What a Panic Attack, a Sheep and the Open Road Taught Me About Creativity

One designer's #VanLife

I have always chased dreams. My desire to create and seek brought me, an unknown designer from Belgium, to Los Angeles. Suddenly, the world expanded. Under the West Coast sun, I realized the place I feel most fulfilled is the open road, where I found true inspiration.

It was one thing to know this, but quite another to figure out how the realization integrated with my life and work. So I simply moved forward with my life in L.A., working with high-end clients and studios. From 2017-19, my career developed in all the right ways, but everything changed one morning. It started out as just another day. I was in a meeting, and suddenly, anxiety consumed me. I have always been a sensitive artist, but that day, my thoughts ballooned into a full-blown panic attack.

In an open conversation with the company's founder, I asked, "Would it be possible to work from home until I sort myself out?" Then I did just that. Mind you, this was before Covid, and I was one of the first people working from home full-time. After two months in the States, I went to Europe and worked across time zones. I felt a deep desire for freedom. I wanted to free myself from society, financial systems and the government—the man, man.

So, I built a van with a friend. There's a solar power system, an artist studio and just about everything I need to live and work. Less was more. Once coronavirus changed the world, though, I was stuck in my van and hanging out in a field of cows. After months of quarantine, in late 2020, the van life was fully in motion. My American clients expressed support, and everyone jumped on board to offer as many freelancing opportunities as I had in L.A. I remain thankful to these wonderful people.

My dog and I drove from mountains to deserts. As I dove into fresh waters and hiked across the land, I cherished my office on wheels. There were beautifully surreal moments, like creating billboard designs for Times Square, for a major brand, with my van door open to the quiet and sunshine. It was a good time. Still, I wondered, what was I seeking? What was my original anxiety attack trying to tell me? Something was amiss. It was the purpose I lacked, which I discovered in the South of Spain.

On a morning hike, I walked along a lake drying up. The mud was dangerous, a few steps too close to the lake, and you would sink. My heroic dog spotted her first, a freezing sheep that had wandered away from the shepherd's herd. She was stuck in the mud up to her neck after a night in the cold water.

I laid down branches and pieces of driftwood beside her, so I would not sink in the mud. For two hours, I tried to pull her out of the mud. I didn't even get her front paws out. I was left exhausted and in tears.

After gathering my emotions, I called my father. He gave the golden advice to go into the mud. Eventually, I would land on hard soil and be able to pull the sheep out from below. My father was right, and the sheep was saved.

The sheep unlocked a purpose in my heart. I had freedom, but I needed purpose. Finally, I found it. My purpose is to help animals. Now, I work to fulfill the dream of one day buying property and building a sanctuary for older, mistreated or abandoned animals.

Because of the sheep, so much became clear about myself, even my anxiety attack. The day I wanted to run brought me to that sheep—a symbol of clarity. I had built a new home for myself, but why? Answers in the form of questions hit me as I carried the sheep to safety.

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How can I create art that reflects that world if I don't see and experience it for myself? Where would I find such pure, tangible inspiration if I was stuck in an office all day? As an artist, I love to daydream, but finally, I was experiencing dreams in reality.

I experienced these wonders because I listened to my anxiety, which I interpret as more of a teacher than a hindrance. I didn't try to wrestle or quiet my anxiety during this journey. In simply listening to the questions racing through my mind, I returned to a pure form of creativity and found a full life and career. What once scared me, ultimately, freed me.

Now, I get to be like a child again and run free in the forest, swim in rivers and create art. In nature, I am free, and as a result, my work is liberated. I experience the vast colors of life, and the pieces fall into place. My art flows naturally. I see these life experiences reflected in my work every day. The richer our lives, the richer our work.

I swim in an endless sea of opportunities and inspiration surrounds me. If it wasn't for my anxiety attack, the van, the sheep, and everything I've experienced on the road, I wouldn't have grown, and my art would've stalled. A new me was born. He's not just chasing dreams but living them. Care to join me?

Profile picture for user Jean-Michel Verbeeck
Jean-Michel Verbeeck
Jean-Michel Verbeeck is a senior designer at Brand New School.

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