Sorry I missed you – I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain

I went to Baja, Mexico, a few weeks ago, to a tiny house and trailer near San Felipe that my parents own. There is no electricity on the property, but my mom’s friend Linda lives nearby in a bigger house with solar and generator power, so we spent most of the time there.

Lately I’ve been hearing about all this disturbing research on how our brains are physiologically changed by computer use. They say it takes about three days of non-use for your brain to slow down and return to normal, so I didn’t look at my computer or iPhone at all for four days, and then I only checked email once a day and for no more than half an hour after that. It was absolutely the right decision, something I recommend everyone do at least every six months.

I want to share a few photos I made while I was in Mexico (with my Contax point-and-shoot film camera) — but that’s not why I’m writing this post. I’m writing it because of what happened when I came back home to San Francisco.

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My first day back in the city I had my first panic attack in almost a year. Maybe being back in the midst of all my responsibilities, the noises of the city, and the over-stimulation of the internet triggered it, but I think it was mostly because I lowered my dosage of Zoloft about a month ago, and my body was going through a readjustment period.

I started taking Zoloft about, not surprisingly, 11 months ago, in part to treat panic attacks. I didn’t have them frequently, but if you’ve ever had one, you know that once in a while is way too much. Zoloft and other SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are generally known as antidepressants, but, as it was explained to me, they just as easily could have been marketed as anti-anxiety medication. I have many hallmarks of the overly anxious — perfectionist, overachiever, stomach problems, trouble relaxing/sleeping, taking everything personally — and I’ve been working for years to mitigate those tendencies through therapy, exercise, diet, and meditation. But when I quit my job, gave up my apartment, and went on the road for five months this summer, I decided I needed some extra help. Now that my life is a little more stable, I’m ready to try it again without the Zoloft.

Maybe it’s weird for me to be talking about this amid posts about my career and the future of photography, but I deeply believe in demystifying things, especially our bodies and the way we treat them. I also believe that we must make ourselves vulnerable in order to connect with and help other people.

I’m also annoyed that psycho-pharmaceuticals and psychotherapy are still relatively taboo (I HATE taboos). I understand why they are, especially since many people still believe that those who take psycho-pharmaceuticals are “weak” and “need” them to be “normal.” As far as I’m concerned, deciding to take an anti-depressant is the same as deciding to take medication to lower your blood pressure. Anyone who takes any action to help themselves feel better is brave; trying something new, especially trying to change yourself for the better, is always harder than going along with things as they are.

As you’ve probably guessed, I’ve been having a rough time the last week or so. The panic attacks I had were accompanied by bouts of depression. I knew they were triggered by the lower Zoloft dose — there was no logical reason for me to lie crying or immobile in my bed every morning — but depression does not listen to logic or reason.

Friends and family kindly suggested things I should do to make myself feel better: ride your bike, paint, cook a new dish. And I would calmly explain that the cruelty of depression is that it destroys your ability to make decisions or take actions that would help you stop being depressed.

Luckily the down periods were intermittent and when I felt up to it, I set up meetings with mentors and therapists. When people asked me in passing how I was, I didn’t lie and say, “Oh, pretty good,” I told them things were rough. I’m sure some people were taken aback, but the vast majority sympathized and have been there for me more than usual while I’ve struggled through.

I don’t want this post to be about depression, either. If you’ve experienced depression yourself, you might agree with me that once you feel like you’re ready to reflect on it, let alone write about it, you know that you’re near the other end of the tunnel. So when I was sitting here a while ago, and suddenly had the urge to write about what I’ve been feeling, I just knew I should honor that urge whether I knew what my point was or not.

I’m definitely not pretending I’m any kind of expert at all this, but I think there is value in sharing my own experiences. Especially because, as several of my friends have said, I don’t seem like the “kind of person” who would “need” to take anxiety medication. Well, then this is yet another instance where looks can be deceiving.

I hope that reading this reminds everyone out there that life’s painful periods pass. Time, it turns out, does heal wounds. That’s hard to remember when you’re at the bottom of the well, and I certainly don’t have any easy answers for how to crawl back into the daylight. But I have learned this: The most important thing you can do is to be really, really, really kind to yourself. This means putting yourself first (even if that seems selfish), forgiving yourself, and giving yourself the benefit of the doubt. Think seriously about what that means for a moment. It’s much harder than it seems. If you’d like any guidance, I’ve repeatedly found it in The Gifts of Imperfection, If You Want To Write, The Art of Loving and Buddhism Without Beliefs.

