8 Provocative Images: This Is What Depression Can Feel Like
“Melancholia” — a series of conceptual photos by artist Suzanne Rothmeyer — examines the multi-layered pain of depression.
Finally, it seems, we’re all talking about mental health — a subject that, before COVID-19 hit, was society’s most insidious, invisible, and misunderstood threat.
After weeks of terrifying news and economic uncertainty and lives turned completely upside down, depression has, for many of us, become the uninvited houseguest — an intruder sheltering in the darkest of our emotional spaces.
Like the novel coronavirus, depression is an often unnamed, difficult-to-diagnose condition, one that infiltrates and overpowers its target.
And just as COVID-19 affects different people in different ways, so, too, does depression — hijacking its host and presenting differently in every individual. Without question, COVID-19’s impact is exacerbating current depressive episodes and triggering new ones every day.
Whereas COVID-19 might begin as a mild fever or sore throat or confusion, ultimately killing its victim with micro clots throughout the body, depression might initially present as anxiety, irritability, or loss of interest and sleep — but, if left unchecked, might ultimately lead to death by addiction or even suicide.
Thus, it’s critical we recognize and attend to depression’s foreboding flickers — the ones in ourselves and in those we love.
But how do we talk about depression when we can’t recognize or even describe our pain? And how do we connect with those who suffer if we’ve never suffered from depression ourselves?
The Impact of Images
As someone who’s managed and written about the subject for decades, I’ve tried to convey, through words, how the condition actually feels — but it’s not easy breaking through the abundance of stock images depicting depression as a cliché. My guess is the vast majority of us who’ve experienced depression don’t spend entire days with our faces buried in our hands, and I’m pretty sure rainclouds don’t *actually* follow us from room to room.
What I do know for sure is that recognition is critical: it’s what helps me identify and attend to my own depression; it’s what helps me support others who suffer.
Seeing Is Believing
Knowing what depression looks like — both in ourselves as well as in those we care about — is huge.
Sometimes, when I’m depressed, I can’t even see it.
I might think, “I’m tired,” “I’m irritable,” or “I’m just in a funk.” Sometimes it even seems like others are “the problem.” And at times, it takes someone else pointing it out before I’m able to recognize it in myself.
Since depression distorts thinking and isolates us from others (including ourselves), it’s more important than ever, in this time of social distancing, to identify and expose this invisible menace.
But now, through the 8 images in photographer Suzanne Rothmeyer’s conceptual series Melancholia, we can visually explore — through this virtual art exhibit — the layers of pain depression brings, and perhaps use them as tools to increase dialogue and understanding.
One year ago, when I first saw the Melancholia series, I thought, “This. This is exactly what I’ve been trying to explain for years.”
The images had been shared by a friend who’d moved from Chicago (where I’m from) to the Pacific Northwest (where the photographer and model both live).
Upon seeing the series, I knew I had to connect with these women. I hoped to learn everything about the project, including what prompted the series, how the shoots were planned and executed, and — most importantly — how the women discussed such a personal subject.
After all, Rothmeyer’s images are at once compelling and provocative — revealing stories that are often impossible for sufferers to tell and nearly impossible for loved ones to comprehend.
The photos reveal the impact and ripple effect of depression — unmasking the raw and unique aspects of the condition’s pain and heartache, examining the depth of depression’s pain, isolation, shame, and overwhelm.
To be sure, women are twice as likely as men to suffer, and white women report depression twice as often as their African American peers —yet we can all find someone we know in this series, someone whose story includes depression. Maybe that person is you.
When I reached out to the photographer and model, I uncovered a story much deeper than I expected — about the women, about the project, and even about myself.
The Photographer — Suzanne Rothmeyer
The process of dragging a dark and rarely seen villain into the light took photographer Suzanne Rothmeyer three years to create.
“I’d been percolating on the topic of depression for several years, as I’d grown up with a close family member who suffered from it,” Rothmeyer told me. That experience showed her how profound that person’s experience was, as well as the myriad ripple effects it created in the relationships around them.
