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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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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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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One Step Forward. Three Hundred Sixty Four Steps Back.

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

I’m never sure how to answer that question.

What exactly is “better?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And speaking of writing.

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

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

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

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

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The Spaghetti Principle

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The truth about mistakes is, I make a lot of them.

Especially when it comes to this writing gig. I can look back over the last few years since I’ve been writing seriously and want to just kick myself in the face, but I can’t because I’m forty and my hips don’t swivel the way they used to.

The truth is, I often feel as though I’m just flinging spaghetti at a wall and seeing what sticks.

Sometimes, the pasta that stuck stays there a couple of weeks, and sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes I think the way it stuck there at first was nothing but pure luck, and I should just scrub the wall and start all over again, new pot, new spaghetti, new wall.

Looking back, one of the biggest mistakes I probably made was working backward.

I started this blog, and then I went forward from there. So I’ve got this blog with a decent amount of followers and I love that you guys stop in and read and leave me comments and all, but I should have started with a website.

I started the blog, and then I wrote books, and then I made a website which I later deleted, because it was frustrating to have it separate from the blog. And the blog name is not my name, so it doesn’t always come up in searches. Now I seriously need a website, and I’d like to set it up so that this blog is attached to it, and eventually since I’ve got more books out now, start a mailing list. But I suck at techy type stuff, and I can’t even seem to get my gravatar on the blog to change, even though I’ve changed it six million times, so the thought of starting a website on my own is intimidating. (side note: anyone willing to help me do this, I would love you forever and gift you ecopies of all three of my books).

I wish that I had saved every interview I’ve ever done about writing, but I didn’t, because organizational skills are a thing that I’ve always lacked. I wish I had been more organized about the things I did save, instead of saving things randomly in weird places, because now when I try to find them sometimes I cry a little.

I wish, I wish, I wish…

I wish I was a more linear thinker, but I’m not. I’m a creative thinker, and my thoughts are usually everywhere at once, and this doesn’t seem to be anything I can change. I cannot force myself to write only in one genre, though that’s what all the marketing articles stress I should do. My brain is impulsive and always has been, and science has come pretty far in recent years but not far enough that I can swap my mind out for another. I cannot go backward and undo this blog, though even if I could, I probably wouldn’t, because I’ve met so many cool people through it.

I wish I could get back every article I’ve given away my rights to, especially the ones I didn’t get paid for. What was I thinking?

That’s just life, I guess. You try things and learn and cringe about your ignorance, and try more things and learn.

I’m not certain what forward looks like from here. I don’t think I’ll delete this blog. I do want to get a website up and running. I am going to delete my ello account, because it does nothing but make me feel stressed that I’m not paying enough attention to it.

I will eventually set up a mailing list. In the interim, I’ve started a reader’s group on Facebook. You are welcome to come on in and join Valarie’s Voracious Readers. https://www.facebook.com/groups/931457066949510/

I wish, I wish, I wish…

That all the spaghetti would stick.