Am I Depressed or Am I Just a Freelancer?
Nada Alic / WNW Member
When I started freelancing, everything about it was novel to me. I delighted in the idea that I could sleep in as late as I wanted to, go out on a weeknight, and live out my childhood dream of being a free woman with a car! Credit cards! Dreams! Etc. I indulged all of these pleasures for the first few weeks, feeling as though I had somehow gamed the system of life and wondering why my freelance peers complained all the time about how sad they were, and how difficult it sometimes was to get out of bed.
But over time, the weekday brunch stopped being exotic and started being ‘eggs at a later time’ and my unstructured time dissolved any trace of what was once my sacred guilt-free personal time into a nonstop mental state of ‘I could be working and I also could not be working.’ I started feeling inexplicably sad and anxious. I wasn’t too worried, I was familiar with these states. I’ve felt long stretches of depression before, and a constant low level anxiety throughout my life, but this bore a different weight to me. I felt awful and nervous and worried for no reason. But when I thought about going back to my old life, the commute, the office, the oppressive lighting and excruciating small talk—that felt worse, impossible even. I was determined to establish myself as a freelancer and either try to find a way to stop being sad all the time or find a way to manage it like so many of my chronically bummed-out freelance friends.
A New Approach
I began by asking my freelance friends how they managed to cope with the strange territory of working alone and being their own boss. Many of them offered their terrible advice from working at night and waking up at noon and hoping for the best to waking up at something called “5am??” and doing something called “running??” at a place called “outside??” It sounded awful. I went to a psychiatrist, I tried acupuncture, I watched YouTube videos on how to manifest success into your life through a combination of herbs and spells. Subconsciously, I knew why I felt the way I did but I wasn’t ready to admit it to myself, but then I came across a book called Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari and something clicked. I read it in a day, furiously underlining quotes and texting my fellow depressos about this amazing, life-affirming book I just found.
I don’t read self-help books and I mostly find them too reductive to effectively convey the nuances of mental health, but this book felt different: as I read it, I couldn’t help but think about the way many of us architect our freelance lives and how these lifestyles make us more vulnerable to depression and anxiety than other people. So the TL;DR is that depression and anxiety have biological, social, and environmental causes. Historically, our focus has been biological, treating the so-called ‘chemical imbalance’ in the brain through antidepressants while neglecting to account for the enormous role that social and environmental factors play in our mental health. This is largely due to the pharmaceutical industry, yada yada yada, I’m not a doctor but read the book if you want to get into that. He also explores therapies such as CBT, psychedelics, sympathetic joy meditation, and universal basic income. But I was drawn to the more obvious societal dysfunction, which provides us with artificial surrogates that can only mimic our more basic human needs, like CONNECTION."
Does this sound like you?
For the purposes of my fellow freelancer who spends a big chunk of their life alone, either working from home or at coffee shops or coworking spaces, tending to their independent projects, staying largely indoors, doing random projects for less than desirable clients just to pay the bills, feeling increasingly insecure about their future and their capacity to get more work, I’ve pulled a few excerpts from the book that might help explain why treating yourself like a human trash heap might be contributing to your overall mental wellness. Understanding these factors helped me feel less shitty about my predicament and more in control, because I could improve upon all of them. First I had to come to terms with the fact that I was not, as I’d once hoped, a disembodied brain who could subsist on little to no earthly stimuli and would function just fine without human contact or the natural world.
Disconnection from Other People
When I went freelance, I went from managing an in-house team and working with a broader network of freelancers to working at my kitchen table alone and not speaking to another human person for hours at a time. I always craved alone time when I was at work, but what I really craved was balance. Isolating myself was an extreme response to that, but I thought it was necessary to get the work done. Turns out that being lonely can kill you: the risk of fatal disease (cancer, heart problems, respiratory problems) is 2-3 times more likely in lonely people than people with healthy social connections. A study done on the physical effects of loneliness found “Feeling lonely, it turned out, caused your cortisol levels to absolutely soar, as much as some of the most disturbing things that could ever happen to you. Becoming acutely lonely, the experiment found, was as stressful as experiencing a physical attack.”
But hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution has made social cooperation vital for our wellbeing. “Evolution fashioned us not only to feel good when connected but to feel secure...the vitally important corollary is that evolution shaped us not only to feel bad in isolation, but to feel insecure.” He goes on to explain, “Several studies have shown that loneliness precedes depression, it’s not just a symptom of it but a cause. This is because throughout history, our survival has been dependent on social-cooperation.”
