Dorith Mous turned a paralyzing mental health scare into a powerful essay and short film series aimed at destigmatizing mental health.
I have come a long way since my first panic attack. In the amount of years it has been, in the ever-growing understanding of anxiety-related ailments, but mostly in what it made me discover about myself.
My mental health challenges began when I was 19. To be honest; my mental health was
probably impaired from a much younger age, but I didn’t identify it until sweaty palms, shortness of breath, a dry mouth, and blurry vision were part of my day-to-day. Soon enough my anxiety manifested in full-blown panic attacks, fear of public transport, large rooms like theaters and cinemas, and social settings. Mostly because I was scared I would throw up or have a heart attack.
Apart from being scary, all this was highly inconvenient given that I was a model. Airplanes and big, crowded sets were part of everyday life. I didn’t want to jeopardize my career; or worse, risk being labeled as crazy or sick. Thus, I left my thoughts of fear and anxiety unexpressed, for over 10 years.
I discussed it with my parents, but not to full extent. I am their only child, who left to travel the world, early 2000s, pre-smartphone. There was enough worry. I wanted to do them proud and ‘make it’ (whatever that means), show them that their lifetime of trust in me had been a good investment. And so I did.
By the time I was 29, I had lived in Tokyo, Paris, London, Los Angeles, and was now based in New York. I had pursued my dream of being a singer, and failed, as petrified of succeeding as I was of not succeeding, which made me just another scared girl in Hollywood, and trust me, there are far too many of those already.
While still modeling full-time, I took the photography path, analogue only. When it was just me and my camera, on Skid Row or at a block party, taking portraits of people with character, I loved it. It was real. It had narrative. But it didn’t suffice. I kept wondering if this was really the Dorith I was going to be. And the anxiety… never left. 10 years in, I was now suffering from derealization, paranoia, vertigo, and insomnia.
Nobody noticed I wasn’t doing well, though. On the outside, I was the loud, funny, confident girl who was on top; the globetrotter soirée-ing with A-listers, making high society career moves. On the inside, oof, I constantly felt inadequate and categorized myself as misfired. I was depressed, I had obsessive thought patterns and nightmares. There was nothing casual about my life and I was rather worried I was insane. I was on auto-pilot 24/7 and quite frankly; if I could bottle that ability and sell it, I’d be writing this essay from my yacht, but instead I’ll tell you from my 30m2 apartment: humans are not made for dead reckoning.
I was creating my best work yet, but doing my worst. Rock ’n’ roll, but wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
I was estimating my worth by measuring myself against others. Comparison—god, what a dangerous activity; judging someone by what they earn, do, have. Most alarmingly; to think to know how someone must feel… The headline of a magazine reads ‘Prince Harry Depressed’ and in the same breath someone passes a newsstand and says, ‘What does he have to be depressed about?! He’s Prince Harry!’
The dehumanization creates a pressure-field for those who ‘have it all’ to upkeep the idea of ‘all.’ While I am no princess, I belonged to a group of people upholding ideas of perfection, while losing touch with reality, breaking down silently. I was on that billboard, selling a dream I myself couldn’t reach, hiding in my room in Brooklyn, while a 17-year-old looked up and decided she, too, wanted to have it all.
I started seeing that my fears were reflections of where I didn’t want to be, and I had to look for what I truly desired. If I ever wanted to find something meaningful, and liberate myself from finding other people’s opinions of me more important, my only option was to throw myself into the lion’s den and let go of the belief that I was an antelope. Because maybe, just maybe, I would turn out to be a lion myself and find my home on the other side of fear. In order to do that, I needed to drop the concept of antelopes and lions in its entirety. This realization, changed everything.
I threw the towel in on finding one me and simply labeled myself a multi-hyphenate. I started using my environment as a sounding board, wearing my heart on my sleeve. And, yes, we’ve come to the cliché of the story (but not the moral, almost there): talking about my self-beliefs and having them reflected led to the realization I wasn’t alone, lifted the heavy veil of thinking I was sick or crazy.
Though my symptoms may fit the criteria for several diagnoses, I didn’t identify with any representation of mental illness or disorder. Most available information painted a picture of sad, dark, hopeless people. However, I continually came across sufferers who, while debilitated by their stubborn psyches, exuded positive energy. Talented, intelligent, successful individuals who didn’t fit the stereotype.
This, I believe, makes for a large, forgotten demographic when we discuss issues that come with having a complex human mind. People who unanimously voice a feeling of aloneness and a fear of being stigmatized, who wear their masks to upkeep the idea of having it all.
Moral of the story: anxiety and depression were both extremely taxing and highly valuable parts of my life, but I unnecessarily went through it alone. The things I thought I wanted carried clear messages. Wanting to be a singer simply represented what I truly desired; to use my voice and be heard. To speak to an audience, in pursuit of telling a story. Which is exactly where I find myself now.
Wearing one of the many hats I hold dearly on my hat rack, I am creating a series of intimate cinematic portraits, featuring defiant individuals who are finding their feet and their voice through combating their challenges with mental health, who no longer feel they need to choose between success and honesty. With them, I aim to emphasize the contrast between what we see (success, beauty, ambition) and what is often left unsaid (fear, panic, insecurity.) An attempt at breaking stigmas and creating space for conversation. They aren’t easy tasks and I believe this is a shared mission, but hey: Rome wasn’t built in a day.
If you are interested in investigating the ways in which you can support the project, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org