Creative & Chronically Ill with Dani Blocker

On The DMV Wedding Pros Podcast this week, I got to chat with Dani Blocker from Epiphany by Dani.

On this episode, we talk about being chronically ill in the wedding industry. We talk about chronic illness and invisible illness, and what that often means as a woman in a doctor's office. I think ultimately it's a story about resiliency. We also talk about how we've pivoted and set boundaries in our businesses in order to keep moving forward.

Hey Dani, I am so happy to have you on the show today! Would you like to give a little intro for yourself?

Hi Abigail, I am super excited to be here with you all. I’m Dani, I have a business called Epiphany by Dani, and I’m a newly self-published author. I created a book called Epiphany Ink with my mom. It’s a modern coloring book. I’m super passionate about helping entrepreneurs create with confidence, and I used to be a wedding photographer. I started in the industry back in 2008. Then, all of a sudden my whole life shifted in 2016, when I had two strokes. I had to stop everything and focus on my health. I’ve slowly pivoted over all those years and recovered; I still deal with chronic illness, and pain, and things along the way. So, I have all kinds of interesting stuff about my life to share today.

I’m really excited to talk about living with chronic illness and how, as a business owner, you pivoted with that. So do you want to get us started and tell us how you found photography?

Oh gosh, I feel like creativity runs through our genes, through the blood. My daughter is in her room drawing every day, and my mom is an artist, and even though I can’t draw anything, I always had that vision. So, I grew up loving photography in high school. After graduation, I moved to Maine and fell in love with Acadia National Park, so I did a lot of landscaping photography. I was really, really shy, so taking pictures of people was super intimidating. Then I slowly started to come out of my comfort zone, and everyone was like, “You have such a great eye.” Then in 2008, I finally decided to take the leap and start my business. In the meantime, I was a firefighter and a 911 dispatcher so I had really cool things going on in my life.

I pivoted from that career into photography and I got my degree from the Academy of Art. At the time, in 2008, everybody was really keeping their secrets close, there was no community over competition. There were people second shooting, but it wasn't very much. Even in the industry, I was a young female. Most moms were the ones hiring photographers at the time, and they weren’t hiring young female photographers. You know, it was a whole different generation that had been serving in the industry for a really long time, so it was hard to break into, and I thought getting my degree would really solidify my knowledge. For one, it was an art school, which I loved; it helped hone this vision that I always knew that I had. It really created an artist in me over those years

That's awesome. How long were you doing photography for?

From 2008, I started slowly growing my business. It was doubling every year - the amount of jobs I was doing, income, everything. I’ve done commercial jobs, I’ve photographed boats for a company. I’ve done so many portraits, I love portraits, and of course weddings in Maine. Some of my favorite weddings, my favorite clients, were in 2012, which was when Maine became LGBT-friendly. It was awesome, because some of my favorite weddings to shoot were those weddings. After my daughter was born in 2010, we ended up shifting from Maine. We sold our house and left. I was basically a military spouse. We bounced around for the next five years, so from 2011 to 2016. It was really, really challenging for my business. Being a wedding photographer, especially in Maine, it’s very seasonal. It’s only three months long so you really have to get creative to fulfill the rest of the year.

I ended up being stationed where we were, but going back to Maine with my daughter for three months out of the year for the summer season. She was two, I would drive up there by myself with her just to shoot, I was basically a single mom for those summers. One summer, I flew back and forth a few times, and there was one whole summer where I stayed there until I realized the military moves were going to continue, and I started to take a break to focus on being a mom. I had finished school, so I took a year off to be able to enjoy time with my daughter. In 2014, we got kind of established where I knew I wanted to be. We knew we were going to be in Virginia for a while so I started establishing my business there. But then all of a sudden, life happened. Unexpectedly.

I want to backtrack for just one second and say that must have been so, so cool. What an honor it is to be able to shoot some of the first legal LGBTQ weddings in Maine. Wow. I imagine they were very emotional.

Yeah, some of my couples had been waiting so long. I have one super favorite couple; I was one of the only guests at their wedding, it was like I was a guest, not their photographer, and they still follow everything I do to this day. They love my artistic eye, and they are such huge supporters of me and everything I’m doing now, even though I’m not doing photography, or wedding photography per se. They’re some of my favorite, favorite couples. It was a really, really special time.

I bet, that’s so cool. How long were you doing weddings in Virginia?

