Author Archives: dmiller509

Danny | Home of the Brave

“You can’t test your courage timidly. You have to run through the fire, arms waving, legs pumping and heart beating wildly with the effort of reclaiming something vital, lost, laid aside or just plain forgotten. When you do that, you discover that we shine most brightly in community, the whole bedraggled, worn, grayed and tattered lot of us, bound together forever by a shared courage, a family forged in the heat of earnest struggle.”
– Embers, Richard Wagamese.

This past September I was invited by Joy Pavelich to participate in a weekend digital story workshop sponsored by CMHA and conducted by Mike Lang, cancer survivor and co-founder of Survive and Thrive. The goal by the end of the weekend was for each of us to produce a 3-minute audio-visual presentation describing our mental health journey.

The timing for this workshop couldn’t have been better. I was having trouble writing this – the final post for Home of the Brave. The time had come, as I knew it would, to write about my experience with mental illness. When I told Joy I was having trouble with my initial draft she smiled and said, “Don’t worry. This workshop is going to help you with your story.”

I had a conversation recently with a first year university student. She was starting to experience performance anxiety whenever she wrote an exam and now her anxiety had “spilled” over into the rest of her life. Exasperated she said, “Now the anxiety is constant. It never, ever stops!”

The majority of people who suffer from a mental illness begin to experience their symptoms in their early 20s. At such a young age the prospect of living the rest of their lives – always anxious, always depressed, always manic, never happy – is truly terrifying.

My hope is that Home of the Brave might offer comfort to those who are currently experiencing the symptoms of an undiagnosed mental illness. I would like these portraits to stand as a testament to the transformative healing power of finding a peer support network. I hope these stories might encourage those of you who are suffering in silence — right now — to reach out and talk to someone about how you are feeling.

It just might be one of the bravest things you will ever do for yourself.

Silver gelatin print
Hasselblad 500c
Hasselblad 80mm f2.8 lens
Ilford HP5, ISO 400

I would like to thank the participants of Home of the Brave. Meeting and working with each of you has been a honour and a privilege. The courage you have all shown by sharing your mental health journey has inspired me to share my own.

And for that I am grateful beyond words.

 

Posted in Home of the Brave

Eileen | Home of the Brave

“And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Joni Mitchell, Woodstock.

For many of us, finding our way “back to the garden” is difficult simply because we have forgotten where it is!

When Jeanne and I were married 23 years ago, Jeanne’s niece Eileen was the flower girl at our wedding ceremony. At the time she was 3 years old.

Eileen has since grown into a “child of the 60s.” Her interest in the environment, Middle Eastern spiritual philosophies and women’s rights reminds me of similar values coveted by a generation active thirty odd years before Eileen was even born.

But it would be unfair to dismiss the values and ambitions of Eileen’s generation as inexperience, idealism or simple naivety. Our youth are – and always have been – our last great hope.

So the fact the majority of mental illnesses emerge during adolescence should concern us all! We must do what we can to help eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness so its emergence can be diagnosed and treated as soon as humanly possible.

The first step is letting our children know that it’s OK for them to talk about how they feel.

My mom told me about your project, Home of the Brave. I think it’s really awesome. I didn’t know that you had suffered with mental illness. It can be hard to talk about because I think there’s still a lot of stigma. I think if you can be brave to share your story, I can too. If you need any more stories then I would be happy to be one for you – Eileen.

Silver gelatin print
Hasselblad 500c
Hasselblad 80mm f2.8 lens
Ilford HP5, ISO 400

 

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Lori and Val | Home of the Brave

While lying on my back in a beginners Yin yoga class recently, the instructor asked us to “surrender to our mats.” She wasn’t asking us to give up (to raise a white flag), she was encouraging us to let go.

Normally I would visualize releasing a balloon into the bright blue sky whenever someone had asked me to “just let go.” But in my yoga class that day, instead of envisioning a floating balloon, I felt myself (for the first time ever) letting go and falling into a net. “Is this what it feels like to surrender?” I remember asking myself, followed by “I wonder what surrender actually looks like?

When I asked Lori to choose her sanctuary for her Home of the Brave portrait without hesitation she replied, “my sister Val.”

I grew up with Lori and Val in our hometown of Swift Current, Saskatchewan. I don’t see them as often as I should these days but I couldn’t count the number of times we have been in each other’s company at house warming parties, birthday parties, class reunions and celebratory Friday beers.

These days Lori and Val publish a weekly humour blog called Sangria Sisters where they write about an impossibly diverse range of topics from ‘80s fashion trends to The Top 10 Reasons Women Love Wine! The Sisters have also been busy volunteering for the non-profit aid society Mealshare whose mission is to end youth malnutrition and hunger.

