… and a Potential Sitcom Pilot

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Imagine a pleasant, if somewhat overcrowded suburbia setting.
The typical three-bedroom ranch on a corner lot, smack in the center of a neighborhood. It would be the hub, probably, if the beleaguered matron of the house didn’t generally flee from most human interaction. An unassuming white house, with a travel trailer, six vehicles crammed in the driveway, and a couple small fishing boats that appeared one day, from somewhere, like magic. The lawn, were it described as an 80’s hair band, would be White Snake. The family is a sassy combination of the Waltons and the Munsters.
The beleaguered matron of the homestead (dreadlocked, pierced, tattooed, with the attention span of a gnat on crack) has fallen ill. Frustrated but responsible (she’s got things to do, dammit, stuff! And whatnots!) she removes herself from the day job to spend several hours at a local urgent care. The struggle to move oxygen had become a losing battle, and her voice had completely disappeared, with nary even a whisper left. She’d tried calling the family doctor, but with the inability to elicit more than the occasional hoarse squeak, they couldn’t grasp her need to make an appointment. Her coworker then called on her behalf, and after much confusion, it turned out they were already booked entirely for that day, but thanked her for calling, very nice, how pleasant of you. They’d call the patient back if the doctor could fit her in, but it didn’t look promising, so she gave up, arranged her desk so it wouldn’t be a mess if she ever made it back to the office, and drove herself (very quietly) to the nearest urgent care. The diagnosis: laryngitis, bronchitis, asthma flare. Once the medications were procured, she went home to bed, hopeful the morning would bring relief, and if Saint Nick was willing, some semblance of a voice.
But the next day was worse, so she opted not to wake. The third day was agitating beyond measure, on account of the aforementioned attention span problems, and the things she needed to do but couldn’t, and the household that was surely headed to the netherworlds in a handbasket without her there to tend it all. Midday, she stumbled into the living space, which was for whatever reason, unbearably bright and noisy, and tried to remember what it felt like to be a human. In fact, she could not recall, but as it was a holiday – July 4th, in fact – she pretended that she did. There seems to be another extra person there that she was previously unaware of, and a small puppy, who, while adorable in its clumsy puppy-ness, is still a surprise. Also, the mom’s mom now shows up, ostensibly to celebrate a holiday, but mostly to keep checking her grown-up child for fever and to make certain she eats something, whether she wants to or not. It should be mentioned here that the mom’s mom has also brought a dog, which, if one were the counting type, would bring the total to five. To recap, that would make ten people, five dogs, and eight guinea pigs, who, for their part, were as delightful and cheery as always. Our quirky matron holds out as long as she can, but the heat and the crowd and what seems to be unbearable crankiness of all the other people in the household drive her, baffled, back to her bedroom at her first opportunity. Sleep is easier. And quieter. And far more understandable.
Now that we’ve gotten the audience’s empathy, the humor strikes.
On the fourth day of the illness, something changed. Each time she coughed, her right side lit with sharp agony. Still no voice. Still exhausted. And though in general fairly stoic regarding physical pain, she worried that the misery in her side was indeed a concern. She tried to ignore it. Tried to medicate it. But as the day wore on, the pain only became worse, and so she ended up back at the urgent care. Turns out, she was exhibiting all the symptoms of a collapsed lung, which meant she had to stay there for roughly 47 years while getting chest x-rays from every imaginable position. But, good news! No collapsed lung. Probably just pulled muscles from the never-ending cough. They switched up her medications and sent her back home.
There had been a freak summer storm while she was gone. The roads had flooded, which required some tricky navigational skills to get back to the house. Our quirky beleaguered matron did not possess those particular skills, however, her husband quite thankfully did. Once home, in the spirit of the long holiday weekend, she determined to get at least one thing on her list accomplished. (Let us reiterate here, that the quirky matron is in fact the owner of a glorious multitude of guinea pigs, as well as three small hysterical dogs. Oh, and four almost-old-enough-to-move-out-on-their-own children. So technically, they are a family of six. But the long time significant other of one of those children also lives there. And it’s possible there is also now an eighth person who, if not exactly living there, still has not left in a long, long time.) She has grand plans to disassemble her guinea pig cages and build newer, bigger, better ones, and believes she can do this without destroying her admittedly pitifully-functioning lungs. She will just sit on the floor and attach grids to one another with zip ties. It is not hard physical labor. It’s really almost resting. She’s sure the urgent care physician would agree.
And after all, her plans for the long holiday weekend had been to finish writing two books, ship several shipments of the last book she released, tune her guitar and practice that, clean the bedroom – clean the entire house, in fact, and organize all the things – as well as finish crocheting that one shawl, and maybe start one other story she’d been thinking of, and do some hardcore shopping for her kid’s quickly approaching open house, as well as rebuild the cages. But she’s settling, and only doing the one thing, after four miserably boring days in bed, and is unsure why nobody else can see how frustrated she really is. She remains quiet on this front, however, as she’s been on a lot of steroids lately, and is aware they sometimes leave her feeling testy and irrational. Also, she still has no voice with which to express her tumultuous feelings.
So with a modicum of assistance, she’s gotten the guinea pig cages taken apart, and now four of the eight pigs now have no home, but just temporarily.
(It seems like it’s taking forever, Yes, I know this, but the set up before the joke drop is ESSENTIAL, people, trust me)
Let’s insert the part here that now with the doubled steroid dose, her already plump cheeks will blow up, resembling a greedy chipmunk, even though she is still really too sick to eat food.
AND THEN
In very quick succession, several things happen at once. One kid and their SO have returned with pizza and breadsticks for dinner and set them on the coffee table. Quirky mom heads to the basement to throw in laundry for her precious guinea pigs, yes, she does their laundry, because she keeps them on fleece bedding, because they are tiny treasures to her heart and THEY ARE WORTH IT, when she recognizes something amiss. There is a great puddle of water coming from beneath the basement staircase, enough water that it has its own current, and she’s not certain but she thought she might have seen a few fish float by. One kid is approximately three feet away from the water, immersed in his video games. “Kid #4!” she whisper shouts. “Do you not see this water?”
“Huh?” is his helpful response.
One dreaded peek around the basement wall confirms her worst fear. The storms have invaded the lower level. The basement is flooding at an alarming rate. “Get up!” she whisper cries. “Towels! Shop vac! Get the electrical stuff up first!” There is furniture, amps, guitars & their paraphernalia, boxes of important things, large rugs, all manner of whatnots and such that definitely should not be getting soaking wet.
“Huh?” he replies once again.
She runs (slowly, on account of the oxygenation problem) to alert the remaining houseful of longterm residents. “Basement is flooding!” she whisper shouts. “Towels! Shop vac! Move, move, move!”
Some, indeed, do move. Some are still eating pizza. Some are chasing the loose guinea pigs. Two have apparently come down with some sickness that renders them unable to Do Things. The hysterical dogs are made more hysterical by the excitement. Quirky Mom’s spouse is extraordinarily displeased at this turn of events. Also astronomically displeased RE: loose guinea pigs, disassembled cages, destroyed kitchen filled with cage parts and tables for cages to rest on, gigantic sheet of corrugated plastic for the base of the new cage that seems to move itself so it’s right where it needs to NOT be, repeatedly, somehow hay has been spilled, loose guinea pigs are surprisingly fast!, where did the rest of the pizza go?, more water is coming in! move, move, move! OH MY GOD, WHY WAS THAT ON THE BASEMENT FLOOR NOW IT’S RUINED!, somebody catch that guinea pig!, sweet lifegiver, Quirky Mom’s gut has now been struck with the massive discontent sometimes brought on by the combination of antibiotics, stupidly high steroid doses, illness, and stress; indeed, the GI tract has been suddenly struck as if it has collided with a Mack truck, but the damp boxes of dampened heirlooms, loose and hysterical animals, cage grids, jars of cable ties, and the like are blocking the route to the bathroom, one kid now thinks they may be about to vomit, spouse is loudly displeased, loudly, VERY LOUDLY displeased, and she can’t stop coughing, her side hurts, her side hurts, her side hurts, sweet Saint Nick –
And of course, this is the moment WHEN HILARITY ENSUES.

