Everything else, Grief, Writing

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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Everything else, Writing

Growth. Joy. Writing.

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I feel like I’ve been fairly transparent – especially recently – about my writing journey. My goals, my hopes, my truth. While my mindset may not be shared by many, I find the longer I stay over here on my own little quiet dirt road, the happier I am with my writing and where it is going.

As I’ve said, a while back I made the decision to write for myself. I removed myself from the idea of competition, of writing toward any “trends”, and of doing things other people tell me I “must” do in order to succeed at this art. I will not stick to writing one genre. I will not change my vision for my books to fit whatever is popular in the moment.

This decision was made, in part, by the losses of my siblings. Losing beloved family members at such young ages really drives home the notion of mortality. Life is so extraordinarily brief. Why would I take the thing that brings me such joy – writing books – and make myself miserable with it, just because that’s what I feel pressured to do?

So I quit. Quit attempting to meet anyone else’s expectations. I have to say, it’s turning out pretty well for me so far.

In the last fifteen months, I’ve put out four books – three novels, one collection of short stories. I’ve an e-book releasing shortly and two new books in the works, one very close to completion. I’ve sought and received my author rights regarding Slither and my super chick short stories that were in an anthology. Slither has been re-released as my own indie book, and the super chick stories will be re-released on their own soon enough.

I’ve been hawking my books at Ren Faire for five years now. This year was by far the best season, ever. Honestly, I sold so many books I had to emergency-order another box of them for the last weekend. I met so many new readers! It was amazing. One young woman even came up from Ohio just to meet me (ME!) and have her copy of Consumption signed.

I’ve spoken recently with someone who has interest in turning one of my short horror stories into an indie film. Opportunities have been turning up around every corner, it seems like. One of the things I’ve been doing over the last year is writing down my nightmares, just to sort of get them out of my head. After a particularly odd one a couple of months ago, I posted it on Facebook as a weird little story. The publisher of the Halloween Machine magazine noticed it and asked if I would be interested in publishing it in the summer edition of their magazine, which is pretty damn cool. It released this week. You can find my creepy nightmare under Auntie Val’s Story Time.

Learning to manage my anxiety has been a struggle since my brother died, and I’ve really been focusing on ways to remove extra stressors from my life. One of the things I decided to change is how many book events I’m going to do each year. I’m invited to several, and even though I have fun with them, they are exhausting and sometimes stressful. I intended this year to only do April Ghoul’s Day and then Ren Faire; however, I’ve decided to do one more this fall. I’ll be at the Flint Film Fright Fest in Flint, MI on October 27th. It really does look fun, and it’s only one day. I think I can handle it. I’ve ordered new business cards – I actually ran out of them at Ren Faire! – and a new banner for the occasion.

I guess what I wanted to convey with this post is this: it isn’t wrong to do things your own way. We don’t all need to fit into the prescribed size and shape of what others perceive as “successful.”

Figure out what success means to you, and adjust accordingly.

Life is too brief to live it for anyone else. Follow your own arrow, wherever it points.

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Everything else, Grief

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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Everything else, Grief

When the Wind Comes.

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There are days it just sneaks up on me. It doesn’t seem as if anything in particular sets it off. Sometimes it’s a cumulative effect; an anniversary date has passed, or I’ve read or seen something that reminds me of one of them and over the course of several days it all builds up. June is always a busy month for me, because weekends in June I work at the Ren Faire, but it’s also a difficult one, because there are so many of those painful anniversary dates to get through.

My dad had two birthdays. All his life, he celebrated on June 21st. The first day of summer. The day before my parents’ wedding anniversary. When my eldest daughter was about a year old, my parents decided to go on a cruise. When Dad went to see about his passport, he needed a copy of his birth certificate. After procuring such, he was startled to see his date of birth listed as June 12. He went to his mother’s house to question this discrepancy. My grandmother, a no nonsense farm wife who raised eight children (all born at home) while also maintaining a job at a restaurant, responded, (paraphrasing here) “Listen, Dale, you were one of eight kids. I was busy. I was tired. I don’t remember which day you were born.”

My sister’s birthday was June 15th. And then of course there was Father’s Day, which always kind of bites when you no longer have a father to visit. It was also my brother’s wife and son’s first Father’s Day without him.

