Arash Afshar

Photographer, Host of Burner Podcast and Founder of Justified Hype

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Content Warning: This post is about depression and suicidal thoughts. I want to preface by expressing that I’m doing so so good right now! I would not have shared such difficult imagery and stories if I wasn’t in a clear space to share it.

Depression rates are higher than they’ve ever been. But we also live in a time where mental health resources, independent tools and healthier communities outside of our physical radius are more accessible than they’ve ever been as well. I deep dived into various healing modalities, therapy and lifestyle changes to bring myself to this amazing space I am in now, having rekindled my zest for life and rediscovering my sense of purpose. Life has ups and down. This post is about a major down that is now in the past. -Arash

 


 

I’m going to begin this post by letting you know very clearly, directly and emphatically that I am having a fantastic day as I’m writing this. The images you see here are from months ago while I was very deep in a depressive episode and isolating for Covid.

This was a rough one.

A maze of decisions which I am past judging the rightness or wrongness of had brought me to this place in my life and, in addition to the actual illness, I was deeper in the midst of an existential crisis which had begun months earlier. I didn’t realize how emotionally unhealthy my temporary home was till someone I really admire and care about visited me there and brought to my awareness that I had been, in her wise words, “embattled with my environment” for way too long.

All these impressive developments in self care and yet I’d still managed to skip over this pillar of stability. The pride I had felt for so long for being able to make my ‘home’ anywhere in the world had caved in on me.

Home, historically, didn’t feel good.

Home was where the violence happened when I was a kid. Home was where I wasn’t seen as a tween. Home was where my life wasn’t moving forward as a young adult. I was never excited about being home. So that unsettled young man grew up to became this go-go-get-a-lot-done adult. A chunk of my 30’s consisted of being out of the house by 4:45 AM and not returning till I was ready to physically pass out at 8 PM. I even purposely preferred my bed to be kind of uncomfortable so I wouldn’t get too cozy.

During lockdown, I was planning a move out of San Diego, so I temporarily landed at an extra property my dad owned in Carmel Valley, a wealthy McMansion suburb far away from my world of art and urban culture. My plan was to just get through my photography show in June and then I would have clarity on my next step. A couple of months turned into a few months and my emotional isolation and the physical isolation managed to team up on me.

I am in a very different space now – physically, emotionally and in every other kind of way. I’m so happy in my new home in Pasadena. It really is the perfect checklist of everything I’d been asking for. But these self-portraits are an honest story of where I was at that time. And I was afraid to post them because I’m afraid of some people’s reactions. The panicked pearl-clutching that my brain anticipates based on experiences I’ve had my Iranian family. The uncomfortable honesty.

I don’t know if I’ve experience more depression than the average person or if I’m a lot more sensitive to it and expressive about it. Maybe this is the thing that differentiates artists from the general population of very creative people: more difficulty hiding emotions. But that’s a different topic. The reason I felt called to share these is that I want to contribute to normalizing our conversations around depression.

In my personal experience, I’ve found that I go down a vicious cycle of isolation. I get depressed. Sometimes triggered by an actual thing. Sometimes simply because energy comes in waves and I happen to be riding a bummer wave.

So I isolate. I don’t tell friends and family because I don’t want to ruminate. And I don’t want my family to panic. Because here I am barely keeping it together myself and now I have to take care of other people’s feelings about my feelings.

So I isolate further. And I start to mentally plan for the I-told-you-so’s which I obviously really don’t care for. I don’t want to hear their judgments about my decisions. I don’t want to hear the speeches about choosing this unrealistic life path and having fairytale expectations. I don’t want to be scolded or told I need to be realistic… As if the capability of being a completely different person than who I am is within my capacity.

So I isolate further and get more depressed. And I try to figure out how to get out of it alone because I don’t want to be a burden. In this particular situation, there was this whole extra layer of isolation and secret-keeping happening due to a relationship I was in at that time.

When it’s really dark, as it was in this photo, I start thinking about the easiest way I could just leave this stupid life video game I don’t remember volunteering to play. And I think about how I’d have to get rid of all my things and how much I don’t want to burden my friends and family with having to pick up my very large and heavy body if I did go through with it.

Then I remember I have community and people who love me and care about me. I crawl out of it. One good minute at a time. Then it becomes one good hour at a time. Then one good day at a time. Until I start stringing together multiple good days and I reflect on what a good week it’s been.

The night I took these photo, I was laying on the floor of my temporary home and thinking about all the above. It was multiple days in a row where I’d explored the idea of ending my life. But I decided to try to do something to get through it. I felt fat and unattractive and ugly and was pretty certain I have no talent at all or I’d have a lot more to show for it at 39. But somehow, I was able to scrape the very bottom of my healthy narcissism reserves and utilize the fact that I was stuck at home to create some crappy art in the form of some self-portraits.

I didn’t even consider posting any of these right away.

I do have this general rule of allowing my emotions to settle before public over-sharing. If I’d posted immediately, it would’ve felt manipulative. But good art, in my opinion, isn’t manipulative. It strives to be honest. Even with a photo, when and where we choose to share that image does effect how it’s received. So I didn’t even look at these exposures until I absolutely knew I was clear of the energy from them. Deep in the midst of suicidal thoughts, I made the decision to create something I knew I’d have to let settle. Something I’d have to return to in the future. A future I would have to stay alive for.

If you, dear reader, ever find yourself caring for a suicidal loved one, I will leave you with this very important bit of unsolicited advice: It’s not about you.

When I think of the panicked communications I’ve received in the past from people who care about me, my brain’s response has been “oh my god – go fuck yourself.” It’s not rational. But if I’m that deep in it, the inadvertent insinuation or suggestion that I have to take care of your feelings and needs before my own, is simply not something my brain has the bandwidth for. If you’re response is panic, you might be training your suicidal loved one to go deeper under ground in their planning. That’s what I did. Trust me, if I decide to go, you’re not stopping me with guilt trips.

But I’m not going anywhere.

This life movie is too interesting and I like what Andre 3000 said on the Broken Record podcast: “I wanna see what happens next.”

So I do more art. I get out of bed in the morning and meditate. I show up to my volunteer lead workout group on Wednesday and move my body and accept that I’m not going to race past the fittest members but that keeping up with them is a great thing to aspire to. Speaking of which, thank you Brogan Grahm of November Project for turning me on to that Andre 3000 quote in your post. It’s exactly what I needed to hear.

I’m a podcaster but I don’t actually listen to many podcasts. Funny enough, the reason I even stopped to look at Brogan’s post was because I’d been hearing about that particular podcast from multiple friends around me. GADZOOKS, a photographer and artist I admire very much actually shot the photos of Andre 3000 and Rick Rubin accompanying that episode. It took an artist and an overlap of a couple of communities to get me to pay attention to this one little message I needed to hear.

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