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Under Pressure

 

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Writing news update: Slim to none.

That’s not entirely true, I guess. I have been writing, although infrequently, and mostly on my phone, since my laptop, Tallulah, has been misbehaving lately. She’s working today, so I’ve been scrambling through my social media, updating things and whatnots and whozits, linking things, writing, transferring the writing from my phone into actual manuscripts, and just generally catching up on all the things I’ve been – for all intents and purposes – neglecting in favor of losing myself in fiction and adopting guinea pigs.

I feel sometimes like I’m the only writer I know that isn’t motivated by money. I mean, obviously, I expect to be paid for my work. I expect any artist to be paid for their work. I also need to make enough money from my books to be able to create more books, and things like formatting, editing, and cover design cost money, as they should. So, yes, I need to make money off my books, but I guess it’s just not my driving force. It’s been a tough year for authors. News of plagiarism, copyright drama, and book thieves has been all over the place, and there’s no doubt it’s discouraging for all of us. So many authors – incredibly talented writers – I  know have been on the brink of throwing in the towel as far as their writing goes, and it’s sad. I hate that there are such unscrupulous people out there. I hate that book pirates feel so entitled to books that they think stealing them is an okay thing to do. I hate that the actions of rotten people affect so many good people just trying to make a living.

I’m not throwing in the towel. I can’t imagine a time when I will ever willingly quit writing. That doesn’t mean I’ll always share the stories I write. Some days are so frustrating I feel like pulling all my stories down and just writing strictly for myself. I don’t really want to do that, but it is extraordinarily discouraging when there is so much negativity and drama going on in the book world. I just want to write, not fight with people or get caught up in drama. I try to keep to my own little corner of the writing world, but even so, drama spreads like wildfire.

But what means even more to me than that kind of nonsense, is getting the chance to interact with those who read and enjoy my books. When a reader sends me a message to tell me they enjoyed my story, or when someone new to my books tells me they love my work because it’s not like anything else they’ve read, or because they see themselves represented in my stories, that makes an enormous difference to me, to my attitude about writing. I’m not the biggest name author out there, and I’ve never intended to be that. I’ve intended to be authentic, to write my stories truthfully and to the best of my ability. I’ve intended to write relatable characters and bust harmful stereotypes about appearances or mental illness. I’ve intended to reach people, so they can know that they are not alone, that at the very least some fictional person has the same thoughts and feelings they have. Representation matters, whether it’s representation of physical appearance, or living through trauma, or mental illness, or some other attribute that makes people feel “other.”

