Frequent migraines. Feeling weak and ice cold most of the time. Severe insomnia. Significant, and sudden, weight gain. Constant pain. Multiple miscarriages, and the emotional baggage that comes with each one. Ongoing exhaustion so bad I could barely drag myself out of bed for months.
That was just a small sampling of my own personal hell for a few years. These health issues had the potential to ruin my writing career and cost me my business. But I didn't let them. And in many cases, you don't have to let health problems hold your writing career back either. You can cope. And you can overcome.
What Went Wrong?
Why I became ill doesn't really matter at this point. But long story short, it was a result of extreme levels of stress. Not every day stress. Not work and family stress. Not "oh woe is me, I had a lousy day" stress. We're talking the fear-for-your-safety-on-a-near-constant-basis kind of stress.
I also had a lousy doctor at the time who refused to listen and threw drugs at the problem without bothering to run basic tests first (and it's not easy to find another of these docs in my area without at least an eight-month wait). Eventually I had the tests ordered privately and run by another doctor.
The basic gist is that the stress hormones in my body had reached such a high level that they were binding to, and overwhelming, receptors for another hormone. That meant my body thought it had enough of that other hormone and didn't make any more of it. That led to a serious hormone imbalance that led to most of the problems mentioned above.
Really. That was it. Years of absolute hell, and it was something a simple blood test could have uncovered had I not simply trusted my doctor's calls at the time.
Taking My Health Into My Own Hands
Fortunately, once I knew what was wrong, there was a lot I could do to try to fix things on my own (I wasn't particularly trusting of doctors at that point). So I became much more proactive about getting things back on track.
It took about a year, but I'm happy to say everything's good again. Everything is as it should be. No more fertility issues. No more feeling weak all the time. No more pain. No more routine exhaustion.
Last November, it was like someone came along and flipped a switch in me. My energy came back. I started to feel like myself again. And much to my amazement, my body started dropping weight like crazy. I'm down about 50 pounds since then, though plenty more to lose. I've done nothing different to encourage that (and even increased calories last month to try to slow the weight loss down a bit).
That, in turn, has been giving me even more energy. Plus, major bonus, I'm finally getting my legs back -- one of the few things I really loved about my body before this. So that's both motivational on the physical front and also a bit of a general confidence boost. I bring that up because confidence is something Princess Jones and I will talk about more in an upcoming podcast episode (which we've already recorded as episode 19; she's hilarious; make sure you catch it).
From the start of these issues until I was well again, I still had a business to run. And, believe me, there were times I thought about calling it quits. But I found ways to plow through.
My hope is by sharing my story and some of the things I did to keep my writing business afloat during the worst of this nightmare, some of you might pick up ideas to help you professionally persevere during your own battles with chronic health conditions.
That said, everyone's health concerns are different, and these won't apply to everyone. Please, please, please consult with a doctor (better than mine hopefully) before making any drastic changes, and get the help you need.
Let's start by talking about preparing yourself before these kinds of health problems present themselves.
Your Ideal Situation: Preparation
Over the years, especially when this site still existed as All Freelance Writing, I'd frequently hear freelance writers complain about the lack of paid sick time. And here's what I'd tell them -- you do get paid sick time. Your freelance writing rates are supposed to cover everything a traditional job would cover. That includes benefits like health insurance and paid sick leave.
In an ideal situation, you'll account for sick time when you set your fees, just like you should be accounting for vacation time and any paid holidays you want your yearly earnings to cover. You set money aside from client payments to cover that number of days. And when you need to take sick time, you use those funds instead of trying to cram in client work while you're ill.
If you aren't sure where to start, try my freelance writing rate calculator. It'll help you figure out if you're charging enough to cover these kinds of benefits (click the link near the top of the calculator to use the "advanced mode").