While I got through these dates actually pretty well, doing my best to keep busy and generally filling my mind up with enough caffeine and yarn and extra tasks at work, and Ren Faire fun, etc., repeat, to keep me from over-focusing on my losses, there came a reckoning day. I was blindsided by the intensity of it. Like a powerful wind that’s been gaining speed for hours before plowing into a rickety barn, the grief struck me down in the middle of a work day. I was fine, working along, typing and filing and laughing with my coworker, and all at once I was NOT fine, not fine at all. Tears poured forth, furious and salty. The terrible weight that had suddenly taken up residence in my chest made it nearly impossible to breathe. I turned my head, grabbed my purse, mumbled something about taking my lunch early, and staggered out to my car. I dropped the driver’s side seat back as far as it would go, so nobody could see me sobbing, and called my husband. He talked soothingly to me for several minutes, and then reminded me to do some breathing exercises or try to meditate until I had a hold of myself. By the time we’d hung up, what had started as another wave of grief had morphed into a full-on anxiety attack. When it was time to go back in, I’d cried off all my make-up and my face was red and puffy. I’m fortunate to have kindhearted coworkers who are caring and understanding. But I was “off” for the rest of the day, and when I came home, I was so exhausted I curled up on the couch and stayed there until bedtime. My limbs all felt like lead.

I hate to use the word “trigger,” because I feel like it implies I want or need other people to censor their speech and that’s not the case. But I’ve found that one of the things that amp up the anxiety is when I see or hear about siblings coming together during a crisis. My family and I were always so close; the sort of family who would rush to be with one another during a hardship. The night my brother died, I remember walking into the hallway on the way to his room. My aunt Carol was standing there, crying and shaking her head at me. “He’s already gone,” she choked out. I’d missed his death by eight minutes.

As I stumbled into his hospital room, there was my Uncle Russ, mom’s brother, and his wife. None of them lived near the hospital, but they’d dropped what they were doing when they got the call from my mother and sped to the hospital to be with her. To help hold her up. They huddled around her, stroking her back, murmuring words of comfort, getting water, tissues, whatever they could. My mom’s other sister lived out of state, but by the next day had already booked a flight back to Michigan.

Now and again it hits me that I will never again have that. In times of trouble, I will never have my siblings to help hold me up. I will never be able to call them to talk through a struggle I’m having.  It’s a precious thing to have, and one that’s probably taken for granted by many. It’s one of those things you expect to have. Until all at once, you don’t.

I’ve heard it said that after something awful happens, you “get bitter or get better.” I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. Maybe you “get bitter or get empathetic.” Or perhaps you “get bitter or become more compassionate.”

Am I “better?” In some respects. I’m certainly better than I was six months ago, in the sense that I can think straight most of the time. I have the energy to take showers, and I remember to wash the shampoo and conditioner out of my hair now. I remember the steps I need to take to wash the dishes or the laundry. I can go to Walmart most of the time without having a panic attack from the crowds of people.

But there are holes in me that will never again be filled. There is pain that will never lessen. I’ve just learned to carry them inside, next to love for my remaining family, and joy at my kids’ laughter, and snuggles with my puppies, and the memories of extraordinary sunsets. I try not to focus on the unfairness of it, because indeed this situation is unfair. No way around that. But if I only focus on that, I miss out on the pure delight of holding my sister’s grandchildren in my arms. I miss out on beautiful days with my family. I miss out on friendships and art and all the simple parts of life that are not really simple at all. The pain and the joy just have to exist together.

My losses have changed me irreparably and that’s a truth I’ve had to accept. I will never be the person I was before. Part of that change is this excess of empathy and compassion. I have known the pain that has knocked me down and nearly kept me there, so when I meet someone with a similar struggle, my soul recognizes that hurt and I’m compelled to reach out. I listen more. I’m slower to come to conclusions about others. Constantly in the forefront of my thoughts is the knowledge that I have no idea what anyone else has been through, just as they have no idea what I’ve been through. Kindness makes a difference. A smile, a thoughtful word – they make a difference. The gifts of time, of acceptance, of unconditional love – they make a difference. I try to just meet people where they are at in life and love them right there.

