aside Debra-Lynn Hook speaks to ASLI about her photography, mental illness and her inspiring mission; The Healing Body Image Project, “If photos help one of our women progress one step forward on her healing path, that is change worth noting”.

Photographer Debra-Lynn Hook
Debra-Lynn Hook, 59, is from Ohio, U.S.A, a photographer and writer who ASLI became aware of through our last campaign “celebration of women”, we kept her powerful project and submission back as we felt it served a greater purpose in our present campaign “mental illness, health and recovery” as it deals with the issue of “body image” and “self love”, this small but powerful movement is called The Healing Body Image Project, open to all who wish to explore and challenge body image issues. The project has a Facebook group which has this powerful mission statement:
“Did you know that in today’s society, 80 percent of American girls and women suffer from body-image issues? Men suffer, too. This group is a safe place to post photos and links and tell personal stories. We welcome stories of struggle and despair. as well as those of empowerment and triumph. All meld together to complete the story of living in today’s airbrushed society. We’re all in this together. Power to authenticity. Power to freedom”.
So we decided to interview Debra about her artistic background, photography and her struggles with mental illness as well as a spotlight on this amazing project, empowering positive body image and here it is:
The Healing Body Image Project
Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Life for me has been littered with pitfalls and traumas, including a depressed, abused Mother and a misguided Father who had strange ways of wielding power, including a lonely, neglected adolescence, my mother and father’s nasty divorce and subsequent fractured family as well as a bad hallucinogenic drug experience at 16 that I kept secret, that traumatized me for two decades until I finally began talking about it when I was in my late 30s. That same year I survived an accidental gunshot underneath my ribs on my right side, when a friend, who was a gun collector, dropped his 22-caliber pistol near me. The bullet is still in me, too dangerous to remove at the time. It is safely encased in scar tissue, having traveled past liver, lung and stomach to its resting place in the center of my body, not killing or harming me, but always present; I have often wondered whether there is a metaphor there.

And then the year I turned 50, the coup de grace, my mother accidentally set herself on fire in New Orleans. She spent four days dying while her four daughters looked on, even as the monster hurricane Katrina was preparing to bring more trauma, drowning my mother’s house four months after she died, and taking with it the few heirloom antiques she wanted her daughters to have.

When I’m at my worst, I’m longing for the memory of something I never had. I’m trying to stand up in a net with giant holes that my feet keep slipping through. When I’m at my best, I see every challenge as opportunity. Whatever healing I’ve managed, I owe to a lifelong determination for authenticity, truth and survival not just survival, but abundance. I don’t want merely to survive. I want to thrive. To that end, I look to quality, long-term therapy, self-expression through photography and writing — and motherhood. Motherhood has taught me what real love looks and feels like. Learning to parent my children has helped me learn to parent myself. I am blessed to believe, at my core, in the sustaining power of hope and authentic seeking, that there are answers for every question — even if the answer is making peace with the unanswerable question.

My mantra, among many, is Plato’s “The unexamined life is not worth living.” That, and my own, at the risk of repeating: I don’t want to survive. I want to thrive.

What is your artistic/creative background?

As a young girl, I would often sit at a desk in my room and write stories. I wrote in a red leather diary I still have. When I was in seventh grade, my teacher wrote on one of my assignments “You are a talented writer. I expect to see you one day in ‘Reader’s Digest Magazine’.” It was her encouragement that led me to major in English in college, though midway through, I switched to journalism at another teacher’s suggestion. I eventually worked my way to being a general assignments reporter at a major metropolitan daily in South Carolina’s state capital, where my favorite assignments were the people stories — the politician behind the politics, the criminal behind the crime.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I started a personal column about family life and motherhood that became nationally syndicated with the Tribune News Service and that continues today, 27 years later. Motherhood and writing became inextricably intertwined for me; I learned to be a mother by writing about it. I learned to be a writer by being a mother. (And indeed, one of my columns made it into “Reader’s Digest”.)

