Amber traces the life of a teenage girl from high school into college, an exploration of what happens when mental illness and adolescence collide.
This is a personal passion project tracing her experiences with anxiety, depression and a friendship that grew from that.
Hover over the lower left hand corner for captions.
Amber describes how her room in her dad’s house plays an instrumental part in her struggles with anxiety and depression; it has closed her off from the world and changed the dynamics of how she interacts with people after spending so much time alone.
“I feel like I can’t be in a lot of big, open spaces anymore because of it,” said Amber.
Hidden in the shadows are piles of clothes, trinkets and garbage closing off much of the space in her room — a mess that would shrink or grow with Amber’s mental health stability and thus a measure of what the weight on her shoulders felt like on any given week.
Amber pauses for a moment as if to center herself and touches her head in front of the mirror — seemingly pained by the thought of going to work.
“It’s a shitty job, but there are redeeming parts. I don’t really have time to think about my depression, or how lonely I am, or feeling suicidal,” said Amber, on working at Subway. “I get to think about making that stressed out mom’s sandwiches before her 4 kids have a melt down in the line.”
This was her first job that she would work through the rest of high school before moving to Panera and eventually administration for a construction company.
Her room is tucked away in the top of the house with one small window, a single light and a history of her life and relationships painted on the walls and left on the floor. By her room, she feels simultaneously sheltered and imprisoned.
“Every year I wish for the same thing. Whenever I get a chance to wish, I wish for the same thing.”
We joked about me not being able to ask what the wish was for fear that it wouldn’t come true, but Amber confessed she wishes for wealth and happiness for herself and all of the people she loves.
Amber’s friends from middle and high school threw her a Bob Ross painting party for her 19th birthday. The day went better than she thought it would, but she still felt sad. The one person she wanted to celebrate with her wasn’t there — Josh, who had been her first real boyfriend.
Josh declined being in any photos during the duration of their relationship which happened during much of the year previous to this birthday.
“A lot of the time I feel really disconnected from the world so using this type of stuff, [online gaming], and especially YouTube, really helps with creating a connection to people again,” said Amber.
As long as I have known her, she has always had an intense connection to television, YouTube and the general virtual world. Something that seemed off putting at first, quickly revealed itself as a reach for connection.
“Depression is like a lighthouse,” said Amber.
She is immersed in the darkness, but the light always comes back to her.
I am pictured here with Amber in a photo-booth strip that has always felt revealing of my friendship with Amber: apart just as quickly as we are together, a tricky dance between two friends sharing similar issues.
“I told my therapist you’re my friend-soulmate,” said Amber. “Your weird matches my weird like nobody else.”
Just as quickly as her good moods greet her, they leave her — a departure often spurred on by stress.
“I feel like college really doesn’t cater depression or any sort of mental illness at all,” said Amber. “How am I supposed to do this when I can’t even get out of bed or take a shower?”
At this point, Amber has begun her first year of college at the University of Oregon. She is shown here trying to do homework, but slinking into overwhelming feelings.
“I can’t handle my family,” said Amber.
She had just closed the backdoor behind her mom after she came to visit for Amber’s birthday. Her mom and dad are still friends after raising three kids together, though no longer married to one another.
Despite her parents’ efforts, Amber’s childhood was tumultuous. After watching Amber’s interaction with her family for three years, it was clear that she often felt very disconnected from and even angry with her parents. She seemed to feel tenderly toward her siblings — two older brothers.
We often both feel estranged from our homes, so a lot of the time spent together happens in Amber’s car now.
Sometimes, I’ll get a text that just says come outside and we sit and talk and cry and listen to music till it all gets a little bit easier.
Amber tightly holds herself, wandering around the Asian Celebration in Eugene, Ore. Each year it happens the weekend before her birthday.
“I feel like it’s a nightly ritual now. It encourages me to wash my face and brush my teeth, when I take it,” said Amber. Pictured is her taking her first dose of the antidepressant Prozac.
Amber was deeply against the idea of her taking medication for mental health, but grappled with the realization that while she may not want it, maybe she needs it — and that’s okay. Finally, after suffering with depression for so many years, she thought, it would be okay to accept help outside of herself.
“I didn’t think I would make it that far, I guess, without…without like, harming myself…too much,” said Amber reflecting back on surviving till high school graduation.
Amber and Jessie, right, rode the bus together for over a year without saying anything to one another — not a single “hello” or “good morning”.
One day they began leaving post-it notes on each others’ cars.
Before long, they began dating — one of the first genuinely kindred connections that I would see Amber make in three years.
This is the last image I would make of Amber before parting ways.
She is here holding hands with Jessie. On his dashboard are some of the notes that Amber left for him.