“When I Am Weak” is an interview series by Brianne Nettelfield. She talks with people who are woman-identified about exploring weakness and finding inner strength.
Kendra Coupland is a mother, lover, artist, and award-winning wedding photographer out of Vancouver. She is the five-time recipient of the Wedding Wire Couple’s Choice award and has been recognized internationally through Fearless Photographers and the International Society of Professional Wedding Photographers.
Brianne met Kendra when she was photographing her best friend’s wedding and was delighted when she wanted to be a part of this series.
If you want to catch up with Kendra, she will be speaking at the Canada Photo Convention in 2017.
Brianne: Where are you at in life right now, professionally? What are you most proud of?
Kendra: The thing I am most proud of right now in my life is that I was brave enough to chase my dreams. I always wanted to be a storyteller, even as a little kid, but going into adulthood I didn’t really know what that would mean for me.
My journey to becoming a storyteller has been a bumpy ride. I didn’t know that I would eventually become a photographer when I set out years ago, and I don’t know how my work will evolve seven years from now, but I feel really good about where I am right now.
B: Can you tell me about a moment in your life when you felt weak?
Eight years ago, around this time of year, I was being pulled down off the Granville Street bridge by the Vancouver Police Department for a suicide attempt. I like to call that era of my life “the great collapse.”
To the outside world, I’m sure I appeared to be holding it all together, but at the time I was struggling to deal with the remnants of two sexual assaults; I was struggling to find my sense of identity, to figure out what I wanted to do with my life; I was struggling with huge amounts of grief and hurt, all while trying to go to college full-time for journalism, and working full-time to pay my student debt.
I remember the day I snapped. I walked into the counselor’s office and told her I felt suicidal. She directed me to the hospital. I checked in at triage at Vancouver General Hospital and told them I was feeling suicidal. I waited for four hours for help. When no one came, I quietly left the hospital and made my way to the bridge. I walked up on the bridge deck ready to jump, and in a final plea reached out to God. I had never prayed a day in my life before that moment. I asked if there was any God from any religion out there listening to send help. In that moment, although I didn’t say it aloud, I prayed for connection to others. I wanted my life to feel easy and fun again. I wanted to have a reason to keep going. A moment later my partner, who had been contacted by the police once the hospital realized I was missing, came rollerblading towards me. I panicked, and after a very dramatic pursuit I was taken to the hospital, where I spent the next few months recovering and healing.
B: Do you remember what you were most afraid of during that time?
K: I think the thing I was most afraid of was this underlying feeling that I wouldn’t be able to accomplish whatever it was that I came here to do. I had always felt like I had something I was supposed to do here on earth. I never felt like I was destined to spend a lifetime working a job I hated, pop out a few kids, take a trip to Disneyland every other year, and die happy. I always felt like I had something important to do, but I didn’t know what that was, and I didn’t see much value in the work I was doing.
I guess looking back now I was afraid of owning who I was. I was afraid of being worthless, or worse yet, being rejected by everyone and perceived as worthless if I did own who I was.
B: What did your days look like leading up to the “great collapse”?
K: I was completely overwhelmed. I would get up in the mornings and commute to school, where I spent the majority of my day. On days where I didn’t meet up with tutors to help me through politics and economics classes, I would work a mind-numbing retail job at the local mall until late at night, then go home to study more. I wasn’t eating well, I wasn’t sleeping well. I was irritable and angry all the time, and I often took it out on my partner, which resulted in a rift between us. I struggled to maintain friendships because I was so busy and so I fell into isolation.
My family seemed so proud of me for working so hard that I couldn’t bear to disappoint them by telling them I was struggling. I had really low self-confidence at the time, and not much self-love. Mostly, I remember having this sense that I should be doing something more, something better, and feeling hopeless and overwhelmed, and I think the isolation made it a lot worse.
B: Can you talk more about your time in the hospital—what that was like?
