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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Catch 22

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It’s 2018, and individuals with any form of mental illness are encouraged to push past the unrelenting stigma and be open about their struggles. The more we talk about it, the easier it will be to normalize it, right? At least, that’s what we hear.

The reality isn’t always so simple, though.

A few weeks ago, just around the change from summer to autumn, I started having some trouble catching my breath. I’m asthmatic and am blessed with a metric shit ton of seasonal allergies, so I expected it was a bit of an asthma flare. Upped my allergy meds. Broke out a new inhaler.

But it started waking me up from a dead sleep, that feeling of being unable to catch my breath. It felt as though I had to take three or four short breaths in order to get one whole deep breath. I wasn’t coughing. Wasn’t wheezing. But after about a week of this, my husband was concerned and asked me to go get checked out. It was late on a Sunday afternoon, so I went to the Urgent Care nearest us. Filled out the form. Honestly wrote down ‘Wellbutrin’ and ‘Zoloft’ in the spot that asked which medications I took daily.

The doctor comes in, glances at my chart. Says, “I see you take Wellbutrin and Zoloft.”

“Yes.”

“Do you have an anxiety disorder, then?”

Again, my honest answer. “Yes, I do. But this feels like it’s asthma.”

She checked me over briefly. “You’re not coughing.”

“No, I’m not. But my chest is tight, and it’s hard to catch a full breath.”

She looks me up and down. Takes a step backward. (I mean, you stand too close, you catch the crazy, amirite?)  “I think this is an anxiety flare.”

I didn’t even argue. I mean, anxiety is weird, and maybe it was just coming on me differently.  I said usually my anxiety flares come with sweating, hammering heart, panicked thoughts. She responded this could be just an unusual presentation.

I said, “Okay.” That’s it.

She went on. “But I’m not giving you any Xanax today.”

What? “That’s cool, because I didn’t ask you for any.”

“You know that’s addictive, right?” She’s looking down at me then, over her bifocals.

“Okay. But again, I didn’t ask for it.”

“Let me ask you this. How long have you been taking these two medications?”

I think back. “Zoloft, about a year. Wellbutrin since February.”

She nods. “Mmhmn. Okay. And do you know what set off the problem? Anything in particular?”

“Uh, yeah.” I shift uncomfortably on the exam table. The paper crinkles beneath me. “Both of my siblings died, and I had a hard time dealing with that.”

“I see. And what did they die from?”

“Lung cancer.”

“Both of them? Hhmn. Do you think you have lung cancer?”

“Uh… no.”

“I could see why you’d think that, why you would worry you have tumors in your lungs. That would make you paranoid.”

“I’m actually not paranoid. I don’t think I have cancer. I came in with what I thought was an asthma flare.” Now I am getting anxious, and swinging my legs. Getting twitchy. It’s hard to sit still. It’s also getting difficult to look this very judgmental physician in the face, because she’s not listening to me at all and is making a helluva lot of assumptions.

She presses her lips together. Glances down at her clipboard again. “Right. Right. Listen, I know how this works, with people like you. I can tell you flat out, I am not giving you a Xanax prescription. Trust me, I’m doing you a favor.”

“Can I leave now?” I hop off the table. Sling my purse back over my head, so it hangs crosswise. “I’d like to leave.”

“I’m sure you do,” she says. “Since I’m not giving you any medication.”

So, being honest about which medications I take to manage my anxiety disorder automatically makes me, by turns, I guess, a liar, paranoid, a hypochondriac, AND a drug seeker. That’s cool. Super cool. I was so angry when I left, my hands were shaking as I held the steering wheel.

In fact, if she’d had access to the entirety of my medical records and scoured them with a fine tooth comb, she’d have seen zero instances of me abusing substances of any kind. I barely even drink alcohol. And I’ve never in my life even had a Xanax prescription. Never.

