Coping with Anxiety & Depression as an Artist and Mom

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“Victory” and “Taste Your Reward” by Adriana Vawdrey

“…’You can have it all, but not all at the same time.’ How important it is to take very good care of yourself, of your mental and physical and spiritual wellbeing; it’s hard to do. It’s easier to be a workaholic than to have a truly balanced life.”

-Dame Quentin Bryce

I need to tell you about the year I completely sacrificed my health for a passion project.

It is common for dedicated people to refer to themselves as “workaholics. ” The term is sometimes used in a silly way, but there is a difference between working with ambition and immersing yourself in impulsive project after project to escape other anxieties. From 2013 to 2016, I invented, and obsessed over never-ending piles of work in order to escape the fears and frustrations that came with a big life change. The problems which followed, and solutions that eventually pulled me out of that pattern, taught me a lot about the purpose of passion, the importance of balance, and the real possibility of feeling good again after a mental health scare. 

I know for a fact that many people in our modern world, particularly women, are weighed down by the guilty feeling of just not being enough. I hope sharing what I learned from this experience might help someone else feel comforted and recognized. Unhealthy coping behaviors are easy to lean into, but when we fight to be present and address stress in healthy ways, we’re practicing self love at the same time.

*NOTE* All of the illustrations in this article come from the project I was working on during this time. The art collection and story is called Please / You’re Welcome / I’m Sorry / Thank You, and echoes many of the feelings I experienced during its creation. You can see all 24 illustrations and flip through the book here (click on the pages in order to turn them). Editions of some of these illustrations are for currently for sale in my shop


Big Changes and New Responsibilities

After graduating from art school, my husband and I moved back to our home state of Utah and life became different very quickly. The community of artist friends I’d spent my last four years with weren’t with me anymore. I was back near family and friends who I felt I needed to prove something to. This was an uncomfortable transition, but the feeling lit a fire under me to keep making work and better define the purpose of my creative goals.

Sixteen months after moving back to Utah I became a first-time mom to my baby daughter, which was a wonderful experience and something I had looked forward to for a long time. I loved being a mom to this beautiful new baby, but felt a lot of guilt for two reasons:

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At the park with my girl in 2014. 

1) I felt guilty for not making new work at the rate I did before becoming a mom.

I had spent the previous five years working full time towards my goal of becoming a professional illustrator. I was really passionate about it and felt like it was something I was meant to do. A lot of time and money were invested into that education. I had expectations of myself, and felt that others had expectations of me, especially because I’d chosen an unorthodox career path with countless “what if’s?” attached. The new questions I was asking myself were:

“What if those five years were a waste, and I’m the biggest fool to think I could have a family and be an artist?”

and

“What if I disappoint everyone who supported me?”

2) I felt guilty for not finding endless joy and fulfillment in every moment of motherhood.

Reflecting back, I think the frustration I felt came from the simple fact that motherhood is sometimes a lonely experience. Moms give so much of themselves to the cause of nurturing and caring for another human being. Many joyful moments happen, and so many blessings come as a mom bonds with her child and watches her or him grow. We love our kids, but it’s easy to sometimes feel that our personal identities fade beneath the daily tasks of child rearing. It’s an identity crisis that follows change, and a hard one to talk about because it feels selfish and ungrateful to admit.

The inadequacy I felt created an ever-growing mountain of stress, and I buried myself in piles of work.

When I first started feeling really overwhelmed, the thing that made me feel much better was simply to make time to make art. More than that, it made me feel good to experience a sense of accomplishment for the work I was doing. It gave me a sense of control, so I felt like my old independent self before motherhood still existed. It would have been totally healthy for me to escape into creative projects just a little bit each day… but I never let myself be satisfied with that little bit. Big accomplishments were so intoxicating and brought me back to a time that I missed.  So I started creating enormous projects for myself, and obsessed over them. I fought really hard for more time to work, chasing the “accomplishment high.”

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Storyboarding in the living room in 2014. This child is adorable. 

