Interview and images by Samantha Moss
Caitlin Shearer is a 28 year old Illustrator and textile designer who works from her Brunswick studio. She runs a small namesake clothing label called Caitlin She, making custom printed clothing. Caitlin loves gardening, cinema, second hand clothes and 80’s new wave music and taking photos of the people she loves.
What is your personal experience with mental illness?
Caitlin: I feel like I’ve coped with anxiety since I went through puberty. Feeling anxious throughout my teens bought upon waves of depression - socializing became quite difficult - in my early 20’s i felt like i was missing out on living my own life because avoidance had become a coping mechanism. I was officially diagnosed with anxiety when I was around 23 years old and had already tried many different holistic methods like yoga, herbal tinctures, sunlight, eating the right foods - some of which seemed to alleviate the intensity of my feelings for small periods of time. As I got older I realised that anxiety and negative moods were linked to my hormones - i have a disorder called Polytheistic Ovarian Syndrome - so the more balanced my hormones are, the less those things tend to impact me. The body must be balanced and then the brain is too. At the moment I’m having a pretty clear run of things, which is the first time in my life I’ve been mostly anxiety and depression free, which feels pretty amazing. It requires a quite strict diet and herbal remedy regimen, but the rewards are incredible.
What was your experience with mental health growing up? What did you know about mental illness and how did that influence your experience?
Caitlin: It was never talked about in my family and I don’t feel like these things were discussed openly on tv or in cinema often. Moreso, i think what helped was that in my early 20s I had made friends who, we were drawn to each other because we had a similar set of issues. Even if they presented themselves very differently amongst us, they all kind of stemmed from the same place or held us back in similar ways - open dialogue between each other helped me realise that something was not quite right within myself. Just through doing a lot of my own research and illuminating these things for myself did i begin to make sense of why i felt the way that i did. At 23 I had to tell my mum “I have depression, I am anxious” after waiting for someone else to tell me that that was my problem for years. There was no point being in denial about it myself anymore. I decided to get medical help at that point - and now I try to talk about it more in my family - I have younger brothers - because I think mental health issues affect everyone in my family to varying degrees. Now that there is an open dialogue I think it’s much easier to not feel alone and to work through it consciously and to help other people. I’m not shy about talking about these things with my friends either because I don’t think it helps you get anywhere being too secretive for fear that people will think that you’re broken -actually I think it can be quite a bonding tool if you’re open with people about these things and you can share experience.
How does your mental illness manifest physically, mentally and emotionally?
Caitlin: When i am submerged in depression I can’t see any worth in the things that I would usually strive for or have worked really hard to create. I feel no self worth whatsoever, even if other people tell me the reality is otherwise - it can be a very pervasive thing that my brain runs around in circles with. Being part of the world is just far too difficult so I shut myself away and hope to come out the other side when it all passes. A i get older I’ve gotten a better handle on being present in my own life and knowing that facing up to something is the only way to get over the anxiety - avoiding things never has helped, its only made me feel worse in the end. As I get older I’m learning to be more conscious of those things and I think naturally you become more at ease with yourself as time passes. That being said, it ebbs and flows - The good thing is if you look after yourself you can keep it at bay as best as possible, once you learn what the triggers are and what helps.
What was your experience telling people around you about your mental illness and how did that affect your relationships?
Caitlin: I don’t think anyone close to me was surprised. They had seen me going through the ups and downs. I think with friends it was like “welcome to the club!” because many of them had already been diagnosed in the past and they were more receptive to talking about it. I think in terms of family, it can be a difficult concept to accept about someone that you love, because you can no longer be in denial about the fact that it is something that is affecting someone to a very detrimental point. Diagnosis was good for me when younger, to legitimize the issue and put a name to it. I don’t like to think about it as an illness though - It’s an issue that i work with and through daily - sometimes it gets in the way of my life and sometimes it doesn’t interfere for weeks or months at a time.
What was your experience seeking and receiving help for your mental illness within the Australian health care system?
Caitlin: In my teens and early 20’s I had always gone with holistic methods but nothing helped dramatically until i could identify that my hormones were a major factor in how my body and brain behaved. I decided to approach doctors and was referred to a couple of psychologists for small amounts of time which made me feel as if i had taken control of the situation, but didn’t end up helping in the long term. I began studying fashion at 23 and after an incredibly intense and unhappy two years doing that, i experienced a series of intense panic attacks. I went to the doctors again and was prescribed anti-depressants - I hoped that would fix everything, I thought it would be all roses from hereon in. Instead I was on the medication for two and a half years but the same issues abounded - and i experienced terrible side effects like loss of libido and an inability to cry. A zombie, almost. So i decided to wean myself off the medication. It was the hardest thing i’ve ever had to endure, physically and mentally. It took my body about 6 months to feel right again and i had to sacrifice a lot of my life and tuck up into a cocoon to get through it. I don’t feel like i’ve ever had much luck with doctors - either they dismiss my issues because i could appear on the surface to be conscientious and put together - or they tell me to do what i’ve already been doing. Doctors had tended to shun the fact that holistic methods were what i would prefer, and so finding a health care practitioner who has their eye on both facets of healing would be something i’d look for in the future if i needed that kind of attention again.
What have you implemented into your daily life to combat your mental illness?
Caitlin: It’s all based on what i need to do to keep my hormones level - I cut out coffee and tea and I don’t eat dairy. I don’t eat soy, sweets or sugar, I try not to eat meat unless its organic because of the excess hormones. I walk everywhere and I try and do yoga at least one or twice a week - taking that time out to breathe and appreciate me giving myself time - easing the million thoughts racing around in my head - whether that be about work or relationships or duties. I try and manage my stress levels. Working in a creative job I try to instill a somewhat normal 9-5 Monday to Friday thing so I know that I can clock off and enjoy myself and see people or be lazy and not feel guilty about it. I try not to work on weekends as well so I have some semblance of a work/life balance. I also take lots of herbal pills - a potent St Johns Wort does wonders. I take zinc, magnesium, cod liver oil, vitex, maca, iron, and multivitamin...The thing is that you have to take these every day - and take them for 3 months before you feel the affects - and I think a lot of people give up before that point. Because of all of this I feel vital, I feel good, confident. I feel how a human should feel on a good day.
How do you use creativity as an outlet for your mental health?
Caitlin: I think if I didn’t have creativity my life would be completely different and much more difficult. I use creativity as an outlet to explore what I’m feeling and come to terms with it. I also look at it as a tool - I look at whats going on in my head as some kind of fuel or inspiration for my work - that inner dialogue tends to end up being what my work is about. Its good because I can channel sadnesses or anxieties or questions into something that makes me ultimately happy. I don’t think that my work is necessarily representative of negative emotions, but they go into the pot and hopefully create a rich and layered visual world. If I wasn’t doing anything creative I don’t know how I would have gotten through the issues I’ve been through. I feel very lucky to be able to work in this field, I am appreciative that we are lucky enough to indulge ourselves in our creative work, because it’s a lifesaver.