There are other changes that aren’t so positive. I feel deeper, in every respect. Sometimes that is difficult to handle. I still struggle with what feel like stupid changes: I still cannot watch television. I haven’t read a book in months. My attention span is a problem, much more so than before, I think. I spend a lot of time lost in my own head. Quite often, I feel like I’ve slowed way down, though that might just be my own interpretation. I catch on to new tasks slower, it seems like I move slowly and though my brain is as crowded as ever before, it feels like the gears are turning at an impossibly slow pace.

On one hand, it seems impossible that all of this has even happened, and on the other, it feels like it keeps happening, day after day, minute after minute.

My rule for myself back in November was that I just had to get up and put on clothes every day. I knew if I allowed myself to stay in bed for one day, it would all be over for me and I’d never get back out. Here were are in July, and I can honestly say my life is far fuller than just climbing out of bed and pulling on leggings. I’ve put out three books since November, I’ve made new friends, I’ve laughed, I’ve gotten a new job, I’ve learned new skills, I’ve been through therapy, I’ve learned a lot about myself, about resilience, about grief, depression, and anxiety.

I’ve changed a lot for both the good and the not so good. But the important thing is that I’m here. Every day, I wake up. I interact. I seek out art and joy and beauty. Life will never be what it once was. I will never be the person I was before.

But that doesn’t mean life isn’t worthwhile.

Maybe it isn’t always beautiful. But there will always be beauty in the pain. There will always be a spot of sun in the darkness.

And even when the harsh wind comes out of nowhere to knock me down, I will always, always get back up.

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Another Year in the Rearview Mirror

I blew out my candles (placed carefully in the shape of a smiley face) in a pecan pie last night. Thankfully there weren’t really forty-three of them or we might have had to call the fire department.

It was a nice birthday, as far as such things go. I mean, there was work, but I like my job and my boss brought in a chocolate cake so I had that for breakfast which felt mildly rebellious.

Once upon a time, wearing ripped jeans and a motorcycle jacket and staying out past curfew felt rebellious, but those days are so far in the past they’re no longer really visible in the rearview mirror.

There was an odd sort of sense that I was shifting in time last night… my daughter’s boyfriend invited us to his house, and the two of them made us a delightful dinner with my favorite things. The kids put the candles in my pie and carried it to me, singing. It was wonderful, truly, but I felt somewhat cockeyed for a second. For so many (many, many) years, I’ve been the one planning and making the birthday dinners, lighting the candles, initiating the obligatory belting out of the birthday song. The role reversal was cool, for sure, but it just felt a bit odd for a second. Three of my kids are adults now. When did that happen?

The night before my birthday, on Mother’s Day, my uncle died. I hadn’t seen him in a few years, but I cried over the loss. When I was young, we spent a lot of time at my parents’ cabin up north. (That might be a Michigan thing, “Up north.” Basically, it means anywhere above the Zilwaukee bridge, not necessarily in the upper peninsula.) This particular cabin was about two and a half hours from the house I grew up in. In the winters, we would go up on the weekends to head out snowmobiling, but the summers were the best time. Memorial weekend, Labor Day weekend, and several weekends in between we would go north and family would come in for the duration. The cabin was small but the yard was big and when we ran out of room for bodies to sleep on a couch or the floor, tents would pop up in the yard or relatives would drop a rusty tin can-style camper in the front yard. With my siblings and their families, aunts, uncles, and cousins, it would be nothing to have forty relatives or more hanging out for the weekend. The uncle that passed on Sunday was my dad’s closest brother and best friend. They were two peas in a pod; the same mannerisms, same expressions, same grunts of affirmation or disgust. Uncle Vern was always there on those weekends. He and my dad would get up before sunrise to start the massive breakfast for the family, scrambling a hundred eggs and thirty pounds of potatoes while the rest of us woke slowly, took turns with the only bathroom, and stumbled outside in the early morning light. Plates in hand, we’d wait around until food was done then sit in folding chairs on the lawn, reminiscing, planning, laughing. I’m sad that those days are gone, and I’m sad that so many of the people who were there have passed away now.

