Can Photography Be A Treatment For Depression?

Note: So this could quite possibly be the most personal thing I've ever publicly posted. It took me months to draft it and I originally published it on my Ello page a few months back, but figured it was time to post it here, on my own webpage, as well. Hopefully it'll resonate with some of you.

So the cat is out of the bag. By now it’s no secret that depression is a major issue and an extremely common affliction, one that paralyzes and affects at least 30 million people in this country alone, and that’s just the ones that report it. Considering the fact that most people don’t report it, they’ve felt too ashamed or haven't been ready to come out with it and admit that they are affected by it, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the rates hit close to 50% of this country. And I’m not even going to open up the can of worms on depression rates worldwide. However, it is worth noting that the results of a recent study sponsored by the World Health Organization and published in BMC Medicine journal, the United States has the second highest depression rate in the world, falling only behind France. Think about that for a second…that means that places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine…are LESS depressed than we are in the States.

There are signs everyday, most of which we brush off, or don’t pay attention to, but every now and again, something happens that throws it back out into the public discourse. Unfortunately, more often than not, it takes a celebrity or public figure for us to take notice, rather than realize it right next door in our friends, our family, our neighbors,
ourselves.

Perhaps most recently and publicly, it was Robin Williams, who left us about 18 months ago.

His battle was brought out into open after his suicide. Despite providing respite to millions of people across the globe, loved in all manners of the word, had more support than any of us could possibly ever imagine, he battled with this horrible affliction that eventually took his life. All the money, fame, fans, & fortunes ultimately weren’t enough to save him, and this should play testament to the things we find ourselves chasing every day.

What does this have to do with photography? Well, nothing. That’s not what this one’s about.

Yet.

I’ll start off by coming out and saying it here - I have battled with depression for a long time. Felt appropriate. I’ve never quite felt like I fit into any situation I’ve ever been a part of, any group I’ve ever been a part of, always felt, to some degree or another, as an outsider looking in, longing to be on the other side of that invisible wall. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had (and have) great friends, great experiences, wonderful family, wonderful support from all around. But for anyone that battles with depression, to any degree, that has nothing to do with it. It’s great to have all that there. It’s absolutely invaluable to have all that there. It’s necessary to have all that there. But ultimately, it’s you and only you that has to deal with it, from the inside out, and ultimately, you have to find the most constructive and productive way of doing that. For if you don’t, you risk losing and alienating all those things…the friends, the family, the experiences, the support...

While therapy is always brought up as a great line of action to deal with depression, and no doubt it works for many people, and hell, who knows, I might very well end up down that route one day, for a guy like me, it’s a tough option due, in no small part, to costs, time, and, most importantly, personal doubts on its efficacy in its current state. While I’m continually keeping an eye on the evolution of methods such as cognitive based therapy, in traditional methods, I’m most afraid of being led down a path of pills for fear of a dependency based ‘happiness,’ especially as we enter a generation in which we’re all too often seeing some of the tragic side-effects of these methods. For the meantime, my Taurean approach seems more rooted in digging deep inside, and looking deep within, to bring it all out to the surface and deal with it that way. So that instead of masking it, I’ve exposed it and, in doing so, hopefully, allowing it the space, time, and environment to heal.

This has been a process that has, so far, been several years in progress. After coming out of a decade of two failed businesses, more than anyone’s fair share of horribly scandalous true Hollywood story work situations (the sharks in these waters are no myth), a string of extremely dysfunctional relationships, some that have ended in epic fashion fit for a bestseller, I was left debt-ridden, doubt-ridden, jobless and alone. I forgot how to be happy, and I started feeling guilty during the fleeting moments that I did. It was a horrible cycle, a destructive place to be in.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, my saving grace began when I decided to move into Topanga Canyon. You’d have to live here to understand, but it wasn’t long before I began to realize what a magical enclave in the hills above Los Angeles this place truly was. One of those places where you can’t really find the right place on Craigslist or HotPads, you had to drive up, and check the community boards in the village for the best rentals in town in an effort to "keep it in the family” (sorry for blowing your cover Topanga...). It was close enough to the city for gigs, yet far enough from town not to deal with the noise and the static. And those 10 minutes of no reception once I turn off onto Old Topanga Canyon Road before I get home became something I looked forward to every day.

Stereo off.

Windows down.

Fresh air in my face.

I even grew to love the smell of the horse shit from the ranches and stables that dotted the winding mountain road.

However, I have lived alone. For the past 6 years. In a small guest unit on a property that I shared with a main house (that, for a brief stint, the Andy Dick lived in…that was interesting) and another small unit all the way on the other end of the property. I don’t venture to say these have been 6 of the toughest, yet most valuable and necessary years of my life, for, I have been forced to live with myself, by myself, giving me insight into myself that have traditionally been covered up by the static of living in a town that is defined by stimulation saturation.

These years have been necessary for me to find myself and who I am and to become fully comfortable with that person.

What being alone with yourself all of the time, in a setting as nice and peaceful as these mountains, does is, it forces you to actually marinate and process your thoughts, events, feelings. Living in the noise, in the midst of the hustle and the bustle and the superficial chase of the city ‘life,’ you’re almost forced to do the exact opposite…react. There’s no time or space to process and let things ride out, you have to react. Or, the (valid) fear is, you’ll be left behind.

