When I quit my full-time job to become a life coach and portrait photographer, I had a lot of fears. The biggest one, by far, was that I’d fall into a deep depression, be unable to function, and subsequently fail to support myself financially.

This post comes to you courtesy of Off We Go: Entrepreneurs & Mental Illness, a guest post series coming to you every Tuesday while I’m off, writing and Internet-less, at Hedgebrook. Today’s post is by Kylie Bellard

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When I quit my full-time job to become a life coach and portrait photographer, I had a lot of fears. The biggest one, by far, was that I’d fall into a deep depression, be unable to function, and subsequently fail to support myself financially.

That’s probably still my biggest fear about self-employment, quite honestly.

And so, a couple months ago, when I found myself dipping dangerously into the familiar signs that characterize my depressive episodes, I was terrified. I also happened to be in the middle of the biggest product launch I’d ever attempted, which only added to the sense that everything was on the line.

It felt as if life would fail to continue if I succumbed to this depression. I would have no business, no clients, no colleagues who knew they could count on me, and no options at all.

That’s how things can seem when you’re depressed, though. You can’t see sunny options, even if they’re there. Any future you can imagine ends in ruin, even though, quite often, you have no concrete picture of what “ruin” means. You just know it’s very, very bad and very, very scary.

So where were we? Ah, yes: I was teetering over the precipice of my greatest self-employment fear.

When I caught glimpses of that depressive fog creeping toward me, I opened my depression tool kit, and I looked to see if there were any tools in there that I had been forgetting to use.

Things were good on the medical level: I had been going to the psychiatrist regularly to monitor my medication, and I’d been taking my medication religiously. My regular therapy sessions had been humming along, too.

So what wasn’t happening?

Meditation had, admittedly, been less frequent during the past couple of work-heavy months. (Meditation became part of my mental health care a couple of years ago, when I took a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy course, an evidence-based method for helping people manage anxiety and depression.) I started scheduling in time for daily meditation.

I also hadn’t been getting as much sunlight and exercise as I knew I needed. This winter was the coldest and stormiest I’d ever experienced in New York, and I hadn’t been going outdoors as much as usual. When I realized this, I started taking walks in the morning and midday. Some days I would take two or three strolls, always making sure to walk in the sunshine, since sunlight has proved beneficial in preventing and treating seasonal depression.

I knew, also, that I needed to get more social interaction. I’d been working a lot, and I’d been spending less time with friends and family. I started going to social events, even when my tired, depressed mind didn’t want to. But I did it, because I knew it would help.

Several challenging, plodding weeks later, I remarked to my therapist that I was actually feeling more stressed than depressed. I felt burnt-out and tired, but I also felt able to function in a way that I don’t when I’m depressed. I had made it through to the other side.

Many years ago, this would have gone differently.

Back then, I couldn’t stomach the idea of having to take antidepressant medication indefinitely. I would read a blog post or article about how someone had “overcome their depression” without drugs, and I would stop taking my medication without my doctor’s supervision.

For a couple weeks, things would be fine. But then I would slip back into depression, and I would struggle to function, and I would return, defeated, to a psychiatrist’s office. It was usually a different psychiatrist than the last, because I could never find a psychiatrist I liked and also because I was ashamed of my own hubris in stopping my medication.

After all, I was lucky that medication helped my depression in the first place. For many people, it doesn’t.

After this cycle played out enough times, I realized that it wasn’t working, and I made the decision that I would take antidepressants indefinitely if it meant that I would, for the most part, be able to function and stop wishing I were dead.

Months after that, I added regular therapy to my list of things I absolutely must do to take care of myself. Therapy helped me to continue to develop the skills I needed to manage my wellbeing and smooth out the bumps that still existed, even with medication.

Since then, I’ve continued to utilize and refine the many tools that help me to stay functional, and even joyful, with depression.

When I left my full-time job to work for myself, there were various expenses that I cut out of my budget to allow for the fact that I’d be making less money as I built up my business. Mental health care was not one of them. I felt beyond fortunate when New York State passed marriage equality, because this meant I was able to be covered by my wife’s health insurance. This made it affordable for me to have a psychiatrist and get my medication.

Beyond that, I built therapy into my monthly expenses. When other people find out that I pay hundreds of dollars each month out-of-pocket for psychotherapy, they’re often shocked. After all, outside of rent, it’s generally my highest expense. It is also absolutely necessary and worth it. I’m glad to pay for it, even though I budget my income carefully, and I’m grateful to the kind, skilled therapists I’ve worked with for my life.

Talking with my wife the other day about my experience with depression, I shared that I now think of my depression as a chronic illness, and this is what has allowed me to thrive with a mental illness that could easily be debilitating or fatal. Years ago, when I tried to deny depression away and muscle my way out of it, it always eventually overtook me, darker and more painful than before.

Now, I accept my depression. This acceptance has allowed me to create structures of care and to develop and hone the many tools I use to cope.

I know this outlook might seem odd for someone who makes her living as a life coach. This profession is one that is popularly known for its stubborn optimism and for practitioners who “have it all together,” certainly not those who are chronically depressed.

Yet my own struggles with depression contribute to the ways in which I work with my clients. Because of my experiences, they know I can empathize with their sorrows as well as their joys. I also teach them my very best tools, the ones that I, myself, use, whether they live with mental illness or not.

It turns out that the practices that help those of us with mental illness can be equally beneficial for ordinary people making their way through the struggles and triumphs of human life.

I’m still afraid of becoming depressed and then being unable to run my business. Even though I faced this fear, and made it through, just a couple months ago, it’s still scary. But I do know that I have people, and structures, on my side, to keep me from sinking too deep.

And most importantly, I’m on my own side. I know that I’ll continue to do what it takes to safeguard my mental health. My hope is that caring for myself in this way will continue to bring me closer to my dreams, one gentle step at a time.


kylie bellardKylie Bellard is a life coach and portrait photographer who helps people to craft lives that feel deeply aligned with who they are. She has great faith in the powers of curiosity, compassion, and rainy days. Sign up here for her regular missives on self-care, mindfulness, and gently chasing your dreams.