K: After the police brought me back to the hospital, I spent time in solitary confinement, drugged up on sedatives because I couldn’t be trusted—I was a flight risk. It was the darkest time of my life. I held my poo for three days because I was too ashamed to poo on camera with nurses watching me. I was hospitalized for months; I fell into financial ruin. I couldn’t work. I had no disability. I couldn’t keep my phone on. I had to borrow money from my family to make it through. I had to withdraw from school. I had to quit my job. Only two of my friends came to see me, the rest … I pretty much lost at that point. My partner’s family found out I was hospitalized and I felt enormous amounts of shame about it.
I remember thinking to myself, “this is as bad as it gets.” The thing about hitting rock bottom is that the only place you can go from there is up.
B: Where did you look for or find support on your healing journey?
K: Immediately I turned to the public health system for support. In a lot of ways it failed me, but I have come to be a strong believer in fate as well. Although I think I could have received more helpful care, in the process of being hospitalized I met an occupational art therapist who suggested I try beading or painting some clay. Making art was one of the few things I enjoyed—it felt like play. I had a childlike sense about the world when I was creating things or being creative. It became a place of refuge for me. In a world that felt very difficult and ugly, I discovered my own capacity to create something small and beautiful.
After leaving the hospital I struggled to find work that didn’t overwhelm me, but I kept at the art thing. I occupied my time beading, I painted a bit, I picked up my guitar again, and then my partner bought me the cheapest DSLR on the market and I began to go out into the world and take pictures. Bit by bit, my life began to lead me down the path I’m on now.
B: How did you feel when you finally started to moving forward—did you see a light at the end of the tunnel?
K: After I was released from the hospital, when I granted myself permission to indulge in the things that felt good emotionally, my life began to change.
The shift wasn’t immediate, it was a gradual process, and it’s still happening. I think when we are on the right path, we know, because it feels shiny, and fun, and bright, and easy. When we are going in the wrong direction it feels difficult and uncomfortable—it’s signaling to us that we need to make a change.
For me, delving into art was the place where I could heal. At first it felt very indulgent and unnecessary to spend time beading, writing songs, or taking pictures of leaves in the park. I had thought that I was going to be a hard hitting journalist who would work for National Geographic or CNN and be overseas in war-torn countries telling stories about humanity. I did not want to be sitting in an apartment making what I felt were useless crafts. But looking back, it was the beginning of the process of delving into myself. Ultimately, I began to cultivate a voice for how I feel about the world around me.
First I just took pictures of leaves. Then friends asked if I would take a head shot of them, or a portrait of their family. The odd person would ask to buy a landscape I had shot, and eventually someone asked me to shoot their wedding. I enjoyed taking pictures—it felt shiny and bright. It felt fun and playful—I felt like a child when I picked up my camera, so as each opportunity came to me I followed the path. And after many years of photographing many people, seeing their vulnerabilities come to life in front of the camera, seeing human connection unfold in front of me, I realized, HEY! I have something to say about this, I have a voice, and I have worth. I have my reason.
B: What does this experience mean to you now?
K: Now that I have had years to recover and heal, I think in some ways I tell stories that are equally if not more important than the ones I had fantasized I would be telling years ago in my head. They aren’t just about the epic moments in humanity, they are very subtle stories about what it means to be human and to love. They are stories about sisterhood and brotherhood, about motherhood and fatherhood. They are stories about friendship, and coming together to share the joy that love brings.
I think if I had not been forced into a situation where I had to be extremely vulnerable and depend on others for both emotional and financial support while I healed, I wouldn’t be able to see those relationships in the same light. I wouldn’t know the depth of subtle love the way I do.
In so many ways it’s very easy to say that wedding photography work is worthless, that it doesn’t carry any weight, that it is frivolous and unnecessary. But for me I think it’s some of the most important work, because in a time where people are constantly trying to prove how important and special they are on social media, someone needs to speak up and say, “but this daily, subtle love, which is sometimes perceived as monotonous, is hugely important too.”
B: What reminds you of your moment of weakness now?
