Waiting for the Other Shoe

Uh-oh…I feel good today. The side effects of my meds change have died down, and the new med is looking promising. I’m a bit less hypomanic, I’m sleeping a teeny bit better, and my morale is up. Thinking about my writing projects and publishing issues, while still chaotic, doesn’t feel quite as overwhelming.

So, I’m waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop. I’m waiting for a relative’s health to take an abrupt turn for the worse, or for the dog to start throwing up, or for the nearby oil refinery to have a toxic leak. Because people with brains and/or backgrounds like mine are wired to expect disaster.

That’s one reason I carry a deep conviction that feeling happy is always the precursor to trouble. The other reason has to do with the deep shame I still battle–not the shame over things I’ve done, but the unexplainable shame I seem to have been born with. It tells me that there will always be a price for any happiness I experience; that in taking anything for myself I am stealing it from the world.

All this makes it harder to appreciate days like this, but I try. It’s a gorgeous fall day here in Northern California. We won’t be on fire again for several months, and the air is crisp and fresh. I got five glorious hours of sleep last night. My favorite jeans are clean. So is my hair. And there’s nothing I have to do for the rest of the day. Life is good.

Mystery Potion

I never, never want to change my psych meds. The overwhelming urge is to leave them alone, because I’ve found a regimen that has a minimum of side effects. Problem is…they’re not doing the job right now. I’ve had a consistent pattern of frequent hypomania for months, and the symptoms are starting to impact my life more. My rapid and disjointed speech is sometimes noticeable to others. Sleep is worse than my already-bad levels. I am hypercreative, but unable to settle to one project or get anything on paper. The urge to self-medicate with overeating is strong, and I’m not always able to resist it. So, it’s time for me to open my mind to a change. The last change I did was just a slight increase in the med I was already taking, but this one is adding something new.

Imagine you’ve been handed a magic potion in an opaque flask. You know you need to drink it, but you have no idea what it’s going to do to you…caught between the misery of the moment and your fear of the unknown, you raise it to your lips and swallow. And then you wait.

The next day, you feel sick. And the day after that. Or you’re semiconscious, or your mouth is so dry you can barely speak, or you can’t have sex anymore, or you’re heart-poundingly anxious, or you have sudden self-destructive thoughts, or you’re dizzy…but you continue to drink the potion, because you’ve been told all this is normal and will pass soon. But when will I feel better? you plead with the wizard. In six to eight weeks we’ll see, is the common reply.

Yes, though there are a few “big guns” of psych meds that have immediate effect, such as tranquilizers and antipsychotics, most others manifest side effects long before any therapeutic effect is felt. Which is why the popular misconception of popping an antidepressant to lift one’s mood is a pile of crap.

After an eternal couple of months, it’s time to assess whether the new med seems to be helping–and if not, it’s time to start over again with the next candidate, beginning the cycle of side effects all over again. Anyone who thinks psych meds are a crutch used by people who want to avoid the pain of life is invited to ride this merry-go-round a few times, until they understand it’s not the easy way out. It sucks, and we wouldn’t do it if we weren’t convinced it was our best bet for being more present and useful to the world and the people we love.

My Halloween Costume is a Human

How many times have I sat in a group of people and wondered how long it would be before it became clear that I didn’t belong there? Whether someone would call me out at group level, or take me aside politely and say, “No offense, but this space is for humans only?”

I saw my psychiatrist on Friday, and as often happens, the process of digging into my symptoms makes me more aware of them. I get used to the way things are for me, but when I’m sitting with the psychiatrist, when he nods sagely at a description and suggests increasing or adding a med, well…I get reminded how far from normal-normal my normal is.

I know normality isn’t a real thing, nor should it be a goal. But when I feel so far from it that I see myself as an alien cosplaying as a human, that’s a problem. It’s a problem when the sounds around me fade out and an invisible spotlight appears above my head, marking me as the intruder.

As a result of Friday’s meeting, I am facing another meds change. This means, at a minimum, days of disorientation. Other side effects could happen, maybe for weeks. Historically, I tend to have a pattern of “it gets worse before it gets better.” So…I might be feeling even more like the alien in the human suit soon.

Trick or treat.

Gratitude. Ugh.

Sometimes I worry that a person in pain will take gratitude-related advice as “suck it up, whiner!” I feel that inappropriately-timed reminders of gratitude’s importance can be condescending, minimize the importance of someone’s pain, and make them feel it’s not safe to express said pain.

That being said…yeah, cultivating gratitude is vital. Ugh. It’s as necessary as air for me, because self-pity was the biggest saboteur of my early attempts at drug abuse recovery and at managing my mental health. I felt sorry for myself when it become clear that recovery wasn’t going to make my brain normal, or let me sleep, or get me to a level of functioning suitable for the kind of work I wanted to do.

Today, it’s helpful for me to at least attempt a gratitude-centered perspective when things are tough. And my past gives me lots of useful fuel. Annoyed that my back hurts after doing dishes? Remember the many times dishes weren’t even an option. Feeling frustrated that I can’t be of more help in my daughter’s health struggles? Remember how close I came to not being there for her at all. Tired or scattered about my writing projects? Remember I could have died without writing anything.

My place is a mess? Got a place to live. Hate cooking? Got food to cook. Getting old? Beats the alternative. I can go on and on–if I’m willing to go there. But does it really do anything? It doesn’t fix everything, that’s for sure. And it won’t help if I try to force it because of a sense of duty or shame…”why am I sad? I should be grateful…”

But if I can let gratitude in, let it coexist with my other perfectly valid emotions, it will help balance my tendency to dwell on the negative. And I can use the help.

La La La La I’m Not Listening…

“Don’t believe everything you think,” goes the saying. There’s a constant negative monologue in my head, competing with and trying to drown out anything positive I generate, and when I’m in a depressive dip it gets fucking LOUD. I want to stick my fingers in my ears and hope it gets tired and shuts up. But that doesn’t work. Trying to artificially pump up positive thoughts doesn’t work either. Trying to debate or fight the dark feelings just fuels them because now they’re getting more attention. I have to coexist with the voices, not fight them, not try too hard to distract myself from them…but, somehow, not believe them.

When I was studying counseling, one of my favorite professors told a story about a schizophrenic client who believed he lived on the moon. The professor, then a young therapist, tried the techniques he had been taught to challenge and question the client’s delusion. But all this did was reinforce the client’s resistance. One day, tired and discouraged, the therapist went a different direction. He decided, just for the day, that he would not try to convince the client of anything. Instead, he asked, “What’s it like to live on the moon?”

And for many sessions to come, he listened to the client’s stories about living on the moon. As the client came to trust him more, the therapist was able to tie some of the stories to what was happening in the real world and engage on that level some of the time. But he had let go of the idea that it was his job to convince the man to give up his reality for a more approved one.

