Spiralling out: a photo essay of mania

On May 15, 2017 I was hospitalized and diagnosed as having Bipolar 1 mood disorder after experiencing an extreme manic episode. Music and art were very significant to me during this time and both held great meaning. Once the dust settled and I looked through my camera I realized that it clearly showed my descent into madness and, later, recovery. I decided to share the pictures with the hope that anyone else who is struggling might find some comfort. You are not alone.

May 8, 2017:

When I walked into the backyard around midnight to accompany our dog on her late-night pee run, I was blown away by the beauty of the moonlit tree in our backyard. The pictures didn’t capture it but I took them anyway, hoping that they would help me to one day paint what I saw: a cherry tree lit up by a thousand blossoming flowers. In reality there were no flowers. It’s not even a cherry tree.

I had severe insomnia for a couple of weeks prior to my breakdown. When I couldn’t sleep I got in the habit of tidying and reorganizing our basement. I wanted to avoid screens fearing that they would make it harder to fall asleep, and I found that the physical work soothed my mind, which eventually helped me to fall asleep. Working in the basement also meant that I wouldn’t wake anyone else. These items all spoke to me enough that I decided to photograph the collection. They are mementos of me, my husband, and our life together. I found it hilarious that through all of our moves we’ve held onto our VCR head cleaning tape even though we haven’t had a VCR for years. I was already a bit cracked, on my way to madness.

May 9, 2017:

This picture brings me such calm joy. I love the juxtaposition of the bright outside and my beautiful daughter painting in the darkness inside. I also love the tulip in the middle of the table, my favourite flower and this one cut from our garden.

Nature and vibrant colours spoke to me. I loved the contrast of the beautiful tulip with the growing mung bean sprouts and the pan of spinach. I also loved the secret that the eggs were hiding under the spinach, only revealed when I uncovered them, like a present. I’ve always found secret presents to be the most intriguing.

I put this collection of screws and bolts down quickly in what I thought was a haphazard way. I was amazed when I looked at it moments later and saw the separations and patterns. I’ve been complaining about the new math my kids are learning based on patterns but maybe there is something intuitive to it after all.

May 10, 2017:

Every time my daughter saw me assembling or hanging something she began to play with this screwdriver. Something about it pleased her and every time she changed the bit for me she felt proud. One day she carried it around the whole afternoon and I later found it lying like this, with the bits spread out beside it. I thought it looked like art.

May 11, 2017:

More organizing at home and this time it involved hanging a shelf. My husband didn’t want the shelf in this location, which meant that I had to do it while he was at work, without his help. I liked the look of all of the tools I needed to use laid out on the dining room table, along with the art that would go on the shelf, so I snapped a picture of it. More art, I was seeing it everywhere. My husband wasn’t thrilled when he got home but he agreed that it worked.

May 12, 2017:

I was obsessed with light and colour, so I took these pictures specifically to show the scene in night versus day. I also liked the contrast of garbage against non-garbage. This was another big theme for me during my breakdown.

May 13, 2017:

More light and dark play. These shots made me focus on what you see versus what you don’t. For example, none of the dishes were obvious in the picture where you mostly see the (light) backyard, yet when the sink was the focus all you can see is a sinkful of dirty dishes. Which still looked artistic to me.

May 14, 2017:

We stayed overnight in Edmonton and I barely slept because I kept hearing noises in the hall and thinking someone would break in, so I needed to be awake to protect my family. These pictures from our hotel held great meaning for me when I took them. Contrasting light and dark, colours and their absence, all of it seemed beautiful and appealing. Late in the night I woke my husband fearing that the statue was a ghost, despite knowing that it was the statue I had personalized with our hats, jackets, and bag. I decorated intentionally – to claim the room as our own.

May 14 – 15, 2017:

More experimenting with light, dark, and colours, and now also with shadows and reflections. I found great meaning in the pictures that came out unfocussed – like the hockey gear that I trip over, or the piano that is breaking. I was proud of the art-deco lock I created to keep our stepstool in place and I loved the tree art I made out of newspaper (more obsession with garbage). My husband was confused and unimpressed by my art, which was becoming increasingly more manic. And increasingly more impressive in my eyes.

May 16, 2017:

My first hospital pictures, when I still found beauty in garbage and wanted to play with balance and the contrast between colour and neutrals, light and dark. Also when I was still allowed my phone so could photograph everything I found appealing. When I was locked in a room with no kitchen, my bedside table became my hearth, much like my oven or bedside table at home. I think these areas hold our most valued treasures and secrets, especially for someone like me who finds meaning in everything.

The view from my room when I was officially admitted to the psych ward, before they took my phone away. I spent hours staring out this window and sketching what I saw. It was very soothing, even when I was creating pictures of burning bushes. The sky and clouds both calmed and confused me – it was often hard to tell what time it was since the days were so long, and it was made even more difficult when it was gloomy or raining.

May 19, 2017:

At this point I was starting to listen to the nurses and doctors and my husband, and I was allowed to wander off-site with him, which meant that he could bring me my phone and I could use it off-ward. I wanted to take pictures of everything that had anything to do with cleanliness. This was so I could put these signs up at home for my children, so I didn’t have to keep wasting my breath reminding/nagging, but it probably also has greater symbolism than that. Almost everything I do has greater symbolism than what my conscious mind admits.

May 21, 2017:

More pictures of my room before my phone was confiscated for the second time. I felt a great need to photograph everything in case I forgot anything, like how I forgot three days of what had happened to me. Time felt funny in the hospital, mostly because I had no clock and still wasn’t sleeping, so days and nights kept getting mixed up. The nurse spelled my name wrong when she labelled my drawers and I thought it was intentional, like a psych ward test. I finally threw the paper away in what I thought was an act of defiance, and nothing happened. I read too much into most things, as I often do, but I still believe that reading too much is better than not reading enough.

June 7, 2017:

I took this picture a week or so after being back home. It’s the garden bed where the tulips were blooming while I was in the hospital. My family brought some to me but I mistakenly assumed that they were just the tip of the iceberg and many more would bloom after my release. I was saddened to find mostly tulip carcasses when I got home. Still, I found great beauty in the colours that were left behind, much like the beauty I found in garbage before my manic episode.

 © Charise Jewell, 2017