And I’m not trying to dwell on the past or anything like that. The right now time is good. It’s solid. Every day holds some measure of joy, and my family is happy and growing. We’re making our own memories. But there’s a weird ache in my gut every time I realize most of the people who shared those days with me are gone. There are very few people alive who remember the same things I do. I have no siblings to reminisce with. Nobody else who remembers Christmas mornings, sitting at the top of the stairs while our parents fixed coffee and opened a can of Tab before we were allowed to run into the family room to see the tree and presents. I sort through photos and laugh at a memory, then remember the faces in the picture have all passed away now. Those weekends up north at the old cabin were pure happiness. I miss them, and the people who shared them with me.

Last Friday, I left work early and spent three hours at a local tattoo shop. My left forearm is now decorated with the ink of a memorial for my lost family. It turned out beautiful. I thought long and hard about what symbols to choose for each family member. My dad’s was pretty easy: a sunflower. He always had a garden out back, and bordered the perimeter of the vegetable plot with tall, vibrant sunflowers. To this day, every time I see a sunflower, I immediately think of my dad. For my sister, I chose a sun/moon. She used to buy all sorts of decorations with the sun/moon on them. Something about it really spoke to her, so I chose a bright, happy style with crinkly eyes in the face of the sun and rosy cheeks. Even the face of the moon sports a tolerant smirk. My brother loved all things Viking: history, television, exaggerated lore, random facts. For him I chose a raven. Odin, the Viking god, has two ravens, thought to represent “memory” and “thoughts.” Seemed fitting, to me.

The words are impossible to see in a photo because they wrap around my arm, but they are lyrics from a song called “Less than Whole:”

“The grey clouds have departed

The stars light up the night

Now I can see through darkness

The river shines with life

I’ve waded through the water

My soul is comin’ clean

I’ve held my breath forever

But now it’s time to breathe.”

Here I am, another year in the rearview mirror.

And I’m finally breathing.

ink

 

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Grief

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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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Grief

Can’t Go Over It. Can’t Go Under It.

 

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It seems simplistic to say that life is often like the children’s song, “Going on a Bear Hunt.” But like many things, I guess, we learned as children, it’s become a solid truth in adulthood.

With life comes much joy. We drink it up. We hold it tight.

With life comes much pain. We want to avoid it. We shrink away from it. We try to numb it in any number of ways. But the reality is, we have to go through it. Even when we know what we have to do, we run from the pain. It doesn’t work, though.

There’s no way over it. There’s no way under it. No way around it. I’ve watched people numb the pain. Avoid dealing with it. What happens is, they get stuck. No matter how you numb yourself, at some point, you’ll start to feel again. Then you have to decide whether you’re going to numb yourself again, or deal with the pain. Those that keep it numb are just spinning their wheels. They never fully go through it, so they can never get to the other side. Years can pass. A lifetime can pass. And still, there they are, trapped in a bubble of agony while the world goes on without them.

It’s scary to face it. I know it is. Standing in the void, peering into a dark, empty place. Unsure if there  might be sun on the other side. Unsure if it’s worth it to try to find out.

The ground is tilted. Your soul is crooked. It seems like pushing through the darkness will be too much. It might be safer to remain in the void, with your crooked soul and tilted earth. You know how to exist there. It might be cold and lonely, but you’ve gotten used to it. Reaching for a light you aren’t sure will be there is a gamble.

What if you get all the way through and find it isn’t there? Then what?

Facing the darkness, facing the pain, will be worth it. It will hurt, and it’s normal to want to run from that. But refusing to deal with it keeps the wound open. It can’t heal until it’s dealt with head on.

You can do this. Brace up. Stare into the inky blackness. Know you are worth finding the sun again.

Can’t go over it. Can’t go under it. Can’t go around it.

Just dive in.

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Grief

The Gift of a Song

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On occasion, I’ve experienced things that defy any simple explanation. I don’t understand how they happened, but I’m positive that they did. Cosmic mysteries, I guess, or whatever you want to call them.

My sister loved the song Wagon Wheel by Darius Rucker. If it came on the radio, she’d immediately start  smiling and singing along. When she was on Hospice, her son would sing it to her often. The night she passed, that same son sang Wagon Wheel as she took her final breaths.

