Depression doesn’t usually announce itself. For me, it sort of fades in. I’ll look around and notice that the dishes haven’t been done, and that my clothes are scattered in disheveled heaps in my room, and I’ll feel that familiar psychic heaviness on my body when I wake up in the morning. At some point I’ll realize, right, I’m depressed.
When I worked a nine to five office job, these depressive spells were cause for concern, but not panic. Sure, I wasn’t at 100%, and it could be difficult to roll myself out of bed. But the option to go through the motions was there. I figured out how to flop myself on the proverbial conveyor belt and let it carry me through my bad days. I could also rest assured that, even if I wasn’t performing to the best of my abilities, I still made money.
But when the media company I worked for suddenly caved in, I found myself freelance writing to help make ends meet. I quickly realized that, with freelancing, an unproductive day isn’t merely unsatisfying. It’s a prompt for an existential crisis.
For starters, freelancing requires a lot more than just writing well. There are multiple separate processes that a freelancer must be acquainted with, and they all involve different parts of the brain. I think. Maybe. I’m not sure. I’m not a brain scientist.
There’s the pitching, which requires contextual knowledge of what’s going on in the news. There’s the writing, which includes a lot of self-flagellation. There’s the scheduling, which involves the self-discipline to set your own schedule and hours. And then there’s the business element, the networking and the invoicing and the follow-up emails when you inevitably go unpaid for weeks or perhaps months on end.
Most freelancers are great at one, decent at some, and bad at a few of these aspects. For me, I like the writing part and my social anxiety makes me shit at pretty much the rest. But the point is, you’ve got to be organized. You’ve got to be on it. We’re talking more than one spreadsheet here. Scary stuff.
But when I’m depressed, everything starts to slump into disarray. The concept of doing things becomes daunting, and the email inbox becomes a mental tangle of multiple unfinished tasks of different stripes. There are invoices to submit, reminders to send, and things to write, and depression zaps the will to do any of those things.
And despite popular depictions of the brilliant, depressed writer, depression actually makes my writing really bad. Depression can make me forget how words work altogether. When I’m depressed, sometimes I just stare at a blank Word document, amazed that, at some point in my past, I knew how to string words together to form sentences at all.
You need sentences, by the way, if you want to make an essay or an article. Unless you’re up to something really avant-garde.
Freelance writing affords a lot of freedom. But with that freedom comes a lack of structure. For me, when I’m depressed, when that conveyor belt isn’t there, it feels like being lost at sea. The days run together, as weekends aren’t really a thing, and the solitude certainly doesn’t help.
Most prominent, though, is the guilt. When I find it difficult to get out of bed, when I have an unproductive day, all I can think about is how it will negatively impact my finances, and it makes me frustrated with myself.
On days when I’m not on it because of my mental illness, it feels like opportunities are rushing right by me. And who knows which one of those opportunities could have been the one? What if I missed the gig that could have led to something great because I was depressed?
When I worked my nine to five, I had a concrete timeframe for work and for personal time. But with freelancing, every minute of every day is a minute I could be making money. Depression takes all my time and fills it with YouTube videos and a whole lot of nothing, which in turn inspires intense feelings of guilt.
Luckily, I’ve been fortunate to work with some incredible editors. Many of whom, I imagine, have been in my shoes before. One of the things that has helped me to survive is having a community of writers and editors who understand my situation.
Beyond freelancing and beyond the media industry, we live in a country that does not take mental health as seriously as it should. Having a mental illness still carries a lot of stigma, and it can make you more likely to get fired and less likely to get a job in the first place.
We also live in a country where workers are being underpaid whether they’re working for a company or working in the gig economy.
Both of these issues will need to be tackled before conditions truly improve. But in the meantime, as perilous as it might be to be depressed while trying to make it as a freelancer, I do my best to remind myself that my mental illness is not something to feel guilty about or beat myself up over. It is a condition that I have to manage. Much like my inbox.
John Paul Brammer is a writer, speaker, and activist based in New York City. His work has been published in The Guardian, Slate, BuzzFeed, NBC, and many other outlets. His work blends the deeply personal with the political. Samples of his writing, including essays, memoirs, and features can be found on his website. Follow him on Twitter @jpbrammer