I’m not great about remaining consistent on any social media platform. I’m not great about remaining consistent about blog posts, or churning out new books on a schedule. I’m not even that great at promo stuff, quite often dropping a book with no prior fanfare whatsoever. I’ve got a brain that is simply faulty in some areas, and one of those areas is the ability to focus on one thing consistently. I’ve said before that my writing style tends to be feast or famine and that remains true. It seems like either I’m doing doing doing doing, or absolutely silent. I often fall silent after I finish releasing a new book. I think I just need some time to crawl inside my brain and rest. I do this sort of thing more often now, since I realized how much added stress was contributing to my anxiety and depression struggles. It’s not that I don’t want to release books more often, and it’s not that I don’t want to write. But once I start feeling like I’m getting overwhelmed in every facet of my life, I have to take a few steps back. I have to hunker down. I have to cease putting extra demands on myself. I love writing, but not more than I love my family. Or my own sanity, for that matter. Rest matters, whether it’s mental or physical or both. And it’s a bit easier, I think, to be able to make such decisions when I know my mortgage isn’t riding on the amount of book royalties I’m bringing in.

It’s a pressure I’ve chosen to release myself from, and I feel I enjoy writing more because of it. I know this way isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine. Do I need to bring in money from book sales? Absolutely. If I don’t, I can’t keep making more books. But does the need to make money off my books take priority over my mental health? Nope. I simply cannot allow that.

That said, I have been working a bit on my latest WIPs. Knowing Rogan, the 5th installment in the Secrets of Windy Springs series, has been creeping along, and is currently about 75% finished. The collection of writings on grief I’ve been putting together is just about ready to release, and we recently did a photo shoot for the cover, which I’m super excited about. I’ve also taken a step in a new direction, and launched a Patreon. I’ve set two tiers, one at $1 a month and one at $5 a month. Those who choose to pledge a monthly amount will be rewarded handsomely with boons. And possibly pirates. Sharing matters, truly. It makes a huge difference. I appreciate every single one of you who share my work, write reviews, tell others about my books, etc. I hope some of you will consider joining me on Patreon, because it looks like a cool and different way to interact with everyone.

What else can I update on, other than books? Hhhmmn, well, let’s see. Since my last blog post, I’ve gotten two new tattoos, two new piercings, survived another gray winter in Michigan, adopted two guinea pigs, learned to build them a cage all by me onesie, and have been teaching myself to play guitar. Wait… we may have already talked about me playing guitar. I’m terrible at it, TBH, but my God, is it ever fun to learn!

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The Truth About the Valley

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Like an exhaustion that can never be cured by sleep.

Like a chronic agitation brought on by sounds, lights, and fabrics. Nothing is right. Everything is too much.

Like a hungry ache down deep inside, filling every bit of me up with sadness, while somehow also leaving me achingly empty.

Like tears sitting behind my eyes that never get the chance to fall.

That’s what depression feels like.

Like eight solid hours of cracking stupid jokes at work to keep everyone else laughing.

Like belting out the off-key lyrics to songs that once made you feel happy, just in case.

Just in case they bring a tiny bit of happiness once more.

Like teasing and plotting and planning and hoping out loud.

That’s what depression sounds like.

Just over a week ago, my husband’s brother was found dead at his home. At first it was utterly surreal. And then it was a rush of planning and notifying and shopping for appropriate funeral attire because my kids had outgrown their dress clothes. It was walking through fog and knowing what’s coming next. It was being terrified of losing my shit again and knowing there’s no other way through grief but to force my way through it. It was not crying when we heard and it was not crying at the funeral and it was wondering when I’d become such a coldhearted bitch. It was being afraid of falling asleep lest the same nightmares that assaulted  me after my own brother’s death turned up again. It was we can’t do this again, not again, not so soon, we won’t make it. 

And of course, it was making it through anyway. Because that’s what we do. We make it. We have to.

But somehow during the haze of all the things we needed to get done and the requesting time off work for yet another funeral and the trying to be there for my grieving kids and the making frantic phone calls to family members before the sad news hit Facebook and some loved one found out that way, I forgot to refill the medication I need to make my brain work right. I remembered suddenly just before we left for the funeral, so I called it in to my local pharmacy. But we came home late, after the funeral dinner at my church, and we were all sort of stunned still and I forgot about picking it up until after they’d closed for the night. The next morning started with my daughter losing air in her tire, so we let her take our vehicle to work and took hers to get the tire fixed – there’d been a nail in it. Then my son called me, his voice all wobbly, because one of his best friends and his mom had been in a terrible car accident, and he wanted us to drive him up to the hospital so he could sit with his buddy while his mom was in surgery. When the tire had been fixed and we got our daughter’s car back to her place of work, and then made it home to pick up our son, his friend had already gotten a ride home, so my husband took him over there. And nowhere in that flurry of activity did I remember about my medication. I did eventually get it picked up, but not before I’d gone several days without it. How many days? I can’t recall. I’m unsure if that’s what has set off this latest emotional valley. Regardless, it’s here. It’s here. In my bones. In my soul.

But I’m trying. I’m working at remembering to practice self-care. I’m working at remembering to take a shower. To drag my sorry self up in the mornings for work. To pull the cleanest-looking clothes off the floor to dress myself. I’m hoping this valley won’t be a long one, because already every step I take feels as though I’m shuffling through heavy mud. Having half my hair dreadlocked is handy, because yesterday I literally didn’t even hit my hair with a brush before work, I just pulled on a wide headband to cover the mess. I listen to people talking about going to the gym and what foods they can eat on their current fad diets and I quietly remind myself to just take a step, take a step, take one more step.

And I smile. I laugh.

Like a writer furiously writing a new book. Two new books. Three.

Like a weird hippie chick snuggling her dogs and chunky guinea pig.

Like a responsible adult, clocking in at nine and out at five, every day of the week.

Like a responsible parent of kids with a chronic illness, making appointments with the home nurse and scheduling IV pump swaps with the infusion company.

