9 photos that document 7 years of mental illness in a really powerful way.

Melissa Spitz's mother was institutionalized for the first time when Melissa was 6 years old.

Back then, Mrs. Spitz had just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and as the years went by, her mental health continued to decline. She worked her way through a hysterectomy and cancer treatment, which led to alcohol abuse, a prescription pill problem, and, eventually, a divorce from Spitz's father.

"I was actually extremely fortunate and started seeing a therapist when I was 13. It was initially to deal with my mother’s recent cancer diagnosis, but naturally a lot came up," Spitz said. "As a kid it was chaos and nothing made sense. I empathize with her a lot more, but I really feel as if I am still putting all the pieces back together."


"The last time Dad remembers Mom being 'Normal,' Bumbershoot, Seattle, 1994." All photos by Melissa Spitz/You Have Nothing to Worry About, used with permission.

After her parents' divorce, Spitz turned to photography as a coping mechanism. But it wasn't until she got to art school that she turned the lens on her own mother.

One of Spitz's undergraduate photography projects at the University of Missouri involved documenting an element of her private life for class. There was no question that she'd be heading home to immortalize her mother's fragile state.

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

True to her mother's bipolar diagnosis, the resulting photo series, "You Have Nothing to Worry About," depicts a life of stark binary contrasts.

Spitz shoots candids as well as posed photos. Some images upset; others encourage. Some show the good parts of her relationship with her mother, and some show the bad.

Spitz passed the class, of course. But seven years later, she still hasn't finished the project. In fact, she plans to keep documenting her mother's struggle with mental illness as long as she's alive — for her mother's sake and for her own.

"Picture at home, 2015."

"It can be exhausting, but it is extremely cathartic," Spitz said.  "I really believe every image is just as much an image of me as it is of her."

"How can it not be?"

"We are both willing participants and both share the highs and lows of our relationship," she added.

"Mom doing her make-up, 2016."

Spitz eventually uploaded her photos to Instagram and found that the framed and fractured feel of the feed actually enhanced the experience of viewing the photos.

"I decided to try something new and started slicing my images and building these grids. It felt like the perfect opportunity to think about a social media platform in a different way," she explained.

The scattered chronology, varying photo sizes, and fragmented images that resulted made the photo series even more reflective of her mother's condition and their relationship.

A screengrab of Spitz's Instagram feed, showing a collage of the first portrait she took in 2009 (below) and shots from an exhibition where she displayed her photo "Quiet Please, 2016" in a similar fashion.

Instagram has also helped her vivid images to reach a wider audience — many of whom deal with similar problems.

Spitz's photographs don't just put the spotlight on her mother. They've also contributed to the larger conversation about mental health and helped to encourage people to share their own stories, often in the comments of her Instagram page.

"I have always wanted mental health to be treated the same way as physical ailments and that support for family members would be more readily available," Spitz said. "I hope my body of work and Instagram can be a small champion of this support system."

"Note from Adam to Mom, 2012," which inspired the name of the photo series.

Spitz has captured countless moments of bleak, honest beauty on camera. But she's seen her share of frights as well.

There are photos in the series of her mother's continued panic attacks, for example. Other photos show the huge regime of pills her mother relies on for stability and a B.B. gun, which her mother keeps "for protection."

"My brother and I have come to terms with the harsh reality that one day we will most likely be survivors of a suicide. It is our biggest fear," Spitz wrote in one particularly harrowing post, accompanying an image of her mother sprawled out on the carpet. She explained:

"When I used to live at home I hated unlocking the door, I constantly imagined her dead. As a kid I found my Mom laying on the kitchen floor, or bathroom floor multiple times. I remember her looking at me once and asking, 'Where’s Melissa?' She was so out if she couldn’t even recognize my face… I was 16."

Photography makes it easier for Spitz to cope and understand her mother. But it can't cure her mother's illness.

For all her struggles, her mother is moved by the power of her daughter's work — and she hopes that it can help other people, too.

"If I can help one person not feel alone, I am glad I’ve shared my story," her mother said.

When Spitz first embarked on her photographic journey, her mother was still living in the house that she had owned with her ex-husband and was still drinking heavily. But she was given a new voice just from seeing herself through her daughter's eyes. That empowerment helped lead her to quit drinking and to move into a new apartment.

Spitz's relationship with her mother is just one story of life with mental illness. But her willingness to share that hard story with the world is really important.

Not every case of bipolar disorder — or of difficult-but-loving mother-daughter relationships — looks the same. Even Spitz herself is careful to point out that her work is not intended as a blanket statement on mental health overall.

But at a time when mental illness is still constantly stigmatized, stories like these can open people's eyes and remind us that every family has their struggles and that everyone deserves compassion and support.

Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

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Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."