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Invisible Illness Project- Madison Photographers Collaboration

Hello everyone! I am Nicole Streeter, just one of the photographers here in Madison WI. I have suffered from Anxiety since I was 13, but after having my second child in June of 2017, I started having some serious Postpartum Anxiety. I have been wanting to do this project for a while now, and decided this is beyond just me. I asked my fellow photogs to share their invisible illnesses as well. Here we are, being real and raw with you. Even though you may not see how we feel on the outside, this is how we feel on the inside. We have to work extra hard every day to be more than these illnesses. We are all warriors.

Kaitlin Hansen: Kaitlin Sheran Photography

You can have the worse shit in the world happen to can get over it, all you have to do, is survive. When I was a child I was tormented about my weight. Weight I imagine I packed on as a young kid because I didn’t, well, couldn’t really understand all the feelings I felt constantly. All the worry I had as a child. Nor all the attention I was seeking to find in all the wrong places. I now know I’m an empath. I feel it all, I want to please everyone, and I’m always trying to fill that void I have somewhere in my soul from my childhood. By all standards it was a good one. Maybe even great—my family struggled like so many others, but we were loved and celebrated. At some point though, my brother took a turn and his hate and anger was always aimed at me. Given that, I just reached to please everyone around me more. When I was 10 I went to my first weight watchers meeting. By the time I was 11 I started dipping my feet into the world of eating disorders. What began as anorexia slipped into full blown hard core bulimia when I realized that I was starving and food could numb me and the sadness I began developing deeply within between the torment from my brother, teasing from my peers, and even some of my cousins. At 16 I was at a weight I loved. And I was raped by a stranger. I didn’t tell anyone because I was embarrassed. Until my malnutrition proved to dispel something from inside me. I had a miscarriage. I didn’t know that is what it was until my friends took me to planned parenthood to get checked. Only myself and those two friends knew that secret I held for five years. Until I spiraled. I spent three months in a hospital for depression, anxiety, OCD, and Bulimia. While most people celebrate their 21st with shots all around, I sat in my room listening to Enya and writing letters to my family. We're all born as innocents into this world. None of us has the power to control the forces that blow by blow chip and dent and strip our innocence away from us. But we were all born with the power of choice. How we fill those dents is up to us. I live with my own demons daily, along with chronic pain. But I choose to move forward and I choose to choose. When I don’t feel like I want to get out of bed, I think about this life and what it has handed me. And I think about how amazing it is right now. And while it’s a struggle I get up. Disappointment can fuel our hearts with anger and malice, and if we become low enough we can become blind to the pain we are inflicting on others AND ourselves. Or we can choose a different route. And. No matter the brutality we meet or the our dark nights of despair, we can choose to listen to a different guide. This is the road to forgiveness.

Codi Shandel Kline: Codi Shandel Photography

A poem that Codi wrote:

Initiation, incubation, revival, survival. I’ve taken back my narrative. The narrative to a lifetime of dealing with the consequences of trauma because of someone else’s choices. You will drown. You will, even if you try and chose not to. It’s just part of the process. In fact, drowning is the easier choice. The harder choice? Survival. To muster the strength and will to pull your water logged soul out of the water. It will suck. It will be so, so hard. But when you finally get the chance to turn your face to the sky...well. That’s where you’ll find your survival. But don’t be fooled by these pretty words and pictures. You will likely drown again. And that’s okay. Because now you know the path to survival. Just keep your face toward the sky.

Brittany Post: Phoenix & Rose Photography Co.

LIVING WITH PMDD *Trigger warning suicidal thoughts/self-harm*

Looking back it all makes sense. I started cutting myself when I was 12, the same year I got my first period. I never realized those two things were connected until just last year, at age 26.

Every three weeks, I become a different version of myself. Normally I love to live a spiritually enhanced, mindful lifestyle. I love spending time working on myself and spending time with my family. I feel like life is too good, and I'm too lucky. Those times that life feels too perfect is when PMDD strikes hardest. I suddenly doubt that my husband loves me. I doubt my ability to mother my children. I doubt my career choice. I doubt my innate abilities. But mostly, I doubt any positive reason for my existence. I have to argue against myself on why I shouldn't end my life. If I'm not prepared for an episode, it can result in self-harm or attempted suicide. The biggest struggle is knowing even though everything feels better in a couple days, in three weeks I have to do it all over again.

This past year has been my biggest year for improvement in my mental illness. I have no self-harmed in almost two years. I see an acupuncturist twice a month, I'm on a number of supplements and I have medication a week before my cycle to lessen the severity of an episode. I see a therapist, I do yoga, and I try to practice mindfulness. All of these things are good and helpful, but sometimes just knowing how much I have to prepare just to be normal is utterly exhausting.