Now, “we do things together less than any other human who came before us” because social cooperation is dissolving in favor of efficiency and automation. I could theoretically never leave the house, Postmates my meals, and shoot the shit with my Alexa. But the problem is that “loneliness begets more loneliness,” and “lonely people are scanning for threats because they unconsciously know that nobody is looking out for them, so no one will help them if they’re hurt.” So the more isolated I become, the weirder I get, the less anyone will actually want to hangout with me.
What about my internet friends?
If the majority of your connections come from social networks, it’s not enough: “the difference between being online and being physically among people...is a bit like the difference between pornography and sex: it addresses a basic itch but it’s never satisfying.” Your brain doesn’t register it as a connection because you’re physically separated by a screen. When Hari went to visit an internet addiction rehab, he noted that, “The web arrived offering them a kind of parody of what they were losing.” To date, there has been no adequate surrogate for physically being with other people, as he poignantly points out, “we have become the first humans to ever dismantle our tribes. As a result, we have been left alone on a savanna we do not understand, puzzled by our own sadness.”
How to do this as a freelancer: connect with other people IRL. Join meetups, accountability groups, book clubs, set up coffee dates with other freelancers. Even the simple act of small talk with your barista or the person behind you in line can energize you and remind you that you are not an island.
Disconnection from Meaningful Work
The whole reason you went freelance was to pursue work on your own terms. If you get to do that and you feel 100% satisfied, autonomous, and creatively fulfilled, excellent! Good for you. For many of us, (actually, according to a Gallup poll, 87% of us) our work might be dictated more by whatever work we can reliably get. Sometimes it’s cool and rewarding, most times it’s probably soul-crushing but necessary for you to survive until you can get better and more consistent clients and work. But if you remain in that realm for too long, it can impact your psyche significantly. “Disempowerment is at the source of poor physical, mental and emotional health.” You have to carve out some sense of purpose in your work and if your current workload isn’t fulfilling that, then you need to change course, for your mental health. If you slog through work feeling disengaged and uninspired, it’ll show in your work, and you’ll start to want to check out of other parts of your life. If you find yourself asking “what’s the point?”, it’s time to reevaluate your work.
How to do this as a freelancer: Remember why you got into freelance in the first place; you wanted autonomy and freedom. Are you spending most of your time doing something you don’t enjoy? Start seeking out other projects or start a side project for yourself that is fulfilling. You believe in yourself enough to have gotten this far. Don’t sell yourself short on the type of the work you deserve.
Disconnection from Respect and Status
When I started freelancing, I understood it to be a trade-off: I knew I’d be getting paid far less, and far less consistently, but in exchange I would have a more precious currency: time. This was after a decade of not having any time, so the tradeoff seemed easy. I knew in a sense I was starting over. But why does it have to be a tradeoff? Because we live in a society of vast inequality and a hierarchical scaffolding built upon wealth and, I don’t know, Instagram followers, “when you have a society with huge gaps in income and status...it creates the sense that, ‘some people seem supremely important, and others seem of no importance at all.’ This doesn’t affect only people at the bottom. In a highly unequal society, everyone has to think about their status a lot.”
By disconnecting from my perceived ‘status’ I become more vulnerable to the effects of our societal hierarchy: “the psychologist Paul Gilbert started to make the case that depression is, for humans, in part a ‘submission response’ ...No, no more. Please, leave me alone. You don’t have to fight me. I’m no threat to you.” Freelancers, given their allegiance to no one company, are often perceived as the lowest on the food chain and whether or not we believe that ourselves, it can impact us. “Depression is, in part, a response to the sense of humiliation the modern world inflicts on us.” If we don’t feel respected, we can begin to internalize that over time. “What you really need are connections, but what you are told you need, in our culture, is stuff, and a superior status, and in the gap between those two signals: from yourself and from society; depression and anxiety will grow as your real needs go unmet.”
How to do this as a freelancer: avoid triggers like Instagram to get yourself out of the comparison loop, remember how lucky you are to get to set your own path, change course, and evolve (all on your own terms!), refuse to work with anyone who treats you as less than, and work on projects you feel proud of. Surround yourself with people who support you and make you feel good and worthy. I know this sounds hokey, but a daily meditation practice really helped me get out of a reactive state and gave me clarity on who I am and what I want.
Disconnection from the Natural World
The natural habitat for most freelancers is an apartment-sized cave or nook. The only time we leave is to get coffee only to immediately crawl back into our holes. Living in Los Angeles is a double-edged sword in that I always have access to the outdoors, but because of that I take it for granted and rarely go outside. The sun feels oppressive, as if it is threatening me to be more happy. The book describes how captive Bonobos are depressed because they are confined to these small spaces; I too felt a certain melancholy in my tiny apartment and even tinier Prius. In the book, he speaks with primatologist Isabel Behncke who explains, “We’ve been animals that move for a lot longer than we have been animals that talk and convey concepts... let’s fix physiology first. Get out. Move.”
