Self employment and mental health

Self employment / freelancing and mental health issues seem to go hand in hand. The stress of finding work, maintaining momentum, dealing with all the admin etc, not to mention restricted access to Actual Humans (besides the postman) and the feelings of isolation this can bring, lack of holiday and sick pay causing freelancers to feel like they have to be “always on”… all massive contributors to stress and mental health issues.

From a personal perspective, I have recurring mental/emotional problems and my work is usually the first thing to suffer if I’m experiencing one of “those” days. This in itself can trigger feelings of inadequacy and guilt, putting me in a downward spiral. But, as someone with a mental health condition brought on by a relatively predictable syndrome (hello PMDD) self-employment is not always the stressor. In fact, it can sometimes be the cure: the chicken soup for the soul.

I’m not tied to Mon-Fri / 9—5 working hours

If I’m having the sort of day that kicks me in the guts from the second I open my eyes, where getting out of bed and facing the world seems impossible, I just don’t. I soak up the comfort of the warm snuggly duvet and I treat myself to an extra hour. The indulgence can often be a band-aid on invisible wounds, enough to get me to take the first step back into reality.

And when it doesn’t work? I can double down, bury my head under the covers and catch up on Saturday. Or at stupid-o-clock of an evening when the kids are in bed.

(Photo by Sonja Langford)

And allows me to exercise

Working a schedule outside of the norm allows me to sub an hour at my desk for an hour in the gym, or an hour on the road training for my next race. Exercise is a huge contributor to better mental health (it’s scientifically proven!) and being outdoors massively benefits my mood, my self esteem and my overall health.

I can juggle my calendar

Because my issues generally fit within my cycle, I am able to fit my work around this. I don’t have to drag myself into work just because it’s a Monday, or meet a client just because some dev manager or boss has stuck it in my diary.

This week I am post-period, and so I will be prone to hyper-concentration, greater sparks of inspiration, confidence & an increased libido greatly improves my people skills (believe it or not!) so now is a great time to work on things I’ve been putting off or new projects that need creativity. By the end of next week this will have a fizzled out and I will be anxious and needy. I will avoid meetings with new clients and difficult phone calls. After that I may get another short period of increased productivity, and then I will need space for my temper; it is not a good time for me to deal with clients who don’t pay on time (for them, I mean).

Finding a full time / office job that would give me the freedom to organise my time and my work into 28 day blocks would be next to impossible, and would massively contribute to the guilt I feel for not being on “top form” 24/7 and in turn worsen my symptoms. And so…

It reduces the guilt

The last time I worked in an office, I spent the majority of my time ‘on-edge’ and feeling guilty. Guilty for needing flexibility, guilty for needing mental support and compassion for nearly 2 weeks of every four, guilty for feeling like I was letting my team down, and for a long time just guilty for the inability to put a name to the problem that I had.

I was very privileged to work for a boss who was understanding and supportive, but even the most compassionate of people have to draw a line when their profits and productivity are threatened. I avoid most of this as a freelancer by utilising the flexibility of hours and schedule, as mentioned, which lessens the burden and eases the symptoms.

I can choose my clients

Beyond sculpting my schedule into something that works for me, I help avoid inter-cycle flare-ups by working with only people who are sympathetic to my needs. It doesn’t have to be someone who’s intimately familiar with mental health issues or working with someone with PMDD, rather just a case of finding clients who are fine receiving an email at 8pm rather than 8am, or who trust that I can balance out a shit day with more great days in return.

Picking my own clients also allows me to reject people who I don’t think I’ll get along with either through a conflict of beliefs or simply mismatched personalities. It’s so much easier to produce great work for great clients and feel good about it.

I can choose my own path

Conventional advice would have us believe that to optimise your ‘wellness’ and ‘work / life balance’ you have to set strict boundaries, never reply to e-mails outside of the 9—5, never get personal with clients or allow work into your “home life”. That’s great if it works for other people, but if I never replied to emails outside of the 9—5 I’d miss out on a chunk of my day when I’m at my best (or busy doing the school run). If I didn’t get personal with clients I wouldn’t have the great relationships that I have with some of them.

