In the bright, minimal Sunset Studio in Peckham, photographer Sophie Mayanne captured nine boys and their stories in the delicate, sincere manner that only Sophie knows how. Stylist Magda Zurkova created a comfortable environment for sharing with relaxed styles, with the occasional pyjama set thrown in, in a soothing colour palette. After a day of listening, I was drenched in impressions and feelings but also really humbled that these boys had felt so comfortable sharing their worse for wear moments with me. Typically when you ask someone, “How are you?” they’ll reply with a socially acceptable “I’m well thank you, how are you?” and then I’ll habitually respond with a reassuring “I’m doing great” and go off on a tangent about how great things are. We have been conditioned since we’re little to only share our good days because we shouldn’t burden others with our load.
With this shoot, we set out to know what was really going on between, above, under and on the side of the letters that make up “I’m well”. We wanted to lift the lid on things, ease the pressure a bit and just have an honest chat. If we don’t dare to share - when we reach our capacity - our emotions and thoughts might just drown us in a pool of our own making. I’ve felt guilty for feeling down. I’ve had moments when I didn’t want to bother others. Finally, I had to give myself a talking to because I realised that if I don’t communicate, I know that eventually… I won’t be able to come up for air. Cry a little, it’s okay. Capture your thoughts in writing. Blast some Swedish 70s Pop (you know what I have in mind…) and dance like a total crazy person in your bedroom. I promise you’ll feel so much better afterwards. As Bracken so wisely puts it: “Everything that you’re feeling is okay and you are definitely not alone”. It’s reassuring to know that we’re all in this together - a life that is sometimes confusing and difficult but most of the time really amazing.
David, Laurie, Bracken, Gabriel, Angelio, Daniel, John, George and Cary are some of the bravest boys I’ve met and all their stories are worth sharing a million times over. The resounding motif behind each of these boys’ participation was to hopefully help someone else out there, even if it just ends up being one person. If Laurie had read or heard something about someone who was struggling at the same time as he, maybe that would have helped, “I try to help out new guys [models] because you do make some stupid mistakes when you start out”.
With the day off from his GCSE mock exams, courtesy of his teacher, Bracken was able to partake in this story. He is a 16-year old transgender boy with a history of depression. When Bracken came out as transgender a year ago, he was able to lean on his school’s support and with the loving and accepting environment nurtured by them, his experience went a lot more smoothly than he had imagined. I’m really impressed with his school and the consideration they have for their students because when it came time for Bracken to tell us his story of depression and recovery, they were there for him again.
“Part of my depression was due to really low self-esteem, and I think coming here today and having pictures taken of me made me feel really proud of myself and happy to be here. I've also struggled with family issues, specifically my dad who wasn't very present. When I was about 11-12, I was really upset, quite distraught about my dad. I wouldn't say it's his fault - it's not anyone's fault really - but I think it was a trigger. My depression was a combination of things sort of coming together at the same time that just sent me to a bad place and it wasn't fun. I've struggled with going outside and I’ve shut myself off from a lot of things and emotions. I felt like I didn't deserve to be happy or feel fulfilled or be successful or anything and it was really hard to get out of that mindset.”
Seeking help was an important milestone in Bracken’s journey, so it’s been important for him to be there for other people going through similar struggles, especially younger kids at his school. Having made it out the other end, these are his words of wisdom: “The first step in your journey to getting better is to really want to. It caused me so much distress and pain that I just didn’t want to be there anymore, so I tried so hard to get out of the place that I was stuck in. CBT [Cognitive Behavioural Therapy] really helped me. They told me to do a gratitude diary and to write down three things every day that made me grateful or happy. I still use that all the time. I think about little things that have made my day better. Even though you’ve had the worst day imaginable, if you can think of three things that make you happy, then it wasn’t the worst day ever. I think that’s hope; seeing that there is a way for you to feel better and not be stuck.”
May last year, Angelio attended a festival with a group of friends. An event that was supposed to be a great memory turned into a nightmare when someone spiked his drink. His ability to trust people got wiped off the table as he spiralled into an abyss. Anxious thoughts built up. He was feeling sad, but more so than usual. Afraid of being judged, he was scared to tell his friends. He began self-harming. Everything culminated in an attempted suicide as this thought lingered heavily on his mind: “I need to go because I don't want to be a pain on anyone else”. Rushed to the hospital, his mum, his family and his friends stood by his bedside all thinking, “Is it my fault?”. He had reached his bottom; he couldn’t go any lower than this.
