Brooklyn-based photographer Tamara Staples lost her sister after a long battle with bipolar disorder, when her older sibling took her own life with a cocktail of pharmaceutical medications in 2012. After her brother-in-law sent her his late wife’s collection of 114 different medications, Staples created an art installation using the pills to better understand her sister’s pain and suffering. The exhibition, “Side Effects May Include” was on view at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) from March to June 2017, and she plans to take it around the country. WellBe Founder Adrienne Nolan interviewed Staples about her work.
Adrienne Nolan-Smith: This exhibition is especially powerful to me as my mom had the same fate as your sister; she was prescribed many powerful antipsychotic drugs with a laundry list of side effects. Eventually, one of those side effects, suicidal ideations, took her life. Would you mind sharing the evolution of your sister’s story?
Tamara Staples: My sister was eccentric from an early age and no one thought much of it, the labeling of “mental illness” had not yet come into play at that time. We were both adopted from separate families and when she met her birth family, she discovered that her father was bipolar. He was taking [the antidepressant]Lexapro, so she found a doctor who would prescribe the same.
She was on this journey of pills coupled with intense side effects for 10 years before she died at age 49. It got the point where she was unable to work, no longer showed emotion, and had vacant eyes, which was unusual for a person who laughed easily.
She realized that drugs had taken her to a dark place and took it upon herself to stop taking the them all at once. She immediately felt happy but that was 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.
Were you always aware of the dangers of pharmaceuticals and their side effects?
It wasn’t until her husband sent me the pills following her death that I began to research each pill. I watched her relationship with the medications and suspected that she was abusing the pills, or perhaps she had bad advice from a doctor. She insisted she knew best.
I believe that she was caught up in the mess that is our current way of over-prescribing the mentally challenged without a full understanding of how the side effects may adversely affect them, let alone the relationship between other pharmaceuticals or over-the-counter drugs.
Many of the drugs had a side of effect of increased thoughts of suicide; the overabundance of these prescribed to her through her regular psychiatrist was a factor in her death.
Would you have considered yourself a “wellness” or lifestyle medicine person before your sister’s death?
I’m someone who has always believed in regular exercise and whole foods as a way to health. I deal with anxiety from time to time and see how a healthy lifestyle can alleviate those pressures. But after researching my sister’s pills, I am very much aware of what an epidemic polypharmacy has become, not just with the mentally disabled, but with anyone who has ever had a prescription.
What exactly are you trying to convey with your photographs and fabrics?
My sister also suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and I observed her incredibly dirty, disorganized mess of a house as the manifestation of her illness. Yet, no matter how messy or smelly her house got (she had six cats and four rescue dogs), she always looked perfect when she stepped out. How could this dichotomy exist?
My thoughts kept coming back to the house and how the majority of suffering happens in the house, where one retreats. The bedroom is the most intimate of rooms and I wanted to create an experience in the very bedrock of comfort. I considered the function of the bedspread, the curtains, the wallpaper, the furniture and art as things that we take for granted as fixtures but have important roles in our sanctuary.
What has the response been to your exhibition?
The reaction to “Side Effects May Include” has been overwhelmingly emotional. A person might wander into the room without reading the materials and experience something ominous, and once they read it, the room takes on another feeling. I hear the words “important and powerful” regularly to describe it.
What would you say people can do to make sure they and their loved ones don’t have to go through what your sister and my mom did?
I wish I had the answer to this question. As an artist, I can only offer up the experience and the work it inspired and hope to begin a conversation with people who might have the answers. When Cathy Kimball, the executive director at ICA San Jose, approached me about having the show, we talked about the activism slant of the work and how we both wanted to reach out to the medical community. We put together a panel discussion with several people with differing voices— I’d like to see more of this in different cities.
For people suffering from mental illness, what would be your advice based on this experience?
I don’t think it’s fair to ask the mentally challenged to shoulder their medication regimen alone. It should be a collaborative effort between the family members, the psychiatrist, a general practitioner, and the patient that includes guidance in physical activity and nutrition. Another issue is that there are no accurate studies on weaning from these powerful medications, which means people are suffering needlessly as they go from one medication to the next as these “cocktails” run their course.
You were part of a panel discussion at ICA that included a psychiatrist, a youth counselor, a marriage and family therapist, and a local leader of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). What was the takeaway?
After reading “Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America” by Robert Whitaker, Cathy and I knew we needed to bring together outside professionals to elaborate on what we’d learned. One fact Whitaker quoted was that new medications had decreased the death rate of people who had heart disease or diabetes, but that the death rate of people with mental health challenges had soared since psychotropic medications were introduced to the masses.
[Youth counselor] Dina Tyler was diagnosed as bipolar and went through the system only to realize that the medications were keeping her from living a fulfilling life and chose to go without. During the panel she asked us to consider questions like, “What is normal?” and “Are you asking the RIGHT questions?” There is still so much stigma around mental health.
I found this conversation to be such an important part of the exhibit because of how urgent this topic was for all of our panelists. It felt like the tip of the iceberg.
Each person brought a new perspective and this is how we can make a difference— conversation!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Images courtesy of Tamara Staples.