It’s not for everyone, but my balance and my wellness comes from ignoring the conventional and choosing my own rules and my own path.

Lead photo by Tim Goedhart

Is this it?

I have spent a large part of the past few weeks jumping from one ‘chaos moment’ to another (as per usual) and I was sat on the toilet recently wondering… is this it? Is this what adulting is about? Just about hanging on while you ride the waves of life?

I’m being melodramatic — I’m not having a mid life crisis — but after a few weeks of intense hard work (covering for a friend/dev at a local agency as well as doing my own stuff) AND housework AND kids AND pets AND volunteering AND all the other day to day thankless bullshit which we seem to have to do as grown ups, I can’t help but feel if I’m missing out on some greater truth: there’s something I forgot to do that makes all this fulfilling and worthwhile?

Tomorrow marks 3 months since I decided to stop drinking. I’ve had a bit of a wobble this month with some INTENSE pre-menstrual cravings for wine, which I seem to be missing quite a lot all of a sudden. I did resist, although had a shandy over the weekend. Gaz says it counts as alcohol and I know he’s technically right, but the ABV is barely above what can be legally classed as alcohol free and it certainly didn’t make me drunk so I’m giving myself a free ride on it.

A few people have asked me if I plan on staying sober for life and I don’t know the answer to that question. Now the novelty of being newly-sober has worn off I can see occasions where a glass of wine or bubbles would be lovely, but am I ever going to be the sort of person that can just have one glass? Having the willpower to not drink is one thing, but having the willpower to say no once you’re under the influence is a different kettle of fish.

I’ve completely lost my gym mojo again, despite having lots of goals in mind and the support of awesome sexy gym-going people all over my instagram. I’m hoping to get back into it next week once the work commitments back off a little, so feel free to give me a kick up the arse or a hearty nag. I need to not undo all the effort I’ve been putting in this year with blatant laziness.

Running seems to be back on the agenda though, with a 5k Race for Life with the ladies from Source (aforementioned agency) that raised over £1000 for Cancer Research as well as a potential PB of 28 mins 17 seconds although my Garmin reckons the course was 400m short. Either way it was well under 30 minutes which is something I’ve struggled with for a while.

I’ve got another upcoming half (the Piece of Cake trail half marathon), the Leeds Abbey Dash 10k booked for November and the Edinburgh Half Marathon in the calendar for next year, so just need to keep up the momentum.

At least I’m not being completely lazy…

Is it time for another coffee yet?

Your anxiety is not my anxiety

I started writing this post a couple of months ago, but decided not to finish it because it came off too ‘special snowflake’ or a dig on other types of anxiety (which it definitely isn’t) but my good friend Aisling posted recently about atypical depression and how it differs from typical depression, and I realised that it’s important we talk about how things affect us differently purely on the off chance that someone sees them and thinks “ah!”. Not everyone experiences mental health in the same way, so here it is, this is my anxiety…

Anxiety seems to be the topic of choice right now. I can’t go five minutes on any social media platform without seeing articles, blog posts and comic strips about it. It’s great! It’s raising awareness of a very real Thing that I was basically oblivious to until one day I suddenly realised that the Thing I felt had a name. Yay!

Except the problem is that all these blog posts and pseudo-articles and comic strips all seem to follow the same theme: “10 reasons your friend doesn’t want to come out to play”, “Here’s why your mate keeps cancelling all your plans”, “Your anxiety-ridden pal just wants to hide at home under the duvet”, “5 reasons you can’t make a phone call” … and so on.

And yes, each of these refer to different symptoms of anxiety but these pieces are generally specific to social anxiety, and that isn’t all there is to anxiety. It’s not my anxiety.

My anxiety doesn’t stop me from going out with friends. In fact, it pushes me to socialise as a much needed distraction but often then results in me over-analysing friend’s behaviour to look for clues as to whether or not they really like me. And, if we’re socialising outside of the house, it causes me to constantly assess my surroundings and the people nearby in case of Some Big Disaster.

My anxiety doesn’t stop me from making phone calls, it just causes me to spend hours afterwards wondering why I said That and not This and, especially in a professional context, causes me to question the entire conversation and whether or not they’ll want to work with me ever again. (Ironically, this has caused me to withdraw from clients causing the breakdown of a great working relationship anyway.)