“When I was young, and moving fast, nothing slowed me down…slowed me down.
Now I let, the others pass. I’ve come around. Come around.”
-The Black Keys

The other insanely invaluable thing that being up in these hills has given me is the realization of my extreme love, and passion, for our natural world. I always knew I was drawn to nature, but never did I realize how important it would become such an aspect of my life. My love of the outdoors has become a defining aspect of my very being. It wasn’t intentional, it just happened that way. Being in these surroundings, you can’t take a walk in a ‘neighborhood,’ instead you take a hike on a trail. You can’t hang out in downtown, instead you hang out in the State Park. And the more I did it, the more I realized I was doing it because it always made me feel better. There’s an immediate change in my chemical composition, a very noticeable one, as soon as I find myself outside on a hike, outside in a park, outside near a grove of oaks, sycamores, or sequoias, outside in a meadow, near a lake, or walking alongside rushing river or a trickling stream.

It comes as absolutely no surprise to me that doctors are now literally prescribing ‘time in nature,’ at a time when new research is showing the benefits against depression.

You may start off feeling uncomfortable. Sweating, hot, itchy. But then once you’re past that, whether it be a quarter-mile in, or a few minutes in, an amazing thing happens - you feel the sun on your skin, and the anxiety, the stress, the tense feelings, the doubts, the frustrations...all of it, quite literally, just melts away.

It all becomes so meaningless.

And it’s beyond your control, whether you like it or not, it just happens.

Everything becomes simple and clear.

And because of these experiences, I have been able to truly analyze why I found myself in the situations I did, what choices I made that put me in those ill-advised situations and relationships and destructive positions and patterns I seemed to continually find myself in. It caught such a hold of me I started volunteering at the State Parks in the area and even applied to become a Park Ranger at one point (that’s a story for another time…)

Now, in case you were wondering, this is the part where photography comes in.

Last year, I was asked to give a presentation about the future of digital photography on behalf of Samsung at Social Media Week Conference in Los Angeles, and one of the questions that an attendee asked me kind of put me on the spot. He asked about my feelings of adding too many filters and relying on Photoshop and whatnot in creating a good image, and I sort of surprised myself with how freely an answer came out…”if it makes the artist feel good, then I have absolutely no problem with it.”

This was a revelatory moment for me because I realized that for the first time ever, I had put into words, out loud, to another human being, in such a succinct, clear and indisputable manner, what it was about photography that I loved so much…”it made me feel good.”

For me, photography is a way of reminding myself that there is beauty in the world, there are wonderful things, gorgeous things, inspiring things, awe inducing things, colors, shapes, patterns, places, things…

Photography is a way of grabbing those things, having those things, holding onto those things, and, whenever necessary, remembering those things.

Photography makes me want to experience.

To see.

To Feel.

To Touch.

To Live.

A big part of depression is an obsessive focus on the past and the future, what can happen, what you convince yourself might and probably will happen, and ruminating on the things that have already happened. But when photography comes into the picture, and when you pull that camera up to your face and all you see is blackness but for a small rectangle of light with an image inside it, and you get to control what’s in that image and what’s not, you’re suddenly caught in the moment.

In that very moment.

No past.

No future.

Just now.

That’s what you’re seeing and focusing on, both literally and figuratively. And when you can focus on that moment, that image, what ‘the light’ is showing you, something taps into your neural pathways, something that touches you in a way in which you can’t help but appreciate what you’re being shown.

It’s that simple.

Despite all the bullshit, there still are beautiful things in the world…

Everywhere.

All the time.

Every day.

All around us.

Always.

And for me, photography is my proof that I get to witness some of them.

Do I still struggle with depression? Certainly, perhaps that never goes away, but there are two major differences:

One, and this is extremely important: I’ve been able to separate depression from loneliness - a very very important distinction for they are very very different things that require very very different approaches.

Two, it has become much easier and accessible to focus on the beautiful things in life. And that, in itself, has made all the difference.

And it doesn’t only stretch to the natural beauty of the world. Through photographing events like Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine and Education: Disrupted Think Tank at Pepperdine University and P.S. Arts events and The PTTOW Summit and my experiences in teaching in Sri Lanka and working with the World Forestry Center and even re-discovering my very own city, I’ve been exposed to amazing and wonderful and beautiful things that people are doing, and without photography as my conduit, I may very well have never had the opportunity to explore these ideas and views and movements and ideas as a reality.

And over the course of just a few years time, I’ve manage to pull myself from a place of being an eternal pessimist, always thinking about how much the worlds sucks and how everything is going downhill, and how god’s a bitch and s/he’s out to get me and ‘what’s the point,’ and blah blah blah, and now, even surprising myself, find myself on a course of being an eternal optimist…the idea that problems are just becoming opportunities for solutions has begun to take hold and grab my psyche in ways I could never have imagined.

And by looking through that viewfinder, it afforded me an entry point into that other side…

…the beautiful side.

And all because it ‘made me feel good.’

After quite an arduous road of self-discovery, I can finally confidently say, I can now ’see the light.’

And for those of you struggling with a similar thing, keep searching and perhaps you'll see that light too. But I'll tell you this, it won't happen the way you expect it to.

It rarely does.

Just keep your eyes...and mind...open.

For more ramblings and rumblings, find me at:
instagram: @wasimofnazareth 
ello: @wasimofnazareth 
google+: +WasimMuklashy

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