Freelancing With a Chronic Illness

Freelancing can be tough for anyone — dealing with the peaks and troughs in workload, for example, and not having that dependable source of income that comes with employment. With a chronic illness such as CFS/ME, Lyme or Fibromyalgia, freelancing becomes even more challenging. I want to take a few moments of your time to discuss the impact of chronic illness, and some strategies to help.

The impact of chronic illness

If you’re not familiar with what it’s like to live with a chronic illness then you might struggle to understand the impact it can have. Before I began to experience the symptoms of fibromyalgia, I just didn’t get it. Of course I didn’t. You have to live it out to fully understand it. But perhaps I can give you a glimpse into my world.

Life with fibromyalgia

When I’m well, I can write thousands of words a day. When I’m not being blighted by symptoms, I can blast through my to-do list with ease. I rock my freelancing, and I love it. Unfortunately, those days are few and far between. Most days are depressingly very different to those productive days.

Every morning when I wake up, I immediately know what kind of day it’s going to be. There are several giveaways. One is the exhaustion. When I wake up feeling utterly exhausted and barely able to open my eyes, I know. Immediately, I can tell that it’s going to be one of those days. Similarly, there’s the pain. Until fibromyalgia took up residence in my body I thought I had a pretty high paid tolerance. Turns out, I was wrong. Or maybe it’s just that the pain wears you down, day after day, until it’s taken over.

The pain is the worst part, at least for me. I’ve heard my fibromyalgia pain described as ‘aches and pains’ (by my friends, no less!) and that label makes me want to scream in frustration. It’s not aches and pains. It’s excruciating pain in every muscle, joint and bone in your body — for absolutely no reason! The pain is worse than when I broke my wrist rock climbing (in the days before fibromyalgia). It’s worse than giving birth. No, I’m not exaggerating. I’m serious. I’m maxed out on co-codamol, naproxen and pregabalin pretty much every day, just to be able to function at a sub-optimal level.

On the worst days, I can barely get out of bed. My dogs have learned to play by themselves on those days, and they instinctively know not to jump on me. Better days are the ones when I can, at least, manage to sit upright on the sofa with my laptop on an over-bed table. I can’t use my laptop on my lap — the pressure is too painful.

As a copywriter, I earn my living writing — tapping away at the keyboard. I used to type a lot faster than I do now — mainly because it’s more difficult to type (and hit the right keys) when your hands are constantly numb and tingling (pins and needles). When the numbness and tingling gets too bad, I use voice dictation to write, instead — because the words still need to be written, even if I can’t type.

I have to nap every afternoon, even on better days. When I’ve been on a deadline, I’ve tried to avoid the nap, but what invariably happens is my body will just rebel, and I’ll fall asleep in the middle of typing a sentence. I’ve learned that I need to manage my workload to make sure that I can get that nap in without letting anyone down. It frustrates me, because I know that if only I wasn’t ruled by fibromyalgia, I could get so much more done, take on so much more work, and stop relying on government benefits to top up my income when I’m completely wiped out by my chronic illness. Freelancing with fibromyalgia is tough — but I’m not going to quit.

Nap time isn’t optional for me!

Tips for freelancing with chronic illness

I’ve been battling fibromyalgia for the past four years. Before fibromyalgia hit, I’d been freelancing as a copywriter for around ten years. It was a sharp learning curve — one that frequently made me cry as I saw my dreams slowly slipping away. But one day I realised that I didn’t have to quite freelancing. I didn’t have to give up writing. I could learn to freelance with my chronic illness. So I want to share some tips that I’ve learned along the way.

1. Believe in yourself

This is an important one. When you have a chronic illness, depression is depressingly common. You can easily get caught in this whirlpool of misery that robs you of your self-worth and makes you feel that everything is hopeless. It isn’t hopeless. You just feel that way because you’re exhausted and in pain and can’t do everything that you used to do as quickly as you used to do it.

Believing in yourself takes away the power of your chronic illness to rule your life. So you can’t do things as quickly, or maybe you can’t do them at all — but that doesn’t have to spell the end. No, you have to fight this thing that wants to knock you down. Stand up and fight, and tell it that you’re not going to give up. You’re not going to quit. You’re going to find a way to still have value, still make a difference, no matter how small. Believe that you can regain some control in your life.

2. Build a support network around you

When you have a chronic illness, you need support. You might not want to need support, but you still need it. I’ve always been fiercely independent and reluctant to ask for help. Fibromyalgia has taught me that I have to let go of my independence and pride if I want to succeed. Your support network can be vital when you’re freelancing. In itself, freelancing can be isolating — and with a chronic illness, even more so. Having friends you can call when you’re struggling and need some motivation and encouragement is hugely beneficial.

Your support network doesn’t have to be local, either. I’ve found that it’s great for me to be able to chat to other freelancers with chronic illnesses, and there are some excellent groups on Facebook:

Chronic Illness Entrepreneurs
Bossbabe Fighters! Entrepreneurs with a Chronic Illness
Writers with Chronic Illness

3. Be realistic about your workload and deadlines

The biggest lesson I learned early on in my battle with fibromyalgia was that I needed to be realistic about my workload. I simply couldn’t work at the same level as I had before fibromyalgia, so when I tried, I found myself quickly becoming overwhelmed. I had to reduce the number of clients I worked with, and increase my rates to make up for the losses. That was tough, but I was surprised by how understanding my clients were when I told them I was raising my prices. Turns out, they’d have been willing to pay more all along!

With a realistic workload, I was able to freelance with my chronic illness and not feel like I was fighting an uphill battle all the time. I stopped promising to meet tight deadlines and instead gave myself time to rest rather than stress about missing important deadlines. It made a difference — a huge difference.

4. Don’t beat yourself up when you have bad days

I was terrible for being hard on myself when I had (frequent) days when I couldn’t work at all. I felt useless, a failure…you can probably imagine the thoughts that ran through my head on a frequent basis. It wasn’t helpful, and it just made me feel worse. I had to learn to be kind to myself on those days, and factor them into my workload management system, too.

With chronic illness, there are always going to be bad days. For me, right now, there are more bad days than good, and I’ve had to re-evaluate my workload yet again. However, I’m still freelancing with a chronic illness. I’m still getting work done, and my clients are still happy. Sure, I’m not as productive as I once was, and I don’t earn as much as I once did, but it’s all about how you view your situation. I have a chronic illness andI’m still freelancing. Phrasing it that way spins the perspective into the positive and reminds me of what I’m actually achieving.

Revise your expectations and don’t beat yourself up!

If you’re a freelancer with a chronic illness, don’t despair! You can still achieve your dreams, just revise them a little!