PART FOUR: Building a Business + Burn Out
I can pretty much split 2012 into two even parts called The Bad and The Good.
2012 started off on January 1 with me being alone at the studio, photographing for the first time, and having a breakdown in an empty camera room over things that were way beyond my control.
For the first six months of 2012, I felt lost. Like I was wandering around in the dark and had no flashlights and no way out.
I had just started photographing at the studio after the Christmas rush was over, and found myself playing the comparison game. Not only to my co-workers photos, but to the photos that I had taken on my own and I knew I could do better. I always felt nervous and unsure of myself going into the camera room at the studio. There was so much pressure to create greatness in a short ten-minute time frame and it always felt like I cracked under the weight of all the portrait studio mom’s expectations.
My mom had also just left her factory job to take care of my grandma full time. My grandma was showing signs of dementia and it was clear to us that she needed someone with her almost all the time. My mom and her siblings were constantly fighting about her care and doctors visits and all the power and control that comes with taking care of your parents near the end of their lives.
At the time, I had also just been ghosted by one of my best friends in high school after picking up on our on-again-off-again relationship. I was lonely and heartbroken when my friends suggested, “Let’s make you an account on Plenty of Fish!”
That was my first foray into online dating that year and let’s just say, it didn’t end well.
I already wasn’t in a good headspace from witnessing family as I knew it dissolve right before my eyes. Adding loneliness and a longing to be seen and loved wasn’t exactly the best combination.
2012 was the year that I got into and out of an abusive relationship.
I spent the first few months on 2012 trying to get back into a groove that I had lost again after my 52 Weeks project ended. I tried to tackle another 365 project that year but gave up because I felt awkward and uncomfortable on both sides of the camera. It was like I had lost my ability to find light amongst the darkness.
I let a man control my life for the first six months of 2012 under the guise of love and pretty words like, “You make me want to be a better person.”
He dictated what I wore.
He dictated my personal hygiene routine.
He dictated when I could and couldn’t spend time with my friends.
There even came a point where he made me choose: Him, or my photography dreams?
I was working at Adrian’s by day once they opened in March, still opening the stand Monday through Friday, and by night, I was splitting my time between driving back and forth to Milwaukee to work at the studio or running around Burlington, taking my own clients out for senior sessions. On weekends, my life was dedicated to JC Penney and staying up late to catch up on my own editing that had I had fallen behind on during the week and then getting up to do it all over again the next week.
I worked 7 days a week with no days off between my three jobs for three months straight.
To say that I was exhausted was putting it mildly.
I knew the life that I was living wasn’t sustainable. Something had to give at some point, between the ongoing family drama, my personal hell of a “relationship,” and working three jobs to support my family.
Instead of questioning my romantic relationship, I ignored the red flags and started to question my relationship to photography. Did I really love it as much as I thought I did? Did I really think I had what it takes to make this business of mine work in the long run? Was I willing to sacrifice what I thought was love to chase after my dream?
With the help of my best friends, late night Walmart runs and trips to the diner we always went for pancakes and grilled PB&J’s at midnight, I started coming back to myself. They distanced me from my abusive ex, handed me a headlamp and said, “We’ll help you through this.” They stayed by my side in the never ending darkness, and at least gave me a light to the path that was right in front of me. Without their intervention, I don’t know if I ever would have found the path again.
My friends helped me to take a step back and look at the bigger picture of my life. It was the first time I think I realized, “Holy cow. I can do anything with this life of mine.” And then I started making some big changes once again.
Picking up my camera felt like a lot of give and take when I was still chasing people that weren’t mine to chase. I was desperate for love, but I didn’t realize yet that I could pull a Cristina Yang and pick my career over love and not fall apart. I still felt that rush, that calling on my heart, every time I went out with my senior picture clients on my own… But my time at the studio had taught me that maybe I didn’t want to do this full time. Maybe it should be one of those things I kept just for me.