We made a CD to play during the funeral viewings and service. Of course, Wagon Wheel was included.

She’d been gone just a little over four years when we learned my brother had cancer. He asked me to help him take his son on a promised trip to Nashville. Within weeks, we’d thrown a fundraiser, gotten time off work, and packed up our Yukon, Nashville bound. My nephew loves country music, and my brother had promised to take him to see the Grand Ole Opry. It took us two days to drive from Michigan to Nashville. My brother was quite ill at that point, and we had to stop often for him to get a drink or to rest. We had purchased tickets ahead of time for the Opry, for the same night we rolled into town. After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we headed out. We had a wheelchair we’d intended to bring with us, but we couldn’t fit it in the vehicle, not with five adults and all the suitcases and bags. After literally hours of trying to get the chair into the Yukon, we left without it, as time was unfortunately of the essence. When we arrived at the Opry, we realized we had a problem: the parking lot was enormous and crowded. There was no way my brother could walk that distance, so my husband let the four of us out at the gates, and went to find a parking spot. If you’ve ever been to the Opry, you know how beautiful it is. The giant guitars, the plants and flowers, the lights. It’s utterly enchanting. And there is always country music blaring outside to welcome visitors.

It took quite some time for my husband to make it back up to where we were. Tickets in hand, our group entered the gates.

That’s when I heard it. Darius Rucker singing Wagon Wheel. It started playing just as we walked through. I nudged my sister-in-law. “Do you hear that?” I asked her. “It’s Charlotte’s song.” We all kind of stood still for a second, listening. A weird little shiver went up my spine and my eyes watered. How I’d wished she could have been there with us, and out of nowhere came her favorite song.

Which could always be a coincidence. But it meant something to me. It really struck my heart.

The show was fantastic. It felt good to know we had accomplished the biggest goal for the trip. We’d gotten my brother and nephew to the Opry. Anything over and above that was gravy. We hit a lot of touristy spots while we were in town. The wax museum, where my brother posed with his favorite singer, Reba McIntyre. We bought cowboy boots at a western shop. We laughed a lot. One day we drove right into the heart of the city, intent on taking my nephew to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Here in Michigan, I live in a town so small we don’t even get mailboxes. My brother and his family lived a couple of hours north of us, in another small town. You ever see the Uncle Kracker video for Smile? That was filmed in their town. Suffice to say, downtown Nashville was a bit of a shock to our systems. The noise, the crowds, the hella busy streets. First we had to find a rental place to get a wheelchair, which took time. Then we had to locate a parking lot, which was confusing. And by the time we had the wheelchair and had gotten parked, we weren’t sure which direction we were even walking. We went down one sidewalk, backtracked, tried another one. Finally, my husband told us to stop and he took out his iPhone.

“Siri, I need directions to the Country Music Hall of Fame,” he said, loud and clear.

Instead, his phone pulled up YouTube. And without him touching a button, Darius Rucker’s Wagon Wheel came blaring out of his phone.

That time, I did cry. In fact, my insides shook. The five of us stilled on the sidewalk, stunned. Staring at the phone in my husband’s upturned palm.

When the song ended and we looked up to try to figure out where we were, there it was: the Country Music Hall of Fame. Right across the street.

Another coincidence?

It feels like more than that to me. It feels like it was a gift, just for us. Two weeks later, my brother was gone. But the memory of that moment the five of us – or maybe the six of us – stood together on that sidewalk, listening to Wagon Wheel, has been a balm to my soul ever since.

I will treasure that fraction of time forever. Because I was given a precious gift.

The gift of a song.

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Everything else, Grief, Writing

Permission to Rest

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Once upon a time, I might have known what these three words meant.

Permission to rest. 

Somewhere along the way, I forgot.

It’s easy enough to forget things. I forget all the time. Most of last fall I was caught up in a frantic haze of activity. Keep busy, keep busy, keep busy. Holding still for more than a fraction of a second felt like failure. In the course of a session one day, my therapist told me I needed to give myself permission to rest. I nodded and said okay, sure, I’ll do that.