I have to be like that therapist. I have to sit in a room with the dark version of reality my mind generates and allow it to be itself…but maintain a certain detachment from it. It isn’t me. There’s an entire universe outside of that metaphorical room, full of light and dark, too complex for words.

Diagnose Me

There’s someone in my life who is starting to dig deeper into their neurodivergence. Whatever diagnosis might fit–adult ADHD, bipolar II, something else–they want it. They want it so they can try associated treatments that haven’t been available to them before. They want new items to add to the list of things that might help them, a list that is all they have to cling to on some hard days. They want to get at what might be standing in the way of doing what they need to do to improve their other conditions.

When I was taking psychopharmacology in grad school, many of my fellow students had a lot of negative feelings about diagnosis in mental health. They didn’t like the idea of putting people into boxes. They felt certain diagnoses were given too freely and caused more harm than good. And both of these things are valid concerns.

But here’s my own experience–the right diagnosis was life-changing for me. Until I was diagnosed with bipolar II, I spent more than a decade being treated with medicines that were ineffective at best and dangerous at worst (for example, many antidepressants have unfortunate effects on a bipolar person). After being diagnosed, I started to be treated with medicines that, while they didn’t fix everything, were far more on target. Having the diagnosis also gave me a language for the things I had been experiencing and made them a little less scary. It validated what I’d been going through and gave more opportunities to seek new methods of treatment. It empowered me.

I hope this new seeker finds a way to get the screenings and evaluation they need (no easy task, these days, if you aren’t rich). I celebrate the insight they’ve reached about themselves and their desire to address it. And I pray that diagnosis will be a useful tool for them; one that opens doors.

The Parable of the Cursed Axe

So there I was, playing my old-fashioned dungeon crawler computer game when I should have been doing paperwork between counseling sessions. My character had survived and prospered long enough to have excellent armor, strength and health, but I was still wielding a lowly dagger. So I was pleased to find an axe, and picked it up, even though I knew some weapons were cursed.

On the next floor of the dungeon, I found myself surrounded by orcs. They aren’t too strong in this game, which is why they travel in large packs. So I was surprised when my attacks on the first orc seemed ineffective. Maybe I’d better switch back to my dagger…but when I tried to drop it, I saw the dreaded message: You can’t. It appears to be cursed. I was stuck with my axe. Checking my inventory, I realized it was minus-2 power. Ugh. This orc pack was going to take a while.

I’ll get to my metaphor soon. Honest.

Then, a rust monster appeared. With every hit, this feared being damages your weapons and armor. My minus-two axe became minus-three, seven…minus-twenty by the time I managed to kill the thing. I was now fighting the swarm of orcs with what amounted to a shapeless hunk of iron too heavy to lift. But I couldn’t put it down.

Wielding a cursed weapon sucks. But we’ve all done it, haven’t we? Haven’t we had a response, or a coping mechanism, that has become ineffective at best and destructive at worst, but we just can’t put it down? We swing it helplessly at the problems around us, unable to pick up a healthier method even if we know of one. We have trouble accepting that our old weapon isn’t working, hasn’t been working for a while, and is never going to work again.

Addiction is one example, of course. We wield our drug or behavior of choice to the point of self-destruction. But there are so many other cursed weapons out there, and some of these became part of our arsenal when we were very young. If we learned to shut down, avoidance becomes our default response and is difficult to change. If we learned angry confrontation as the go-to reaction, that’s our cursed weapon. If we learned to please and placate others, we hack our way to a lifetime of inauthenticity.

What are your weapons? Are they working? If they’re not, can you put them down? Or are they cursed, cursed in a way you can’t uncurse without magic?

Brick and Acid

There’s a huge brick sitting on my chest. My stomach feels as if it’s trying to eat itself. I jump at the slightest sound. The cause: my dog has been sick. Nothing too catastrophic, it seems, since she is better than yesterday. We just came back from the vet where they drew some blood for tests.

Anyone would be anxious when their beloved pet is ill–but my spouse, unlike me, has been sleeping at night. He seems to be able to draw a deep breath. I’m obsessively listening for every tiny sound the dog makes, at every hour of the day and most hours of the night. I did catch two hours of sleep last night, and I am grateful for that much.

My limbic system, the part of the nervous system responsible for sensing and reacting to threats, is hypersensitive. It always has been, and it got worse when the bipolar disorder came along. Abusing drugs that relaxed me, and thus neglecting to exercise the parts of my psyche that manage anxiety, probably didn’t help either.

The crisis is over for the time being. She’s feeling better and eating again. But tell my limbic system that…I know that tonight, and probably several nights after that, will have me straining my ears for the tiniest clue, the tiniest sound that might mean she’s throwing up or having trouble breathing or being abducted by aliens. And my sleep debt, already large this last week, will grow and grow.

I hear my poet and writer friends talk about serious stresses going on in their lives, and I wonder how they manage to write through it…how do they focus on anything else when the brick is pressing so hard and the acid is so sharp?

Acting My Age?

As I progress through middle age, I’m going through the emotional adjustments everyone does. In my case, it plays out in my writing experience (Aaah, too little too late, no one your age can be a success at writing, the writers you know have been doing it for 25 years, etc.) and several other arenas. Some feelings are sharpened and complicated by my years of illness and addiction, such as when I envy others my age who never became disabled and therefore have more financial security. And some feelings are just garden-variety internalized ageism.

Case in point: my hair. I’m getting it cut short today. I’ve had it long for years, but the already fine strands have become thinner and finer with middle age. It won’t stay in a scrunchy or barrette; individual strands are always escaping and tickling my nose. I can’t wait to get rid of it and have a neater, low maintenance look. So what’s the problem? Nothing, really, just old stuff.

Somewhere–don’t know where–I got a message that long hair is a. more youthful and b. more feminine. What’s up with that? And I never think that about my female friends with short hair, only about myself. There’s a tiny part of my brain that feels as if getting my hair cut off is a kind of desexualization. Maybe it’s remembering a certain drastic haircut I gave myself in my freshman year of college, when I hacked off my long hair while upset after a housemate told me I looked like a tramp. Hmmm.

I din’t have any answers about this; it’s just interesting to examine attitudes I didn’t realize were lurking in there. It’s a good reminder that not everything I go through is about mental illness, or addiction, or even the ups and downs of being creative…I still get to participate in all the general human stuff, including growing old. And that, considering the alternative I came so close to, is a privilege.

MacBeth Shall Sleep No More

Shakespeare characters suck at sleeping, just like me. Hamlet wanders around the castle and sees ghosts. Henry V soliloquizes about how lucky peasants are to labor all day because they can sleep soundly at night. MacBeth, when talking about his murder-induced guilt, focuses on the fact that he’ll never again know peaceful sleep.

