- In 2014, Tiffiny Costello left her full-time job and began working as freelancer in marketing strategy and website development.
- At first, Costello says being her own boss was “freeing” — she could travel wherever she wanted, and make her own schedule.
- But after a while, the reality of being a freelancer began to take a toll. Costello had to deal with clients who would call and text relentlessly, belittle her industry expertise, and demand she redo work or do extra tasks outside of her contract.
- After six years, Costello quit freelancing and accepted a full-time job position.
- Now she only has to focus on “one job, instead of 13,” works with a group of encouraging coworkers, and can leave work responsibilities at the office — factors that Costello say have all greatly helped improve her mental health.
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It was six years ago, when I jumped the 9-to-5 ship for the bright and shiny freelance life. Like the Titanic, nobody could have warned me of the icebergs I was steering towards, until I was already crashing towards an icy mental breakdown.
In 2014, freelancing was really taking off. I decided to quit my full-time job and go for it.
My first client was the company I had just quit. I agreed to work for them as a contractor until they replaced me. They paid $40 an hour, 30 hours a week, and I managed their Facebook Ads (400+ ads — it was the account that taught me a lot of what I know about Facebook Ads). What a warm welcome into the freelance world!
At that time, only the brave entered the world of no dress code, open hours, and no coworkers. We were a self-validated crew of ‘entrepreneurs’ simply because we found quotes on Pinterest that talked about ‘hustling’ while we scoffed at peasants working their stable, 9-to-5 jobs with benefits and a 401(k).
I had also quietly departed from the sobriety train about three months prior to leaping into the freelance world. To be fair to myself, I would also get sober again, two years before quitting freelancing, but I am sure the confidence I had at the start of freelancing made me think I could also handle alcohol better than my history had proven.
Freelancing was, in the beginning, fantastic.
It was freeing. It allowed me to travel whenever I wanted. I went to Europe for five weeks. I went camping whenever I wanted. I had unlimited cell phone data, so I could hotspot from my car if I needed to get work done.
I was also annoying to go on trips with, especially with friends who were using their bygone vacation time and had no emails to answer, no “can you do this real quick,” beckons to respond to, etc. They were actually off work. What a simple way to live! *scoff*
I began to forget what not working felt like. I took pride in the fact that I worked as much as I did. It made me feel important. My bank account had more digits, I could write everything off, and answered to no-one — except my clients.
For the most part, my clients were great. I had low-maintenance clients who always paid on time and always kept things in scope. These clients were a dream to work for.
Then there were the scope-creeping clients, who would bombard my inbox, send text messages, and ask for things we did not agree on.
They often used multiple exclamation points in their emails — this is something that always raises my suspicion. Why do you need more than one exclamation point unless you are trying to passive-aggressively manipulate someone? Am I ridiculous for thinking this way?
It was, of course, my fault for not setting better boundaries. I should have always outlined in contracts that texting was never allowed. I should have always insisted on what my office hours were. But, I needed the money, so I was willing to work as much and do anything to keep my clients and obtain new ones.
I didn’t learn how to set professional boundaries until the last year of freelancing, and by then I was already on my way out because of poor-behaving clients, a surplus in the supply of available freelancers, and increasingly heightened anxiety with a side of deepening depression.
I once fired a client who wouldn’t quit texting or calling me anytime I had an extra space in between hashtags on his Instagram posts, or if I used hashtags that were not exactly describing the content (do you know how hashtags work, bruh?). He required that I revise photos four times before he would approve them, and then even after posting approved content to Instagram… he would delete them and request more revisions.
The major event that really broke me was when I quit working for an internationally-known nonprofit that I actually loved being associated with, but could not deal with the founder any longer.
The nonprofit was founded by a man who retired at ~39 years old (beware of ‘nonprofits’ headed up by rich white men who can afford to retire before 40…). I was constantly questioned about marketing, was told that he knew what would work better because he had read 30 marketing books (versus my 10+ years of experience), was questioned about the amount of time I would spend on my work (I work extremely efficient because I have been doing this for 10+ years, and have developed systems and workflows — and yet it was not fast enough for him) all while paying me $22 an hour and refusing to give me a raise, telling me I did not deserve a full bonus, even after taking over three departing team-members responsibilities, etc. etc.
Other team members were treated the same way. We were not allowed to be the true experts we were, because he wanted things done his way. And, he paid at a minimum, because we were working for a ‘nonprofit.’ He once reminded me that another coworker was also getting paid low, and she was happy to do the work. She had a full-time job. Freelancing was my bread and butter.
I started to hate marketing.
