When I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to be a writer. There were always other careers sprinkled in there — surgeon, anthropologist, teacher — but I knew that whatever I did, I wanted writing to be part of my life forever.
But after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder during my freshman year of college, my relationship with writing started to shift. Writing became something I did poorly and prolifically during periods of mania and something I didn’t do at all during depressive episodes, which left a very small window of stability for actually creating things I was proud of.
When I started writing for a living as a freelancer, my relationship with writing changed even more dramatically. Now, writing wasn’t something I did to fulfill myself. It was something I did to feed myself, and that made a huge difference. Much of my time now had to be spent writing pieces that I honestly didn’t care much about. There are so many boring parts of freelance writing — listicles, shopping guides, quick news stories — that don’t make me feel creatively stimulated. There are also important pieces that I would love to spend more time on, but financial needs and the needs of my editors mean that I have to submit quickly, which can feel demoralizing for a creative who wants to spend more time with their work.
But as a bipolar writer, this path has served me well. For the most part. Sometimes, I feel I’ve found the career best suited to my perilous mental health. Other times, I’m aware that I’ve found a career with an entirely different set of stressors and triggers that have and could still send me spiraling into distress or crisis.
Writers and journalists often talk about the toll that this job takes on mental health. And it’s true. Being immersed in horrific new stories, receiving endless rejections, and often working alone from home are almost guaranteed to exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety. But for those who experience severe mental illness — including the oft-excluded obsessive-compulsive disorder, major unipolar depression, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder — the ups and downs of freelance life can be more extreme, perhaps even life-threatening. At the same time, this lifestyle has the potential to offer people like me multiple avenues for autonomy and flexibility, two things that are necessary for severely mentally ill people.
For me, freelancing gives me the ability to honor my depressive and manic episodes when they come. I can acknowledge when I can’t “fight” off what my brain chemistry is determined to do, leaving more room for me to actually get better. I don’t have to come and sit at a desk every day. I can take off as much time as I need, and I can even cancel in-progress articles with little to no consequences. But this flexibility requires money, something which is hard for many freelancers to come by in an industry known for paying abysmally low rates, often extremely late.
After a suicide attempt in November of last year, I was fortunate enough — due to years of splitting rent with a partner or then not paying rent at all— to have enough money to take three months off work. I don’t know how I would have survived those months had I needed to work.
However, I also worked intensely in the months leading up to the suicide attempt, which brought in a great deal of money (sometimes $10,000 a month) which made me feel burnt out and depressed, especially when I’d write about heartbreaking stories or the anxiety-inducing fascism enveloping the country. I need the freedom to be able to take off work when I need to, but that freedom doesn’t come without its own sacrifices. This is why I firmly believe that all freelancers — but especially severely mentally ill writers — should work as hard as they can to get as much money for their work as possible. Always ask editors for more money, and set firm rates if you can. That extra $100 here and there can be critical for your mental health in times of crisis, especially if you’re able to have an emergency fund.
Even though freelance writing may suit severely mentally ill people much better than staff writing jobs or other traditional careers, I often resent it, because I feel a bit forced into it. Staff writing jobs often don’t pay as well as I could make freelancing — especially having gotten two book deals during my three-year long career — and they’re often inaccessible to disabled people. For a lot of us, freelancing is not so much a choice as it is a requirement in a deeply ableist, classist, and racist society.
Freelancing also doesn’t provide you with healthcare, something that every human needs, but especially those with mental health conditions. I dread turning 26 next year, because the expense of healthcare will be astronomical, I expect. I still haven’t figured out what I’m going to do. All I know is I can’t survive without the anti-epileptics and anti-anxiety medications that help me manage the worst of my symptoms.
And then there is also the discrimination that comes along with being an openly severely mentally ill person in media. Mental health de-stigmatization has done wonders for mild to moderate depression and anxiety, but disorders like schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and bipolar disorder are still on the margins — or completely outside — of what society finds acceptable. For example, a writer with antisocial disorder recently penned a Modern Love column for the New York Times, about how her condition impacted her marriage. She was widely and thoroughly mocked by so many people on social media, quite a few of them people who have been open about their own mental health struggles.
As for me, bipolar disorder is less stigmatized than antisocial personality disorder or schizophrenia, but I still get taunting messages from strangers in my DMs, trying to pour salt in the wounds I carry from a lifetime of dealing with mental health issues, and seven years of dealing with bipolar disorder.
Overall, I think this is the right career for me. I feel a degree of freedom that I didn’t have when I worked at a non-profit or when I worked as a waitress. I get to explore my creative passions and make money. I have the opportunity to write books about mental health. But I also deal with intense periods of loneliness because I don’t have traditional co-workers. I get anxiety sometimes because I don’t have a stable income; invoices come in scattered and sometimes extremely late. I feel an immense amount of pressure when I write about my mental health issues, and expose my vulnerabilities for the public eye.
Nylah Burton is a writer with bylines in New York Magazine, British Vogue, and ESSENCE. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.