This is all well and good if you need to take a sick day every now and then. But it isn't always enough when it comes to chronic health issues. In my case, for example, I took three full months off of work during the worst period when I literally couldn't get out of bed most days. In these situations, there are a couple of other ways you can prepare yourself:
- Make sure you account for plenty of vacation time, and tap into those hours if you need an extended break.
- Set aside an emergency fund early -- enough to cover several months to a year of your regular living and business expenses. This way you can live off savings if you need to take several weeks or months away from work.
For those of you in a two-income household, you might be able to get away with a smaller emergency fund to tap into if your partner's income will cover routine expenses on its own. Just don't neglect preparing for the worst because you expect someone else to take on the burden. That puts you both at risk if anything were to happen to their job while you're taking time to recover.
I've been in both situations -- living alone during my first seven years of full-time self-employment and living with a spouse during the last several years. And I can tell you that, in either circumstance, a little preparation goes a long way towards preserving your business and everyone's sanity.
What to do When You're Not Prepared
What if you become chronically ill and you aren't prepared financially to take time off to recover? Or what if your health issues can't be resolved in a matter of months or even years, and you'll have to run your business alongside dealing with them on a more permanent basis?
I mentioned earlier that I took off work for three months during the worst of this. I tried the resting thing, hoping it would help. But honestly, in my case, it didn't. There was nothing different between Month Three and Month Four (when I forced myself to get back to work full-time) other than motivation and sheer stubbornness on my part.
Something just "clicked" one day. And frankly, I pushed through because I don't like to lose, and I didn't want to let the situation beat me down anymore. So I did something about it.
For me that meant:
Downing Extraordinary Amounts of Coffee
What I Did
I pretty much lived on caffeine. Remember, to this point I could barely stay awake and get out of bed. It was the only thing keeping me conscious at times. I barely even remember those first couple of weeks transitioning back to a "normal" work schedule; I might as well have been a zombie. Two pots of a coffee a day wasn't unusual. Sometimes it was more, especially if I had to be out (though I tried to avoid driving given my state).
There was usually some tea mixed in as well. Even caffeine pills on my worst days. I'm very lucky that I don't get caffeine withdrawal symptoms when I go off it. If I did, I imagine that would have been an entirely different brand of hell.
What You Can Do
I certainly don't recommend following in my footsteps. I was desperate at the time and making a pretty radical change (that behavior didn't last too long thankfully). But if you need a pick-me-up to help you get past the exhaustion of being sick, go ahead and have something, unless the caffeine will affect your condition.
My poison of choice was strong black coffee. If I were doing it over again, I might go a bit easier on myself by focusing more on tea.
Here's something important to keep in mind: drink plenty of water if you're relying on caffeine. My biggest mistake for the first week or so was not getting enough water, so all the coffee left me rather dehydrated and feeling worse in other ways. Once I started downing a good two liters of water each day (on top of the coffee and tea -- yeah, I know that's a lot to drink in a day), I functioned like a near-normal person again. It really matters.
Not into coffee, or you try to avoid caffeine? Do anything that will get your energy up, even for just a little while. Sometimes all you need is the energy to get started, and you can push forward from there.
Take a walk. Belt out some tunes. Hop in the shower. Eat something that perks you up (citrus does it for me). Even use aromatherapy (pine-scented candles are a personal favorite -- my office perpetually smells like Christmas -- but go with whatever works for you).
Cutting as Much Stress Out of My Work as I Could
What I Did
These health issues were one reason my personality and approach became much tamer on my blogs for a while. By avoiding too much controversy and not going after bullshit artists like I normally would, I was able to cut back on the stress of my job, even though that meant I didn't really feel like me for a while.
Don't expect that tame approach moving forward. If you knew me in my NakedPR / All Freelance Writing days, you know what to expect; if you're newer here, you might want to buckle up.
I also scaled back my workload to cut even more stress. While I still ran my top blogs and several "quiet blogs" (the smaller niche ones I run in the background without most people realizing), I let other projects go.