Like a responsible mom hassling the public school principal over my son’s missing English class credit until she does something about it.

That’s what depression looks like.

Every part of me, every cell, feels like it’s been bruised. My hair hurts. My eyelashes hurt. I find it extraordinarily difficult to tell the difference between being tired and just not wanting to be awake any longer.

Isolation is my best trick. I’m better at that than I am at crocheting or sewing or cracking jokes or probably even writing. Isolation is easy. When things hurt too much, my instinct is to cocoon down. I crave silence. I crave solitude. But it’s addictive. I can’t just lock myself away so I can avoid dealing with pain. If I did, I might never come back out. I force myself to return texts. I force myself to answer my ringing phone. I force myself to connect with people. I force myself to go to the grocery store for necessities.

I’ll be fine, as I always am. Even if I fall completely apart again, I’ll glue my broken bits back into some semblance of order and carry on. At some point, I will. But not today. Today I am tired. Today I don’t have the energy to put my broken pieces back together.

Today I’ve been laughing and typing and calming down upset clients who call the office. Today I stopped on my way home from work to pick up a dollar store Barbie doll, because my coworker turned 37 today and told me she’d never gotten a Barbie doll cake when she was a kid but had always wanted one, so I’m typing this piece while waiting for the rainbow sprinkle cakes to cool enough to frost them. It’s been years since I’ve made one but I’m fairly certain I remember how. At least… well, we’ll see. I’m pretty sure I can do it, anyway.

Today I threw together a new book teaser for my fantasy series, and created a silly poll in my FB group, and I ate half a chicken quesadilla at lunch even though I had no desire to eat, because my awesome boss bought us all lunch today. Today I reminded myself that my guinea pig won’t be dead in the morning, even though I always think he will be, because I know that depression and anxiety lie to me all the damn time about things like that. Today I brushed my teeth and put some braids in my hair so I have less hair to brush before work tomorrow. Today I went to the grocery store to get milk. Today I didn’t practice my guitar, because, once again, my kid accidentally busted my strings, but I thought about the way I place my hands for each chord so I don’t forget.

Today I got up and I tried. I made myself think of all the positive things I have to look forward to. I have a gift card to Barnes & Noble so I can order new books, and I absolutely love to get books in the mail. I have an upcoming tattoo appointment I’m insanely excited about. I’m thinking about a new piercing. I’m thinking about getting new guitar strings, because I’ve got to teach myself to play the opening part of “Minority” by Green Day. I’ve written a new book that people seem to really like, and more importantly, I’ve written a new book that *I* completely love. I’m so proud of that book. There’s a lot of truth in it. Covered in pirates and magic, but still. It’s there and it’s mine.

Tomorrow I will get up and try again. I will probably wear the same sweater I wear most of the time, because it is soft and has pockets and is weirdly comforting. I will take this silly Barbie cake to work, and I will laugh at some point, and I will check on my guinea pig way too many times, just to make sure he’s fine.

It gets dark here in this valley, but I hold onto the knowledge that sunshine will come again because it always has before. It might take a while, but still. I trust it will come. Until then, I will keep trying.

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Poking Holes in the Oxygen Mask

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“In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.”

It can be difficult, living with an anxiety disorder. Some days I feel almost normal, and some days the anxiety monster is working in full force, overtime, like it’s going to get an extra week of vacation and a free turkey for Christmas if it just puts in a little extra effort. Some days things seems pretty good. Some days it seems like every part of my life is about to be entrenched in a crisis, only I have no idea what the crisis is going to be, so I just have to keep waiting for it to arrive.

Over the last year – and it’s been almost exactly that, almost exactly a year now, since my brain went to shit and my marbles fell all over the floor – and while my anxiety disorder may not be quite so outwardly visible now, it’s still alive and functioning. The medications I take daily do help, as well as the breathing exercises I learned in therapy and other self-help tools, such as visualization, meditation, removing myself from stressful environments, and delegating certain daily tasks to others so I am not quite so overwhelmed. One of the biggest things I struggle with as far as managing my anxiety is the constant onslaught of catastrophic news. It’s nearly impossible to get away from. I quit watching the news. I unfollowed any news pages on social media, months ago. It didn’t help. I unfriended and unfollowed people who can only seem to post about Every Terrible Thing Ever. I’ve muted and blocked multiple accounts. I click the ellipses above FB posts, then click to hide posts forever from that person or organization. I haven’t watched television in months. Not even reruns of The Office.

But it’s impossible to stay away from it entirely, regardless how hard I try. People are gleeful when they’ve got bad news to share. Believe me, I’m aware of what is going on in the world. I know. And yes, it is awful. Absolutely. I do my best to speak up. To be an ally. To advocate. But I cannot immerse myself in Every Terrible Thing Ever, not constantly. Not every day. Because I’m still trying to hang on to my brain with both hands.

And it matters. It matters that I keep myself doing okay.

Living with anxiety makes it difficult to reign in my worry. I’m already a worrier, by nature. Adding anxiety to that is like dumping lighter fluid on an already blazing fire. I’m over here trying to stop, drop, and roll, and the rest of the world is showing up with wagons full of matches.

Imagine a time when you had that fight or flight response activated. That moment you looked out and for a split second, couldn’t see your child in the yard. Or your beloved pet ran across the street and nearly got hit by a car. Or you woke from the most horrific nightmare, your heart hammering, palms sweating and shaking. For a few minutes, you couldn’t calm back down, even after you knew everything was all right. You’re jittery. Waiting for something awful to happen. Your  mind is racing with all sorts of terrible possibilities. Ten minutes go by. Half an hour. Your heart settles into its regular rhythm. Your hands are steady. It’s okay, now. Everything is okay.

