Micro-Learning

It’s still hard for me to learn new things when I start out sucking spectacularly at them. I think we all get discouraged if we don’t show any kind of talent at the beginning…part of it’s embarrassment; part is more pure ego (If I can’t be the best, why bother?).

One area I’m weak in is technology. I’m not the worst for my age, but I need to get better, and right now my nemesis is video editing. I am learning how to use iMovie, and to say I am finding it bewildering would be an understatement. But with perseverance, and a bunch of humility, I am improving.

My secret is micro-learning. With the invaluable aid of YouTube, I learn one or two itsy-bitsy things per session. I’ll search something very detailed…how do I rename a project? how do I import an audio file? Not trying to tie it all together yet. Then I take notes for myself on the thing I just learned, because my messy brain is almost certain to forget it the next time I sit down with a project.

It’s an accomplishment for me, because it goes against a very old pattern. I got into a good college on the strength of some natural talent and a lot of natural test taking ability. When I found myself dealing with much harder material there, I had no idea what to do when I was bad at something. I didn’t know how to learn…and I definitely didn’t know how to ask for help.

It’s taken decades, but now I know how. And as long as I can learn, whole worlds are open to me.

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.

New Name

Just a quick note to any repeat visitors…you’re not imagining things; I did just change the name of this site. I decided that, in the coming years, having it and its address just be my name will make the website easier for people to find. It also reflects the fact that the site has become a bit more eclectic. The things I’m sharing have always been diverse, but most were focused on mental health, addiction, or, more recently, the psychology of writing. But now I’ll also be sharing news about what happens to the varied stuff I write–and, someday, links to my work itself. And how awesome is it that I’m thinking years ahead; that I fully expect to keep writing different things? Even when I’m scattered and frustrated with myself for being unable to focus in on one sometimes, I am aware that every dream is a gift.

Don’t worry, though, there will still be plenty of words about other aspects of what it’s like to be a bipolar recovering addict with an eating disorder! The conditions I live with sit with me, write with me, and dream my dreams with me. They will always be part of how I present myself to the world, because it’s a way of reducing stigma and perhaps making a reader here and there feel less alone.

Yay! I Suck!

ENOUGH got its first rejection letter! And I’m trying to celebrate, because this is a milestone I’ve been waiting for. You see, to get a rejection letter you have to have sent a query, which means you have to have finished something to the point of being ready to send a query. You have to have done a proposal. You have to have come up with a query letter. And then, you have to have navigated the requirements of the particular agent you’re querying and done the annoying chore of altering your materials as needed.

I did all that. It feels like the final rite of passage from the realm of “I’d like to write a book” through “I am working on a book” to “I have written a book.” Even though I’ve had a full manuscript and been revising it for more than a year, sending it out for the first time makes it feel like a Book.

All through this process, I’ve been managing my expectations. I’ve planned to query for a certain amount of time and then, if nothing happens, look at hybrid or self publishing. My hypomanic brain jumps ahead and tries to plan for that stuff now, even though it’s not time yet. It doesn’t help that I do need to learn more about these realms for my other projects.

But right now, celebration. I’m told that everybody’s really backlogged between now and the new year, so I’ll probably wait until January before sending out the next batch. In the meantime, I want to focus on other projects and not worry about publishing…because the question of how to publish these is irrelevant until they actually get done.

You hear that, brain? Would you kindly turn off the hypomania and let me focus on one thing? Consider it a holiday gift.

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.

Off Switch

How do I get my brain to STOP? When I know it’s tired enough not to be productive, or I know I’m not well enough to be productive anyway, what button do I push that will convince it that it’s OK to relax and not learn or create anything right now?

Well, what button BESIDES drugs, compulsive eating, and other destructive things? For over a decade, I used ever-increasing numbers of sleeping pills because my brain wouldn’t yield to anything less than a chemical hammer. Opioids during the day also soothed my hyperactive brain. A box of donuts is usually good for shutting it up, but eating large amounts of junk comes with a high physical and mental cost.

