Photographs and Memories

I was conversing with a good friend earlier tonight, and we got on to the subject of photographing events or milestones in our lives. I commented that one of the things I truly feel sorry about for our children is that with the ease of digital photography, they’re no longer really living life so much as they are on the quest to make sure evidence is captured on film. “Pics or it didn’t happen” is a refrain heard all too often. What happened to actually experiencing things and enjoying them; building the memories in our heads?

As a child of the 80s (born in ’75) I had a nifty little 35mm camera to take pictures with. Film was treasured because it was expensive to begin with, you were limited to 24 or 36 shots, and then you had to pay to have them developed afterwards. I always tried to make sure that every single frame counted, and there was that wonderful element of surprise getting to see the photos you took days, weeks, months, sometimes even years prior once the roll was finally developed. It was like an extra Christmas or birthday present. Admittedly, a lot of the photos didn’t turn out great because I was a kid and hadn’t developed the skill yet to master a perfectly composed shot, but even those oddly formatted, sometimes blurry photos could always resurrect the moment in time when they were taken.

Photography today is easy. That’s not to say that professional photography is easy – it definitely isn’t – but amateur photography is completely mind numbing now. You’re dressing up and going out with friends? Take at least a dozen shots of you and your friends (from at least as many mobile phone cameras as there are friends) and then winnow them down later. Perhaps jump on Instagram and add a filter and crop it in a specific way to make it look artsy. Boom! Instant memories! But are they really?

We shouldn’t be recording every moment of every day to store in some digital archive to likely be ignored for the rest of our lives. We should be focusing on the moments as we’re going through them, and the memories will stay in our minds. I’d say 90% of the photos I see online are perfectly posed, and I’m guessing that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of “failed” photos before the “perfect” photo gets posted. We’re not perfect people. At least, I’m not. I recently looked back through the wedding pictures of my friends Ashley and JV from December 30, 2012 and out of all the photographs from that night, the ones that make me smile the most and bring back the happiest memories are the goofy, unplanned shots where we’re having fun instead of trying to look wonderful. Most of the time, I wasn’t even aware that there was a camera on me while I was basking in the happiness of two incredible people celebrating their love for one another. (And for the record, Ashley couldn’t look bad in a photo if she tried)

When I was younger and actually went to live concerts, I was there to listen to and support the musicians that were playing, whether it was a huge stadium concert or a jam session in a dive bar. If you go on YouTube, there are thousands of videos of people attending concerts with their mobiles held high in the air, recording the event for posterity. I can’t say that I’ve ever taken a single photograph at a concert, but I can remember every detail of every single concert I went to, because I was immersed in the moment.

The “must record everything” mindset crosses over to the most basic experiences during a day. If a sudden fight breaks out, or someone falls and hurts themselves, the new reaction is to whip out the mobile and get a recording to upload, hoping that you’ve just caught the next viral video. I won’t say all, but many people would rather film a crime or impending disaster rather than stepping up to try to assist or avert.

Sorry, this is kind of turning into a rant about photography, and that’s not what I was really meaning to do. I want my son to have happy memories with me, because I don’t get to see him nearly enough. Yes, I could splurge and buy him whatever the newest trendy whatever out there, but that’s just a thing, and he’s going to lose interest in it and it will eventually get sold, or lost, or hidden away in a corner someplace where it won’t be thought of again. Instead of buying my son things this past Christmas, I took him places, and maybe taught him a few things. I got him up close and personal with a Ferrari 458 Especial, and then went into great detail with him about what makes it so especial. I took him up to the hills near Los Angeles and we went whipping crazily through some fantastic windy roads at roller coaster speeds while I explained controlling the car using minimal pedal work and a lot of gear shifting. I took him to the Hotel del Coronado and explained the history of it and why it’s important to recognize good architecture. I like to think that those memories will stay with him much more vividly than something I could have purchased from a store.

I’m also hoping that I taught him that photographs last forever. Especially now in the digital age. Once a photograph is posted online, it can never really disappear again. Someone could grab a screenshot of that embarrassing photo and it can come back to haunt you later in life. Do you really want a future boss seeing that photo of you dancing in your underwear on a pool table while completely hammered? That might be a memory you’d rather forget, but once it’s out there, it can come back to bite you on your mostly naked butt.

