Thursday, October 11, 2007

A freelance writer's occupational hazards

Writing from home isn't all fun and games. Many other forums have addressed myths such as:

1) Writing in coffee shops all the time
2) Being able to rearrange your schedule whenever you want (i.e. on warm-weather, let's-go-to-the-beach kinds of days)
3) Not having a "real job"

Of course, there is some truth to these myths (well, except for the one about writing not being a real job), but other people are known for exaggerating the benefits of a writer's life.

This post isn't about those things, though. It's about debunking the myth that writers, since we work from home, have no occupational hazards.

Of course, anyone who has suffered Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) knows that we face plenty of hazards in our jobs. And unlike many workers with hazardous jobs, we don't get sick days or medical leave. So if our wrists start hurting from too much typing or mouse-work, we have to make a decision between taking care of our bodies and taking care of our bills.

Now, I haven't suffered any symptoms of RSI for several months (yes, I still get it from time to time, but never as bad as what I experienced early on in my freelance career). Right now I'm having an entirely different type of writing-related strain: eye strain.

It's been a problem primarily in the last week or two: I develop a headache behind and around my eyes anytime I am on my computer for more than about 45 minutes. I'm not the type of person who is comfortable with popping pills all day long, so I have been taking breaks -- doing laundry, reading (which, oddly enough, doesn't cause the headaches), and visiting Panama -- periodically throughout my days. Unfortunately, while this helps me manage the headaches somewhat, it has a devastating effect on my productivity.

I've noticed a few trends regarding these headaches:

1) They almost always occur within the first 45 minutes of being on the computer.

2) Far-sighted activities -- i.e. watching movies, working with Panama, driving -- do not cause the headaches. I can do those all day long without a hint of a headache.

3) Among more near-sighted activities, it is only the laptop screen that seems to cause headaches. I can read without any problems, even though I hold my book even a little closer than the computer screen.

4) Any light source behind my laptop screen seems to make things worse. My desk is right in front of our west-facing study window, so I sit facing the window with my laptop right in front of me. The glare of the sun in the late afternoons makes the blinds "glow." For some reason, having this right behind my laptop screen makes the headaches come on faster, so I have to retreat to a different location toward the end of the day. Also, I have had to stop opening the blinds during the morning and mid-day, because more light comes in and causes the same general results.

I'm almost certain that I need a new glasses prescription. Why this big of a change all of a sudden, though? I think it actually has to do with Panama: Suddenly I am no longer staring at a computer screen eight or more hours a day, but using my eyes for seeing far during at least half of every day. I think my eyes are rebelling against the strength of my current prescription.

I have always been quite near-sighted -- so near-sighted, in fact, that if I took off my glasses right now I'd have to have my face about a foot away from the screen in order to read what I am writing. However, I have always felt that my poor eyesight has partly to do with how often I do things that require only close-up vision.

For example, when I became a full-time writer, and I was suddenly staring at a computer all day long with few interruptions, my vision worsened.

Also, when my diabetes was brought under control and the sugar cleared out of my eyes, my vision rebounded to 20/25 for three glorious weeks. In other words, my eyes had actually changed shape to compensate for the clouds of sugar I was trying to see through, and once that was gone they gradually returned to their normal shape.

At any rate, I suspect that my vision is improving slightly thanks to a healthier mix of activities -- similarly to how getting off my butt for several hours every day has helped me lose a few pounds. Unfortunately, this is resulting in a lot of painful and disorienting headaches right now, which interferes with my work. As a result, I need to take a trip to the eye doctor that neither my schedule nor my finances are prepared for right now.

Anyone who thinks writers don't have occupational hazards can kiss my semi-blind a$$.


Anonymous said...

Hey Katherine
My first time here and I wanted to let you know I've been reading over the past few days and I love your blog! You're right on with the occupational hazards. I have a a swelling in my right wrist that I've been putting off getting checked by a doctor, but its beginning to hurt now, so I'll probabaly have to get myself in one of these days and soon! I am petrified he'll tell me to rest it!

Katharine Swan said...


I SO feel for you. Being told to lay off your livelihood is a scary thought.

Have you tried ice or heat? When I get pains in my wrists or elbows, a heating pad while I work and at bedtime usually helps considerably. However, since yours is swelling, I wonder if ice wouldn't be the best bet. You might also try changing the height of your chair, or getting one of those long, cushiony wrist rests to put in front of your keyboard and mouse.

Best of luck... Please let me know how it goes.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Katherine,

I will be going out of town for a much needed break and wont have access to my computer while I am gone. I think that might help reduce the swelling. I notice it's always slightly better in the morning after a good night's sleep. I'll know in 4 days time. I'll keep you posted on my health issues!

Anonymous said...

I really do miss having sick leave. I've been SO sick on and off the past week. I can work through a cold, but nausea and vomiting not so much.

Hope your headaches get better.

Katharine Swan said...


I took a little break myself over the weekend. I won't be working much today (Monday), either, as Michael took the day off and we have a friend coming over this afternoon and evening. So far it seems to have helped.


I'm a baby about working when I'm sick, whether it's a cold or flu symptoms. However, I've found that if I go back to bed and get some extra sleep, I get better faster anyway.

As it turns out, a little extra sleep each night seems to have helped with the headaches. Whether or not being overtired was causing the problem, I'm sure the lack of sleep wasn't helping!

I hope you are feeling better!

Anonymous said...

I must say that I have had migraines my entire life and working freelance has made them more frequent, my doctor has confirmed it is most likely the screen that is the bother in my life --- :(

Migraines are the worst, BUT I can't see myself working for someone else again - soo I will get by....


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