At the same time that I was writing, I was also photographing. I had my first camera when I was 10, my first “real” camera when I was 19. My job then was traveling the South, taking studio portraits of Shriners (a philanthropic men’s club) for their annual yearbooks. The photographer who taught me how to arrange groups in the studio and how to coax people to smile for the camera, also taught me how to use his handheld Leica. After that, I took a few photojournalism classes in college. I hated the dark room. But I loved the art, which I began to hone even more by observing the photojournalists at the newspapers where I worked. I’d watch these bright and talented professionals take dozens of photos for a single story, then find the one image that would authentically illustrate it. Occasionally, when a photographer wasn’t available, they’d give me a camera, and I’d get to take a photo for the paper.

Once I had children, my photo self-education came to a standstill. Though I always had a camera in hand, and took lots of photos of my children, it wasn’t until my children were much older that I began developing photography as more than a hobby. This started by happenstance with an exhibit several years ago at a local Starbucks. People liked my photos and asked if they could pay me to take pictures. I posted my work on Facebook, and through social media almost exclusively, began to develop a cottage business doing events, portraits, weddings and exhibits. My favorite is portraits. I believe human connection is why we’re here. I love connecting with human nature through the eyes, facial expressions and body language of another. I love trying to capture the true, authentic nature of a person with my camera. I love seeing the beauty in every person. From my vantage point behind the camera, everyone is beautiful. Everyone is photogenic.

Beyond these two most apparent examples, I am blessed to find creative expression in everything — in cooking and gardening, in choosing the clothes I wear each day and in mothering: Instead of disciplining my children for their occasional misdeeds, I would have them write a short essay, explaining why what they did was wrong and how they might have behaved differently. I believe everything in life has meaning that bears extracting. Life is creative. Creativity begets creativity.

What motivated you to deal with your chosen submission subject?

I come from a generational history of eating-disorder and body-image issues. My mother binged and starved, striving — and often succeeding — to have a Barbie-doll 18-inch waistline like Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind.” I remember being in the kitchen with my grandmother and my mother at the age of 8 – one of them pushing forward on my bottom, the other back on my round tummy — trying to get me to hold both in. And so then there I was, at 15, standing in front of the mirror, staring, horrified, at the tiny pooch of a stomach I had developed after eating too much cauliflower and dip at a party the night before. I probably weighed all of 120 pounds, which, at 5’4’’, was “normal.” But I thought I was fat. I went on my first “diet” immediately, reducing my daily intake to one small McDonald’s hamburger for several days until a horrified friend stopped me. Thus began decades of yo-yo dieting, compulsive overeating, eating-disordered behaviors and shame-based body-image issues. Thanks to therapy and self-exploration and expression, I no longer diet or engage in so many eating-disordered behaviors. But my issues with body image can still be activated to some degree all these many decades later.

As a recovering adult, I began to think about how I could help others with the same issues. Body-image issues, wrought of a culture that venerates airbrushed celebrities, knows no gender, age or size boundaries. While an estimated 80 percent of women have some form of body distortion, or dysmorphia, which they often hide in secrecy and shame, newer studies reveal that men suffer in large numbers, too. I know thin women who think their breasts are too small, their legs too bony. I considered offering my skills, pro bono, at an eating disorders clinic at one point. I went so far as to contact a clinic. But I wasn’t sure whether photos would help or hurt. Would I help dysmorphic women by showing them images of themselves as they are? Or would I drive them deeper into shame, pain and disordered thinking?

And then a brazen young women in our community sent me the link to one of the many woman-empowering photo projects flooding the Internet. This particular project was commissioning photographers throughout the country to take pictures of postpartum women in swimsuits, with the intent of empowering women whose bodies have been transformed by pregnancy and birth. As I clicked through the pages of the project’s web site, I saw beautiful photos of women of various sizes and ages, daring to overcome the shame of their imperfections. Imagining the power of this kind of photo shoot — both for the person being photographed and the photographer, I applied to be one of the photographers. Thrilled when I was accepted, I quickly set up an affiliate FB page, asking for local volunteers to commit to our first photo session. The response was enormous. “I’m scared to do this, but I will if you will,” one commented. “I hate my body, but I will do this for my daughter,” wrote another. Over the next few days, comments began to get longer and more detailed, until ultimately, women were telling stories of entire lifetimes of shame and pain — how their mothers called them fat and their uncles abused them, how they inflicted pain on themselves and stuffed emotions down with food. Stories were gripping, powerful and raw, as was the outpouring of reflective, compassionate and non-judgmental commentary that followed, woman-to-woman.