They all know the loneliness of being awake while the world sleeps around you. The worry of knowing you’ll be too tired to function in the morning and knowing you must. The pain and fatigue and vague nausea all the next day. Trying not to wake up those nearby while wishing they would wake up and keep you company; telling them to go back to sleep and resenting that they can.

For thirteen years now, I’ve had a pretty intractable case of insomnia. During my years of drug abuse, I used ever-increasing amounts of sedatives and hypnotics to cudgel my brain into sleep, only to have them stop working as I developed tolerance. The longest I’ve ever gone without any sleep at all is six days, a bipolar episode that ended in the hospital. Normally, I would drop off sometime between 3 a.m. and dawn, often to the soothing first chirping of the birds, only to be awakened by my alarm one to three hours later. It made my other issues worse; not surprising, considering the effects of sleep deprivation on everything from mood to pain threshold to executive function.

It was awful, all right…but what a bonanza of self-pity for an addict! I always had a plausible excuse for retreating to my room and skipping something I didn’t want to do. “Sorry, the sleep deprivation’s crossed a line and my survival requires a nap.” It was useful to the side of me that wanted no part of responsibilities that would get in the way of taking painkillers.

Fast forward to recovery, and needing to abstain from all the meds I used to abuse: I had to work at changing my attitude about sleep; I had to become willing to stay clean even if it meant I’d never sleep through the night again. I had to accept that I’m not in charge of how much sleep I get, and that I’ll get just enough when I need it badly enough. It meant practicing acceptance when lack of sleep interferes with my energy or mood. It meant letting go of any question of fairness about it all.

Of course, I fail at these enlightened principles. Often. I want to snarl at people who give advice on how to sleep…yeah, thanks, I haven’t tried your sleep hygiene tip any time during the last decade and a half of suffering. I have to guard my mind against the human, understandable, but very dangerous thought: “I really need one night of sleep. Just one night. I’d feel so much better. I haven’t taken sleeping pills in years now, so one would probably work really well. No one would have to know…”

But I don’t need “one night of sleep.” Not at the price I’d end up paying.

Turn the Faucet Back On

I can’t get out of “edit” mode. I’ve been in “edit” mode for so long (to me, this mode includes things like proposal writing, research into agents and publishing options, etc.) that I’m having a hard time switching back to “flow” mode and actually creating something. Right now, I have some waiting to do in terms of getting my memoir queries ready to submit, so it makes sense for me to be working on other projects in the meantime. Especially Poppytown, which is slated to be the next thing completed. There are poems still to write for that…and I can’t seem to turn on poetry-writing mode!

Yesterday, I did some useful organization…created a binder with everything I have, then inserted a blank page with title only, placed in its proper order, for every poem that is conceived but not yet finished. The idea is that when I’m ready to tackle a certain poem, that blank page will serve as initial brainstorming space. Having it in order will let me keep the book as a whole in mind. So that’s all good. But it won’t help unless I can take one of those pages and produce a poem.

I know anxiety/information overload is part of it…half an hour of research into the world of publishing can leave my overactive brain whirling and lead me to a night of nail-biting ruminations. Maybe it’ll be less overwhelming as I learn more, but right now every fact I learn sends me down a new rabbit hole of information, some of it contradictory.

If I’m going to be an author, I have to learn to switch between modes. I have to learn to compartmentalize. When writing and revising my memoir, I managed it by deciding I wasn’t going to think about what to do with it until it was done. But that won’t work any more. I’m sure I am not the only writer to struggle with this, although my weird brain chemistry may add a bit of exotic seasoning to the brain stew. It’s just another new thing to learn, at a time when I’m already learning a ton of new things but can’t afford to let any of them compromise managing my conditions.

Lighthouse

There are many reasons I wish I didn’t have bipolar disorder and other neurodivergence. There are many reasons I wish I weren’t an addict. But none of them compare to the gut-wrenching regret about how these conditions affect my legacy to my daughter.

No matter how hard I tried to minimize the effects back when I was using painkillers, no matter how hard I tried to keep my mental issues from overcoming the good things in our relationship, it all had to have an impact. Today, there have been many improvements and I’m able to do a lot that I couldn’t do before. But some things don’t change. This young woman still got issued a breathtakingly imperfect mother. She sees me struggle with large problems and trivial ones. She sees me be inconsistent with self-care and the tasks of daily life.

But there are good messages I pass along to her as well. She sees me fail–but she always sees me try again. She sees me struggle with the impulses of my addictions–but she always sees me rededicate myself to recovery. She sees me be down-hearted–but she always, in an hour or day or week, witnesses me hauling myself up with the power of imagination and metaphor. She sees me be self-critical–but she always sees me come back to a place of love and self-acceptance.

I’m teaching her that we fail, and the world doesn’t come to an end. I’m teaching her that there’s a way back from the dark places. I’m modeling humility, and perseverance, and hope. I know this–but like any parent, I want to be better. As a mother, as an addict in recovery, as a person with mental health issues, I want to be a message of hope strong enough to accompany her through everything. I want her to see me fucking win.

I want to be an ever-present, brilliant beacon. But I’m not. I am a lighthouse–shining, going dark, then shining again.

Eating Disorders Have Weird Rules

Yes, lest those who read my stuff ever forget: I’ve lived with an eating disorder since I was thirteen or so. It coexists with my mental health issues and with my life as an addict in recovery. It’s there to a greater or lesser extent every day of my life.

I’ve been blessed in recent years with being able to take better care of my body in some ways. Many days are relatively free of compulsions, many other days are moderate, but a few still take me back to the worst days.

A couple of days ago, I felt myself teetering close to a binge and didn’t want to go there, so I tried to do some “harm reduction.” At the grocery store, I bought a couple boxes of artificially-sweetened treats (yuck) to bribe myself out of buying other things.

So there I am, yesterday, with a terrible stomachache from the treats my body is not liking. I decide, disgusted, that I don’t want them around any more. I don’t want them around tomorrow, because if they are around tomorrow, I will eat them and have another stomachache and feel like crap all day.

This where the awful rules kick in. You see, I am not allowed to throw the treats away. No. I bought them, I made that choice, and now I have to pay for it. If I don’t want them around tomorrow, there is only one allowable way to get rid of them. I have to eat them. All of them. Tonight.

I hate the rules.

I is for Inconsistency

Case in point: how many days/letters I just skipped. This is a fact of life. Anything I start has a good chance of not getting completed the way I or others envision it. I have to either abandon a project or be willing to come back to it humbly, again and again if necessary, owning my past neglect and trying not to make excuses for it.