Before attempting suicide, Angelio kept thinking there was no point to it all because he thought he didn’t really matter to anyone. As he learnt to trust people again, he learnt there was a support network available to him and sharing with them made his emotional cargo so much lighter to bear. “And then you feel like you're in a better place because you realise that you're not just on your own. At the end of the day, we're all human and we've got to keep on moving because if you don't keep moving you'll break and nobody wants to break. Keep moving. We brush it and we get back on and you keep going. You have to keep going because someone is watching you.” After going through all of this, Angelio is again excited about the prospect of life: “I’m excited to explore life because I'm only 18. There's a lot more out there to see. I've got my whole life in front of me so I'm excited. I'm excited to see what lengths I can go to and to push boundaries and take risks. You've got to take risks to succeed in life. I'm excited to take risks if anything.”
His determination is one to live by: “When you’re at rock bottom, the only way you can go is up. I have come a long way from the deepest part of my depression: from self-harming to suicidal thoughts to lonely, emotional nights to thinking it was the end. I realised how much strength I had within, so I was able to pull myself out of that dark place. It took me a long time to realise that it is okay not to be okay.”
“My star sign and my Hogwarts house define my personality”. I spoke with Capricorn and Harry Potter fan Cary towards the end of the day and he really served me a large dollop of positive energy. Before we derailed completely with Harry Potter and astrology, Cary was telling me about his battle with depression. With bouts of depression happening around September each year, he realised that this wasn’t just a plain old two-week mood slip but something more serious. A seven-month-long low when he was 18 made him finally seek help and his suspicions were confirmed: he was depressed. Given a choice between CBT and counselling, Cary went for counselling. At first, it was difficult because Cary - who describes himself as “quite self-aware and a big over-thinker” - was too aware of what he thought the counsellor wanted him to say. Once he found a way to master his own hurdles, he came out the other end better equipped to both recognise and articulate his downturns:
“I think having someone to talk to was really useful. I think I've learned over the last eight years what works for me and how at like the flip of a hat I can start feeling like I'm going to dip. But recognising that, each time it gets a little bit better and each time I’m like, 'okay, so I need to get out my room and talk to my friends...'. Generally, my life has shifted a lot - I do talk to my family now and I do trust my friends to not think, "Oh, you're being an asshole". Relying on people a lot more has been really great for me. I think going to university and particularly doing an acting course has been helpful. I'm with the same 22 people every day and I've been with them for three years now and I live with six of them, so I've kind of built a nice, warm hug of people. Also, I think going away to university gave me and my family the distance we needed. When I come back home for a few weeks, it’s a lot easier to be like 'oh, this semester was really, really hard' instead of this 'I don't care' attitude.”
When he tried MDMA at a festival, George suffered a bad trip: he started hearing voices and loud noises and seeing things really vividly. He didn’t like the experience but decided to try it again a week later, thinking it might have just been a bad first time. His second experience was no different. A couple of weeks later, whilst tending to his horses, George started feeling really hot, he began sweating and his heart was racing, like it was going to pop out of his chest - it was just like when he was on the drugs. An overwhelming sensation of panic paralysed his body: “I’m gonna die, I wanna cry, I wanna curl up in a ball, I wanna run away”.
His parents called the doctor’s and they said it was a panic attack. After about 45 min of breathing in and out of a paper bag, he calmed down - but over the next week, the panic attacks kept bouncing back like a punching bag. From there, his GP diagnosed him with anxiety, OCD and panic disorder and referred him to CAMHS - Child Mental Health Services. After about a two-week wait to get his assessment, his situation worsened: his OCD escalated (he began washing his hands 50 times a day in order to ‘wash’ the drugs off), his panic attacks got even more crippling and suicidal thoughts became a daily occurrence. This is his journey from there:
“A CAMHS, the person doing the assessment said, “We can help you but there's about a 40-week waiting list to get the help”. And that's the problem because obviously, I was having suicidal thoughts, and they still told me I had to wait 40 weeks. I felt they couldn't see what I was going through; they didn't see me as a severe enough case. We actually left feeling worse than when we went in - which is not really what you want. You’re left sort of powerless, thinking, ‘what the hell do we do now?’. We went back to the GP, and the GP said, "Can you afford to go private?". My parents, fortunately, could afford it and that's when my road to recovery started."
"It took about three years of psychiatric and CBT therapy to get help and recover - although, I never say ‘fully recovered’ because you learn coping mechanisms; you understand your triggers and your limits. But my experience left me thinking, 'what are the people that can't afford to go privately supposed to do?' That started my journey with helping others, and obviously my brand Maison de Choup, which is a vehicle for raising awareness about mental health problems.”
John moved to London to pursue modelling full-time but quickly found himself at the bottom of a tall, thick wall that is the stringent requirements of the modelling industry. Meeting with several London agencies during his time here, they all said the same thing: they can’t represent him because of his height. After hearing the same words over and over again, John started questioning other parts of his looks. Maybe the height thing was an excuse for something else, he thought. Looking for things to control he turned to his food intake. Maybe if I eat less? Healthier?