And then I got a message from one of the national administrators of the project who apparently was reading the stories, too.

“This is not what our project is about,” she told me. “These stories are too graphic. You need to reel these women in.”

I was shocked and perplexed. I thought this was just what the project was about. If these women were going to be revealing their bodies to us, shouldn’t we also be giving them the opportunity to reveal their souls, I asked her. Wasn’t the kind of censorship she was suggesting akin to the shame they’d suffered their whole lives? Wasn’t “reeling them in” simply piling abuse on abuse?

“This is not in keeping with our project,” she repeated.

And so we separated before we even started. Our group branched off on our own, with the words “healing” and “body image” in bold print in our name. Today our Facebook page is full of personal comments, posts and photos. We have about 400 members, mostly women, with some men within the ranks. The only censorship is against “trolling,” which we’ve never had a problem with, and advertising. Everything else — especially the origins and truth of our struggles — is not only fair game, but encouraged.

Truth-telling is also a big part of The Healing Body Image Project’s “I Dare You to Wear A Bikini in Public Photo Shoot.” We’ve done three public shoots so far totaling about 30 people — all women at this point — twice last summer at a public swimming lake and once, this past month, on the banks of the river that flows through our downtown. At each session, we shoot some collective photos and then we shoot individuals of each person. But first and foremost, we share our stories. At our latest shoot, one woman told us she came to the shoot in direct defiance of her husband’s taunts. “I decided to put me first,” she told us through her tears. “I don’t deserve this. I can’t keep punishing myself like this.” Sitting in a circle on a quilt in our cover-ups and dresses, we tell these personal stories of shame, pain and triumph. We cry and laugh. And then comes the shy, but powerful, moment when we strip down to bikinis, some of us for the first time. I wear a bikini, too, in solidarity — my own fears firmly in place — as I begin to photograph these pioneering women, who have brought scarves and hats and flowers to put in their hair.

They are tentative and beautiful, strong and flirty, as they flit and flinch, pout and pose and ultimately tug open their spirits for the camera. They have me pose, too, as one of the participants holds the camera — an experience that I love and hate. We all want our souls to be seen. But then, we don’t. Not fully. Yet, here we all are — fully revealed to each other.

And then I go home and post these valiant women’s photos and bits of each of their stories on our Facebook pages. And I watch our notifications explode with triumph and applause for the courage and bravery of these spirited women pioneering for a new era. Some of us feel nervous as photos and comments begin to emerge. A couple of people have wanted a photo removed from Facebook here and there. Others in the community write to us about how our bravery has encouraged them, to wear their own bikinis for the first time or a tank top to a work-out session.

We were approached by a 12-year-old girls’ softball team at one of our sessions and thanked for the work we are doing. One woman said our group encouraged her to leave a unsatisfying marriage. We also heard from a man after our last shoot: “You have inspired me to be more comfortable with myself,” he said. A photographer, he has offered to shoot a males-only photo session for our group. And the process of healing continues and expands.

A selection of images from The Healing Body Image Project – Photography by Debra-Lynn Hook

What is your process when creating?

For a person who learned to live in her head, turning off my thought processes does not come naturally. But when I consciously decide to attach to nothing, when I sit at my computer and type my feelings without dissecting every word, when I look into a woman’s eyes with my camera without wondering whether the light is perfect and who’s going to like my photo on Facebook, that’s when I feel most creative. I’m fully aware of what I’m doing in these moments. But these creative experiences are beyond me. Some call this experience God. Or mystical union. It is when I am immersed in this joie de creation, that these disparate, conflicted parts of me find the space to co-exist. I am euphoric. And calm at the same time. I am humbled. And also awed.

When a woman dares to show all of herself to my camera, I am whole, connected, stripped clean myself and yet pulled together. I am also very awake. It’s as if my conscience has come into communion with my subconscience. This sensorial experience of creativity can happen, if I invite it, in the beginning stages of a creation. It almost always happens in the editing, when the pressure is off and all that’s left now is the fairy dust. This joy of creating emanates when I connect with the heart, not with the dials on my camera or the clock above my head, not with that niggling, nagging, ever-present feeling that somebody, somewhere, is going to be offended by — or worse, will negatively critique — my creation.