As a result of growing up with someone who suffered from the condition, Rothmeyer says, “I learned how each person carries that depression into their own life and relationships.”
Rothmeyer says she hadn’t seen a visual work done around the subject more than one dimensional in nature. “I wanted to open that up,” she says, “and explore those relationships.”
Still, she worried about falling into a cliché, and debated whether it was her story to tell. “While depression can be so universal, everyone’s experience is different,” Rothmeyer says. “You want to honor it, and you don’t want to minimize it.”
It was only after a stranger approached Rothmeyer four years ago that her doubts about doing a series on depression disappeared.
The Model (and Muse) — Gina DeLeo-Stamey
In 2015, aspiring actress and model Gina DeLeo-Stamey didn’t know Rothmeyer personally.
The two lived and moved in the same social peripheries in the city of Anacortes, Washington, where DeLeo-Stamey had seen Rothmeyer’s conceptual images. The women had children about the same age, though they rarely exchanged more than a “Hi,” or “How’s it going?” — until DeLeo-Stamey asked Rothmeyer to lunch.
“I just loved what Suzanne was doing in her work,” DeLeo-Stamey says of Rothmeyer’s photography, “and, I was struggling with my own sense of identity after my mother’s passing.” DeLeo-Stamey had always wanted to act or model in some way, but “I just had no idea how or where to start.”
But start she did.
“I’m an only child,” DeLeo-Stamey says, “and [asking Rothmeyer to lunch] was a huge step for me in trying to uncover who I really am — the raw, untamed, confident me — without trying to please other people.”
The First Meeting
According to DeLeo-Stamey, the lunch began with a discussion about the types of photographic art and concepts Rothmeyer wanted to do.
“Depression was a subject I actually asked her about,” DeLeo-Stamey says. “Suzanne was surprised when I asked — I think because it was something she’d given a lot of thought to, and hadn’t anticipated talking about with me.”
As Rothmeyer later said of their first discussion about depression, it was “so tender and so personal and so individual — yet, it’s everybody’s experience.”
After the initial shock that they were both passionate about the subject, the women spoke briefly about their personal experiences.
And once DeLeo-Stamey shared her own struggles with the photographer, Rothmeyer knew immediately it was time to tackle the subject. “Gina revealed she’d suffered with bouts of depression — which I never would have guessed.”
“I’ve suffered from depression at various levels throughout my life,” DeLeo-Stamey says. “And so, the notion of bringing these complex feelings and moods to life was just incredible.”
Rothmeyer then shared her own experiences with family members’ depression, confessing that she’d debated doing a series around it.
“A big part of what I wanted to speak to was all the different relationships one person affects — and is affected by,” Rothmeyer says. “I wanted to show that full story from a single individual.” And, Rothmeyer adds, “it just became really clear the project was meant to be, and that Gina was meant to be the model.”
As their first meeting ended, the women decided they’d revisit the subject soon. In the meantime, they agreed to work on a different shoot to get comfortable with one another professionally.
And yet, all the while, the depression shoot was on their minds.
For years, DeLeo-Stamey says, she’d been imagining ways to bring awareness to the struggle, hoping to avoid the tried and true by creating something “stirring and beautiful — with layers of different possibilities that someone could grasp.”
With Rothmeyer, she was about to help create just that.
A Collaboration Meant To Be
Though Gina DeLeo-Stamey stepped into acting and modeling later in life, Suzanne Rothmeyer fell in love with photography as a child, when her father converted a half-bath into a darkroom.
Rothmeyer’s passion for photography translated well to jobs in graphic design, marketing, public relations, and journalism.
Then, 15 years ago, she started a photography business using her garage as a studio, and grew a loyal clientele doing portraits and weddings. About 2 years ago, she began adding projects of personal interest to a separate portfolio of conceptual work, covering social justice, politics, religion, and environmental issues.
Her images, Rothmeyer says, are “unapologetically provocative.” And while she doesn’t call them “entertainment,” she says she intentionally draws the viewer in, hoping they find it “a little too late to backpedal out.”
