Category Archives: Work

Money and a room of one’s own

It’s been a while, guys. That wasn’t the way it was meant to be, but there are a series of unremarkable things that happen in life that can push an author in unintended directions. Case in point: what happens (or doesn’t happen) at work. A vast majority of us indiefolk have to do other kinds of work for a living. Many of us belong to the so-called precariat: we hold casual positions at work which don’t allow us to think in terms of earning so much a month, because there are months in which we don’t earn anything.

Gone are the days in which an academic like me had the chance of being employed full-time. Managing money has become “a thing” in itself and it saps my creative energy. I happened to be discussing this with a dear friend of mine this arvo when she nodded and said something like ‘Yeah, having money and a room of one’s own.’ It was Virginia Woolf who wrote those words in an essay that would become a classic in feminist thinking:

…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved…

I can’t complain about the little room where I do my writing (when my mental state allows me to). Even the local library where I live counts as a “room of my own” with a breathtaking view of the Blue Mountains. We can discuss “the true nature of woman” till the cows come home. In any case, this isn’t what I intend to do here. I guess that what I want to discuss is the role of money in the life of a writer. Yes, that unspeakable monstrosity, that hideous vulgarity. Money, or lack thereof, that can hold back many a creative soul and their creative career.

Every time I want to find an answer to life’s dilemmas, I ask Google. Yeah, effin’ Google and its nerdy relative Google Scholar, my true ally in these days of post-truths. A couple of days ago I came across a very cool website run by Mark McGuinness, poet and coach. In this well worded article he discusses the uneasy relationship that creative people have with money, and he does nail it on most counts. Many authors think that money isn’t important; they don’t know how to get it or don’t know how much they’re worth; they don’t want to sell out or look greedy; not to mention that in countless cases they don’t know how to manage it or spend it.

Money-can't-buy-happiness
Make no mistake, one-hundred dollar notes could put a huge, lasting smile on my face.

If I use the third person singular “they” it’s because I’ve got a very clear idea of the role of money in my life. I’m also painfully aware that the need to have a “day job” will be there for who knows how long because very few creative writers make a living as such. I’m not saying I’ve given up; on the contrary, I believe there could be a future working as a creative writer for me. But in the meantime I have to support myself in a different way, namely through a “day job”. A stable “day job”.

‘These are hard times for dreamers,’ said the porno shop assistant in the movie Amélie.  I’d say they’re hard times for those of us that want to make a living without making a fuss. Of course I want to make a living selling novels and collections of short stories, but in order to write them I need the peace of mind that comes from knowing that my bills are paid.

Must leave you now. I need to continue fighting the bad guys and keeping the wolf from the door. Catcha later 🙂

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Managing depression: How I did it. An integral approach.

Disclaimer: I’m no mental health professional and I’m not advocating any system, cure, treatment or healing method for mood disorders. I just want to share my recent journey. Your questions are very welcome 🙂

In the first place, I’d like to tell you what I found doesn’t work in order to fight depressions of any kind: doing nothing. It’s a health risk not only for the patient, but also for their loved ones.  Another thing that doesn’t work and can backfire badly is self-medication with alcohol or illegal drugs.

Truly back on my feet and fighting the good fight.
Truly back on my feet and fighting the good fight.

BeyondBlue has published an excellent resource on what works (and what doesn’t work) for depression, called (surprise, surprise) A Guide to What Works for Depression, by Anthony Jorm, Nick Allen, Amy Morgan and Rosemary Purcell. Luck had it that I read it nine months ago, to keep myself updated on the latest treatment options. I’m very aware that bipolar disorder isn’t like other depressive disorders and there’s a risk that if I have Prozac, I may go to the other extreme. It’s happened before, so that’s why I will always refer to my own personal experience in the event of having to seek treatment.

My ‘maintenance plan’ includes the following:

  • Good, wholesome eating (including all food groups).
  • Physical exercise (CXWORKS, Rip60, Aqua Aerobics, RPM, among others).
  • Meditation using meditation apps such as Simply Being, Mindfulness and others.
  • I used to do psychotherapy as well, but not now. When I was living in Argentina, I was psychoanalysed for yonks. It did jack shit for bipolar disorder, but it did bring in self-knowledge. ‘Spoiler alert’: it can be costly, but you can find psychoanalysts in my old country who have a bit of a social conscience, and will not break your bank.

