I’ve been working on this post for awhile, and have thought of writing it for even longer. My hope is that someone reading will relate in some way, and for them to know that they’re not alone in what they’re feeling.
There are conversations happening now that are long overdue in our industry. From the gross lack of representation by women and people of color in our newsrooms to a culture of sexual harassment and predatory behavior that has been tolerated for far too long. Another conversation happening has to do with mental health. I think that for a lot of us, and indeed most of us, this is far more than just a job. It encompasses not just what we do but who we are on a fundamental level. This is often celebrated as doing what we love and loving what we do, but beneath the surface can be much darker. There are aspects of this field that can be toxic and should be addressed.
It’s a well worn stereotype that photojournalists don’t take care of themselves. That we drink too much, sleep too little and often forget to look after our own needs and the needs of those close to us. For some of us, this attitude grows in response to the things we’ve seen on the job, while for others, the job itself may be a means of distraction to ignore longstanding issues in our own lives; or perpetuate them.
I’ve never achieved any kind of balance in my life, and this career only exacerbates that imbalance. Up until this point, I’ve given all of myself to my job. I was constantly seeking the validation that comes from being overworked. It’s only been the past year or so that I’ve started to feel comfortable introducing myself without connecting my identity to my job title. Until now, I felt who I was outside of my job wasn’t someone really worth knowing.
This job can be an especially hazardous if you’re someone who has dealt with addictive tendencies and/or depression, as I have for most of my life.
I was twelve when I had my first panic attack. I have no memory of what triggered it, but I remember the wave of feelings I had never felt before that escalated with every second that went by; fear, dread, despair, an overwhelming urge to run with nowhere to go. The attacks continued for years, becoming more frequent and severe as time went on. They always seemed to come from nowhere, and little by little they consumed the things I enjoyed, as I would avoid any place where an attack occurred for fear of triggering another. Unfortunately, this was just the first step down a rabbit hole that would take me years to climb out of.
Around the same time as the attacks escalated, I discovered porn. While most people watch porn on a casual basis, I used it for entirely different reasons. I started relying heavily on it to cope with my panic attacks and the anxiety they produced in me, and like any unhealthy coping mechanism it worsened over time. It became a substitute for actual human connection and intimacy, then eventually a way to numb whatever stress I felt. I’ve been addicted to porn for 13 years, and while I’m far better now than I used to be, I struggle every day with the psychological damage it has done to everything from my sense of self worth to my very identity.
When you spend large amounts of time doing something most of the people in your life know nothing about, you feel the need to act like you’re fine no matter how you actually feel. After pretending long enough, the person everyone else sees on the outside slowly becomes a stranger to yourself; just a role that you play. You feel like an actor starring in your own life, performing for everyone else around you, when the person you wish you could convince the most that things were okay is yourself.
I felt trapped in my own role, unable to be honest with anyone. I mean really, How do you tell your friends you’re half an hour late to meet up because you were looking at porn for four hours and needed time to pull yourself together? Or your editor who is asking for pictures you should have already sent in but didn’t because you were watching for six? Or tell your parents that you’re yelling at them for no reason because you watched for eight and want to hurt someone that’s not yourself?
It was bad enough that I had such an issue with porn, but around 2012 I was prescribed Adderall. When you can get more done in a day than you would in a week, it’s hard to let that go. I burned through prescriptions and made my own schedule for the pills; going days without them so I could take them all at once. The worst part about my Adderall abuse was that it lent itself perfectly to my other addictions; the pills fueling not just all of my work in the day but porn binges that routinely would last all night. The cycle of abuse would inevitably land me in a deep, debilitating depression when the Adderall ran out; a cycle that lasted almost four years.
Throughout it all, I used the pursuit of my career, school, photo assignments, and all of the accompanying stressors as both a distraction and justification for my self destructive tendencies. Rather than take steps to deal with my problems, I quarantined them as best as I could. It didn’t matter how fucked up my personal life was, so long as I was doing well professionally. I poured as much of myself into my work as I could so there’d be as little of me left as possible by the time I went home; as outside of my career there was nothing to look forward to but my own loneliness, addiction and shame.
I was fully aware that the pain I was feeling was all self inflicted, yet I was unable or unwilling to stop. Because of that, I felt emphatically unworthy of all that I had. I was convinced that I didn’t deserve my family, friends, job or the chances I’d been given. I never allowed myself to feel any happiness from my success, at least not for long. Whenever something, anything good happened to me, it felt alien and frightening. There’s not one happy memory of career milestones I have that isn’t coupled with a number for the hours of porn I watched afterwards; to bury whatever happiness I felt beneath the familiar weight of the guilt and shame I knew so well.
As things got better for me in my career, the worse these feelings became. With every step up I seemed to take, every assignment completed and picture published, the voice in the back of my head that never stopped telling me I don’t deserve it grew a little louder. To the people around me I might have seemed like I was living my best life. The truth was that my addictions and depression were never worse than when things seemed to be at their best. For most of the time throughout it all, I couldn’t have felt more of a failure.
Shortly after my internship with the Chronicle ended I was arrested for driving drunk. The DUI fundamentally altered the course of my career, which I wrote about in a previous post. I’d like to say that the experience changed me, but I continued to struggle with my addictions for some time after. It’s only been in the past couple of years that I’ve taken on the slow day by day work of trying to make myself a better person.
There’s a tendency in this industry to romanticize running yourself into the ground for the sake of the job; especially at the beginning of your career. However, there’s a difference between giving your very best effort and being self abusive. It took me a long time to learn that. This career field, with all of the unique pressures associated with it, is easier to do that with than most. Yes, this job requires sacrifices; the willingness to move around, routinely cancel personal plans or risk experiencing trauma that may come from situations you cover. But no job should require your physical or mental health as payment for success. As much as we love what we do, we are not our jobs, nor should we be. We are people first.
Not everyone is going to relate to my struggle with addiction, especially to something like porn. But my addictions have always in part been driven by an unshakeable feeling of inadequacy; that no matter how much work or time I put into photojournalism, it is never enough. I know a lot of shooters who struggle with that feeling, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s because we are all just that broken inside, or if there is something about this industry, or more directly what we have been taught to believe about it, that makes us feel that way? I think that’s a conversation we need to have.
I have a lot of regrets about the person I have been for much of my life. The relationships I’ve neglected, the people I’ve hurt, the time I’ve wasted. I’m doing what I can to try to be more emotionally available in ways I couldn’t be before. I’m seeing a counselor regularly, which has made a big difference. I feel more devoted to my career than ever now, the difference is that my dedication is no longer from a place of desperation but of choice.
For those who might be reading this that are dealing with addiction, depression or both. You’re far from alone. There is a larger conversation surrounding addiction and mental health happening now than ever before. It’s a conversation that’s long, long overdue. There is help, and there is hope. Talk about it. There is professional help available that really does make a difference.
As someone who has failed themselves countless times, and still does, you need to know that whatever personal failures you may be dealing with, you are worthy of happiness. You are worthy of love. You are worthy of being valued, and you are worthy of success. You are worthy of being the best you that there can possibly be. You are worthy of yourself. It’s never too late to be the person you want to be, and it’s never too soon to forgive yourself and embrace who you are.