When you live with an anxiety disorder, it doesn’t work that way. Even after you realize there is no longer a threat, that fight or flight response just keeps amping up. Hours can pass, and your heart is still hammering. Your hands are still shaking.  Your mind is coming up with all sorts of frightening scenarios. You’ve lost focus. Your legs are bouncing as you try to sit still. Tears prick the backs of your eyes. Long after the initial fear has passed, you might still end up with chest pain. A panic attack. Struggle to catch your breath.

Of course, you still have to work. Parent. Take care of your life. Drive. Buy the groceries. Walk the dog. Even when every nerve inside you has been pulled taught all day long and your body cries for rest.

Imagine waking up feeling this way every day. But you are determined to push through. You’re exhausted, but drag yourself to the shower. Fix your hair. Make it to work. You sit in the parking lot for twenty minutes, doing your breathing exercises. Thinking peaceful thoughts. Meditating. You’re going to focus on one good thing, you think. It’s a beautiful day. Okay. You’ll focus on that. Remember how the breeze feels. Remember the sunrise. Remember that fat white cloud shaped like a dragon. “Good morning,” you say as you enter the office. “Beautiful day out there, isn’t it?” You make yourself smile. Take another deep breath.

“Did you hear about the celebrity that died? Isn’t it awful?”

“I heard there was a flood, five children died, can you imagine?”

“Did you hear the business down the street caught fire? They lost everything!”

You try to block it out. Focus on work. But it’s already made it through your brain. Once again, your chest is tight. Breaths coming in short, shallow gasps. Your hands shake as you type. Your skin is crawling. Nausea hits.

You make it to your lunch break. Hope to distract yourself by scrolling Facebook.

DEATH! DESTRUCTION! SICK BABIES! NATURAL DISASTERS! IF YOU DON’T SHARE THIS POST YOU’RE A TERRIBLE PERSON!

You close the app. Put your phone away.

Stop for gas on the way home. Try to focus on something positive, even something tiny. But the pumps are now equipped with Gas Station TV, and there’s no way to get away from the cheerful voice describing all manner of terrible news.

So you make it home, exhausted. Dinner. Dishes. Fall into bed.

Can’t sleep, because you’re anxious. Still shaky. Headache. Another bout with nausea. Toss. Turn. Cry. Take deep breaths. Feels like your chest is caving in. Sit up. Focus on breathing. Legs are restless. Get up. Walk around the house in the dark. Get back in bed. Finally fall asleep. Have horrific nightmare revolving around death, destruction, sick babies, natural disasters, you’re a terrible person, imminent apocalypse. Wake shaking. Sweaty. A scream in your throat. Check the clock. Get up for work.

Start the entire cycle over again.

Existing with a brain like this is exhausting. And of course, it’s not that I expect the world to change because my brain is fucked up. But I hope others can understand when I need a break from the constant barrage of Every Terrible Thing Ever. And maybe if your loved one is living with an anxiety disorder, consider how your words might affect them.

People with anxiety aren’t sticking their heads in the sand. We’re just trying to survive. Some days feel like we’re running through a mine field, just trying to make it to the other side mostly intact.

On a flight, they tell you in an emergency, put your oxygen mask on first. It’s not because you don’t care about everyone else. But you won’t be any good to anyone – including yourself – if you don’t have oxygen. The onslaught of incessant Terrible Things is like poking holes in someone’s oxygen mask. Is it necessary? Is it helpful? No.

We’re just trying to breathe, man. Please let us.

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Off Days

You ever have those off days, where everything feels crooked? That’s me, today. I can’t seem to find my footing.

Its been a frustrating week with several personal & household battles, on top of three of the four cars (two belong to our daughters) needing some kind of work done. I left my vehicle at the mechanic’s last week for two days to get the alternator fixed, but instead of fixing that because they couldn’t find the problem, they fixed other things they found wrong to the tune of $400. Now the alternator is still having issues.

My husband has been sick and feverish for days, and he kept shivering. I noticed our house kept getting warmer yesterday but thought he must’ve turned off the air because he had the chills. Nope. Turns out, the A/C just quit working.

There was a modest vacation scheduled for next weekend, which unfortunately fell through.

This week, it seems everything I put my hand to fails. The vehicle. Housework. Yesterday I kept waiting for the water in the pot to boil, only to realize I’d turned the wrong burner on. The dryer kept getting on the wrong setting and not getting loads dry. This morning I typed and retyped and retyped a will, because I kept making the same stupid mistakes. I’m fortunate my boss is a patient person, because I’ve screwed up more ways today than I can count. And it’s not even afternoon yet.

My keyboard, printer, and mouse at work are all being absolute brats for no reason at all.

It feels like I’ve got bubble gum stuck in the cogs and gears of my brain.

I know that none of these things are a big deal in the grand scheme. It’s just cumulative irritation coupled with anxiety, but man oh man. I’m working on taking deep breaths and focusing on positives and I’ve even been messing this morning with what I call my “worry rocks”, little magnetic rocks I twirl in my hand when I’m anxious. It’s like that sensation when a tag in your shirt keeps bothering and bothering your skin, except I feel that way all over inside and out.

I am frustrated today, it seems, with everything that ever was or ever will be. But possibly most frustrated with the fact that my tossed salad doesn’t taste anything like a Snickers bar.

All that frustration has got to go somewhere, I guess. So I’m sitting in my car on my lunch break, venting on my blog.

 

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Ache.