I know, I know…I should exercise and meditate. Well, my Tai Chi classes finally reopened, so that’s a step in the right direction. But except when I am actually doing it, it doesn’t seem to change much.

Right now, for example, I just stopped in the middle of typing this to grab a piece of paper and write down an idea about how to fix a problem with the video editing I’m trying to learn. I had to remind myself that I’m in the middle of something.

What I really want to do is unplug for the day. It’s Friday afternoon, there’s nowhere I need to go, and I only slept 2 hours last night. I want to zone out and play Minecraft, or put an old, comforting movie on. And my head hurts from the video editing stuff. And I don’t want to think about the different projects I am working on, or how messy the house is, or my latest NEW writing idea. I don’t want to think at all. But the mild hypomania that has been in play more often than usual for the last few months means I spin, and spin, and spin.

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?

The Arena

Sometimes, for me, dissolving a block requires brute force. Screw letting my creativity flow and bubble spontaneously–been there, done that, and this poem still won’t yield even a rough draft. I haven’t written a new poem for months–got preoccupied with memoir tasks, then found when I returned to Poppytown that my efforts at creating drafts for the missing poems met with internal silence.

Yesterday, I vowed to make a rough draft of something. No matter how rough. Jagged, uneven, sharp-edged, whatever. I dragged this title into the arena and swore that only one of us was coming out alive. I took out the paper with the poem title on top. I set a timer for one hour. Go.

And it worked. There’s a draft now. I’ll worry about revision later–what matters is that there’s something to revise. Is it as good as the version of the poem that may or may not have ever come to me in a gentler way? I will never know. But I’m pretty sure it is better than a blank page.

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.

Birth is Messy

I was hesitant to put information about my in-progress projects up on this site. I thought I should wait until each one reached a certain point…talk about Enough, but no, maybe not until I get it farther along the road to some kind of publishing. Don’t talk about Poppytown until the manuscript is actually done. Don’t talk about my Tarot hobby-turned-serious-study until I have a business identity, website, and YouTube channel up and running.

The trouble with these ideas is that the process is at least as important as the product. By talking about it, I have the opportunity to share a process; to let someone observe the gestation, birth, and development of something new. Pregnancy takes time. Birth is messy and inconvenient. And have you ever seen a newborn baby, as in minutes old? They’re funny-looking, they can’t do much, and they really need a bath.

So, I’m going to try to be honest about where I am with everything. My readers will get to watch my learning curves as I struggle with being the new kid in school in the realms of the literary world, technology, and business. I’ll look scattered, and inconsistent, and clueless at times. And?

Once More, With Feeling

This is what happens when you awaken the creativity of a middle-aged person with a mild form of bipolar disorder and decades of expression squished down inside them.

I’ve been neglecting this blog because there’s so much going on that I thought I would need to start a new one about my memoir project. Then I thought I’d need two new ones, because of my other book project. Then the experience of having finished a book fired me up with the knowledge that if I wrote one book, I could write others…and I thought I’d need a blog for those.

Argh! Enough! I’ve made peace with the fact that, like me, any blog I do is going to be multifaceted. So this’ll be the hub for it all…you’ll hear about different book projects. You’ll hear about living a creative life with bipolar disorder. You’ll hear about my successes and failures in self-care, my ongoing journey in recovery from opioid addiction, and whatever is helping me get by on a particular day.

Sometimes I’ll post old essays that never made it onto here. Sometimes I’ll write new ones. But mostly, I’ll try to write with honesty about my breathtakingly imperfect day-to-day life. The life of someone who used to live on the edge of suicide, but now lives on the messy, jagged edge of possibility.

Murdering My Darlings

An English author, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, coined the phrase “murder your darlings” to describe a good editing process. I’ve had to murder a lot of darlings while shaping my first draft, and I can only imagine how many darlings will meet destruction as the thing gets polished.

It’s hard! Especially when the darling in question is really–well, darling. Well-written. Poetic. Touching. A sentence, or paragraph, or even a chapter, that is wonderful writing but doesn’t belong where it is.