There are few things sadder to me than going on a date or meeting up with friends and everyone is immersed in their own little world on their mobiles. Mobiles have their place in society, and social media can be a good thing when used for the right purpose: staying in touch with loved ones. The problem is that we’re losing touch with the loved ones who are right here with us. Next time you meet a friend for coffee or a drink, put the mobile away and actually interact with that someone you’re with instead of taking a picture of your drink and posting it online. Six months later, if you were to look at that lovely picture of a latte with a heart drawn in the foam on top, are you going to remember what you talked about? Probably not (unless your memory is quite a bit better than mine, which is entirely possible).

The world is a beautiful and amazing place, and yes, there are times when you see something so breathtaking that you want to capture that memory in a photograph. Just don’t forget to remember where you were, who you were with, and why that something was so spectacular. Enjoy each of the moments for what they are, while you’re going through them. Live your life instead of just collecting photos of it. You don’t get a do-over. Keep the bad pictures along with the good, because they can be great to cheer you up later when things aren’t going so great. Would that first kiss be better or worse if you were trying to make sure you had the perfect camera angle to capture the shot? I’m glad there were no cameras around when I had my first kiss, but I can still recall the night perfectly.

Alzheimer’s runs in my family, so I may lose my memories some day, if I live that long. That’s okay though. Chances are, I wouldn’t remember from looking at photos anyway. Until then, I’ll continue spending time doing things with or without other people, focusing on the important things, not just the composition of the shot.

Breaking down walls

I’ve spent a good part of my life building walls around myself, to keep people out. I think everyone does that to some extent, but some people build better walls than others. One of my biggest problems is that I feel too much. I don’t know if it correlates to my issues with depression and panic disorder or if it’s a separate issue. All I know is that everything from a misspoken word to an unintentional act can cut me like a knife and make me bleed internally. So,  I build walls. I hide behind them and try to pretend that I have a good life, doing things that make me happy. Sometimes that’s true, sometimes it isn’t.

The first wall I consciously know that I built was to protect myself from my father. He was not physically or verbally abusive towards me, I just didn’t matter to him. I was always the quiet one because my sister was always so boisterous and always had a group of friends around. Anything she asked for, he gave her. If she wanted to go out with friends on Friday nights, she was allowed to. I was given books and told to stay in my room and not bother him. I tried to be a good daughter and offered to help him with projects like working on cars and repairing things around the house, and he’d let me, but I never got a thank you for my help and I never felt like I was appreciated for my contribution. After my parents’ divorce, he started dating and I started baking as a way to pass the time because I hated being alone in the house by myself every Friday night while my sister was out with friends and my father was out doing whatever he was doing to find a new wife. I told myself that it was okay that I was alone, because it gave me the freedom to experiment with baking recipes, but honestly, I’d rather have spent the time doing something with my father. Every time one of my friends mentions that their daughter was going to a father/daughter dance, it made me wonder if I just wasn’t good enough for my father to go to a dance with me. So, up went a wall; one that I could hide behind and convince myself that I didn’t need my father in my life.

I built a wall to shut out my mom as well. Soon after the divorce, my mom went back to school and got a job to help support us. I don’t begrudge her that. Then, she decided to go to law school. All of a sudden, every spare moment of the day was spent with her nose in a law-book, studying whatever courses she was taking that semester. I never had that caring mom who helped me with my homework or talked to me about boys or taught me how to create a budget and balance a checkbook. I figured if she didn’t have time for me, then I didn’t want to make time for her. Instead, I started making sure that dinner would be ready when my mom and sister got home, and struggled through my homework as best I could without help. Of course my sister wouldn’t help me because she was older and had more important things to than to help her stupid little sister.

As I got older, I built more and more walls to hide behind. I created a persona in high school that allowed me to get by relatively unscathed and mostly (I thought) unnoticed by the majority of classmates. I was never the top of the class, but I was never at the bottom. I was never in the popular clique, but I wasn’t outcast. I just existed. At the time, I harbored the dream of going away to a college out-of-state, earning a degree, and beginning a new life away from everyone who knew me. That dream came crashing down three weeks before college was scheduled to begin when my father told me that he decided that he couldn’t afford to pay for my college, and it wouldn’t be fair to my sister, since she was only attending community college. So, instead, I also enrolled in community college and passed three unmemorable years there without making a single friend or feeling like I had actually learned anything.

