What it’s like running an artistic business with depression and anxiety: and why my clients shouldn’t worry.
Hey, it’s me. Molly Kate.
i’m an artist, a photographer, and a business owner.
i have anxiety and depression.
Molly Kate Photography is in its fifth year, and in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I’d like to talk about my own experiences running a business with depression and anxiety.
Let’s get real…
I’ve been scared to be open about my mental health for fear of losing clients. The stigma of mental health is still strong. But it only takes a quick look through my Instagram followers to see that I have countless badass business womxn who are open about their mental health issues and vulnerabilities. Womxn I admire like:
• Ban.do’s Jen Gotch
• artist Rubyetc
• vulnerability and shame expert Brené Brown
• my bestie and brilliant copy writer Megan Has Good Words
• painter and therapist Kate Creech
• comic artist Allie Brosh
These womxn show me that it’s important to voice our experiences as business owners to end the stigmas around mental health. I have not let anxiety and depression stop me from building and running a business. For every single client, I show up with my whole self for despite my mental health. I’m no longer afraid of being transparent because I have realized that I am a better artist because of the journey I’ve taken.
Back to the beginning
This was me in May of 2014, days away from graduating from Sacramento State with a BA in Photography. I was the chosen Honors Student of the Department of Design. I graduated Magna Cum Laude. I was hot shit. But behind the scenes of the work I had proudly created was a long journey of mental health that was just beginning.
From the outside, my life was great. I lived alone in a super cute studio, thrived at my coffee barista job, and academically kicked ass in my classes. I spent hours in the photography darkroom where I created art with skill and care. But I was constantly fighting the depression and anxiety that was pushing me almost to the breaking point.
The depression kept me at home, doubting my skills and keeping me from doing work until the last second. The anxiety told me that people would think I was lazy so I would then overcompensate, and this cycle led to very consistent anxiety attacks. Thankfully, my professors recognized the signs of my mental health, and many of them empathized. They knew the pain I was going through, and they were on my side. Through it all, I continued to show up, doing the best work I could because I cared deeply about proving myself worthy to my mentors and my peers.
But none of the accolades or the support could overcome the depression and anxiety to let me believe that I was naturally skilled at this art form. It’s something I still struggle with, and through years of self-work with a darn good therapist, I have come a long way since college. I can now better able understand the nature of my depression and anxiety, how they affect my personal and professional life, and how to manage them as a business owner.
For me, depression has multiple triggers. In some ways, it’s cyclical, showing up monthly (you know the time). Other times, it’s unpredictable, showing up after busy stretches of time, stressful milestones, or perhaps even a couple of really good days. Or in other words, totally randomly, and very inconveniently. When depression shows up, the experience for me is like sitting in traffic: I’m gonna get to where I need to go, but it’ll take a little longer than expected.
From the time I started running my business, I’ve learned to treat depression like a friend who has come to stay from out of town. We spend a day or two hanging out, I show them the sights, and we talk for hours over coffee. But at some point, even though they are staying with me, I go back to work. They are still there, hanging out in my space, and sometimes they’re a distraction, but I eventually get back into a flow of work. I know the friend won’t stay forever and while they do take up more of my time and energy, I request that they respect my schedule and let me do my job.
I also make sure to take time to listen to my body. I sleep in, I eat a good breakfast, I take some time to cry it out or I take some time to watch a new episode of a favorite show (Brooklyn 99 and AP Bio are my current favorites). Then, I make a goal to spend a small amount of time accomplishing one thing. Soon enough, I’ve spent a full hour answering emails instead of the 15 minutes I had planned. I may not be speeding down the freeway, but I’m slowly making my way to my destination. While depression is an occasional inconvenience, anxiety has been more common and difficult to understand.
I’ve known anxiety longer than depression, yet I am still learning to manage and understand it. My anxiety varies in how it shows up in my life. Sometimes it’s a trigger from nothing in particular, like having nightmarish disaster daydreams as I’m trying to fall asleep, and sometimes it’s a looming sense of dread when I’m allowing myself to have a good day. Jordan Raskopoulos’ TEDxSydney talk, “How I Live with High Functioning Anxiety” reminded me about the hidden strengths of anxiety. She says, “I deal with such a heightened level of stress and worry that I am often very good in situations when people are typically stressed and worried. Very good on stage, quite good at public speaking, I’m a very good improvisor, I’m quick witted, but I’m also very good at taking charge in a moment of crisis.” For me, this has proven true. Since I spend so much of my free time preparing for the worst, it means that I absolutely rock it in times of stress and crisis. This is why I feel at ease on stage, and I’m comfortable speaking in front of people. It means that during a photography session or a wedding, my anxiety doesn’t affect me. In a way, these times are healing. I’ve prepped and communicated with my clients, and I’ve thought about all the things that could happen, and after all that, I get the reward of being in the present. If something goes awry, I can just go with the flow and capture the moments as they come.
Another side of my anxiety is related to me self-worth, and this can be a bit harder to manage. It tends to be exacerbated when I compare myself to others in my field. After I graduated college, I obviously wanted to do photography, but there weren’t many jobs available for a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed graduate. So I started my business from a place of desperation. I had never thought of myself as a #bossbitch, someone openly confident and successful, taking care of their shit, and I certainly didn’t learn how to be that in school.
