"Gotta keep it together when your friends come by
Always checking the weather but they wanna know why
Even birds of a feather find it hard to fly..." - Aimee Mann, "Goose Snow Cone"
I'm writing this in the midst of packing for a family vacation: the first time in almost nine years I'll get on a plane without my fiddle. It feels weird, like I'm constantly forgetting something, no matter how much I double check. I'm still not sure how I feel about the whole thing, although I'm sure I'll have a fantastic time once I get settled at my destination. The concept of vacation is a strange one among self-employed people, like artists such as myself. When you exist in a world absent many of the benefits of traditional employment (paid sick leave, paid vacation, health insurance, pensions etc.), you often find yourself spending every spare moment focused on work- doing the work you have, or hustling to get more. There's no such thing as "clocking out", shutting the door, and going home for the weekend. There's a constant fear that each phone call, each email that offers work could be the last. Of course there are perks to self employment: a greater degree of flexibility, creative and personal control, not feeling trapped with coworkers you don't get along with, doing work you truly love... I'd wager most of us find the sacrifices in other areas more than worth it in the long run. But there's no real "getting away from it all", and this brings up a darker topic, one that in discussions with other creatively-employed people, as well as my own experience, is quite taboo: depression.
When you work for yourself, especially as a freelancer (where you're not selling goods, but services, aka yourself), you are quite literally responsible for every aspect of your business; its ultimate success or failure. The consequences can often be immediate and direct, and frequently swerve between exhilarating and terrifying with a whiplash-like intensity. In a traditional office, if the accounting department messes up some bookkeeping, it may not directly affect those outside accounting. But if you're self employed, and you mess up some bookkeeping, it may result in the inability to pay your bills, with severe personal consequences. In a traditional employment scenario, if you're ill and unable to come to work for a day, you often can take paid sick leave without seeing any change in your paycheck. If I can't make it to a concert or recording session, however, I don't get paid. (Sometimes I can reschedule, but that can still leave the income side of that month a bit short.) And the next tour, lesson, or record doesn't happen until someone sets it up: usually the artist (aka Me.) In effect, you're your own sales department. Now imagine being a salesperson where you're only paid if you make a sale, and where the rejection rate can be 80% or more. Combine that rejection rate with the fact that you're selling services that you personally offer, not inanimate goods, and it's not a far jump down the rabbit hole of taking things very personally. (Even when you know you shouldn't! Alas, the logical brain rarely wins in such scenarios.) It's a vulnerable situation to be in on a regular basis. And speaking of escaping the hard-ass boss, or annoying coworker, what is your recourse when those annoying, or abusive voices are the ones in your own head?
Perhaps the most unexpected part of this vicious spiral (Rejection---> Questioning of self-worth---> Fear/real time financial consequences---> Loneliness/Depression---> Lather---> Rinse---> Repeat...) is that no one talks about it. Depression in general is a tough, taboo subject to discuss, still frequently misunderstood as a defect of character, rather than the result of chemistry or circumstance. It's an isolating, lonely experience. What compounds this sense of isolation even further in the freelance life is that "salesperson" element: no one wants to sell or buy "damaged goods." So even when we chat with other artists, or fellow self-employed travelers, the majority of the time we put on a happy face, say we're "Good, busy, can't complain..." We don't want to be the "downer" that no one wants to hire. In short, while our traditionally employed friends may not be able to relate exactly, our comrades in our own industry know that we live and die by word of mouth. We don't want to let anyone see the whites of our eyes, lest the drought become permanent. Which leaves exactly no one left to talk about things with. But that internalizing of stress and fear only serves to feed those hungry, deranged squirrels chattering away in the dark recesses of our minds. Getting it out in the sunlight, remembering we're not alone, that we're not worthless, or unwanted, that we're actually quite brave in risking it all on a daily basis, that we can accomplish and have accomplished and will again accomplish things of worth and value- this is the antidote.
So if your freelance friend seems a bit withdrawn or down, let them know it's OK if they want to talk about it. Especially if you're a fellow independent worker, just having another voice to combat the loneliness can make such a difference, as you probably know by now from your own experience. So lend an ear, remind each other how tough it is, and how much courage it takes to keep putting yourself out there again and again. It helps. And if you don't have any experience with what your friend is going through, just letting them know you're there for them is all you need to do. Don't try to offer solutions, just listen. Sometimes a chance to talk, a hug, and shot of bourbon are all you need to go to bed knowing you can get up and try it all again the next day.
Then keep on keepin' on.