I’ve had a creative spirit and artistic soul for as long as I can remember. As a child, you’d find me crafting or playing with my great-grandma’s old Polaroid camera. I brought my carefree creative nature into high school, and I started my own photography business as a freshman in college. I began photographing friends and family, and it just kept growing from there. I started specializing in wedding photography and fell in love. I felt like I truly found my calling. Around the time word got out about my work, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder followed by a diagnosis of Social Anxiety Disorder a few years later.
Before I get into my experience with these disorders, I feel it’s important to understand that an anxiety “disorder” and normal anxiety are two very different things. Anxiety over something specific is normal. It’s temporary. It doesn’t impede on your everyday life. An anxiety disorder isn’t connected to a cause, thus it isn’t temporary. It’s persistent, worsening feelings of anxiety that can’t be traced back to one specific thing, so the feelings can’t dissipate on their own. And it’s irrational, so it can’t be reasoned with. An anxiety disorder attaches itself to a specific source of worry but doesn’t let up when that worry dissipates. Instead, the disorder just attaches itself to another source. And the spiral continues, controlling your life and impacting your own happiness as well as the lives of those around you.
As you can imagine, an anxiety disorder – specifically “Social Anxiety” wasn’t very compatible with my work as a wedding photographer. I suffered – and continue to cope with – panic attacks, constant anxious feelings that impede on my everyday life, racing thoughts that I can’t control, and depression resulting from having to deal with the symptoms of my disorder. The best way to explain what I go through is that I am anxious about nothing and everything all at once. It’s a feeling of anxiety traced back to no cause, but when I’m experiencing an episode, the anxiety attaches itself to and impacts everything in my life. I can’t sleep at night due to racing thoughts. They start out innocently enough. “Tomorrow, we are going to the grocery store.” But then the thoughts spiral…
“But what if I forget something at the store? What if I get in a car accident on my way to the store? What if my kids are hurt or even die? What if we make it to the store but I’m not watching them closely and someone kidnaps my children? What if I leave the stove on in the morning which causes the house to catch fire and my dog dies in the fire while I’m gone to the store? What if my marriage crumbles because I went to the store and lost my children and dog and then I am alone and childless? I can’t go to the store. I’ll just stay in bed where it’s safe.”
As I type this out, and even moments after thinking this, it all sounds idiotic. My rational mind understands that I can’t live my life worrying about all of this – and that doing so is ridiculous. But it’s not my rational mind that thinks and feels these things. It’s my disorder talking, and in that moment, I have no choice but to hear – and feel the weight of – everything my “anxiety” says. Most days it’s just easier to stay home than to risk going into the world – not for the fear of what I think will happen, but for the fear of what my disorder will tell me is going to happen if I attempt to live a normal life. Because if I do go to the store that day, I might have to leave before my shopping trip is over, and then I’ll feel like I’ve failed myself, my husband, and my children by falling prey to my disorder, which only feeds the depression born of my anxiety.
Despite living with this condition, I’ve managed to grow a thriving photography business. My social anxiety keeps me from answering my phone sometimes, but emails and texts are a great way of working around that. One odd way I have “outsmarted” my social anxiety is by putting on my business hat. In essence, I become someone else when I’m photographing a wedding. The best way I can explain it is if you think about an actor playing a part for a movie. The character’s personality might be completely different from the actor’s, but the actor is there to do a job and for all intents and purposes becomes someone else for the time they’re being filmed. When working a wedding or session, I’m the same way. I’m technically still me, but I remove myself from the moment enough to do my job effectively. I still feel the weight of my disorder when I’m corralling a bridal party or dealing with rare conflict, so I now work in a team at every wedding so that I’m able to focus on my art and relationship with my clients and am less focused on things that I know will trigger my disorder. Sometimes, my anxious feelings are just there for no reason at all, and in those cases I use coping mechanisms like deep breathing, stepping away for a moment, or positive self-talk to bring myself back down to earth. I put in practices I’ve learned over the course of my years in therapy, but when none of this works, I just have to grit my teeth and bear it so that my clients receive the best experience possible.
Some might ask, “Why do you put yourself though all of this? Why not specialize in landscape or some form of photography that won’t require dealing with people?” Well, because I love what I do. I LOVE serving my couples. I love the lifelong friends I’ve made. I love the rush and excitement of a wedding morning. I love seeing the groom’s face light up as his bride walks down the aisle, hearing the laughter of wedding guests as the flower girl throws all the petals in one big heap, and witnessing the magic of two families with different traditions and backgrounds coming together as one in the name of love. And I’ll be damned if my disorder takes that away from me. My anxiety disorder is something I live with, but my heart for others and creative voice are who I am.
Chelsea Zimmerman | Flightless Bird Photography