15 min read
A story about chronic illness, trauma, and a conference that changed everything. Photography by Rachel Renee Photographie Co.
I’m freezing. I don’t know why I didn’t think to bring a warmer jacket to the Oregon coast in October. I blame it on my having only ever lived in sunny places – Florida and California. But now I’m on the beach in Florence, Oregon, getting pelted by icy rain because the winds blew back my turquoise umbrella, rendering it useless.
To my left walks Jessica Peña on a sand dune, umbrella-less, wearing a knit maroon hat and an open smile. This is her happy place. She always dreamed of living by the ocean in Florence, and just a few weeks ago she made that dream come true – coming to Florence with nothing but her newly purchased RV and some bravery.
A few hours earlier she emailed me about our potential rainy ocean walk: “I've come to realize I'm freakin’ crazy and most people don't enjoy standing in the cold wet wind to stare at the misty ocean haze – and I know you have warm ocean views at home – so I promise not to be offended if you don't want to join me!”
But this is my first time in Oregon and I’ve never stood on its coast nor walked on the beach in the rain, so I say yes.
There are seagulls everywhere. They don’t mind the rain at all. Jessica tells me about the dead seagull she found on the beach once. An off-leash dog started running toward it and she got worried; but after the dog sniffed, it simply curled up beside the motionless bird.
In the next four hours I spend with Jessica we talk about her new (and thriving) service business, why she decided to move to Florence even though she knows no one here, what it’s like living with Cystic Fibrosis. We also talk a lot about trauma, forgiveness, her 10 miscarriages, and her “fur babies” – the animals she rescued, each one after a miscarriage.
It’s hard enough to survive the ups and downs of running a business. So how do you survive when you also have to deal with the unexpected and undeserved things life can throw at you, like chronic illness and trauma?
Jessica’s mom was sixteen years old when she had Jessica. She knew right away that something wasn’t right – her daughter was sick. But everyone brushed her off, saying that Jessica’s coughing was normal, that her lungs were still growing, that she’d be just fine.
Then, during one hospital visit, a nurse kissed baby Jessica on the head and noticed she tasted salty. “Has she been tested for CF?” the nurse asked. Cystic Fibrosis causes the body to produce more salt, Jessica explains.
Jessica has been living with Cystic Fibrosis her entire life. She tells me how her best friend in high school was 76 years old, and it doesn’t occur to me until I’m in a long taxi ride to the airport, passing mossy scrub trees that look like fairy homes, that Jessica’s Cystic Fibrosis could mean that her own vibrant red hair may never turn gray.
Tomorrow is Jessica’ birthday. She’ll turn 24, and she’s very excited about it. “I know that my disease will likely lead to a slow death. I could suffocate in my own lungs or struggle along for months and years as my organs slowly shut down. Or if I’m a lucky duck I might even live long enough to die of colon cancer…So…that’s terrifying. Except it’s not really.” Jessica’s business (and writing) keep her focused on what really matters to her.
Her business, her online presence, her being a creator, isn’t really about money for her. “I want them to know I was here.”
Before she had her own business, Jessica worked as a healthcare assistant. It was going fine – until she started getting too sick to come into work. She felt so guilty when her health declined – she’d been praised in the past for being so well despite having CF. When things started to get bad, she took it personally.
But then she panicked. It felt too good to be true. She didn't think she deserved it.
She had to make choices that no one should have to make. She chose her health but it resulted in her losing her job.
A week later, everything fell apart. She had to be hospitalized. Her husband got pneumonia. Her apartment changed their policy and she had to get rid of one of her dogs. They received a $10,000 bill for her hospital stay that they couldn’t afford.
That’s when Jessica started her first business; she had to be able to work from home. She read “every blog on the planet” about online business, hired a business coach, and got to work. Within a few months she was making a full-time living working from home as a coach and an author.
But then she panicked. It felt too good to be true. She didn’t think she deserved it.
Her traumatic childhood coupled with growing up poor left her with money issues; making money freaked her out.