As a final thought, I know from writing other posts like this that those of you who read my blog often respond with words of kindness and encouragement. I love this and it’s a huge part of why I have this blog. But this time I’d love for you to take most of that good energy and direct it toward someone you can be with physically — bonus points if that person is yourself. Suddenly today, I find myself feeling overwhelmed by how lucky I am, mostly to have such amazing supportive friends and colleagues who provide me with opportunities to fulfill myself in the deepest ways possible. If you have the opportunity to be that for someone, I hope this will remind you to do it — that’s really why I wrote this post.

Back home in Ohio for a week, I decide to take a walk in the woods

On the way down the hill through the dewy grass and brand-new violets I suddenly start crying. By the time I round the stand of evergreens that used to be Christmas trees, the tears are streaming down my face. Dusk is all around me, mingling with the clouds of my breath in the quickly chilling air. My parents’ love is there too, although they have stayed up in the house. I’m unemployed, suffocated by huge ambitions, terrified, and crying in the woods. I’m also overwhelmed by the beauty around me and the fact that I know deep down that this exactly what I’m supposed to be doing right now.

Photo by Miki Johnson

I listen to the fear inside but hold the line where it threatens to overtake me. I keep repeating, “There is the most fear around the things that are true,” and I try to keep breathing. When my sobs quiet, I can hear the creek below me gurgling. It is very soft but there is almost no competition of noise here. The dog is lying quietly at my feet now, and her panting and the wind shushing the branches and the leaves settling in a pile are the only other things I hear. I’m convinced this is one of the last places in the country where you literally cannot hear anything manmade, and that knowledge and the closeness of the silence slows my heart.

When I come back to myself, the ideas are rushing too fast for me to follow them. I write a few lines of a poem, make some photos with my iPhone, Tumbl a photo of the dog, when suddenly I see a bigger picture. It is precisely the ease of these creative tools at our fingertips that allows us all to think of ourselves as creatives. Yes, it does make “everyone a photographer,” but it also makes every photographer a videographer, multimedia producer, bookmaker, retoucher, and whatever else they want to try their hand at. Here is what I jot down in a note to myself on my phone:

The ability to utilize such a wide range of storytelling tools allows us to be more creative more consistently because creativity is always there, it just expresses itself in hundreds of undefined, usually unnamed forms. When you are able to let your creativity flow through the least resistant path, instead of simply the most practiced one, it quickly becomes a steady stream.

I have been reading about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe living in the Chelsea Hotel in NYC at the end of the ’60s and beginning of the ’70s and how they are friends and collaborators with playwrights (she dated Sam Sheppard and helped write Cowboy Mouth did you know that?!?!), rock legends (she alludes to giving Janis the nickname “Pearl”), visual artists, poets, actors…everyone. For that reason, she and Robert develop in several mediums simultaneously; he making drawings, collages, clothing, photos and she, paintings, jewelry, poetry, songs.

Aside from getting me thinking about the quality of work coming out of NYC at that time and the role the tight-knit community undoubtedly played in fostering it, Just Kids has made me think about what it means to be an artist, something I’ve struggled with recently.

I used to love art but never felt I was good enough to do it professionally, and the lifestyle didn’t seem to suit me so I rejected being an “artist” as an option and focused on journalism, which still felt creative to me. At college the people around me seemed too brilliant to think about competing with, and I have natural aptitude for shaping and polishing, so I focused on editing and quickly became confident with the skill as well as respected for it by my peers.

I don’t know if it’s the years of therapy and “self-affirmations” or moving to San Francisco or being close friends with artists or simply growing into myself — but this year I’m determined to make friends with my lurking creative powers. I think the incredible array of media available to me will help, and I hope to explore it with other artists as I travel in the U.S. and Europe. But I also think it’s just about paying attention and being brave. This was the second note I made in the woods.

When you give yourself permission to do things that don’t seem to require creativity, but in the purest sense of the word are CREATIVE, you start to truly see that every human being is inherently creative — the thing that sets artists apart is simply that have nurtured that creativity and learned to listen to it with the ear of an attentive parent.