This job is killing me.
June 11, 2012 12:38 AM   Subscribe

Panic attacks are killing my self employment. What (work) should I do?

So I've been self-employed working with a number of academics over the last 18 months. However, a number of major life issues have collided, along with a lifelong anxiety problem, resulting in panic attacks. Unhappily, this is most notable when it comes to reading email. The further behind I get, the worse it is. I've lost a couple of major clients already and have begun to accept that I can not work from home anymore, nor in a non-structured environment.

This is particularly disappointing as my next plan was to do honours (postponed on doctor's advice) and then slip straight into a PhD with the academics I currently work for as supervisors.

So, these are my qualifications: Bachelor of Multimedia Studies with Distinction (GPA 6.9/7) from about 3 years ago. Expert in Illustrator, Word & Excel, proficient in Photoshop, Indesign, Access. General overview of HTML - I can work a content management system more easily than someone without training, or things like Survey Monkey, but I can not code a website from scratch.

I used to do admin (and hate it and the pay), but for the last year have been doing a variety of tasks like project management, running an online journal (last 5 years), high end presentations, diagrams and illustrations for books and government reports, data collection and low level analysis, document design and formatting for a mining consulting company, and for a number of published academic books.

I live on the Gold Coast, Queensland. Graphic design work is hard to get into and pays pretty crap. I would be prepared to move to Brisbane but reluctant, as my cat and I would have trouble finding accommodation that will suit both of us (I don't want to mow lawns, I do want him to have a safe outside area) and my lease doesn't run out until February next year.

I have a psychiatrist who has increased my anti-anxiety medication (not yet working) and a psychologist to counsel me (first session yet to occur). I live alone (except for the cat). I have some savings left over from the sale of the marital home, but do not want to chew through this completely because I'm not working (also behind on billing).

Suggestions as to career options, and fixing my current situation much appreciated.

If you feel that the tough love is the most appropriate, please temper it, as I am extremely fragile, and I doubt that you could despise me more than I do myself. I have all the advantages of a developed country, the freedom of working when and how I want, in a variety of well paid interesting jobs, and I am very well aware that I am throwing it all away.
posted by b33j to Work & Money (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Have you considered getting up in the morning and Going Somewhere to do your work? A library, a cafe, a nearby park if your municipality supplies wifi in such places? The rituals of waking up, getting dressed with some degree of professionalism, and transporting yourself somewhere to work where you don't have the distractions of home may help?
posted by kavasa at 12:45 AM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would suggest waiting a little bit to see how the meds and psychologist go. Just see how you feel in a bit.

Lifestyle things: CBT and meditation and yoga will help enormously. As will exercise or at least going for a slow walk somewhere. Going outside is great. Working from a cafe or library every now and then might help. Taking regular breaks will help.

There is nothing to indicate to me that you cannot continue with what you want to do. It's not where you are right now that's important, it's where you want to be.
posted by mleigh at 12:56 AM on June 11, 2012

Best answer: You are not going to get tough love from me. It sounds like you are facing the issue and have sought out treatment and good support; I don't know what else anyone could ask of you.

I would use some of the money to hand to take a project management course, sit the exam, and get the qualification? That plus your experience would qualify you for PM jobs in academia, communications or media.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:08 AM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Can you talk to some of your clients and tell them you're ill/ have been ill and renegotiate deadlines? Even if that's not possible you can maybe salvage some of the relationships. You don't have to go into any detail beyond "sick, took a while to get a handle on it, sorry". I think people will be more understanding than you think. I know I would be if that was the case for someone missing some work deadlines.
posted by fshgrl at 1:30 AM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I have an office space on campus that I use sometimes and find it as difficult to look at emails there. I love the project management idea. I have spoken to my major client about deadlines and she has been more than understanding - I guess the anxiety is telling me I will always be afraid of emails and I am ashamed of having let her down repeatedly because of the anxiety. I have taken an earlier mefi suggestion as well and am hiring an admin assistant to help me by being the security blanket between me and the emails so that I get the job done.
posted by b33j at 1:50 AM on June 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You will not always be afraid of emails.

I've been in the very same situation, and I still fight it on a daily basis. This is my speedy run-down of the thoughts and habits that help me through it. I hate phone calls and voicemail too. It's sad, honestly. I know how you feel.

1. The anxiety you have dreading what you're NOT reading is worse than anything you're going to find in there. Try to remember that. Tell yourself it's NOTHING you can't handle if you're patient with yourself. Just keep taking little steps up that hill. There are always more hills to climb -- the emails won't stop coming... but as long as you are still working toward master of this, you're working. You're not broken. You're fighting your fight. Be proud! You have to have a belief in yourself, no matter how good your drugs are. (And I hope they turn out to be perfect!)

2. Use any means necessary. I've leaned on friends to sit over my shoulder and make me click on things. I've bribed myself with completely out of proportion rewards, and most of all, anxiety meds and self-talk. Buy The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, and Mind Over Mood, and begin to battle your anxiety habit. In many ways, it is a self-destructive habit. These books should give you a little help, at least. They'll give you tips for how to stave off panic just so much. It can be enough to save the day.