I mean, I’m a reasonably intelligent human being. And I’m pretty good with words. I thought I understood. But it turned out I didn’t. I understood the words individually, but when it came down to it, I couldn’t grasp how to turn them into a verb. Like having a jar of peanut butter in one hand and a jar of jelly in the other, and being unable to figure out how to make a sandwich. So I posted in a group I’m in on Facebook, a group of book lovers, because I figured they are smart and could help me out. And they tried.

But what I realized was, everyone else was too far ahead of me. They were giving me instructions for algebra, but I still needed help with addition. The more I thought about those three words, the bigger they became in my mind. I thought it needed to be some kind of special Permission to Rest time, at a specific time of day, and it seemed as if that would be too much for me, so I quit trying to figure it out. At some point, a friend said to me that it could mean just staring at the wall for five minutes a day. That was something tangible, something I could comprehend. I started doing that. There was something in that silence that reached through the cacophony in my soul.

For me, permission to rest meant permission to cut the noise out.

Once I had a handle on it, I took it a little further. I spent some time cleaning out my social media. Unliked a couple hundred pages on Facebook. Chopped my friends list by a few hundred. If I looked at a name and couldn’t recall where I knew them from, delete. If I hadn’t posted in a group in a couple of months, delete. If someone’s posts were stressing me out, delete. Even real life friends. Even family. Then I started in on Twitter. Same rules. This cost me a lot of followers, but I guess if they were only following me so I would follow them, they didn’t really care about me or my writing to begin with, so no great loss. I unfollowed almost all the celebrities or TV shows I used to follow. I didn’t do these things all at once. It took a few weeks. Some I had to really think about. Then I unfollowed news outlets. The final cut was local animal shelter pages. Anything that caused me stress or upset had to go.

Television was a struggle for me. There are shows I like, and I wanted to watch them. But plots were hard for me to follow and my brain would take whatever I watched and turn it into some horrendous nightmare about death. So, I quit watching TV. (Keep your TWD spoilers to yourself, people. I might pick it up back at some point.) For a while, even music grated on my nerves.

The silence has given me space to mourn.

The silence has given me space to begin to heal.

About two weeks ago, I heard myself laughing really hard at something my youngest son said. It was such an unfamiliar sound, I was startled.

Lately, I’ve been listening to music again. Really focusing on the lyrics. Good music does a lot to lift my heart and I’m grateful I can tolerate it again. I’m listening only to specific bands at this time. Only the ones that really speak to me, and that’s a fairly eclectic mix. Hello Dave. Dead Man Fall. Rend Collective. Hugh Laurie. Big & Rich, and Kenny Alphin’s solo stuff. I have a YouTube mix that I keep on a loop.

There’s a line in Alice in Wonderland where the Mad Hatter says, “It’s good to be working at my trade again.” I’m feeling that right now. Feeling it hard. The absence of the ability to write was a grief all its own. When Knowing Comes releases March 10th. It’s unlikely that I will do any sort of release event for this one. I’m learning to recognize my limits and adhere to them. It means more to me that I am able to write again, that I finished the book. Even in the midst of all the pain of the last few months, I finished the book. I’ll send ARCs out to reviewers, and I’m going to do a live video in my FB readers group on the day it goes live. That’s what I can handle, so that’s what I’m doing.

Not too long ago, my husband sent me a word game on Facebook. I was supposed to unscramble the letters. The letters I got were E-R-T-E. I looked at those letters for an hour. I could not form a word. I remember thinking it was some kind of joke game, because those letters didn’t make any word.

I’m a writer, and my mind was so cloudy I couldn’t spell the word “tree.”

Now I’ve finished writing one book and have a good start on another. I’m blogging again. It feels good. It feels right.

Permission to rest.

Permission to be still. Permission to cut the noise.

Permission to feel the silence.

Permission to heal.

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Grief

Life in Color

Sometimes forward steps seem so small. It’s imperative to remember that any step forward is still a step forward. It doesn’t matter if that one tiny step has taken you years to make.

Forward is forward.

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Yesterday, I did something I haven’t done in many years. Longer than that, actually. Something I haven’t done since I was about fifteen or sixteen. And I’m a long way past that now – forty-two.

