Freelancing With Depression: The Real Story
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Week, I’m sharing my story — the behind-the-scenes life of a full-time freelancer struggling with depression, anxiety, and not losing my shit.
Anyone who knows me pretty well would tell you I’m a happy person.
Anyone who knows me really well knows I’m not.
My narrative is punctuated with depressive episodes and panic attacks, always taking me by surprise but never totally fading away.
A story that hit too close to home
I know the exact date and time my most recent depression started.
While getting dressed one morning in August, after some hesitation, I put on a podcast featuring the recently-deceased Parks & Rec writer Harris Wittels talking about his rehab experience. The podcast was released posthumously, and I knew it wouldn’t be an easy listen.
Something about the HW story brings me to my knees — likely the fact that, like me, he was a nice Jewish kid who loved Phish, writing, and prescription drugs. Our paths only differed when he moved to LA and started doing heroin and I moved to Tel Aviv and started working for startups.
So, here I am, listening to this podcast, and all of a sudden, I get dizzy.
On the podcast, Wittels says he decided to go to rehab for the last time when he realized he didn’t understand why a person would actively care about being alive — but I thought everyone felt that way.
Beyond my dog would be thrown into a shelter and probably euthanized, I couldn’t come up with a reason why I would want to not die.
I had a realization: Something was seriously wrong with my brain.
Something was seriously wrong with me.
Something inside of me collapsed. I couldn’t get up from the couch. I couldn’t finish getting dressed.
From that minute, for the next four months, my life went from ‘pretty okay punctuated with some good and bad’ to ‘a house of horrors that doesn’t have an exit ha ha ha.’
You can’t call in sick with the weepies
In a perfect world, I would have recognized that moment as the beginning of a downward spiral and gotten some help. I would have called my clients, put a hold on my projects, and sought professional care.
At the very least, I would have stayed on my antidepressants.
Instead, I collapsed into myself. Having signed my two first-ever consulting projects earlier that month, I told myself failure wasn’t an option, and maybe staying busy would keep the weepies away.
I made up excuses for my behavior.
I claimed unrequited love for a neighbor who returned my advances with the enthusiasm usually reserved for day-old sushi. I claimed heartbreak and loneliness. I claimed stress. I adopted another dog.
Beyond sad or angry, I felt powerless. I didn’t want to admit to what I was going through and how it was impacting my life. I wanted to enjoy the dream job I had created for myself — or, at the very least, get my work done.
I didn’t want to let anyone down.
I signed another client and quickly began the process of torpedoing my career.
Being depressed is exhausting
Not a high-energy person on my best day, hiding the shitstorm of my life quickly became impossible.
Usually somewhere on the spectrum between private and proud, I jumped off the whole thing. I stopped eating, sleeping, working out, and changing my clothes, instead living on coffee, soymilk, and a heavy air of sadness.
I cried in my bed. I cried at the dog park. I cried at my clients’ offices. I cried in my best friend’s bathroom at his birthday party. I cried on a bench on Tel Aviv’s main street. I cried in fitting rooms and cafes and concerts and anywhere else I might have ended up.
All I expected from myself was to wake up in the morning, and anything else was exceptional.
Work became daunting.
My thought process went like this: If I don’t get focused, I’ll miss my deadline – If I can’t meet this deadline, I’ll get fired – If I get fired, I won’t be able to ask the client to refer me to his friend who’s opening a startup – If I go to the friend on my own, he’ll ask the client about me and the client will tell him how badly I fucked up – If I miss this deadline, I’ll never sign a new client again and I’ll lose my apartment and end up homeless.
When it feels like your life path is entirely dependent upon every project going perfectly, it’s hard to get started with anything – because nothing is good enough. All of a sudden, it’s not just a blog post that I’m writing; it’s whether or not I’ll be able to pay rent for the rest of my life.
The stakes were too high, and my anxiety became crippling.
This behavior didn’t go unnoticed, especially by people paying me to bring creativity and vibrancy to their products.
Hired to make companies better, I became a drain on my clients, forgetting deadlines and making careless mistakes.
Don’t act surprised when I tell you every. single. one. of my clients fired me within two months.
Client A, a branding project, said I was unprofessional and unreachable, and demanded half of her deposit back.
Client B, a branding and copywriting project, said they had run through their marketing budget.
Client C, the in-house project, didn’t even give me a reason. They didn’t have to.
And the worst part is, they were all right.
I was so scared of choking, of underperforming or giving bad advice, that I gave them nothing — instead dedicating myself to the only thing that made me feel better, lying on my bed and staring at the ceiling.
Acknowledging my weaknesses in a real-life way
Some people (most people) are less fragile than me.
They can go to the office and do the work they need to do and then go home and feel okay about themselves.
So how do I make my life work for me?
I’m not waiting for my life to set itself on fire.
One day, I couldn’t take the heaviness anymore, so I decided to leave.
Freshly unemployed with no prospects, I booked a trip to visit my family across the world.
I called it my mini ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. I ate pizza, bagels, Indian food, and falafel (I’m from New York). I slept and I went out and, for the first time in months, I didn’t cross the street when I saw someone I knew.
I felt human again.
Of course, there was still a lot of dark in me. I was terrified to go back to Tel Aviv and collapse. I took steps while in New York to sign clients I loved and to find projects I cared about. I set boundaries for myself.
After the shittiest and darkest months of my life, months that make me cringe with horror and I can’t believe I said that and I can’t believe I made it through that, I’m too tired to be anything but honest with myself and my clients.
I won’t work from an office anymore. It’s remote or bust.
I won’t take clients who demand nights and weekends. After Client A told me, Okay, you can go back to sleep now! after a frantic 1am phone call accusing me of not sending an email campaign that was actually just hanging out in her junk folder, I won’t work with clients who don’t respect my time.
I won’t work with teams I don’t trust. I don’t need any more horror stories like the marketing designer who didn’t know what SEO was, or the product lead who told me, No one really notices typos anyway. Seriously. I’m over it.
I charge more, I work less, and I take time off when I need it. I’m up-front about my struggles and the pace I work at.
I don’t pretend to be a Fiverr machine, and I don’t pretend to be a workaholic.
I’m an early riser, and I probably won’t answer your late-night email until tomorrow morning – when I’m able to answer carefully and conscientiously.
Now the struggle is maintenance.
Every day I have to fight the little fights: the fight to get things done on time without panicking, the fight to say no to unrealistic deadlines, the fight to eat well and exercise and sleep and see friends and do the things that keep me healthy and happy.
My advice to you
Invest in your mental health.
Don’t waste any time pretending a crisis isn’t happening. Don’t convince yourself you need the money or the experience. If this happens to you, get help.
You have plenty of time to get portfolio projects and make bank, and it will be much easier when you’re healthy. Now is not that time.
Find a mental health professional in your area that you can trust. Exercise. Get some sunshine. Get out of your town or city for a few days. Call a friend. Eat something delicious.
Don’t prioritize your career above yourself.
Loads of freelancers struggle with depression. If you need someone to talk to, call 1-800-273-TALK in the US, or visit IASP to find a helpline in your country.
Shayna is the Head of Friendship at The nuSchool, because Community Manager/Biz Dev/Growth Person was a big mouthful. She teaches workshops on community management for tech teams and works with early-stage startups on content and copy. She has two dogs named Chuck and Alma.
Good stuff is on the way.
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