12 Breathtaking Photos Show What It's Really Like To Have General Anxiety Disorder

Photo: Courtesy Of Katie Crawford.
This post was originally published on May 14, 2015.

"Trying to explain a mental illness to someone who's never experienced it is like trying to explain color to a blind person," photographer Katie Crawford tells me. Instead of relying on words alone to convey what it feels like to suffer from general anxiety disorder and depression, which Crawford has battled since age 11, she picked up her camera and developed a breathtaking series of self-portraits, titled "My Anxious Heart."

The 2015 Louisiana State University Fine Arts grad had been taking medication for her disorders for eight years when she decided to go off medication at age 21, with the supervision of her doctor. "I was in the middle of my junior year of art school and felt so numbed and crazy from just suppressing the anxiety [that] I decided to wean off of my medication," she explains. "The complete change of feeling these emotions and frequent panic attacks left me exhausted, but I knew I had to get to the root of them if I were ever going to have any sense of normalcy in my life...I had to express visually what was happening mentally."

Each of Crawford's self-portraits manifests a seemingly ineffable emotion: Saran wrap pulls tight over her mouth to represent her physical and metaphorical struggles to breathe; a smashed clock beside an hourglass encasing her body evoke Crawford's fractured relationship with the passage of time. She hopes that together with their accompanying text, the photos "begin to express the constant, overwhelming presence of anxiety. It's not always terrifying, it's not always strong, and it's not always intense, but it's always close by."

She also hopes that as a society, we'll begin to address mental illness in the same way that we do physical illness: matter-of-factly and without shame. "There's a stigma that 'it's just in your head,'" she observes, "[but] what's more debilitating than being imprisoned by your own thoughts?" And on an individual level, she calls for greater understanding of and compassion for the 3.1% of the population with general anxiety disorder. "There's a misconception that anxious people are antisocial, short-fused, or overdramatic," she states. "But, they're most likely processing everything around them so intensely that they can't handle a lot of questions, people, or heavy information all at once."

Click through to view the 12 portraits in "My Anxious Heart," which will resonate with everyone who's experienced anxiety, disordered or not. As Crawford points out, her story is only one woman's. One story, however, has the power to launch a conversation.
1 of 12
Photo: Courtesy Of Katie Crawford.
"A glass of water isn’t heavy. It’s almost mindless when you have to pick one up. But what if you couldn’t empty it or set it down? What if you had to support its weight for days...months...years? The weight doesn’t change, but the burden does. At a certain point, you can’t remember how light it used to seem. Sometimes, it takes everything in you to pretend it isn’t there. And sometimes, you just have to let it fall."
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2 of 12
Photo: Courtesy Of Katie Crawford.
"My head is filling with helium. Focus is fading. Such a small decision to make. Such an easy question to answer. My mind isn’t letting me. It’s like a thousand circuits are all crossing at once."
3 of 12
Photo: Courtesy Of Katie Crawford.
"I was scared of sleeping. I felt the most raw panic in complete darkness. Actually, complete darkness wasn't scary. It was that little bit of light that would cast a shadow — a terrifying shadow."
4 of 12
Photo: Courtesy Of Katie Crawford.
"They keep telling me to breathe. I can feel my chest moving up and down. Up and down. Up and down. But, why does it feel like I'm suffocating? I hold my hand under my nose, making sure there is air. I still can't breathe."
5 of 12
Photo: Courtesy Of Katie Crawford.
"Numb feeling. How oxymoronic. How fitting. Can you actually feel numb? Or, is it the inability to feel? Am I so used to being numb that I've equated it to an actual feeling?"
6 of 12
Photo: Courtesy Of Katie Crawford.
"A captive of my own mind. The instigator of my own thoughts. The more I think, the worse it gets. The less I think, the worse it gets. Breathe. Just breathe. Drift. It'll ease soon."
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7 of 12
Photo: Courtesy Of Katie Crawford.
"It's strange — in the pit of your stomach. It's like when you're swimming and you want to put your feet down but the water is deeper than you thought. You can't touch the bottom and your heart skips a beat."
8 of 12
Photo: Courtesy Of Katie Crawford.
"Cuts so deep it's like they're never going to heal. Pain so real, it's almost unbearable. I've become this...this cut, this wound. All I know is this same pain; sharp breath, empty eyes, shaky hands. If it's so painful, why let it continue? Unless...maybe it's all that you know."
9 of 12
Photo: Courtesy Of Katie Crawford.
"I'm afraid to live and I'm afraid to die. What a way to exist."
10 of 12
Photo: Courtesy Of Katie Crawford.
"No matter how much I resist, it'll always be right here desperate to hold me, cover me, break down with me. Each day I fight it, 'You're not good for me and you never will be.' But, there it is waiting for me when I wake up and eager to hold me as I sleep. It takes my breath away. It leaves me speechless."
11 of 12
Photo: Courtesy Of Katie Crawford.
"You were created for me and by me. You were created for my seclusion. You were created by venomous defense. You are made of fear and lies. Fear of unrequited promises and losing trust so seldom given. You've been forming my entire life. Stronger and stronger."
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12 of 12
Photo: Courtesy Of Katie Crawford.
"Depression is when you can't feel at all. Anxiety is when you feel too much. Having both is a constant war within your own mind. Having both means never winning."
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