Mental illnesses can affect both the people who live with them, and the people who care about those who live with them — so to share a story that isn't always told, photographer Melissa Spitz has captured raw moments of living with her mother at home in the photo series "You Have Nothing to Worry About." Spitz's mother, Deborah Adams, has been diagnosed with "everything at one point or another," Spitz tells Bustle in a phone interview, including bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and drug addiction.
The project that eventually became "You Have Nothing To Worry About" started in 2009, when Spitz was working toward her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a concentration in photography at the University of Missouri. One of her photo assignments, she says, was an open-ended project titled "Private."
"At the time, home and my relationship with my mother was the most private thing in my life," says Spitz, who is now 27. "It felt natural to take the camera home."
For the assignment, she began taking portraits of Adams smoking at home, of her collection of medicine bottles, and of moments of vulnerability. Spitz also documented shopping sprees and beach trips. Then, in 2014, Spitz decided to take "You Have Nothing to Worry About" further by featuring pictures from the series regularly on Instagram, along with anecdotal captions.
Since she began posting "You Have Nothing To Worry About" to Instagram, her photo series has garnered more than 16,000 followers. Many of these followers have expressed empathy and shared their own experiences with family members with mental illness in the comments.
Spitz's project documents the complicated relationship dynamics that living with someone who has a mental illness can create — both positive and negative. Sometimes, Spitz notes, it's hard to tell if a conflict or other type of interaction is fueled by illness, and family members may struggle with mixed emotions. And in the years since starting "You Have Nothing to Worry About," Spitz says, her relationship with her mother has completely changed.
Initially, the photos were all candid. But as Adams became more aware of what her daughter was doing, she felt empowered to contribute creative ideas. "She sets up a lot of shots now, purchases props, and will even bring outfit changes when she knows that we will be making a lot of photos together," Spitz says of her mom, who's now 61.
Their mother-daughter relationship has mostly been a contentious one throughout Spitz's life, she says, so working on the photo series as a team became a form of catharsis and has taught her to let go of anger. "The majority of my life our relationship consisted of fighting and shopping. The photo project gave us something to do together," she says. "It's given me a different perspective on the pain that she has felt and feels regularly."
"You Have Nothing to Worry About" has also taught Spitz that mental illness lies on a spectrum in more ways than one.
"I’ve learned that it ebbs and flows. Some days, weeks, [or] months may seem better than others," Spitz says. "I’ve learned not to get too high with the highs so you don’t get too low with the lows." With a parent who has mental illness, says Spitz, "you hope for the best and expect the worst."
One of Spitz's favorite snapshots from the series is an old picture titled, “The last time Dad remembers Mom being ‘normal,’ Bumbershoot, Seattle, Washington, 1994." Spitz is six years old in the picture, which was taken just months before Adams was admitted into a psychiatric hospital in Washington. Spitz says she particularly enjoys the memory she has of her mom in this particular photo.
"I love nostalgia and want to hold on to these moments for as long as I can, even if they aren't positive all the time," she says.
There are more than 4,000 images to date and that number is only going to increase, as Spitz says, "I plan on documenting her for the rest of her life."
With her camera lens, Spitz says she hopes to shed some light on her relationship with her mother through but also reminds people that this is just one family's unique experience with mental illness.
"I hope people can either see their own lives in my photos or have a glimpse into what life is like when home isn't perfect," she says.
Images: Courtesy of Melissa Spitz