How photography helped me recover from depression

How photography helped me recover from depression

Early last year I bought a new camera. I’d been a casual shutterbug at various times before, but always wound up quitting within a few weeks or months. This time, though, was different. This time, the perfectionism and anxiousness and preordained sense of defeat that clung to every previous snap of the shutter were gone. This time, I wasn’t shooting to prove to some unseen force that I had intrinsic worth. This time, I was shooting just to shoot.

I had no thought of myself when I aimed the viewfinder, no need for a purpose beyond visual interest as I chose something to fill the frame. When I got home from one of my daily photowalks and found that the images I’d taken were mostly shit, I was disappointed, but, more than that, I was glad to find a decent snap or two among the rubbish. I wanted to keep shooting. I looked forward to it.

This was such an unfamiliar emotional state, not just toward photography but toward anything. It took me weeks to explain. Someone with less talent for cynicism and irony would have arrived at the explanation sooner, but finally even I had to surrender to the obvious.

The explanation was love. I’d fallen in love with something again.

Mere months before I picked up that camera, I had begun each day by making a list of reasons not to kill myself. And the lists were getting shorter.

What happened was this: I inherited a tendency toward anxiety and depression, and at some point in my 30s, that tendency metastasized into clinical depression. It eased up on a blessed handful of occasions throughout the years, but, for the most part, what Winston Churchill called the black dog bit down on my brain like a donkey with lockjaw.

Clinical depression crippled my ability to love. First went the love of being human, then the love of writing and reading, and then, inevitably, the love of life itself. The only thing that remained, the thing that kept me going, that allowed me to persist, was the bare knuckle blood duty I felt to my children, which is a kind of love. A love like the feeling of your naked back on a cement floor, love like the rebar running through concrete, but love nonetheless.

Even given that, I knew I couldnt go on for much longer. Aside from the crying jags, the overwrought temper, and the conviction that my life had no worth, an antiseptic fog settled over my mind like an unoxygenated dead patch in the ocean. At its worst, I chased triple espressos with nicotine gum just to gig my nervous system enough to get the day’s work done. I don’t even smoke.

Depression is a disease, but it’s also a habit. The mind gets good at whatever it’s repeatedly made to do, and the neural footpaths that melancholy wears in all that gray matter don’t disappear overnight.

But then the strangest thing happened: I got better.

After six or seven failed treatments, my doctor prescribed a drug called Lexapro. Just one little 10mg pill each morning, and four weeks later I woke to find that the person I knew as Johnathon was gone.

I know how dramatic and even silly that sounds, but there’s no way around it. The shift was immediate and profound. The old Johnathon began each day with a string of low rent curses, then hid beneath the covers until work couldn’t be put off any longer. This new guy, he opened his eyes and all he could see was light. I don’t mean light as a figurative force — the spiritual antonym of darkness — but as workaday luminance, light dodging through the branches of the box elder outside my window, light splitting into shadows and highlights in its army crawl through the loops and tangles of my sleeping wife’s hair.

It’s not a bulletproof cure, Lexapro. Depression is a disease, but it’s also a habit. The mind gets good at whatever it’s repeatedly made to do, and the neural footpaths that melancholy wears in all that gray matter don’t disappear overnight.

If I’m not careful, I can slip back onto one of those paths for a time. The difference now is that I don’t have to stay there. I take a moment, shudder at the dreadful ease of each step, at the malignant familiarity of those haunted footprints, and I consciously change direction. It’s a bit scary, wandering off a known path into the fields and mountains of this new mind, but it’s not the scary of dread or guilt or regret. It’s the scary that comes with honestly not knowing what you might find. It’s the scary we call hope.

I’m still rummaging through parts of the old Johnathon that might be preserved. It’s an odd, slow process, like wandering through a hoarder’s estate sale. Writing, in particular, has been difficult to pick back up. So much of the old guy’s identity was wrapped up in being a writer, and so often depression was his co-dependent muse. Even now when I sit down and try to write —especially poetry — I find myself back on one of those old diseased neural pathways, and I abandon words in favor of my camera and a long walk.

I hope that changes. I miss poetry, in particular. I miss its slippery, spiteful magic. And I wonder: if it never comes back, if I can never write a poem again, will that be okay? Will I be okay?

You can support my photography and my recovery by buying a print from my print shop.

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