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Sian Cullen and her daughter Aine. Cullen was a teenager in Dublin, Ireland when Aine was born. They now live in Seattle.The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at These are essays, stories told on stage, photos and zines.To submit a story – or note one you've seen that deserves more notice – contact Isolde Raftery at or 206.616.2035.

My mom's mental illness told through photos

From the ongoing photography project, You Have Nothing to Worry About. Title: Mom's new makeup, 2014.
Melissa Spitz
From the ongoing photography project, You Have Nothing to Worry About. Title: Mom's new makeup, 2014.

Since 2009, I have been making photographs of my mentally ill, substance-abusing mother. Her diagnoses change frequently – from alcoholism to dissociative identity disorder – and my relationship with her has been fraught with animosity for as long as I can remember.

I am fully aware that my mother thrives on being the center of attention and that, at times, our portrait sessions encourage her erratic behavior.

The photographs are simultaneously upsetting and encouraging; honest and theatrical; loving and hateful. Corresponding to my mother’s current bipolar diagnosis, conflating these seeming binary opposites is the only way to make photographs of her that are remotely valid.

By turning the camera toward my mother and my relationship with her, I capture her behavior as an echo of my own emotional response. The images function like an ongoing conversation. 

You Have Nothing to Worry About” is a complex and difficult body of work that can be broadly defined as documentary photography. 

We moved to the Seattle-area in the early 1990s for my dad’s job at a large tech company. It provided our family with a lot of financial security but also changed my mom's lifestyle. She enjoyed extravagant vacations and parties. Eventually, my dad said, "nothing was ever enough" when it came to holidays and gifts.

[asset-images[{"caption": "The last time Dad remembers Mom being normal, Bumbershoot, Seattle, Washington, 1996", "fid": "130650", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201610/12Bumbershoot.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Melissa Spitz"}]]This photo at Bumbershoot in 1994 is the last time Dad remembers Mom being "normal." 

We lived in Bellevue for four years. That's when my mom had her massive breakdown. After she was institutionalized by the state, we left Seattle.

My mom to this day claims the weather was a contributing factor to her breakdown. Seattle represents a portion of time where things were very wrong, but we (as a family) had no idea what.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Title: I fell down and broke my jaw, 2012", "fid": "130659", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201610/1Spitz.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Melissa Spitz"}]]

When I was a kid my mom and I were very close. I would go everywhere with her and love to hold her hand.

Growing up with her was fun and scary. As I got older it stopped being so fun, and the drinking, outbursts and strange behavior became embarrassing. 

I always question our closeness from when I was a kid; maybe I was just too naive to see the signs of her being absent. 

Traveling, partying and keeping up with appearances were always important to my mom. But never in the right way. She was always dressed strange or too flamboyant. She was the mom who got too drunk and too loud. Sometimes she would shout very inappropriate things in front of my friends.

It was incredibly embarrassing. Her feelings were always the most important and essentially dictated any outing. I think her good looks have helped her rope people in.

Just today, I asked her about how she felt regarding motherhood, and she said she thought she wanted it but when she finally had me, she realized it just wasn't for her. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Title: To Do-List, 2012, 2012", "fid": "130660", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201610/2Spitz.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Melissa Spitz"}]]

I have grown so accustomed to having a sick mom that it doesn't faze me anymore. Her ability to be mean, irrational, careless, whatever. I feel like after 27 years I've learned to handle it.

I keep telling myself, "You have nothing to worry about."

[asset-images[{"caption": "Title: In the leaves, 2014", "fid": "130661", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201610/6Spitz.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Melissa Spitz"}]]

Finding my mom lying on the floor was normal for me growing up. I used to lie on the floor because I thought it was normal. In reality, my mom was passed out or, worse, had attempted to take her life.

Finding her under the table, on the porch, in her bedroom – it was always terrifying. Having to nudge her to see if she was alive was worse.

My brother and I still constantly worry that she will take her own life. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Title: Morning at the Sink, 2012", "fid": "130663", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201610/4Spitz.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Melissa Spitz"}]]In 2006, my parents separated. At the height of their tumultuous divorce, my mother filed restraining orders against my dad for no reason, hired private investigators and continuously played the victim in and out of the courtroom.

One morning he found the back windshield of his Lexus smashed out. His car was parked at his girlfriend’s apartment.

I hadn’t seen this baseball bat since I was kid. I was cleaning out my mother’s room and found it under her bed, with glass bits still smashed in the end of it. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Title: Praying, 2013", "fid": "130662", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201610/3Spitz.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Melissa Spitz"}]]My mother was raised Catholic but converted to Judaism for my father’s mom and grandmother who were Holocaust survivors. I have always identified more with Judaism and my paternal side of the family.

After my parents’ divorce, my mother returned to Christianity and considers herself born again.

