How To Recover from Trauma as a Creative
The stars unfortunately misaligned across a myriad of industries and current events in 2016, leaving many creative people feeling lost and a bit delicate. Like many out there, I too white-knuckled my way through the onslaught of unexpected celebrity deaths, a couple severed relationships, and a renewed sense of politically-fueled misanthropy. In addition, I was suffering a significant and traumatic life change: my marriage ended. The process was in a word, ruinous. My relationship comprised half of my life, which meant my world divided sharply into two realities: then and now.
Trauma comes in every size and color but its affect on a creative is that of a stroke: utter debilitation. I lost thirty pounds and began walking my neighborhood at all hours, racking up twelve to fifteen mile hikes a day. Sleep was a mild distraction at best until I started dreaming about my problems, then elusive for days at a time. Speaking became a chore, every other word a strand in a bizarre line of externalized Morse code. Naturally in this state, my hands were totally useless. I pushed myself to create projects, only to cast them half rendered into a pile, swept ruefully into my supply closet.
The truth of the matter is my trauma is not special; everyone experiences loss, grief, tragedy. Life happens and will inevitably disrupt the carefully cultivated lifestyle we strive so hard to design. What does one do when their world is falling apart while running their own business? As a creative, hiding behind numbers or burying oneself in tedium is nearly impossible, given our jobs require play to produce deceptively effortless images. How can such care be given to aesthetics when showering requires so much effort?
Own the reality. Many days I tried to push through when healing was only possible through active grieving. I texted friends and told them I was still in bed at noon with the curtains drawn. I sheepishly called my agents to explain why I wasn’t producing new work. Most importantly I sobbed and yelled and shook my way through stages of grief.
Design is essential, but I’ll admit it’s lower on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs than previously thought. When your scope of vision is narrowed to the present, pondering the past while advancing the future is an impossible task. This trauma had cut into my work, and the wound was so fresh it needed ample time to heal.
I spent weeks away from my computer, willed myself to eat, journaled and reforged relationships with family and friends. I found myself wondering if I’d be hired again, given I was taking so much time off. Would people forget about my work? Eventually this anxiety faded, as my primary concern was surviving the summer. I sat down with a friend who frankly told me I didn’t seem okay, they were worried, and for the first time the words formed in my mouth.
“I am not well.”
Admitting un-wellness was strangely freeing, the first step to devising a plan. Like a true designer, I began to problem solve my recovery.
Recognize self care is intrinsic to occupational care. Every successful family business is predicated on the health of the family. I spent a few grand on therapy, paying two professionals and employing a third family member as counselors with my/our best interests in mind. I read a ton of relationship building and ending articles, and yes, I enacted my own movie montage crying in public parks and biking down mountains in the West.
Most importantly I shared and sought information from friends and colleagues, many of whom have experienced similar struggles. Finding compassion and solidarity went farther than any “How To Redesign Your Life” think pieces ever could.
Cooks struggle to cook for themselves, maids’ homes are a disaster. Often we tap out on primary skills used in our professions by the time we get home. During the summer I’d transitioned from a full-time art director to a full-time communicator. Therefore any attempt at client communication was utter garbage. I’m so thankful to those who diplomatically sent crit in the form of “we’re unsure where the miscommunication began, but we’d actually like to see <snippet of original brief> …” because I was where “the miscommunication began.” I was so personally tapped out, the struggle to translate new professional information was real.
During healthier times, I sought remote workspaces with ambient noise (like coffee shops, what a cliché) to quiet my inner critic during sketch phases. I was encouraged to try meditation when I felt panicked, which produced the same calming effect. A friend suggested Insight Timer, a free catalog of guided meditations spanning topics like abuse recovery and stress management.
And for the first time in months, I slept. Sweet victory.
Through meditation I learned I was never truly at rest because I was trying to validate my existence at all times through work, relationships, hobbies. I finally learned how to breathe; turns out many of us spend our lives not taking in enough oxygen. We inhale the future while exhaling the past and fill time between breaths with anxiety and strife. Creatives feel forever useless when they aren’t filling their time with their craft, however, much more energy is required in bookkeeping, emails, social media, etc. to sustain a business. And this is okay.
