Becoming Content With Who I am. My Internal Transitions of 2011

2011 is coming to a close. In many ways it seems it came too fast. At the same time I’m glad it’s over. 2011 was an intense year for me. It was filled with new friends, new ideas, and new revelations about myself, marriage, relationships, and career(s). I think the quote that may sum up the biggest learning experience for me may be the words of my dear friend Bre, “I don’t know the key to happiness, but I do know the key to misery. And that’s living for what other people think.” I tried so hard to own those words for months. But, it wasn’t until very recently that I came to finally realize just how deep that principal needed to penetrate my heart and life.

The beginning of the year started out super promising and exciting. Sarah and I read an article that challenged us to create a career/business that we enjoyed by writing out our personal priorities. We then prioritized those into a top ten, and discussed ways to make those things happen. The article gave us about 50 priorities to choose from. One of these was “fame.” For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be famous. Fame was on my top ten. It wasn’t number one, but it was on there.

We set to work on our goals. One goal was to keep the creative love flowing in my photography. I love weddings, mainly because I love people. But, no matter what, your subject is always a bride and groom, and they are always paying me (which creates an obligation). I wanted to be able to create free of boundaries, and free of client to artist obligation. I wanted to create in an environment in which I am the only one I’m concerned with “liking” my photos. So I decided to do one personal project per month. I did really well for the first half of the year. I did behind the scenes videos for each project, hoping it would help other aspiring photographers get an idea of how I did the shoot. I loved it, and I really learned a lot from each shoot.

Also early in the year I read two books that changed my life! Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz and Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. Blue like Jazz caused a serious spiritual awakening in my heart. I came to a new understanding about grace and love. I learned that I needed to stop caring so much about the “rules” of Christianity and just let people freaking be themselves. I adapted a new motto, “I’m going to be 100% myself, and I hope you’ll do the same.” I don’t have it all figured out! Neither do you. But I’m going to keep pressing toward God. If you want to also, great! If not, cool. I love you for being honest. And I think honesty became my new favorite characteristic in people. The War of Art helped me see myself as a professional artist. It affirmed a lot of my artistic thought processes, and it made me feel like “I could do it,” like I was on the right path. That as long as I keep “working” and being honest about it, then when the time is right my work will pay off. But in the meantime, I need to pursue photography because I honestly love it.

The same month I finished those books, I discovered two photographers that changed a lot of how I saw my career and artistic expression. They were Alex Beadon and Kathy Focca. I sent them both a casual email telling them about how much I loved their photography. To my surprise they wrote back and a friendship grew. Sarah and I even got to make a trip out to see Kathy in Canada. It was during this trip that something began to stir in me. Sarah and I sat down on a bench at the beach in Port Elgin Canada and watched the sunset. As the sky transformed into beautiful reds and purples I explained to her that I was not happy with the current state of my career. That living in little ol’ Hanford was no longer enough. If I really wanted to “make it” we needed to move to a place where creative portraiture is appreciated and valued. To be honest, I was distraught about it. She held my hand and told me that she was okay with living in a tiny apartment in LA while I try to “make it” for a while. I sat there thinking about the business I was building, and feeling like I was building the wrong one.

The next day was my brother-in-law’s wedding. I was best man. I love my brother-in-law, but when I woke up that morning I really didn’t know how to get out of bed. What I’m about to say will sound so ridiculous. I woke up feeling like an absolute failure. I did something so many people would later tell me to stop doing. I compared myself to other people. And just like that my favorite photographers, the people who made me feel like “I can do this too” made me feel like I’m not doing enough to “make it.” I was 27 years old, I’d been pursuing making photography my full time career for two years and I still hadn’t quit my other job. I lived in Hanford, and had all of my life. I’d never taken a chance; I played it safe by staying at home. I felt like I’d wasted my time. Nothing but negative thoughts went through my head. Just the thought of getting out of bed was too challenging for a wimp like me. Any positive thoughts were petty, and I refuted them immediately. The only thing that got me out of bed was the fact that this day was not about me, it was about Tony and Andrea.

I sat up and called my therapist and left him a message. It had been over a year since I’d been released from therapy. The entire time I was seeing him I’d never felt like this. I felt like a zombie. And my thoughts were not Adam Allen type thoughts. I’m a super optimist. I’m the kinda guy that always responds with “Oh I’m doing great!” And when faced with problems, dude, my response is nearly always “It’s no big deal.” To me almost nothing was a big deal. Cancer, that’s a big deal. Getting stuck in the line at McDonald’s, that’s not a big deal. I’ll sit there in line for way too long with a smile on my face. But here I was, at my brother in-law’s wedding, feeling like Hell. On the outside I was standing, but on the inside I was on the floor trying to not exist.

We got back from Canada and Sarah said I could spend our first day back home in bed all day if I wanted. I literally just wanted to lay there and stare at the ceiling. I didn’t want to exist, I just laid there with these thoughts in my head. “I’ll never be who I want to be.” “I’m worthless.” “I’ve already missed God’s calling on my life.” “I’m not strong enough to follow God’s purpose for my life” or “Why do I even try? If my photos were good, I’d be somebody by now. I’m not good enough because I’m just too scared to move out of this town.” By that evening I managed to get myself up and record a tutorial on light painting (and then never finished it). The truth is my confidence was gone. I didn’t do a good job on the video. It was like I’d lost my mojo. Believe me, the video not turning out well did not help the negative thoughts.