Right now, at this exact moment two of their posts stand out for me: their beautiful, poetic description of depression and a touching Father’s Day card to their father Don and to Lori’s husband Scott who is bravely fighting a recent cancer diagnosis.

When I took Lori and Val’s portrait this past July two things stood out for me. First, I had suddenly realized I had never been alone with the Sisters before and second, how humbled I felt by their spontaneous, unconditional love and acceptance of one another. Taking their portrait was effortless as they moved into each pose with tenderness, humour and grace.

So this is what surrender looks like! Emotional and physical honesty in the presence of unconditional love.

To feel safe enough to cry when we are sad, and laugh when we need it the most.

Silver gelatin print
Hasselblad 500c
Hasselblad 80mm f2.8 lens
Ilford HP5, ISO 400

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Bruce | Home of the Brave

In Bruce Masterman’s recently published book One Last Cast: Reflections of an Outdoor Life, there is a line that reads “After helping set up his 5-year-old partner on the riverbank overlooking a deep hole full of promise, he started casting his own line a few yards away.”

For those of us who don’t fly fish, the phrase “overlooking a deep hole full of promise” might seem a contradiction. Some might ask, “How can a deep hole possibly hold promise? How can a deep hole be anything but dark, dangerous and threatening?”

You would be forgiven if you thought One Last Cast (Bruce’s third published book) was written for outdoor enthusiasts only. As much as this book joyfully describes a life spent outdoors with family and friends, hiking, camping, hunting and fishing, it remains a testament to the enduring power of hope.

In the chapter, Into the Light Bruce writes that he “self medicates” to manage his symptoms of depression. “I prescribe for myself generous regular doses of the outdoors whenever I’m feeling down. Being in nature helps level out my emotional peaks and valleys … Whether it’s for an hour or a day, I always go home feeling better, more energized, more hopeful.”

The words hope, healing, hopeful and blessed are generously sprinkled throughout the pages of One Last Cast like the wildflowers growing in the mountain meadows of Bruce’s “Not-So-Secret Place.” For me the magic found within these pages is the message that hope can be found (and cultivated) anywhere.

When I asked Bruce if he might consider participating in Home of the Brave, he seemed genuinely puzzled. I had found him in one of his classrooms during the last week of the winter semester. His students were exuberant and chatty as their first year of studying Journalism at SAIT was quickly drawing to a close.

“Yes, but why me? I just want to know – why me?” Bruce had replied in response to my invitation.

“Because you would be perfect! I said with a conviction that surprised us both.

We agreed to continue our discussion later, over a coffee, but I remember leaving Bruce’s classroom thinking …

“Man, I sure hope his answer is yes.”

Silver gelatin print
Hasselblad 500c
Hasselblad 80mm f2.8 lens
Ilford HP5, ISO 400

 

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Joy | Home of the Brave

In the summer of 2013, Joy’s 20 year old son Eric Schmit took his own life.

Su•i•cide: from the Latin sui “of oneself” and cidium “a killing,” literally “killing oneself.”

It is unfortunate the word suicide is indelibly associated with the verb kill. Add the ubiquitous phrase committed suicide and we begin to understand the Herculean effort required to focus on suicide prevention rather than toxic, moral judgements that serve only to fuel stigma. Survivors of suicide loss, those left behind, avoid use of the term “committed”; the language itself hearkens back to the time and place not so long ago when the act of taking one’s own life was considered a criminal act. How can we possibly hope to have an honest conversation about suicide if the word itself is considered taboo?

Enter Joy Pavelich.

Joy is the Communications Lead for the Canadian Mental Health Association of Calgary. Whether she is writing for the CMHA’s Balance Blog, leading the team which organizes annual mental illness awareness events such as Ride Don’t Hide or Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, building a youth mental health strategy, or personally working on her upcoming book Chasing My Son Across Heaven, Joy is the tireless, inspirational mental health advocate our city so desperately needs.

Ending the stigma around mental illness and suicide in particular is not for the faint of heart. Some would consider it a calling not a job, a vocation rather than a career. The amount of commitment, resilience and courage required could only come from someone who knows what it feels like to be “left behind.”

Joy’s calling manifested itself immediately after Eric’s death when her instincts told her to talk openly about Eric’s suicide and not “cloak it in the died suddenly and unexpectedly euphemism.” Since Eric’s passing, Joy and her sons – Justin and Conner – have spent the years trying to “realign as a family without their middle child, without their glue.”

Ask Joy and she will promptly tell you “the two brave ones are Justin and Conner, they are the heroes in this story.”