I started to believe that I actually didn’t know what I was talking about. I became scared to do my work, because it would just get tossed out and overruled. I took a lot of depression/procrastination naps. Imposter syndrome, anyone?
I finally gave notice that I was ending my contract, because I wanted to quit working for $22 an hour and free up space for something new to enter my world (do the math on self-employment tax; I was barely making minimum wage!).
I then allowed myself to be convinced to continue managing the website. I did it for $900 a month (this is cheap in the world of web dev), but was looking forward to using the website as a portfolio piece, because I was learning to code, and was excited to take the project on — until the founder continuously overruled design and layout suggestions, to create a somewhat functional and horrible UI/UX of a website. Using this site as a portfolio piece was an idea that quickly floated away, along with my willpower to care about this client.
Quitting that client was extremely freeing, but true damage had been done, and I am still recovering from it. Freelancing overall caused a lot of damage that feels like PTSD. This client was simply the loud, long, grande finale.
My last year as a freelancer was filled with anxiety, depression, naps (so many naps), poor eating habits, long runs, too much coffee, ridiculous sleeping patterns, or no sleep at all.
And yet — people PRAISE this type of lifestyle (queue the Gary Vee followers). It is unhealthy to set no boundaries between yourself and work.
Although I was in therapy, my social anxiety started to get pretty bad. Previous disordered eating habits that I thought were long gone started to poke their head back into view. I started to experience symptoms of OCD: needing to clean every surface more than once, checking my door to see it was locked three, four, and five times before bed. All with a fairly consistent stream of manic, repetitive mumbling going on in my head.
But I was making a lot of music.
One night, I was on the floor of my apartment crying when I started to look up phone numbers and addresses to mental clinics in my neighborhood. I needed to know where they were, because I knew I was breaking. I started cursing at myself: for letting myself get to this point, and because I realized I was starting to have a breakdown, which made me feel more panicked.
I had been applying for jobs in Seattle after moving from Denver in January 2019. I knew I wanted to quit freelancing before I even moved. After applying for over 200 jobs, interviewing with no less than 25, the 100% rejection rate confirmed that I truly did not know what I was doing in the world of marketing. I was also having the most difficult time finding an apartment in Seattle.
I kept sinking. I even considered moving back to Texas, in with my parents. I had one client left, and wasn’t trying to find any new ones. I had no energy left.
Ultimately, I finally made the decision to talk to a doctor and he suggested and prescribed a prescription for Prozac.
Prozac was exactly what I needed. I am so thankful for it. Mental health stigma, as we all know, is alive and well. What is even more thriving is stigma around medication.
I have already heard plenty of opinions from people who don’t understand how SSRIs works… inform me that I should not be on medication. I am capable and ready to advocate for myself in these situations. I know that I made the right choice in deciding to take medication. I don’t need to convince anyone of that. The way I feel is proof to myself that it was the right decision.
I am still taking Prozac, and when I miss doses, I can feel why I still need to be on it. I hope to get off it at the end of this year, under the guidance of a doctor and therapist, of course.
I got a full-time job around the same time I started Prozac. I accepted a position at an independent hotel in Seattle as their marketing manager. It has been such a blessing, and the perfect farewell to freelancing.
Having a paycheck every other Friday, health benefits, and an office to go to everyday is an absolute treasure. I had forgotten the joy working with a team brings. It feels amazing to only have to focus on ‘one job,’ instead of 13. It’s also been enlightening to rediscover that I do know a thing or 587 about marketing. I am on a team that provides positive feedback instead of only negative. I cherish face-to-face interaction versus misinterpreting someone’s tone in an email. I love leaving my work at the office.
My full-time job is a blessing, not in disguise. I knew I was ready for it.
Freelancing is not what it was six years ago. It causes issues that are, in my opinion, not worth the benefits. There is no real accountability or incentive for bad clients to behave.
The constant weight that used to exist has now dissipated from the back of my mind, and has freed up space in my life to reestablish healthy habits. I can once again truly connect with people on other topics that don’t have anything to do with work, because I am separate from my job again. I’m not treating every person I meet like a prospect.
I know my freelancing story is not like everyone else’s. I know plenty of incredibly balanced, successful, strong freelancers. They are inspiring people I look up to. I think you should freelance if that is what works for you. It wasn’t working for me anymore.
Tiffiny Costello is a 30-something based in Seattle, Washington. She is a “professional hobbyist,” aka, a sound artist, cat-mom, trail-runner, designer, marketer, painter, writer, and more. She works as the creative director for a boutique hotel by day, and collects field sounds she uses to compose ambient soundscapes by night under the moniker “Housekeys.” Follow her on Instagram at @tiffinyasalways, on Twitter @tiffinyhaswords, or visit her website.