve been called cute, stylish, and talented. I paused, though, when someone told me my life was perfect. Okay, it was more of a burst of laughter than a pause, but you get my point. It’s not that my life is awful. We all live through things and can grow because of them. My life is great when I look around, though. I have a loving partner, a healthy child, and many adventures. I have a roof over my head and food in my stomach. That is all beautiful, and I’m grateful for it.

I’ve also had fellow mothers pick on me for “dressing up,” and various negative mentions of style, lifestyle, and even dietary choices. The one that has stuck with me though was being told that it “must be nice” to be able to do the things that I do. At first I was struck with guilt, but then I focused on my inner dialogue and thought, “It is nice.”

It is nice that despite my anxiety I am able to still do all that I want to. Despite my panic on airplanes, I am still able to get on one. Despite the three panic attacks while driving last year, I am still able to drive. Despite years of bullying I am still able to put time into how I look and feel, and learn how to love myself. Despite every fear of failure, I am able to have my own business. Despite my anxiety, I am still able to live my life. That, is nice.

What people can’t see are the struggles my marriage has survived in order to be as wonderful as it is now. They can’t see how much of a miracle our son is, after we were told we probably wouldn’t conceive naturally. They can see the pain, though, when they ask when we plan on having another, to which I answer “after 5 years of trying, we probably won’t.” They can’t see how even when things are great, I have 100 tabs of anxious thoughts open in my mind.

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My name is Sarah Chase, and I cope with Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

I am not fragile. Though I feel like I could shatter at any moment I am not made of glass. From the moment I wake in the morning the thoughts pour in. My to-do list fills my mind all at once and I wonder if I will have the energy to complete it. While this is happening, my son sends his own requests. I am bombarded with more and more between the two of us until I feel like I’m going to break down, and the day has only been a few minutes long. I try my best to smile and reply as I make my way to the kitchen for coffee. I’m told that caffeine can make things worse, but without it I would be a puddle on the couch, stuck and unable to move. The coffee helps, but I rarely feel truly awake.

I close my eyes and breathe. Nothing is wrong in the present, but my brain takes me to the future that probably won’t happen. I worry about my list, I worry about my son, I’m anxious to get through the day but wanting to stay in each moment longer. Each passing minute is a push and pull between needing to move on to the next thing and not wanting to move at all. I go over all of the possible things that could go wrong at any time, even catastrophically so. I worry that I’ll panic in situations I panicked in before, then remind myself that the cycle of panic starts with the fear of it. I tell myself, again, how stupid this all is.

That’s the difference between anxiety and fear. Fear has it’s useful place in our survival. Fear happens in present, real situations and triggers a fight or flight response. Anxiety, however, lives in a false future and makes me worry about things that aren’t real, but still creates some very real symptoms. Chest pain and tightness, shortness of breath- the list goes on and on and is different for everyone.

When I grip the steering wheel of my car, I have to distract myself with music and mints. Panic has happened more than once here, the first time being the worst. My chest tightened and my hands went numb, which brought a very real fear of getting into a car accident. I give myself extra time to get to my destination, just in case it happens again and I need to pull over and rest. I don’t like being late, and I worry what people will think if I am. When I feel the anxiety bubbling up, I have to breathe deeply, eat a mint, and remind myself that there is no real danger.

When I get onto an airplane I start to shake. Before my son was born I went to Ireland with my husband and drank enough red wine to sing the song and pass out. As a parent, though, I need to be awake and aware. I started taking a medication to get me through it, so I could enjoy our travels on the other side. I don’t really like the way it makes me feel, but it’s still better than shaking or throwing up or feeling like I was falling, during the flight. It’s the only time I take anything for it, not for lack of trying. Another type of anxiety medication had me feeling suicidal after 4 short days of taking it. As someone who lost a friend to suicide, I figured it was best to cope naturally as often as possible.

Even with this post, I’ve been anxious. I could feel myself putting off the first step of our project out of anxious thoughts telling me I wasn’t ready. My words weren’t enough. The pictures weren’t enough. I had to improve, I had to wait. That is, until a good friend of mine sat me down and said “You need to just do it, instead of waiting for perfect.” She was right, and so here we are.

This is a small sampling of what my experience with anxiety has been like. It is in no way the only experience, as we all have our own perspectives. If you’ve made it all the way to the end, thank you. There are a couple more things I’d like to ask of you. First, if you could please share this post. Maybe there’s someone out there going through something similar, or someone who would like to be part of this passion project. Second, if you are someone who would like to join us, please CONTACT me and we can start the interview process. Not all applicants will be photographed, but we would like to make this project as diverse as possible.

Thank you, and I wish you much love.

-Sarah Chase

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