Freelancing and Depression


#1

G’Day, fellow Free Agents.

My name’s Tim, and I’ve been flying solo for the last eight years, working as a freelance writer and photographer here in Melbourne, Australia. It’s a top-notch town to be running your own hustle in, with a vibrant creative community (and the best food scene in the world).

I wanted to share some of my experiences around an issue that’s probably a little painful for some: work and depression. It’s been brought up a couple of times on the podcast, and given how common it is, I’ve absolutely no doubt that many of you have had your own struggle with the black dog.

I’ve suffered from depression since I was a teenager. Sometimes it’d last a day, sometimes it’d be for weeks at a time. Sometimes I could grin and get on with my life; other times I’d spend the day in bed dying. Over the years I came up with ways to manage this depression: at first, drinking vast quantities; and more recently, not drinking at all. I married the most brilliant person I’ve ever met. I ran, I meditated, I saw friends, I called my family, I talked about my feelings. I made long lists of ways to sort my head out. And I made a career doing the things I love.

But despite all my efforts to solve the problem of myself, I got worse. A few months ago, I realised that I couldn’t remember the last time I felt happy. I couldn’t even recall the feeling of pleasure. The thought of the future only invoked a vague sense of sickness. I was isolating myself from the only people who supported me, drifting further into isolation without really meaning to.

Without the energy to get through a whole day, my work was suffering. And everything - everything - was exhausting. I’d get up in the morning and feel like I’d never slept. I’d go back to bed and stay there. I’d constantly blow out deadlines. I’d make grand plans for a project or a story (which were usually a great idea) but never have the energy to execute them. And most damagingly, I hated actually doing my work - even though I’d managed to create exactly the career I’d always wanted.

Interestingly, this constant lethargy, and my inability to ever be truly productive, is what brought me to productivity in the first place. In order to just do the bare minimum, I’d begin trying to hyper-schedule myself, set up new task-management apps to keep on track, track the time I spent on work and non-work in order to eke out marginal gains in efficiency. But none of the productivity hacks were productive. The problem was that I couldn’t move forward, because depression had put the handbrake on every element of my life.

Thankfully, my wife helped call me out. Whatever I was doing to ‘manage’ my depression wasn’t working. So I went to see my doctor.

This is pretty close to the best decision I’ve ever made. First, he prescribed some medication. Second, he sent me to a talk therapist. Now, I’ve read ‘Lost Connections’, and I follow the research. I know that anti-depressants have a pretty patchy record when it comes to long-term solutions. And I’m still a sceptic about their mass prescription.

But, talking purely for myself, the change has been radical. Getting some more serotonin coursing around my bloodstream has changed my life. It’s not as simple as feeling ‘happy’ - it’s better. Once I started taking SSRIs, it became clear to me that ‘depression’ is as physical as it is emotional - that all of my senses, my energy, my concentration had been dulled and eroded by this illness. Within weeks, I was waking up early - and waking up refreshed. Now, I can concentrate on a long and difficult task - and enjoy it.

Work is going great, and I’m totally driven to improving. I’m not bragging when I say my photography or writing has never been better - it’s just that up until now, I’ve never been able to devote all my energy to it. Every day, I feel more capable of being genuinely present, of showing up for the actual stuff that makes up life.

For the last few months, I’ve been working /on/ my business in a way that just wasn’t possible beforehand. All the productivity jazz I love to read I’m able to deploy and actually improve rather than just get by. The concepts of Deep Work, of Growth Mindsets, and of Working the System are now more than just concepts - they’re techniques that I put to use.

And, the other side of being a free agent is the ‘free’ part. In the time I’m not working, for the first time I’m genuinely able to relax and feel restored. Every day, I’m surprised by a new emotion, a feeling that isn’t just void and sadness. And most importantly, the distance between my wife and I, between my friends and I, between my family, has closed. In short: life is goddamn good.

Now, I’m not a fan of the personal triumph story, and I’m not an evangelist. But since beginning on the path to sorting out my depression, it’s been kinda shocking that even though it’s in the news all the time, people still don’t talk about it. Very close mates, family members have revealed to me that they too are sufferers, but we’ve never spoken about it. So I resolved that I’m going to be totally open about what’s going on with me and that I’m not going to be ashamed of it. Anyway, why would I? It’s been great!

One of the most important realisations I’ve had since confronting my depression was how far-reaching its impact really is. I knew I didn’t feel happy. But I didn’t know that feeling exhausted all the time, of not being able to focus, of not being able to plan for the future were all symptoms.