I took care of my baby and taught drawing classes during the days, spent time with my husband for a while every evening, and when it was time to go to sleep I started to regularly make excuses to stay up and work on my own art projects. Because I felt so anxious, I didn’t want to sleep. My brain felt like it was exploding with ideas! So I started sacrificing sleep in order to be more productive. The time I was spending didn’t seem unreasonable because working while my family slept made it so they weren’t neglected by me. It temporarily got rid of some of my guilt, but of course, the long-term lack of sleep led to health problems, which hurt me and started to affect the people around me.

Let me give you a glimpse into what was happening. My bad choices started with good goals, but I became so focused on overcompensating for my lack of daytime productivity that things spun out of control. In order to feel productive, I treated far too many nights like a huge college paper was due the next morning. I drank WAY too much caffeine and stayed up all night three or four times each week. After climbing into bed at 4 or 5 AM, I’d wake up at 7:30 to start the day with my daughter. This was happening on and off for three years… but the last of the three was a nearly consistent stream of no sleep and working at any possible moment. I was either exhausted or wired all the time, which meant I rarely made time to sit down and eat a great meal. I’d prepare meals for my daughter and husband, but since I’m a vegetarian and my appetite was not so great anymore, I didn’t want to “waste time” on the extra effort of cooking for myself, which meant I skipped meals all the time and ate impulsively later. I didn’t get nearly enough exercise. I was convinced that the quality completion of this huge project was the thing that defined my self worth. It was clear that my creative goals were no longer improving the quality of life of myself or my family, but had turned into an addiction that it seemed I couldn’t get away from.

I was hurting, but didn’t think anyone else knew how I felt.

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“A Joke to the Cynics” by Adriana Vawdrey

The way I was living was completely unsustainable, which resulted in me becoming increasingly sick, sad, and scared. It felt like I could never relax. I was becoming more depressed. I felt like I couldn’t trust anyone and that they all must be wondering what I was doing with my life. I wondered why my husband even loved me. At one point I was completely consumed with a fear of dying from my stress and sadness. Two female friends who had been role models to me during my adolescence had passed away from depression related deaths in the few years before, and all of a sudden I couldn’t stop thinking of them. I just couldn’t stop worrying that this was how sad people always died.

There’s no need to keep talking about the sad part of this story, so let me fast forward to now. After months of living in that dark place, I opened up and sought support from loved ones (and professionals) who could help. I realized my path as an artist was not the problem, that was just the tool I was using to beat myself up. It took about a year and a half to feel like my old self again, but I am healthy and much happier these days. I don’t have all the answers, and anxiety/depression might be a chronic issue I deal with over a lifetime. But I am striving to keep my body and mind well, to celebrate small creative victories, and to appreciate the people in my life by living more presently.

Creative accomplishments aren’t holding my happiness hostage anymore. I will always make art and seek to let it enrich me, but never again let it define me.

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“The Voices of Friends” by Adriana Vawdrey

I’m convinced that unhealthy habits or addictions of any kind can be traced back to stress. It is so easy to lean into an escape when you don’t feel good about what’s going on in reality, and sometimes it’s not even clear that you’re trying to escape it. In my case, I wasn’t leaning into an obviously taboo escape, and the goal I envisioned seemed so positive in the beginning. The problem is that I got so wrapped up in what I was working on that I totally lost myself for a while.

In addition to having a very supportive family, there is one thing I believe has carried me through this experience — the knowledge that I am a child of God; complex, beautiful, and unique as are all His other children. Every one of us is given gifts and opportunities to make this world a better place. There are specific things about us, many of which we don’t even know, that can help others. I know now that I need to strive to be in a mental and physical state that allows me to use those qualities and be a positive force, and obsessing over accomplishments does not affect real change. It’s okay that not everyone subscribes the same kind of big-picture belief. The bottom line is that you will be a happier person with far-reaching potential to improve circumstances around you if you seek to be taught by ups and downs rather than run and hide from them.

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“Teachable” by Adriana Vawdrey

We are worth so much more than what me make. Life is bigger than what we feel right at this moment. Sadness, stress, and pain don’t last forever, and we should never try to swallow the whole future in a day. We don’t need to be ashamed of our weaknesses if we insist on learning from them. We should ask for help if we don’t know how to get back up, and then try to lift someone else when we’re standing again.

Thank you for reading!

 

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