A DELICATE BALANCE
Additional Stories Behind the Images
In 2007 the idea that more people in America were becoming morbidly obese became news. I wanted to photograph this idea but also demonstrate with a page from Playboy Magazine their opinion of the ideal woman: buxom, thin, and sexy. The idea of a housewife was not sexy. Obese women were not sexy. A brave friend who had battled weight her entire life agreed to pose nude for me, and asked that I conceal her identity. I wrapped her head in a silk stocking. In art history some images of large women with arms missing look like a female Buddhas goddesss. Rubens painted large women. American advertising chose a certain type of image of a woman to sell products. Whether they were blonde, brunette or redheads, they were thin, buxom, active, outdoor women. None were black, or of any other ethnicity except Caucasian. My friend and I made two images together. I asked her to write about her life-long struggle with weight. She said Over my lifetime I have spent enough money to fund a small third world country. She also wrote: The only time I was thin was at my mother's funeral. She would have been proud of me, but it was too late for her to see.
Twenty years ago it was difficult to have a conversation about cancer. Because of drug therapy improvements and more success in treating the disease, people gradually began to share the story of their harrowing journey. Now people put on Facebook that they have cancer. Comments from friends sympathsize and support them, often send an emoji with prayer hands.
There is no emoji for mental illness.
Mental illness remains a story that hides in plain sight, still in the leper category--as if it were contagious and dangerous--better to ignore and turn a blind eye. Many illnesses are inherited by DNA as it is not unusual to have more than one manic depressive person in a family tree. My own experience has shown me that with treatment, life can be managed with medicine and therapy. When I had my first of two phychotic breaks at twenty-eight back to back that summer, I asked how long it would last. The doctors told me there was no cure. There was a higher possibility of suicide. They said it was a life sentence. I left the room thinking you mean a death sentence.
Doctors do not realize when they release you from the hospital that you are not stable yet. I went to the medical library and read everything I could about the behavior and then created my silver lining playbook, two columns, what I could do and what I could not do. That kept me out of the hospital for 39 years during which I was repeatedly told that I was not manic depressive because I should have had breaks every four years.
This is a grueling and tiring disease. One carries the weight of the secret, and experiences the brush off from friends who tire from non-stop talking. One of the few behavior indicators is called pressure of speech, the inability to stop talking or skipping around subjects that do not necessarily relate except to the manic depressive person.
There is no urine or blood test. Diagnosis is made by observation of behavior. Frequently it takes ten years to determine if a person is manic depressive and another year to get the right medication for them. Manic depressive illness when untreated often leads to losing family, jobs, friends, and creates a part of the homeless population we dare not see because we are thankful we are not in their situation. If we look at them, make eye contact, the possibility that this disorder may lay dormant for years in one of us is frightening. Triggered by stress, if the person has the inate predisposition, they might have their first psychotic break at an earlier age than believed possible until Time Magazine plastered a portrait of a fifteen year old manic depressive adolescent on the cover. I am hoping that by talking about mental illness that it becomes a conversation that opens people to educate themselves. I hope I live long enough to see more support and help for the mentally ill from the general population.
A study in 2011 said the United States has the highest lifetime rate of bipolar disorder at 4.4%, and India the lowest. The DNA predisposed person will develop the disorder in their early teens or by age thirty. Certainly it will manifest by age fifty. Some of the most creative minds have outed themselves to let people know how they are trying to manage this inheirited disorder, which is a chemical imbalance in the brain.
If we ignore all the people that have been living with this disorder, they are not going to vanish. Because uneducated people think this is contagious, unlike cancer, they hide family members who have mood swings or institutionalize them. I can not list all the people out of work, living in boxes, or homeless because the Internet does not have a list of their names. Instead here are some people you may have heard of: Alvin Alley, Vincent Van Gogh, Mariah Carey, Dick Cavett, Francis Ford Coppola, Rosemary Clooney, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Richard Dreyfuss, Patricia Cornell, Carrie Fisher (Star Wars), Robert Downey, Jr., Patty Duke, Mel Gibson, Graham Greene, Linda Hamilton, Connie Francis, Stephen Fry (movie: Stephen Fry, The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive), Ernest Hemingway, Jesse Jackson, Jr., Vivien Leigh, Edvard Munch, Kim Novak, Rene Russo, Frank Sinatra, Kristy McNichol, Robert Schumann, Britney Spears, Dusty Springfield, Ted Turner, Jane Pauley, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe, Jackson Pollock, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Anne Sexton, Nina Simone, Ben Stiller, Margaret Trudeau, Mark Vonnegut, Jonathan Winters, Virginia Woolf, Kay Jamison Redfield and many others. This is a list of names of people I read about who were managing their manic depressive or bipolar illness, and speaking out to the public.
Some are celebrities who are outspoken about the stigma of mental illness and/or bipolar disorder know friends who have manic depression or they have experienced it first hand. They have resources to see a shrink and take medication to continue their careers, but at some point had to take a step back and learn how to manage the disorder in order to move forward. You might notice in the list above many film stars, singers, composers, and writers. Many bipolar people are exceptionally creative and highly intelligence. Often they have suffered some form of abuse in early childhood. Some see manic depression, a mood cycling disorder swinging from highs and lows as a curse. Others see it as a gift even though it is difficult to be wired differently ( I might use the term out of the box in terms of seeing the world around them). They enrich our lives even as they struggle. They lack a governor in their brain and brakes to stop them when they go down the rabbit hole.
Advancements in the field of DNA may someday be able to locate the genetic sequence which creates the pre-disposition to manic depression as well as cancer and other rare diseases. Aiming to distinguish which strands of DNA, target and remove them may advance medicine in a way we never imagined in our lifetimes curing illness that scientists have researched for decades. That alone may change our view that the mind and body are one. My friend, Dina Feldman, The former Minister of Truth and Justice for Israel, once discussed with me how much opposition she faced trying to encourage the idea that the mind/body goes through one door, joined at the hip. I admire her insight, courage and tenacity.
© 2010 Caroline Hickman Vaughan
Chapel Hill, NC, © 2010
Caroline Hickman Vaughan
Chapel Hill, NC, © 2010 Caroline Hickman Vaughan