Before my sister’s untimely death from an overdose of pharmaceuticals, I didn’t think much about pharmaceuticals in any meaningful way. I’ve never dealt with serious illness. My sister was eccentric from an early age and no one thought much of it. Of course, the labeling of mental illness had not yet come into play at that time.
We were adopted from separate families and when she met her birth family, she discovered that her father was bi-polar. He was taking Lexipro at the time, so she found a doctor who would prescribe the same.
I don’t recall why she took that leap, but I do remember it being an odd choice, simply because there was no discussion of her mental health previous to this. And so began her journey with pills, coupled with intense side effects 10 years prior to her death.
The pill regiment grew more complicated over the years until she was unable to work. The last time I visited with her, she no longer showed emotion, unusual for a person who laughed easily. Her eyes were vacant and she’d driven half way across the country to see me.
Near the end, she realized that the drugs had taken her to a dark place and took it upon herself to stop taking the medications all at once. Immediately she felt happy (and what a joy it was to hear the voice of the sister I dearly missed), followed by a very steep depression. I missed her call the night she hid in the kitchen to take her deadly cocktail, slipped into bed next to her husband and never woke up.
I knew the medication was effecting her but when she started saying she would take her own life, my thinking was that it was mental illness talking, not the medication. Isn’t that what we all assume?
As I began making the art, it was the reaction of the viewers that led me to thinking about the panel discussion. With so much talk of my sister’s situation, it was clear that many people had experienced the same fate. When Executive Director of ICA San Jose, Cathy Kimball and I met, it was an immediate part of the conversation. The job of subversive art is to question the establishment.
Meeting the panelists and hearing their stories has been an education for me. This is a pervasive issue and I now believe that the medication is responsible for a large majority of unfortunate deaths among people whose systems are fragile to begin with. I’m simply an artist who is here to serve as a reminder that someone suffered with mental challenges and was not helped by her doctors, the medications and a society that does not allow room for those of us with a colorful spirit. This is the story I am sharing and I hope to start many conversations.
Big thank you to Yana Jacobs with the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care, for helping put together the panel and for the enormous support during the process.
Tamara Staples began her career as a prop stylist for print and television commercials. However, it was her fine art photography background that kept taking her behind the camera. As a photographer, her work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Time Out NY, New York Times, Men’s Journal, O Magazine, New York Magazine and Town and Country to name a few. Although busy with commercial assignments, she continues to work on personal projects. Her work has been featured on NPR’s This American Life and CNN. Tamara is the recipient of a NYFA Grant , PDN self promotion award, the Bronze award from the 2014 Royal Photographic Society and is a fellow of The Rauschenberg Residency. She lives and works in Brooklyn. See more of her work and contact her at TamaraStaples.com.