I noticed that after getting out of the makeup chair during our shoot, John said cheerfully: “Oh, she managed to cover up my pimples!”. The frustrating situation has made him self-conscious, particularly about his skin: “I would stand in front of the mirror and think, 'wow, I have so many pimples or dark circles or whatever'. So I thought it was probably caused by food. Maybe that's what the agencies don't want? I was either not eating or eating healthy but rarely and drinking loads of water every 10 minutes. Then taking baths, putting on facemasks and creams and lotions everywhere and just thinking, 'I hope this helps visually'. And it did help visually... But I would go to the agencies again, but still the same thing.”
“I remember I had a huge, huge meltdown because I had this meeting with the biggest agency ever in London, but it was the same thing. When I told them my height, they were like, "Oh, sorry, we can't do that”. And they're like "Okay, bye" to my face, and you know - you smile, you hug and then you leave. My heart dropped. Looking in the mirror in the elevator going back down, I thought: 'what do I do now?'. I really wanted to cry, but I didn't because there were so many people around. I went home and then just started crying. I remember I was trying to go to sleep but I could not fall asleep because I was crying non-stop. Modelling is the only thing that I moved here for, and I just can't do it, you know?”. John says that friends and photographers lift his spirits when he is down and that makes him want to try even harder. Despite a deflated spirit, he is hopeful because there is nothing that a little dancing can't fix: "If someone goes through the same things as me, dancing is the best therapy ever. Put on some music and just dance. Alone or not alone. It's the best."
Travelling with two of his best friends, who happened to be newly in love, away from everything familiar to him triggered something that had been brewing in Daniel for a while. Despite staying in the beautiful Italian countryside of Umbria with two people that he loved, he began feeling distant from his emotions and surroundings: “Absence is the best way to describe it, like empty space. It was very raw, like when you remove a cast and the skin hasn't been touched for months. It's painful to the touch because I had to consciously find back to the things that made me human”. Daniel tells me he's always been good with his own company and had felt loneliness before, especially during his childhood - but it was never anything near as big as this. When the feeling grew too large and he felt as though it was about to spill over, he flew back home to be with his family. Up until this point, his depression had been sound asleep, but being and living alongside two people in love in a new environment woke a depression that he likens to shedding skin.
Acceptance was a big part of Daniel’s appeasement with himself. Accepting his depression. Accepting that he is a multifaceted human being composed of two conflicting sides. “What I found with my journey of acceptance was that I found things to help me and then realised that those can’t help me and that only I can help me through knowing myself. Really exploring and being with myself in those dark moods. If you're not accepting that part of yourself and if you're not experiencing the lows to the full extent, you're denying yourself a whole part of your existence. It’s about making friends with it because it’s literally like a twin or something. At least that's how it feels to me and I think that’s part of growing up as well.”
“However, we’re in a culture that really lives in denial of itself. Our entire kind of working status quo is unhealthy. It's not set up to enable good mental hygiene. We're not even a wellness culture. It's an industry now and it's something that needs to perpetuate itself. You’re only encouraged to know yourself far enough so that it brings you to the next yoga class or to renew your subscription to Headspace. Whereas it's about actually utilising those things and then taking away the scaffolding and allowing yourself to stand on your own again.”
15-year-old Gabriel struggled to establish lasting friendships that he could be comfortable around. He found it difficult to maintain relationships with people but couldn’t figure out why which lead to low self-esteem and doubts. Unable to find closure to the thoughts that were circling his mind, he was caught somewhere between confusion and panic, “You feel lost because you're just sitting there not knowing what to do next. I used to sit in cold baths every day for hours constantly overthinking. It's really hard to get out of that because you honestly don't know what to do as you're too overwhelmed, but then you can’t even figure out what you need".
The internal pain eventually manifested itself as physical pain on his skin. Gabriel turned to self-harm to quench his immense emotions and deal with the unresolved feelings surrounding his lost friendships, "It became my outlet for the anger or sadness I was feeling in that moment. I almost didn’t realise I was doing it. When people saw my arms, they would question it, and the questioning made me feel even worse". It got to the point where he didn’t want to go to school. He had panic attacks that would take complete ownership of him: "The outbursts of panic and rage all mixed together got so bad the police were called multiple times, and once because of my suicide attempt”. After that, he found himself trapped in a dark place that started to affect how he was around his friends, “I would always go back to the outbursts in my mind really randomly like a daydream, where I was back in the hospital for hours. I would become silent around my friends at times because emotions came back to the surface".