“Everything is so quickly consumed these days, then tossed aside,” Rothmeyer says. That’s why she layers her images, hoping to hold a viewer’s gaze for “more than two seconds.” As she planned out the series, she focused beyond expressions and wardrobes, paying particular attention to tonalities and colors to reflect the darkness felt by those who suffer.
Rothmeyer says, “I’ve heard people say, ‘I was depressed and didn’t want to admit it — even to myself.’” Gina DeLeo-Stamey was once one of those people — until she approached Rothmeyer.
“Telling your deepest stories is scary,” Rothmeyer says, “and yet Gina did it with me. Because of that, I couldn’t help but think, Let’s do this. This seems like it’s happening for a reason.”
DeLeo-Stamey says the first shoot in the series, Weight, was held at the break of dawn on a cold winter morning.
Armed with a small flashlight, Rothmeyer took the model out into the fields of Skagit Valley, wearing nothing but a thin slip.
“It felt weird to be out there in the middle of a soggy field — cold and practically naked … a little like the image itself,” DeLeo-Stamey says.
“I had her curl up in a fetal position,” Rothmeyer says, “while sweeping the light from the torch over her body to get a long exposure. This was in the winter, so it was COLD and wet. She had to lay there for repeated exposures like that. The mountain was composited in later.”
As someone who’s lived with depression, I appreciate how this image captures the nearly indescribable exhaustion and shame we can feel when we’re struggling … a feeling that says, For too long I’ve been pretending everything’s okay, yet I don’t have a way (let alone the strength) to explain why.
According to Rothmeyer, “The mountain was something that overshadowed everything else, yet you couldn’t really point to any particular thing. I just knew it was BIG.” She wanted something weighty…something that was looming over, but also somewhat vague. “Just as I sensed while growing up, there was something undefinable — yet weighing on my family member.”
To understand depression, you know not only the ache of wanting to curl up and disentangle oneself from the weight of the world — but also the loneliness of lying in bed with eyes wide open, tossing sleeplessly in a swirl of disconnected thoughts about hopelessness, shame, and isolation. And the image Adrift speaks to all of this.
Rothmeyer says, “From conversations and my own observations, I’ve seen that the person suffering with depression seems adrift and apart, and often just wants to escape to sleep, to bed, to that seemingly place of rest and safety … but while they sleep, the immediate sphere around them (family, partners, etc.) are actively trying to rescue them.”
“This is another image that speaks volumes to me,” DeLeo-Stamey says. “The hopelessness. The ocean, endless, dark, unknown, no direction, and crushing waves. Such a feeling of aloneness, hopelessness, and overwhelm. It’s difficult to put into words how awful it is to be in a place where life feels so difficult to be a part of…”
This image also spoke to me. When I’ve been depressed, I’ve felt unreachable — even to myself. As a result, I sometimes experience a churn of emotions, including guilt, fear, defensiveness and even anger. I’ve learned over time to offer myself compassion when depression’s undercurrent pulls me in — and that I can’t expect others to see the invisible waves I sometimes ride in my head.
Says Rothmeyer, “I wanted the tossing waves as that counterpart to their attempt at rest and escape, as well as conveying the idea that the tumult is still there, no matter how hard they try to block it out.”
Depression is a condition of exhaustive assessment and unconscious detachment. We can’t see ourselves as we are right now because we’re too busy managing a patchwork of emotions. Amidst even the good and happy times, we constantly question and assess how we’re doing and whether our moods are good, steady, declining, negative, etc.
Though Rothmeyer titled this one Shattered, she prefers the title DeLeo-Stamey gave it: Confusion.
DeLeo-Stamey’s words sum it up perfectly: “The mirror is NOT my friend when I am experiencing depression. Nothing is clear. The reflections are always distorted.”
Rothmeyer says, “My thoughts around the image had to do with looking at yourself but what you see looking back is slightly off kilter…not quite right, not quite working together like you know it should or could. Things just aren’t aligned.”