My anxiety doesn’t cause me to avoid strangers and public interaction — I will play up to a crowd — but it does cause me to freeze or shut down when offered even the most basic of choices. I can’t go into a Subway and ask for a sub as I get ‘analysis paralysis’ and start to panic … over whether or not I want salad on a fucking sandwich?

My anxiety doesn’t rule out crowded places, but it once crippled me on the tube because I saw someone who looked like a person from my past. My anxiety lets me wear outfits verging on obscene to command attention but doesn’t like me being the first person to walk through a door.

My anxiety isn’t every day, and it isn’t even every period, but it is real, doctor-diagnosed anxiety. And it is my anxiety.

Identity

I was having a conversation with Gaz in bed the other day. You know the type: snuggled up in bed, pillow talk, vulnerabilities exposed, all that shit.

And this deep, meaningful conversation — the sort of conversation I can only truthfully have with my fucking wonderful husband — made me suddenly realise that over the past year or two I’ve become so wrapped up in treating or not treating, coddling or ignoring, planning in or avoiding my symptoms of PMDD that it has become my identity.

In my desperation to not become defined by this Thing that I cannot fix, I have literally let it define me. Let it control me. Let it stop me taking risks and let it stop me pushing harder.

Having not so long ago risen up against foes and demons of my past and thrown myself into the deep end of discovering ‘me’, I have gone and let a new demon wash me away. My fear of drowning in the abyss of hormones and treatments and not-treatments and symptoms and anxiety and SHIT has distracted me from the greater goal of constantly learning and constantly redefining who I am and who I can be.

Of course, this epiphany doesn’t come with answers. Knowing I’ve wrapped myself up in knots trying to avoid something whilst simultaneously using it as the very rope that binds me doesn’t magically fix all my problems. Introspection has only ever got me so far, and acknowledging that won’t make it go away.

The funny thing though, rather than ignoring it and hoping it goes away I think the real solution is to acknowledge it, embrace it, and fucking kick some ass anyway.

Easier said than done though, right?

Blogging doesn’t have to be strategies and planning

As I mentioned earlier this month, I recently followed some bloggers on twitter with the goal of inspiring me to blog more. It’s kinda worked: I have a lot of ideas floating about my head at the minute. Whether they’ll making it into an actual blog post is another matter, but step 1 complete. Winning!

However, one of the side effects of this is that I’ve realised how much the blogging world has become dominated by the concept of blogging for fame & money, and as such how everything has to be about optimising for this. Content marketing plans, social media strategies, optimal hashtag usage, best posting times, the right theme, the best bloggers to comment-spam in the hope of increasing your following which increases clicks and eyes and revenue and… aargh!

I’m not sure if people realise but *dramatic pause* blogging doesn’t have to be like this.

It is possible to just open your little blog admin panel and write about something. Write as the words appear in your head, without thinking “should I stick another keyword in here”, or “how many giant photographs should I use to reach peak hipster lifestyle blog status”. Don’t edit the shit out of it, don’t dress it up with fancy words and metaphors… just write.

Of course, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t think about those things occasionally. Heck, the giant lifestyle blog photos are winning me over. I sometimes bung some hashtags on my insta-snaps and look ma: I’ve fixed my broken theme. But maybe, just maybe, once in a while: let go.

Twenty-somethings

I followed a bunch of bloggers on twitter today. My grand plan is to follow, be inspired by their energy and regular posting, and thus start posting regularly again.

Hahahahaha.

Realistically, however, I’ve already noticed a worrying trend amongst these ~cool~ bloggers: they’re all young twenty-somethings with no kids, no mortgage and very few of the responsibilities and boring bits of life dragging them down.

(That’s not a diss on these bloggers, rather just a reflection on my own boring existence.)

Of course this made me think back to my own heady days of popularity and millions of pageviews and comments and general life-validation through the medium that is the blog, and I realised I too was a young twenty-something with no kids, no mortgage and few responsibilities.

Obviously the key to being a successful blogger lies somewhere in that revelation… time to sell the kids and the house I guess.