Fast forward to the present time. For several years, I’ve had a problem with my left shoulder. I’ve got some joint issues in general, and this shoulder in particular will act up now and again. It begins with pain and stiffness from the shoulder blade and moves into the joint, shoulder, and down the side of my ribcage. Inflammation sets in. If I don’t get something to get the inflammation down, it’ll end up freezing and then I’ve got a real problem, because I spend forty-plus hours a week typing at work, plus, you know, this writing gig I do in my “free time.” So in the spirit of being a responsible adult, I called my family physician on Monday to see if I could get in to see her. I know what I need – either oral steroids or a steroid injection to kill that inflammation. But my doctor is retiring next month, and her receptionist said she’s completely booked until the day she leaves. I was directed to go to the Urgent Care.

Well. That’s cute, right? I’ve been trying to talk myself into going for the last four days. Can’t seem to muster the gumption to go. Because now I feel like if I walk back in there, saying I’ve got pain and need something for the inflammation, it would be just my luck to get the same doctor and she’s going to think I’m there seeking pain killers. Or more Xanax. Or who-the-hell-knows-what. Nope. I just can’t do it. Instead, I’ve been eating handfuls of Motrin every four hours. Icing the shoulder. Applying heat. Doing stretches. Every day the joint locks up more and more.

For as much talk as there is among medical professionals regarding mental health care, how much has really changed? Has anything actually changed? Because it’s sure feeling like being open about my situation only gets me more judgement. More assumptions made. And it’s certainly discouraging me from seeking the medical care I honestly probably need. It’s really frustrating.

If I don’t see out the mental health care I need and take my medication daily, I’m a crumbling mess unable to function and barely able to care for my family. BUT, if I do take my medications and am open about it, apparently it’s assumed I’m a drug-seeking liar out to get my hands on whatever pills I can. How do I win in this situation?

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Prose, Pain, & Plans

 

There’s something about the change of seasons – especially the transition from summer to autumn – that ignites my  creativity. My brain slides from “yeah, on the weekends I work a bit on that next book” to “yeah, you need to stop sleeping for a few weeks because now we’re crocheting a couple of blankets and maybe a new shawl, sewing a coat, and writing three fiction novels. OH WAIT! NEW IDEA! Okay, now we’re also doing a non-fiction book about learning to live with grief.”

It’s been busy for me, which is probably a good thing, given I’m just about one month from the first anniversary of my brother’s death, and it seems every day assaults me with painful reminders. The last eleven months have probably been about the most agonizing ones of my life, and for a while there I wasn’t certain I was going to be able to get through it. I think I’ve been pretty open about all of that. Last year in August, before my brother was diagnosed, I would never have imagined the following months going the way that they would. So much changed in the blink of an eye. Last year in November, I wasn’t certain I would be able to function even minimally… like, ever again. At all.

Yet, here we are, nearly a year later. No denying it’s been rough. But there’s a lot of beauty, too. A lot of laughter. Much has changed, but change isn’t always terrible. During the crux of the worst of last winter – mentally, I mean – I went through sort of a manic phase where I couldn’t stop moving or creating. I feel as if maybe that was a way my brain was trying to protect itself, flooding every second with creativity. Ideas. Imagination. But it had gotten to a point where holding still, not creating every single second, physically hurt, and I don’t think that was a healthy extreme, either. I was productive, but exhausted.

I wrote and wrote and wrote. Released three books between November and May. And then, although I knew which books I wanted to focus on next, that frantic creative pace slowed way down over the summer, and I began to worry I would not be able to finish another book. Ever. To be honest, though, I generally go through some sort of phase like after writing furiously for a while. It just lasted longer this time, so it started to freak me out. But I’m in it again, now. Not quite the manic, frantic buzz of last winter when the bats had overtaken the belfry and were throwing nightly raves in it, but the typical creative rush I often fall into around the transition to autumn.

