Surgical spirit: the impossibility of sick days for the freelancer

When illness blights the home of the freelancer, sick days just aren’t an option – you have some new clients on the sofa. By Daniel Benneworth-Gray

I used to be a designer. I used to make book covers. I had happy clients. I had those glasses that designers have. And I had one of those bendy lamps.

When not designing, I would still be designer-ing. I would relax at my desk and flick through a hefty picture book or perhaps a fine square magazine. Every now and then I’d go online and spend stupid amounts of money on rather basic stationery supplies, maybe have an argument with a stranger about ligatures.

It was a nice little professional life I’d made for myself – all your typical nesting habits of the self-employed designer. But all of that was long ago, a distant memory – or maybe it was last week. I don’t know any more. All I know is that this week, I’m no longer a designer. I’m a nurse.

You see, my lovely design nest is perched atop a lovely house. In this lovely house live a lovely wife and a lovely son – and right now, a stomach bug. A terrible, awful stomach bug.

Due to a stubborn immune system, or perhaps latent superhuman abilities (note to self: investigate tax implications of latent superhuman abilities), I’ve managed to fight it off. This means I have responsibilities. Drug-fetching, drug-scheduling, temperature-taking, fluid-replenishing, hug-giving, symptom-Googling, brow-mopping. It’s all on me. Servile of the fittest.

There isn’t a great deal of spare time to get work done. Or sit down. Or sleep. Or eat. Not proper meals, anyway. (This is how harried I am: I’ve taken to eating Kit Kats like they’re regular chocolate bars, just taking big bites without carefully snapping them apart first. In York, home of the fingered break, this is considered treason. I’m so ashamed.)

When a rare opportunity arises – that is, when wife and boy are asleep at the same time – I squeeze in a spot of work. I nip upstairs, and upstairs again, to my little garret. Everything is where it was before the bug came to stay. It’s a museum exhibit, a diorama depicting the habitat of a designer from last week. Like one of those Parisian apartments you read about that haven’t been opened since the war. If I’m lucky, I manage three quarters of a job before I’m beckoned by a distant cough and splutter.

When I’m not dashing about the house, ferrying buckets and fans and pharmaceuticals, I’m out on errands. More time away from my desk. Today, it’s a trip to the dry-cleaners.

The lady at the dry-cleaners does not like me. Not one bit. Suffice to say that my boy was feeling particularly bug-stricken this morning and our herringbone sofa cushion covers are rather nice and worth saving. The carrier bag of Pure Evil that I apologetically slide across the counter is met with a glare. Maybe it’s a grimace. I return fire with an empty stare. It’s all I have. The wreckage of my mind is elsewhere, struggling to open a blank document.

There’s this notion that being self-employed, you have the luxury of choosing your hours. That’s only half true. All hours are your hours. No matter how busy you are with other matters or how exhausted you may be, there will always be a little bit of you doing the job. You don’t work from home, you work from everywhere. The problem is, at times like these, the work is simply not very good.

Quality control be damned, I’m still mulling over the brief that I read this morning. The ideas that sputter out of my mind are indeed dire, but maybe a few have details that are worth exploring further. Exploration requires a focus that I simply don’t have right now. These ideas are vibrating and confused; it’s a struggle to keep a grasp on them before they get led astray by other thoughts and wander off down some weird aesthetic tangent. By the time I get home, they’ll be broken, useless.

Work can wait. Having offloaded the bag of wrong and received a jolly good glaring at, I’m just happy that I’ve managed to get another nursing errand erranded. I’m bloody shattered.

Behind those glasses that designers have, my eyes are insomnia red. I’m disheveled and hollow. There’s an undeniable aroma of toddler vomit about me. As I wander home to my lovely patients, I mutter to myself about ligatures.

I used to be a designer.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York. His family are all better now. See danielgray.com and @gray

More from CR

Lecturer Design Management

Kingston University

Design Assistant

Cultureshock Media