My (personal) therapist suggested I try reframing my circumstances to celebrate what was going well. I’d learned to celebrate positive aspects of gigs (team chemistry, healthy budgets, gorgeous final image) to offset less desirable (bad final edits, killed finals, poor management), so this wasn’t a foreign concept. During this time, I was burning nervous energy by walking, then recreationally running for the first time in my life. Since the age of six, running was a punishment in all athletic scenarios, and I treated the activity as such. When I reframed my daily jog as a reward for good health, I found joy in my pedometer mileage. This joy increased when I began hiking/trail running, which allowed me to see cities and wilderness on foot with renewed perspective. A layer of fat melted off my body, and I could see muscle groupings for the first time. The punishment became a pleasure, and I realized I have a great capacity for focus.
Noticing a theme? Successful work habits began informing my personal health.
When the presidential election shocked the world, I did my best to participate in the outcry, but I was fraying under personal burdens. I noticed the most vocal creatives were balanced and centered in healthy family units, confident in their voices and generous with their resources.
I am the product of a conservative, Middle American culture that promotes caring for others at the price of martyrdom. Under this construct, I’ve been taught giving should hurt a little, drag the giver into some self-sacrificial debt for the greater good. Upon reflection, this is terribly backwards. Instead I observed these designers cheerfully making posters, promoting good will while decrying racism and bigotry, shouting at rallies. If breathing in my own skin is problematic, how can I raise my voice through the cacophony of larger societal issues? Since I fly often, I liken this concept to “securing your mask before assisting others.” Once self secure, helping others is as easy as drawing breath.
One can effectively brim with personal and professional generosity when their inner world is at peace.
Be curious about what ails you. 2017 vehemently hates labels, but applying them in a microcosmic sense for self diagnosis is immensely helpful. I began to recognize codependent behaviors, my need to overextend myself to others for fear they’d abandon me. Some of this enlightenment dipped into my abusive childhood, empath tendencies, exposed my willingness to self-handicap to make others feel at ease. Of all the articles and books I consumed during this time, the most helpful came from Lenny Terenzi. He mailed me his copy of Rebuilding When Your Relationship Ends, a frank and introspective book on why relationship dynamics change, how to internalize responsibility and make the most of the grieving process. The secret, overarching theme was less about one’s partner and more about rebuilding the relationship with oneself. Turns out I’d been a shitty friend and lover to myself.
Through this book, I learned my perceived vs. actual self were completely different people, which was deeply impacting my point of view. Within this success dysmorphia, my ideal self was forever out of reach; any positive event like a lucrative gig was “great, but I’m still not where I want or need to be,” and negative circumstances like a parking ticket “were taking what little I have.” When I saw myself as net positive, having all resources and abilities to become my best self, this shifted positive happenings to 110% rather than 75% effective. When setbacks arose, I knew they were temporary and I’d bounce back quickly with so many tools in my arsenal. Parking tickets can only ruin your life if you let them.
I researched empath tendencies voraciously, hoping to flip this exhausting emotional absorbency in a superpower. I realized empathy has a huge place in the creative market, not simply because it’s buzzwordy but because one can attract purposeful opportunities by reaching out thoughtfully through visual, spoken, or written means. Besides functioning as an energy sponge, I could also disperse energy, something I’d not willfully attempted before. I took this intention into every job in 2017, all of which were incredible experiences even when they weren’t easy or smooth. I brought in doughnuts or snacks, instigated dance breaks, and found these were the best experiences I’ve had yet. Feedback was smoother, the teams were synced, and the quality of the work improved. Proactively projecting the work environment I desired was more effective than neutrally participating and hoping for the best, it turns out.
Chill tf out. Despite the playful nature of my work, I’d become swallowed in the daily grind. Expectation and working longer than expected as the sole breadwinner in my household had both depleted and consumed my energies. Burnt out and exhausted from depressive grief, I took the summer off, minus a couple paying gigs to float bills. I allowed myself healthy outdoor exertion with panoramic views of the West. I let myself donate my old clothes, which hung like tents after my dramatic weight loss, with full price replacements. Because I could.
