All of My Life is a particularly personal series from LA-based photographer Danielle Spires. When Danielle first sent through the images, I was both honoured that she wanted to share such a personal piece and also very moved. This series shows just how powerful photography can be as a form of expression and communication.
“All of my life, I’ve struggled with how to talk about my debilitating chronic illness. I’ve tried to make a life full of surgeries and hospitalizations palatable to friends and family, but I’ve never been able to regale the memories and nightmares seared into my brain. I replay them like a film, they haunt me and simultaneously give me life. I decided to do something with those memories, and I shot some of my more grotesque stories in a cinematic way, complete with Cinemascope cropping. This is my life story”:
I spent two agonizing years at my parents’ house in the midwest, recovering from a very serious surgery and several hospitalizations. I packed up my life, quit my job, said goodbye to my friends and moved to the middle of nowhere. I was essentially all alone for a couple years except for the wonderful company of my cats.
My dad was on contract work in California and my mom was traveling between the midwest and CA. I would spend months alone, regaining my strength until I could move to Los Angeles. I found that my only solace was my bedroom, surrounded by the few things I kept out of storage, stacks of books and a clock radio that played Coast to Coast AM every night at 10pm.
My cats were my best friends. We would wake up, make breakfast, then read books together in the patches of sun that filtered through the windows. We watched TV together at night. I had my tea in the backyard with the cats while they chased bugs. Then we’d go to sleep and do it all over again for another 730 days.
Days and days would go by where I wouldn’t talk to anyone. I was making my way through my mom’s library of classic literature, then I’d work on a Sudoku puzzle, cook dinner then eat it on a little tray in the TV room while watching movies. Weeks would go by where I wouldn’t see or speak to another person. That became my life.
I spent a lot of time watching the a squirrel family that had taken residence in our backyard. Every morning I would make them popcorn, and during the winter I’d get bundled up to go feed them. Then I’d sit inside and watch the tiny squirrel babies chase each other up and down the trees.
I’ll never be the same after these two years. They changed me forever. I’ve never experienced loneliness, sadness and pain on such a deep and profound level. I’d had a lot of hospitalizations and surgeries before this, but this 2 years was on another level. A day never goes by that I don’t think about those two years, or have flashbacks and nightmares. I both loved and hated that experience and I am somehow comforted by the profoundness of it all.
During a particularly bad couple of years full of hospitalizations, I realized that I hated being pre-medicated before surgery. I was a regular at this hospital, and I wanted to experience every last second of being awake. I was such a regular that I was on a first name basis with the nurses in the surgical ward and, as I was being wheeled through the hallways, I would yell “Hey John, how’s the wife?” and “Sherry your hair looks great!”.
I realized there was no better way to truly understand the importance and impermanence of life than to be cognizant while I was being put under for a major surgery. I began to cherish those few minutes before the warmth took over and I was unconscious. I would watch the nurses chitchat and lay out surgical instruments, while I thought about what, in life, meant the most to me. I thought about creating art. I thought about my family. I thought about my cats. But mostly, I thought about how meaningless all the bullshit we care about is.
I’m thankful that I learned to cherish those moments before surgery. I’m a different person than I was before then. I’ve learned to be grateful every day of my life. I’ve learned to not give a fuck about the little things. I’ve learned to be cool as a cucumber during life’s most awful situations. But mostly, I’ve learned that we are not entitled to happiness, we must seek it out. Every single day I find something that makes me happy, even for a few seconds. My life has been a series of unfortunate events and intense suffering. If I didn’t stop for those moments of happiness, I can’t imagine I would still want to be alive.
In Suffering There Is Beauty
I went through a long stretch of surgeries and hospitalizations in my 20’s, and to ease the intense pain I spent a lot of time in the bathtub. The baths helped me calm my anxieties and provided a little comfort for the enormous amount of pain I was in. In between college, work, an active social life and surgeries, I practically lived in the bathtub…I was taking 3-4 baths a day, and I would lay in there for hours, read and sometimes sleep.
I fucking hated waking up to pain. And I hated going to sleep in pain. So I spent A LOT of time in the bath, trying to bathe away the living nightmare I was in. And to make matters worse, I felt so incredibly unattractive. But god dammit, lipstick always made me feel pretty, so sometimes I would put on lipstick and makeup in the bathtub just to feel pretty again.
Not wanting to give up my social life, I would often leave my porch door unlocked and friends would drop by unannounced. Occasionally when I would get out of the bath in full makeup, I would walk out into my living room to see friends watching TV. It was always a delight to me, and funny to them. Even in suffering there is beauty.
After a month in the hospital, I was released to a nearby hotel in Cleveland, before I would travel back home. I was vomiting blood for three days before I finally told my mom it was time to go back to the hospital. I tenderly started to get dressed, pulling on a shirt and Levis before I had to sit down on the edge of the tub, too weak to finish getting dressed. I sat there, thinking about my Converse. It would’ve been easier to put on slippers, but who would I be if I showed up in sleepwear to the ER? I had standards, god dammit.
I just sat there, swaying back and forth, trying to put my Converse on. I HAD to wear them. I had to wear them and keep some semblance of my life while people continuously violated my boundaries and exploited my vulnerabilities. I called my mom into the bathroom to help tie up those damn Converse.
I wore my Converse as my mom led me through the hallways of the hospital. I wore my Converse as I sat in a bed and violently vomited in front of a room of people. I wore my Converse as I walked through a group of young attractive EMTs bringing in an ambulance patient. I wore them as I laid in an ER bed, choking down barium fluid I knew I’d vomit back up in a few minutes. And I wore them as I begged and pleaded with myself to get through just one more hospitalization.
Back In Omaha
My memories of the midwest are so intertwined with physical pain that I’m not sure if what I’m feeling is love or hate. Some of my warmest memories are during some of the worst days of my life.
I have such fond memories of sitting on my parents’ back porch on crisp fall nights, watching the sun set over the red leafed trees while cicadas buzzed and my cats pounced on moths. The smell of fireplaces in the air, the cool air in my lungs, the dogeared book in my lap….all while I battled the most severe pain I’ve ever been in. I would shuffle in my little slippers, hunched over in my robe, to the deck chairs where I’d sit until the sun set and it was time for me to round the cats up. Loneliness, suffering, contentment, pain and serenity, all married into a million midwestern memories that I possess.
Often I escape back to these memories and find such intense comfort in replaying them in my head. Sometimes these memories are forced on me, they creep into my sleep, morphing into nightmares that cause me such distress that I often get up and go sit with the cats in the living room until my anxiety settles. These nightmares cloud my days, often catching me off guard and filling me with such profound sadness that I excuse myself and find somewhere to regain composure. I wake up from restless sleep mourning the years I’ve lost to sickness. I am filled with such anguish about my past, grieving for all of the stolen moments and wishing for nothing more than a pain free existence. Sometimes I remind myself that everyone in life will suffer, if not now then in 30 years… and somehow that feeling of camaraderie comforts me.
See more of Danielle’s work at:
Website / Instagram
All images copyright Danielle Spires.