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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For Better or Worse

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I’ve spent a great deal of time over the last year considering my writing: what I want from it, what I’ve learned from it, mistakes I’ve made and victories I’ve enjoyed.

I’ve come to some conclusions I’m aware seem illogical to many, but here’s the thing about my writing:

It’s mine. The books I write are mine. The decisions I make regarding them are mine. The amount of time I choose to spend on writing, on promoting, on building relationships with readers & bloggers – that’s mine to choose as well.

I’ve removed myself from the idea of competition. I’ve removed myself from the idea of making a living on the books that I write. That’s not giving up – that’s making a choice that is right for me. The constant guilty feeling that I’m never doing enough, the stress of daily promoting and marketing, the unbelievable amount of pressure to reach some random marker of success with every release: it’s crushing.

I love writing. It is my joy, the thing that makes my soul sing when I’m doing it. I love creating books, sharing them with people, hearing what they thought. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last several months when my marbles tumbled out onto the floor and I had to hire professional help to pick them back up, it’s this:

In most of life, I can do what I can do, and then I need to let it go. I cannot keep juggling all the plates in the air. The stress of trying was breaking my brain. This includes writing & releasing books. I’d rather work full time at my day job and write for the pleasure of doing it and of connecting with the readers who enjoy my books. As long as I make enough on each release to create the next book, I’m chill. I mean, money is great and all but depending on my writing to pay bills is so stressful it sucks the joy right out of it.

I’ve had people argue with me over this, that I MUST do this thing and this thing and oh hey also this thing over here, it’s how you DO IT, how EVERYONE does it, yada yada, blah blah blah. That’s cool, but the reality is that I’m the only one living in my brain, and I’m the only one writing my stories, and until one of those things changes, I’ll be doing it the way I choose. Besides, I can’t fit my parallelogram self into the general square-shaped hole of society. Never have. Unlikely I ever will.

Something else I made a decision about is my horror novel, Slither. I wrote it four years ago and it was accepted by a publisher. I have no terrible story about the publisher I went with, it’s just that over time I’ve realized I’m indie at heart. I requested my rights back on it a few months ago. I re-released it with a new cover and new blurb on May 20th. I’m so pleased that it’s all my own again.

I also released the third book in my Secrets of Windy Springs series, The Knowing Child, on the same day. I’m so happy with the way that one turned out. It’s a little deeper, a little more angsty than the first two books, but it works. I have started the fourth book in that series, Knowing  Rogan, but it’s only maybe 4k in. At this point, I’m taking a break. Not a break from writing, but a break from releasing books, at least for a few months. If I put out another book this summer, it will be the aliens and turnips book that’s already almost finished and has been for two years. If I do that, it will be later this summer.

Weekends in June I’ll be working at the Renaissance Festival, schlepping yarny whatnots and books. I sincerely doubt much writing will be accomplished in June.

And that’s okay. My only deadlines are my own. I can do as much as I can do, and then let it rest. For better or worse, these decisions are mine and at the moment, I’m content with them.

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When Spring is Just a Memory

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I’ve lived all my life in the middle of Michigan. Forty winters.

Unlike many people who have opinions, I actually enjoy winter. Perhaps because as a child, my family was big on outdoor activities. We did a lot of sledding – not the typical oh-here’s-a-little-neighborhood hill type sledding. I mean the sort of enormous hills generally found in the area known as “Up North” Michigan. The kind so big your legs start to wobble as you drag your sled up to the top. The kind you start to regret sledding down as soon as you take off from the top, because you realize you’ll probably die by the time you get to the bottom. And while we were trying to murder ourselves sledding down enormous hills, my folks would hang a couple lines on trees, toss a tarp over them, and start a fire. We ate whatever Dad could fit in the snowmobile saddle bags, and generally that was a couple packs of Koegel’s hot dogs.

Snowmobiling was another thing we were big on. Most Fridays after school and work, we’d head Up North to the cabin and spend the winter weekend out on what my dad affectionately referred to as “the sleds.” I learned to handle my own snowmobile when I was ten, and huge groups of us would take off early on a Saturday morning and remain gone the entire day. Regardless which trails we took, eventually we always ended up at a place called Timbers, where everyone ate with their snow pants on and we needed an extra table to set our helmets at.

Even though I have so many fond memories of winter, there’s a point every year right about the end of February and beginning of March when I start to feel a little panicked. It seems there is always a long, drawn-out blizzard right around that time that leaves me staring out at the bleak, snow covered world and thinking it will never end. Never ever ever ever. We’ll be trapped in the house, the kids will never go back to school, the snow will cave in the roof and we’ll suffocate in a mountain of fluffy white death.

Two weeks ago, my kids had a four day weekend for their mid-winter break. Went back to school for two days, we got blasted by a few feet of snow and they ended up with Thursday and Friday off. Went back to school on Monday this week, and then we were inundated with another blizzard. Snow days for yesterday and today. Even all the government offices have declared a state of emergency and closed down. My dogs had an appointment at the groomer today but it had to be rescheduled because none of the employees could get down their roads and in to work.

It feels a bit apocalyptic to look out the window and see no activity out there. Few vehicles are braving the roads. When I take my dogs outside, there is no noise. The snow has silenced our neighborhood.

It seems as if spring will never come again. Logically, of course, I know it will. It always has. In a month or so, we’ll be running errands without having to wear heavy coats. A month after that, we’ll be hauling out our flip flops. But right this second, it feels like winter is here to stay, a never ending nightmare of unfit roads, school closings, and sniffly-nosed, coughing children.

We’ve all heard that saying, “It’s always darkest before the dawn” and I know it’s true. I haven’t survived forty winters without learning a few life lessons.

Whatever your winter is, whatever you are struggling with today, remember, spring is coming.

It always has. It always will.

We just have to wait out the winter.