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.

Then, tell me about the strokes that you had.

So, I had been dealing with all the issues from the accident, and the nerve pain, and they had finally put me on a medication to help with the nerve pain, and I had really severe side effects. I was traveling home to Connecticut to see my family for a wedding. I wasn’t shooting it. That weekend, I had finally announced that I was going to close my wedding business, and I was still dealing with so much chronic pain after probably a good year and a half by that point. I knew that I just couldn’t do it anymore, and I was trying to pivot into education. I had been mentoring some really amazing people, like Vanessa Hicks and Megan Kelsey.

I had really been mentoring some really amazing people, who are now speaking and doing amazing things, and it’s really, really awesome to see their businesses grow. I had started shifting into that realm, and I always was passionate about helping people create with confidence. I had started doing more lifestyle sessions. I loved helping women, through my camera, feel super confident, I’m really passionate about that. So that was really where I had started shifting away from weddings into lifestyles and boudoir and things like that.

But then all of a sudden, I went away for this wedding. I was sitting at the wedding, and it’s so ironic because I was a wedding photographer but I wasn’t shooting that wedding, and my arm went numb. I was a firefighter and a first responder but somehow it didn’t dawn on me, the symptoms. It never clicked. We probably didn’t realize until a year or so later that that was what was happening that weekend, that I had had a stroke. I had sudden numbness in my arm, and throughout that weekend I had a lot of confusion. My family’s huge, so I actually was helping the wedding photographer, who was just standing there with a look of terror in her eyes. I started to help her lay everybody out for the family portrait and I was starting to point to different relatives, but I couldn’t recognize their faces or which relative went with which family; we have like four or five different big families. I was like, “You go with you,” and I couldn’t think of their names, I couldn’t figure out who went where. It was very, very surreal and strange, and my family was recognizing something was happening but they didn’t know, and so that made it even more difficult. My family, you know, family drama, it’s challenging. There was a lot going on that weekend. We had a death in the family at the wedding; my cousin was in a car accident that afternoon, right after I left the wedding or during the wedding. It was just a lot of stress and a lot of things all at once, and it ended up leading to the stroke. So it was a really, really, really challenging time.

Wow. So, before you had the stroke, what made you make the final decision to close shop on the wedding business?

I had had my final wedding in... I believe it was the fall of the previous year. I really struggled with that wedding. I had a second shooter, but I was in so much pain. I didn’t get any sleep the next night, because the nerve pain was just really, really tough. We also were facing another military move. We ended up leaving Virginia, and we were going to be going back home to my husband’s hometown here in Charleston. So I’m in Charleston now, and I love it here. But in looking at that transition, I knew I was already starting to mentor and I was already starting to grow that side of my business, and I wanted to focus on lifestyle sessions. And then, it was kind of weird that I had already announced that I was closing it right before the stroke happened, it was like somehow I knew. So I already knew I was going to be pivoting.

That’s crazy. That's awesome though. You mentioned that you didn’t quite realize that that is what had happened at the wedding until later, so what was the process like to determine what it was?

I actually have struggled a lot with neurologists and doctors. When the wedding happened, I had been having symptoms. That evening I couldn’t sleep, I had the worst headache that I’ve ever had in my life and I had all these different symptoms going on but I didn’t know. I knew my blood pressure was through the roof, and I knew that that was an issue, but I was traveling and so I was just trying to get home the next day. I was traveling alone with my daughter, she was five at the time, and in an airport I couldn’t remember my address to put on the luggage card. I had all these cognitive issues going on. I just couldn’t comprehend what was going on; I couldn’t even find the bathroom when I got into Baltimore. I had to ask directions for the bathroom. They’re everywhere in an airport! So now when I think back I’m like, “Wow.” I ended up on the floor in the Baltimore airport cafeteria and my body was done.

They ended up putting me in a wheelchair. I don’t think they ever should’ve put me on a plane, because I was in really, really rough shape by then. The whole left side of my face was numb and tingling, and I had basically every symptom of a stroke. By the time I got home, it was around midnight, and I had taken my blood pressure medication. My blood pressure started to normalize and it had been so long that by the time I got to an ER the doctors didn’t recognize what was happening. They drug tested me.

I was only 32 and I know other people that have had strokes even younger. It’s not what they think of, and it was a military facility, which didn’t make it any better, so I was drug tested. They knew something was wrong, they knew that I couldn’t cognitively comprehend what was going on and it says that in my chart. When the drug tests were clean, they never looked any further. My husband wasn’t there with me. He had no idea what had happened over that whole time, he had no idea what symptoms I had had, I barely had time to talk to him, so he couldn’t advocate for me either. They never really took a step further. So I was dealing with new symptoms on top of what I was already dealing with. Being in chronic pain, they tend to think that you’re just out for medication, and all of that. That was never the case for me, and now I finally have doctors that recognize that. I have doctors that are supportive, and they know what risk factors I have so I feel safer going forward.

