Five years ago, I went on a trip to India that changed my life forever. I was a Google engineer on a research trip to finalize a project. My team and I had worked hard to bring the project to life, and stress was mounting. I was frustrated because I didn’t believe users would understand the product, but nobody heard me when I voiced my concerns. This reaction reaffirmed the belief that what I have to say doesn’t matter. That to be heard in the tech industry, you must be aggressive and fight. You must act like a man. My sensitive soul was not being understood or valued.
On this trip we got to do what I do best, empathize with real users. After two weeks of user studies, we realized our product didn’t make sense to them. This was devastating to learn and also oddly validating.
What I’d thought all along was proven in front of my eyes. At this moment, I felt how deeply unhappy I was. I was using my precious time on earth to work on things I didn’t believe in and ultimately had no say over. Yet, I had the “best job in the world.” I never had to worry about money. I got to fly business class to India. I had food made for me every day. I got bonuses and raises and vacation time. And somehow, I hated it. I felt trapped in a gilded cage.
During the trip, I started to have mysterious migraines. I pushed through like everyone in our culture does, trying to ignore the pain. But by the time we headed back home, my jaw completely locked up. My mouth could only open the width of my pinky finger. My back went into spasm because of the tension in my jaw and neck. My body was screaming at me, and I couldn’t ignore it.
I went to doctors who brushed me off, wrote me prescriptions for antidepressants, and told me to push through and get back to work. But I knew in my soul that I couldn’t carry on like this. I decided to find a holistic doctor to help me understand what was happening. She understood my need to take time off work. She helped me adjust my diet, lifestyle, and relationships. She helped me find a coach, therapist, and bodyworkers. I consumed only green soup and smoothies since I couldn’t chew.
I suddenly didn’t fit in with friends since I couldn’t drink or party. I could barely move some days with my back in spasm. I was depressed, anxious, and ashamed in a world where our value is determined by our work ethic. And here I was, not working. I felt weak, unworthy. I received messages of confusion from my close circles expressing a desire for me to go back to normal. But I couldn’t.
My jaw didn’t stay locked up for a few days or a week, but a FULL YEAR. There was no easy way out. Healing required looking at all the things I’d avoided for so long. It required feeling a massive amount of bottled-up rage from never speaking my truth, from feeling like I had to live for others instead of myself. It required tuning into my body in a way we’re conditioned not to, especially in a career like engineering.
Before embarking on the trip to India, I had no idea what I wanted in life. I only knew what felt safest based on what everyone else thought. The turning point for me happened about a year into my healing journey when I attended a portrait photography workshop with professional photographers. I’d loved photography for years but didn’t consider it a career option because the belief “you can’t make money as an artist” had been battered into my head.
But the amazing photographers I met at this workshop saw me as one of them as if my work could be at their level. And I saw it was possible to make a living doing something I loved. They encouraged me to share my work on Instagram and to consider myself a professional. And in that moment, I decided to make it work.
Despite being in pain, I started doing photoshoots. The satisfaction of capturing women’s beauty fueled me. The idea of helping women undo our cultural beliefs was a mission I could give myself to.
I was driven by the thought of changing our toxic masculine culture to one with feminine traits to balance and harmonize our world. And less than a year later, I quit my job at Google.
Running a business hasn’t been easy. But, my purpose and passion are so powerful, I’m pulled forward even in my darkest moments. And I continuously tune in to my body so I can align with what matters most. I’ve had to prove to myself that I can do what I most love and make things happen despite all odds.
Yet, here I am, having not worked much of 2020, dealing with debilitating physical pain, feeling shame, grief, depression, anxiety and isolation. And through these ashes, I am creating yet another phase of my photography career: RAW. To unearth the things we usually hide so that we can begin to heal. To stop numbing and start feeling. To show the beauty in the darkness and humanity we all experience. To change the ridiculous standards of beauty women are consumed by. I’m on a mission to help women undo the prison of beliefs that keep us from living in our purpose and to bring more authenticity, empathy, compassion, and humanity to our world so we can all heal. To learn more about RAW, visit www.jamienease.com/raw.
By Jamie Nease