The hustle narrative is literally exhausted because it’s first untrue and secondarily unsupportable in any state but pristine, wholistic health.
The price of creative freedom has long been sold at the cost of health and relationships. After watching Loving Vincent, I blame Van Gogh’s brilliant-creative-but-terrible-marketing narrative. However, many visionaries of our time are embracing health and finding their success soars beyond their wildest expectations. Internalized success is deeply personal, and therefore doesn’t rely on external stimuli. This leaves a handful of variables: sleep acquired, healthy diet, anxiety management, overall gratitude, all things directly under my control. In 2015–16 I worked like rising rent costs were forcing me out of the Midwest. I took jobs that made some money but weren’t challenging or a great cultural fit, and I was missing out on the present. After nearly losing my mind, I made the most of slow periods by traveling, cashing in on some lifelong dreams to road trip and hike the coast.
I highly recommend road tripping, particularly for adopting a passenger mindset. I spend ample time in rental cars and airports, which are transient, homely places lacking any form of comfort. People aren’t meant to linger and rarely do they, barring emergency. During a road trip down the West Coast, every bend reveals new beauty and a jarring, lively landscape long extinct on the eastern shores. As much as I wanted to remain in certain picturesque moments, I couldn’t linger; there was camp to make, light to chase. The journey one observes is the space one is briefly meant to inhabit, i.e. The Path®. There is so much freedom in accepting the journey you’re given, even more in accepting the opening and closing of experiences and relationships.
Agonize over forced connections and miss opportunities that float your way in a state of comfort and ease.
Face yourself. Self improvement is a mirror we approach and retreat from our entire lives. When the world crashes around us we reflect and stare into ourselves, breath fogging on the glass. This intense self awareness isn’t sustainable; we have to step away to gain perspective and practice new habits. Improvement cannot be born under such scrutiny. Experts call the phenomenon embodied cognition, a performance based anxiety where overthinking overrides muscle memory.
Like a skilled athlete, achieving a goal requires an intuitive reaction to one’s environment. If how far away one is from the basket, the player perceives the distance as farther than they’d like, questions their ability to deliver and misses the shot. Careers have ended because players could not halt their self criticism long enough to play the game.
I feel extremely self aware right now but fully recognize this will change because bias blindness is crucial to properly function. Allowing oneself to take risks and make mistakes is similar to reading a book. Yes, spelling errors happen, but was the chapter effective, moving? If the overall experience is positive, the reader will hardly remember mistakes. Celebrating victories in a general sense give us the confidence to finesse our mistakes into valuable experiences.
Epilogue. So what happened?
Upon return to my studio, I started dreaming again. After seven months of thinking hour by hour, a future of possibility began to reemerge. I dreamed up a series of bad yolks , which was envisioned and acquired for serious bank in 2017. While I post work less frequently, I’ve made more this year than in the last two. My personal work is better, and I’m feeling bolder in my experimentations. I’ve had my largest grossing projects back to back in the last half of this year with zero competition during the bidding process. I’ve had my best financial year to date. The correlation to me is clear. Consequently, I’ve exercised more generosity and gratitude with my time and finances.
I spent less time crying in bed and more time rearranging new bedroom furniture. Where I sleep is now tranquil, and I’m chronically forgetting to leave bed before I make it.
The dentist and I are buddies; rather than griping about the state of my teeth I cheerfully pay her premium dollars to fix my face. Twenty-five pounds lighter (I gained a healthy five pounds back) I continue to eat better and exercise more, exuberantly and with gratitude for health in my thirties.
I traveled for pleasure more this year than ever before, spent as much as I saved and was 100% unapologetic. Do I still need a good, hard cry from time to time? Absolutely. But I can stand alone without loneliness. When self worth and good habits drive a person, the outcome is infinitely different from those actions made in fear. I’m choosing 2018 to be a year of rebuilding, recovery, and thriving.
Thank you to anyone who offered a kind word, encouragement, sound advice, or a proof read through this experience. Your support and love have strengthened me beyond measure, and I am forever indebted.