This Is How Mental Illness Really Feels

Photo: Courtesy of Liz Obert.
This story was originally published on January 9, 2015.
"As a person who suffers from bipolar II disorder," says Portland-based artist Liz Obert, "I lead a double life. I have one persona that people see every day, and another that I hide from the world."
Obert's experience inspired her to document the double lives of others with mental disorders, specifically bipolar disorder and depression. Each portrait in Obert's series, entitled "Dualities," has two sides. "The first presents the individuals as they prefer to be seen — for example, dressed up for a formal portrait or playing the guitar," Obert explains. "The second shows what they do when they are depressed, such as lying in bed." Obert explains her intention is to capture "two images of each person, one up and one down." The photos also include captions, handwritten by the subjects, revealing details about their experiences and emotions.
The series puts human faces on devastating disorders that affect millions of people. The CDC reports that 1 in 10 U.S. adults struggles with depression, with women two times more likely than men to develop the disorder. And, 4% of of U.S. adults will experience bipolar disorder at some point in their lives, with the condition also being more prevalent in women.
These disorders are often "invisible," in that those who struggle with them often suffer in silence. With "Dualities," Obert amplifies their voices. "I give the subject control over the setting," she explains. "They decide where they want to be photographed and what they will be doing." Everyone, not just those with mental disorders, can relate to the idea of dual states of mind — our confident social personas juxtaposed with our fearful, lonely inner voices. "It is my hope that interacting with this work will reduce the stigma of bipolar disorder and depression," Obert says. "Through this series and the conversations that I hope it inspires, people without these disorders can connect with the people who have them." Click through for the powerful images, including Obert's own self-portrait.
1 of 15
Photo: Courtesy of Liz Obert.
Left: "Apparent life accomplishments pale in the light of self doubt. Music helps: This Mortal Coil, Sparklehorse, Donny Hathaway, Miles' Kind of Blue, Stones' Let it Bleed. 'Because/An only life can take so long to climb/clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never.'"

Right: "Not the life of the party, but in it. Confident, witty, quick, unflappable. Almost anything seems possible, even if it probably won’t be attempted. Music helps: Stevie, Roberta Flack, Sparklehorse, Iggy, Roxy Music."
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Photo: Courtesy of Liz Obert.
Left: "I listen to music: Ryan Adams, Neil Young, Wilco, Radiohead, The National, Jeff Buckley, Pavement, Echo and the Bunnymen — stuff like that. I like the absorption music produces. Overtaken by rhythm and melody, my mood can be altered or reinforced. All emotions are in play — from giddy to despair and all points between"

Right: "I feel goofy when up. My inhibitions are lowered. I’m energetic and quick with wit. I still listen to music but my playlist changes, I’m more apt to put on Soul or Hip Hop — Al Green, John Legend or the Roots or Stevie Wonder. When up I listen to the Beastie Boys, the Clash, Nirvana, Pixies."
3 of 15
Photo: Courtesy of Liz Obert.
Left: "Immerse yourself Tame it. Prove yourself. Control it."

Right: "Hi there! I’m Colton. And you are?"
4 of 15
Photo: Courtesy of Liz Obert.
The artist, Liz Obert
Left: "My dog Niko, red wine and pizza, sci-fi, fantasy novels, working in the studio & listening to books on tape, napping, staying at home, close friends, trying not to think. LOTS of SLEEP..."

Right: "Socializing, happy hour, camping climbing, feeling pretty, optimistic everything will be all right."
5 of 15
Photo: Courtesy of Liz Obert.
Left: "I sleep all day or get lost on the internet so I don’t get lost in the darkness in my mind. My world shrinks. Others have to care for me because I feel like I can’t do anything. I feel guilty about that. I only want to feel this dark hurt ever again."

Right: "I like to be part of the world. I like cooking, theatre, gardening, reading, spending time with friends & family, travel. I am joyful, content, peaceful."
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Photo: Courtesy of Liz Obert.
John Paul
Left: "Stagnant, self-hatred feeling alone, walking dead, I’ve failed, getting old, creativity gone, unlovable, the world has gone mad!!!"