Connecting with new people and being more open proved to be his way out, and in the process, Gabriel discovered a whole new range of music and a better outlet for his emotions. One that stood out to him, in particular, was Norwegian artist Aurora: "The way she is around people ... I have been trying to - not mimic that - but take from it because she always has nice energy in interviews and on stage and things like that. It's nice to try and think of how to live happier like that. She's very comfortable just being who she is". Going through this whole process taught him a lot about himself and also changed him, "I was a very different person last year. I was quite unknowing about things around. Like I didn't even really know what feeling down was. Even though it was bad that I was in that sad space, I think it was also quite good because it taught me about how other people might be feeling. So now I can pick up on someone if I see them feeling down, and I can try to help make them feel a lot more comfortable".
David suffers from borderline personality disorder, which has at times been detrimental to the life around him, whether it’s commitments like university or relationships: “It's one of those things that doesn't just affect you, it affects other people around you”. Most people understand things like depression or anxiety, but borderline is foreign territory to most, David explains. Hence, he has struggled to articulate to others what that means and what it actually feels like. As I’ve understood from David, people who suffer from borderline don’t have the same sense of emotional control as other people, and so emotions dictate everything: “It tricks you into feeling and thinking things that aren’t necessarily real or true. As a result, you act on those emotions”.
A person suffering from borderline can shift between emotions quickly and irrationally. For instance, one moment the person might feel love towards someone, but then a flip is switched and that love is completely erased by hatred: “It's a defence mechanism, an attempt to save yourself or lock yourself away. Even though you're trying to save yourself, you ultimately screw yourself over”. I’m not in the position to explain what borderline feels like, thus, I think it’s best to let the wordsmith himself describe what life is like with it:
“Living with borderline is like driving a locked car you cannot control, nor escape from. You’re stuck on a journey encountering waves of exasperating traffic, near misses, steep hills and cliff edges. Occasionally, no matter how hard you try to push down on the brakes, you lose control, fly full speed off the edge and plummet; heading for an imminent collision with yourself and all others within a close proximity - a merciless, detrimental crash which can often throw you back into hospital.”
David, who is now 22, has been going to therapy since he was 13 years old and has found that talking about it does help. The process has been very introspective and he’s had to learn to understand his triggers and why these things trigger him. Oftentimes the disorder originates in a childhood trauma, which in David’s case was bullying. His experience with the mental health system has generally been good, but he concedes that for many it’s brutal and terrifying. Although, he believes that suffering alone is worse: “It's always worth seeking help when you can. Being alone with everything is a lot worse than at least having that support network in place”.
Laurie and I go back many years. In fact, we met at the start of his journey as a model, back when he first arrived in New York. Today, I learnt a lot of new things about Laurie - things that I had no idea he had gone through. It’s strange how little you may know about someone. He didn’t exactly have the easiest time growing up and for the longest time he resisted help, “Drawn into a spiral of self-harm, self-pity and self-medication that I couldn't comprehend - I just couldn't find the will to stop". Leaving home at 14, Laurie spent the remaining years of his teens in a shell of his own making - merely surviving the days. Nearing the end of our conversation, having gone through a story of countless setbacks, his bruises were in plain sight.
“I didn't get on with my mum for many years. We're better now. She has her own problems as well, which is partially the reason I moved out but I don't want to project it as it being my mum's fault in any way because I left on my own accord. My dad has spent more time in jail than he’s been out. He’s a horrible man. I spent the last five years of my teenage life lonely and alone. I got into cocaine when I was about 15. When I was 17, my ex-girlfriend overdosed on ketamine. She was my ex at the time because she got together with a close friend of mine. They were the only two people I trusted in the whole fucking world..."
“I spent the next couple of years getting into trouble, getting arrested a few times. I was not very nice to a lot of people for that period of my life. I was fucking depressed. I was alone. I created a situation for myself where I needed people to help me but anyone who would try would get their head bitten off because I was in a place where I couldn't be anything for anyone. I couldn't be a friend; I couldn't be a son; I couldn't be anything. It's really weird saying this now just because I know it's not true. There are always people who understand you and who will listen to you.” Things took a turn for the better when the opportunity to model came his way: "Sometimes I feel like this job saved my life. The industry is not without its problems - let's not pretend. But I was going through a period in my life where I needed a drastic change and that change came for me when I was discovered. This is why I feel so much loyalty towards Charlie [Clark] at SUPA.”
Two things echoed throughout my conversations with these boys when speaking about the recovery process. Firstly, you need to be willing to get better. Like Daniel points out, part of that process is making friends with it. Secondly, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Getting better is an introspective process in which you work to understand your triggers so that you are better equipped in the future to face negative thoughts and feelings. As we reflect on these stories and allow them to simmer in our minds as we go about the rest of our day or evening, I’d like to end on something Bracken told me. It’s really very simple but also so difficult to attain when you’re feeling down: “Hope is massive”.