Fear is a great motivator, but it can also land you in the hospital.
“You’ll work yourself to death.”
This old expression exists for a reason. When our second child was born, I shifted into a higher gear (even though I was already in fifth). We had decided we wanted to have one parent at home with our children when they were young and since my freelance illustration business was continuing to grow and do well, my wife took on the full-time parenting role, which left the earning to me. Instead of taking a realistic look at our finances, calmly doing the math, and then concluding that we would be just fine without my having to increase my workload, I went into overdrive. For the better part of a year, I spent every waking minute in my upstairs studio working or promoting, including weekends. I only came down for meals and a late bedtime and completely ignored the signs my body was sending me that I needed rest; I was ruled by a delusional and ludicrous paranoia about our family ending up on the streets, shivering in cardboard boxes, and all because of my failure to bring home the bacon.
One day, I stood up from the couch in our living room and then immediately felt a wave of panic and confusion, collapsed and had what can only be described as a nervous breakdown straight out of a 1950’s radio show. I felt like I was going to pass out, have a heart attack, throw up, and snap in half all at the same time. Paramedics were called to the house and I was taken to the E.R. where they pumped some calming drugs into me through an I.V. and hydrated me for a few hours.
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This happened several times over the next year. I tried but repeatedly failed to find some balance and control my anxiety about being a good provider and keeping a roof over our heads. The stress that came with being a “job-to-job” freelancer was too much and this is what finally led me to experiment with passive income ideas. So, I suppose it’s undeniable that some good came from my irrational fear and self-destruction. Some of my early ideas were mildly successful, others were total flops. I had a brief hit with an iPhone game which netted me about $25K of extra income in the span of a couple of months. This was a short lived diversion, however. At first I thought, “I’ll be rich! iPhone apps are it!” Sadly, my next game barely broke even, though it was vastly superior. I learned the truth about most iOS apps: if Apple does not “feature” the app on the main page or on a category page, it’s dead in the water, unless you have vast stores of cash to spend on promotion, or you’re lucky enough to have dozens of excellent reviews (Hi! Please review my meditative drawing app - help a fellow out?)
Then, the brushes saved me … for a little while, anyway.
They were the one thing that hit, and hit big. I doubled down and put all of my time and effort into building a true brand around them and becoming the best in the world at making and marketing them. For a stretch of time, my blood pressure was dropping, the world looked rosier and I started to feel like everything was going to be okay. And even though we suddenly had more money than ever pouring into our accounts, I found myself right back in the E.R. about a year into my new brush success story.
Why? Wouldn’t the financial security from my newfound success free me from my anxiety?
No, nothing would or could, because the problem I was always trying to solve never existed in the first place, except in my IMAGINATION. I started this issue writing about the time our second child was born. Back then, I was easily taking in $120K per year from my illustration business, plus an extra $25K from adjunct teaching. Living in a modest house in North Carolina with no debt other than a small mortgage, we were in no danger, whatsoever. Yet I was envisioning total ruin for us all, at any moment. When I landed in the E.R. at the end of the first year the brushes were released, we were at a point where the monthly income from that business, alone, was $15K, and climbing rapidly every quarter. And I was still earning additional money from teaching and illustration gigs. Yet there I was, weak, underweight, shaking, and broken in a hospital bed.
I was truly, truly sick.
It took a great therapist to show me how my own mind was twisting and warping reality into a vision of horror where everything could fall apart in an instant and the only thing stopping this from happening (I believed!) was my unhealthy work ethic. I needed not just months, but years to start retraining myself to base my conclusions about the security of our family only on what I observed to be true, to stop “future-tripping” into worst case scenarios in my mind, and to reject the lies I habitually told myself.
Today, I have to work on myself daily, or I risk sliding backwards. And despite my best efforts, I have slid, with a few visits to the E.R. even in the last calendar year. Clearly, a lifetime of catastrophizing is not something I can change overnight.
The physical toll of all this worry and panic is not small. I have had multiple surgeries for problems stemming from extreme muscle contraction, a broken nervous system that misfires, and worse. These days, I eat like a bird (quite literally - mostly seeds, nuts, oats, cooked veggies, a lot of “health” shakes) to avoid severe gastrointestinal problems, I stop many times throughout the day to make sure I’m actually breathing, and I swear by multiple heating pads that help with various muscle tension issues.
But here is the good news: I really am getting better. How do I know? Because I am becoming more and more aware of who I am, how I respond to the world around me, and how to calm myself down quickly when things start getting to be too much. These are skills I’m building slowly and surely. And with these skills, I am confident I can become an expert at living a more balanced life, physically and mentally - not an accidental expert … an intentional one.
So, the big question: why would a child with no food insecurity, no home safety issues, and two loving parents grow into an adult plagued with such irrational fear and anxiety? As I have written before, I never want this newsletter to take more than five minutes of your day to read, so I’ll answer this question next time. Fair warning: it’s not a very nice story.
I invite you to share your stories and thoughts below in the comments if you have struggled with irrational thinking, future-tripping, catastrophizing, and anything similar. It’s good to talk about this stuff. We can all help each other. Have some tricks that work for you? Please share them.
Here are two of my favorites:
1. A daily walk. You would be amazed how good this can make you feel and how it can clear your mind. I’m sure you have heard this before, but there is a reason for that: it just works. If you can’t walk, try lying down with your feet elevated and just breathing deeply and with intention for ten minutes.
2. Write down a worrying thought. Then, write evidence you have that supports the likelihood of this worrying thought actually coming to pass. Is there any? I find that this simple exercise forces me to see my own lies for what they are. They lose their power over me in the absence of evidence.
Resources for you
Mike Lowery, one of the coolest (and funniest) illustrators I know, has a fantastic new class on building a strong portfolio and getting your work in front of the right people. It’s called, Getting Paid to Draw. I rarely recommend courses because I’m very picky, but Mike is such a darned good teacher and he takes that responsibility very seriously. Sign up here.
Many of you know about Stan Prokopenko’s brilliant Proko videos. This is my absolute favorite free lesson on how to think about drawing hair. The demo shows only one texture of hair, but the approach described is applicable to any and all kinds of hair. An excellent lesson worth watching.
I have a free paper texture (with nearly 600 five-star ratings!) you can use as a layer for your digital drawings, a background for a graphic, or whatever else you like. You can download it here.
Need some inspirational and beautiful quotes about why the arts matter? Here are some of the best.
Thanks, as always, for reading. Please tell a friend if you are enjoying this newsletter, leave a comment to let me know what you think of this week’s issue, and have a great rest of the week.
Take care of yourselves, take care of each other, remember to be kind, and I’ll say, ciao for now.