She has expressed many anti-Semitic opinions about my brother and me, which can be frustrating to hear. She claims she is being a good Christian by telling us how she feels.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Title: Mom's Vacation, 2013", "fid": "130664", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201610/7Spitz.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Melissa Spitz"}]]This is a photograph of my mother smoking in bed.

People have a hard time believing that this is actually my mom's bedspread, but it is. She used to mix her pills with alcohol and pass out with lit cigarettes; I was always scared she'd burn the house down. After I made this picture I took all our family photos to our safety deposit box, just in case.

I can't stay at my mom's because she smokes in the apartment; the smell is so pungent it hits you before you even knock on the door. Anything that is left in the place will reek like smoke. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Title: All of Mom's Prescriptions, 2014. ", "fid": "130665", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201610/9Spitz.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Melissa Spitz"}]]I asked my mother to get all of her medicine out for me one night. Most of this consists of psychotropic mood stabilizers and anti-anxiety remedies. 

Mom wants to cut back on some of her medication to start saving money. I told her I am not sure if this is the greatest idea. She says she thinks she can do it, as long as she "weans herself off of them." She promised me that she would speak to her doctor before she made any decisions.

It always seems like as soon as she has her medication worked out she wants to change it. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Title: I am what I am. Shot set up by Mom, 2015.", "fid": "130666", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201610/8Spitz.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Melissa Spitz"}]]I let my mom set up shots pretty often. This was one that was preplanned. When I walked into her home she had these note cards already taped to the wall and was ready to sit in between them.

Some of the cards make me feel guilty for not being present, like, "I don't drive well." The "I want to live" side in general is not very positive. Codependency weighs on me and at times I feel guilty for being away, pursuing my own goals.  

[asset-images[{"caption": "Title: New Doll Room, 2016", "fid": "130667", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201610/10Spitz.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Melissa Spitz"}]]I try to do everything I can to include my mom in my life. I make special trips to see her and call her every single day.

The past few times we talked, I told her about some exciting career opportunities. Her first question is always, "With the pictures of me?!"

I went on to explain that what I would be doing would not be connected to the photographs we make together, and she fell silent.

When we were together in person, and I tried to show her another photographer’s images, she told me she didn't want to see them if they weren't of her. I decided going to lunch would be a better idea.

I took her to a restaurant we have been multiple times. She sat down, looked around and said, "I've never been here in my life!"

I shouldn't be surprised at her inability to be excited for me, or for her to remember places we've been before, but it always catches me off guard. Sometimes she teeters on the edge of being normal and I forget that she's not.   

[asset-images[{"caption": "Title: Mom in Florida, 2016.", "fid": "130668", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201610/11Spitz.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Melissa Spitz"}]]On my mom’s birthday, I asked her what image she wanted posted for her birthday.

First she responded with, "One in my bathing suit so everyone sees how skinny I am!" And then paused and asked if I would post a panic attack picture. We have a decent number of these, her crying in the corner.

For her birthday she wanted everyone to know how much pain she deals with.  

[asset-images[{"caption": "Title: Mom doing her makeup, 2016", "fid": "130669", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201610/13Spitz.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Melissa Spitz"}]]My mom once adopted a kitten for a week and almost killed it. My brother and I demanded that she take the cat back to the Humane Society and told her she was not allowed to get any other pets, unless she wanted a fish.

She has since purchased (and killed) a fair number of goldfish and betas. She names her fish after her dead friends and relatives, including her parents, Elmer and Hilda. When I got to her house and notified her that another fish had passed, she screamed, "Oh no! Not Marty!"    

[asset-images[{"caption": "Title: Mom's sink, 2015", "fid": "130670", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201610/15Spitz.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Melissa Spitz"}]]Part of my mother's morning routine involves dumping her massive makeup bag in the sink. She normally smokes a few cigarettes before she really gets started.   

[asset-images[{"caption": "Title: Mom's Goodwill Fur, 2015", "fid": "130671", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201610/16Spitz.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Melissa Spitz"}]]Mom loves getting done up. She says it always makes her feel better to know she's the best looking person in the room.

She has lost a significant amount of weight. She says I'm lucky because as I get older I will keep getting skinnier just like her.

When she sees photos of herself she says, "Wow, look at how thin I am! Don't you think I am too skinny?" She used to say she didn't like to eat alone, now she just says she doesn't really like to eat. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Title: Mom at my MFA thesis exhibition, 2014", "fid": "130652", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201610/14Spitz.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Melissa Spitz"}]]In the spring of 2014, I had my MFA thesis exhibition at the Savannah College of Art and Design. I was extremely apprehensive to have my mother come to the show but knew that she was entitled to see how I was displaying images of her and our relationship.

Her response was unexpected and a relief. She even gave me a video walk through of the work, describing each photo in her own words.

The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at To submit a story or note one you've seen that deserves more notice, contact Isolde Raftery at or 206.616.2035.