'Angela's Beautiful Life': One mom's struggle with mental illness

Story highlights

  • Matthew Busch photographed a woman living with borderline personality disorder
  • The mental illness is characterized by emotional instability and periods of depression and anxiety

(CNN)When photographer Matthew Busch met Angela Klein while she was walking her dog, he was immediately struck by her openness. But he had no idea that the chance meeting would lead to his camera bearing witness to a year's worth of moments on the emotional spectrum.

Klein had been recently diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, a severe mental illness characterized by emotional instability and periods of depression and anxiety that are uncontrollable and overwhelming. But she has struggled her entire life. She had a traumatic childhood and started harming herself at an early age. In addition to cutting herself, she said, she has also experienced an eating disorder and harmful thoughts and emotions that lowered her self-esteem.
Before meeting Busch, Klein had experienced a pivotal breakdown where she felt like she was losing control. She was working through the therapy process when they met.
Photographer Matthew Busch
The diagnosis brought some relief for Klein because she was able to seek help through a private treatment facility, but she would also have to work through her illness -- both on her own and with the help of her husband, Jeff, and their four children. What followed was "Angela's Beautiful Life," a year of Busch documenting the family's triumphs and struggles, from smiles to tears.
"To let me take photos of someone and their family takes so much courage," Busch said. "Angela wants to help other people with her story of how to keep going and moving through it."
Some of the toughest moments for Klein and her husband occur when she has a dissociative episode -- flashbacks where she relives childhood trauma and becomes disconnected to everything around her. Although this often happens in her sleep, little things can trigger one when she's awake as well.
Klein told Busch that these episodes feel like being in a car that's crashed into a lake. She can feel the water rising up with no escape. Her emotions overtake her, and she has to try to breathe through it, like breathing underwater.
"It's a scary moment to be in, for both her and her husband," Busch said. They attend weekly couples therapy together, but both also have private sessions as well. It has helped Jeff to know how he can help and try to bring her out of the episodes where she doesn't recognize him.
While borderline personality disorder is still a daily struggle for Klein, her emotional range also helps her empathize and connect with others. During a drive with Busch in the car, Klein was moved to tears after hearing an emotional story on the radio about human trafficking.
"Angela doesn't let go of her empathy when she hears about the struggles of others; she connects to it and to them," Busch said. "Her emotional range can go from self-destructive to engaging and compassionate."
Klein now volunteers at an organization that works with those who have been victims of human trafficking.
For Busch, telling the story of the Klein family required him to be a constant, quiet presence, releasing the shutter when he witnessed moments that were important or captured the emotion that was in the room. He also witnessed the balancing act of protecting the Klein children from extremes while also keeping them aware of what was going on.

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When Klein went to a treatment center for two months, she wasn't able to say goodbye to her kids beforehand. They told Elise, who was 6 years old at the time, that she had gone to "Mommy School." It has caused Elise to fear that she'll come home from school one day to find that Mom is gone again. Klein and her husband have always been very close with their children and continue that focus.
What surprised Busch was the normalcy he found in their everyday life: waking up, praying together, going to school and work and actively engaging in the community.
The photos were shared in an exhibit at the local elementary school, and Klein attended. She wanted to share her story with a wider audience by opening herself up to her community, and it's been a supportive experience.
Busch wants to continue documenting and sharing stories on mental illness, both to help combat the stigma surrounding them as well as raise awareness for those who don't have access to facilities and treatment centers.
Even though the project has come to a close, Busch and Klein still keep in touch. Klein is in outpatient therapy and doing much better. She has been free of self-harm since Thanksgiving, which is the longest period of time since her tumultuous year of 2014. She works through living with her disorder each day, using different skills from therapy. Rather than being impulsive, she has empowered herself by recognizing the signs and confronting them.
"I think she has gotten a lot better over the last two years," Busch said.