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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A Grief Named Lucille

 

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It comes out of nowhere.

Wait. That isn’t accurate.

It’s there, always. Sometimes it’s hiding, just under the surface. Sometimes it’s shoved down so deep it seems like it’s gone.

Sometimes I forget, just for the briefest of seconds, when I encounter something that really strikes my soul in some way, like a string of powerful song lyrics. I pause and absorb that small fraction of time; peace settles within, and I am overwhelmed with the perfection of what is happening around me. Puppies playing, children laughing, snow falling, my husband’s warm hand linked in mine.

I never see it coming, until THWACK! Negan has sneaked up behind me, and Lucille connects to the back of my neck with a force so abrupt and painful I can do little more than collapse on the floor and try to catch my breath. The crushing hopelessness is upon me and I can’t think how to get out from under it.

It’s been a while since I had a full-on anxiety attack. I came close the night before Easter, when we (as is typical for us) were running around getting things at the last minute for the kids’ baskets. Walmart was so crowded, most aisles were impossible to get down. I could feel the familiar signals creeping up on me, and I pulled my husband aside and told him I needed to finish and get out of there. While we finished getting the final few things, I worked really hard to keep my breathing even, to not give in to the panic thrumming in my veins. What I’m finding is I’m okay and I’m okay and I’m okay and I’m okay and then all at once, I am absolutely NOT okay. It doesn’t have to be anything big that sets me off.

Saturday I had a table at a local book event for horror authors. It was inside a busy farmer’s market, but I knew the room we’d be in was off to the side and less crowded, so I figured I’d be fine. And I was. Mostly. Some of the authors in attendance I knew from the previous year at the same event, and it was nice to talk and catch up. Sold books. Had some good talks. Met a couple new friends. During a lull, I was standing at the table next to mine, talking with the artist, flipping through the pages of his albums, checking out prints I wanted to buy. Nothing in particular was going on. I wasn’t being crowded or upset. But all at once, I felt it creeping up my spine. And I was so hot I couldn’t catch my breath. My chest began twitching. Clenching. I hurried back to my seat. Drew my shawl around me. Pulled my hair up inside my hat. My husband went out and bought me a big bottle of water, then sat with his arm around my shoulders until the panic passed. It wasn’t a full-on attack, but still bothersome. For the most part, I had a great day.

But then I overdid just a little. After the event, I went to a store, and then to a busy restaurant for dinner. I did okay while in those places. I was okay, and I was okay, and I was okay, and then about 2:30 a.m., while I was in bed, in the dark, relaxed and dozing –

Dammit. There she was.

Lucille.

At first, I thought, maybe it’s asthma. It could be asthma. The weather has been weird and my lungs can be sensitive. My chest tightened. Yeah. It’s probably asthma.

Please be asthma.

Even as I thought it, I knew it was that freaking bat. At least that time, I was already down. I curled up and burst into sobs. I searched my brain for breathing exercises to do. Thought calming thoughts. Tapped my fingers. Wept until I was all snotty. Caused my husband some alarm. It lasted probably a half an hour before it began to ease.

Occasionally, people will ask me why I keep talking about grief and mental health issues. There are happier things to write about, aren’t there?

Well, sure. Of course there are.

You’re usually so funny! Write something to make people laugh!

That’s true. I do have a knack for humor. I enjoy making people laugh, and often write that sort of thing.

But life isn’t always funny. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes the pain is so disabling, you struggle just to get up off the floor.

It’s important to talk about those parts of life, too. People need to know they aren’t the only ones struggling with depression or anxiety or grief. They need to know someone out there understands what they are feeling. If there is anything worse than being depressed, anxious, and grieving –

it’s being depressed, anxious, grieving, and completely alone in it.

Sometimes people say I seem to be dwelling on my grief.

“Get over it.”

“It’s been months already.”

“Pretend to be happy, and then you will be.”

I know there is a lot of truth in the idea of focusing on the positives. And I do, truly. Maybe even more than most people do, because I know how awful it is to have family and happiness ripped away in a blink of time. Focus on your joys. Be grateful for what you have. Absolutely.

But, guys, there is an enormous difference between “dwelling” and “acknowledging.”

Forcing yourself to act happy all the time, refusing to acknowledge your grief and pain, that’s some unhealthy shit right there. That agony you shove down deep and refuse to talk about? It’s gobbling you up from the inside out. Dwelling on the past and your hurt, yeah, it’s probably not so good. But taking it out, recognizing it’s there and it’s valid, finding ways to keep getting up every day in spite of it; finding ways to laugh although you ache –

that’s important. Grief and pain, those are experiences that shape us. Change us. Empty and refill us.

So I keep getting up. Keep writing. Keep looking for small joys to hold onto. Keep enjoying those fractions of time that feel like utter perfection.

Even though I know Lucille is going to hit me again. Knock me down. Make me weep.

I keep getting up.

My bones ache. I bleed. I think I can’t do it one more time. It’s not possible.

I keep getting up. Sometimes it might take an hour or a day or a week to get entirely upright.

That’s okay.

Because it’s worth it. I promise, it’s worth it.

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End the Stigma. Or Don’t.

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

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

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

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

Except.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be proud! (wait no not that proud)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mentally ill is not a synonym for evil or violent.

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

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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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