In defence of selfies

I was flicking through a thread on mumsnet last week — procrastination in action — about people who take lots of selfies. The consensus of opinion was that people who take a lot of selfies are vain, insecure and lacking self-esteem. Mumsnet’s AIBU, apparently the last bastion of social etiquette and good manners, thinks that people who post a lot of selfies should get a hobby.

Maybe a hobby like criticising people on Mumsnet…

trolololol

I disagree, of course. I don’t think people with low self esteem post selfies for validation. Quite the opposite, I think often people with truly low self esteem tend not to post pictures of themselves at all for fear of judgement and comments, essentially cutting themselves out of their own history.

Of course there’s exceptions to the rule, in which case do we really need to be telling people who feel so badly about themselves that they’re a piece of shit and should stop posting on the Internet? That they need to do something more productive, or more worthwhile?

Who are these strangers to judge whether or not these selfie-addicts deserve to exist in their little safe space?

Given a choice between complimenting a serial-selfier and taking another kick at their apparently already low confidence levels, should we be defaulting to the kick in the teeth option? If a selfie is taken to seek validation – to justify existing in this world – is giving validation or giving hate more harmful?

Of course the selfie-hate is not a Mumsnet-only thing. It’s a fairly common opinion that people should not like themselves enough to share that with the world. Know your place, selfie takers!

Selfies document progress and milestones, holidays, hairstyles and fashion trends, culture and identity. Selfies are proof that we exist in our own lives: for others, for ourselves, and for potential future generations. They create communities between likeminded and lookalikes, allowing us to experience a truly multicoloured, multiflavoured, multicultural world that would otherwise be out of reach for many.

I take selfies. Good selfies, bad selfies. Duck-face selfies, new hair selfies, suns-out-guns-out selfies. Selfies with the kids and without. Selfies with friends, selfies in the mirror. Selfies on holiday and at home.

all-the-selfies

I finally have a record of my path in life and nobody can take that away from me, Mumsnet or otherwise.

Monthly post to confirm not-deadness (and other exciting news)

Not sure I made that blog title long enough?

Anyway.. hi, here I am. Not dead. Which you probably already know because you all follow me on social media. Don’t you?

Things have been a bit hectic lately. Last time I spoke to you I was just starting my new drugs. Which … oops, haven’t taken them yet today —interlude— …which seem to be working fine. I mean, I guess they are because after the weird zombie-no-feelings period I just felt normal. And normal is good, I like feeling “normal”. I can function, take care of my kids, not shout at everyone / everything, and generally just get on with life.

They haven’t been the miracle cure for my motivation that I was hoping for. I still seem to have issues with lack of coding mojo, and have to force myself to work, but we can’t have everything. This was especially problematic in February when I was ill and the kids were ill and everything went disastrously wrong and I did about 10 hours billable work, but I am vaguely back on track now so as long as I can do two months work in March, I’ll be fine HAHAHA BYE SAVINGS.

To add to the risk factor of my currently complicated catch up lifestyle, I’ve ‘invested’ in (that sounds way posher than the reality) a new project which will add to my current site portfolio expanding my passive income earning potential in the long term. Hopefully. If I can get the work it needs done. You can probably see the flaw in this plan…

Boring work stuff aside, I’m approximately 2 months off getting married and haven’t planned anything. I’ve lost 3 pets in as many months (predator, illness and old age respectively). And, the house stinks because the kitten I got for Gaz for Christmas keeps shitting everywhere.

But at least I feel normal now.

I want to code

I’m sat at my laptop — nothing new there — with a work todo list as long as my arm because I did very little in the last week (feeling poop) and all I want to do is code.

“But Jem, you’re a web developer, work is code?!” I hear you cry.

I don’t want to code work. I want to code fun. I want sit down and knock up a throwaway site or a dodgy new layout or a half-arsed script for no reason other than to get it out there. I want to write a 3000 word tutorial on some pointless technique that only 3 people with actually need in the entire time it remains live on the web. I want to do something for me, that doesn’t involve earning money, building a portfolio, or pressure and scope and budgets.

But every time the cogs start turning, that work todo list rears its ugly head and that teeny tiny spark of passion is lost.

