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The Downside to Being a "Digital Nomad"? Depression.

by Matt Hershberger Oct 16, 2017

In 2014, my fiancee and I decided to move back to her home state of New Jersey. I had just recently quit my 9 to 5 office job in Washington, D.C. to become a “digital nomad,” which is millennial-speak for “freelancer.” It was, in some ways, a dream come true: I’d been travel blogging for 6 years prior to that, and had never really let myself dream that I could make a career out of it. And suddenly: voila! I could up and go whenever I needed! No need to ask for vacation or fake a sick day in order to travel! I could work from anywhere on earth!

The reality, of course, was different. We settled in Asbury Park, a small seaside town about an hour and a half from both Philadelphia and New York City. We shared a car, which my fiancee took to work most days. I stayed inside, tapping away at my computer, sometimes going days without leaving the apartment, rarely seeing anyone else. I traveled here and there, but while the money was decent, it was not enough to fund particularly extensive travels.

And I found I was wanting to travel less and less anyway. I didn’t want to do… well, anything, really. It slowly occurred to me that I was depressed.

Identifying depression

It took me a while to identify my depression because the cultural depictions I’d always seen of it were so off the mark: depressed people in movies and TV shows were crying all the time. They had lots of feelings, but they were all bad feelings. I had no feelings at all. The depressed TV characters kept trying to kill themselves. I didn’t really want to kill myself, but the idea of living for another 50 years felt exhausting. Depression wasn’t sad for me, it was boring.

The only depiction that felt familiar was by another person who worked on the internet, Allie Brosh, of the Hyperbole and a Half webcomic. My depression never got as bad as hers, but I was scared by how similar her experience sounded: the isolation, the self-hatred, the emotional flatlining. Brosh eventually became suicidal, and I was terrified that would happen to me. I was on the brink of marriage with a woman I loved, and I’d just gotten my dream job: I should be happy, not bored with everything.

The turning point ended up being our wedding. Weddings are great self-esteem boosters: people who would normally not tell you their feelings about you say very nice things, and tell you how much they want you to be happy. Riding on the post-wedding high, it no longer felt fair to let myself languish if I was going to be a full partner in my marriage. So a month after the wedding, when the high wore off, I talked to my wife and she sat next to me as I called a therapist.

At the end of our first session, he confirmed my suspicions: “Yep, what you have is depression.”

Remote work and depression

Everyone’s depression is different, but mine, I gradually came to learn, was primarily caused by external factors. I was not exercising. I was spending very little time around other people. I was spending a huge amount of my life on the internet. I was drinking a bit more than was probably healthy. And all of the books, movies, and music I was consuming were incredibly nihilistic and bleak.

It was all built into my life after the move and the job change. I didn’t really know anyone in New Jersey except through my wife. I didn’t have a car, so I couldn’t go anywhere I couldn’t walk or bike to. I didn’t go to an office, where I would be forced to have contact with other human beings. I didn’t have to walk to a train or a bus stop for my commute, so no exercise at all was built into my routine. By nature, I like bleak books, so I gravitate towards nihilistic, existentialist writers like Cormac McCarthy, Samuel Beckett, and H.P. Lovecraft (great writers all, but not the best reading diet for people who are starting to think life is meaningless and worthless). And I’m a city person — since I wasn’t in a city, there just wasn’t as much nearby that I wanted to do at night, so I could only read, watch TV, or drink.

From conversations I’ve had with other remote workers, other “digital nomads,” this is not particularly uncommon. Those of us who aren’t making the money to be traveling constantly have to be somewhat stationary, and remote work is by its nature isolating. That’s the entire point: we’ll risk depression if it means we get to be “location independent.” We’ll risk depression if it means we don’t have to put on pants when we go to work in the morning.

I’ve slowly, painfully pulled myself out of depression by building necessities like human contact, exercise, and screen-free time back into my life. Many websites (this one included) tout the joys of living as a remote-working “digital nomad.” And there are joys, no doubt. But the life on the other side of quitting your job to travel the world is still life, with all of its hazards and pitfalls. And you can save yourself a lot of pain by preparing for that.

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