I had to start from scratch, and as I watched my peers’ progress on Instagram, I constantly felt like I wasn’t good enough, and I never felt like I was working enough. Creatively, I also felt behind. I looked at the work of other photographers, and I perceived them to be better than me. I would ask myself “what’s the point of posting my own work?” Five years into my business, my anxiety is still with me. It tells me that because I never officially learned how to run a business, I don’t know what I’m doing and that I must be very behind in everything. My #bossbitch persona that I have built also didn’t allow me to open up about my struggles and to ask others for help. And that time for me is over.
In Raskopoulo’s aforemented TEDx talk, she says, “When someone’s anxiety is high-functioning it means they work in society, in fact we work really well. We have such a heightened sense of worry and such a fear of failure that we’re often very high achieving, and perfectionists.” I do great work that I am most often proud of, but I don’t let my clients see the behind-the-scenes story of being a solo business owner struggling with mental health issues.
I’m thrilled to state plainly and clearly now:
I don’t have all my shit together.
I can still recognize my successes.
As I’ve opened up, I’ve learned that many of the womxn that I admire and see as the iconic #bossbitches feel the same way and that it’s okay.
I was speaking with one of these friends recently, and it shocked me that she felt she was only able to give 50 percent at work. When I look at her working multiple jobs in the field that she loves, and paying her San Francisco rent, it looks to me like she’s giving 100 percent. But she feels the same about me. (it’s like a Shakespearean comedy with all the hilariously incorrect hearsay.) I tell her that I feel like I’m only half-assing things, but she sees me: an artist running her own business, kicking ass and taking names at 100 percent.
Why does anxiety do this to us? Why can’t we see ourselves as others see us? Getting stuck in the cycle of comparing myself to others and the mainly positive experiences they post about themselves has skewed my perception of what I feel giving 100 percent means. What if I make my own call on what 100 percent is for me? What if every day is 100 percent, but the 100 percent changes in intensity? My 100 percent could be working my ass off until 2am, multiple days in a row, or it could be stopping work at 1pm and going outside to say hello to the sun.
Nowadays, in my panicked moments of not feeling good enough, I take time to refocus on what I am good at and where I have succeeded. I shouldn’t say I’m behind in my business because I’m so much farther ahead than I was 5 years ago. Over the past five years I have shown up, in the only way I know how, as a super confident #bossbitch. I thought that was the only way to run a business. I had never learned otherwise. But I’ve persisted, learned, grown. I’ve had to. My #bossbitch persona has helped me achieve all that, but it has also hampered my ability to explore artistic goals that I had to set aside in order to run this business. It’s so wrapped up in my past anxieties that it doesn’t fit anymore, and I’m ready to take it off.
Blooming into a new era
These days, I want my professional persona to reflect the vulnerability and strengths that I have had to find because of my depression and anxiety. In my work as a photographer, I create an environment that supports vulnerability. Being in front of the camera is a vulnerable experience, and I make sure my clients are at ease with me.
In this transparency with being open about my struggles with anxiety and depression, I am working toward ending the stigma. I hope my clients who also struggle know they are not alone and have someone here on the other side of the camera to hold them up. I hope my clients who do not struggle with mental health issues recognize that many people - bosses, baristas, and everything in between - live with many different types of mental health problems. In many ways, my anxiety and depression holds me back from taking bold steps in my business, making big sales, or taking a few minutes to feel proud of myself in times of success. But in more ways, I recognize that my anxiety and depression makes me excellent in the field of documentary photography. It also gives me the opportunity to be more empathetic to those who may be experiencing stress in front of the camera. Finally, it allows me to set aside time to take care of myself when I am feeling overworked. In the same way that I juggled working and going to college, I juggle all the things that my mental health throws at me, and I believe I am stronger because of it.
should my clients be worried
that I have depression and anxiety?
My dear client, I care deeply for you, the work that I produce for you, and the relationship that progresses as we work together. I may not answer an email for a day or two, but that’s the same story for big businesses that get busy, or solo businesses where the only employee is sunk into their couch taking care of their mental health. When we meet at your session I will be beaming with delight to see you and work with you. You will never know if I am in a depressive episode because this time is for you. Are my smiles fake during depression? Never. Being an artist makes me really freakin’ happy. Depression is like a dark cloud covering the sun. That doesn’t mean that the sun no longer exists or that there are not moments for the clouds to part and the sun to shine. Even though there is that dark cloud of depression, my delight in being able to photograph you is still real. My job as a photographer is to make sure you are at ease, and if I do not compartmentalize my mental health and give you space to be comfortable, then I do not believe I am doing my job.
Many years ago I photographed a wedding during the aftermath of a very bad breakup. Even though I felt broken and dead inside, I was able to experience the joy of others, to live in the moment of their love. In another experience, I photographed a wedding day two days after an accident that totaled my car and fractured the radial bone in my left arm. The pain I was experiencing did not take precedence over the couples’ wedding day, and the job that I had to do. I adjusted my movements and I made it work.
My mental health issues are no different, for me. I take all the time I need in my personal time to support myself in my low place. My mental health problems do not define me, but they are a part of me. In my awareness and recognition that I exist with these struggles, I am taking care of myself. And in order to stay positive I must see how these struggles have benefited me. My depression has given me spidey senses to feel fully and capture beautiful moments of real life. My anxiety has given me a passionate perfectionism and a desire to please those who honor me by trusting my vision. The moment I show up for you, my client, is when we get to be present together and make some really cool art. I put my mental health problems aside and I will part those clouds for you.