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I hadn’t seen him in nearly two years. The last time was difficult. I had to leave his place before he even touched me. He apologized, but that’s how it had to be, and I tried to understand.

Yesterday I stopped by randomly. I’ve been in a lot of pain, and needed to know if his touch would help. I haven’t been able to sleep. My stress level is through the roof, and I needed… something. In the past, his hands have done for me what no other man’s hands could do.
The door slammed behind me. He looked up, and our eyes met.
I’ve changed my hair since last I saw him and it took him a second to recognize me. He was glad to see me. A bit startled, perhaps.
We didn’t talk much as he led me to his small back room. “Lie down,” he murmured. “On your stomach, first.” And I did.
He started out slowly, and I began to melt. Then he was rougher, and I felt a bit frantic. The pain was so intense I wanted to cry out, but bit my lip instead. Repeatedly, he slammed me against the bed. “Don’t stop,” I whispered. “More, more.”
He leaned over me, and in a deep, commanding voice said, “Turn over.”
I did. I always do what he tells me to do. It’s how our relationship has always worked.
He moved my hair so that the long curls hung off the edge of the bed and began to knead my tight neck muscles. I relaxed and let my head drop down. “Mmmnn,” I mumbled. His hands moved to my shoulders. I kept my eyes closed.
I felt the joints of his thumbs press against my ears, and tried not to panic. He cupped the back of my head in his hands. I breathed deep and slow, preparing for what I knew was coming. It was going to hurt, but it had to be done. He always insisted on it.
He pressed his palms against my head and twisted, hard.
I felt the crunching in my neck, so loud it seemed to echo across the room.
It startles me that I pay him to do this to me. Still, when we are finished, I hand over the cash. I assumed his rate hadn’t gone up in the two years I had stayed away, and he didn’t correct me.
When I left his place, I was sore and my entire body ached, but he told me to come back Thursday, and I am. Hopefully my shoulder is better by the weekend.
I missed not being able to see my chiropractor when I didn’t have insurance. He’s the only one who can work my bones this way.

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What Matters Most

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There is so much wrong in this world right now. So much pain and heartache. We can’t fix it all, and trying to do so would be a burden too heavy to bear. What we can do is show more kindness, more empathy, more compassion to others. It’s a burden of another kind, but far lighter to carry.

Everywhere we go, there are people hurting. We might not see it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I get dressed. Put on makeup. Do… well, something with my hair. I smile and laugh. Very often, on the inside, my heart is hammering. My nerves feel pulled taut. My muscles are so tense they ache. My thoughts are bouncing around in my brain, finding things to worry about. Tears sit in the back of my eyes; I blink a lot so they don’t fall.

A while back, I was at an appointment at a doctor’s office, and at the end of the appointment, she sent me to their office lab for bloodwork. The phlebotomist was one I’d had before on several occasions. This particular day, she looked and acted just like herself. There was no blazing, “Inside I’m crushed by the weight of this pain” sign on her forehead. But in the course of her taking my blood, she paused and apologized. “I’m sorry if I don’t seem like myself today. My daughter died two weeks ago, and this is my first day back.” Her daughter was twenty-two. Cystic fibrosis.

We have no idea where people are at in life. Where they’ve been. What struggles they are fighting, even as they go about their daily lives, as they laugh, as they do their best to act just like themselves.

I’ve often heard the phrase, “Hurt people, hurt people.” That’s true. Sometimes people who are in pain lash out because they don’t know what else to do. But there are those who take this notion to an extreme, deliberately causing hurt to others while using their own pain as an excuse.

People go out of their way to be mean. Two of my kids work at a local grocery store. My daughter is a cashier. Daily, people wad up their receipts and throw them back at her. She’s had objects thrown at her face. Last summer, an angry old man spit cherry pits on her. My son is a service clerk. People yell at him constantly. There have been times the pop bottle return machines aren’t working right; customers launch their empty two-liters at his head in their anger. Pay attention in a restaurant sometime: customers shouting at their waitress because their toast isn’t just right; refusing to tip because they didn’t like their meal after all; making nasty comments about their server’s appearance, as if that has anything to do with their dinner. Social media… man. That’s it’s own level of awful. Mean things I’ve witnessed there recently include grown women attacking an indie cover artist online, to the point they demanded she kill herself because she was worthless – and then she attempted to take her own life by overdosing on pills. People attack crowd funding at alarming rates, and they don’t care if you’re raising money for your mother’s funeral or to pay your rent or for a dream trip – the things people say. Wow. Instead of just scrolling past, they have to take their life minutes to spew complete and utter hatred at human beings they don’t even know.

There’s another truth that’s maybe not quite so catchy of a phrase: Hurt people see the hurt in others.

We see it. We recognize it. That slight slump in the shoulders. The sadness in the eyes.

We know. And we have a choice what we do about it.

We can go out of our way to be kind.

Hold that door open. Smile at people. Offer to help without expectation of recompense. Listen. Not half-heartedly. Really listen. Let them talk without interrupting. Even about topics that are difficult to discuss. Make time. Reach out. Be the person you wish you’d had when you were in the crux of your own pain. What did you need the most? Do that for someone else.

It takes so little to ease the suffering of another. Maybe kindness is a burden, but it’s a load light enough carry everywhere. Reaching out to others in love is what we need more of in the world today. It’s what matters most.

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End the Stigma. Or Don’t.

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There are lots of trending hashtags about mental illness lately. #endthestigma. #thisiswhatanxietyfeelslike. #mentalhealthawareness. #mentalhealthmatters.

Talking about mental illness is trendy. Self-care is a hot topic.