The chapters I wrote, one at a time, over the last two or three years contain a lot of writing that has to stay out of the book. Not because it isn’t good. It is. But the book has to have a story arc, and the content has to serve the arc. Not to mention issues around word count.

This week I cut the first chapter of the book. Just cut it, outright. I slipped a little exposition into what was Chapter Two, but all the writing from the previous Chapter One is gone. The book now begins in a completely different way.

Oh, darling. I’m so sorry.

Interrupted

I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by how far my two book projects have progressed…well, the universe found a cure for that! For two weeks, I’ve been flattened by a flare-up of my old back issues. On bad days I shuffle, stagger or crawl from bed to bathroom to recliner. My creativity is blotted out by pain and worse insomnia than usual. It’s frustrating as hell not to be able to do the dishes, take out the garbage, or even pick up things I drop.

In my counseling training, I met many folks who were in the field of “somatic psychology;” that is, the study of how the mind’s issues can affect the body. It’s a growing field, full of promise. But, like people in any field, students of this one can go to extremes. It made me crazy when anything from a sneeze to a sprained ankle caused classmates to start diagnosing some kind of emotional source.

That being said, mind/body connections are real…so am I somehow the author of this flare-up? Is there more going on than “shit happens?” Did my body arrange for me to be forced to take a break, to put everything on hold, to step away from all the “what now” questions about my manuscripts? All I can do is try to engage my thoughts with honesty as I heal from this.

Whether they are related or not, my mind and body both need to know that they don’t have to break down to get a break. Fallow periods are normal for any creative person. I’m allowed to have them without a physical or mental crisis existing as a reason.

Scary Progress

Here’s the thing…I wrote a book.

I have to say it that way now, because the rough draft exists. I’ve even let a few people read it and give me some basic feedback.

I have written a story about a young girl with an eating disorder who grew up to be a scientist, a mother, a person with bipolar disorder, a counselor, a drug addict, and at last a person who tries to balance all of these things.

It’s still got some editing ahead of it before I begin trying to take the next steps, but the fact that it exists is scary.

My second project, a full-length poetry compilation about the opioid epidemic, is also making frightening progress. I’d say it’s 60% done, including the hard part of deciding how to structure it.

What the actual fuck. How did this happen? If anyone had told me ten years ago…

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.

Stop Writing Right Now!

That’s what my brain has been telling me for a few days. Whether it’s the result of my latest biochemical dip, or the stage of my projects, or environmental factors, is unimportant. And there’s no writer who doesn’t live with frequent self-doubt. Still, I hate it when the “stop writing” thoughts take over for days at a time.

They lay out, in excruciating detail, an array of reasons why my two big writing projects a) suck and b) are meaningless.

Sometimes they focus on the book and tell me it’s boring, self-absorbed, and won’t actually help anyone. Sometimes they focus on the poetry compilation and tell me it’s trite and not topical any more; that the pandemic means nobody cares about addiction even though overdose rates continue to rise.

I’ve done some reading about the nature of thoughts, especially the usefulness of being aware that what I think of as a thought is, in fact, nothing more than a set of words. It has no power. Whether a true story or a false one, it is a story.

I don’t beat myself up for buying into thoughts more when I’m in a depressive dip. It makes sense that my defenses get exhausted then. But it helps to know that I’m doing it; to see the process happening and know it is a process.

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.

2000 Words

I’m revising an interesting chapter in my memoir/outreach book this week.

In the chapter, I’m 44 years old and in rehab (again) for painkiller and sleeping pill addiction. I’ve arrived here with the absolute conviction that it will not work; that this is just a way station between life and death. My plan is to stay long enough to clear my mind so I can write a few goodbye letters. Then I’m going to leave and kill myself so my family doesn’t have to deal with my addiction and mental illness any more.