We all have to do it. We tackle our horrific bathroom, chiding ourselves for letting it get this bad. We try to save a dying plant, knowing it wouldn’t be dying if we’d been more diligent about its care in the past. We start exercising again, bemoaning the body that would be so much stronger if we hadn’t stopped.

Yes, we all do it. But when I’m coming out of a depressive dip–or a series of them with some good old procrastination in between–it’s a big barrier to get over. It’s bad enough when it’s a chore, or paperwork, or my health, but it’s worse when it’s relationships I neglected.

This is a topic I’ve written about before and will probably write about for the rest of my life: finding the balance between appropriate remorse and destructive shame. Not being someone who saunters around saying, “Well, this is just how I am!” but also not hiding away from the world and refusing to give what I can.

F Is For “Fuck It”

The ultimate metamorph, the “fuck it” feeling can be good or bad, destructive or liberating. It can be the moment of casting aside recovery efforts and popping a pill, or the moment of turning away from a useless argument to direct your efforts to more important things.

Recklessness. Apathy. Liberation. Anger. Dismissal. Rejection. Exasperation. Spontaneity. It can mean any of them. And any of its meanings could be playing out in a healthful or unhealthful way.

“Fuck it” is not appropriate when faced with politics…but it’s appropriate when looking at the hundredth headline about the same thing when what you really need is sleep.

“Fuck it” is not appropriate when faced with a difficult relationship…but it is when the same specific argument has happened a hundred times and you have to start looking for a solution that doesn’t involve convincing the other person you’re right.

“Fuck it” isn’t useful when it comes to your health…but it is when you hear the same outdated lecture from your doctor for the hundredth time after they’ve forgotten your logical response to it for the hundredth time.

“Fuck it” isn’t good as a general approach to parenting…but it makes a lot of sense when your kid’s finally dressed for preschool, except they insist on wearing their rain boots on a sunny day, and it was time to leave five minutes ago, and it’s just not worth it.

We need the “fuck it” feeling or it would be hard to let go of anything. Oh, there are more serene ways to let go–but they require a level of confidence and self-acceptance that few of us can sustain all the time. Whatever emotion comes with of “fuck it” helps shut up that voice telling us we can’t stop until it’s solved; until we win.

E Is For Elephant in the Room

You know the one. Someone brings up the topic of addiction, or mental illness, or meds…and suddenly the elephant is there, pointing its trunk right at you, and there’s an awkward pause in the conversation. Or maybe you’re watching a movie with friends, and the plot introduces something to do with the condition(s) you have, and you feel tension in the room as others wonder how you’re reacting and you wonder whether the fictional character is changing the way they see you. Or you’re at a support group meeting and someone’s sharing about the horrible things Person with Condition X has done to them and people who know you flick their eyes towards you and away and you’re there thinking, “Well, Person with X sounds to me like a total asshole who just happens to have Condition X.”

I’m only one of many who experience this kind of thing. An even more pervasive version is experienced by a Black woman I know who finds it incredibly frustrating to be the only person of color at a gathering because people see her as a “representative” and expect her to react to and weigh in on any remotely race-related topic. She can’t just be in the group as herself.

Sometimes the elephant is present when people know just a little about me and what I have. They’re curious to know more, but they’re uncomfortable about asking. Every decision point makes them unsure whether they will offend. Meanwhile, every misconception they’ve absorbed in their earlier life is coloring how they see me and their judgment of whether I’m a safe person to invite closer.

So when my book is polished a bit more, can I just carry it around and force every new acquaintance to read it? Unfortunately, I don’t think it works that way.

D Is For Despair

Sometimes despair looks like roses.

It did for me, one day in 2011, when I looked at the roses in my yard for what I thought would be the last time as I prepared to leave and carry out my plan for suicide. (Spoiler alert, I didn’t go through with it.)

Despair looks different on everyone. It can look like slumping on a couch, surrounded by paraphernalia of one’s substances of choice, staring into the distance. It can look like careening through one destructive relationship or hookup after another. It can look like sitting at a computer all night, whether working or gaming, not wanting to see the external world or another person’s face. It can look like a perfectly normal life and come through in nothing but occasional body language cues and microexpressions.

One person’s hallmarks of despair might not indicate despair on another person. They might just be in a fallow period, or a mentally hyperactive period, or be acting out a bit following a breakup.

How is despair different from depression, or grief? I think it’s different because it’s more than a set of phenomena like symptoms, emotions, or behaviors. Despair is any or all of those things grown into a worldview; a set of beliefs. Beliefs about what life is, what possibilities do and don’t exist, and the worth of one’s own self and experiences.

If emotions are weather, despair is geographical change. Sometimes it sets in abruptly, like an earthquake, but more often its effects are slow and insidious. And sometimes it lifts or alters abruptly, with a change in circumstances, but it can also recede as subtly as it came.

That’s what it was like for me. The return of hope was so quiet, so gradual, that it was a shock when I realized it was there.

B Is For Brain

Does changing my brain mean changing who I am?

I believe in some type of consciousness that surpasses matter. But in everyday life my emotions, thinking ability, and creativity are profoundly influenced by the physical qualities of the lump of soggy goo that lives inside my skull. It requires fuel. It responds to its chemical environment. When I get sick, it loses function. When I took drugs, it responded to that. And when that lump of soggy goo developed bipolar disorder, it changed my life on so many levels I can’t imagine a hypothetical self without it now.

There’s a novel in which the protagonist, an old man, gets his brain transplanted into the body of a young, beautiful woman. He had his original brain and all its memories, but that brain was now bathed in a different chemical soup. The author chose to have the character, a heterosexual man in his old body, become bisexual with a strong preference towards men. The explanation given was twofold: a bond with the previous owner of the body, and the influence of female hormones.

Do I think that explanation is realistic? No, and I think some of the author’s attitudes about gender are quite dated, but it is food for thought. How much of our sexuality, for example, lies in the body, how much in the brain, and how much in a mysterious entity that is neither? Extrapolating, how much of my very identity lies in each?

I don’t mean to define myself by a diagnosis in a self-defeating manner, nor do I mean to discount the role of attitude and insight in my quality of life. I’m simply saying that understanding that I’m coping with a certain kind of brain can help me structure and create a life that suits it as well as possible. I know there’s a huge amount I can do to influence it–but I’m still starting with my individual lump of soggy goo.

A Is For Acceptance

I used to think acceptance was the coward’s way out. It would be wrong for me to accept my conditions or their limitations, because that would mean I was giving up instead of fighting, fighting all the time, fighting to create a “normal” life like all the inspirational stories out there tell us a disabled person is supposed to do.

