The Self-Discipline of the Impoverished Freelancer

The ability to keep going is key

Photo by Lucas Myers on Unsplash

When did you last take time off?

The best thing about remote work is also the worst. Because we are no longer location-dependent and can work from almost anywhere as long as there’s wifi, we tend to.

Even on an overnight flight between Seattle and Frankfurt on no sleep for days at the end of December, I found it impossible to switch off. Because flight wifi was so affordable, I also had very little incentive to. Instead of catching up on sleep so I’d be at my best when hugging my father again for the first time in over five years, I thumbed out an essay on my iPhone between bouts of stargazing. And only because I didn’t want to disturb a sleeping passenger by retrieving my laptop from the overhead compartment.

Compressed into an economy seat on a two-hour flight between Lisbon and Paris last night, I was hunched over my laptop in mild panic mode. At the moment, the bulk of my meagre income is based on the audience engagement model.

My chances of a semi-decent paycheck increase the harder I work and the more visibility I gain.

To do that, I ideally need to publish a lot and feed the algorithm but doing so without compromising on quality is impossible.

This is as icky as it is problematic. As a journalist, I’m not overly fond of the sound of my own voice. Instead, I’m used to lending it to others and bringing their story to light, not mine — my role is that of a narrator. Little did I expect to end up narrating my own life but major depressive disorder and the complete collapse of my career left me little choice.

After losing five years to depression, I’ve amassed a surplus of material on the many ways it can annihilate a person, a marriage, a life. So I set out to try and humanize an illness often mistaken for a lifestyle choice, an attitude problem, malingering, or all three in my case.

Because it remains difficult for people to believe what they cannot see.

Similarly, the perceived glamour of my profession — whether as staff or freelancer — has little to do with reality.

While I did get to abscond to Portugal for a few days, it was a fact finding trip to assess the country’s suitability as an EU base for 2019 so work came along. Not a single day did I remain away from the laptop and I even forced myself to work through a bout of illness that required very close proximity to a bathroom.

As long as I can be vertical or perpendicular, there is no excuse not to think out loud on the internet and produce copy.

Because I’m lucky to be possessed by vocation to the point of obsessiveness, this is also the most natural thing in the world as I enjoy what I do.

But it’s far from pleasant for the people around me, especially people going through an ongoing crisis like my parents are.

To ensure I am available to spend quality time with them as my stepmom undergoes further treatment for Stage IV cancer, I often work overnight. There’s currently no other way for me to survive in Europe, at least until I get more steady work and a base. For now, although I’m often behind a laptop at the dining room table, I am present, not just a voice at the other end of a phone line half-way across the world. And this presence is worth more than money, which is why I haven’t sought temp assignments that would take me out of the house for eight plus hours a day.

For all the love I have for Portugal, the Portuguese, and their language, picking Lisbon as a base is also very much a decision made around my parents. The idea is for them to have somewhere close by to escape to whenever they get a little medical respite, even if it’s only for a long weekend. What’s more, it has to be a place where navigating potential emergencies is easy and health care is good.

So good that I’ll also be able to avail myself of it the minute I’m back in the system, even as a freelancer. To say I’ve never more looked forward to paying taxes is an understatement. America kept me sick despite my having insurance because I could never afford the co-pays required for heavy therapy work but I trust Europe will help because health care is a basic human right here.

As a dual French-American citizen, I’m free to live and work in any of the 28 EU member states.

Because my stepmom is dying, I’m going to do all I can to make sure my parents have as good a life as possible while there’s still time.

Hence my planning to ship out to Lisbon.

And yet, mobility requires means.

It’s not enough to declare yourself a freelancer, pick a place, up sticks, and go. Especially not when you’ve got a five-year crater on your résumé like I do and your household back in the US still routinely struggles to pay bills and buy groceries.

This, in short, is the reason why I need to engage editorial beast mode despite the limitations inherent to my illness. Coffee, music, editorial side projects in French and Portuguese is how I tend to circumvent them and keep motivated, courtesy of vocation. Lately, I’ve had to write my way out of depressive funks so dark the only coping mechanism I found was to dive deep into Portuguese. And focus so hard everything else disappears for a couple of hours as I try and wrap my thoughts around a different sentence structure.

What’s more, I also need to reactivate old contacts, send out résumés, and go knock on doors to get more work and somewhere to live. So there’s a lot to do on top of what I’m already doing. The magnitude of the task at hand makes my head spin when I look at it head on but it’s far less daunting as a series of distinct steps. So I’m tackling them one by one, as quickly as I can. That’s the other thing with Stage IV cancer: Live now or run out of time.

You can’t hesitate, second-guess yourself, or break your stride. No sick days, no days off unless there’s extra work already done and ready to go, no endless rewrites, no slacking, and most definitely no feeling sorry for yourself.

I’m actually lucky: Mental illness revived my writing career against all odds, gave me a new lease of life, and brought me back to Europe even though I wish it were in happier circumstances. And I’ve finally reconnected with a language that breathes so much life into me even my broken, self-destructive brain didn’t manage to erase it despite it lying dormant for seven years.

In this context, my only issue is that there aren’t always enough hours in the day to do everything and rest as much as I need to. Because when you’re in a precarious financial situation without the luxury of sick days, vacation, or a guaranteed income every month, time is the only tangible currency there is.

As a result, many freelancers work harder than employees would ever think possible because we need to find a way — or ways — to make life happen, somehow.

Be that one word at a time.