Justin’s mixed martial arts gym, Apex MMA, is their sanctuary where Joy, Justin and Conner can be close to Eric. In Justin’s words, “The gym was Eric’s dream. It’s what he wanted to do.” Here, in honour of Eric’s journey, the family strives to help others find a sense of serenity, and in that peace.

The Warrior’s Code by Eric Schmit
You’re a fighter.
You’ve got the spirit of a warrior;
The champion’s heart.

I can’t help but think that Eric was thinking of his mother when he wrote this.

Silver gelatin print
Hasselblad 500c
Hasselblad 80mm f2.8 lens
Ilford HP5, ISO 400

 

 

 

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John | Home of the Brave

I had thought writing this post to accompany John’s portrait was going to be relatively easy. John had provided me with his notes from a recent public speaking engagement and I had read his book Sick to Death of the Silence, Stories to break down the stigma of mental illness.

I had done my research, all I had to do now was to sit back, relax and let the post write itself.

Wrong!

My first draft began with a sound bite from a speech President Obama delivered recently in Montreal. The sound bite included the phrase, “falling into the comforts of the tribe.” I wanted to acknowledge that membership within a tribe (community) clearly has its advantages, but membership renewal often depends on one’s ability to conform to its identity and meet its expectations.

I was hoping such an introduction would describe how difficult it must have been for John (a corporate lawyer) to reach out to a colleague and talk about his addiction to cocaine.

Yet I was conflicted. I knew John would be the first to tell me the pressure to conform within a community of lawyers may not be any greater than the pressure someone else might experience within their own family. I could hear John say, “Everyone’s experience is different. It depends on the community. It depends on the person.”

My second draft began with a definition of the word stigma, “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” It’s the main reason after all, many of us find it so difficult to open up about personal problems like mental illness or a drug addiction. John’s reluctance to reach out was directly related to his fear of appearing vulnerable and weak within a community of lawyers who are paid for “solving other people’s problems.”

But my second draft was reading like a word salad. I was rushing to summarize what I believed to be John’s central message as a mental health advocate. Talking about our mental health is the first step in our recovery. No matter how austere our communities – be it our families, friends or colleagues – we must reach out for help. We must overcome the stigma and talk about our mental health in order to receive the support and healing we all deserve.

I wanted to conclude the post by acknowledging the resilience and courage required for someone to share such a personal story involving drug addiction, recovery and hope. I wanted John to know that by sharing his story, he had inspired me to continue to share my own.

Relatively easy? What in the world was I thinking!

Silver gelatin print
Hasselblad 500c
Hasselblad 80mm f2.8 lens
Ilford HP5, ISO 400

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Rob | Home of the Brave

I met Rob through his ATB colleague and writing partner Todd. Todd mentioned he had a friend who would really like to participate in Home of the Brave. “He would be perfect.” Todd had told me, smiling.

Richard Avedon said, “My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph.” As hard as I’ve tried to make HOB about its participants, I must admit that working with Rob has taught me a lot about myself. Specifically, how much work I have yet to do in terms of promoting mental health through advocacy and sharing my story beyond the safe, nurturing and empathetic atmosphere of HOB.

During our initial meeting Rob and I exchanged our stories. I explained my motivation for starting this project and Rob told me how important he felt it was to sustain a dialogue around mental health and its associated stigma.

“I’m really lucky because I have learned to accept my mental health challenges as part of who I am.” Rob said. “That acceptance came as an enormous relief! I was finally able to experience some peace. Now, I’m really open about my mental health – even with complete strangers. When I’m on an airplane, for example, I have no problem telling the person sitting next to me I have anxiety. It gets people talking and I really believe that is a good thing.”

Until I met Rob, I have always envisioned advocacy as a singular event, a public speaking engagement with an invested, motivated audience. I’ve never considered “living” my advocacy – daily – through everything I say and do.

I am truly grateful that Rob has shown me the value of numerous, small victories, that complacency must turn into advocacy and that every day is another opportunity to help eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness.

Silver gelatin print
Hasselblad 500c
Hasselblad 80mm f2.8 lens
Ilford HP5, ISO 400

 

 

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Ashley | Home of the Brave

“Don’t you find that interesting? Ashley said. “You are asking the participants of this project to be open about their mental illness, yet you still keep your experience with mental illness largely a secret? I find that so interesting! Don’t you?”

Ashley always did ask the best questions while she was a journalism student at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. Eight years later, it’s obvious she hasn’t lost her touch.

Ashley’s journalistic instincts have grown so sharp that both of us grinned when I realized she had painlessly revealed the irony of me asking the Home of the Brave participants to have previously disclosed their experiences with mental illness yet I had not. Ashley’s discovery (a direct result of her continuous “search for truth”) inspired me to talk publicly about my experience with mental illness much sooner than I had planned.