Another change I've made is that I stopped being silent in my suffering. Seeking solitude is never the answer when you are feeling depressed, dealing with overwhelming anxiety, or feeling urges to harm yourself. By sharing my honest feelings with friends and family, I have been able to separate myself from my PMDD persona, which lessens the shame I can feel over my thoughts and actions during episodes. If anyone else struggles with cyclical feelings of depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation, I urge you to download the MyPMDD app and see if your symptoms are related to your menstrual cycle.

I wrote this poem in college, before my diagnosis, about how it felt when my partner would comfort me during a panic attack:


hard in your arms



at the bare aching

muscles and broken

blood vessels.

There's this stinging,

searing, crawling

through my veins.

I hit the ground

before you could

ever catch me.

I hated you

for lying down next to me,

your pulse burning

into my hands.

I couldn't tell you

all the ways

I had broken or

all the ways

I hated myself.

Nicole Streeter: Nicole Streeter Birth and Postpartum Stories

My anxiety is worse in the winter. I crave the sunshine. Ever spring it seems I find myself staring out at the sun from this pit I have created. I feel stuck in it. I sit and cry and try to yell for help, but I realize that I am the only one who can dig myself out of this pit. I gather all my strength and I fight, for me. I dig my nails into the sand and claw my way to the top. I can feel the sun on my fingers. Sometimes, just as I am about to climb out, I fall back in. It doesn't matter how many time I fall, it matters how many times I rise. I do this for me, and my family. I fight. I climb. I crawl out and I embrace the sun.

I have always dealt with anxiety since I was 13, but after my second child was born I found it harder to deal with it. I had horrible tension stomach aches that would leave my laying in bed. I was afraid to leave my house with two kids alone. I struggled to make any type of decision. I had so many panic attacks before my husband found me someone to go talk to. He came with to learn my triggers and how to help me best. I eventually made the decision to start medication and for the first time in months, felt relief. It was a very hard time, but we got through together. Find that support person that will stand by you and fight for the sun with you.

Jill Koskelin: Etikette/ Light & Life

I don't open up to anyone other than my husband and very close friends. But I hope you can take away something from these images.

Illnesses should be talked about. No one should suffer in silence, and the more we talk about it, the more people we help.

Tara Montoya: Tara Montoya Photography

Pressure. There's so much pressure on my chest. Why can't I breathe? I CAN'T BREATHE. Suck in air as quickly as possible, feeling like my lungs have holes in them and that they cannot hold oxygen. Am I dying? I feel like I'm dying. Cry, gasp for breath, call for help, go to the E.R. Set off the heart monitor, have people rush to the uncomfortable hospital bed. Tell them I can't breathe. Get a CAT scan with dye contrast to make sure I didn't in fact suffer a heart attack, because the multiple EKGs are off the charts. Nothing. "It's just anxiety, it's only a panic attack". Get pumped full of sedatives through an IV. Fall asleep in that uncomfortable hospital bed for 30 minutes. Get released with benzos, even though I hate them and have 3 different kinds at home.

I had my first panic attack when I was 23. I had no idea what was happening to me. I felt dizzy, my heart started racing, I felt like I was suffocating and my entire body was trembling beyond my control.

My panic attacks can be so severe that I have had 2 different E.R. doctors on two separate occasions think I may have had a heart attack.

Most of my panic attacks do not land me in the E.R. these days. I know the pressure in my chest, and the feeling of suffocation well, like an unwanted shadow following me around. I have been told by doctors what other symptoms would appear in an actual heart attack, to try to ease my mind when the really bad ones hit. To make it even more fun for me to try to talk myself out of the "I'm dying" mindset, I do have 2 heart valve defects. But, I can breathe myself through some of the less intense ones, or cry myself to sleep and wake up feeling better.

I have done CBT and psychotherapy. I have taken many different anxiety medications and dealt with horrible side effects. I've been overmedicated by a psychiatrist who didn't listen to me.

Most people outside of my family and my boyfriend don't know that I have this disorder. It is completely invisible. But it's just as real and debilitating as physical ailments.

Paige Casazza: Duke and Darling Photography

I was diagnosed with stage 3 endometriosis at age 19 but, it has been apart of me since I was 12. My life came to a head when I woke up with the most intense stabbing pain, and felt something wet under me. I turned on the light and I honest to god thought I had been stabbed-- it was my period.

Portions of my day are spent curled up on the floor throwing up and feeling like 10,000 knives are stabbing my from my ribcage down to my pelvis. This pain is similar to what a woman goes through when she gives birth-- however I would take giving birth to my 10 lb baby over this.

During an episode it starts with shooting pain from my thighs down to my ankles. It drops me to the floor. I can't find any relief but, I can't scream because it hurts too much. I can barely even breathe-- I can't catch my breath. I frantically look around trying to wrap my mind around any idea that will give me even a second of relief. The only thought I can find that if I could end my life then the pain would stop. I think about how my family deserves someone who can give them more.