There’s a ton of research that shows the benefits of just being outside, yet like a wilting houseplant, I refuse to allow myself as some sort of punishment for not working hard enough. Going outside can sometimes feel like a slippery slope to a day of carefree enjoyment as if one moment I’m in my backyard and another I’m hiking the Angeles crest. But going outside actually helps productivity: “They got people who lived in cities to walk in nature, and then tested their mood and concentration. Everyone, predictably, felt better and was able to concentrate more - but the effect was dramatically bigger for people who had been depressed. Their improvement was 5 times greater than the improvement of other people.”
How to do this as a freelancer: literally, go outside. Even standing in the sun for 5 minutes is enough but moving your body in nature is even better. By removing yourself from your screen it will allow your brain to problem solve in new ways. Throw away any notion that going outside is wasting time; it’s actually making you more alert, clear-headed, and less crazy.
Disconnection from a Hopeful and Secure Future
The final and most poignant point seems to speak directly to freelancers, by illuminating how the modern world has become “a shifting mass of chronically insecure people who don’t know whether they’ll have any work next week and may never have a stable job.” Hello, hi, me! And this style of working is becoming more common as traditional full-time jobs dissolve and fragment. “Many middle class people are working from task to task, without any contract or security. We give it a fancy name: we call it being ‘self employed’ or the ‘gig economy’ as if we’re all Kanye playing the Madison Square Garden. For most of us, a stable sense of the future is dissolving, and we are told to see it as a form of liberation.”
If we find ourselves just barely making it week to week, over time this will affect our ability to see the bigger picture and grow. “People in poverty were more likely to be depressed, but the data showed it was too crude to say that poverty caused depression. No, something more subtle was happening. People in poverty were more likely to become depressed because on average they faced more long term stress and because more negative life events happened to them and because they had fewer stabilizers. Which leads to a ‘generalization of hopelessness.’” If we continue to be stuck at level one, we will not be able to envision a future for ourselves. Hopelessness, in essence, is depression.
How to do this as a freelancer: This is a loaded one but you can start by investing in your financial security! Don’t let yourself live in constant fear and anxiety over how to pay your bills each month. My personal advice would be to do whatever you can to get out of debt and get a buffer of 6 months of savings before you go full-time freelance. If you’re already freelance and feel like you’re drowning, take up a part-time job to pay the bills until you can sustain your creative work full-time again.
Towards a More Hopeful Future
If all of this sounds bleak to you, it’s not! We’ve become attached to the old models of thinking where depression = bad and therefore must be smothered by immediate joy, ignored, or solved through some psychotic Tim Ferriss-esque life hack. But actually, depression and anxiety are messages you need to pay attention to because they are telling you that something isn’t right, Hari explains: “they are telling us something has gone wrong with the way we live. We need to stop trying to muffle or silence or pathologize that pain. Instead, we need to listen to it and honor it. It is only when we listen to our pain that we can follow it back to its source—and only there, when we can see its true causes, can we begin to overcome it.”
As for me, I took the book’s advice and radically changed the way I was living: I got an office space with an illustrator friend of mine so now we get to talk and interact while working on our own projects and the structure and social element of that has been a total game changer for me. I also started meditating everyday (I use Sam Harris’ Waking Up app), and have been running outside 3-4 times a week, even though it’s cold and wet out and I only listen to a Drake-themed playlist I made three years ago. I no longer feel so down, but I also know that mental health is an ongoing commitment, which means I have to show up for myself everyday.
If you feel like you’re more prone to bouts of depression and anxiety, those are very real (often heritable) mental illnesses, not a character flaw or something separate from you that will just go away if you ignore it long enough. I encourage you to go to therapy, pursue medication if that’s a route you want to explore; but don’t forget the myriad ways your environment and lifestyle directly impact your mental state and could take you from a normal level of feeling blue to a prolonged depressive state. There is so much you can control and as a freelancer, a lot of that is up to you.
Nada Alic is a Los Angeles-based editor, writer and content strategist with 9 years of professional experience. Currently, she's working on a collection of fiction. Previously, Nada was the Editorial Director for e-comm arts platform Society6. Before that, she was agency-side, managing editorial for Gap Inc. properties. She also built Etsy's first Canadian HQ, and has had work featured in VICE, Nasty Gal, Ephemera Mag, Time Out LA, Cool Hunting, and People of Print.
Artwork by Grace Miceli