Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My Etsy Story

(written for the EtsyGreetings blog. this is already the "shorter" version. yikes.)

My desk. Really.

Etsy saved my life.

That's an exaggeration, but my little Etsy universe is certainly responsible for some huge positives over the last year. Maybe not my mortality, but some days it feels like it.

I get migraine headaches. I've had them my entire life. They suck. People who say "it's just a headache" need to be punched a lot. A "migraine" is actually a type of headache as opposed to just a really bad headache. You can have a really bad headache that isn't a migraine. You can have a migraine that isn't so bad. (Good info from the National Headache Foundation here.)
Migraines involve much more than just head pain. Mine start with the volume on my senses getting turned up - I notice smells and light and sound all brighter and more intrusive. I can smell static and saran wrap and sometimes scents that aren't even there start crawling up my nose and poking me in the back of the throat. I hear anything high pitched or sudden well above the level of my surroundings and have trouble following conversations. Then my vision goes wacky. I see things flashing in my peripheral vision that aren't there. Sometimes I lose my peripheral vision completely. Everything starts to feel like I've been staring into the sun and the splotches cloud my sight. Then light starts turning into pain. It pierces into my eyes. At that point, I have to lay down somewhere dark, even if the real pain hasn't begun.
Then there's the pain. It throbs and pushes and gags and takes over every bit of my consciousness. It scrambles my thoughts and the whole universe is sharp and hurt and I try to sleep and my dreams are scrambled and I have the migraine in my dreams and I want to drill holes in my head.
My dog in my bed, with whom and where I spend my migraines

At different points in my life they’ve varied in frequency from one every few months to months at a time with no relief. Mostly, they’ve gotten worse as I’ve gotten older.

At age 22 and without having finished college, I got my dream job: a humor writer at American Greetings. It was amazing. Go into an office and produce about eight card ideas a day. When they hired me, they said not to expect to have anything published for the first six months as I learned the tone and style and everything about card writing.
It was my first real job and I moved into a new city while my friends all graduated college and went other places. The migraines got worse. I'd have them every day for a month. I had to take all kinds of sick days. I started having to inject myself with DHE to break the migraine cycles. It helped, but the more work I missed, the more stressed I got and the more migraines came. I tried to work some from home, but it's hard to be funny when you hurt all the time. My boss kept telling me my ideas were "too clever" and "too weird" and "not WalMart enough." My American Greetings mentor thought I was great and funny and working hard and a long-term asset to the company, especially if I could figure out my health. He stood up to my boss for me time after time.
Even with all the missed work, I still managed to have about two dozen of my ideas get published into real cards.

Five months after I started at American Greetings, I was "dismissed," the official reason being I didn't produce enough publishable cards. I'm sure it had more to do with my migraines than my actual card-writing abilities, but I was devastated.

I eventually moved back to Chicago (I grew up in the city and a bordering suburb). The migraines were less constant. They still showed up from time to time, but I could hold down a job or two. I missed writing, so I went back to school to get my BFA in creative nonfiction. I loved the program, loved most of my classes, and loved writing all the time.

The summer of 2007, the migraines crept back up. They held on stronger and longer again, like when I was in Cleveland. I started the fall semester with spotty attendance, then even on the days the headaches weren't all-encompassing, I couldn't deal with the train or the bus. Too many bad noises and flashing lights. By October, I had the headache full-blown all the time. I had to take a medical leave from school. I saw a new neurologist and got more pills, tried acupuncture, was willing to do anything I hadn't tried before, but I was completely useless.

I found Etsy. My hair stylist told me about it. Then a friend of mine had some of her photographs up on the site. Staring at the pretty pictures of things people made was something enjoyable I could do. It would distract me from the pain until I couldn't stand the brightness of the screen anymore and had to lay back down.
One full month of constant blinding pain forced me to rethink my life. I couldn't keep lying there, doing nothing. My parents were supporting me both financially and emotionally, but I go crazy if I'm not doing something day after day.
Instead of just staring at other people's pretty things, I made some of my own. Knitting was something I'd been doing a lot of in my migraineyness, since it felt somewhat productive and required very little light or sound. I started making cards again, and even opened my box of my rejected ideas from American Greetings to find things that were just "too clever" or "not WalMart enough," thinking they'd be good for Etsy. I opened a shop in November.