I asked Ashley what “the truth” means to her. “When it comes to people, truth is seeing beneath stereotypes and assumptions. Truth is talking about things that are ignored, forgotten, misunderstood. It’s standing against injustice and standing up for human rights.”

Not surprisingly Ashley is forthright about her own experience with mental illness. “I remember waking up one morning and realizing that I hadn’t laughed for over a year… I didn’t know what it felt like to be happy. I am sure I had smiled or laughed in that time, but I couldn’t remember the authentic feeling that came with it. I had been sad for so long.”

Ashley has since learned how to manage her symptoms and genuinely believes her mental health journey – although difficult – has made her a better person. “I just want to help people!” Ashley said during one of our conversations.

I didn’t thank Ashley then, but I am thanking her now for how she helped me talk about something I’ve kept a secret for a very long time. Ashley’s story about my mental health journey was cathartic beyond words. The heartfelt responses I received from my friends, family, colleagues and students was overwhelming and deeply, deeply healing.

So thank you Ashley and I hope you never stop searching for the truth.

Silver gelatin print
Hasselblad 500c
Hasselblad 80mm f2.8 lens
Ilford HP5, ISO 400

 

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Elizabeth | Home of the Brave

It is a difficult thing to articulate just how critical a support system is for people living with a mental illness. More often than not, our rescue begins with a single person. Just one soul whose unconditional love and support is so pervasive that to call them a support system is NOT a misnomer.

When Elizabeth Andersen was first diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1995, her husband Wade’s initial reaction was “I don’t know if I can stay in this relationship.”

In Schizophrenia: A Love Story Wade recalls how Elizabeth’s diagnosis challenged his commitment to their marriage with the unsettling realization that he wasn’t sure if he was “ready for this.” So, Wade returned to his marriage vows where he found the affirmation he was looking for.

Wade Andersen, will you have this women then to be your wife?
I do.

Through sickness and in health, through anguish and affection, through tears and laughter?
I do.

Elizabeth would be the first person to acknowledge the critical role her husband Wade played in her diagnosis, acceptance and eventual recovery from the symptoms of her mental illness. In her book Being Mentally Healthy (in spite of a mental illness) Elizabeth writes of her husband, “He has been my sounding board, my pill monitor, my reason to be well and the love of my life. He is the strongest and most compassionate person I will ever know. He has been there for me every step of the way and continues to be.”

Elizabeth has dedicated her adult life to educating the public on issues related to mental illness and eliminating the stigma associated with depression and schizophrenia in particular. An international public speaker, published author and a Lt. Governor’s Circle on Mental Health and Addiction, True Grit Award recipient, Elizabeth passionately shares her story, offering hope and support to those who believe they have precious little of both.

When I look at this photograph of Elizabeth and Wade, I can’t help but notice the diagonal boards behind and above them. It suggests to me the outline of a roof, a sanctuary created whenever they are in each others company.

This is what a support system feels like!

Silver gelatin print
Hasselblad 500c
Hasselblad 80mm f2.8 lens
Ilford HP5, ISO 400
Lightrein 400ws strobe with translucent umbrella

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Todd | Home of the Brave

todd-h2

In their book Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland write, “To require perfection is to invite paralysis.”

And invite it I did – this past fall – when I became disorientated after a photography submission was rejected, leaving a sting lasting far longer than I had expected. The result was a brief, albeit bracing, dose of writer’s block that suddenly prevented me from writing a single word that would do the participants of Home of the Brave justice.

When I met Todd to discuss his participation in this project we were complete strangers. Our introduction (via email) was graciously facilitated by our mutual friend Angela Kokott.

Todd smiled when I told him Angela and I grew up together. “Any friend of Angela’s is a friend of mine.” he said as I began my introduction to the project and what had motivated me to take it on in the first place.

What has struck me the most about meeting and photographing Todd was his sense of commitment. When talking with Todd he listens to you, he really hears and sees you. His genuine authenticity draws out the authenticity in others.

That was obvious the night I attended the launch for his new book Halfway Home. You could feel the genuine warmth and festive hospitality in the church that evening. I was made to feel exceedingly welcome yet I knew not a soul, save Todd. Basking in the warm, glowing acceptance within the church I briefly imagined a large sign posted on the front door which might have read: Please check your armour at the door. You won’t be needing it this evening.

Looking now at this portrait of Todd and his beloved Boston Terriers (Piper and Puma), it occurs to me that we often experience rejection because of who we aren’t.

But we always experience acceptance as a result of who we are.

Silver gelatin print
Hasselblad 500c
Hasselblad 80mm f2.8 lens
Ilford HP5, ISO 400

 

 

Posted in Darkroom sessions, Home of the Brave Tagged |