What I’m trying to say is that if you’ve got these feelings, it’s possible you don’t know how big of an impact it’s having not just on your personal but your professional life. If you’ve noticed that your energy is consistently low; if you find it impossible to concentrate; if you’re unable to really enjoy your work; if you’re irrationally angry at clients or colleagues; if you can’t relax even when you’re ‘relaxing’; if your thoughts are constantly looping on the same subjects in a damaging way - if you’re sad, numb or empty all the time - there’s help.

It’s possible to see your mental health as a challenge you need to (and can) rise to. The solutions to that problem are various and manifold. Researching the issue and coming up with an answer is achievable. But there are experts who see this all the time - the most important of this is your doctor. Their calling in life is to help sort out just these kind of problems. And importantly - it’s not your fault you feel this way. No one would want to feel like that. There’s no shame in it. So it’s okay to reach out for help - because unfortunately you can’t think your way out of it.

But once you begin to address the problem of depression, that handbrake on your life comes off. And where you go from there is, for the first time, completely up to you.

Thanks for taking the time,

Tim


#2

Thank you for sharing your personal journey with depression. This is so beneficial to so many of us.


#3

Thanks for sharing this. I hope you don’t mind if I share some of my own story to amplify my “Yes! This! I agree!”

My Dad (who was born in 1935) struggled with alcoholism for almost his entire life. It was only in the final ~10 years or so that he stopped drinking, went to therapy, and got on medication… something that would have been inconceivable for most men of his generation when he were younger.

It was great to have those years with him, but I can’t help being a little sad (for him and for us) that it took so long for it to happen. He missed so many years and so many days and so many moments.

I first went to therapy when I was in high school, and then didn’t go for another 10+ years. The second time I went for a solid couple of years. After I had done as much as I could with behavioral / “lifestyle” changes, I finally went on medication — which was difficult. I had to fight with the insurance company to cover the medication that actually worked (but didn’t have a cheap generic version) after months and months and months of trying ones that didn’t. Those months sucked, and at times I just wanted to give up. But I didn’t.

I’ve been on medication for at least 10 years at this point, and it has helped immensely. I remember when I finally found something that worked and I realized how long I had been fighting my own brain. I thought to myself “Wow! Is this what ‘normal’ people feel like all the time? This almost feels like cheating!”

(Of course none of the people we think of as ‘normal’ probably are, but that’s another story for another day.)

When I hit 40, my “regular” doctor prescribed cholesterol medication. Why? Because I seem to have a genetic disposition for high cholesterol. Just like I most likely have a genetic disposition for depression/anxiety. But there’s no stigma attached to taking cholesterol medication. No one would ever think of saying “Come on, just cheer up and try not to have high cholesterol!” like some people seem to say to people who struggle with depression / anxiety.

Admitting you need help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Please don’t cheat yourself (and your loved ones, but especially yourself) out of a better life due to stubbornness. It’s worth the struggle and time and effort to find something that helps. That may be medication. It may be therapy. It may be some combination of both. Pretend depression / anxiety / whatever you struggle with to be like cholesterol, or high blood pressure, or any of the other things we can now treat that once we couldn’t.


#4

Thank you for sharing this. I’m glad seeking professional help has been beneficial for you - a lot of people seem to have an idea that it won’t do anything, that their problem isn’t big enough, etc. - which is wrong.

Good luck with your free agency, you’ll keep doing great!


#5

I too have had problems with depression but I got help and am happy again now. Whatever works for you, just know things will get better and treatment may be the answer.
The more we are open and talk about mental well-being, the better. Do not suffer alone. Talk to someone.


#6

Tim…you are AMAZING.


#7

Tim,

Bravo for the open-ness and for taking steps to get help. Neither are easy, and both take courage.

I lived for many years in your sister city (Melbourne, Florida), and took it upon myself to get up and go visit family in your wonderful city (they lived in Hurtsbridge, I believe). Truly a lovely place all around (and the people too)…

Good on you mate! - Mike


#8

Thank you so much for your post today. It meant a huge amount to me. I’ve come back to it multiple times since I first saw it.

My background: I’ve suffered from bipolar disorder since I was a young child (a family joke was that no one was ever happier, and no one sadder), and until my early 40s, without medication or treatment. At 42 I had a severe depressive episode triggered by a death that lasted just over 18 months before it began to lift. I had written a letter to myself in the depth of that depression promising to go to seek medical care as soon as I was able, and so when I could I did. That began a more than two-year process of finding medications that worked but allowed me to continue my research and writing. At the same time, I did weekly talk therapy to try and come to terms with the diagnosis and how to live with this illness.