:S

Taking it Personally

I had a couple of clients (rightly) tell me off this week because schedules had slipped and this wasn’t communicated as well as it could have been. I only have myself to blame, and I don’t mind being honest about it. I should have better anticipated the impact of the summer holidays and time off on my workload and adjusted my schedule (and as such, client expectations) to suit.

Still, knowing and accepting where I went wrong doesn’t stop me from taking the kick up the arse personally. When a client wants more or wants something faster, I assume I’m not doing a good enough job. If I can’t deliver above and beyond expectations then I’m failing.

It’s hard not to take it personally: after all, my work is a huge part of who I am. Lots of people work their 9-5 and go home, but not only have I built my identity on what I do over the past 15 years, but I work well into the evenings, organise life around work (rather than the other way around) and all from 2ft from my bed now, which makes it really hard to detach even when I want to without literally leaving the house.

Sometimes I wonder if I should be more rigid and stick to socially acceptable working hours, but I’m not sure that would stop me taking it personally when things go wrong. And after all, if I’m personally invested in a project I have a reason to put 110% into it, making it the best it could possibly be.

Or that’s what I tell myself, anyway.

On blogging, and how I’m probably doing it wrong

As we rapidly approach the 13th anniversary of me owning jemjabella.co.uk and my 15th year of blogging, I can’t help but think about how blogging (both my own, and on a wider scale) has changed over the years.

15 years ago it wasn’t uncommon for people to write blog posts thousands of words long. Blogs were in effect journals, diaries, a real look into people’s lives. And people read those entries, and replied: tons of comments per entry.

old blog 2005
My blog, as captured by the way back machine, Dec 2005

Slowly, slowly that changed. Blogs became less about the personal and more a collection of quick thoughts, pics, memes, links, quotes – truly the “web log” – and this in turn became tumblr, which is a vast and scary beast I’ve never been able to get to grips with.

Circa April 2006; shame the WBM didn't capture the header image
Circa April 2006; shame the WBM didn’t capture the header image

Those who didn’t adopt tumblr have seen the blogging landscape change in other ways. From paragraph upon paragraph of text (some of us still take this approach, cough cough) to lists and clickbait titles; sparse photography — in part because of bandwidth issues and slow connections — to blogs that feature more pictures in one entry than I feature in a year; “vlogging” seems to have hit a new high; beauty and “lifestyle” (what even is this?) bloggers dominate blog link lists. Comments became “likes”, “shares”, “thumbs up” – a lot less effort and easier to do en masse.

August 2006 (one of my favourite old layouts)
August 2006 (one of my favourite old layouts)

I have always defended my “blogging for myself” position and remained firmly stuck in my ways but it’s no secret that my once vast audience and “e-fame” buggered off ooooh… about 5 years ago when I stopped blogging about interesting things and started blogging about children. I miss the days of variety, controversy, geeking-outtery (I think I just made that word up) and not just blogging about myself and my mental health. I want to start taking more pictures, talking more about the things I like and the places I go, not just how heavy I lifted or how much cake I ate this week.

Layout before this one, 2010
Layout before this one, 2010

Of course… I say this, but it’s likely nothing will change long term: I’ll probably be a bit more enthusiastic with photos for a week or two, wax lyrical about something that sounds vaguely lifestyle-y, but the reality is I’ll always be that boring blogger with the 800 word blog posts and 1 photo every 6 months.

I think I’m ok with that.

Mojo

A developer without their mojo is a bad thing. A terrible thing. Imagine sitting down at a file, scrolling through line up line of your own code and nothing making sense. Imagine staring at that file not knowing where to start, and as the hours slowly tick tock tick tock past, instead of clarity and concentration, all you feel is the wetness of the tears of frustration rolling down your face.

I’d like to tell you I’m exaggerating, but that basically sums up August for me. And, in honesty, July too: my mojo got up & left me… bereft, unproductive, listless. The harder I tried to push through, the more stressed I got, and the feeling of failing to achieve anything overwhelmed me. I knew it was bad when I managed to spend 4 hours last week staring at a single line of basic code.

But this morning I woke up with a fire in my belly and I knew today would be a good day. And it was: I was in the zone and kicking butt.

My mojo is back.

:D