The essence of creativity reverberates when I release myself from all this. The joy of creating for me comes in the free-form, not the rigidly chosen. When the river of words is un-dammed with little concern for time or message, when the dance of images emerges with no thought of perfection, that is when I feel most alive to the art.

Who are you influenced by within your artistic discipline?

Annie Leibovitz, who I believe captures the essence of a person in her very studied portraits. On the other hand is Henri Cartier Bresson, the father of modern photo-journalism, who captures the essence of a moment on the fly.

I also love the work of Vivian Maier, a secret street photographer born in 1926 who never wanted to be published but who sought out human enlightenment for herself by taking everyday photos of strangers on the street. Her thousands upon thousands of photos were only discovered after she died. As for writing, the brave book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” had an effect on me as a young girl. Later, I was influenced by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning essayist Anna Quindlen, also by the humorist Erma Bombeck, who wrote about domestic life with humor.  I am potentially influenced by any non-fiction writer who dares to bare the truth of his or her soul.

Who inspires you in general?

My children. They are the best parts of me.

What causes and world issues are you passionate about, campaign for, volunteer for?

I have marched for, written about and contributed financially to the organic food movement; gay rights; body-image issues; peace; the environment; feminism, and most profoundly, race rights. My passion for race issues comes from my mother, whose Lebanese family secretly helped start the first black Catholic churches in South Carolina, including St. Anthony’s in the town where we lived. Though we usually went to the white Catholic church on Sundays, where we also attended school, on occasion Mama would take us to St. Anthony’s. Here is where my exotic, olive-skinned mother, who was depressed and suffered low self esteem, who often felt marginalized in the South, would throw her head back and sing like she never did in the white church. She would stretch out her hands to the folks there, and they to her.

My mother would stand up to anybody in the Deep South who used the N-word.  I remember when our babysitter, an African-American woman, died, my mother took us girls into her house to pay our respects — something white people didn’t do in the 1960s in the American South.  My mother’s simple actions became her legacy, and mine, when, later as a mother myself, I would drive a car full of children every Martin Luther King Day to inner-city Cleveland, to a Langston Hughes reading one year in a packed theater where we were the only whites. Uncomfortable as we were, I made us sit through the entirety of the event, to feel what it’s like to be in the minority, if only for an hour.

What do the statements “art saves lives” and “art creates change” mean to you?

At the Cleveland Museum during a difficult time in my life recently, I found myself staring at a particularly grim Renaissance painting. In that moment, I felt a deep connection to the artist’s pain. Trite as it sounds, it was as if the art came alive to me, even though the artist was long-dead. I realized that to truly encounter art is to intimately connect with another human being. I thought if I ever feel sad and alone again, I need only go to an art museum, where I will find many human beings likewise trying to transcend and embrace the human condition.

I can see this kind of connection helping the partaker of art who may be depressed or lonely and thinking nobody feels as he or she does. I also think about the artist herself — a troubled artist, for example — expressing herself through art when she isn’t able to express herself otherwise. One expression aids and abets the other. The artist connects the viewer, and vice versa. Art helps bring us out of ourselves, together and into the world.

In a bigger way, I think of walking the halls of the stark, creative Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. I think about how seeing the art in that museum promotes empathy and compassion for Other. On a larger scope, the museum reminds us of a horrific moment in human history, and why we never want to provoke such a moment again.

Have your artistic and creative outlets saved your life in anyway and do you think your message within them could help create change in the world?

My writing gave me a place to go with my thoughts when I was a child. It gave me a career that was both professional and creative.

Writing and photography also helped me cope with CLL, a chronic, incurable form of leukemia I was diagnosed with six years ago. This form of leukemia doesn’t need treatment right away. Instead, it sits in the body, building up until it one day begins attacking any number of bodily systems. Doctors tell you when you’re first diagnosed, there’s nothing to do but go home to “watch and wait” for myriad symptoms to appear. This process, this doing nothing but waiting for attack, can be maddening; studies show that more anxiety medications are prescribed to people with CLL than with any other cancer.

Photography at its base has helped me with the sense of panic and urgency I sometimes feel when living with this vague, life-threatening disease. As a creative art, photography provides me with that opportunity for transcendence, to move into that deeper, yet lighter, place that connects life and death and death to life. Photography helps me with with my need to be remembered. The work I create and post, sometimes compulsively, helps me know that if I get sick and die tomorrow, I leave a body of work behind that will remind people I was here.

