Why I Stopped Selling My Creativity.
Earlier this year, after 10 years of stress and struggle, I finally closed down my design business.
In the beginning, it started as a wedding stationery business, and very slowly morphed into a graphic design, branding and web design studio. But as of last month, that business is no more. The last few years, when my depression has been at its very worst, have been a constant struggle.
I’ve worked with a selection of the most passionate, creative and inspirational business owners over the past few years, and I must emphasize now that none of this is their fault, absolutely not in the slightest; every client I’ve worked with has been truly wonderful.
Because of the reputation I’d managed to build up and my vast portfolio, I was lucky enough to be able to choose the projects that appealed to me, so even towards the end I only ever worked with businesses that I felt drawn to and would align with my own style and interests. But in spite of the lovely people I had the privilege of working with, every project was a battle.
In hindsight, I know that I should have moved away from this type of work a long long time ago, and it goes back much longer than just the past few years. Even when I gave up the stationery way back in 2013, I wasn’t really happy; it was around that time that I first went to the GP about my depression. Over the years I have repeatedly tried a string of different things that I thought would fix it, but nothing worked.
When my son arrived in 2015, things got way worse. Having a new baby added some pressure, but my main aggressor was my work. Struggling to balance running a business which I was already having trouble with and becoming a new mother tipped things so far over the edge that I couldn’t even see the edge anymore.
I became so ill that I’d have weeks of frightening de-realization where I felt like I wasn’t real, combined with insomnia and crippling anxiety, and even when he started nursery at 13 months, I lost weeks where I did nothing all day, because I just couldn’t. It’s all a blur to me now, and I barely remember any of the first couple of years of his life, and I will never get that back.
Quite simply, I burnt out so many times that I just ran out of the ability to give over my creativity freely any more; I used it all up. I had been selling my creativity to others for a very long time and never using any of it for myself, so I got to the point where a wall came up inside and a part of me just said “No. I won’t do this anymore.”
But still I kept fighting it. Forcing work out and using every last drop of creativity that I could find. Putting huge amounts of pressure on myself and pouring from a cup that had been empty for years. Neglecting to look after myself, both physically and mentally.
I started to take longer and longer to do my work, failing to give my clients the experience they deserved, which then turned into self-loathing, horrendous stress, and made doing the work even more difficult. Every time an email came in or I looked at my to-do list, I felt like my head would explode, my ears would start buzzing, and I’d just switch off and enter zombie mode again.
Sometimes I worried I would have a stroke or a brain aneurysm because my head just felt so full. I’d retreat under a blanket, where binge-eating and box sets were my self-medication as I counted the minutes before I could float out of the house to collect my son from nursery.
I’d then be up all night in a panic about the enormous backlog of work I needed to do and the ever mounting pile of debt I’d been racking up on my credit cards, lying in the dark in the grips of terror until finally giving up on sleep and working through the night.
Of course clients would then chase for updates which they were more than entitled to do, which would increase the pressure and make that wall even more impenetrable.
I am very strict about being kind to myself now, but I still feel aghast that I treated so many people so badly and repeated the same patterns again and again for such a long time — I’m talking years and years here, constant repetitions of the same cycle. But I can’t let those thoughts in — because I was ill, and I know that I did my best.
There’s so much more to it that all added up to this total breakdown of everything — a desperate need for approval, trying to be liked and saying Yes to things I knew I couldn’t do, failing to put boundaries in place to benefit both myself and others, working in isolation for so many years. But I am not mad at myself for any of this, and I hope all of the people I hurt can forgive me.
Recently I’ve been wondering if I should ever have started to use my creativity commercially. Maybe for some people it just isn’t healthy to do this. I wonder what would have happened if I’d stuck to that fashion design degree that I quit, or if I’d chosen fine art instead. The old me would have kicked myself at this point: “You idiot. You did the wrong thing and you’ve wasted all of this time.” But I won’t.
It’s okay to take the wrong path, there are no mistakes. Because I’ve learnt all of this about myself now, and after tentatively peeking around the corner at what the new path holds, I’m well and truly on it now and starting a new journey. Creativity is an important part of who I am, it’s not just a tool to be used to make money, I know that now.
There are things I could have done differently that might have helped, and I have lots of ideas about how I could help others who are using their creativity as a commercial tool to stay healthy and balanced.
I’m incredibly lucky to have one client who has stuck by me through the years — more than a client, but a friend who has always encouraged me, seen my potential, and championed me throughout the years. I’m now working solely with this client as my day job now, whilst still giving me the freedom of working from home. The relief of just having a job is so refreshing after all these years.
I feel like I can finally stop trying to seek approval from others and trying to be successful and have a big impressive portfolio, and just focus on developing myself. It sounds cheesy to say I’m starting to find myself and discover who I really am, but that’s exactly what I’m doing, so if I have to be cheesy, then make it so! Having spare time feels like the most wonderful of luxuries, and it really shouldn’t.
I will have businesses again, absolutely. I have too many ideas and I know too much not to, and I still need to make a living. I have a huge amount of marketing knowledge, and it would be a shame to waste it, so if, actually no, when, I pluck up the confidence to do so, I’ll start sharing that knowledge with others, in the form of workshops and consultation.
But I won’t let it take over my entire life again — I won’t let the business become who I am as a person.
If in future, people want to buy my art, as it is, that would be beyond wonderful. But I won’t ever sell my creativity as a service for others to use again. That’s just mine now, and I can’t wait to see what I will do with it.
Leah Spicer-Pownall is an artist and mother based in Leicestershire. After suffering from severe depression and burnout, Leah closed down her design business of 10 years to rediscover herself as an artist. Leah is documenting her creative journey on her website, Spicer Pow, along with thoughts about art and mental health, with a little bit of magic and motherhood thrown in. Find her on Instagram and Twitter for daily musings and stories.