While everything felt sort of up in the air professionally for me, I reluctantly jumped back on that online dating horse. Only this time I was going to put my money where my mouth was. I forked over $30 to E-Harmony in mid-July, and got matched with my now-boyfriend, Justin, two days later. Justin was sort of like my knight in shining armor. He taught me to look past the parts that my past loves had deemed as ‘broken’ and see all the light and the good that lives in those parts of me instead.
Justin convinced me to ride the wave at the studio. He was right, ultimately — I needed the money, and my family needed me to work to support us. But once I took a look at my life, I knew the studio would be the first thing to go when change came knocking at my door. I was burnt out. Exhausted. Ready for something to change.
I would come home from work every night and cry to Justin, “Do I really have to go do this all over again tomorrow? And the next day and the next day and the next?”
He would chuckle at me over Skype and say, “Sorry babe. You have to.”
Justin and I dated long-distance for the first six months of our relationship.
For his birthday that year, the year he turned twenty-six, all Justin wanted for his birthday was to come spend a week with me and meet in real life for the first time. He booked a hotel room and I secured time off from work with all my jobs, except for Adrian’s. They still needed me to open the stand every morning, and Justin was more than happy to walk me to work every day in order to stay with him.
(Also, side note: it’s pretty easy to get time off of work when one of your jobs is your part time side hustle working for yourself, haha.)
But the studio was a different story entirely.
I had negotiated a “leave of absence” of sorts with my bosses at the studio. I was still going to work there part-time, coming back for the Christmas season because I needed the money, but I was going to take October off for some rest. I had busted my butt all summer long between my three jobs with no breaks and my gift to myself was asking for a month off. To close Adrian’s down for the season, and then I promised — I would be all theirs again. One month was all I wanted, to think and to take a break and to rest. (And to meet my boyfriend, but that was besides the point.)
Spoiler alert: I still ended up driving to the studio, cursing under my breath the entire way there, two out of four weekends that month.
“Because we’re short staffed!”
“Because it’s Halloween rush!”
“Because we need you!”
Because I didn’t know how to say no and walk away for good.
(Something that would also later come back to bite me in the butt.)
But something else happened in that month that I took off from the studio. I picked up my camera just for me again. I found the joy in photography again. I knew going into that Christmas season that that would be my last as a Lifetouch employee.
Somewhere in my love of the early mornings opening the studio on the weekends (it was quiet because the studio opened an hour before the mall did), and closing on Thursday nights, I became the messenger between my feuding studio managers. Passing notes and leaving messages like we were all in middle school again left an uncomfortable pit in my stomach, and I knew I needed to quit and move on. It was the first time I had ever left a job before and it took me five months after my “leave of absence” to work up the bravery to quit for good.
“You just need to make it through until March,” I promised myself. “You just have to make it until Adrian’s opens in March and you’ll be home free.”
Adrian’s did indeed open in March, and I swear I jumped for joy when I saw Betty’s name pop up on my caller ID and say in her raspy voice, “So, Anna, are ya coming back this year? I’ll be there on Thursday at 11 to set up.”
Little did I know, a few days after Adrian’s opened in 2013, something inspired another great act of courage inside me.
I decided I was going to a) quit the studio for good and happily turned in my first ever two-weeks notice, and b) pack up my life, which also meant saying goodbye to Adrian’s and Burlington and my family and friends, to c) move three hours away from home to live with a boy.
My mom was less than thrilled, but I knew that I needed to take a chance on my relationship if Justin and I were going to survive. We had seen each other on weekends here and there, and Skyped every night, but long distance just isn’t the same as having the other person there in person, right beside you in the thick of it of everyday life.
Five days before my twenty-first birthday, I said goodbye to life as I knew it. Packed my car full to the brim, and drove three hours north to pretty much start over. I gave myself permission to put my photography business on the back burner while I adjusted to a new life outside of my hometown.
Little did I know that my new catchphrase would be, “Welcome to Hardee’s, how may I help you?”