Katie Crawford’s My Anxious Heart is a conceptual exploration of living with general anxiety disorder through a series of self-portraits. Through the use of black objects and materials Crawford visualises her anxiety as an overbearing presence, using surreality to illustrate the reality of her experiences.
What initially drew you to making work about living with anxiety?
A little background: I had my first panic attack at 11. I was put on antidepressants at age 13, anti-anxiety medication at 16, an ADHD stimulant at 18, and a mood stabilizer at 20-21. Throughout those years, dosages were increased and decreased, formulas were adjusted, and other, short-term medications were used to help me sleep, deal with attacks, and pain from side-effects. I was completely numb and couldn’t remember what feeling emotion was like at all. At age 21, I decided it was time to heal. I had to get to the root of it all. So, with the supervision of my doctors, I weaned off of medication. I was having panic attacks daily, I couldn’t do much of anything alone, and yet I didn’t want to be around people. But I was feeling again.
During this transition, I was enrolled in a photography class called “Artist As Researcher”. The premise of the class was to uncover what motivates your art practice and how you move that motivation from initial inspiration to meaningful public display. We were to take on a role as a researcher to better understand our desire to make artwork and to make work that involves a sustained investigation. This was the first time I wasn’t assigned a theme or subject matter but given the opportunity to work on one piece for an entire semester.
I had no idea what I was going to do and then I became anxious; a very normal response for me. I wanted to show everyone this thing that followed me and kept me from being able to do the most basic things. I can’t remember what I was thinking about doing the moment before, because when I thought of this, just like anxiety, it took over. Everything from that point on has been an outlet to express this constant presence. So after that class, I decided there was no better subject to focus on for my senior thesis.
my head is filling with helium. focus is fading. such a small decision to make. such an easy question to answer. my mind isn’t letting me. it’s like a thousands circuits are all crossing at once.
What has been your working process? From conceptualising to shooting and editing.
When I was around 18, I started writing anytime I felt an attack begin, or right after one ended. I was just spitting out fragments and words that described what I was feeling. I kept this journal and I used it to throw my anxiety into. When I was doing the project mentioned above, the assignment was to be a researcher. So I found that journal and used it as a resource that I had forgotten. They explained it so well, each thought and feeling, that I had to use them. I began forming ideas that would visually express those written feelings. That is how the text under each image came about. I was so numb and out of it from my anxiety and depression, and being medicated for it, that I had forgotten how much I was expressing at that time. It really brought me back to how I felt at the darkest, coldest time and I was able to add that to how I felt being off of the medication and having all of these feelings become so incredibly intense and raw.
As far as shooting, I really evolved as an artist through this process. I’m a college student with very little income, so until I could afford a tripod and remote, I had to be very creative. It involved a lot of balancing cameras and battling self timers and focal points. I was lucky enough to have a sister that was incredibly helpful. She was always willing to lend a hand when I needed someone to help throw baby powder, wrap me in cling film, and run around with fabric.
My editing is very formulaic to an extent. I try to have the concept so planned, that editing is the shortest part of the process. It doesn’t always work out that way, but it tends to make things a bit easier when it doesn’t make things quicker. I shoot everything with a tripod at the same focal point so that layering can be consistent and realistic. I do a lot of layer masking and cloning. Other than that, I pretty much had the shots set up before the editing began.
a captive of my own mind. the instigator of my own thoughts. the more i think, the worse it gets. the less i think, the worse it gets. breathe. just breathe. drift. it’ll ease soon.
What are your hopes for the work?
It started as a healing process for me, but it quickly became an outlet for others to express their pain and daily battles. What I’ve always wanted is to end the stigma for mental illness. It needs to be treated as a physical illness. Just because there isn’t a noticeable ailment, it’s put off as being a mood swing or not a big deal. I want people to understand that not only is it debilitating and can feel just as paralyzing as a physical illness, but that it causes physical side-effects as well. IBS, muscle pain, migraines, and insomnia are a few of the issues that can be diagnosed with no known cause other than anxiety.
I want to create an outlet for people to be understood, but also for them to heal. I don’t want people to just get by or have to numb themselves. I want them to understand the root of their anxiety and know that it doesn’t have to control them. It can be managed.
Your project is about anxiety — have you had any anxieties about releasing such personal work? What have responses been like?
Absolutely! It all happened so fast. I posted it on reddit.com/r/anxiety to say thank you. I used that forum a lot when I was running out of motivation to complete the project. And then it kind of spread. I never expected this. I’ve gotten over a hundred messages just thanking me. Honestly, I should be thanking them! I couldn’t have done it without support and encouragement. It’s so terrifying as an artist to expose yourself in the most raw way; and I was adding self-portraits and my life so literally depicted. I couldn’t pretend that this wasn’t personal or putting me in a vulnerable place.
But the thing is, where I may have run and hid and ignored all of my emails out of fear before, I’m realizing this is so very important. If just one person would’ve said “thank you, I didn’t realize others felt this way. I thought I was alone!”, it would have been enough for me to keep going. I’ve been anxious my entire life. Your body goes into fight or flight mode when you’re anxious. My whole life I’ve chosen flight. My first response is “GET OUT NOW”. But when I read all of the responses, I felt this drive to fight for the first time in my life. I’m fighting for each person that feels alone. I’m fighting for those who are too scared to do it themselves. I’m fighting for those who can’t articulate their pain. And I’m fighting to end a stigma that has created an obstacle for anyone to speak out about their mental illness.
it’s strange — in the pit of your stomach. it’s like when you’re swimming and you want to put your feet down but the water is deeper than you thought. you can’t touch the bottom and your heart skips a beat.
You mention in your statement that depicting your fears has had a therapeutic effect. Can you explain a little more about that process?
When I began, I knew the only way was to really try and remember what a panic attack is like. The hard part is, thinking about having one tends to induce one. If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you’ll know it’s probably the number one fear of those who have them. No matter how badly I didn’t want to do it to myself, I knew I had to cause one so I could properly express it.
In order to cause one, I had to think about my triggers. After a while, I was able to logically work through why my fears were illogical and expose lies I was telling myself. Soon, I was unable to cause one as easily. So I tried harder. When one was really intense and I wanted out, I found remedies that I hadn’t tried before. I realized running cold water on my wrists and neck almost immediately shocked me out of it. I found that when focussing on breathing was hard, I could do jumping jacks and it would force my breathing to steady.
In doing all of this, I was able to rationalize this thing that had control and really expose it for what it was. They’re much lighter now and I know how to make them end much faster. It’s also created a way for me to articulate what is going on in the moment to someone who is completely oblivious.
i’m afraid to live and i’m afraid to die. what a way to exist.
What’s next for you?
I’m so incredibly excited to say that this has motivated me to finally put a book together. I’ve been trying to decide if it was a good idea or if it would even be well received, and I finally feel like I can do it. Even more than me feeling like I can do it, I feel like I need to do it.
My sister, who has her Masters in Mental Health Counseling and her provisional LPC license, will be joining me in creating a book to help those with General Anxiety Disorder and Depression. It will contain these photographs, photographs that have not been released, more writings that describe symptoms, exercises for day to day self-care and handling panic, and our full stories as two young women who have battled these disorders for over a decade. I will be posting more information on social media as it comes together.