A Web Designer's Journey with Mental Illness - Self-Made Web Designer

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A Web Designer’s Journey with Mental Illness

Chris Misterek

A lot of what I talk about here has to do with practical advice on web design and freelancing.

But after having talked to so many of you, I’m realizing that being a successful web designer has to do with much more than facts and knowledge. 

In a lot of ways if we don’t include our experience as human beings, our struggles, our doubts, our failures, and recovery then we’re only getting a very small portion of the story.

It’s my belief that anyone can be an amazing web designer. It’s not about some God-given talent or genetic code. But it is about sticking with it. 

And nothing can knock us off of a path to being a successful web designer more than our own personal struggles. 

So let’s get real for a second, ok?

I was diagnosed with OCD almost 10 years ago.

Honestly, the diagnosis was a relief. 

For years I had been quietly struggling, wondering if I was crazy or doomed for a life of mental torture. 

If you’re not familiar with OCD then let me explain a bit.

What is OCD?

OCD stands for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

Many people associate someone with OCD to quirks like having to lock a door 5 times before leaving it alone OR having to make sure that everything on a bookshelf is equally symmetrical.

And, while that can be a part of it, it’s not the full story.

Ever had a thought that came out of left field that was disturbing but completely uncharacteristic of who you are as a person?

Truthfully, we all do. These thoughts are called “intrusive thoughts.”

Someone who is mentally healthy is able to dismiss them fairly quickly and get on with their day. You might feel a little weird about having them but in the grand scheme of things, it’s easy to move on.

Someone with OCD DOES NOT have an easy time moving on.

In fact, it can be downright torturous.

An OCD Analogy

I often explain it like this.

Imagine an unwanted visitor comes to your home and pounds on your door a few times. You ignore the intrusion and they go away after a few minutes.

That’s a healthy person’s brain.

Now, imagine the unwanted visitor doesn’t just pound a few times. They pound all day, every day, non-stop.

That’s the brain of someone with OCD.

You don’t let the person in. But, you do everything you can to try to ignore them. Even weird illogical solutions like taking a shower for 5 hours. Or jumping over certain cracks on a sidewalk.

It’s not just for fun. It’s out of obligation. You feel like you have to or the thoughts might get in or maybe something bad will happen.

And, sometimes you don’t have any quirks. There are two parts to OCD: the obsessive part and the compulsive part.

The obsessive part is the intrusive thoughts.

The compulsive part is needing to do something to try and control those thoughts.

Someone diagnosed with OCD will have a different mixture of those two components. I have very little if any of the compulsive part.

You would know that if you saw how messy I leave my car 😂

But, I have plenty of the obsessive side of things.

That’s why when I found out just what I was struggling with I was so relieved. I had pretty much given up on the idea that I wouldn’t struggle with these intrusive thoughts my whole life.

But, then I met someone who had a similar experience. And, she found a psychiatrist that was able to help her through medicine and therapy.

I’ve since done the same and the difference is night and day.

The thoughts that kept pounding on the door all day still happen, but they are MUCH easier to manage.

OCD & Web Design

How does this all relate to web design?

I don’t know anyone that hasn’t gone through a decent amount of struggle. It’s a part of all of our stories.

If you haven’t struggled yet in life, just wait it’s coming… 😂

But, you have an option with your struggle.

Will you let it keep you from moving forward in life OR will you use it as a springboard?

I wouldn’t be who I am today as a web designer if it hadn’t been for the struggles I’ve faced.

I’ve talked about how I started learning web design when my wife left me out of a need to make more money for my kids.

So, quite literally, my struggle is why you’re even reading this blog.

I was coming back from a conference with my boss just the other day and we were talking about how in life there is NO GROWTH without STRUGGLE.

OCD has been a part of my struggle.

But, here’s the thing, I actually believe it’s given me an advantage that other people might not realize.

And, I believe the same thing is true for the struggles you face.

You can’t look at your struggles as the things holding you back from what you’re trying to accomplish. You have to look at them as what gives you an edge over everyone else.

Why? Because no one has struggled with the same things you have. No one has the perspective you have.

There is no one in the world that can serve web design clients as you can.

So, don’t believe the lie that you’re disqualified from being a successful web designer because of the struggles you’ve faced whether it’s family issues, financial issues, learning issues OR whatever.

I’m glad my journey has been less than perfect. Because my biggest hope with this blog to show you that if I can do it you can too!

So, here are a few things I’d like to say to encourage you with your own personal struggles as it relates to being a successful web designer.