I saw my therapist on the third day back from Canada. He reminded me about the emergency line and I laughed, “I’ve never called that before Gordon. I think I’ll be alright” The next day I came home from the grocery store and something subtle triggered the anxiety, the negative thoughts, and I found myself on my couch curled up and crying so hard I couldn’t breathe. I called the emergency line and managed to calm down enough to speak. I said I needed to meet him the next day, and he said he could. That session was the session that this entry was written about. After that I calmed down and only needed to see him once a week. This went on for a month. We talked about a lot of the issues that plagued my mind. I tried to operate like normal. Sarah and I shot a wedding during all of this. It was so hard. I felt like a zombie, and I just tried my best to put on a show. Meanwhile I wasn’t inspired by anything, I just knew x+y = good photo.

October 3rd some thoughts a couple of my close friends suggested began to really penetrate my mind. Both friends had pointed out that things hadn’t been so great between Sarah and me. Sarah had been by my side, loving me and supporting me during this whole depression, what could they be talking about? The first friend I dismissed as just being a poor observation, but when the second friend pointed it out I knew there must be something to it. So I spent the day really thinking about it. It hit me hard… Sarah and I were no longer close. We were just really friendly roommates. We loved each other, but I didn’t know how to share with her the issues that were causing the depression. That’s something you should be able to share with your best friend. The next day at church I pulled my friend Ryan aside and told him what I’d just realized. It broke my heart to say it out loud, “I realized that Sarah is not my best friend anymore… I have to fix this.” But saying this out loud proved to be critical.

The next morning a friend texted me to check on me. I called her and she asked how I was. I did my usual internal check and replied, “I’m… I’m good?!” I was surprised that I felt that way. We talked for a minute and I got off the phone. I stood up and felt light. There weren’t any negative thoughts, no anxiety, no depression. Overnight it was gone. I woke up every morning for the next week wondering if the depression would return. But, every morning I’d stand up and feel fine. It was a miracle. So now the good work needed to begin. I had to fix my marriage.

So Sarah and I talked, and we cried, and we agreed that we needed to be close again. Like lovers, like best friends, not like roommates. We enrolled in this couple’s therapy called “Imago” and oh my God! It has seriously changed everything. We are growing so close, and we feel so safe to tell each other anything. And that was my biggest concern. When Sarah and I fell in love, she was my best friend. But slowly we grew apart and there became little things that I just couldn’t tell her. But now we’re getting back to that place where I can tell her absolutely anything.

But still, there was this stress in my life. No depression, but when things went wrong I still considered them a “big deal.” And I just did not feel “inspired” anymore. I’d do a photo shoot and things were still a formula of x+y = good photo. I assumed it was just all of the stress in my life. I was still meeting with my therapist and he asked if I could remember anything from my childhood that reminded me of the stress I now faced. Slowly over the next month we dug deep and found some childhood wounds, left there by parents who had their own set of childhood wounds.

Now I’m not here to tear my parents down, nor am I the guy that blames everything on his folks. But what I learned was I needed my parents’ affirmation. I needed them to believe in me, to believe that I could “make it.” Becoming a famous photographer meant I’d get that affirmation I so desperately needed. When I realized this, all the stuff that had stressed me out no longer mattered. I know my parents love me. I came to realize that I don’t need their affirmation or approval to be a good artist. I am a good artist/photographer. I don’t need to hear them say it. I began to retrain my brain to not feel like that insecure kid anymore, but to just approach life’s trials from a full and subjective point of view, and not one that needs my parent’s praise

The other day, by coincidence, I came across two magazine interviews with Diablo Cody and Charlize Theron regarding their new film Young Adult. Diablo Cody explains that the main character is obsessed with being famous. She says that we all struggle with this because the media and society push being famous on us so often. Everyone is fighting for their 15 minutes of fame, from YouTube to Reality T.V. She said there was a time when having a happy family was enough; that was the primary goal for the average American. Now it’s all about being famous. I became instantly convicted. I’d fallen into that category. I desperately wanted to be famous. This summed it up really well for me. I wanted my parents’ affirmation, I wanted my friends’ affirmation, my clients’ affirmation, it all wasn’t enough. I wanted the world’s affirmation. And it hit me, after reading Diablo Cody’s words: I was still living for what other people thought of me. That’s why I didn’t feel inspired. That’s why I so desperately needed to be famous. That’s why everything seemed to be overwhelming me. I cared too much for what others thought about my pictures, and not enough about what I thought about them.

Who freaking cares if I become famous or not?! It’s no big deal! I need to make the photos I enjoy, not what I think someone else will like. That’s not honesty, that’s forcing myself to be something I’m not just to make someone else happy. And in the words of my friend, that will only lead to misery.

Sarah and I are growing closer every day, and I no longer live for what other people think of me. I transition to “part time” status at my regular job on January 2nd. I really feel that 2012 is the transition year that 2011 was preparing me for. Laugh all you want, but I feel like Samwise Gamgee when he and Frodo crossed out of the shire. “If I take one more step, it’ll be the furthest I’ve ever been away from home.” But I stand on the edge of 2012. I have my best friend by my side, I have a heart bursting with expression, and I know that God my Father in Heaven has a great adventure in store for Sarah and me.

I’m ready 2012! Let’s see what you’ve got.

Thanks a lot for letting me share with you, friends. I hope you express your heart in some way today.

God Bless You,

-Adam Allen


Alex - This is one of the most open, honest, heart warming blog posts I have ever read and I really admire you for opening up like this online. It takes some real guts. I think we all get down and depressed sometimes. Not want to get out of bed. Not want to create. Not feel good enough. I thank god that you snapped out of it, and that it sounds like you are on the right track again! Good for you! I’m also so happy to hear that you and Sarah are getting closer every day! You are an incredible artist. The photos here are SO BEAUTIFUL and it is so obvious to me that you love what you do. If you continue to pour your heart and soul into your work, I know that you will continue to grow as an artist and I honestly can’t wait to follow along on your journey. 2012 is going to be an amazing year for you, I can feel it. Big hugs and thank you for being so honest here. It was lovely to read.