In my experience, when I’m depressed, I ask myself questions, like, “Am I actually depressed?” “What have I done (or not done) to bring this on?” “Can others see it?” “Why is this happening?” “Shouldn’t I be more grateful/happy/upbeat/energetic?” and “How can I make it go away?”
Rothmeyer adds, “Talking about it with Gina revealed the confusion on the part of the sufferer — which surprised me to a certain degree. I think at some level, I assumed or wanted to believe that the sufferer, unlike the rest of us, knew what was going on, but just couldn’t or wouldn’t come out of it. It’s embarrassing to say that, but especially from a child’s perspective (which is where all of my core emotions were formed around this), I don’t think I really considered that the sufferer was also confused by what was happening to them.”
Depression, for me, sometimes feels like hiding in plain sight from those who are fortunate enough not to suffer.
It’s exhausting and sometimes terrifying trying to explain why I feel like a burden to others — especially if they’ve never experienced depression. And so, when I sense I can’t be reached emotionally, I sometimes hide myself physically.
DeLeo-Stamey knows this feeling of hiding well. “We seem to shy away from the things that make us feel discomfort,” she explains, “when in reality, it’s what we should lean into. There is no growth without it! Sometimes our best ‘aha’ moments come from openly discussing things, instead of keeping the thoughts locked in your own head. It also creates understanding and acceptance to have dialogue.”
“This one was one of the first images that came into my mind for the series, way back,” Rothmeyer says. “It was the most obvious visual representation (to me) of how the person seems to be trapped in some parallel but subterranean world while normal daily life goes on around them. I had a few different ideas/ways of conveying this sense, but ended up with this one.”
“Self loathing that makes it hard to move,” DeLeo-Stamey says. “It’s like swimming in tar and feeling like, the more I try, the deeper I go. Like a lead blanket. So much shame over just being me. The logical part of me is berating me — just as much as the emotional me tells me I’m ridiculous and stupid for thinking that way. Every part of me hates me. Nothing is good. Nothing.”
“Once again,” Rothmeyer says, “Gina found herself scantily clad and sitting in cold wet earth while I set up an off camera light and tangled some roots and earth around her. I shot the upper scene separately and stitched them together.”
For Rothmeyer and DeLeo-Stamey, the pre-shoot discussions about this image were particularly personal — and intense. The image was more of a combination of the model’s experience as a parent and spouse and the photographer’s experience with a depressed family member.
Rothmeyer says, “I think the reason women suffer more than men is that we tend to be the temperature takers of those around us — whereas men don’t do that quite as much. When you’re that way, you’re affected by those around you, absorbing their issues as well as your own.”
Speaking from experience, I’ve seen many mothers — including myself — engage in this dynamic, until our personal anchors seem to disappear. Distance was the image that immediately broke my heart in two, because I, myself, have been that mother.
Due to my own periods of depression, I’ve, at times, felt isolated, adrift and ashamed…incapable of even making eye contact with the ones who’ve looked to me as an anchor. It’s debilitating enough to feel frozen in the grip of depression, but to see the pain and confusion it brings to your child is something beyond description.
Here’s a link to the three of us talking about this image:
DeLeo-Stamey says, “I had spoken to Suzanne about how horrible it felt as a mother of two boys, to be depressed. How I felt like a terrible mother, very distant and horrible that they couldn’t understand. This image is haunting to me — and one of the most powerful.”
“Gina talked to me about the feeling of separation and numbness…and the guilt of that — especially as a parent/mother,” Rothmeyer says, a guilt she knew from a different perspective. “To have someone right there in front of you, yet you’re unable to understand or help, is very frustrating and even in certain ways scary. You wonder if it could happen to you. You wonder if they will ever find their way back to connection.”