The culture I live in glorifies fighting. When a person develops cancer, their process is framed as a battle. Their perceived job is to fight–and if the cancer proves to be terminal, the battle is lost. Death is framed as a failure. For millions like me, life with compromises is seen as a failure. Accepting that I cannot work full-time, or spend too long in certain environments, means stepping away from the meritocracy and accepting a role of someone who’s not in the race.

Settling into a regimen of care that doesn’t fix everything but has been sustainable for years is seen as a failure. I’m supposed to be trying things, constantly seeking alternative treatments, and spending my life in an endless search for a cure instead of living it.

Of course, there’s a balance needed between accepting and fighting. There are many battles to fight every day. If a heavy depression has kept me from washing my hair for days, accepting my greasy locks and itchy scalp isn’t the best choice. Better to fight the inertia, if I can, and drag myself to the shower. Ditto for hundreds of other arenas where I take on my demons to win the prize of some meaningful action.

But accepting myself, in general–accepting that I have the life I do–is key, no matter what it costs.

No Help To Be Had

This morning I made calls to ten more therapists whose names were given to me by the network my health care plan referred me to because they have no more capacity. I have now contacted about fifty therapists and found no openings in a process that has lasted six months. Even before that, my visits had been dropped to one every six weeks.

The pandemic has ripped the band-aid from several wounds in our society, and I hope this is one of them. There is something fundamentally wrong about mental health care for the non-wealthy; it has been wrong for a while, but this is a tipping point. The ERs are going to be flooded more than they already are–mental health ER visits have increased markedly in many areas.

California’s process for licensure as an MFT or social worker is one of the longest and hardest in the nation, and structured in a way that makes it nearly impossible to achieve working part time because if you don’t finish in six years they make you start over. Counselor trainees, and anyone not working in out-of-pocket private practice, are overworked to the point of breakdowns. Usually, their one goal is to get into private practice and escape their hell.

What is the answer? Peer counseling? A lower-level licensure to work with clients who mostly need coaching and someone to listen? What the hell do we do about this? I want to help, but licensure has been off the table for a while because I can only work part-time. I know I could do useful counseling, if there was a framework to do so. But there isn’t.

The Conversation’s Getting Harder

Ever since the pandemic began, I’ve felt an unusual amount of pressure to keep it together. Not surprising…health care workers of all kinds are overloaded, so it makes sense that as a concerned person I’d want to avoid making them work harder.

Non-emergency mental health appointments are very difficult to get. My health care system dropped my video visits to once every six weeks, then none. I either cope on my own or, if I feel as if I’m going to harm myself, I am supposed to go to the packed, overwhelmed ER. There’s nothing in between.

I am all right, relatively speaking, so far. But I continue to be worried about others who need more care to manage their conditions—and when my symptoms rise, I’m afraid for myself too.

The conversation about needing help is harder to have these days, especially when extreme political turmoil is added to pandemic stress:

Person With Mental Health Issues: I’m not sleeping.

World: Duh. Nobody’s sleeping right now.

PWMHI: I’m…feeling really depressed.

World: Duh…

PWMHI: I’m anxious all the time. I can’t sit still. I really have the urge to use drugs.

World: Join the crowd.

PWMHI: …. (Struggles to find words to convey that their symptoms are more than just feelings, that they’re in danger from them. Gropes for words that might get them some understanding without making them look like a selfish person who just wants attention.)

World: Are we done here?

Splat

It happens so quickly. One moment, I’m me. I’m dealing with symptoms, but have a decent sense of self at the center of it all. Then a question comes up. Someone wants to know if I’m up to doing an optional, often recreational, thing. It might be as simple as watching a certain movie. But I freeze.

Am I up to it? Is my brain able to cope with whatever the thing is at the moment? I stare at my questioner like a deer in headlights as my brain whirls. What’s worse, to turn the person down or to try the thing and have it not work out? I think about all the reasons I should say yes; all the times I’ve had to say no in the past…and as I struggle to find words, I’m plastered against a wall of shame like a bug on a windshield.

Still staring at the person who waits for a reply, I’m consumed with hatred for the cycle of apologies that shapes my days. I despise that the necessity for some apologies remains, no matter how well I take care of myself or how much I grow in self-acceptance. I go through a miniature version of the anger and shame I felt when I was first diagnosed, or when I first realized my condition wasn’t going to let me do certain jobs.

At last I answer the question. But whatever my answer is, my mini-crisis churns inside me and tries to taint my experience.

Why Am I Surprised?

I know how this works. I’m hypomanic for a while. I get all sorts of great ideas for projects. I even work on some of them. My mind whirls with possibilities…then comes the crash.

Then come the nights of less and less sleep as the exciting part of hypomania turns into a complete inability to focus on one thought for amy length of time. Then the disorientation. Then the onset of a depressive phase.

I know how this works. So why is a tiny part of me still taken aback when it happens? Why am I surprised that now my mind is sluggish, or that I react to questions with a “deer in headlights” expression? Why am I surprised that the happy projects of a few days ago seem as far away as the moon and just as unattainable?

Why can’t I accept that I, in effect, have lost a good part of my intelligence for a few days? That I’m going to be physically clumsy and have to take care not to fall and hurt myself?

No matter how much acceptance I achieve, there’s a part of me that fights. I don’t want to be like this. I don’t want to slog through the days ahead and wait for the spark to return. I don’t want to be spending way too long writing this post because of the constant typos my fumbling fingers are making.

I don’t want it, but that’s the way it is.

Leaving the Box

I have lived most of my life in boxes. Some were shaped like rehab. Some were shaped like psych wards. Many had no physical structure at all, only walls and flaps made of compulsive rituals.

I have lived most of my life obsessed with the next pound, the next pill, or the next scheme to fix myself and leave the realm of brokenness behind forever.

Wars happened while I dwelt in my boxes. Cultures changed, the planet suffered…for most of my adult life I have been on the sidelines, self-absorbed. I don’t say that to beat myself up, only as a simple truth.

There are a lot of limits to what I can do now, but I do believe I have left boxes behind. Even when I have episodes, even when I’m overwhelmed, I am still part of the general community.

I get to experience the fear and anger we all feel. I get to experience ordinary human joys and sorrows. I get to look at myself in the mirror and notice the mundane signs of aging.

I hope I never stop visiting my former boxes, because many friends known and unknown are still in them. But I don’t live there anymore.

Who Counsels the Counselors?

I’m not working in the counseling field right now. I may never be able to work in it again; I don’t know. But my experience from both sides of the relationship makes me acutely aware of both sides of the mental health crisis which is a secondary effect of the pandemic.

In the last six months, the therapist my health plan allows me to see (a sad once a month) has been replaced three times. There are no longer any therapists there qualified to run certain groups, the only type of help available more often. Counselors all over are quitting many jobs like rats leaving a ship because their client overload and working conditions become too much to handle.

