I traveled eighteen of the thirty-one days in May.
I visited New Orleans, then parts of Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. They were exciting trips, full of delayed flights, kind strangers, writing deadlines, lost baggage, exemplary margaritas, familial tensions, romantic interludes, dramatic scenery, and lots of unexpected lessons…
Travel is never without a certain education in perspective. I also returned home with three rolls of film to develop: two rolls of black and white, and one roll of color.
The first roll of black and white turned out splendidly. During my time in New Orleans, I captured lush foliage in the Faubourg-Marigny district, centuries-old tombs of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, and tree branches heavy with Mardi Gras beads.
The rolls I shot out West were not so splendid. The color film was partially double-exposed: what I thought was a 36-exposure roll turned out to have just 24. And the last roll of black and white was mystifyingly blank—devoid of images completely, save for the faintest whisper of light in each frame.
It was user error, of course—all things mechanical misfire with my touch.
Somewhere between Silverton and Santa Fe, the wrong knob was turned. In adjusting the shutter speed, I had also lowered the ISO of the film. While the aperture and shutter speed regulate light, the ISO determines the light sensitivity of the film. In short, the roll of color received too much light; the roll of black and white didn’t receive enough. And film is not unlike the human mind: it requires a certain and specific balance to function properly.
The same week I developed my film, there were two shocking, high-profile suicides.
A woman, striking and brilliant, known for her creativity and whimsy decided she could not go on. And a man, who boldly ventured into parts unknown, on a quest to expand his mind, and explore voracious appetites, also chose to leave this world.
Their deaths were devastating reminders that mental health is often still taboo, that money cannot buy happiness and that America has a suicide epidemic on its hands (Visit CDC.gov)
Clearly, feeling suicidal is not rare, but rather it is a symptom of something deeper going on within all of us.
MD and psychiatrist Dr. Kelly Brogan, succinctly re-frames the desire to take one’s life: “suicidality to be a nearly requisite expression of urgency for change that must be met with the promise of such change being possible.”
All of us need hope that there is light, somewhere on the path. All of us experience periods of anxiety and depression, when our systems cannot properly regulate light or shadow, sleep or wakefulness, joy or despair. All of us. But you can’t always tell from the outside.
Anxiety often drives people into activity—adding social events, side jobs, happy hours, workout routines, and scheduling out every free moment. Anxiety calls us to live in the future—planning and attaching to numb the universal terror of not having any control. How do you stop the feeling of free-fall?
Depression, however, is the anchor of paralysis in the sea of life.
It dulls the cognitive function, weighing us down, filling our brains with fog that keeps us in the grips of painful past memories, taking up too much space to create new ones. Anxiety and depression are two side of the same coin, sending SOS signals throughout our bodies and minds.
In his atlas on mental health, The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon eloquently describes depression as “the flaw in love.” It is the flaw in love onto our own selves, and in our openness to love others. It is this flaw that bids us to isolate, separate and judge from the outside.
But we humans are faced with a life of endless unknowns and completely incalculable odds that unlimited wealth and fame cannot account for. Even privilege cannot evade the heavy grasp of mental illness, loneliness, purposelessness. For these feelings of despair are human, they encompass what we have in common, they span the space between us. Those who seem so different face the same terrors, and long for the same gentle caresses.
During one afternoon in Santa Fe, I finished work early and went wandering with my camera slung around my neck.
I set out for the tourist-laden plaza, and captured the steeple of the Saint Francis Cathedral set against some of the bluest sky I’d ever seen.
The church’s stained glass windows were superimposed against bold red geraniums outside a Persian restaurant on Canyon Road. Because I double-exposed the film. The effect wasn’t altogether unpleasant, though it does overwhelm the eye: too busy and noisy to allow any focus.
In contrast, my time between Albuquerque, Laramie and Denver was severely underexposed. I had tried to commemorate the gorgeous and foreboding clouds that rolled along the High Plains outside Centennial, Wyoming. I wanted that portrait of my friend, leaning on his red 1986 Dodge Ram, set against the marbled mesas of rural New Mexico.
But the memories were blanks. Devoid of enough light, they appeared to have been extinguished.
From the outside, there had been no indication that anything was awry. The 35mm seemed to function beautifully, focusing and winding with ease, then delivering a deliciously satisfying “click” with each shot. By design, film cameras cannot yield instant results. The click was misleading. I would not know until it was too late.
If you, or someone you know, is experiencing suicidal thoughts or impulses, tell someone. They cannot always see your anguish from the outside, and chances are, they long to connect, and have moments of despair themselves.
For looks are ever-deceiving.
Text CONNECT to 741741 anytime, from anywhere in the US, with any type of crisis: To learn more, visit: Crisistextline.org
This is not to say that capital, both fiscal, and social, cannot provide greater resources for the relief and treatment of any illness. Indeed, money buys a lot of things that make life easier, but peace of mind is not one of them.