Right: "Feeling creative and solid, a love of life just being in the moment on a steady basis, and nurturing gratitude for everything I’ve experienced — both the bad and the good."
7 of 15
Photo: Courtesy of Liz Obert.
Left: "Buckled down in hermit mode & waiting for the storm to pass; Moody & quick to explosive anger, low energy & attention; self destructive & overly critical, guilty for things out of my control, creative thinking & work improves dramatically, happiness is short lived, overly dramatic, & appears fake."

Right: "Ambitious & Driven to Succeed; Healthy & perky; motivated to further pursue my dreams & help those around me, advocate and vocal for passions & concerns loveable [sic] and appreciative; slower to anger, active & eager to explore myself & the world around me."
8 of 15
Photo: Courtesy of Liz Obert.
Left: "Feel Heavy [anxious], think about how everything is messed up, over analyze. Make up false scenarios, don’t feel like I’m meeting expectations, isolate, stay home, crawl in bed sit on my front porch, smoke cigarettes and avoid social situations."

Right: "Clean my room, my car, organize my studio, shower fix myself up talkative, animated, smile, energy, engaged in conversations, thoughtful, clear sight, goofy, sassy & silly engage in community events sing, make up songs, make artwork."
9 of 15
Photo: Courtesy of Liz Obert.
Left: "Slovenly, dead-eyed & glued to a screen. Listening to rather than making music hiding my unkept face [due] to gender dysphoria, disassociated from my surroundings"

Right: "Generally tidy, focused, practicing instruments & creating new song ideas. Dolled up with makeup & hair done Outspoken & assertive about nearly everything, Doing voice impersonations for entertainment."
10 of 15
Photo: Courtesy of Liz Obert.
Left: "Everything feels like too much, like it’s never going to work out When I get there, meditation helps Walking helps. So does doing the dishes."

Right: "There is possibility again Freedom some times, life is so beautiful. I feel like I could bust. My breath is glowing and I love everyone. All is manageable."
11 of 15
Photo: Courtesy of Liz Obert.
Left: "I am small and needy, as the Sia song goes Surrounded by a fog of failure, drowning in the expectations I have not met A shadow of myself"

Right: "My vitality and love for life are undeniable I am strength personified, beauty in motion. I speak for myself and on behalf of others with a clear loud voice."
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Photo: Courtesy of Liz Obert.
Left: "I am ashamed, I am afraid. I am all my failures combined in one moment: now. I am filled with anger, hate I am despair"

Right: "I am inspired, I am inspiring I am with friends, watching Kung Fu, listening to music, dancing, rock climbing, having fun Smiling, a lot of smiling"
13 of 15
Photo: Courtesy of Liz Obert.
Left: "Feeling as though everything is crashing down around me and powerless to stop it. Stuck in deep pain and ancient anger that needs to be kept hidden, no power to resolve, no strength with which to move forward. Doomed to certain failure."

Right: "Whenever there is a blank canvas of fiber and oil paint of dye, the world is created anew. It waits upon my imagination, as does the future. Great blessings have been given to me, and I want to share them."
14 of 15
Photo: Courtesy of Liz Obert.
Left: "Watch the TV. Smoke cigarettes in my bathroom. Talk to myself in the studio. Gain weight from bad meds. Get coffee twice a day. Try to nap. No restful sleep Ruminate over past events/events that will never take place"

Right: "Long walks around the city. Friend time. Metal shows. Smoke cigarettes outside. Work on projects that need IMMEDIATE attention. No sleep. Mixed states. Floating head of myself scolding me for being everybody’s dog and pony show."
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Photo: Courtesy of Liz Obert.
Left: "Solitude, video games, cuddling with kittens, gut laughing at acerbic comedy, indulging in evil food, quiet introspection, avoiding my artwork, more solitude."

Right: "Seeing friends, video games with friends on line, music while I cook good food, good beer, doing artwork that I am proud of, enjoying the company of my filthy unemployed feline roommates."