It was around this time that my depression started. At first, it was just dysthemya. Chronic, long-term, mild depression. I had several bad experiences in high school that may have triggered it, or it may have just developed on its own. I don’t know, and I don’t have the self-will to examine it any closer. I learned to live with it, because I had no one to talk to or share my problems with. Eventually, it morphed into the panic disorder, which I still have, and eventually into full-blown Major Depressive Disorder. Any time I tried to talk about it, I was told that it was all in my head and that I just needed to snap out of it and be happy. The depression would go away if I let it. I was accused of being an attention seeker, trying to get people to feel sorry for myself with my mood swings and crying jags. In reality, I needed someone to explain to me that depression is a disease, just like cancer or Parkinson’s. Some people eventually get past it with the right combination of therapy and medication, and others don’t. So far, I seem to fall into the “don’t” column.

I was terribly ashamed to ever admit that I had depression or panic disorder, so I always blew it off as just having a bad day. I didn’t want to be seen as weak or helpless. I just wanted to be a normal person with the occasional bad day. There was a new wall around me, to keep my true feelings to myself so that no one could make fun of my weakness. That was a good wall. The people who knew me best never realized I had any problems, and I never shared my scarred life history with them. I was just another slightly strange person who never quite became friends with anyone.

Then one day I decided I was tired of hiding behind my walls. I decided that I wasn’t going to be stigmatized for my mental illness. It’s not contagious, so explaining it to others wasn’t going to cause an epidemic of new sufferers. I slowly started talking about my issues to people who seemed to care, and I found out that the people who are my true friends don’t care that I am not perfect. They see my flaws as making me unique, not broken. That’s  not to say that there aren’t still times when I hurriedly put the walls back up and hide behind them when everything is going wrong, but I’m getting better. I still won’t talk about certain events in my life that have shaped part of who I am, but maybe someday I’ll be able to do that. In the meantime, I’ll work on tearing down my walls and sharing my hurts and pains, explaining what depression and panic disorder is actually like to people who ask, and trying to be accepted for being me.

It’s taken 39 years, but I’ve discovered that I like me, cracks and all. I’ll never be a completely whole person, and I’ll never be able to guarantee that I won’t slip back into the major depression that causes me to curl up in bed for days at a time, crying for no reason. I’ll still have panic attacks for no known reason, but it’s okay. It’s just part of who I am.

Panic attacks are not fun

I have Panic Disorder (in addition to Major Depressive Disorder), and most of the time, I’m able to control it through medication. Unfortunately, a few days ago, I hit the perfect storm of running out of Xanax just before my delivery was scheduled to be delivered by my mail pharmacy, only to go check the mail and realize that someone had pried open the box and stolen all the mail, including my medication. I went into a full-blown panic attack on Sunday, knowing that I had to suck it up and try to just get through it using willpower alone. Fortunately, my best friend understands my condition and asked me to call him, and stayed on the phone with me until I could breathe again.

I don’t know what other people’s panic attacks feel like, but when I’m having one I get super-overheated and start sweating profusely, my heart rate goes way up (from my normal resting pulse of 55 bpm to as high as 150 bpm) and I feel like I’m going to die of a heart attack. My senses shut down until my eyesight gets so blurry I can’t see, my hearing turns into a whooshing sound like I’m trying to hear underwater, and my head feels like I’m spinning in circles too fast and can’t get my bearings. On top of this, I start to hyperventilate and can’t speak in complete sentences without concentrating really hard.

It’s a horrible feeling. One moment you’re fine, and the next you feel like you’re going to die at any moment. My doctor and I have tried to figure out what my “triggers” are for many years, and I don’t seem to have any. I just get random attacks. Thankfully, I was able to explain the situation to my mail order pharmacy and they are going to expedite a replacement shipment to me, and my doctor ordered enough at my local pharmacy to get me through until the mail order comes in.

The biggest problem with mental illness is that those who don’t have it don’t understand that it’s not a choice. I can’t just decide to be happy or decide to not have a panic attack. That would be the same as trying to not be female or not have brown eyes. Yeah, I can mask the brown eyes with colored contacts, but beneath the contacts, my eyes will always be brown. Same with mental illness, I can mask the symptoms but the underlying disease is always there. Having depression and panic disorder is not anything I would wish upon anyone, much less myself. It’s extremely stigmatized still, and it’s hard to control.

If you know someone who has depression or some other mental illness, please don’t tell them to just be happy and it will all get better. Ask what you can do to help them out. Sometimes we just need a person to cry on until the worst of it passes. I’m okay today, for the most part. I can’t tell you how I’ll feel tomorrow. Each day is a surprise as to whether it’s going to be an easy day or a difficult one. Thankfully, I have some great friends who understand me and don’t make me feel like I’m some sort of freak.  Next, I need to get my family to understand it.