My writing also helps me develop and formulate new pathways related to my health. Refusing to “watch and wait,” I have transformed myself through macrobiotics, a harmonious way of being and living that begins with food and moves into all other areas of life. Writing about this journey — which has included yoga, meditation, energy work and an upheaval of my life in general and which has kept me from needing treatment — in blogs, columns, Facebook pages and personal posts is cathartic and therapeutic. I wouldn’t know what to do without my ability to express myself through writing. Sometimes I write with my eyes closed with tears streaming down my face. It is in this moment that I am most deeply connected to myself, my pain — and my joy, too — and its expression and release.

As for changing the world, I believe the more authentically we write about ourselves, the more we help others know they are not alone. It’s the same with photography. If photos help one of our Healing Body Image women progress one step forward on her healing path, that is change worth noting.

What are your present and future goals for your art?

I see myself moving deeper into the art side of photography. I would like to do more exhibits, which allow me to share the photos that speak most profoundly to me. A nearby gallery has asked us to show the Healing Body Image photos and to speak about body-image issues as a group at a future opening. I also enjoy working with artists in general on specific shoots; recently I had the opportunity to work with the great musician Jeannette Sorrell and her internationally acclaimed Baroque ensemble, Apollo’s Fire. It was refreshing to work with a client who herself has artistic vision. I see myself taking the Healing Body Image Project to new levels; some of our members want to shift from bikini shoots to lingerie and nude sessions. One said we should ride through our little college town on bicycles, nude. I am working with women with breast cancer and hope to do more to illuminate the truths of their stories, through photos and words.

I also know what I don’t want: A few months ago, I had the opportunity to advertise at a flashy new gym in town where my business was going to be promoted on a TV screen and announced on a PA system while people exercised. Even though I was going to be the only photographer advertiser, which likely would have brought me a lot of clients, I realized in that moment I don’t want jobs just for jobs’ sake. I want a photography job because the client and I resonate, because the client knows my work or knows somebody who has worked with me. I like six degrees of separation. I like feeling a connection before I ever pick up my Nikon. I may never have a lot of money because of this approach, but money’s not always the thing.

As for writing, I would like to write a memoir, or a pictorial about brave women. I would like to do something that combines my writing and my photography.

The following question are about mental health:

Can you tell us about your own experiences with mental illness?

My first experience with mental illness was watching my aunt, my mother’s sister, who was also abused by my mother’s mother, being taken away when she was 16 and I was 8. It was all very secretive and hush-hush. She had been caught stealing a car and had run away. The next thing I knew, she had been taken to a “mental institution,” which the adults talked about in whispers. She came home soon after that and ultimately went on to become troubled and labeled “crazy” until the day she died, destitute and alone. I was never able to exactly understand or pinpoint exactly what happened; my aunt was was never given an official diagnosis as far as I know. I always felt sorry for her and scared of mental illness after that.

When I was in my 30s, my mother voluntarily entered a state institution for depression. Although I was afraid to visit her at the institution, once inside, I was astounded to see how happy she was. Sitting in the middle of the patient lounge, surrounded by other, more downtrodden clients who appeared to look up to her, it was clear that in addition to rest, my lost and sad mother had found some purpose. My mother went on in later years to work as a nurse on the psychiatric ward at Charity Hospital in inner city New Orleans, where she was beloved by her patients. She could never seem to figure out how to help herself. But she could be a help to the most desperate among us.

When I was 12 and he was 23, my mother’s brother came home from the Viet Nam War severely depressed. He drank heavily and smoked pot in front of me when I was a young teen-ager, and went on to marry six times and to struggle with multiple substance abuses.

Twenty-one years ago, my 38-year-old nephew was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. I have watched the pain of this through the eyes of his mother, my sister. I’ve watched her move my nephew from one rehabilitation experience to the other in the conservative southern United States where they lived for decades, never finding proper care, until almost two years ago, when she moved to just outside New York City. After all these many years, she found proper rehabilitation and true hope for recovery for him, in a place where he was treated with respect — like a human being with an illness that needed treatment, not derision. He has been in the same place, happily now, for almost two years and his illness has been downgraded to unspecified schizoaffective disorder.