I actually did not quite get my start with weddings in Virginia. I did a few, and I did second shoot. When we moved to Virginia, it was a military move. About a month into the move, I had already booked a few weddings, been getting established, and started working.

Then, I was in a car accident, a super minor car accident, literally a month after we moved. That basically changed everything for me and my business. Over the next year I struggled with chronic pain, neck pain, and about six months after the accident the doctor did an injection in my spine, which caused nerve damage down my left arm through to my thumbs. So, I had shooting nerve pain, and damage, and issues, and it just wasn’t being treated well. It got kind of cover up, you know? I dealt with that pain for a good solid year before it finally got treated.

I hope that some people understand what chronic pain does to you, physically and mentally and emotionally, but I’m sure there are some people that can’t quite understand how incredibly draining pain is when it is relentless. It’s so hard too, because if you don’t have a diagnosis to be able to tell someone, you’re just like, “I’m in pain.” I think people don’t understand a lot of the time, so I imagine that was really difficult.

Yeah, it was difficult. We had just moved to this new place, and then also I was starting to get established, I was starting to do education for other photographers. So, I was doing a lot of mentoring, and I was starting to shift my business away from weddings, anyway. But dealing with that chronic pain was something totally new to me. I had been diagnosed with Lyme Disease after my daughter was born that spring in Maine, so I had already been dealing with a few issues with Lyme Disease and what that brings. But the chronic pain was something totally new and I had never really dealt with it. So, I had to learn how to overcome, but with Lyme comes chronic fatigue, so it was very exhausting. Pain is very draining, it can be very, very exhausting because you’re just constantly in it. I tried my best to avoid painkillers, that was something I never wanted to do so I always mind-over-matter-ed it. At the end of the day, if it was a long hard day, maybe I would have in the beginning, but I’ve been off of any painkillers for a while. It just wasn’t an option for me. I’ve been in the law enforcement industry, and I’ve seen so many people struggling with addiction, and I knew that that wasn’t how I was going to deal with the chronic pain.

Yeah, wow. When did you get diagnosed with Lyme's?

That was 2011. It was the spring after my daughter was born, and we moved soon after that, so I bounced around. We moved every year, basically. It was challenging, for sure. I still test positive for Lyme, I still have lingering issues with chronic Lyme. I was diagnosed with high blood pressure after having Lyme at 29 years old. It affected me a lot, it affected my body.

Did that affect your workflow in any way while you were still shooting summers?

You know, that first summer, once we finally realized that I had Lyme Disease, it wasn’t diagnosed right away. I had had a rash, but it wasn’t a bullseye, and then later on we realized what it was. It was okay, I think it’s just always the chronic fatigue, I’ve always dealt with that anyway. So, mostly the chronic fatigue and the blood pressure issues affected me. I had a lot of GI issues and things, too. A lot of people that I know who have or have had Lyme end up being gluten free, and I went gluten free in 2012, so I’ve been gluten free for a long time. That was all from the Lyme Disease, as well. At least that’s what I stem it to because that’s when I had high blood pressure and all those issues.

How did that change weddings for you? Did it make it more difficult, did it just make it so that you had to pay a little bit more attention to how you manage symptoms?

Yeah, it definitely made it more difficult. A wedding day is a really, really long day, and I always give my clients my all, so that was hard. I remember one wedding when I was back in Maine shooting, I’m pretty sure I had flu-like symptoms. I remember just taking Dayquil all day long, just to get through the day. You know, I shot that whole wedding and I was super sick. That was kind of before people would pay for a second shooter. It wasn’t the norm, so I didn’t have a second shooter with me for that wedding, it was all on me. I usually just do what I always do; I push through, and I don’t recommend this. I’ve learned the hard way. Unfortunately I just did it this week, because we just moved, and I pushed and pushed and pushed, and now I’m feeling it. So it’s not always the best thing to push through, or at least if you do have to get through that day, then plan a day of rest the day after. That was usually what I did. I planned a massage, or at least a day where I had a total day free for rest.

Yeah, I think that’s so smart. Even I do that now. I think taking care of your body, whether or not you live with chronic illness, especially for wedding vendors who are hauling equipment, it's so essential. It’s so important to take care of your body, so I’m always pro-chiropractor, pro-acupuncture, pro-massage.

Stretching, too, has been life-changing. I never knew how important stretching was until, you know, after everything I’ve been through, but it’s really one of those things that just makes all the difference.