As Rothmeyer recalls, “I just remember as a kid trying desperately to ‘reach’ my [depressed] sibling, and although she was there, she was at times utterly unreachable. The dichotomy of that was just really hard to reconcile as a child, and then the selfishness of the teen years created a sense of resentment — and then guilt. So, that ripple effect of guilt and shame continues outward from the depressed [person]. This is a hard thing still to talk about. I regret not having more patience, more understanding, of her experience. I remember my mother trying absolutely everything…even things that were, at the time, very controversial and considered a bit ‘woo-woo’ — like biofeedback and different kinds of therapy.”
Reflecting on the image, DeLeo-Stamey says, “This shoot, again, was cold and with me not having much on in the way of clothing … on a foggy lake in the fall … and with all sorts of residential houses around the lake. It must’ve been a sight to have me out there, alone, scantily clad. Kind of funny to think about now.”
“This image was also composited,” Rothmeyer says, “but I shot Gina (again, in winter, early morning) in her little rowboat out from their dock while the mist was hanging over the lake. There was something about the metaphors of cold and ice … the idea of how hard it can be to get warm once you’ve gotten a chill, and getting stuck in it — this hard, unforgiving thing.”
People often speak of the “fog of depression,” but what does that actually feel like?
When I’m depressed, I don’t see life as it truly is. My focus is often blurry on the “real” me, and sharper on my shortcomings, my flaws, and my perceived incompetencies.
When I’m depressed, it’s easy to look in the mirror and only “see” my formerly happy, formerly “perfect” life. Conversely, even on my best days, it’s easy to “see” myself through the lens of my past, when life may have been harder, heavier, and less secure. What’s crystal clear is that living with depression requires continuous work to stay in the present.
“For me,” Rothmeyer says, “this image shows what I, as an observer, saw…the depressed person showing a normal face to the world, while this other self was always right there, under the surface, ready to come out again. And that what you see is not necessarily what’s going on.”
DeLeo-Stamey describes depression as “Always feeling horribly UGLY and awful,” adding that it’s “not just how I look, but the person I see,” a concept Rothmeyer was shocked to hear.
“Gina named this image Ugly… which was so sad for me when I read it,” Rothmeyer says. “To me, it was about the ugliness of the effects of the disease, but for her it seemed like she really FELT ugly. This beautiful woman actually felt ugly when she saw her reflection.”
There was, however, a lighter side to making this image.
Rothmeyer says, “Gina was trying with makeup to make herself ugly and haggard and lifeless. I kept sending her back to add more, because, as you can imagine, it’s hard to ugly her up. Then, it took multiple exposures to overlay the first ‘normal’ face onto the second one.”
Whereas anxiety’s burden is the constant scanning for potentially negative outcomes, depression incapacitates us with a constant reflection on the past (“Why didn’t I?” “Why can’t I?” “Why haven’t I?”), which in turn, drowns out all thoughts of the future.
“This image almost speaks for itself,” DeLeo-Stamey says. “When we shot this one, the mere fact that I was looking over a cliff was intense. Thoughts of wanting life to be over…”
Rothmeyer says, “As a bystander and witness, depression seems like this uncertain state, always on the edge of the big fear of death, like they are seeing something terrifying that I’m not seeing. There is a sense of horror about it for me, this darkness that is palpable but not even always recognizable on the surface. You sense it, but it’s the elephant in the room.”
Because our thinking is so distorted when we’re depressed, we often can’t see forward. The notion that The sun will come out tomorrow is one we can’t fathom when we’re miserable. The pain, though likely temporary, seems unquestionably permanent.
Judged, arguably the most remarkable image in the series, took the longest — and was the most logistically challenging...both in terms of the shoot itself and the compositing. Look very closely at each face in this piece.
“I was the model for every person in this image,” DeLeo-Stamey points out, “representing the judge, jury, prosecutor, and defendant. It’s a powerful image of just how far our minds can take us toward unworthiness and shame.”
As Rothmeyer initially sketched out ideas, she knew one thing for sure: “The depressed person usually feels judged, but so often, they’re being judged by themselves.”
Rothmeyer calls this image the coup de grâce of the series. Not surprisingly, it’s the one I keep going back to, over and over again, fascinated as much by its execution as its message.