The people who need ongoing therapy for their conditions need it more than ever. People who didn’t need help before now need some. And it’s getting worse as those who marshaled all their strength and white-knuckled it through the last six months feel their grip begin to slip.

Counselors have always faced a high risk of burnout. They must fight to protect their psyche against “vicarious trauma” that builds up when engaging with a client’s trauma. Well, I’ve heard it said that we are all experiencing low-level trauma right now. That means that the stress on the counselors now is not just a matter of time and energy. It’s a matter of extra injury to their minds and souls.

Five Minutes

I just sat down and wrote a list of five-minute activities. It felt pretty cheesy, but I need to find the willingness to pick one when I feel adrift instead of turning to eating or video games.

As I’ve written before, I’m fine with video games to a point. And I know where that point is; I’m not getting any fun or relaxation out of the game if I pass it. So unless I’m in near-crisis and just have to buy time, it is better to get up and do something else.

Why five minutes? It’s an attempt to break through the block that says something’s only worth doing if I’m going to go the whole nine yards. A walk has to be a long one, scrubbing a toilet has to involve cleaning the whole bathroom, etc. This perfectionism feeds into the “well, I’m not feeling up to all that, so I’ll wait for a time when I am.”

I’ve been ignoring my physical therapy exercises for a hip pain. The whole routine takes a half hour twice a day and feels as far from me as the moon. But wouldn’t it be better to do a few of the stretches than nothing?

Nonzero is always, always better than zero for me. Staring disgustedly at a poem draft for five minutes is light-years ahead of not bringing it before my eyes at all.

Yes, I Play Animal Crossing

I admit it—my daughter and I both find comfort in video games right now. I know a great many people, especially creative ones, who look down on those who play. I know there are valid issues surrounding the effect of both games and other media on the human brain.

That being said, I find video games good for anxiety management. There are times I can’t focus on writing, or wholesome leisure activities like reading poetry. When friends say they’re playing too much during the quarantine, I understand how they feel, but I don’t beat myself up about how long I play.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out on the Nintendo Switch console just as the shelter in place was beginning. Because of this, it’s even more popular than it was expected to be. When I can’t sleep, or desperately need something to do with my hands, I’m on my virtual island.

I see it as harm reduction. Sure, gathering pretend resources and building things that aren’t real are not the best thing to do with the times I’m not able to work, but I could be doing worse. I could be relapsing on drugs. I could be overeating and making myself sick. I could be dwelling obsessively on the world’s situation to the point of convincing myself there’s no point in staying clean.

If the worst thing I’m doing is catching fish to sell to a capitalist raccoon, I’ll take it.

What I Deserve

Do I deserve coronavirus?

As the pandemic becomes more real and more obviously not going to go away any time soon, I’ve started to be more afraid of getting sick. I’m lucky enough to be sheltering in place except for trips to the grocery store, and I live in an area where folks are obeying the mask rules. But I have an illogical conviction that I’m going to get sick. Seriously sick.

I know it isn’t illogical to think I’ll be exposed if this goes on long enough. And I’m somewhat vulnerable because of being over fifty and having diabetes. But my odds are still decent for having a less catastrophic illness than my imagination portrays.

When I sat and unpacked this feeling a bit, I realized it comes from the part of me that thinks I deserve to get sick. That I don’t deserve to stay healthy when so many “better” people aren’t.

Survivor’s guilt. I know it. I’ve tasted it often when thinking of my fellow addicts who died, or fellow mental illness sufferers who didn’t make it through a bad episode. Especially when I think about the roles privilege played in my survival—white privilege, education, health insurance, etc. Regardless of how hard I worked, these other presences can’t be ignored.

And there’s no doubt privilege plays into my survival odds in the pandemic as well. Racial and economic inequities are achingly clear. So it makes sense that I’d have these thoughts. But too many of them are dangerous for me because they feed depression and apathy. Self-care is sliding. I’m not going out for walks. Sleep is worse than usual (and usual sucks.)

Writing sucks too. But today I did small revisions on a segment. And I wrote this.

Chapter of the Week

Every Friday, I get to hang out with a few other writers and read the latest chapter of my book to them. The hanging out is done online right now because of the pandemic, but it’s still enough for me to make sure I at least revise a chapter for the week.

I’m at a stage where I’m going through the book chronologically and doing tweaks and consolidations. It’s the first time my group is hearing the chapters in order, because the first round of chapter segments were created and shared in haphazard fashion. Sometimes they skipped decades forward or backward.

Going in order is harder. It’s scary to be marching forward, one chapter a week, knowing that at some point I’ll reach the end of pre-written stuff for revision and have to write a few missing chapters at the end. Then an introduction. And then it will be a fucking manuscript.

And I’m doing this during the pandemic, with the future so uncertain, and my critical voice shouting that no one’s going to want to read anything about any other subject besides this for the next indefinite number of years.

Masks

I am sewing masks, the way many people are lately. I don’t sew very well, and I swear like Samuel L. Jackson whenever I stab myself with a pin, which is often.

I am asking myself frequently whether it’s worth the amount of time, frustration and literal blood it takes for me to produce a small fraction of what I see better sewing folks and/or those with more physical and mental stamina are producing.

It has been many years since I approached what I think of as a “normal” level of productivity. Because my disability is mostly invisible (unless you live with me) I struggle with internalized ableism and hold myself to a standard I will never meet.

I know I’m not alone. I know I shouldn’t compare myself to others. But sewing’s the least of it…I pour myself into my writing in little chunks, knowing I’ll never be able to put in the kind of hours, or networking time, or number of events others can.

These feelings are normal for me. They don’t get argued away. I just have to make sure my deeper beliefs coexist with them: Yes, what we do matters. Yes, every little bit helps. Write the book. Write the poem. Make the mask.

Holding On

So what’s the pandemic like through the eyes of a mental patient and recovering addict?

Well, there’s a lot of pressure to keep myself together, of course. Strong voices telling me this is NOT the time to have an episode or need a meds adjustment. And certainly not the time for a relapse on drugs.

It’s scary, because while not doing drugs is something I can control to a degree by practicing recovery techniques, the mental health thing is under less control. I can take my meds religiously. I can try to eat well and get a little exercise and do things that connect me to what I value. I can do all this, and it still might not be enough because neurochemical shit happens sometimes.

Meanwhile, all the “normal” people around me are experiencing levels of anxiety they aren’t used to. They need me to be functional so I don’t drain their energy away from managing their own stress.

“One day at a time,” is more real than it’s been for a while. I try to make plans…what part of mask sewing I’m going to work on today, what I’m going to eat for lunch, whether I’ll go for a walk. And while I do that I’m acutely aware of the degree of privilege I have compared to some of my fellow sufferers.

