Uncovering Incredible: My Journey through Lifelong Anxiety
by John Mollura
That is not how you are supposed to feel when you’re receiving a Department of Defense letter of commendation for work on a radar system to protect the United States from a nuclear attack. For much of my life I felt like an imposter and I was not worthy of ANY of praise, accolades, and especially, love. It didn’t matter that I was a highly respected test engineer for NASA missions and military projects across the world. I was a literal rocket scientist, but, I never felt that I measured up or was good enough.
A crowning professional achievement of mine was representing our company on a trip to Antarctica. I spent much of the trip with a nagging fear: What if I disappoint everyone back home following my adventure? What if I ruin this? What if I do something stupid and let everyone down? During the trip, I distracted myself from my intense anxiety by documenting the adventure through photography.
I always loved photography. The images of far flung places throughout our world captivated me as I looked through the National Geographic magazines on my grandparents’ coffee table. Behind the iconic yellow-bordered magazine covers, a world far beyond my small corner in Western Pennsylvania came to life. I lost myself in images and tales of exploration and the pursuit of truth.
I received my first camera when I was about seven years old. From that point forward, a camera accompanied me to many amazing locations across the world during fifteen year career as an engineer. However, I felt it impractical to be a photographer and thought that there was no way to make “good money” at it.
I have loved the arts and creating since I can remember; it’s always been by my side. But another companion that’s always been with me is my anxiety. I believed that my slightest misstep from perfection would result in the immediate and irrevocable loss of love and respect from every single person around me. I created a facade of perfection. I held onto every moment and situation tightly by the throat and attempted to control everything.
To prove to everyone (really to myself) that I was lovable, I became a people pleaser and a “fixer.” I thought that if I would just work a little harder, make people a little happier, then maybe I would be deserving of love. Conversely, I defended my veneer of perfection with my sharp wit and an even sharper tongue. I now realize that I did this to shift the attention away from my faults.
I was showing up in the world as a fictitious character—my true self was buried deep. As my career skyrocketed (sometimes literally), it took more and more effort to keep up the façade. However, two events within months of each other were the skeleton key that unleashed some of the most frightening and persistent dragons of anxiety that lurked in mind.
The first of these events was the arrival of our first child. I had a panic attack the first time I was alone with my six-week-old daughter. My wife had just run out to the grocery store; it was the first time she had left the home alone since the birth of our daughter. I was laying on our family room floor relaxing with her when she started to cry and would not take a bottle.
I couldn’t do anything to help her.
I felt panic set in.
My panic would manifest itself in the pit of my stomach, like “butterflies” that happen when going over a hill in car, but much, much more intense. “Tickle-belly-road” butterflies are fun because although you’re scared, you know you aren’t really in danger; you giggle with enjoyment at the surprise and the sensation.
My butterflies were the opposite. I tried not to let the fear in my stomach choke the breath out of me. I did not feel safe. I was truly terrified I might disappoint others. I alternated between holding my daughter and trying to console her and having to put her down in her crib until my wife came home and was able to feed her.
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I could not “fix” a situation. My superhuman status (in my mind) was derailed by the smallest of humans who came home wearing premature baby clothes.
This reinforced a long-held belief of mine: I was bound to disappoint those who loved me.
Then, less than a month before my daughter’s first birthday I received a call that shook me to my core: one of my best childhood friends, Nathan, was found dead.
When I got the call about Nathan’s untimely death, reality faded away. I couldn’t collect my thoughts for months after Nathan’s passing. I had actively pushed God away during my adult life, but I eventually resorted to the “last refuge of a scoundrel”: prayer.
I recalled ‘The Serenity Prayer’, which I had probably seen on a coffee mug and likely then scoffed at the absurdity of faith:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”
I immediately felt a warm sensation come over me from my head to my toes. I thought, “either I’ve just lost my mind or maybe God is real.” I was at my weakest emotional state and close to broken. In hindsight, this vulnerable state was what allowed God to enter my heart and break through the high-walls I had built around myself.
That day in 2009 is when I chose to stop existing like I had for decades.
I chose to begin healing.
Over time, I became kinder, more patient to others and slowly extended that grace and empathy to myself.
As I was starting to become comfortable with myself for the first time in decades, things rapidly declined at the company where I had spent fifteen years building a solid engineering career. I felt in my heart there was something more for me and that this phase of my life had served me well, it was time to end that chapter and begin a new one. After much discussion and prayer, my wife and I decided that it was time for me to pursue my side business of photography full time.
People’s expressions would always light up when they saw my landscape photographs. It made me feel quite special when people would say to me, “how did you see that?” I knew there was something there so I continued to follow that thread in other types of photography: to showcase what is usually considered mundane and commonplace in a creative way.
It was a slow transition, but as my confidence increased, I began enjoying photographing people. The light that people exude when seeing one of my fine art prints is a dim glow compared to their radiant expressions when they see a photograph I’ve taken of them.
I continued to follow the thread of photographing the ordinary and creating the extraordinary, only now I apply it to capturing the beauty inside of people, whether they see it or not. That is why my tag line for my photography business is “Uncovering Incredible” because that is what I do—I believe there is something special and unique and wonderful inside of everyone and it is my privilege to show it to the world.
I have had recovering alcoholics who have struggled with their maintaining a healthy weight send me messages saying that knowing we had a photoshoot scheduled together gave them the drive to continue toward their weight loss goals and maintain a healthy lifestyle. I have had single moms see their portrait and say, “you made me beautiful! I never thought I would ever feel beautiful again in my life.”
I have developed more empathy and I am kinder and more understanding. I can stand-up for myself in a positive way so that I don’t feel taken advantage of and become resentful. I can more readily see opportunities to be a light, when I used to see only darkness. Relationships that are healthy for me have flourished, while I have been able to peacefully walk away from relationships that were not serving my growth.
Has my internal critic that tells me that I am a fraud disappeared? No. But now I use it as motivation to get creative and solve the problem in front of me.
I believe that there is something incredible in you; please join me in believing in yourself.