Towards the end of July this year, I noticed that my moods were spiralling down, in spite of my healthy life plan. Early morning mental fog was followed by a flat mood which on some days turned into generalised pessimism and a wish to be wiped out of the planet by some external destructive force. Let me explain: I wasn’t conventionally suicidal, but I felt like a phenomenal failure, helpless and depleted. Disrespected at work. My creative flair had gone out of the window. Deep down I felt so hollow that my only hope was to be on the receiving end of a deadly blow.

For days on end I went on with my life, working, doing some household chores, even going to the gym and meditating. I forced myself to smile whenever the occasion so required. But there would be no lasting, meaningful change. My brain worked slowly, slowly, slowly, but catching no monkeys … I know, it’s a bloody bad joke, but indulge me. I even thought of checking in at the Sydney Clinic, where I spent a few weeks in 2010, recovering from another episode of burnout and depression.

In the middle of September I called my psychiatrist, who’s now working in country NSW. I explained my situation on the phone and via email, and I expressed to him that I was prepared to take antidepressants. I’ve been on Tegretol (carbamazepine) for yonks, in order to even out my moods and enhance my attention span—a drug that worked real wonders from day one. On the other hand, antidepressants never worked well, but knowing that there isn’t just one kind of antidepressant medication, I told my psychiatrist that I was prepared to give them ‘a go’ again. This time we agreed that I’d start taking Zoloft (sertraline).

The problem with those bloody things, excuse me, SSRI’s such as Zoloft, is that they tend to make you gain weight …. So it was time to become a bit more mindful with food and to ramp up my fitness routine. Work ended three weeks ago, and ‘hitting the gym and the pool’ was far easier. About two weeks ago I woke up smiling for the first time. My mind is less foggy these days and I’ve recovered some of my energy. I haven’t gone hypomanic either—another one of my fears—and two weeks ago I even sent a job application that took me eight hours to put together.

I don’t think I’m fully out of the woods yet, and a minimal upset may hit me hard and send me back spiralling down. I take life one day at a time, pick my battles as wisely as I can, and make plans for the future. I have also given up smoking—not that I was the biggest ‘chimney’ in town anyway, but I will have foot surgery in late January and the surgeon wants a smoke-free FF Jensen.

Very important: The words ‘integral’ and ‘holistic’ could be interchanged in the heading, but unfortunately the ‘alternative treatment’ quacks have hijacked the word ‘holistic’ and put it in the ‘no-no words list’ for a long time to come. It isn’t my mission in life to ‘rescue’ words from snake oil salesmen, but if you want to call my kind of treatment ‘holistic’ because you like it better, be my guest 🙂 I won’t judge you.

Unsung heroes here: my friends and gym-mates. And my cats 🙂 Thanking each and every one of them would take another blog post and I don’t want to behave unfairly forgetting to mention some people who truly matter, even if they’re not physically close, or simply because I’m having one of those days when names slip off my mind. Again, gratitude fills my heart with joy and my eyes with tears. I’m blessed to be surrounded by such wonderful people!

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My Roller Coaster (or my own Bittersweet Symphony if you prefer)

The late Sakanashi Sensei, my aikido master in Argentina, once said that an ‘open guard’  is neither good nor bad in itself. It depends on the kind of attack you’re facing, the timing, the speed, the energy and a number of other things. This isn’t a post about aikido, though. I’m only using the concept of ‘guard’ for the sake of analogy.

Likewise, in life we may have to face conflicts or situations that require a very closed guard, a semi-open guard, and so on and so forth until you face your adversary fully disarmed and with open arms. That is the way I have taken my bipolar condition on board, with open arms. It was a sad relief to find out at the time, but a relief nonetheless—not something to be resisted, or denied, or used as a ‘badge of honour’. As Professor Kay Jamison wrote in her autobiography An Unquiet Mind: Memoir of Moods and Madness, ‘The Chinese believe that before you can conquer a beast you first must make it beautiful.’ I’ve striven to do precisely that and I can only say that my condition is ‘part of me’, it isn’t the ‘whole me’. And it doesn’t make me ugly, or defective, or stupid, or unemployable, or eccentric.

