I am Titanium! (or How I Got Here, part 3)

How I Got Here

My work as a photojournalist was pretty physical, which was one thing I loved about it. I carried about 20lbs of gear with me wherever I went. I climbed ladders to get the shot. I lay on the ground. Sometimes I ran, cameras bouncing on my shoulders while I tried to get into position. I was strong and quick. I wore jeans and Keens to work and privately scoffed at the television journalists who had to gingerly step through gravel or mud in their high-heels to get to a story. I might not look great in a pencil skirt, I told myself, but I can walk a fire-line to get my pictures or crawl around on the ground to photograph kids building a dinosaur.

Kids add cement to a dinosaur at the Dino-in-a-Day event in Granger, WA.   


On a good day, I didn’t spend much time at the office. I’d hit the gym, then go work the late shift. Or work a day shift and work out before going home, giving myself an hour on the elliptical to read. I’d always worked out on the elliptical because, although I love how exercise makes me feel, most of the time I find it pretty boring. On the elliptical, I could read a novel and listen to music. Almost as if I wasn’t exercising.

One day I decided I should try running. Let me be clear: people in my family are not built for running. We are built for lifting heavy things or maybe walking for miles and miles. My sister was a rugby player in college. My little sister could have bench-pressed me. She excelled in knocking people over and making sure they didn’t get up…without stopping the clock every thirty seconds or wearing a ton of padding like rugby’s gentler cousin, football.

So it was no surprise that running was hella painful and not super-fun. I’d get on the treadmill, turn up the tunes and tell myself that I could make it through one song. Just one song. How long is three minutes anyway? And Jesus-fuck, why does anyone find this an enjoyable activity? Then I’d want to throw up. But, I did notice that I was getting way more fit. My endurance was going up and in a few weeks, I could make it through TWO songs. Then three. I felt both good AND like I wanted to die. At the same time. Oh the paradox.

At some point I pulled a muscle. Or thought I pulled a muscle. I stayed off the treadmill a week and then try again. Things would be good for awhile, then I’d start hurting again. And not the fun “you’ve really worked hard, and this pain is your ticket to a future as a marathon runner / fashion model” pain. I’d stop the treadmill for a couple weeks. Then try again, and repeat the process. At work, I found my sore self not wanting to climb all the steps to the top of the stadium to capture “the shot.” Or to bounce down to my knees to get a great low angle. I kept thinking I had just strained something. Months went by.

Shooting boats from the cliffs overlooking the Columbia River in Vantage. Keens and rugged pants, folks. (photo by T.J. Mullinax)

I stopped taking the stairs at work. I started gauging every frame of shooting an assignment based on the physical cost and whether the potential for a really great photo would really be that much higher if I crouched down or climbed on something. I finally went to the doctor, sucking it up and figuring I’d need to do some physical therapy.

The doctor took one look at the x-rays and said “Well, no wonder you hurt. This isn’t supposed to look like this.” He started gesturing to my pelvis, the way one socket sort of tilted out, not down. “You’ve got dysplasia.”So I’m not just a terrible runner? (the answer to this, four years later, is still, sadly, yes).

To make a long, fairly boring story short, I needed to have some work done. Big work. The kind of work you really really want to have health insurance and paid vacation for. The “fix” involved essentially breaking my hip, moving the pieces around, and screwing it back together. Eight weeks on a walker and a pretty clear preview of what life, for many of us, will be like in our later years. Making mac and cheese while using a walker. Compression hose. Shower chairs. My respect and admiration for folks who have those challenges all the time sky-rocketed.

What this has to do with this business journey of mine is twofold. First, I knew, for sure, that I would always need health insurance. It’s not something I ever read about in the business stories on blogs. “How I created my line of stationery and left the corporate world behind” is something I read. “How I became self-employed and could still afford a good health plan” was not the sexy headline dominating the blogosphere. But, sitting in my pajamas on the couch for the third straight week, it was something I needed an answer to before I could ever think about taking the leap.

The other thing I learned was that, if I was going to be stuck on the couch for two months, I might as well make use of the time. I couldn’t sit at the table and do the kind of art I had been doing – wood carving – so I started experimenting with digital design and painting. I also signed up for an online business course. I started trying to find out the nuts and bolts of how to make a business.

 A year and a half later, I’d moved to Olympia, left journalism, and started a job at a community college. I’d started a website to sell some of my handmade goods, but without much success. I’d learned some things about creating an online store (more about that later) and had a million ideas for things I’d like to make and sell – without much success in the selling aspect of that. The week before I started my new job, I went back to my surgeon to talk about pain slowly coming back to my hip. With a disappointed look on his face, he told me that although the first surgery had fixed the mechanics of my hip, it looked like it hadn’t prevented the wear and tear on the cartilage of my joint, and that now we should probably just do a hip replacement. Any thoughts of aggressively working on a business got pushed back again.

Round two. This time, my recovery was much faster. Three weeks instead of eight. Less time on painkillers that leave my brain so fogged I’m not good for anything except watching every episode of The West Wing. Better health insurance. I was (and still am) grateful to have a job with good health benefits. That, unlike many people, a great medical need didn’t require the sacrifice of my financial future, my home, or my ability to pay my bills on time.

Also, now I'm titanium! Literally!


 It was also another wake-up call: after recovering from this, I might have forty more years of good mobility. I brought home, in a very real and immediate way that time is the most precious thing we can spend. That if I still had the desire to run a business when I now had a job with great benefits, and a great schedule that is creatively fulfilling, maybe that’s a voice I need to listen to. That, at least I should no longer let a sea of “what –ifs” intimidate me. That, like working to walk again and still wanting to someday run that 5K I’d started training for three years before, starting a business might have major setbacks, but I had the choice of taking one step a day or sitting down. And I can’t seem to sit down.

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