I have been in therapy off and on for 30 years for PTSD and other effects of my difficult childhood. I have a strong belief that we all could use a good therapist. Emphasis on “good.” Not someone who overlords with a formula of behavior modification techniques. But a loving and wise human being who knows how to sit in the presence of the seeker while the seeker helps find the keys to unlock the secrets of her own soul.

How does your artistic /creative expression help you with your mental health?

It is grounding, comforting, uplifting, enlightening and connecting. My art helps bring forth feelings I might have trouble expressing otherwise. It is me at my most alive, expressed both internally and outwardly. Artistic expression is how I make sense of myself and the world. I understand the world by documenting it in art.

Have you ever experienced being stigmatised or marginalised due to your mental health or have you seen this happen to someone else?

Soon after I was diagnosed with leukemia, I called the doctor’s hotline with questions about some symptoms I was having. The hotline is set up for just this purpose. And yet, within a few minutes after I started talking with the nurse, instead of continuing to answer my questions and address my concerns, she stopped me and asked if I needed drugs for anxiety.
“No,” I said, confused now and feeling ashamed for asking for help. “I think I will feel better if I can just talk for a few more minutes.” We kept talking, but after that, I felt misunderstood and labeled. What I needed from the medical professionals I entrusted with my care, was information, reassurance and the human touch. Instead, at my next appointment, I was given a questionnaire about anxiety to fill out. The nurse on the hotline apparently had passed along information about my phone call. It was as if “anxiety” was now written on my chart with a capital “A.”

I have also watched most profoundly the marginalization of my nephew who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia more than 20 years ago.

Have you ever received treatment for mental health and if so, what was it, did it help and was it private or state funded?

When I was 26, I started private therapy. I knew one day I wanted to be a better parent than mine were to me. As I learned through therapy to become the healthy mother I needed to be for my children, so did I become the healthy person I needed to be for myself. As I said earlier, I believe it’s important to find the right kind of therapist. A good therapist doesn’t have an agenda. She pays attention and waits for entry points. But the most important thing she does is listen to her clients while they search their own subconscious for the truth of their own souls. I once asked my therapist if she’s ever bored. “Don’t you get tired of hearing the same stories over and over?” I ask. “No,” she tells me. “I feel honored to sit in the presence of people as they work out their lives.”

My therapist has taught me over the course of time what it means to be patient with myself. By trusting me and my own subconscious, my therapist teaches me to trust myself. This kind of therapy takes time. I am incensed that some insurance companies pay for six therapy sessions and think that’s enough. I think the tide is starting to change a bit in the U.S., as more insurance companies understand the value of extended therapy. But we’re a long way off from long-term coverage for all. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, this kind of therapy has helped — more than anything. It still does.

Do you think society and culture is accepting of people with mental illness?

I believe it varies in the United States, often according to state and region. In the conservative South, people are often about self-determination and a brave face. In the more liberal North, especially in urban areas, people are more accepting. Regardless, mental illness still carries degrees of stigma wherever you are. I have heard multiple stories of unprofessional treatment from my sister, whose son has been in the system for more than 20 years.

How do you feel your Government in your country helps people with mental illness and could they do more?

I get the impression the U.S. government doesn’t do much at all. It’s like race or gay rights or any other stigmatized issue. Until the cloak of secrecy and shame is removed, mental illness will not get the attention it deserves. The United States remains puritanical and uptight in so many ways. I do feel that more insurance companies are recognizing the need for treatment and paying for it. But yes, so much more could be done.

Have you ever had any creative therapies as part of your treatment, did it help?

This wasn’t part of a treatment plan, but I voluntarily signed up for a friend’s yoga/art class. The class was an hour of yoga and then an hour of sketching, after which we shared our drawings with each other.  Because we did yoga first, I felt more relaxed, contemplative and confident during the art process. Because we did yoga together in community, I felt more intimate with the group and more comfortable sharing my experiences publicly.