I was a little bit worried when I released The Knowing Child in May, because it turned out to be more angst-laden than the first two books. I wasn’t certain how it would be received, but as it happened, it appears to be a favorite amongst my Windy Springs readers. I had planned for the fourth Windy Springs book to be Knowing Rogan, a prequel of sorts featuring Rogan’s early life before he met Keisha. I knew how it would start and exactly how it’ll end, and what will probably happen in the middle, so I’ve been working along on that, though I wouldn’t say with much gusto until here lately. Then I took a break, moved on over to the aliens and turnips (yes) story I started a few years back and which is SO. CLOSE. to finishing, if I could just plow through these last few thousand words. However… a few weeks ago, Captain Dash started talking (as he is wont to do) and would NOT shut up. I thought, well, I’ll just scribble this down, as a jumpstart for later on when I start his book. But his words became a waterfall in my brain and I couldn’t make it stop. So I *might* have to switch the order of books four and five, and release Knowing His Madness first, though doing so will not alter any timelines at all. It’s just not what I expected to be doing.

and then –

And then I had a dream. I know that sounds wonky. But really, what even am I, if not wonky? Anyway. I dreamed the book I was writing was a collection of pieces I’d written on grief since my sister’s death a few years back. I’d asked in my FB group if there might be any interest in such a thing, and the response was surprisingly positive. I toyed around with the idea a bit, then just to sort of see, I started collecting bits and pieces of writings on the subject and lo and behold, I’ve already got about forty-thousand words. Tentative working title is Grief in my Pockets. I’d like to get it out around the holidays this year. We’ll just have to see how that plays out.

It’s awesome when the characters are “talking” as much as they are right now, and there’s so much I want to be writing. But the fact is, I work full time at the law firm, and I live with six other people (and three dogs. and several fish.) in a house that is not a  mansion. Even when I am at home and maybe have time to write, I have no office or really, any quiet space in which to do so which is not a complaint so much as a snippet of reality. So quite often I write sporadically in stolen moments – on my phone during my lunch break at work, or while waiting in the lobby of a doctor’s office, or standing in the kitchen while I’m making dinner. I’ve been aiming for a thousand words a day on any one of my current projects. Some days I hit it, some days I don’t, but that’s always my goal. When  I do finish, then it depends on my editor’s availability, and of course, my limited budget. Even if I finish all four books by the end of this year, there’ s no way I  can afford to publish them all at once. Still, though. I enjoy having all these stories living so vividly in my upstairs. It’s a curious sort of joy.

That’s where I’m at, for  the moment. I try to mention my plans now and again on all the different platforms, because I know a lot of folks follow me only in one spot on the vast web. I’m most consistently active in my FB group, which is a delightful mix of eclectic folks much like meself. That’s also where I do live videos and Q & A days, so if you’re interested in that sort of thing –

As always, I’m so thankful for the readers who share my blog posts, my book posts, my newsletters. Thank you for telling others about my work, and for reviewing (Yeah. I notice. Thanks.) Thank you for being excited about what I’m doing, and for sending me messages about how my writing has affected you. It means so much, and I absolutely could not do any of this without you. Onward.

 

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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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The Burden of the Beast

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I forget sometimes. Even though I know the beast; in fact, have known it now, for  many years, I forget. It comes slowly. Quietly. I watch for it, I memorize its stealthy steps. I plan ahead, how to handle an attack.

I feel its breath on my neck, its heavy weight on my back. I ignore it. I fight it. I run from it.

Still. The beast comes.

It comes in the night, invading my dreams with visions of grotesque accidents, twisted bodies, loss after loss after loss. Some mornings I write the nightmares out in a spiral notebook, just to get them out of my head. Sometimes the dreams are so terrible, I cannot bear to conjure even a faded image of them on paper. Me – a fantasy and horror writer who delights in writing about gristle and blood and death.

The nightmares are too much, even for me.

It’s inside me, pulling my nerves so taught they vibrate. Leaving me so agitated, my skin begins to itch. I absently scratch at my arm or leg and BAM – oh, hives.

This pattern repeats so often, I should know it like I know the back of my hand. Still, it catches me off guard.

Clenching stomach. Headaches. Fatigue.

Why am I so tired? I whisper to myself as my eyes flutter shut in the middle of a workday.