I have loved ones in my house. I have access to the medicines I need. For now, my family isn’t in danger of losing our home or not having enough food. I’m lucky.

Do you hear that, brain? We’re lucky. Now show your gratitude by refraining from any shenanigans until further notice.

Things I’m Not Doing

Right now, a drug addict paces in the ER, so desperate for a fix that COVID-19 holds no terror for them.

Right now, some sick person is waiting too long for an ambulance because two paramedics are running up to an addict’s apartment to Narcan them for the third time this month.

Right now, an addict is spamming one of their doctors’ overloaded phone lines with demands for prescriptions.

That addict could be me.

It’s been more than eight years since I got clean. Since I experienced the magic mix of luck, grace, privilege, and yes, hard work too, that helped me (so far) beat the odds.

If I were still deep in my addiction right now, I could do any of the things I’m thinking about. It would feel like a matter of survival to get the drugs I needed, and the threat of deadly illness to myself and others would feel very far away.

Someone who routinely takes a handful of pills they know might kill them isn’t exactly dialed in to any logic of self-preservation, let alone consideration of others.

I’m not doing anything great in the pandemic so far. I don’t work in an essential business like health care or food acquisition. I’m one of the many whose most useful contribution is to stay the fuck home and take really good care of myself to minimize the chances of getting sick, or having to go the ER for any other reason.

But at least I’m doing that instead of being an active liability. And if all I’ve accomplished in the past eight years is just developing the ability to be less of an asshole at a time like this, I’ll take it.

Sidelines

Yesterday, I heard an opinion that those like me who live with mental illness won’t suffer as badly during the pandemic as those who are used to being happy and productive.

The logic goes like this: we’re used to feeling bad, we’re used to sitting on the sidelines and not being able to do much, so how is this different?

I didn’t know how to react when I heard this. I wanted to talk about what it’s like to be seen as a constant liability to the world. I wanted to point out that right now a lot of mentally ill people are trying extra hard not to be a burden on an overloaded system. When their symptoms torment them, the knowledge of the crisis feeds their shame and lowers their resistance to judgment and stigma.

There is no time to be mentally ill while the world burns, the thought repeats. So what if they’ve run out of their meds, or if the only thing keeping them going was that therapist they can’t go see now.

They will not ask for help. They will try to cope as best they can. Some will fail to make it through.

Meeting a Reader

I had another “first” last week; the first of many new experiences for someone who’s never written a book before.

I was at a sort of cheesy group mindfulness class. Most of us had been referred there because we suffered from depression, addiction or other conditions, and didn’t get to see a one-on-one therapist very often on our health plan.

So, one woman in the class talked about not thinking the techniques we’re learning would work for her. I’ll paraphrase what she said:

“Okay, so maybe this homework will help with my depressive thoughts and feelings. But what if I have depression and addiction? What if I have depression and addiction and trauma to deal with? I’m supposed to just let it all in? It’s too much. I could never address it all at once. But if I stop working on any of them they sneak in and sabotage me.”

Her voice was edged with both resentment and resignation. Resentment because she was already feeling dismissed and expecting to be patted on the head and told to go play like a good girl. Resignation because even as she spoke, she didn’t think speaking up was going to do any good.

I wanted to let her know she was not alone. I wanted her to know someone understood what it’s like to deal with multiple conditions. Understood the “it’s too much” feeling, understood what it was like to feel different no matter what therapy you’re trying. What it’s like to throw yourself into treating one thing and work your ass off only to be tripped up by one of the others, until you’re where she is: a place of “it’s too much.” And I wanted to tell her there is life and growth coexisting with that place.

I said some things. I named the different conditions I live with. But what I really wanted to say to her would have taken a long, long time.

What I really wanted was to give her my book. Have her take it home, curl up and read it cover to cover and know she wasn’t the only one to feel some of what she felt.

The contents of my book are what I wanted to say to her. And that makes me feel that, no matter how hard the writing and editing is, I am on the right track.

Safe

“Safe space” is a concept these days, and I’m for it. But is there really such a thing as a safe space for me?

I’ve been struggling lately with the fact (as I’ve mentioned) that I no longer feel safe talking about any kind of physical or mental health issue with some people. From now on, when certain people greet me and ask how I’m doing, I am in perfect health and having a good day. Like a gazelle in a herd, I must not show weakness or injury lest I be targeted by wolves.

“But wait,” I interrupt myself, “isn’t it important to be authentic about your issues? Might you be missing an opportunity to be helpful to someone?” Well, I don’t put up shields lightly. This is a case where I’ve shared my truth several times and had it discounted.

So that’s become a space that is safe for me to talk about writing, but not other things. There are spaces where I can talk about addiction, but too much talk of psych treatment might get me rejected. There are therapy spaces where I can talk about mental health, but have to hold back on talking about my writing lest I be accused of intellectualizing.

Sometimes being unsafe is the right thing to do, of course. Sharing honestly in a recovery meeting may help someone feel less alone, so it can be worth consequences to me. I have to weigh the risks and benefits and make a choice about how transparent to be.

The book in progress, of course, represents a choice to be extremely transparent. It’s possible to do because I can tell myself that no matter how many “unsafe” places it ends up, it has a good chance of also reaching places where it could help someone else feel a little safer. A little more seen.

When Truth Doesn’t Matter

“Wait a minute,” I can hear readers thinking. “This author’s all about self-disclosure and authenticity and all that jazz. Truth has to be important to them.”

You’re right. Truth, in general, is of paramount importance. But I’ve recently been given food for thought about one particular circumstance in which truth may be a bit irrelevant.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been very popular for a while, and is helpful for many people. A central principle of CBT is to question your negative thoughts and assumptions, learn to recognize illogical thinking, and use various techniques to decrease the number and severity of negative thoughts you have.

In other words: get into the habit of believing, and trying to prove, that your negative thoughts about yourself or your life are not true (or at least vastly exaggerated.)

Although I find many of the techniques useful, I have encountered two issues with this. First, since the goal is to change my thinking, I feel like I’ve failed when negative thoughts are still such a big part of my consciousness. Second, the content of some of my negative thoughts is true and trying to argue with it doesn’t help at all.

My planet really is in trouble. I really do regret not writing for decades. Relatives really are going to get harder to deal with as they age. I really did irreversibly fuck up my body in some ways. The odds of my book getting published really are low.

Anyway, I just finished a book called “The Happiness Trap” that was recommended to me. I tend to avoid self-help books, as a rule, but I decided to give it a try. It advocates that we don’t try to argue with our negative thoughts, or control how often we have them, but rather work on coexisting with them and using mindfulness techniques to be less affected by them.