I can say without reservation the past 8 years since I began treatment have been the best times of my life personally and professionally, and for my family too. The balancing of medication and therapy will probably go on the rest of my life. But that life is good most of the time – I feel so fortunate. I also believe I couldn’t survive another long depression.

All of this is a long way to say, I’m glad you got treatment, I’m glad it’s working, and I’m glad you wrote this. :slight_smile:


#9

Amen and well said. As someone who has literally written a book on depression, I can attest to everything you’ve said. There are a lot of us out there, and we’re right with you!

Todd Peperkorn


#10

@tjluoma thanks so much for your insightful response, and for sharing your experiences – and your Dad’s.

I completely understand what you’re talking about when you say that it still makes you a little sad that your father didn’t seek help before he did – from both your perspective and from his. I too have family members, as I’m sure many of us do, for whom facing up to depression is simply too confronting. But the result is years of avoidable suffering. I look back on my 20s now and wonder what I could have done with that decade (and more) if I hadn’t been trying to wrestle my brain to the ground.

Being a work-focused podcast and forum, I can’t reiterate that point enough: the quest for productivity is futile if your body and mind won’t come with you.

And yeah, the feeling of cheating somehow is fantastic, isn’t it? But that’s the tragedy in itself: the ingrained sense that life should somehow be difficult, that we’re made to suffer, and if we are it’s essentially our fault.

The comparison you make with cholesterol medication is spot-on. I’ve got my own opinions about the religio-military-industrial complex that have generated said stigma that categorises mental illness as moral illness, but the wash up is that it’s not helpful for anyone.

And, not to wade into politics, but here in Australia we have what we consider a deeply flawed medical system (and a similarly right-wing government), but we still receive free doctors visits, trivially inexpensive medication, and access to 10 free talk therapy sessions per year. That Americans should be left out in the cold the way they are is just incredibly confounding for an Australian - it doesn’t make any sense. You had to fight your insurance company for medication? Does not compute.

Both you and I have put a lot of emphasis on medication and therapy in our discussion, but for anyone who’s reading I just want to make clear that this might not be the right combo for you. I’ve been incredibly lucky that my body’s response to psychopharmaceuticals has been so effective. That could easily not have been the case. But I think the real, lasting and radical change in my life began when I just accepted that this really was a problem, that I couldn’t manage it on my own, and I looked to the people closest to me for help. They got me where I needed to go. And again, life is goddamn great!

Really admire your honesty and openness - in beginning to talk about this issue over the last couple of months, one of the really unexpected outcomes is to meet people like you, @tjluoma. There really is a community of incredible people out there, people who were once strangers, who’ll put their hand up and help you. What an extraordinary thing that is. Keep crushing it mate, and look forward to speaking with you again soon.

I just want to give immense props to this:

Admitting you need help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Please don’t cheat yourself (and your loved ones, but especially yourself) out of a better life due to stubbornness. It’s worth the struggle and time and effort to find something that helps. That may be medication. It may be therapy. It may be some combination of both. Pretend depression / anxiety / whatever you struggle with to be like cholesterol, or high blood pressure, or any of the other things we can now treat that once we couldn’t.

If anyone take nothing else away from this conversation, take away this.


#11

Really appreciate your support @RosemaryOrchard, and thank you for your message. You’re absolutely right about both those notions - before asking for help, I had so many ideas about what ‘treatment’ meant and all of them were wrong. They were just ideas, and rubbish ones at that.

Anyway, don’t spend any more time reading my posts: you go figure out how to make me a level 12 witch on my computator. While you’re writing a thesis, at that. Keep absolutely smashing it, you legend.

t


#12

I’ve just been told by the forum robot to stop making individual posts as replies. Bad form on my part – humble apologies, Robot Overlords.

@stephen, beautifully said. I’m stoked to hear you’ve found the help you need, and your take-away from the experience is exactly right. If I took one thing from my own struggle, it was that it was completely unnecessary - the help was there. And obviously it’s here, on forums like this one, too. Thanks mate.

@RichardG - no YOU are! :whale:

@CoachMike thank you, and lovely to meet you. Openness has been something that’s become increasingly important to me - partly because closedness is pointless, and partly because it’s actively damaging. So I figured I’ll just do the opposite of what I was doing before, and that seems to be working…

I think often about Melbourne, Florida, that there’s this mirror city in the Steamy South. I will have to visit someday (and Hurstbridge, too!)