“It was a lot of exposures,” Rothmeyer says, “and 15 wardrobe changes. And it was also the most hilarious, as we did the whole shoot with just the two of us…no hair or makeup team — so it was a lot of laughter around the getups and the process.”
“This day was amazing,” DeLeo-Stamey says. “The work that went into this one image was an entire day, and worth every moment. So many laughs, and so much hope that we got what we needed to make it all work.”
“I think it was also a healing shoot,” Rothmeyer says. “We discussed each ‘aspect’ of the jury, in terms of motivation and response in regards to the ‘accused.’ It was a day of really digging into both sides of the experience which was enlightening, I think, for us both.”
The Power of Voice
When I was in the 7th grade, my English teacher taught a unit on reporting. She emphasized the importance of writing in the 3rd person to maintain integrity — as well as the reader’s trust — and urged us to keep ourselves out of the story.
For decades, I followed that rule.
But for this piece, I felt an obligation to include my experiences. If by sharing I can help to decrease the stigma or advance dialogue about depression, then I know it’s been a worthwhile rule to break.
I asked Rothmeyer and DeLeo-Stamey if they felt brave for sharing so much of themselves for this project.
Rothmeyer says, “We shouldn’t have to be brave to speak about it honestly and fully. It isn’t just about a sad person alone standing under a dark cloud. There’s a profound relational effect that spreads out in widening circles — all these stories in our families and communities that aren’t given a voice.”
“Yes,” DeLeo-Stamey tells me. “I think everything that is uncomfortable needs to be discussed openly.”
Rothmeyer adds, “Bravery is one of the major motivators for me in this project. What does that imply, to be ‘brave’ about discussing it? There’s so much shame around depression, and I feel like the idea that it’s being brave to speak about the true scope, experience, and ripple effect of the disease directly and honestly feeds into that.”
Rothmeyer, like so many of us, hopes to bring depression “out of the shadows and encourage shame-free conversation inclusive of all that are drawn into its gravitational pull.” I agree when she says, “There’s still this deep silence, a moat around that individual that’s not accurate or true to the fullness of the effects of the disease — and consequently on our families and communities.”
DeLeo-Stamey concludes, “It’s my hope that people can be struck by these photos in many different ways, not only bringing awareness to those who aren’t depressed, but also self reflection for those who do suffer. Perhaps the images can help someone to find their own voice, gaining insight into their own psyche…and at least feel like they’re not alone.”
The Best News
Rothmeyer says that, since she started sharing the Melancholia series on her website, “I’ve received so many personal, private messages from people who recognize themselves or a loved one.”
DeLeo-Stamey, who is now a certified life coach, adds, “I think now, more than ever, people will be able to relate to the feelings depicted in the images, creating more understanding as a society.”
And though depression has the power to distort our thinking, the best news is: Thoughts aren’t facts.
Repeat this phrase: thoughts aren’t facts.
If we find ourselves caught up in a downward spiral of negative self-talk or downward thinking, it’s important to remember — and to remind others — that we aren’t actually as weighed down or adrift or shattered as we might tell ourselves … and that we aren’t as buried or far away or exposed or as harshly judged as we might think … and that life, though painfully chaotic at times, is absolutely worth living.
“I am not proud of some of my actions — or lack thereof — while depressed,” DeLeo-Stamey says, “but there is a reason behind it all. Getting to the bottom of anything starts with dialogue,” she says, like the very conversation she initiated with Rothmeyer.
And to anyone suffering right now, DeLeo-Stamey says, “I hope you know you’re not alone — and that there IS hope.”
Please share your own voice in the comments:
- What’s your favorite image from this series — and why?
- How does depression impact you or someone you love?
- What tools & supports have you found helpful (or UNhelpful)?
To continue this conversation on social media, head to Instagram’s @melancholiastories — a place to explore and share the ripple effect around depression through art and stories.
Christine Wolf is a columnist, speaker and writing coach from Chicago. She regularly writes about mental health, with a focus on voices that need to be heard. www.christinewolf.com
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
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