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,