I found the chat rooms and suddenly had some form of human contact when I was vertical late at night. I'd spend hours talking to other sellers and staring at more pretty things and learning all things Etsy. My cards started to sell. I got a better idea of what worked and what sold. Chatroom people put me in their treasuries. I put them in mine, which tended to have elaborate themes (the 12 Monopoly tokens, Pink Floyd songs, Dr. Seuss books) and be more clever than gorgeous. I joined EtsyGreetings and the Chicago Style Crafters teams. I figured out how to print directly on the 5.5" x 4.25" blank cards I bought at JoAnn Crafts. I came up with new card ideas and designs. I can't draw to save my life, so I enlisted the help of my close friend who lived far away to draw me a tank, sheep, berries, and a match for "Tank Ewe Berry Match." She emailed me a whole sheet with variations to choose from, and after a long time perfecting things on PhotoShop,I had a new most popular card. I wasn't selling much, but I was selling, and it felt good.

Etsy taught me to use my digital camera. I went to Wednesday night critiques with HeyMichelle in the virtual labs and had even more human contact. She'd talk for hours straight on her webcam and I felt like there was another person (besides my family and my best friend) who came into my apartment. It became clear how important the photos of my products were, shooting things at angles and in better light.I learned how to build a lightbox, learned how to use "curves" in PhotoShop, and the importance of backgrounds.

My dad found me yet another neurologist, but this one was different. He spent three hours with me at my first appointment, asking questions about my history and understanding things that I never knew were related to my migraines. My ability to smell static is apparently not insane (as most people tend to think), but an ability to smell ozone. It made perfect sense to him as he wrote it down. Before then, I thought I'd exhausted all the currently available drug classes, tests, and diets, but he gave me a number of different possibilities for treatment paths, all of which were new and untried. He wanted me to call him every week with updates so we could tweak things, and have a new round of hefty tests (my last MRI was 10 years ago, plus he wanted extensive bloodwork done) as soon as I could get my health insurance straightened out. (My health insurance fiasco could be a book in itself, but basically I thought I'd gotten a year on the plan at my school, they thought I'd gotten six months, so I was uninsured and then became uninsurable because of my "pre-existing conditions." Months and months later, I managed to get on the ICHIP program through the state of Illinois that exists for the otherwise uninsurable.)

I started getting better. I went back to acupuncture and kept going weekly. I finally called the therapist my internist recommended (chronic pain is demoralizing). I started the EtsyChai team (the Jewish Etsy team that I've been neglecting lately) and I made it to my first Chicago Style Crafters in-person meeting.

I finally had an answer to the "so, how've you been" question that didn't involve me breaking down into tears: “I started my own business.” I got a tax ID# and saved receipts and felt very official. It may not have been paying my rent, but at least it was something to do and it paid for itself. As I had more and more good days, I signed up to be a part of CircaCeramics' open house/trunk show. It was my very first show and I sold all of two cards, but I felt like a real, normal human being and that was a triumph in itself.
I signed up to be a part of a rotating group of crafters (all from the Chicago team) selling Saturday mornings at a local farmer's market. If I had to back out of one of my weeks last-minute, there were still others in the tent for a two-vendor presence.
I got more involved in EtsyGreetings, too, and started a data pooling spreadsheet for the team.

I wish I could give a more conclusive happily-ever-after to all this. I now have good days about 3/4 of the time with the occasional day where I feel completely fine with no migraine-related anything. My Etsy shop still isn't paying the rent or booming or anything, but with the addition of the farmers markets and other craft fairs (when I can make it), it's more than covering costs. I now work from home for my aunt and uncle's nonprofit, which gives me less crafting/Etsy time but I feel more like a functioning member of society. I just started making and selling mini-cards with recycled wallpaper envelopes, and I'm hoping to sell gift card-sized ones to local coffee shops and boutiques for the holiday season.Etsy truly has been my shiny happy thing over the past year, and as I function more and more like a normal human being, things can only get better.

Etsy love.

1 comment:

Vineyard Painter said...

After reading this I wanted to understand more about migraines, I only had 1 when I was 12 yr.s old but it was a headache I've never forgotten. I looked at Wikipedia... which lists a lot of info. It's complex. You've probably already know this but someone suggested that chocolate can trigger it. I hope that a cure is found soon; my mother gets them also.

All the Etsy best, and love to you.