“Could you sometimes put flowers on my grave?” Deborah Adams asks in a suicide note she’s written in sprawling, loopy handwriting to her children.
The note lives on a crumpled piece of paper, a would-be grocery list interspersed with arrows appending forgotten words, clarifying that, actually, she’d prefer her ashes be spread into the Atlantic, thanks. Because this suicide note, like the many that came before it, is a work in progress.
And the same could be said for Deborah’s larger struggle to define her mental afflictions and properly manage them. Presenting, at times, as depression or mania—compounded by the complications of breast cancer, and a litany of poor diagnoses and treatments—her pain, over the years, has been difficult to characterize.
Currently diagnosed as bipolar with anxiety disorder, Deborah is a self-described writer with a natural flair for dramatics. Notes and poems from the past decade of her life give a glimpse into the darker nature of her personal experience and the complexity of living with mental illness. Melissa Spitz, Deborah’s daughter and a celebrated New York-based photographer, recalls becoming aware of her mother’s illness at a young age.
“She had her big mental breakdown, when she was first institutionalized, when I was six. I was young, but we talked about it. It was like, ‘Mom was really confused and Mom was really sick and Mom went away to this place, but now she’s back and she’s working on getting better.’
“After that, I started going to camp every summer and when I was a little older it became clear that she was going to a rehab facility while I was at camp. So it was kind of removed, things were hidden and I was able to get shipped off and not really know what was going on. I was 12 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she went through a whole round of chemo and a whole round of radiation.
“And then all of these pills came into play and started a massive downward spiral. It wasn’t really until then, around middle school, that I started to realize everyone’s family wasn’t like this. Everyone’s mom was not like this.”
Melissa first started photographing her mother in 2009, while she was pursuing art at the University of Missouri, at the encouragement of a friend who had recently lost his own mother and knew there was personal and artistic value in a project like this.
“The photography project has been the most cathartic experience for me,” says Melissa. “To be able to remove myself physically from the situation, but at the same time get it all out in front of me, to analyze the photos as pieces of a story versus my actual life… It’s allowed me to be more empathetic toward her. When I first started, it was about showing what was wrong with her. It’s become a lot gentler and kinder.”
Since graduating from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2011, Melissa has photographed a number of subjects, including the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri and her grandfather’s dying of Alzheimer’s disease. But her most prominent project to date focuses on her mother in an ongoing series titled "You Have Nothing To Worry About." The series depicts her mother across a pendulum of emotional states and hints at her struggles with alcohol and prescription medication.
Deborah is a natural subject: dressed in bright clothes, often with a cigarette in her mouth, and utterly unshy about enjoying the performative aspects of being photographed.
“She loves taking the photos,” says Melissa. “We were just on vacation and she was like ‘Photograph me doing this! Photograph me doing that!’ It was extreme.”
And while that can be its own burden to Melissa, it seems the project has only helped the mother and daughter, who have long since approached the situation with a creative perspective.
“My brother and I have always dealt with the situation in a humorous way. And my Mom will use humor too. She’s always been like, ‘Ha ha ha I’m going crazy!’ It’s definitely dark humor.”
The photos, likewise, seem to be a way for Melissa to connect and collaborate with her mother, which is no small feat in any relationship challenged by mental illness. “She definitely uses the photos as a space to perform and act things out and joke and play around. She will go buy props and call me to say ‘I bought all this stuff and you have to take pictures of me now!’”
For Melissa, photography is just one piece of the puzzle in her own struggle to come to terms with her complicated upbringing. “I feel like my perspective on it changes all the time. There are days where I’m accepting, and there are days when I’m really pissed about it and have a lot of animosity. It completely depends.”
Like Deborah with her own afflictions, Melissa approaches her relationship to her mother, and her photography series, one day at a time.