I also attended a Jungian class on family about 10 years ago. We had class in the morning. And then in the afternoon, after a period of meditation, participants were asked to draw reflectively a scene of each of our families of origin. I drew my two younger sisters playing in a sandbox in the back yard. I drew my older sister standing in the middle of the yard, screaming, as if for help. I drew myself flying above, the ill-placed overseer, who was yet ungrounded and removed. My father, I drew mowing the lawn in the front yard. I couldn’t find a place for my depressed mother. She wasn’t in the picture at all. The experience was profound and enlightening. I still use that drawing as an entry point for understanding and reflection.

Do you think artistic / creative expression can be used to help people with mental health problems?

Beyond a doubt. I believe self-expression may be THE answer for some. Unexpressed words, messages and images can swirl around in our heads and lead us to worse places in our minds. When we get these words and images out of our heads and into the world around us — especially into the ears and vision of someone willing to hear and see — we can change and shift. Neuroscience has proven that trauma is stored differently in the brain after we talk about it. It surely must be the same with the expression of our pain through art, perhaps most especially when we share with others.

Do you think artistic / creative expression could help raise awareness and communicate how mental illness affects people?

I think along with the art, there needs also to be education. I think it would help if more celebrities with mental illness would come forward. Celebrities with mental illness teaching about mental illness with art — that might be the ticket.

What made you want to get involved with ASLI’s MENTAL ILLNESS, HEALTH AND RECOVERY CAMPAIGN?

I think of my nephew, who has suffered more than 20 years, not only from the effects of his illness, but from the resulting alienation. I have deep and abiding memories of my aunt who didn’t understand that she had an illness, but was instead made to believe she was “bad” and “crazy.”

I also got involved because I support the idea of art as a tool for self expression and mental health. I’ve watched women in our Healing Body Image Project become stronger and more connected by expressing themselves. Artistic expression may not always be able to cure. But it can help heal. Art can help manage and connect. Artistic expression can bring awareness. Art can make the world a better place for those who are suffering.

Do you believe in more rights for mentally ill people in the work place and for equal opportunities?

Yes, absolutely. My nephew needs to feel useful. He needs to be part of the world, too.

We at ASLI want to de-stigmatize diagnosis labels within mental illness so that people treat others and their own mental health label as that of a diabetic or any other chronic “physical” illness, as we know the brain is physical and this would further improve stigma and marginalising mental illness. How do you feel about diagnosis labels?

On the one hand, labels help people who have been diagnosed at least have a place to begin to understand themselves.

On the other hand, labels immediately stereotype a person — and usually to the greatest extremes of what we know about the label. I think about the word “anxiety” that was likely written on my leukemia chart. That word will mean one thing to one practitioner and something entirely different to another.

As for reference to physical illness, I think it’s important to note that many physical illnesses also carry stigma. A diagnosis of diabetes can be shaming, as if the person with the disease could have/should have done something to avoid it. We are not far removed from a time when a diagnosis of cancer meant you were sinful and dirty. The prejudice around mental illness is absolute. But illness in general can also carry stigma.

Everyone within ASLI is affected in some way by mental illness, with our MD having several chronic mental illnesses and other members either caring for or dealing with mental health issues. Would this make you think twice about working with ASLI? And does this make ASLI “less professional” in your opinion and if so why?

We live in a society of denial — each person attempting to defend him or herself against the other. And yet we are all flawed. How refreshing it would be to be in a workplace like ASLI where everybody is naming their struggles, where the very intent is awareness, where each person is attempting to take responsibility for themselves. This does not make ASLI less professional. Au contraire, this adds to ASLI’s professionalism. All workplaces are flawed because all humans are flawed. Some workplaces  pretend otherwise and never name their problems.  ASLI starts with awareness.

Finally is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself or your experiences?

Some would say there is no worse time to be an artist: Everybody is an artist. Nobody is buying art. I believe there may be no greater time to be an artist. Social media gives us half a dozen outlets of expression. I have built my photography business almost exclusively through Facebook.  We started our Healing Body Image Project on Facebook and have touched countless people through our efforts. I believe through media like Instagram and Facebook, the public expression of art is available to all of us. I am profoundly grateful that I have found a means of artistic expression in my life, and I encourage others to seek the same.

The Healing Body Image Project - Photography By Debra Lynn Hook

If you would like to know more about Debra Lyn Hook and The Healing Body Image Project

please follow these links:



The Healing Body Image Project Group

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