The Freelance Creative

How I’m Managing My Freelance Business While Dealing With Major Health Problems

Freelancing chronic health issues

The TFC Voices series explores the personal experiences of freelancers across a wide range of industries and lifestyles. Interested in contributing an essay? Pitch us here.

It’s an understatement to say this past year has not been great for my health. While I’m in the lucky minority of people who managed to avoid COVID-19 for more than two years, ironically, it was because of all the other health problems I experienced. It’s hard to catch the virus when you can’t leave your house.

It’s also hard to manage a freelance career.

Having ADHD and anxiety means I’ve long struggled to juggle the rote demands of freelancing like bookkeeping or pitch-tracking. But it wasn’t until a medication-mishap-turned-mental-health-crisis followed by a serious knee surgery that I felt I was failing at the parts of my job I do best: delivering fresh ideas and writing great content.

In the Before Times, fear of coming off as “unprofessional” or “difficult to work with”—stereotypes already applied to Black and brown people and women with ADHD—kept me quiet about my health challenges. But a few years ago, I realized that my mental and physical wellbeing are bigger priorities than my clients’ potentially negative perceptions, and also more important than—dare I say it?—their repeat business.

I’ve come to find that being honest with clients about my health ultimately makes me a better professional—and helps normalize health-related conversations for other freelancers. Here’s how I’m positioning myself for success, even when my health sucks.

Telling it like it is

Lately, I’ve found ways to be honest with my clients about my burnout status. Writing about social and racial justice—topics I’ve focused on frequently over the past couple of years—can be emotionally depleting. When I, like many Black journalists, began to reach my limit amid a seemingly endless global pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, I updated my email signature to say just that—and to let recipients know I would be slower to respond as a result.

I’ve also gotten more direct with clients about my mental health. Now, when my anxiety ramps up to the point that it might compromise a deadline, I email my editor immediately—rather than in an eve-of-deadline panic.

Now, when my anxiety ramps up, I email my editor immediately—rather than in an eve-of-deadline panic.

These mitigation strategies served me well last fall, when what my psychiatrist assured me would be a seamless transition to a new anti-anxiety med devolved into weeks of nausea, dissociation, dizziness, and even suicidal ideation. I could barely form a cogent thought, much less rally the emotional bandwidth to research my soon-due report on critical race theory (CRT).

Despite my past openness about health issues, I still felt raw and embarrassed telling my editor about all this. I felt palpable relief when he wrote back kindly, “Your health comes first.” He extended the deadline, and when I was in danger of blowing that one, too, he asked me to send in sections of the report as I finished them.

For freelancers in a similar boat, my advice is to ask for what you need—especially from clients with whom you have a good rapport. In my case, if a client is unwilling to have a conversation about reasonable accommodations, I’m probably not the freelancer for them.

Expecting the unexpected

My recent mental health crisis helped me improve communication and boundary-setting with clients. But I completely missed the universe’s other lesson: When it comes to your health, don’t just expect the unexpected—make time for it.

In February, I went into knee surgery with completely unrealistic expectations about what I could accomplish when I came out. I built in zero time for unforeseen complications.

Remember those early-pandemic aspirations that we’d all become star bakers or churn out creative masterpieces—like how Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” during the plague? Well, I learned nothing from that failed global productivity experiment. While laid up, I decided, I would not only be more available for regular assignments—I’d start my book and query agents! I’d do intensive Turkish classes! I’d finish those knitting projects! I’d juice all my meals and lose weight! And I’d document it all on Instagram!

Of course, none of that happened.

If a client is unwilling to have a conversation about reasonable accommodations, I’m probably not the freelancer for them.

Painkillers don’t work well for me, so I was (and am) in chronic, low-level pain. I didn’t sleep well with my knee elevated, so I was exhausted all the time. The constant, day-to-day planning around my decreased mobility took a ton of mental energy.

By April, I felt like a complete loser. Not only were my fantastical expectations unattainable, but I was struggling to produce the bare minimum. Out of necessity, I stopped pitching.

That doesn’t mean I ignored my clients entirely. I sent my regulars frequent updates about my recovery status and bandwidth. I started to ask for flexible deadlines—“Can we shoot for the week of…?” (I actually did this with my pitch for this story.)

Finally, years of relationship-building paid off. While I’ve paused proactive marketing efforts for my freelance business, most of my favorite clients and editors have provided me with enough work to get by.

Figuring out financials and planning a comeback

Being proactive about disclosing health issues to the people who pay you can feel risky, especially if you, like two-thirds of American workers, live paycheck to paycheck. Again, relationships are so important. I am thankful, for instance, that my editor for the CRT project did not kill the report, which would have resulted in a loss of $6,500.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that I am resilient—and so is my freelance career.

Still, I’ve taken a financial hit. I likely will not hit my revenue goals for the year, much less open that IRA. But thankfully, I do have a plan to get back on track financially. Better aware of my limits, I am now seeking fewer opportunities at higher rates—as close to $1 per word as possible. This summer, I’m planning to pitch print magazines. (In my experience, they pay better and offer longer lead times than digital outlets.) I’m also hitting up my content marketing clients, whose projects typically use up less emotional bandwidth than editorial articles about social justice.

To offset time lost to chronic fatigue, I’m also experimenting with ways to optimize my workflow. Scrivener, a word-processing program for authors, is helping me better manage longform projects. I’ve developed some unique workarounds in my writing process—like typing articles on my iPhone, where it’s super annoying to edit while drafting, meaning I sacrifice fewer valuable hours to my inner critic. Moving forward, I may keep up some of the strategies I’ve developed—like asking for flexible deadlines—as they really cut down on my anxiety.

I’m not back to full capacity just yet. Though I’m finally stabilized on a new anti-anxiety medication and my knee is more mobile, I still struggle with fatigue. And last week, I tested positive for COVID. I’m devastated, but thankfully, I already have strategies in place to deal with sickness. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that I am resilient—and so is my freelance career.

The pandemic may have normalized flexible working styles and improved transparency about personal health. But we freelancers still need to advocate for ourselves. It’s more than okay to be real with editors and clients about your needs. At the same time, it’s important to manage expectations—especially your own—around what you can feasibly accomplish.

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