Instead of seeing that she was helping people and that her clients were telling her that they were getting more from her than they were paying for, all she could see was the “taking” people’s money part. She knew what it felt like to struggle financially and having other people give her their precious money became too much. She froze and closed her business, even deleting her first email list.
To make ends meet, she started looking for design jobs on Upwork (her first business revealed she had a real talent for Canva and graphic design). Creators like Annie LaCroix, the host of the Brainy Boss podcast, started hiring her to help them with their businesses.
Jessica remembers apologizing to Annie a lot in the beginning, still raw from the shame of her first business shut-down. Annie responded with the same message every time: “You don't need to apologize, you're doing perfect.”
Annie had no idea she would change Jessica’s life with her kindness: “She helped me regain my confidence. She really saw me.” In 2019, Annie invited Jessica to come to our Craft + Commerce conference. She even bought Jessica’s ticket.
“I was so scared,” Jessica remembers. The first half of 2019 had left Jessica reeling from acute trauma that had caused her to become suicidal. “I wanted to die every day. I had plans. It was horrible. It was a really, really bad time.”
Jessica remembers walking into Craft + Commerce feeling like “a raw wound, where the skin is hanging by a thread and everything that brushes up against it stings.”
What she didn’t expect was how the creators she met would became a salve.
“I felt so alone in the world, all by myself. And then, I’m at this place where there’s so much love and connection. And all these people actually doing what I was scared to even believe I could do.”
She was also blown away by how much fun everyone seemed to be having. “I'd never met people who were just creative for the fun of it.”
Most of all, she was mesmerized by the idea that business didn’t have to be cold, sleazy – take, take, take. It was the first time she’d ever been surrounded by people who, like her, cared more about what they could give than what they would get.
“It was the first time I saw up close that money doesn't ruin everything.”
During one of the last sessions of the first day it all started to hit her: the possibility, the unique comfort she was finding amongst creators, and the quiet voice telling her that she belonged here, that she was a creator too.
Her eyes started to water.
Annie saw and patted her shoulder. But Jessica didn’t want to fall apart in the conference session. She kept this mantra going in her head: “Don't cry, don't cry, don't cry, don't cry. I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine.”
She made it. She didn’t cry. The session let out to a coffee break where Jessica started to observe all the friendly creators talking passionately about their work. “Everybody was just glowing.” But those tears she pushed down weren’t going to stay away for much longer. She couldn’t deny her feelings anymore. The very fact that she was feeling anything was enough to make her cry. “I hadn't felt anything for so long.”
She couldn’t hold it in anymore, and she didn’t want to be alone. She looked around for a familiar face and spotted Alexis, our affiliate manager and resident Craft + Commerce emcee. Jessica walked up to Alexis to express her appreciation for the conference, but all she got out was “Can I…” and then she wept in Alexis’ arms.
I ask Jessica why she still has her Craft + Commerce badge displayed prominently in her living area, nestled amongst her most precious paintings, letters, poems, and pictures.
“I had this version of business in my head where everybody who makes money is selfish and stubborn and in a hurry – everything I can't stand. But Craft + Commerce didn't feel like that.”
“I built this business on a community of creators, from a space of generosity.”
For someone who has CF, the concept of hurrying through life is appalling. Jessica savors. I think back to our slow drive to her RV earlier when she told me, laughingly, her response to people who seem annoyed that she drives too slow: “I can’t be hurried.”
She stares at her Craft + Commerce lanyard whenever she feels alone or notices those old money-myths creeping in. The badge reminds her that while she may be alone in Florence right now, she’s connected to creators around the world who care as much as she does about craft, and who pursue commerce from a place of generosity, not greed.
The creators she met – their acceptance, their kindness – changed her.
“For me, being kind is the most important thing, because you don't know what people are going through. I'm the bubbliest person on the planet and I've been raped twice and I've had 10 miscarriages and I've lost people I loved. And you'd never know that by looking at me.
“At Craft + Commerce I realized that all these people making money were not heartless, evil monsters. They had so much love. They were so human. It was the first time l saw up close that money doesn't ruin everything.”
