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.