It suggests that when I’m aware of a negative thought I’m having or story I’m telling myself, I don’t ask myself whether it’s true or not–only whether, at this moment, it is helpful.

When Advice Hurts

I’m coping with some health stuff right now. Nothing worrisome in the long term, but I’m on my third antibiotic since early December. I’m frustrated at the decrease in creativity caused by fatigue and discomfort. That’s not all, though.

I had to cancel a writing group meeting last Friday. Instead of saying anything about the infection, I lied and said I had to go out of town.

Why did I lie? Because I was tired.

I didn’t want the lectures I knew I’d be given if some of them knew I was (a) sick and (b) using Western medicine. Lectures I’ve heard from these folks before.

I didn’t want to hear I wouldn’t have these problems if I were vegan. Or if I took the right supplements. Or did homeopathy.

I didn’t want to hear that all my ills are caused by dairy, or not doing yoga, or my childhood vaccines.

I don’t make any medical decision, including using antibiotics, lightly. I use the knowledge I have (including my degrees in biology) to weigh the data and make my choices. But people seem to see me as some sort of compliant, brainwashed sheep if I choose a treatment a doctor recommends.

Many of these people are kind. They don’t realize they’re hurting me. Not just frustrating and infantilizing me, but hurting me. They don’t realize that when they keep repeating advice, this is the message I receive:

Because you’re making some kind of choice that differs with my opinion, everything you are suffering is your fault. You didn’t get sick; you made yourself sick. You deserve no kindness, only judgment.”

Yes, I get that message loud and clear, whether I should or not. And it makes me feel so fucking alone. Because these are the type of people who also belong to the “all psych meds are evil and you can cure your mental health condition with positive thinking and vegetables” school of thought.

Which means I’ll never, ever be able to please them. Because even if there should come a time when meds don’t need to be in my toolbox, I’ll still be standing firmly on the side of their responsible, case-by-case, nonstigmatized use by others.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for the sheep to go take the next dose of her evil antibiotic. Baa.

In Case of Emergency, Become Sane

My brain is weird.

This isn’t news, of course. But one particular weirdness is obvious this week: the way horrible, debilitating anxiety can click over into calm action during an emergency.

I can have gasping, chest-hurting anxiety over a phone call or a doorbell ringing. But a few days ago when our house was two blocks from the edge of a fire evacuation zone, I sat calmly writing a list of what to grab.

When my daughter had unexplained stomach pain the next day, I worried and obsessed constantly about what it was. But when it became clear we needed to go to the ER, I became completely focused. Driving with someone vomiting and moaning in pain in the passenger seat isn’t easy, but I did fine.

Turned out to be a kidney stone. A night later, she had to go back because she couldn’t keep down her meds. The night after that, she had a sudden, new symptom. Things had been calming down, and when this happened it hit me like a blow from a club. I lost my breath, my chest hurt…what is this? Will it go away? Should I call someone? Should I take her to the ER again? But after it was clear we needed to go, the magic switch flipped.

My husband asked if I was OK to drive. I told him yes. He knew it was true. He could see it clearly–the wife who had been pacing and gasping only a minute ago now met his eyes with solid certainty. And even when the scary symptoms got worse on the way to the hospital, I kept my eyes on the road and got us there. (She’s going to be fine, thank goodness; it was an uncommon meds side effect and they were able to treat it.)

So what’s the story? I know I’m not the only one; I’ve heard others talk about it too. Some highly anxious people actually thrive in crisis-oriented jobs like ER work. I think it has something to do with defined tasks that leave no space for indecision. Whatever choices have to be made must happen fast and be followed by action. The urgency blots out the endless future tripping and second guessing.

Someone I know thinks it’s a type of dissociation, and those of us with certain kinds of brains or trauma are just better at it. That makes sense to me.

Whatever causes it, I’m grateful I can be less of a liability in an immediate crisis. But how I wish I could flip that mysterious switch on command!

Oh, No! Not Perspective!

Don’t make me be aware of how gigantic and complicated the world of writing is! Let me stay in my little bubble of blogs and local poetry readings!

This week I’m trying out a new submissions tracker online. You can use a lot of filters to search for publishers or agents that accept the things you want to send out. I decided to look into it because they really keep their listings current–when I used books, I’d often go to a publication’s website to find they didn’t exist any more or hadn’t accepted new material in years. The tracker also has stats on things like average response time.

I’ve really done very little submitting to non-local things, and I want to change that. But I have to admit it’s intimidating to read some of these sites. I have a tendency to look at whatever I am thinking of sending them and think “nah, they’d never want this.” Especially the heavier literary sites. I suspect some of the guidelines are written in such a way as to discourage as many people as possible from adding to their undoubtedly huge slush pile.

But submitting is not just emotionally intimidating, it’s a pain in the ass too when you’re a newbie. Many publications only accept submissions electronically these days through an engine like Submittable. It’s not too bad once you get used to it. However, they don’t all use that. Some want you to set up an account on their very own server just to do a one-time submission. And everyone wants you to tweak your files in a different way.

And then there are submission fees. They usually run about $3, except for contests and book-length works. It’s an amount designed to feel like no big deal, but they add up! I’ve heard an author brag that she never, ever submits anywhere that has fees–well, that leaves the majority out. She can afford to be picky now that she’s well-known, but…at any rate, I’m budgeting to do about 8 submissions a month. It’s what I can afford.

It’s always overwhelming being the new kid at school. On the bright side, it’s a role I’ve played many, many times. I’d like to think I’ve become more comfortable with it. Or at least comfortable with being uncomfortable, if you know what I mean.

My Mind’s Pants Are On Fire

Once again my mind is lying to me. It often does. Logical arguments don’t help much, because these kinds of lies are built around a core of reality.

Here’s how it goes: My brain becomes especially anxious. Physically, biochemically, something is going on. No idea why. But my psyche won’t tolerate free-form anxiety. It insists on finding a focus for it.

What to choose? I have many sources of stress in my life. The anxiety zeroes in on one of them and hangs itself on it like a coat on a hook. I begin to worry obsessively about the thing.

Nothing has changed recently with the thing. There’s no new data. But suddenly I’m incredibly worried and can’t stop thinking about it. My mind is lying to me about how serious the thing is, because a day or two ago I was coping with that exact set of circumstances and was much less anxious.

It’s also lying because it’s not necessarily choosing the most urgent of my worries. It just reaches into the grab bag for one. It could have done the same amplification for any of the others.

Even though I know this, it’s hard to argue with it when the core worry is a real one. I can’t tell my brain there’s no reason to worry about it, because my brain will know I’m lying. All I can do is try to stay aware that I’m experiencing an exaggerated version of the truth.