People are tweeting about their experiences with mental illness. The medications they’ve taken. The therapies they’ve sought.

We’re told now is the time to be open about our struggles. To reach out for help and support. People are more accepting now than they were in the past. Admitting you have a mental illness isn’t as taboo as it once was.

Except.

Except when you talk about your struggles with mental health openly, and people automatically assume it means you’re violent.

Except when an admission of mental health treatment makes others so uncomfortable they leave the room.

Except when the first thing said about every school shooter is that they were mentally ill. When ten seconds after the news of another shooting breaks, there are claims the shooter was taking SSRIs. Or has taken them in the past.

And someone looks at you and asks, “Isn’t that the medicine you take?”

Except when friends ask if you aren’t afraid of “getting addicted to that medicine.”

Really, Susan, I’m no more afraid of being addicted to  Zoloft than I am of being addicted to my asthma inhaler. If I need it, I need it.

In sum, it’s a new era. People no longer need to be ashamed about struggling with their mental health.

Be proud! (wait no not that proud)

Be open. It’s the only way to start the conversation. Just… you know. Not that open.

It’s kind of hip now to talk about depression. But mostly the depression that hits you after your dog dies and you cry and eat six gallons of ice cream and you feel sad for a while and then you remember all the good times and you get outside and get some sun and then you’re fine.

That’s the comfortable kind of depression people want to hear about.

Nobody wants to hear about lacking the energy to shower. Or get dressed. Or roll out of bed for three days straight. Nobody wants to hear you need a combination of four medications to make your brain work well enough to function at a minimal level. Nobody wants to hear you can’t make basic decisions or remember how to get started washing a stack of dirty dishes.

When I’m open enough with someone to flat out state that my brain went to shit for about six months of the last year, people avert their eyes. Tell me I’m exaggerating and I’m fine. Ask how much longer I’m going to keep taking these medications (probably forever tbh). Can’t I just take a vitamin that would do the same thing? Or talk loudly over me about a completely different topic (all righty then, point taken). Sometimes they get up and walk out of the room.

Last fall, when I abruptly realized I was definitely not okay, I was honest. I told the people around me, “I am not okay. My brain is not okay.”

Mostly the response was, “Of course you’re okay. You’re fine.”

But I wasn’t. I really, really wasn’t.

When I say I’m in therapy and seeing a psychiatrist I feel like I automatically need to follow that statement up with an assurance that I don’t own a gun, actually wouldn’t know how to operate one, am pretty much a pacifist, and feel guilty if I inadvertently step on a worm and hurt it. I am whatever you want to call the opposite of violent. Listen, all I want to do is make sure everyone is warm and safe and has enough Reese’s peanut butter cups to last the weekend.

Mentally ill is not a synonym for evil or violent.

Until we stop using it as such, all the hashtags in the world aren’t going to make mental health an easier topic to discuss.

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One Step Forward. Three Hundred Sixty Four Steps Back.

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People who know me keep asking if I’m feeling better.

I’m never sure how to answer that question.

What exactly is “better?”

Better from grief? From depression? Anxiety? I don’t know. It’s all tangled up in me and I can’t always pull the different emotions apart.

If the question is, Have you gotten over the deaths of your siblings? Then the answer is no, and I never will, so you might as well stop asking.

If the question is, Are you making any progress at all? Then the answer is, Yeah, I think so.

It feels like I am. In really, really, miniscule ways, I’ve made some progress. For a long time, I felt so raw I could barely stand most of my clothes, so it’s been leggings and soft shirts  most of the winter. But the last few weeks, I’ve been able to wear jeans.

Last Thanksgiving, I hosted the family dinner. My niece brought a turkey. It was too heavy to pull out of the oven, so I transferred much of the juice to a big Mason jar. I set it on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. I’ve been looking at that jar for months, disgusted with myself for not taking care of it, but too exhausted and overwhelmed to deal with it. Two weeks ago, I dumped it out and washed it.

Three weeks ago, as I was walking out the front door to take my boys to school, my youngest son said something funny and I heard myself laughing. Like, really laughing out loud. Hard. And I thought to myself, Oh my God, I’m laughing. How long has it been since I laughed last?

My therapist says she’s proud of me. I wonder how I got to a place in my life where it means so much for a therapist to tell me she’s proud of me for doing simple things like leaving my house or washing the dishes.

I’ve gone to dinner at a couple of smallish restaurants without having an anxiety attack. I told the psychiatrist I’ve been seeing about the anxiety attacks that hit when I’m in crowds and she told me to breathe into a paper sack. So that was just phenomenally unhelpful. Glad I’m getting charged nearly $200 for that bit of advice.

Still can’t watch television or read much. I’ve found a few more musicians I can tolerate the sound of, so my playlist has gotten slightly more diverse, but I still listen to the same songs every day. I have no idea what it is about these artists that makes their music tolerable, but for the moment, I’m just glad I can listen to any music at all.

But it feels like in more ways than I’m moving forward in, I’m stumbling back. Anxiety makes me more awkward than usual, and the usual is pretty damn awkward already. I work in a very small office, usually with three other people that I know pretty well. I have my own desk in a room with two other desks, but there’s usually nobody else there when I’m working. So I walked in last Thursday to find a new person had been hired. She seems entirely pleasant, but I was caught off-guard. I couldn’t think of what to do, anxiety had my brain all jumbled up, and even in the best of times, I’m not huge on hugging, especially with people I don’t know. But the new chick is a hugger, so she jumped up to hug me hello and introduce herself. Entirely inadvertently, I jumped backward and flung my hand out like “stop.” Immediately, I attempted to apologize and shook her hand, babbling incoherently about my own inadequacies and anxieties, and generally making the situation even more awkward. Anxiety ballooned this incident in my mind until it was nearly all I could think about. At the end of my shift, as I was walking out, I thought, I need to make this right so it’s not super awkward next week. So I stopped to shake her hand again as I left, and said the most inane thing I probably could have. “Sorry I’m so awkward, but I’m seeing a psychiatrist about it.”