Those creators at the conference were equally impressed by her and her design skills. “They showed me that I was actually really good at graphic design and social media management.”
At one of the pre-conference meetups for web designers, feeling very shy and unworthy, Jessica did not introduce herself as a designer. She remembers when one designer, after seeing Jessica’s work, incredulously asked, “Why didn't you say you were a designer?”
“Because I'm not that good,” Jessica answered.
The designer smiled in recognition and shared her own experience: “I’ve been doing this for 12 years and I still don’t feel like an expert.” She told Jessica how she approaches every new job with a sense of, “I don't know if I'm good enough web designer for this, but I can try.”
This designer, Jessica tells me, is amazing at her craft, and she showed Jessica that you could still try, take steps, even when you’re feeling doubtful, and that no matter how much experience you have, you might never feel like you know it all – and maybe that’s the point.
The more she got to know the creators at the conference the more Jessica realized everyone struggled with self-doubt; no one felt like they had it all together or knew what they were doing all the time. They almost never felt “ready.”
“Wait, that's how everybody feels?” she remembers thinking. It was a revelation.
After the first night of the conference she built a brand-new website and started her second business – Revived Socials.
And because almost everyone exchanges emails with the creators they connect with at the conference, by the end of weekend six people had emailed her asking if they could hire her.
By her second month she had contracts totaling $3,000 a month.
She did that with a tiny email list, too. “I built this business on a community of creators, from a space of generosity. It turns out even strangers will support you and spread your message like wildfire when you show up with your whole heart and a plan to truly serve. The real power isn't in the number of followers you have, it's in the quality of the relationships you have.”
Jessica and I finish the delicious soup she made me and we decide to go to a nearby coffee shop to finish our chat because I am starting to sniffle (I’m, sadly, allergic to dogs and cats).
As I gather my things I take in the cozy RV – fairy lights, a 2018 and 2019 vision board (both featuring pictures of the ocean), fresh pink flowers, three purple potatoes and four red apples on the counter, and a bag of cardamom that she tells me takes the acidity out of coffee.
I also notice a “Create Every Day” sticker on the laptop where she does all her business and her writing; she sees Revived Socials as the day job she’s created for herself to support her writing. Her blog is an inspiration to many and she gets up at 5:30am to write her books.
“The real power isn't in the number of followers you have, it's in the quality of the relationships you have.”
Before we go I ask Jessica one last question: “What advice would you share with creators who are dealing with chronic health issues that might be interfering with their stamina or routine, or who perhaps feel weighed down by trauma but don’t want to lose their big dreams?”
She responds immediately: “It's super easy to say and super hard to do.” She takes a breath, and shares the advice she’s always trying to take herself: “Rest and let it be enough.”
After she takes each dog out one by one on a leash (they are so tiny that they spend most of their time outside beneath the shelter of the RV, staying out of the rain), we head to the coffee shop where, after I order a chai, she orders a “pumpkin chai” and I turn to her and say “Wait a minute – where is that on the menu? I must have missed it.”
“No, you didn’t miss it.” When she first moved to Florence – a longtime dream of hers – it was fall and she wanted pumpkin spice, but not coffee. She asked if they could add pumpkin to her chai, and they said yes.
I change my order to a “pumpkin chai” and stand outside with her in the rain (I leave my umbrella behind this time). I take in the water view behind the café as I sip my pumpkin chai (it’s delicious) and Jessica tells me about how this exact view is what made her decide to move to Florence. It’s lonely sometimes, and she has no idea what will happen next, but she takes all that in as proof that she is alive.
A month after our interview Jessica emails me to tell me some news. She is closing Revived Socials so she can go all in on what she loves most – writing.
“It taught me what it was supposed to,” she writes to me – Revived Socials helped her get to Florence, helped her see what she was capable of. And while the money is still coming in, she’s decided to say thank you and let it go so she can direct all her energy toward the craft compelling her to wake up before the sun.
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