The Power Of A Picture: On Finding Inspiration When You Need It Most


Instagram can be a cesspool of narcissism, insecurity, and competition for whose life “looks” the best. Rather than lament that fact, I recently decided to use the social media platform in a way that has a positive purpose and is geared toward helping people cope with life and complex feelings.

You see, I recently found myself one negative thought away from tumbling down the rabbit hole of equal parts self-pity and self-loathing. All I needed was that one final nudge to trip me up and I would have been well on my way to pouting by myself in a dark hole in the dirt, refusing to move or try and stand up to see the sun again.

It all started the day before around five o’ clock. I was at my desk at work and felt like there was just not enough time for me to do everything I needed to do. I had pressing deadlines and appointments to prepare for and a long list of phone calls and e-mails to respond to and had felt like I had literally exhausted every last ounce of energy I could muster. I had nothing left to give. And yet, the demands persisted, regardless of how much or little I had to offer in response. That is how life works sometimes — the demands don’t stop even after we’ve done all we can and either what we’ve done hasn’t been good enough or new demands replace the ones we’ve met. Whether it be relationships, work, parenthood, self-care, mental health or any random combination of these things — the demands of life are as constant as they are complex. And there are moments when all it takes is that one nudge, that one demand that we can’t meet, to send us spiraling downward in a free-fall toward despair, resentment, and feeling like we just can’t do it anymore.

That’s where I found myself on a recent Thursday, and where I stayed until the next Friday morning. These are the kinds of feelings and moments of adulthood I don’t feel we are ever warned about or coached in coping with until we grow up and are thrown into it. It’s kind of like a parent who wants to teach their kid how to swim and decides it’s best to just throw them head-first into the deep end of a swimming pool to see how they react. Adulthood is like that parent sometimes. It throws us into the deep end of the real-world that our childhoods shielded us from and says “okay, now swim!” And we flounder and flail around, splashing and struggling to stay afloat, unsure of what we’ve just been thrown into but desperate to prove that we can do it — that we, too, can swim.

In light of my less-than-stellar state of mental state, I decided to get in the car and go for a drive and look for something beautiful in nature, or not, and snap a picture of it for Instagram. This may sound kind of silly and superfluous and I understand why. After all, some might suggest divorcing ourselves from our smart phones for a period of time to achieve a better state of mind. However, as a voice and advocate of mental health for both myself and others, I see how necessary it is to have coping skills in place to deal with the dark moments when they come. Because every day, it is not a matter of “if” these moments will happen upon us — it is a matter of when. Whether it is sadness, anxiety, depression, loneliness, anger, or self-hate, having a plan in place for dealing with these emotions is crucial. But it can’t be just any old plan. It must be practical and doable in the moment, and somewhat attractive to the senses and easy to execute, with an instantaneous and palpable return.

For these reasons, I can think of no better medium than that of social media, specifically, Instagram. I am a big fan and regular, enthusiastic user of Instagram. I love snapping photos of big, pillow-y cupcakes with pretty frosting, and the brilliant, blood orange sunsets of summer, and my pug, Wallace, in all of his bug-eyed, wrinkly-faced glory. And the more subtle details of the everyday like a cup of hot tea or a new haircut. That’s fun, too. But I have never thought of using the social media outlet as a way to get outside of my head in a vulnerable, anxious moment, and channel my negative feelings into the act of seeking and sharing beauty in the form of a picture.

In other words, I have never set out to find a snapshot of something to share on Instagram for the purpose of mental health and coping with uncomfortable feelings. But after I did so on Friday morning, I felt better. I felt some relief. No, it didn’t cure me of anything or make me feel like I could run a marathon or give a motivational speech, but it got me through the moment.

Sometimes it is getting through the moment that matters most. And when it comes to mental illness, it is a game-changer. How we cope with the symptoms that accompany illnesses such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, or eating disorders, to name a few, is one of the most important pieces to the process of recovery. Because when unhealthy and destructive coping skills take the wheel, we become our own worst enemy and poor gasoline into an already roaring fire, expecting the flames to burn less.

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It’s not an exceptional photograph. It is organic and simple and the kind of shot most people could get with their iPhone if they pointed it toward a clean, blue sky on a late morning in spring. But to me, it represents the vastness of life outside of myself. It illustrates how humongous the universe is and how much there is to see, explore, taste, and know about the “wild blue yonder” of the earth and its inhabitants. And it reminds me that though I may sometimes struggle and grow weary, weak, and want to cash in my chips and call it a day, there is so much going on outside of myself. There is so much beauty to behold and that beauty is sometimes most beautiful when we ourselves feel the most ugly. Seeking out that beauty with intention, however, requires discipline. Like somebody who is trying to lose weight — when they find themselves in a vulnerable moment and they feel weak and ready to cave in to a sweet craving, sometimes the best thing is to find a healthy distraction until the craving passes. That’s my point here — seeking out a healthy distraction, namely, something aesthetically appealing to take a picture of, when we feel overtaken by negativity in the mind.

I have resolved to do this for myself. And I am calling it the “POP Project” (The “Power Of a Picture” = POP). Each photo that I take as a part of this project will be accompanied with the hashtag: #thePOPproject, and depending on context, will include a small blurb about what I was feeling (i.e. sad, hurt, confused, rejected) when I took the picture and what the image represents to me. 

With time and exposure, I hope that others will catch on and join me in taking this step toward offering solutions and tools for those who suffer from a mental health condition. We are in this fight together, after all. The fight to understand our illnesses, cope with them, and find our own path to recovery and healing. For both the days like I had when I am one negative thought away from tumbling down the rabbit hole and for the days when I do tumble down inside, feeling helpless and hopeless inside my own head. Perhaps this act of exploring and seeking and capturing beauty, and playing around with different angles and filters, will become a way to hoist ourselves up out of the darkness so that we can more clearly see the sun, and all the beauty that we would have missed had we stayed down in the dirt.