3. Stop worrying about what other people will think. You might have a bumpy professional path. You might have smooth sailing. I don't think either is worth scuttling your quality of life. Keep your focus on what you can manage, and try for each day to be a little better than the one before. Stop spinning your wheels thinking about ways out or what shape your doom will take and who you'll dissappoing. Get through.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 2:01 AM on June 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

Hold out for the psychologist! Not saying that they will fix everything (or anything) - everyone is different, but CBT can work wonders, particularly for anxiety issues.
posted by tegna56 at 3:42 AM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I know exactly how you feel, and I am sending you so much sympathy & support right now. I've been self-employed for 6 years, and these are some of the strategies I've used to get myself past the rough parts.

1. Try to reward yourself a little for getting past the "worst of it." This works best if you have a laptop and somewhere pleasant to go with WiFi, of course, but I really like to do my busy work in a place that I am happy to be in. A favorite coffee shop with good music (and reward yourself with a cookie or a latte or whatever), or a park in the sunshine, or whatever. That way it feels like you're just kind of hanging out enjoying yourself, oh, and, how convenient, you can also answer some emails while you're at it.

I noticed you said you have an office, but it sounds like you're still by yourself there -- with the anxiety. Maybe you should try to get out somewhere where there are other people.

2. Try to minimie the anxiety on the day-to-day basis by getting off to a good start in the mornings. For me this means waking up early, sliding right into the work day with some good music and a good cup of coffee, or maybe if the weather's nice, going for a walk and getting my head in the right place. Procrastinating in the morning tends to make me feel awful, so I try to avoid it at all costs. In the longer term, exercise, yoga, healthy eating and sleep patterns for minimizing stress & anxiety -- but you know that already.

3. Oh yeah, good music. I rock out to Beatles and Beach Boy's stations on Pandora.

4. Make a list. On paper. Sometimes just seeing the words "Answer email to Mr. Rogers" written out on paper makes it look a little easier, especially when you realize how easy it will be to just do it and cross it off. So make your list of all the stupid little stressful things you don't want to do, and then go through, do them, cross them off.

Really, though -- and you know this too -- it's just a mindset. You're in a shame spiral right now, which is increasing your anxiety, and your anxiety and panic are actually making you more anxious, because if your anxiety doesn't stop, your job won't work out (or so you think), which is just making you all the more anxious... It's like stressing out about the fact that you can't fall asleep at night. Never helps. Just makes it worse.

You actually just need to step away from the stress for a while. Take a bath. Go for a walk. Pet the cat. Have a nice lunch or dinner. And then when you get back say "OK, I will just answer one email." Just one. If you feel like you can't do anymore after that, then don't stress about it. The boost of good feeling you get from just getting started will probably help you get out of that shame spiral, though.

Good luck.
posted by crackingdes at 6:06 AM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just have to say that getting ill is not "throwing it all away". It's not something that you chose or something that you want. In fact, as you explain, you are actively taking steps to get treatment.

Anxiety is a horrible - and really common - problem. The good news is that it's fantastically curable. I should know, I had social anxiety which had a great impact on my life for several years. Once it got to the stage where I realised I needed help, cognitive behavioural therapy together with drug therapy worked wonders.

Others above have already given some great advice, but I had to address your idea that you are somehow to blame for the situation. You're not. And with the right treatment, you are almost certain to get better.
posted by rubbish bin night at 6:11 AM on June 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Two thoughts for you (and I'm sympathetic as someone who struggles with similar issues):

1. Does voice mail also pose a hurdle for you? If not, as a work-around, you can arrange for your emails (or maybe just the ones from your clients) to be translated into voice mail. Here's a link to some eHow posts addressing alternative approaches.

2. Do you find that once you start, you can get into whatever your work requires? If so, Pomodoro Technique may work for you. There's a lot of filler on that site, but the basic idea is to commit to working for a set period of time (they recommend 25 minutes) and then fully embrace a break afterwards (they recommend 5 minutes) and allow yourself to snack, surf, etc. Then repeat. Track how many times you do this with something visible (like checkmarks on a calendar) to stay motivated.

Good on you for seeking help! Now look for signs that your meds have kicked in--not just at work but in other realms, even if they're not usually triggery, like driving in traffic-- and lean into that. Take care.
posted by carmicha at 6:22 AM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ex-anxiety sufferer (30 years worth of horribleness) here. You can beat this. Disciplined CBT and meditation were my weapons but use whatever works for you. Not had an anxiety attack of any magnitude for 7 or 8 years now. You will win.
posted by merocet at 8:58 AM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nth'ing CBT and Mindfulness Meditation. Worked wonders for me.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:05 AM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Is it possible to add something good to your email inbox? Maybe signing up for a joke a day or a lolcat a day may take a bit of the edge off. That way you can pop into your email just to check out the kitties.

I agree wholeheartedly that getting sick is never your fault and seeking treatment is never "throwing things away". If I broke my legs and wound up in traction for six months, that wouldn't be throwing anything away. Your anxiety levels are busted - taking the time to fix them is as important as taking care of any other hurt part of yourself.
posted by Jilder at 10:38 AM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

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