I let my picture book manuscripts sit on the shelf instead of moving forward with illustrations or shopping them around (I'll get back to them in time). I dropped clients who were any sort of headache and took on more work from clients I already had great relationships with. And I let a few small sites go if they weren't meeting the goals I'd set for them or if they took too much time for the return I saw.
In other words, I accepted that I couldn't do everything if I wanted the business to survive and thrive under those circumstances.
What You Can Do
Look for ways you can minimize stress in your day-to-day work. Try operating on a stricter schedule and account for breaks, meditation, a power nap, or a walk during the day -- anything that helps you unwind.
If you're trying to do too much when you're well, it'll really be too much when you're battling health problems. If you have projects you can let go, consider it, even if it's only a temporary break.
If you're a freelancer, consider subcontracting some of your work if necessary. Who knows? You might find that you enjoy that middleman role and stick with it when you're well again.
If you're a blogger, consider cutting your posting frequency until you're feeling better.
Getting as Much Help as Possible
What I Did
Fortunately, a cousin wasn't working full-time when I was dealing with these health issues, so she not only helped with some of my usual work around the property (imagine the fall leaf clean-up when you live in the woods), but she also let me hire her to write posts for some of my smaller blogs.
I even subcontracted work to her from one of my regular clients which kept everyone happy (he was aware of the subcontracting up front, and I took on more of an editor role for those projects).
What You Can Do
Like I mentioned earlier, consider subcontracting work if possible. If you have enough extra money set aside, consider bringing on help for non-client work too, like blog maintenance, marketing, or updating your own site.
Depending on how much you need to scale back, you might also be able to find a colleague to help. For example, if you know you'll need to cut back for a few months and then you should be well again, see if there's a colleague who can temporarily take on a few clients, manage your day-to-day blog management like approving comments, or help with other small tasks.
Find a way to pay them back of course, even if it's just an IOU when they need a hand with their own workload. Even lining up a couple of guest posts on your blog can help you maintain visibility while you rest. And that's an easy favor to repay later.
Getting Plenty of Rest
What I Did
This was probably the most important thing I did when first trying to get myself back on track. It might sound strange -- not getting enough rest -- given that I could barely get out of bed at the time. But no matter how often I was down, I just wasn't getting quality sleep.
To help change that, I meditated, did yoga, took power naps, used music -- anything I could do to sleep, rest, and relax. (Meditation, sleep hypnosis, and basic nature sound apps were a huge help -- my favorite being Relax Melodies).
Admittedly, I still have insomnia issues sometimes, though these days it's more about excitement over a project and wanting to put in extra time. Given that I'm working on fiction so much more right now, I try to be more flexible with my schedule so I don't waste any creative surges when they hit. So my wonky schedule can actually be a bit of a blessing. When blogging and freelancing are the bigger focus, I keep a much stricter schedule.
These days when I have a rough night but want to sleep, I can pop a melatonin supplement and be out in 30 minutes. I try not to do that regularly, but it works wonders for me. Unfortunately that wasn't an option while trying to get pregnant at the time I was dealing with all of this, which is why I had to rely on other methods.
What You Can Do
I'm not recommending you start taking supplements. Try those other ideas first -- music, yoga, meditation, etc. Figure out what works well for you.
Also, try to stay away from screens for about an hour before you plan to go to bed. That was a tip from Lori Widmer that's helped when I remember to do it. The white and blue light from screens can affect your natural melatonin levels and negatively affect your sleep.
Another thing to consider is getting on a more regular sleep schedule if possible. And work in naps if you need extra rest because of whatever health issues you're facing.
These things might sound simple to those who are currently healthy. But when you're dealing with ongoing health issues that drain you both physically and mentally, even simple things can become a chore. So see your doctor. Take time if you need it. And focus on the little things you can handle until you regain control.
Those little things can have a huge impact on your ability to work and maintain your writing career while you cope or recover.
Have you had to work through chronic health conditions? What helped (or helps) you get through each day? Share your stories and tips in the blog comments.