It seems like a tiny thing. A normal thing. Something I imagine most humans do on a regular basis. Let me back up a minute.

When I was a young teen, my sister went to cosmetology school. I went in often to let her practice on my hair and nails. Eventually, she graduated, and after that, anything that was done to my hair took place either in her kitchen or mine. I haven’t been to a salon since then. Not once. Those times when she was cutting or coloring my hair were catch-up moments for us. What’s been going on, what the kids are up to, who she was dating.

Now, my hair isn’t something I spend a whole lot of time on. I wash it, blow dry it, and just leave the Medusa curls as they are. It’s thick, heavy, and generally uncooperative, and it just takes too long to do anything else with it. I’m also not good with keeping up on coloring it, so by the time I get around to it, I’ve got a couple inches of roots grown out. By the time my sister started having pain in her shoulder, it had been months since I’d cut or colored it. Then she wasn’t able to move her arm well enough to hold her scissors. And very shortly after that, we knew it was stage 4 cancer.

After she died, the thought of anyone else touching my hair was so repulsive I couldn’t stand it. For a long time, I did nothing with it. By the year after her death, my hair was such a mess, even I couldn’t stand it any more. The ends were dead and splitting inches up from the bottom, and it was making the curls look more like I’d just stuck my car key in a light socket.

I looked up how to cut my hair in layers on YouTube, and found a tutorial for doing it by putting my hair up in a ponytail and cutting. I did it myself in my bathroom, and when my hair hit the floor I cried because she wasn’t the one cutting it. That first time was rough, but once I figured out how to do it, it wasn’t so bad. Two, maybe three times a year, I’d just pull my wet hair up in a ponytail and lop off a couple of inches. It took me four years before I could let anyone else touch my hair, and even then, it was my daughter.

She’s a cosmetology student at the local community college. Last summer, I sat in my kitchen chair and let her even up the mess I’d made of my hair and then color it. It was funny how similar her hands felt to my sister’s. Quick and confident.

About a month ago, I woke up one morning and decided to cut myself bangs. They turned out all right. I just used regular household scissors. But after that, I felt like I needed a big change. I decided to color my hair purple.

So my daughter made me an appointment, and yesterday I drove to her cosmetology school and spent six hours getting the red out of my hair and the purple and brown put in. It was crowded and noisy, and at times, that was difficult for me to handle. Since my brother’s death, I haven’t been out in public much. Crowds trigger my anxiety attacks. But I made myself sit through it. Even though my daughter is the one who did my hair, it seemed so strange to be in a salon. The experience took me right back to when I was fifteen, sitting in a twirly black chair at my sister’s school.

When it was finally all done, I left the school and drove straight to my church. A friend of ours had passed away and I went to his memorial service. After I parked my car, I checked myself in the rearview and realized I had purple dye smeared on my cheek.

I went in anyway.

Funerals have gotten hard for me. I know most people don’t actually like funerals, but for me, having lost so many family members in a short span of time, it’s difficult for me to fight through flashbacks, and sometimes I have trouble catching my breath. This was the second funeral for me this week. The church was crammed full of people, so for the second time yesterday, I had to force myself to handle being in a crowd without having a panic attack. I made it through the entire service but didn’t stay for the dinner because my personal limits had been reached. Sometimes I just have to say no and either people will understand or they won’t. I can’t control their reactions.

It seems like a small thing – going to get my hair done. But for me, it was a huge, huge step forward. Yesterday was the longest consecutive amount of time I think I’ve spent in a crowd since my brain went to shit about six months ago.

That tells me two things:

  1. This combination of medication is working for me.
  2. Hope is out there. Somewhere.

Grief and its aftermath are such hard things to live through. But I’m doing it.

I’ve said before that intense grief is like suddenly having an enormous hole in your leg. At first, it seems like your life is over – how can you function with a gaping hole in your leg? You can’t walk. You can’t do anything. It’s awful. You need help with everything and it’s unimaginable that you will ever have any semblance of a normal life again.  At some point, though, you realize you can do some of the things you used to do, you just need to do them in a different way. And later, you don’t need as much help. You can go on with your life, though you might need a cane and you’ll always have a limp.

My purple hair is me walking with a limp.

But at least I’m walking.

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