K: Every once in a while I get really bogged down with work, particularly towards the end of the summer after I have been documenting a lot of weddings. Sometimes I’ll be working twelve- to sixteen-hour days, six to seven days a week. I will skip meals, or order takeout. I go to bed late because it’s easier to work at night when my kid is asleep, but I have to be up early to take her to school, so my sleep begins to suffer. I feel so pressed for time that I end up asking my family to help out with my daughter—which leads to guilt about being a bad mom, and feeling bad about choosing my career over my family. Isolation also becomes an issue, because in those busy periods I’ll often be home alone editing in the basement all day, and I don’t get a chance to go outside or see friends.
I have to make a conscious choice to set time aside for those things, but when I’m trying to meet deadlines it can feel next to impossible. The next thing I know, unhelpful thoughts begin to seep in and overwhelm me. Thoughts like, “You’re a bad mom,” or “Why can’t you just keep yourself organized? You suck,” or “No wonder you’re fat, all you eat is crap-food,” and self-care becomes harder. When I’m isolated, there are no friends there to remind me that I’m doing the best I can with what I have.
B: So I think now is a good time to talk about coping strategies. What strategies have you brought forward to help you stay well?
K: Definitely faith in something.
When I look back, what feels the most remarkable is that, in that moment of desperation on the bridge, I reached out and connected with something, because every prayer I put out in that moment has been answered. That has propelled me into a path of spirituality. I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know if it was God, Jesus, or Krishna, or Buddha who answered my prayer. Looking back though, my life has felt too perfectly aligned to simply be free will.
From my assaulter, to the bridge, to my partner coming around the corner on rollerblades at the moment I needed him, to meeting the occupational art therapist who forced me to make art when I least felt like it, to the gift of the camera, to the business I have established, it’s almost as if each time I prayed for something the very atoms around me heard my prayers and conspired to manifest them in my life.
I met people along the way who supported my vision, my photography, my life work. Clients came along who were yoga instructors, or meditators, or other artists who inspired me—each impelling me on this path to connect with this thing which felt bigger than all of us.
So, I have come to discover faith. I’m still not sure exactly what it is that I have faith in, but it gives me strength when things feel out of control. I trust that although I don’t understand all the reasons for my suffering now, when I look back I will understand them better. I believe my own suffering allows me to empathize with others, to understand others more fully, and it makes it easier to endure.
Through this path I’ve also been introduced to meditation: it’s given me a centre point of serenity I can now return to within myself when everything feels chaotic. I think having strength in myself, faith in myself, and serenity in myself allows me to endure almost anything.
B: What advice do you have for others living through their moments of weakness?
K: My advice is that instead of trying to constantly move forward, pause and look back to see how far you’ve come. Yes, you may be stuck in some cyclical pattern that is unproductive, but at least you’re aware of it. Awareness is the first step in change. Even though the process feels slow, you are moving forward. When you feel stuck, move towards what intuitively feels good, no matter how frivolous and indulgent it feels. I’m not talking about “being bad and splitting a crème brulee with your homegirls” kind of indulgent. I’m talking about moving towards that thing that feels bright and shiny that you keep telling yourself isn’t possible.
I don’t know how many times I’ve told myself I’m not a “real artist,” but here I am, making art, making a living at it, sharing my voice. It’s possible, even if it feels far off. Be open to how that comes to you, because it rarely comes to us in the way we expect it to.
Stop clinging to the things that are not working. I was so stuck on this idea that I would be a journalist, that I would be a wife, that I would be financially independent, that I would be a good student, that I wouldn’t be a victim of my assaults, and I kept up appearances at the cost of my own mental health.
It’s okay to take time out for self-care. It’s okay to take time out to figure out what you’re doing. It’s okay to take time out to let go of the things which are not working, and to find the things that feel bright and shiny again if you’ve lost them. I had to take my time out in the hospital. There is no shame in that. We don’t have to forge ahead without direction, carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders. We can take time, get to know ourselves, follow our intuition, move towards what feels right, and I think if we do that, slowly, surely, with gratitude in our hearts, we discover that we are in control, and that the world is unfolding all around us in a more beautiful way than we could have dreamed.