I wasn't prepared. I wasn't prepared that for years I wouldn't be able to have sex. That apart of my body would have to be snipped just for this to be a possibility. That endo would destroy all my relationships. Friends, lovers, family would all not understand and it would be detrimental to them. That every year they cut me open to get rid of the scar tissue-- and it barely makes a dent. That it takes me 8 months to conceive. and most those pregnancies, I lose. I wasn't prepared for the zapped energy, the toll it would take on my marriage because, my husband can't see any of the things I endure and he is just confused as to why I'm tired, why the house is a mess, why i'm so depressed.

Those who know me, know me as an eccentric, funny, talented chick. I feel guilty talking about my illness. I worry people will think I am throwing a pity party, or worse. They won't understand the severity and just think I am dramatic or lazy.

There is no cure for Endometriosis but, I hope that someday that will change.

Kelly McKenna Patterson: McKenna Patterson Photography

I've had migraines with aura since I was 7 years old. It runs in my family. When I was little, migraines meant missing out and lying in a dark room. Sounds and light caused piercing pain. An aura that causes flashing lights, loss of speech and numbness in my fingers. In college, I finally found relief in preventative medication. While I still have migraines, I can power through most of them without missing anything.

Just a few years ago, I was listening to a lecture from the Migraine World Summit on new research and treatments, the person said that migraine is a genetic neurological disorder. I realized that every migraine I had was not the result of some accidental food or something I had done incorrectly. Different brains respond to stimulus like weather patterns differently and some people are more sensitive. The beautiful thing about migraines is that as an adult, I'm finally in this place of knowing what prevention tools work for me and how to power through. It has certainly taught me resilience, compassion, and always reminds me that you never know what someone else's day is really like, so it's always good to just be kind.

Cassie Krajnik : Cassandra Nicole Photography

I struggle with PTSD and Anxiety (technically PPA). My son struggles with Anxiety and we're guessing PTSD as well. Here is our story.

January 2012. We woke up to what seemed like a perfectly normal day. I had an ultrasound appointment. We heard the words no mother should ever have to hear: "There's something wrong with your babies heart." Devastated at the news that our unborn son would need 3 open heart surgeries before he started school, we pushed forward. We split care between the Fetal Concerns program at Children's in Milwaukee and my regular OB. I felt like I made defective babies. I was broken.

After 39 hours of labor and an emergent c-section, he came on April 2nd. 8 lbs of glorious baby boy with a full head of hair. I saw him long enough to kiss his cheek and he was whisked away to the NICU. 3 days later, doctors cracked open his chest to attempt to salvage his broken heart. The next time we saw him, his chest was still open, heart beating away. He was too swollen to close. No mother should ever see that.

After 7 long weeks in CICU, we were sent home. That's when it sunk in. I have this baby that I feel no attachment to and my husband is back to working 12 hour shifts. He'd come home from work, I'd hand him our son, and lock myself in the bathroom where I lay there and cried. Eventually, it got easier, we started to bond, and then the cardiologist called, "It's time for Owen's next surgery". He was just 5 months old. All the feelings came flooding back. I need to watch my baby go through this again. HOW. How will I survive. Everyone around me expected me to be strong, but all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball on my bathroom floor.

We made it, and I could stuff everything to the back of my mind again and ignore the nightmares and panic creeping into my chest. Fast forward to 3 years old, it's time for another heart surgery. I'm really not prepared. We just moved to Madison. His surgeon is leaving. I'm pregnant. HOW. How will we survive. Everyone's answer is always " You're a strong mom." "You're a bad ass" " I could never endure it" I don't want to be any of those things. I just want my baby to have a normal heart. To not have to go through pain. To not have to have 300 blood draws by the ages of 5. The nightmares are back. They always involve him in trouble and I can't get to him. Somehow we made it through number 3. They're typically a blur.

Fast Forward to almost 5 years old, he starts 4k. I'm positive I'm labeled the "crazy helicopter mom". But how can I not be? We get calls from the nurse almost weekly. My heart races every time my phone rings when he's not home. I'm sure its going to be catastrophic. He gets sick all the time. He started turning blue. New medications. New interventions. Cardiac Caths. This is our life. A never ending cycle of trauma. It feels lonely. It feels exhausting. I feel like I'm constantly judged. But here I am moving mountains because he is worth it. We've gotten through 7 years of trauma together. He's home for the 3rd day this week because he's sick again. My brain cycles through every outcome, every symptom, should I call Children's, should we go to the er? It's full of what if's and should I/we.

I have had a long journey to figuring out self care matters. It's okay to get help. I see a therapist regularly and so does my son. It's okay to take medications even though everyone around you is screaming "ESSENTIAL OILS!!" It's okay to put yourself first because if you don't put your oxygen mask on first, you can't help anyone.

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