@anneperez suffering bipolar that long is a heavy, heavy cross to bear. I can only begin to imagine how difficult that must have been for you. And, it’s truly impressive that you came through it. You have my admiration. I totally know what you mean about the prospect of always exerting some effort to keep the illness in balance – that’s just reality. And, from my perspective, that’s fine: it’s much, much better than the alternative. I’m so glad to hear you’re writing and researching to the best of your ability (what is it about this career that attracts people like us?) The idea that you need to have some suffering in order to write well is such utter idiocy: the truth is it’s the exact opposite. When you’re clear, free and can think your own thoughts - that’s when you can really write. Kudos to you, my friend.

@Toddpeperkorn thank you! I’ll join you in that Amen, and agree that there are a lot (too many) of us out there. Great flatcap, by the way…


#13

For anyone who wants to speak about their own experiences but doesn’t feel comfortable in the forum, please email me.

tim@timothygrey.com.au

I mightn’t get back to you instantly, but I will get back to you. I’m not a professional in any sense of the word. But I’d be honoured to speak with you and offer what little help I can.


#14

I’ve had my own experience with days in bed, lethargy, feeling near death, not feeling like going to work or school, etc. I was treated for depression for many years. Eventually I learned that I have a dairy allergy. Now this isn’t being gassy after eating cheese, but an actual allergy. If I eat dairy (even lactic acid from dairy), It usually costs me two days of flu-like symptoms. Essentially the symptoms I described above. This has been going on for years without my making the connection. Looking back, I see things like my vacation to Italy in 2006 that started great, but after a few days I didn’t feel like leaving the hotel. Most recently, I was at a conference in San Diego last week and accidentally ate a half-piece of buttered toast, I was able to push myself some, but still spent about a day in bed.

I have other challenges such as anxiety, but I highly recommend that if you have these inexplicably awful days with no apparent rhyme or reason that you consider being tested for allergies. You could also try an elimination diet.

Best wishes to anyone struggling. Be good to yourself.


#15

Dude, thanks for sharing your story. I’m glad you’ve found help and are here geeking out with us on the MPU forums! :slight_smile: Like you said, nothing to be ashamed of for seeking/asking for help. Talking about it openly will hopefully break whatever stigma remains.


#16

There is a lot of good information and an excellent insight in this thread. About 10 years ago I went through a really rough patch. It was a factor that led to my divorce. It ended up being a catalyst in making some major life changes.

In may of 2009 my physician prescribed some anti-depressants for me. I refused the medicine. Which in retrospect wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done. Part of my reasoning was the self perceived stigma that I thought I would feel.

The divorce was the best thing that happened to me. The cycle of issues that kept occurring went away. The whole union should have never happened, it was 8 years of going through that hell. I went through a traumatic event that was hard to shake, it was a line of duty death that I worked.

Once the ex moved out and I “lawyered up” and started that process of divorce, my life made a huge turn to the better. I had an opportunity to transfer duty stations. I was closer to my home town and family. Met a great lady and tried this marriage thing again, much to my chagrin. I am in a good place thanks to the changes.

A lot of my life lessons where learned the hard way. Do not be afraid of medication, it is a great tool. Professional help is also a good thing.


#17

Hi Tim, thanks for sharing that personal insight.

I’m never sure what to think about the whole depression topic.

I’ve known some people with serious issues who have battled through them and come out in a better place. I’ve also known some people whose “depression” seemed to be a convenient tool following some serious misdeeds.

I’m grateful that it hasn’t ever been a serious issue for me personally, but I can also see the risk in people failing to seek the appropriate professional help. Hopefully, your story will motivate others to do the same.

As another Melbourne Australia resident, please get in touch if I can ever be of assistance.

Regards, Laurie


#18

I really appreciate everyone being so open and honest in this thread. I struggled with depression on and off for the last few years and It’s been difficult. I’ve had a hard time personally talking about my problems and opening up to other people. Partly out of fear of judgement and partly out of this feeling that I have no reason to be feeling that way and that I’m just over reacting… Hearing others talk about their experiences with similar issues is very validating. It can be so hard to just feel such self hatred while being just numb and unmotivated…Particularly when so much of what I do and want to do requires me to be a “self starter”.

I have been feeling better overall lately but I still find myself dipping into periods of depression… sometimes for just a couple days, sometimes for weeks at a time. I’ve never really seen a therapist about it… or been put on on medication or anything frankly I’ve always had this fear that what I’m feeling isn’t bad enough and that the therapist would judge me for not being able to deal with it on my own. I know that’s kind of ridiculous but yeah…

Anyways. long story short thank you for sharing your story.