A year ago this week, I made a brave and potentially very silly decision. I felt in my gut that there was a space for me to create a career and life I was proud of by combining my lived experience, knowledge of the mental health sector, and policy and evaluation skills. So I quit my job.

It has been a long year, and it’s safe to say that it hasn’t gone entirely as I had planned. (Life tip – if you want to avoid stress, avoid starting a business a few months before a pandemic)

But without a doubt, my gut feeling has proved itself. This year, I have had the opportunity to work on some interesting and challenging projects with some of the best people out there. I have managed to create a life I want – a flexible balance that allows me to work and volunteer on things I truly care about while ensuring I can stay healthy.

The work hasn’t always been easy. Much of the work I’ve undertaken this year has been among the hardest of my career. I’ve completed interviews with people with lived experience of disability, suicide and family violence – these are challenging personally and professionally, but it’s always a privilege when people are willing to share their experiences to help improve the system for others in their situation. I’ve designed evaluation frameworks for initiatives designed rapidly in response to coronavirus, and constantly iterating as the pandemic continues – evaluations that push me to the limits of my theoretical and experiential evaluation knowledge. I’ve taken opportunities to use my own lived experience of mental illness and suicidality to help health professionals improve the quality and safety of the services they deliver – something that’s emotionally exhausting and rewarding in equal measure.

I’ve also learnt an absolute ton about how I respond to stress and uncertainty. One of the hardest shifts to self-employment has been coping with the unpredictability of ‘what comes next’. This is certainly not unique to freelance work, but the consequences of a potential misstep feel higher.

Without a doubt, the only way I’ve managed to deal with these ups and down is through creating a strong network. I am eternally grateful to the people who have supported me this year – the great clients; those with the generosity to share their lived experience; the talented evaluators and researchers I’ve partnered with; and, an invaluable network of other freelancers. Freelancing comes with the potential of isolation. That’s certainly been exacerbated this year when life in general has been isolated. But I’ve not felt that professional isolation this year because of the generosity of those I work with who help me bounce around tricky ideas, celebrate the wins, and blow off steam when things haven’t gone entirely to plan (did I mention covid?!).

I look forward to another year of interesting and challenging work. Over the coming months, I hope to be able to share a bit more on my website some of the projects I’ve worked on and the outcomes they’ve delivered for those I’ve worked with. In the meantime though, I think I’m going to have some birthday cake!