"Depression" by Mary Lock, available at https://www.flickr.com/photos/goldilockphotography/. Commons Attribution 2.0. Full terms at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0
“Depression” by Mary Lock, available at https://www.flickr.com/photos/goldilockphotography/. Commons Attribution 2.0. Full terms at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0

Speaking of work, in a rather unexpected way, it became a stressful place for me … again! My ‘day job’ turned from a safe place into a clusterfuck of disasters that I won’t go into, except to say that with a drastic reduction of hours came a drastic loss of income, and with a rather drastic and hypercritical supervisor (let’s call her that) came a frosty meeting back in 2012 where my performance that year was systematically trashed. I didn’t lose my job, but the years 2013 and 2014 brought in a fair amount of tension. This is hard enough for anyone to manage, and for someone like myself, who suffers from bipolar disorder, it can trigger mood swings and other health issues.

There were other personal circumstances that I won’t discuss for the moment, but their impact was also considerable. To cut a long story short, I got to July 2014 feeling that my brain had come to a screeching halt. I had a ‘sweet’ first half of the year, what with the publication of my novel and having completed a whole semester of postgraduate studies. I would have never anticipated that the second half of the year would be so ‘bitter’ and that I would find myself staring at burnout and depression in the face.

How did I experience depression this time? As a daily grind, an extra effort to stay on the ball, an insidious exhaustion that would creep upon me at a certain time of the day even if I’d had a good sleep the night before. Thoughts of all the positive events that took place in the first half of the year would leave me cold. I managed to keep myself going simply because that’s what I’m used to doing. I could even laugh at other people’s jokes. My depressions don’t manifest themselves as melancholia. I understand they fit the definition of the so-called atypical depression.

When Jenny Mosher interviewed me in July, I resolutely denied my looming inner shadows and even avoided talking about bipolar disorder altogether during the interview. Don’t get me wrong: many people are aware of my condition, but I find it hard to discuss it in public. I’m even finding this blog post hard to write. I had a very bad experience disclosing my condition at my last full-time graphic design job. It was used against me and I believe it contributed to my termination.

The good news this time is that even though I’ve lived a whole life of ups and downs, they frighten me considerably less now. I know what works and what doesn’t work in the event of a persistent low mood. All my insight and self-awareness allowed me to write a work of fiction. In any case, I did my research to make sure I wasn’t restricting myself to an account of what happened to me using a sockpuppet. I’m not Lena Foch, even though some of her external traits coincide with some of mine (for example, her place of birth and her bipolar condition).

In my next post I’ll expand upon how I was able to overcome this depressive state. I couldn’t possibly say I’m totally off the hook, but my thinking and reasoning are clear again, and I’ve got most of my energy back.

Thanks for reading this post. The next one will soon be coming your way. Cheers, FFJ 🙂

PS: If you don’t know what bipolar disorder is, or you aren’t sure, here’s one of my most trusted sources, the Black Dog Institute website.

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Back after a while…

Here I am, after some writing activity of a different kind: a highly involved translation. I have to admit I’m not a very good multitasker, particularly when it comes to writing projects, translations and sorting out my ‘day job’, the one that pays the bills. Not that I don’t try …

Next week I’ll have to return to my ‘day’ job and I’m dreading it. The mere thought of it has given me a headache and some kind of gastric ‘malfunction’. All the same, my thoughts are still clear enough to separate the wheat from the chaff and I can still put a finger on where the problem lies.

Leaving aside blatant exploitation or slavery, which isn’t the case here, there are two factors that may turn going to work into a nightmarish experience: a) the nature of the work in itself; b) the politics, including interactions between coworkers.

In my case, it’s only b) that gives me the shits; I can’t complain about a) because I actually love what I do. Teaching at one of the most important universities in the Sydney area brings in a lot of positives, for example my students. They are bright, witty and switched on. I do get the odd troublemaker, but with all my experience as a teacher I have learned to deal with those. I can hardly say that my job is a soul-destroying one from that point of view.

When it comes to a nightmarish job, my short story The Clique illustrates a situation that includes mobbing and bullying. Very unfortunately that sort of situation is quite common and damaging.

Sigmund Freud said, Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness. He wasn’t far off the mark, but I’d like to add that it all depends on who you love and who you work with …

What a headache! I need to lie down. Thanks for reading my rant! FFJ

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