1. Your Struggle is Your Secret Sauce

You read that right.

Your struggles are not the things that keep you from being a successful web designer. They are actually what propel you toward success as a web designer.

It all depends on how you look at it.

For instance, I could look at my struggle with OCD as one huge distraction.

And, honestly, there are times that I can barely concentrate on anything other than trying not to think about the intrusive thoughts that are plaguing me at the moment.

But, on the other hand, by having to learn how to focus my thoughts in a way that most other people haven’t, I know how to stay focused when I have to.

When my mind gets stuck on web design I’m a force to be reckoned with. I can go and go and go without taking a break.

Really when my mind gets stuck on anything I’m able to stay focused on that thing for as long as I want.

It’s weird. Almost like a superpower.

It’s taken a lot of effort to learn how to work with it. But, the effort I’ve spent learning how to control my thoughts has become something that has helped me as a web designer.

The same can be true for anyone with a struggle.

Don’t look at your struggle as your handicap.

See it as a gift that gives you an ability to see things and do things in a way that is completely unique to you.

2. Your Struggle Makes You More Empathetic

A really good UX/web designer is someone who knows how to be very empathetic.

(In case you don’t know what I mean by UX designer, I’ve written about it here)

Empathy is the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective. As a UX/web designer that is ALL I try to do.

When I’m able to understand how someone might be thinking when they visit a website or use an app I can tailor things specifically to make sure their experience is exactly as it should be for them.

Nothing gives you the ability to have empathy more than going through incredibly difficult seasons.

I remember when I was at the height of my battle with OCD. It was my sophomore year in college.

I remember walking on campus thinking how on the outside I looked like a normal student but on the inside, I was fighting a battle that I could barely take.

That thought made me question how many other people around me were going through something similar.

How many people on the outside looked perfect and put together but on the inside were struggling just as I was.

I vowed to try to understand as best I could where people were coming from.

I wouldn’t have been motivated to do that for other people as much as I did if it weren’t for how much I wished someone had done that for me.

It was in the struggle that I reached a level of empathy that I wouldn’t have had I not been through it.

Now, I’m able to take the empathy that I’ve developed from my struggle when I design a website or build an app.

3. Your Struggle is Your Task

I’d like to say I don’t struggle with OCD anymore.

But, that wouldn’t be the full story.

It’s something I have to consistently work on both with medication and mental effort.

One of the best things I’ve found outside of medication is something called cognitive behavioral therapy. The concept is pretty simple.

You work to become aware of your thoughts. Acknowledge the incorrect ones and work to replace those incorrect thoughts with truth.

So for someone with OCD who’s afraid that they’re incapable of washing germs off of their hands:

They’d become aware of those thoughts. Acknowledge that those thoughts aren’t completely accurate. Then they’d replace those thoughts with truth like how our bodies are developed over time to fight germs.

If I’m not careful I can let my thoughts get away from me.

Also, I’m not awesome at always remembering to take my meds 🤦🏼‍♂️

There are a few things I’ve found that can really help me when OCD keeps me from being the best web designer I can be.

  • Taking breaks
    • Sometimes taking a few moments and just thinking about something completely unrelated to web design is all I need to do.
  • A Good Community
    • There are times when I have to have someone who knows my struggle and supports me through it. They remind me of the truth when I can’t remind myself.

      My wife is my superhero. She’s able to refocus and remind me of what I know to be true when it seems impossible to think through the cloud of my mental illness.
  • Routine
    • Sometimes when I can’t seem to control my own thoughts just having a routine that I default to keeps me going.

      I don’t have to think about what’s next it’s already in my schedule.

      I’ve talked about how I schedule my day here.

      Having things like exercise and fun moments in my routine help me, too. All things that are good for pretty much everyone.

      But, with a mental illness, it’s extra important that I stick to it.

If you struggle with something similar my encouragement would be to find things that help you cope.

It will likely be different for everyone. But these can be a good starting point.

Like it or not unless a miracle happens you’ll have to learn to manage your struggle like a task.

And, while that sucks, it’s also just a part of life. And, at the end of the day, it’s what makes you…well, YOU.

Wrapping Up

Maybe this post was TMI.

But, maybe, someone is out there struggling.

You’re trying to improve your life by learning web design but you find yourself hitting bumps in the road again and again.

My encouragement to you: keep going.

One day you’ll look back and see your struggles as your platform. But, it takes persistence and not giving up.

You’ve got this.

So, what struggles have you had that have turned out to give you a winning edge?

Share and let other people be inspired by your story.

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