Happiful speaks with mental health campaigner, speaker and author Hope Virgo on how working for yourself affects mental health
In November 2015, I decided to take a risk. A scary risk, but one that excited me at the same time: I handed in my notice from my job and began working for myself to become a full time mental health campaigner and speaker. I was so excited about being able to do something that I was so passionate about, and as I settled into Christmas in 2017 I had a mixture of nerves and excitement. Despite being nervous, I knew that this was the time to take a risk.
I developed anorexia when I was 13 years old and was fantastic at it. My anorexia was like having this best friend in my head constantly reassuring me and making everything okay. It helped me switch off from all emotions that were going on around me, gave me a value and a purpose, and I thrived off those feelings that it gave me.
After keeping it secret for four years, I was admitted to a mental health hospital where I spent the next year trying to recover. I learned about food, exercise and about expressing my emotions in a healthy way.
After I came through my relapse in 2016, I set myself a goal to change the world for the better for people with eating disorders and mental health problems. I wanted to use my story to help others as well as challenging the misconceptions around eating disorders. To kick this off, I published a book with Trigger Press and have spent the last year speaking to thousands of students in hundreds of schools, sharing my story on TV as well as working with the NHS and organisations to really champion mental health. To top off the year, my Dump the Scales campaign was read out in Parliament, and I continue to actively campaign against using BMI or weight as an indicator of eating disorders.
The past year has certainly had huge highs, but at the same time, it has been tough. Speaking about something like anorexia, which is so personal, can be tough. And for me one of the struggles was my body image; having to accept that everyone will look at me and judge whether I look like I could have anorexia is really challenging.
After a year of working for myself, it’s time to stop and look at what has worked and what I can do to keep doing what I love. Here are some of the things I’ve learnt this year which I will try and implement moving forward.
Having a work life balance is more important than ever. I got into this awful habit of working whenever I could. Every snippet of time I had free, I would feel the need to work. This meant relationships slipped, my priorities seemed to slide and that then resulted in constantly feeling guilty for letting people down. This is not a good cycle to get into. Yes, when you are working for yourself you are a one-person team, so if you don’t keep going, the whole thing stops - but you still need time for you or you will burn out (plus working all the time is totally unproductive anyway). I learnt this the hard way, so if you are starting out, remember that balance is crucial.
Self-care is essential. Don’t let this slip! You need to prioritise some “you” time when you start working for yourself. This doesn’t have to be expensive, but could be as simple as a bath, washing your hair, or watching something trashy on the TV.
Learn to have discipline. This comes alongside the work-life balance; a huge part of this is around switching off your phone! We live in a society where people are constantly checking their phones and are immediately contactable, and so there is this added pressure to reply to people straight away. I worry when I don’t reply straight away, or when my phone isn’t with me because I might miss something. When I have done it, the world hasn’t ended, so despite this being tough to do, I am going to try.
Take the day off if you are unwell. I have always struggled taking time off from whatever job I am in, and working for myself added another layer to it. I recently went to Lebanon and picked up a parasite, so I had no choice but to take the day off. I struggled for a while at first but after a while I did it.
Value yourself. This might be the hardest one of all. And something that makes it extra hard is that I just want to help everyone, but the fact is if we don’t value ourselves, others won’t either. And secondly, if we don’t charge for our work, then we can’t keep doing it. Money is always an awkward one - I have had so many conversations with people about this and what to do - but as individuals we would always say to someone else “value yourself” and it is time we tried and lived that ourselves.
Celebrate your victories. Again, this isn’t bragging or showing off, but actually stop and reflect on what you have achieved. Find someone to celebrate those victories with, however small they may feel.
Don’t let the things you love doing slip. Whether it is running, walking or going for brunch (that’s a personal favourite), make sure you still do all those things.
Have some sort of routine. Every single day of my week is completely different work-wise, so at times it can feel completely out of control. Natasha Devon said at a meeting I was at recently that starting and ending your day the same helps the feeling of routine. And this is exactly what I am starting to do so, regardless of what time I wake up or get back from work I can do each end of my day the same! It certainly helps!
Have a few people close to you to offload onto. When you talk so openly about your own experiences you will come into contact with others who want to share their story with you. This is a part of my job that I absolutely love, but it is also one that needs to be monitored.
Two years ago I would never have imagined spending my entire time sharing my story. Yes, it hasn’t always been easy speaking so openly and dedicating my whole time to this, but I am so pleased I did it. I took the risk. A year on, it’s a risk I’m so glad I took.