With strokes, you tend to have a few mini ones after. About a month later, I had another incident where my arm was numb. It wasn’t just numb, but it’s like you lose all strength. I couldn’t even pick up a glass of water off the table. At breakfast the morning that we flew home, it was like my arm was just dead weight. So it wasn’t just numb, it was weak, as well. That happened once more about a month later. And then two months later, around the time we were moving, I had the numbness and tingling in my face again. And then about six months later, I went for a walk. We were living in Charleston, and settled in.

All of a sudden, the world shifted up and down in front of my eyes like vertical nystagmus, and that was a whole separate incident. It left me with nausea, and I couldn’t walk straight. It was like my eyes never really settled with the horizon, and being a photographer, you always worry about something happening with your eyes. So that was the time where I just really was weak. I could barely walk upstairs, I couldn’t walk very far without fatigue. It was a really, really, really, hard time. After that incident I had balance issues. I looked like I was drunk in the middle of the day. I would stand up and feel off-balance. My peripheral vision was never quite the same, and just a lot of things after that were different. So those two strokes within that year really were tough to recover from, but now it’s almost four years later. I’ve stayed strong and I’m recovering. I still have weakness and I have atrophy in my left leg. My left arm is a little weaker, not too bad, but my left eye is weaker. So photography is challenging. I grieved losing my passion and my dreams for a really long time afterwards.

Of course. Now I know that you mentioned with it being a military hospital, too, you may not have gotten... the best care, let's say. In follow-ups to that, did you ever have trouble with doctors that you perceived as being because you were a woman, and they weren’t totally sure about symptoms, that they just kind of brushed it off?

Yes. That initial ER report most definitely created everything that they based everything off of, especially with moving and going to a new place, my doctor has always wanted me to get a second opinion from neurology. I went to a neurologist here and he read me the report from the first neurologist as my second opinion. So, getting it diagnosed has been really, really challenging. Nobody can really go back and prove it, because of the type of stroke that it was is called a lacunar stroke, or hypertensive crisis, and it’s not the typical stroke where you’re bleeding and it shows up on an MRI. It’s not those typical strokes, which is why I, having medical experience, didn’t even recognize what was going on. But I have literally had every single symptom of a stroke between all those incidents. And now, with the atrophy, and the balance, and my vision, all those lingering effects that people with strokes have, they now can look back and say I had a stroke even though there’s no dot on an MRI that they can point at and say, “That right there.”

Lacunar strokes are really, really small. Picture your arteries as a river, and the blood’s rushing up through the arteries to your brain. You have all these tiny veins, and streams in your brain. When the blood is pounding and pushing with so much pressure that’s causing little bits of damage and little floods here and there and everywhere. I had an array of symptoms. I had cognitive issues for a while. I still struggle with it. I struggle with finding words. I love math, and I couldn’t do math in my head, I couldn’t even add twelve plus twelve after.

But it’s kind of interesting, over all the years I’ve seen things come back. It’s like your brain finds new ways around and the brain is a really, really incredible thing. It’s just life-changing, it really is. Everything that I’ve been through has totally changed who I am. Anything with your brain, especially traumatic brain injuries, do tend to change people. I always say, I think and I hope that it’s changed me for the better. It opened my eyes to other people with chronic illness and disabilities, and just how much people are struggling. Even though they look fine and smiling, I always was like, “I’m fine, I’m fine, like I’m okay.” I always said, “I’m fine,” even if I wasn’t. So it’s helped me see through that for other people, as well.

Definitely. I’m always amazed at how resilient the human body can be, in so many different instances. I do think that part of me wanting to highlight chronic illness is just what you said. That with invisible illness, we'll tell you we're okay when we're not. I saw a video probably a week or two ago, and it was a woman who lived with autoimmune diseases, which I also do. She was going through some of her symptoms and some old pictures of her and she was saying like, “Here was me at the peak of everything, and I was telling everyone I was fine, and no one checked on me, they thought I was good.” She then went on to explain that for people that have invisible illnesses, it’s really easy to blame ourselves and guilt ourselves. We’re like, "Why are we so tired?" Or, "Why are we doing this or not doing this? Why can’t we just do everything that everyone else is doing?" It’s just so hard to make parallels to people who haven’t experienced anything quite like that.