Why am I so tired? I ask my husband, when the alarm goes off in the morning and I feel like I haven’t slept at all.

Why am I so tired? Over and over and over.

And then I remember. The beast.

When people think about anxiety, they often imagine the five second panic attacks shown on television. Watch the character swallow a Xanax. There, now. All better. Life goes on.

The reality is that anxiety is so much more. It affects the entire body. It affects sleep. Work. Hobbies. It affects eating. The ability to relax.

Anxiety affects everything. It is fucking exhausting. I know it, yet I keep forgetting. Every time. I get so frustrated with myself.

It’s been mentioned to me that I seem to be “dwelling.” I don’t feel like I’m dwelling. In fact, I feel like I’m fighting to keep pushing forward. Some days are really difficult, but still, I get up. I work. I write about grief, depression, and anxiety quite a bit, that’s true. Not because I’m dwelling on my losses – because I’m still working on processing them. It’s not an experience to get over, but an experience to learn to live with. I am still learning.

Sometimes words come to me and I feel compelled to get them out of my head. This happened a few days ago, so I put them out as a Facebook status. I got quite a bit of feedback on that post, people messaging to tell me they felt the same way, or thanking me for the words. I’m going to share them here, as well:

“There will be times in life when it feels so cold and dark you think you can’t take one more step. This is it – the one thing in life you just can’t get through.
But you can. I know you think you can’t, but you can.
Right this minute, you may be in the coldest, darkest ditch, overwhelmed by the wind that threatens to topple you.
Please take this knowledge and hold it tight; bury it deep in your heart –
The sun will shine for you again. One day, you will hear yourself laugh and be startled by the sound of it, but recall what a beautiful feeling it is to laugh. One day you will be struck by the simple beauty of a butterfly or a newly blossomed flower. One day there will be words in a random song on the radio that strike a sense of recognition through your soul, and you will know that somewhere, someone else has felt the same way you feel, and it will spur you forward.
Take these tiny moments in. Allow them to be a balm for your raw edges.
The sun will shine for you again.
You just have to keep getting up.”

These words encompass my feelings over the last year. It has been dark. Some days, it still is. But colors are becoming bright again. Music is enjoyable again. There are tiny moments in each day where I feel grateful to be breathing. Grateful for my life. I can create. I can laugh.

Some days, the beast still comes. Even in happiness. Even when I’m determined to enjoy myself. Even when I focus on peace.

I believe this is my new normal. I can accept that. The more I get up, the more I choose joy, the more I create, the smaller the beast becomes. But I’m not certain I will ever be free of it.

I can live with that. I am strong and can carry that burden. And on days that I can’t, I’ve learned to ask others to help me bear it.

In the middle of October last year, we drove my brother and his family to Nashville. It was his wish after we learned of the severity of his diagnosis. On the drive back to Michigan, he wanted to stop in Kentucky at the Mammoth Caves. He remembered our parents taking us there when we were small, and he wanted his son to share in that experience. As it happened, after several busy days in Nashville and the drive to the caves, my brother was too ill to do the tour, but he insisted we take his son and go.

We honored that wish. It was an eerie feeling, stepping down into that cavern. Our group was maybe twenty people, I’d guess, plus the tour guide. We walked cautiously in the dim light, turned a corner, and lined up, as the guide requested, along a sturdy rail so he could tell us about the history of the caves. Part of the way through, the guide asked everyone to put their cell phones away. Then he turned off the remaining lights.

The darkness was overwhelming. I could hear breathing all around me, but saw nobody. Not even my hand in front of my face was visible. Logically, I knew we were safe enough. But after several silent seconds in that blackness, my heart began to pound. Icy fingers of fear crept up my spine. The beast was there, pressing down on me, shortening my breaths.

But then I remembered, we were really just a few feet underground. If I held the rail and followed it back the way we had come, in less than a minute, I’d be back outside in the light.

The sun had not disappeared. I’d just moved away from it.

With that knowledge, the burden of the beast lessened.

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