Anatomy of a Burnout in Progress

The relentlessness of the gig economy

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When I pluck up the courage to step on it, the scale confirms what I already know.

Within a week from coming back from Amsterdam, my clothes already felt looser as I had dropped weight without even trying. Almost three weeks later, it’s worse.

I wasn’t even overweight to start off with.

And yet, I eat but only because my family is French, I’m staying with them, and dinner time is sacred; skipping more than one meal on occasion would raise questions.

It would also be disrespectful.

Every night, I sit down in front of a delicious dinner lovingly prepared by my stepmom, who insists on cooking despite being always exhausted. She has always been happiest in the kitchen, this is how she expresses her restless creativity; food is her love language.

And every night, I honor her hard work despite having no appetite and great difficulty swallowing.

For however long it takes us to have dinner, I empty my head and focus on my parents who are struggling with the daily reality of stage 4 cancer.

Struggling is a euphemism for the innumerable physical and mental ignominies of chemotherapy that don’t allow my stepmom any respite.

Whatever I’m going through, my parents don’t need to know; what’s more, it would be indecent to burden them with it.

Standing by the espresso machine in the kitchen this afternoon, my field of vision suddenly becomes studded with stars.

I grip the counter to steady myself, take a deep breath, and the moment eventually passes.

In my parents’ home, no one ever sleeps more than a few uninterrupted hours a night so we all look like pandas. Keeping death at arm’s length is forever present in our subconscious, ditto the need to keep going against all odds.

Pushing ourselves has become the default; my parents have been doing so since last September and I since last July.

Back then, I set out to rebuild a life word by word after being incapacitated by major depressive disorder for five years and losing everything. My writing voice vanished and took my livelihood and career with it, our household finances imploded, and so did my marriage.

And I narrowly avoided losing my family, too; they felt I had abandoned them when in fact I made a conscious choice to shield them from my illness. I’m a grown woman; they deserve to enjoy their retirement without hinderance or worry.

Besides, they wouldn’t have understood why I could never access health care despite having insurance. Or why my husband didn’t seem unduly concerned.

For five years, I carried that weight alone while contemplating suicide.

And then I chose to live. It is a choice I still make every single morning upon waking because chronic depression is always waiting in the wings.

Seeing life through the prism of exhaustion makes everything so much more difficult than it actually is.

But I can’t afford to slack any more than I can afford to rest; I’m a freelancer whose income is largely dependent on audience engagement.

And a journalist who refuses to compromise on the basic editorial standards that were drilled into me all those years ago.

In the age of clickbait and overwrought pathos, these are very costly standards to abide by.

Then again, accountability matters.

Vocation is useless if it doesn’t feed you.

And yet, vocation is the one and only reason I’ve been able to start turning my life around. When everything else fell apart, vocation refused to die and kept taunting me until I was able to string words together again.

Writing saved me a year ago and it keeps saving me.

Since then, this is what I’ve been doing every day on a self-directed basis because the time I’d spend pitching publications is time I cannot monetize. My time is split between my family and my work; because my family comes first, my work fits around them when I’m in Paris.

In practice, this means the eight plus hours I put in every single day often happen at random. Whenever there’s not enough time available, sleep is the first casualty.

While I no longer pull two all-nighters a week as I did back in the winter, I sleep little more than four or five hours a night. Now that engagement has dipped because of summer vacation, I’m reaching the limits of what I can produce without taking shortcuts.

Even in a newsroom, the pace has never been that ruthless even though I’ve worked for little monetary reward before. Back then, I learned to live on almost nothing and eat only once a day, a habit I’ve kept up for the last decade.

But try as I might, I’m still a long way away from making ends meet.

For many, the gig economy represents an opportunity to leave hardship behind if only we’re prepared to work hard enough.

Or at least this is how the model is presented to workers of lesser means who multiply gigs and assignments in a bid to survive.

Despite our best efforts, writers aren’t robots and we cannot produce quality content 24/7, hence the slew of garbage flooding the internet.

Some of it is driven by barefaced greed, some of it is regular folks with uncommon lives trying to pay their bills. While my résumé, skills, and international experience are solid, standard employment requiring physical presence wouldn’t enable me to be with my family in their hour of need.

Plus the five-year crater in my work history is going to take some explaining, of course.

To show potential clients and employers what I’m made of and how I work, I chose to go it alone a year ago and here I still am.

Alas, this approach isn’t without caveats as people keep expecting me to work for eyeballs and the odd thank you rather than compensation.

My work also ends up in unexpected places, including in translation so I know how to write my name in Russian now as the copy thieves kept my byline.

Good samaritans send me emails with links to my pieces appearing elsewhere, which I always read with a shrug as it’s never the first time and it won’t be the last. In Portugal, I often arrived at work to find my online articles republished by the less scrupulous local newspapers, byline, photo, and all.

No one ever paid me a republication fee because I worked for public media, which was considered a free for all where copyright meant nothing.

At the time of writing, I’m willing myself to make it through the summer before establishing an EU base so I can remain near my family.

Such a project takes funds, even on a bootstrap and in a house share so this is what I’m working toward.

Until I re-enter the EU health care system and start paying local taxes rather than US ones, I cannot wobble, I cannot falter, I cannot get sick.

But I certainly do not feel well, too many dizzy spells, too many short nights.

The irony is that I could get the basic health care I need back in the Pacific Northwest as my insurance would cover it but if I fly back when I’m supposed to in September, I won’t be able to afford to return.

Or to establish a base in the EU.

Clearly, something has to give and I still haven’t figured out what it will be yet.

Out of respect for my craft and those who do me the courtesy of reading and supporting my work, I very much doubt it’ll be editorial standards.

Things will become clearer mid-August when we see my stepmom’s oncologist again and get an update on how she’s responding to treatment.

Absent the financial wherewithal to take a few days off and use them to arrange alternative remote work and send out CVs, it’s the keeping going that keeps me going.

Such is the glamorous, unredacted life of a so-called digital nomad in 2019.

💛 If you enjoyed these words, please consider supporting my work with a modest cup of coffee. It’s cheaper than 🍽 and it keeps me warm. Merci! 🐱

The human condition is not a pathology・👋ASingularStory[at]gmail・ ☕️

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