© 2018 by Stephan Pawloski (Nature Photography)
 

Salvation in a Photo

Extended from the version originally published in Visions Magazine, Vol. 13 No. 2, 2017

 

... if you trust me with your time, I will trust you with my heart. 

My story does not begin with a childhood of grief and tragedy, but rather one more akin to a scene from television’s famous idyllic town of Mayberry. I was raised by parents who were happily present in their kids’ lives. Life at home was safe and predictable, minus the occasional bad decision on my part—such as the time I built a campfire in my wooden wagon so I could take it to my friend’s house for a marshmallow roast. I didn’t make it to my friend’s house that day; neither did the wagon.

I grew up under the illusion that kids brought up in happy, functional homes would become happy and healthy adults who, upon finishing their university education, started a family in their new house, ideally located within walking distance to an excellent little café. (I suspect that many people with chronic illness can relate to the feeling of watching their perfect life plans dissolve into the painful disillusionment that real life brings.)

Taking my first photo with a 35mm Yashica Electro. My parents, both students of the arts, always had photography equipment in the house, which ensured I could easily get up to no-good without much help from others.

By my late teens I was experiencing abnormal levels of anxiety and I found my last year of university abnormally stressful; but I toughed it out and soon was a graduate of the social sciences, ready to take the world by storm—or at least research the hell out of it while keeping my local Starbucks well in the black. Fairly quickly I was offered an opportunity working in the federal criminal justice system; I jumped at the opportunity.

 

In retrospect, I should have been more alarmed by the degree of increasing difficulty I was experiencing through the last year of university. I just chalked it up to the stress of having a small business while also going to school full time. When I began to falter in the early days of training for the new job, I brushed it off and just worked harder.

I operated a small welding business while going to university. The ability to plan my jobs around my class schedules and the hands-on nature of the work was a wonderful contrast to academia.

As the days and weeks passed, however, I knew I was in trouble. Instead of acclimating to the new environment, I was coming apart under the stress. Honestly, that is putting it too mildly. I really felt like I was having a continuous heart attack while my brain was stuck in a frenetic short circuit. I had no idea what was happening; I had never experienced anything so horrifying and disorienting. Later, one of my doctors suggested that I had experienced a psychotic break during this time.

 

The effects of my anxiety (eventually diagnosed as social anxiety disorder and generalized anxiety disorder) were compounded by this career move to another province—and now, on top of that, I felt like I was losing my mind.

 

I believe this was when I discovered my first foray into self-harm as an adult; I would run. Not metaphorically run, but literally I would run, past the point of being sick and push on until it hurt so bad I flinched with each stride. I’d experienced a “runner’s high” many times before, but the high wasn’t what I was chasing this time, it was nothing compared to the psychological whitewash offered by the pain from abusing my body. Not until every part of me from my lungs to my feet felt like it was being poked with hot irons would the noise in my head stop. As long as I kept running, I could think. I wanted to feel human again and I knew I needed to get to a place where I could be still. .

 

I took stock of my situation. I was in a city where everything felt foreign. Normally this would be the perfect setting to start an adventure, but this time everything felt hostile. I had just spent the last five years in university to get here, and now it felt like being here was killing me. With feelings of regret and confused relief, I resigned from my position and moved back home to heal.

Upon returning home, life picked up where it had left off earlier that year. My fiancée and I planned our wedding, and I started looking for new career opportunities.

Upon returning home, the steel industry was decimated by the recession (2008) so I found my footing by starting a fine-woodworking business. This slowly but steadily grew into a good lifestyle. Then, six years later, I experienced my second psychotic break while wrestling with the stress of what was the highest-profile project my small shop had yet landed. Once again, I lived in a constant state of mental anguish, an experience I still struggle to accurately describe. It was as if for each hour that I was awake I felt as if I had just been told that my spouse died, and this grief was relentless. Again, I found myself looking for options other than suicide. I would tell myself, “Suicide is there, it’s not a limited-time offer, and it will still be there later. You’ve got nothing to lose at this point so try something else first.”

 

And so, without making any conscious decision, I found myself cutting whenever the anguish was overbearing... a little at first, then eventually over 200 times. I had become good at cleanly gluing together my wounds and would pass off the thin red lines as some sort of feline intervention gone wrong. I had surprisingly little trouble with the excuses, after all, everyone knows boys in their twenties don't cut, right?

A carefully crafted drawer, laid upside-down for the fitting of the drawer glides. Note the rabbeted and doweled corner joints; this was a signature style to my work.

Something odd happened at this stage of a psychological collapse: I grew really quiet and calm on the outside, even though the inside feels like a re-enactment of Passchendaele. I can see now how it is possible for someone to take their own life without anyone knowing it was coming. It’s as if the only real warning sign of inner despair is ironically the lack of stereotypical warning signs.

 

I lost a lot after that second psychotic break. I had to shut down my business, and the wealth I had worked to build evaporated in the two years of recovery that followed. But with the love of family and friends comes help and support. I was never shamed by friends or loved ones for self-harming. I only felt their respect and positive affirmation.

 

I was two months into a nine-month wait-list to see a psychiatrist when I found the Mood Disorders Association of BC. In a matter of weeks, the association had me in for assessment and I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 2—a diagnosis that made sense of the whole picture. On one hand, the diagnosis was frightening: my perception at the time of what bipolar disorder is and what it entails was grim, and as it turns out this perception was grossly misinformed by our pop-psychology saturated world. Yet I also experienced a sense of relief with this diagnosis. Finally! I now knew what I had been coping with for the past eight years.
 

In the midst of this chaos, I kept picking up my camera and photographing the outdoors. For the past fifteen years photography had been nothing more than a casual hobby, but now it was growing into a healthy distraction, maybe even a lifeline. Making a good photograph requires the photographer to be present in the moment and to fully engage with the environment. You can’t just think about filling the frame with your subject. You have to consider the foreground, the background, the composition and the lines you want the eye to follow. You need to see in terms of contrast, light, and shape, and when hand-holding a telephoto lens under the muted light of a forest canopy, you must exercise dominance over each breath, carefully metering your fine muscle movements between exposures. If you want to consistently capture good images, you have to work for it.

 

As I spent more time outdoors with a camera in hand, I cut less. The urge was still present, but now I had a healthier outlet. At the time, I thought photography was just a way to keep myself busy, but I can see now that photography grew beyond being a distraction. It became a process of extended mindfulness. The camera had become a catalyst for healing.

It’s been a few years since then. It’s naive to believe the romanticized depiction of mental illness being a gift in disguise, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t positives to be found in the daily challenges it brings. As I continue to share my story with others, many have confided in me their own struggles with mental illness. Often these people break the stereotypes that society has of the mentally ill; they are successful professionals in their field or have dedicated their life to raising an incredible family, living outwardly enviable lives. In essence, they have become masters at editing the photo album that is their life, carefully choosing which photographs of their life to display and which ones are never developed.

 

As it turns out, this was the recipe for finding Mayberry all along, hand-picking the idyllic shots and never showing anyone the mess of crops lying on the floor. But as it also turns out, walking with mental illness has taught me that truly living is being willing to experience and share with others an authentic and unbridled life, including the less-than picture-perfect moments that are lived in those cropped margins.

 

Be true to your authentic self...