Alex Hilse | Reporter

This is going to be a very open and honest expression about how I have learned to combine the struggles of mental illness with the passion that I have for art. There may be things said in here that can be triggering, so please be cautious while reading.

For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from mental illness. It started with depression at a very young age, before I even realized what depression was. Then as I got older, I started to suffer from anxiety. I never really thought it was that bad until I started to have days that I couldn’t do anything without having what felt like an elephant sitting on my chest preventing me from being able to take a deep breath.

I am now an adult that has lived with these illnesses for many years. I tried everything I could think of and afford to help with healing or even subduing the way that I was feeling, but nothing seemed to work.

That was until I started to write short stories placing fictional people into scenarios and events that I felt like I was going through. That was the first time I had experienced finding an outlet without the need of medication or talking to someone that I felt didn’t really care.

The first outlet that made me feel like I was staying above water was writing. Though keeping a journal or diary works for some people, I felt like it was too cliché for me. I wrote very short stories about people going through the same problems I was having, but in the end, I was able to help them get through it. It was like I was giving myself advice by pretending that I didn’t exist in this world. Writing may have been the initial thing that saved me, both physically and mentally. It allowed me to see that I didn’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for pills that may or may not work. But then, the writing seemed to stop having an effect. I had to find something new.

By the middle of high school, I started getting into drawing. It made me feel good when I was able to complete something. At this point, my anxiety had started to take over most aspects of my life, so it felt good when I was validated for something that I was able to create. I was never really that good at drawing, at least not by an artistic standard, but I had fun doing it.

When I would draw, I had no other thoughts. Nothing seemed to matter except the pencil making lines on the paper. I would spend hours bending over a single piece of paper, holding the stub of a pencil, graphite dust all over my hands and face. But, like writing the stories, it seemed to stop having much of an effect on me mentally. I felt like I had nothing left at that point.

After many years, the depression and anxiety became part of who I was. There was no difference between a “good day” and a “bad day.” They all seemed to be the same. They were all “I made it through the day” days. There would be an occasional day that I would feel creative. I would write a story or sketch out a quick picture, but it didn’t feel the same. I didn’t feel like any of the problems that I was having would go away or become less troublesome. I was just existing, and no matter what I did, that was all I would be.

After a few years of feeling like I was simply just existing, I discovered a new art form. At least, it was new to me. I was sitting at a restaurant with my new cell phone and it had just finished raining. I had to run out to the parking lot to get something out of the car, and I noticed that flowers had bloomed on a tree nearby. I had to take a picture. It wasn’t a want, I needed to take the picture. Looking at the petals of the flowers with rain drops on them, the surface tension of the water keeping them in the shape of beads, I had to capture it. I took a picture with my cell phone and immediately sent it to the local TV news station. I couldn’t stop thinking about the way that the flowers looked. It made me happy that I was able to witness something that looked like that. Then, it got better.

Photo by Alex Hilse

Several hours had gone by since I had sent the photograph to the TV news station, and I had honestly forgotten about it at that point when I heard my name being yelled from the living room. I went in to see what was going on and to make sure everything was alright, and the TV was paused with my picture filling the screen with the caption of “Picture of the day” in the corner.

I was astounded. Something so small, insignificant, and common and yet it was good enough to be the “picture of the day.” From that moment, I was hooked on photography. That is when I noticed something about myself. I am always so worried, stressed out and pessimistic about life that I actively look out for things that I find beauty in so that I can have a moment of happiness. Now, when I find something that makes me happy, I can take a photo of it and look back on it whenever I need to.

My mental illness may have taken over most aspects of my life, but it has also given me so much. Without it, I may have never found a passion for art. I may have never thought of taking a picture of a flower, I may have been a completely different person, someone that I wouldn’t really like.

I now have a fire and passion for photography. I am working on turning it into a career, and while I still have anxiety, I can at the very least say that I am happy about the art that I create. This is all because I had to find the beauty through all the haze in my mind.


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