Mental Health

How the Pandemic Changed My Work Life (and What It Taught Me)

How the Pandemic Changed My Work Life FEATURE
Now I’m prepared to give this my best, and as long as I work toward these goals I’m sure I can handle my anxiety.

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Until the pandemic shook things up, working as a freelance academic editor seemed like the ideal job for me. I mostly worked from home, or from libraries and cafes nearby. I saved precious time, energy, and money since I didn’t have to put up with commuting. Not to mention the flexibility this arrangement gave me. I even tutored in my free time, which I found rewarding—both financially and personally.

I’ve been editing for nearly four years now.

My first year, I worked as an in-house editor, an experience that made me yearn for the freelance life. I picked up many invaluable tricks of the trade as an in-house editor, but I couldn’t thrive in what to me seemed a rigid environment. This is most certainly not a comment on the place I worked for. Rather, it is a testament to the nature of the job and my general disposition.

Editing manuscripts requires exemplary concentration, especially since an editor’s work is constantly reviewed and scrutinized by other editors. Which means it doesn’t matter if one is doing the first round of edits or reviewing someone else’s edits, there is always someone else to check one’s work. It is an unforgiving and competitive industry: some people thrive in this setting; others—such as myself—find this a little too stressful. We also had to log in before 10 am and put in a solid eight hours daily. The job required full concentration at all times. So preparing for the day, the commute, and putting in eight solid hours left me sapped.

Besides, I also found social interaction tedious and anxiety-inducing.

I couldn’t hang out with my colleagues, not even in the office pantry. I ate breakfast and lunch on a bench outside the office, and spoke to others only when necessary. Soon, however, I began to fear that people would find me unlikeable and arrogant. This fear was so strong that I would spend most of my commute rehearsing what to say to colleagues. Yet I found myself nearly paralyzed by the prospect of simply saying ‘Hello!’

On the one hand I was torn apart by my desire to be friendly and pleasant, on the other I was terrified by the prospect of what this might involve. Unsurprisingly, I made no friends at work, was constantly stressed and looking for a nice way out. That’s when and why I decided to become a freelancer.


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My Life As a Freelancer

In comparison, life as a freelancer was very pleasant and satisfying. That is until the pandemic shook things up.

First, my sources of income reduced alarmingly fast.

As employers were forced to adopt strict cost-cutting measures, I was removed from the editing pool of four companies. Two other places I used to receive editing assignments from haven’t been able to make payments on time. I usually got paid forty days after invoicing, but payment cycles have become erratic since March, and I’ve been dipping into my savings much more than I’d have liked.

What’s more, I haven’t received any assignment from one of these companies for the last month and a half.

The other company has informed me that the only way to continue receiving assignments is to become an in-house editor. Plus, I’ve been informed that they’re only hiring editors for a textbook series they’re doing on Calculus. Which, to put it mildly, is not at all my area of expertise. Though I am an independent interdisciplinary researcher, my understanding of advanced math is well short of competent.

What Freelancing Was Meant to Be and What It Turned Out to Be

What I’m grappling with right now is not just the anxiety of having to work as an in-house editor again.

I’m also reevaluating how I’ve lived my life these past three years.

Would things have been different—better—if I had struck up a friendship with some of the project managers from these companies? Would I have been retained? I revisited many email threads from the past three years, wondering if I should have taken some initiative. In fact, I’m still unable to decide whether my emails look like I strictly mean business, or whether they seem cold and curt.

I haven’t invested in formal, not even semi-formal, wear since I began freelancing. Which means I will have to spend a fair bit on appropriate workwear.

The bigger challenge, however, has been upgrading my editing skills to match the demands of this new Calculus project.

I’m now frequently flashing back to instances when I ignored the advice of well-meaning users on message boards: those who told me that learning how to edit statistics-heavy research papers is a necessary, invaluable skill.

Here’s the bottom line: freelancing was supposed to be a way to improve myself, become more well-rounded both as a person and an editor.

In truth, however,  I’ve only let myself be lulled into complacency by this new-found sense of comfort. I’ve endlessly postponed getting an advanced professional editing accreditation and upgrading my editing skills. More importantly, I’ve failed to address my deep-seated anxiety. I mistook a temporary reprieve for irreversible improvement. When I first became a freelancer, one of my goals was to become reasonably better at social interaction. Instead over the last three years, I’ve only avoided meeting people at all costs.

I could after all have sought professional help.

I had the time, money, and flexibility to do so. Yet, I assumed that all I needed was X amount of time, after which I would magically become better at navigating social situations. Never did it occur to me that I might be forced to work differently again. I had the chance to become a well-rounded person but floundered it. If not for the pandemic, I’m not sure I would have realized as much. I’ve become too comfortable avoiding company, and I don’t really know how to make friends.

In other words, I’ve only avoided necessary change.

What I’ve Decided to Do

At my new job, I’ve resolved to be as friendly as my anxiety will allow me to be, and not put undue pressure on myself. This simplest of realizations has eluded me all this while. I’m thankful to have found a job when many around me are losing theirs. This has alleviated my anxiety a little, and has also given me the strength to try earnestly to not be bogged down by failure because progress is not always linear.

I’m also thrilled to have stumbled upon a terrific essay by Joseph Brodsky called In Praise of Boredom. Of the many valuable insights, I found the following two really pertinent:

“The best way out is always through”

Avoidance or endless substitution is not the answer; acceptance and earnest effort are. Because,

“There is no embrace in this world that won’t finally unclasp.”

I am thankful for realizing as much at least now.

 

I do not currently have the financial security to acquire an advanced editing accreditation. But since I have decided to take up the in-house job offer, I’m now spending plenty of time learning the very basics of Calculus. I’ve been relying on free and basic 101-level readers, such as this introductory account on multivariable limits, and I’m feeling a little more confident about editing textbooks. I’m also relying on online glossaries as well as “for babies” and “for dummies” titles on non-euclidean geometry. I’m also editing plenty of statistics-heavy sample publications and keeping close track of recent changes and updates to popular style guides.

I also wrote to the hiring manager about not having formal wear. I’ve been assured that they’re not going to be sticklers about that in the current situation.

I was almost paralyzed and extremely anxious and nervous for three days after finding out I might have to become an in-house editor again. I simply couldn’t think straight.

Now I’m prepared to give this my best, and as long as I work toward these goals I’m sure I can handle my anxiety.

If You Can Relate

To those who find themselves in similar situations, I’d like to tell you—humbly—that Brodsky’s message has been uplifting and life-altering:

“There is no embrace in this world that won’t finally unclasp.”

To me, this drives home the simple fact that nothing is permanent; reversals of fortune and feelings are part of the fabric of life.

Which means it is unrealistic to expect constant, undivided progress.

If you, like me, chastise yourself for every lapse, every minor setback, this might be a powerful message to remember. It helps me set realistic goals. More importantly, it allows me to keep both complacency and excessively harsh, unforgiving self-analyses at bay.

In effect, this might enable us to realize that taking responsibility and being forgiving of oneself when necessary are not mutually exclusive.

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Author Bio: Dennis Wesley is an independent educational researcher. His interests include STEM and Humanities education, especially interdisciplinary practices and methods. He mainly writes about mental health, academia, and sustainability. You can follow his personal blog here.

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