PatientsLikeMe members often talk about how they’re more than their diagnosis. They’re patients, but they’re also people, with complex lives, families, hobbies and careers.
Today, we’re kicking off a series of blogs about that last one — working with a chronic condition. We’ll be featuring some enterprising members who have started (or are working on) launching their own businesses, and learning more about how they manage their health and their career goals at the same time.
First up is Ellen (edayan), a member of the bipolar community who designs clothes for curvy women and runs an online dress shop called Tiger Lily. When we caught up with her, she shared about her passion for designing, how living with a mental illness affects her creative process, and her inspiring message to women:
“I want women to feel good about who they are right now so they don’t miss out on living a full life … Life is too short for feeling you’re not good enough.”
Tell us a little about yourself. How did you first get into designing clothes?
I first started sewing clothes for my daughter when she was a baby. She became quite the tomboy and I couldn’t even bribe her to wear the little dresses I designed for her, so I started selling them. I was so happy making clothes for children that I started my own children’s clothing and costume design business, but it was really more like a hobby than a career. The most popular thing I made was a retro boiled wool coat. Each one was different.
Tiger Lily’s message is “Love yourself — Now.” Can you talk a little about this and how you’re trying to inspire women through your clothes?
I gained a lot of weight on psychiatric medications for my bipolar disorder, which I’ve not been able to lose. I was so embarrassed and ashamed that I started hiding out at home. I didn’t want anyone I knew to see me. I didn’t appreciate the fact that I was still beautiful — just different. The world doesn’t treat you nicely if you have a mental illness or if you are not thin. I had two strikes against me, I thought, so I hid. During that time, I lost out on all kinds of important relationships and opportunities. Waiting until you can get yourself skinny isn’t a good reason to lock yourself away. I want women to feel good about who they are right now so they don’t miss out on living a full life. My message is to embrace your body, mind and spirit just the way you are. Life is too short for feeling you’re not good enough.
What’s your creative process like? What are some of your favorite pieces you’ve designed?
I actually like to sketch new designs when I am feeling a bit depressed. The depression slows me down and makes me more careful and practical. So, in a way, depression can be used to my benefit when it’s not too severe. After the depression cycle clears, I go back to the design and infuse it with colors and textures and some fun. Here is a sketch I made of a skirt and top that I constructed with some changes from the original idea. This ensemble will show on the runway in Phoenix Fashion Week in a couple of days! I’m really proud of it. Here are some of my original designs…
What has been the most challenging part of launching your own business, and what’s the most important thing you’ve learned along the way?
The most challenging part of starting my business is keeping the faith even when things don’t happen the way I’d like. I encourage myself to keep going and not get too frustrated with setbacks. Depression can be paralyzing at times. Usually, I can keep working through it, but sometimes I have to cross everything off my list for a couple of days until I’m well enough to function again. Having an online business is great because it’s flexible and I can “crash” when I need to and not lose customers!
The most important thing I’ve learned is to be authentic in everything I do. I don’t pretend to know everything about fashion, life or anything else. I am just me. But that is enough, and my customers want to connect with a real person. I guess the next most important thing is that I have a wonderful family and friends who are there waiting to help. I just have to ask.
You’ve said that designing clothes has been “such a big part of my recovery.” How has your art helped you manage your condition?
Designing and making clothing is fun, but it’s also challenging. It often distracts me from thinking about myself and the fact that I feel really, really bad inside a lot of the time. When I create something beautiful I get such a big thrill. It makes me happy for days. All of me goes into these designs — not just my happiness and imagination, but also my sorrows and tears.
When I get better at designing, I think my personality will become even more evident and people will see who I am in the colors and lines of my work. What I spend my time doing has always felt like the biggest part of my identity. Right now, I am a designer. I am not a mentally ill person, or a patient or a social services case number. I am a woman with talent and skills, and I am using these strengths to be successful. I accept that I experience severe emotional pain — it’s a fact of my life. I do everything I can to minimize that, but being creative isn’t just therapy or a way to “manage my condition.” Designing is a serious business for me — I am banking on it.
What are your future plans for Tiger Lily? Any career goals beyond this?
In the future, I would like more of the inventory in my shop to be my own work. I am especially interested in making one-of-a-kind items. So, I am planning to do more designing and less wholesale buying as time goes forward. I would like to open a brick-and-mortar store someday. I guess I’m trying to prove to myself that I can achieve success with this before investing in rent and utilities and store furniture, etc. I would like to continue donating to organizations that create new opportunities for people in recovery from mental illness and a host of other challenges. I’d like to create a fashion show of my own next year, and to keep developing new design skills.
But honestly, my goals are to grow a more courageous heart, to use my imagination in ways that light up the world, and to go as far as I can with what I’ve been given. I want to do all of these things despite the fact that I have a mental illness.
Do you have any advice for others with chronic illnesses who want to start their own businesses?
Yes! Aim high. Don’t allow your fears to drown you. Set up all the safety nets you’ll need, but don’t think small because you have limits. You may discover that working hard on a project you believe in gives you energy, improves your mood, and helps you grow. If people tell you that your illness is the reason you can’t accomplish anything, find new people. Keep learning as much as you can and never, ever give up.
Share this post on Twitter and help spread the word.