I’m sure that helped matters. First impressions and all that.

My husband surprised me with a night away at a hotel and planned a night at a casino. He said I seemed overwhelmed and needed a break, which was true. The hotel part was awesome but the casino was crowded and smoky and I had to take frequent breaks from the people. I wrote part of my new book out on my phone while my husband played games, so I didn’t have to interact with anyone. The next day was release day for When Knowing Comes, and as I’d decided to go low-key and stress-free as possible, I’d planned a live video in my FB readers group for the event. We came home twenty minutes before the video was to start. My laptop decided to do updates at the last second, which left me in a panic. The FB app on my phone wouldn’t work for no apparent reason. Finally I grabbed my husband’s phone, downloaded FB, and started my live video twenty minutes late, which left me out of breath, anxious, and shaky.

I find I just really need a lot of preparation before I do anything. Time to work up courage. I hate feeling this way. It isn’t what I’m used to and I get frustrated with myself for not being able to get back to “normal.” Which, okay, with me is still pretty weird but even so. I used to be able to roll with the punches when plans changed. I want that part of me back.

Some days, I am anxious all day for no apparent reason. It feels like that sensation when you tip over the top of a rollercoaster hill, all day. All night. And I can’t link it to anything in particular, so I can’t fix the problem and by the time evening comes, all I can think about is going to bed so I can escape that feeling. Going to bed because you’re tired is a very different thing than going to bed because you can’t stand being awake anymore. Either way, though, I wake up over and over and over. I can’t remember what a solid night of sleep feels like.

But on the upside, I’m having less nightmares about my family and pets dying in front of me. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

I’ve pulled back more on social media. I’ve unfollowed or left all the groups I was in except my own readers group. Weekly, I cull more “friends.” I’ll continue paring down until I get to what I feel is a manageable number. I understand it hurts people’s feelings, but right now all I can do is try to take care of my brain the best I can. My focus has narrowed to my household, my mom, my job, and writing.

And speaking of writing.

I’m writing. A lot. For so many months, I couldn’t write anything, and that was painful for me. Now, I can’t seem to stop. I’m nearly finished writing the third Windy Springs book, and my mind races with ideas for the fourth.

A lot of the time I feel like all I’m doing is treading water. But hey, at least I’m not drowning anymore.

One step forward. Three-hundred-sixty-four steps back.

But still, a step forward is a step forward. And even one step is better than none.

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The Books that Grew Me

 

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I can’t recall I time I wasn’t a voracious reader. As far back as my memory allows me to go, I had a book (or two) in my hand. And a spare one in the car. And probably another one hidden somewhere for just in case.

I read all the books that were popular in that time frame, of course. Sweet Valley High. R.L. Stine. Babysitter’s Club (always envisioned myself as Claudia). There was an author by the name of Zilpha Keatley Snyder (isn’t that a fantastic name?) whose books I loved. But the ones that caught my attention and held it for years and years were the books by L.M. Montgomery.

I think I started reading the Anne of Green Gables series around sixth or seventh grade. I had a group of girlfriends who read along with me, and we would discuss the stories at length in the school cafeteria. I’ve thought about what it was about these books in particular that captured my adoration so swiftly, and it took me a long while before I came to the conclusion it was Anne herself. Even at a young age, I identified with her inner struggle – she wanted to conform, do what was expected of her, make everyone happy. But she simply couldn’t be anyone other than Anne. She saw the world in a different way than everyone else, and I felt that right through to my marrow, even before I had the ability to articulate it.

My copy of the first book in the series has been read so many times the spine is cracked, the cover gave up the ghost decades ago, and the top corners of all the pages curl in. It’s beautiful. I kept them all – all the Anne books, all the Emily of New Moon books, all the off shoot books – in the hopes that one day my children would fall in love with them the way I did. That didn’t happen, though. Still, I keep them. I like knowing right where they are. Those books were such a huge part of my growing up years. I haven’t read them in probably close to two decades. Maybe longer. Yet I remember sentences from the books.

“Well now,” said Matthew. “Well now.”

“I wouldn’t give a dog I liked to that Blewett woman,” Matthew said.

“People laugh at me because I use big words. But if you have big ideas, you have to use big words to express them, haven’t you?” (oh, how I identified with poor Anne in this regard.)

“The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and storytellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland.”

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”

I’ve never watched the shows that sprung from this series. I couldn’t. In general, I can keep the two mediums separate. And I realize it would be unfair to expect a show to exactly reflect the scenes that I’ve held in my mind all these years like personal little treasures. So I avoided them altogether.

The years I first fell in love with the Anne books were the same years I first started messing around with writing, so the two experiences are forever tangled together in my mind. I had always loved words, but those books showed me how the perfect phrase could conjure a clear picture in the imagination of the reader. How a fictional character could stay with a person for years after they’d read about them. They taught me about the impact words could have on a life. To have known and loved these books so long ago – and still – is a gift. I cannot imagine being a writer now if I had never stumbled on those books back then.

It’s mind blowing to think the words of a woman who died more than thirty years before I was born had such a powerful influence on my life. But isn’t that what good art does? Its reach surpasses things like time. It connects us, generation after generation.

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