For the first two years of my freelance-writing career, everything was perfect. I started when I was 18 years old. I was landing good-paying gigs with prominent companies.
But, it didn’t last.
A month before I turned 21, I hired 14 stretch limousines to ferry me around. Why? I believed my freelance-writing business would take over every other company in the world in two days. (Yep, you’re working for me now, Mr. Gates and Mr. Jobs.)
When I turned up on my grandmother’s doorstep claiming I’d put a rainbow in the sky, she arranged for admission to a psychiatric hospital.
Following my time there, I sunk into a post-psychotic depression and lost my will and my drive to write.
For the next five years, I stayed away from writing. When I finally came back to it, I found I was struggling with some of the most fundamental parts of being a freelancer.
I could write outstanding queries that often got a response. My closing rate was good. I landed projects without much trouble. But, once the client said yes, I struggled with the writing. I’d leave the project until the last minute. Sometimes I’d make my deadlines. Sometimes not. Sometimes I wouldn’t do the work at all.
It took 20 more years to work out how to be a successful copywriter while living with a mental illness. I’m going to share my challenges with you and the lessons I’ve learned. If you have a mental illness, my hope is that my story will inspire you and help you see that living with a mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t make a living as a writer.
My mental illness and my writing intersect in the four domains of life: physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual. My writing success has stemmed from my growing understanding of these intersections.
My mental illness affects me physically in two primary ways.
First, there are the medications and, more importantly, handling the side effects. (Faithfully taking my medication has been a keystone habit of staying well.)
I get an injection once a month. For the first week after I get it, I turn into a sloth. I literally stay in bed for almost a whole week.
As a freelancer, I need to make sure I’ve accommodated this week in my project planning. It’s not a week to set deadlines.
Second, I’ve had to contend with weight gain from the medication, lower levels of activity, and over-eating. If you’re dealing with it too, recognize that it can sap your energy.
Exercise is a way to lift your spirits, shake the weight off, and regain energy. Block time for movement.
One of the key ways my illness affects me mentally is that I adopt false beliefs. For example, during my manic episodes, I believe I’m God. As such, I look down on people who aren’t on the same level, i.e. everyone.
Another mental challenge for me is paranoid thinking. I believe people are out to do me harm. As a result, I take things the wrong way. Constructive feedback becomes an attack.
A couple of things help take the edge off of these mental effects.
First, I read broadly. The more insights and experiences I gather (and this is a process I really enjoy), the more resourceful I’m able to be.
Second, I’ve learned to take regular breaks from my work. I used to meditate for 20 minutes every day, using the Headspace app. Now, I do a round of yoga sun salutations every morning. I NEVER work on Sundays.
Spend some time reflecting on and analyzing how your mental illness affects your thought processes, and then look for strategies that help you manage those effects. When you find something that helps, build a habit around it.
Feeling good gives you stronger mental resiliency.
The critical therapy I use to manage my bipolar disorder is called Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy. It has two core components: establishing routines and strengthening relationships.
I don’t like to think of my loved ones as a “support network,” as I believe this is self-focused and gets in the way of solid relationships. Instead, I think you strengthen relationships by being focused on the other person.
For example, if you’re feeling down, ring a friend and ask how they are. Ask, “How can I help you?” You’ll both feel better.
Another good strategy is to find a group to belong to. I have four main ones in my life.
First is my church. I have deep relationships with people across a mix of ages, life stages, and cultures.
The second is my mastermind groups. I belong to a couple for business development and one for personal growth.
The third is my copywriting mastermind group, COS Buddies Worldwide, formed from a post in the Facebook Circle of Success group. We meet on Zoom every Wednesday morning (for me in Australia; it’s Tuesday afternoon for members in the U.S.).
Fourth is my housemate. He wakes me up if I’m still asleep, when he knows I’m meant to be up and working. He challenges me to stay on track with my projects. And, he serves as a first reader for everything I write.
Connections and relationships are important for everyone! But, if you’re living with a mental illness, nurturing healthy relationships is critical. To summarize, find a group (or more than one) to join. Even if it’s with just one other person. Seek out people who support you and challenge you to grow.
When I talk about being spiritual, I’m not talking about religion. Instead, I’m talking about the meaning and purpose you give to things, whether it’s your overall life or an aspect of it, such as your writing career.
I’ve found articulating my purpose helps me to stay focused, even on difficult days.
Ask yourself, why do you want to be a successful writer?
Create a vision statement as if you’ve already achieved your version of the writer’s life.
Write out what your ideal day looks like. When do you get up? What do you do with your time? Who is part of your life?
Doing this exercise will help you see what’s important to you. It will reveal your reason why.
Another method to try… write a list of 200 reasons why building a successful freelance-writing business serves you and others. In that list, you’ll find your reason why.
I’ve found this focus on others is critical. Who will you serve through your writing career? How will you help them?
For example, I serve the franchise industry as a web copywriter, helping franchisors attract and convert new franchisees. I believe franchises are an excellent way for the average person to get into their own business, which can lead to greater financial security and freedom.
Other unique challenges of writing with a mental illness
Here are three more things to keep in mind, if you’re running a writing career with a mental illness.
First, do you tell your editor you have a mental illness? I prefer to be upfront, as it can lead to understanding if I end up late with a project.
Second, keep in mind the two kinds of deadlines: soft and hard. A hard deadline is one where the work must be finished by a set time. So, for example, the magazine can go to the designer and the printer on time.
A soft deadline is one where your editor or client has flexibility. They’re getting the project done because they want it completed, but there’s leeway.
For example, some editors stockpile content, so they never run short.
Always know what kind of deadline you’re facing and, if you’re going to be late, communicate with your client as soon as you realize that’s the case.
Third, it’s important to avoid perfectionism. Let good enough be good enough, when it comes to completing a project. But, make sure your good enough is of a high enough quality that your client will want to keep working with you — mental illness or not.
Success as a freelance writer is within your grasp — even if you have a mental illness. Take the lessons above and plan how you will create your freelance career.
Please comment below about your experiences with having a mental illness and being a successful writer.