Long read: Freelancers! We need to talk about the ‘C’ word
No. Not that one. Don’t worry.
The ‘C’ word I’m talking about is caring. More specifically, I’m talking about caring for someone while trying to make it as a freelance journalist: a situation a number of freelancers will be familiar with and one that has dominated my life for the last two years.
Being a freelance journalist can be difficult at the best of times. You spend huge chunks of your time chasing up invoices, and just when you finalise a brilliant idea, someone else writes it. I think it’s only right at this point that I confess to feeling a bit ashamed about calling myself a journalist – a feeling brought about both by my lack of achievements and the fact that by doing so, I am accepting that I share the same profession as some undesirable characters.
Truth be told, the only real motivation I’ve ever had for journalism has come not from a knack for writing or an inextinguishable fire in my belly for presenting the truth; but instead from a desire to be able to regularly tell people one of my favourite Lee Mack jokes of all-time: “I’m a freelance journalist: but I’m rubbish – Lance is still in prison.” With that in mind, I can only apologise if the portrait of freelance life I’ve painted is not one you recognise.
With commissions impersonating London buses, my week often consists of a sudden yet familiar movement from having wild panic attacks about where the next bit of work will come from, to having even wilder panic attacks about how the hell you’re going to meet all of your deadlines. Essentially, your life turns into some sort of weird, faulty Newton’s Cradle on steroids.
Add caring responsibilities to that mix and you’re left with a hotchpotch of mental difficulties and desperation.
Towards the end of 2017 as I began my final year at university, my grandfather started to seriously succumb to the dementia which rendered him nonsensical, confused and in need of around-the-clock care. Given the fact that I only had to go to university twice a week, I became a carer for my Grandad. Something that I’d do for over two years and would overlap with the start of my career as a freelance journalist.
On the face of it, going freelance right from the off made perfect sense given my caring responsibilities. I could work from home, which meant I could continue to help out with my grandad. How hard could it be?
The answer? Very.
It’s said that there’s a fine line between happiness and madness. It turns out it’s actually four fine lines and they’re found in the extra ‘E’ in ‘CAREER’.
I won’t go into the gory details of all the nappy-changing, scratch-enduring and hospital-calling my duties often entailed – though I will say the only thing worse than spending your day without hearing another human voice, is spending your day listening to the voice of someone who thinks they’re hearing voices.
It may seem a strange thing to say, but caring for someone can make you feel like one of the loneliest people in the world. Spending hours on end in the presence of someone commanding your attention but unable to communicate meaningfully is actually much worse than spending time on your own. The misery is compounded if the person you’re spending time with isn’t able to give you the pick-me-up and advice you need when you’re getting rejections and feeling utterly hopeless.
Even putting the communication breakdown caused specifically by my Grandad’s dementia to one side, caring for someone with other needs that do not affect coherence is still very difficult. Even if my Grandad could communicate properly, I don’t think I’d ever discuss the difficulties of having to care for him with him for fear of making him feel guilty. What’s more, the friends I would discuss these things with were often beyond my reach as, to meet up with them, I would have to make numerous arrangements in advance with family members – that would make me feel guilty too. And as my generation is apocalyptically terrible at speaking on the phone, I found my mind turning into an all-expenses paid hotel for my stress.
Despite my chronic social awkwardness and my propensity for embarrassment, not having any meaningful interaction outside of my house was mentally debilitating. I slipped into a routine where my time was divided between trying to think of ideas and convincing my Grandad that the nurse giving him a sponge-bath wasn’t a secret agent trying to kill him.
The impact this had on my communication was never more greatly punctuated than the time I realised that I’d gone over two whole weeks without leaving the house or speaking English and noticing that I’d started to pick up my Grandad’s Indian accent but only very faintly thus making me sound like I was racially abusing myself.
Both my personal and professional relationships were getting blown to smithereens. Commissions were drying up and as my Grandad’s condition radically deteriorated going into 2019, I was unable to take on any work with quick turnaround times. I was alienating those who had offered me work by missing deadlines and coming across as less reliable than a Russian athlete’s urine sample. Amidst the flurry of rejections, I suddenly stopped using WhatsApp, became a Twitter spectator and lost contact with a range of close friends. With my Grandad jumping off his bed and wailing all night, most nights, the little sleep I was getting was dwindling and I’d either sleep during the day at the expense of doing any work or be too tired to produce anything remotely acceptable. I thought I was a freelancer but in reality, I was trying to freelance while doing one of the most stressful full-time jobs imaginable.
The only way out of this malaise was to accept my deficiencies and seek help. Understanding your mental balance is imperative and I seriously recommend drawing up a list of responsibilities with others and accepting a clear set of boundaries for what you can and can’t do. Likewise, doing this with prospective clients is important too and although the heartless ruthlessness of the industry means it might put editors off from commissioning you, it’s far better than letting a client down and damaging your reputation.
I also can’t stress enough (well, I can – in fact, I did!) the importance of maintaining relationships. As much as I wanted to do everything for my Grandad, the reality was that I was struggling and without seeking assistance from my family, I may have ended up doing something really silly.
All that said, caring for someone can enhance your freelancing in ways that no professional course or training would be able to. While peace of mind is the hardest thing in the world to achieve when you’ve spent the entire morning calling various bits of the NHS and giving them a piece of your mind, it stands you in great stead for chasing invoices and hunting stories. Caring also forced me to come up with a raft of creative solutions (like dressing him in dungarees so that he wouldn’t be able to take his nappy off and ruin his bedsheets overnight without giving me sufficient warning) and become more resourceful (finding a magic cleansing spray that made his nappies odourless and clean within seconds is the most amazing bit of research I’ve ever done). As a result of my time caring for my Grandad, I can honestly say that I am able to think on my feet and I remain unsurprised by crises.
Last September, my Grandad passed away in a manner even more peaceful than the last two years were turbulent. I’m sad that I couldn’t do anything special while he was alive, but living with him for 12 years and caring for him for two of them was the perfect platform to deal with anything life may throw at me.
In my eyes, caring is a bit like everything else when you’re freelancing; it doesn’t pay immediately, requires immense effort and frequently leaves you exhausted but by the end, the satisfaction of seeing something through from start to finish and knowing the value of every decision makes it all worth it.
By Gopesh Pathak