All right…in 2000 words or so, describe this state of mind to a reader well enough to draw them in and give them a shadow of understanding. Convey the numb and matter-of-fact certainty of one’s worthlessness and lack of hope. Use images and scenes to increase a sense of reality. Make everything you’ve already written coalesce into this moment. Do this while making sure the writing is free of melodrama or self-pity.

Ready? Go.

Control, See?

I am desperate for some shred of control over my life, my future, my daughter’s future…control I do not have.

Some can take this desire for control and turn it into concrete action, no matter how small, toward improving the situation.

Sometimes I manage that, especially if I can define writing as a beneficial action. Said definition is of course a matter for ongoing debate. I can also make masks, however inexpertly, or clean, or cook meals for my family.

But as many of us do, I’m also seeking control in other spheres of my life. Spheres not directly related to the big problems; spheres where I can have a feeling of control.

Cue the eating disorder.

I’m hearing it from many sufferers…the stress is driving them to more frequent binges, or to more restrictive behavior if that’s a problem, or both.

I knew I’d never make it through these months staying the same weight. Maintenance is not my strength. I’m either going to gain a lot of weight or lose some. In an effort to choose the latter, I put myself on a stricter regimen a couple of months ago.

It’s helping me avoid binges. I’ve even lost a few pounds. But I’m achingly aware of how I cling to the faint sense of control it gives me. I’m thrilled when I lose a pound; I’m worried and upset when I don’t. In the face of this overwhelming world, my brain dwells on such a trivial thing.

I understand. I know it’s what brains do sometimes. I know I’m not alone. But it’s humbling to watch myself race in a circle, knowing full well why I’m doing it, yet still racing.

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.

Let Us Write Together

You are loud today, world.

This is not a week when I can even try to defy you, blot you out or forget you.

There is no muffling the parts of your voice that shriek at me not to write. That tell me it won’t matter, that any story I tell is unimportant. That thinking about the projects I cherish is shallow and self-absorbed.

You are here in the room with me, humming and babbling and singing.

So get comfortable.

I have found extra chairs.

Sit here, pandemic.

Read over my shoulder, climate change.

Correct my spelling, cruelty. Play with my paper clips, ignorance. Have a mint, fear.

Let us write together.

The Sin of Happiness

I have a secret. A dirty, dirty secret. One that’s been embarrassing me more than my drug addiction, or mental illness, or other general faults and vulnerabilities.

I’m happy.

Writing that makes me immediately feel the need to write that I’m also sad, frustrated, angry, worried, afraid, et cætera. As is normal for the times we are living in. And those things are true.

But, at certain moments, I’m happy. And when I am—here’s the REALLY embarrassing part—I think I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.

The last five years have brought a flowering of creativity and the growth of a completely illogical degree of self-acceptance. Never total, never unchallenged, but there.

As the world goes to shit around me, I’m having fleeting experiences of joy and wholeness. My superego tries to tell me I’m shallow and self-absorbed for feeling these things. My heart is not listening.

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 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.

The Meatball Challenge

Read this whole post, because I need your help with the meatball.

I don’t enjoy the holidays much. There are exceptions (I made it to a party last night and hopefully committed only minor social blunders) but I’m low-key to the point of denial most of the time. Oh, I like getting together with some of my relatives and playing games and having a nice meal, but (just as with Thanksgiving in my country) I don’t like being told that I have to do it on a particular day. Or being bombarded with how much more holiday-related fun other people with more energy and different families seem to be having. Or the endless question “Are you ready for the holidays?”

As if they were a college final exam or something.

At any rate, silly humor helps me when I am stressed, so I turn to the meatball challenge. The way it works is, you take a well-known line from literature or poetry and substitute the word “meatball” at an appropriate place.

“But soft! What light through yonder meatball breaks?”

“O Meatball! My Meatball!”

“Because I could not stop for a meatball, it kindly stopped for me…”

“Quoth the Meatball: Nevermore.”

You get the idea. Why “meatball?” I have no idea. It just works, maybe because it’s so arbitrary and pointless.

Right now I’m trying to do it a bit differently. You see, Christmas carols are one of the few things I enjoy about this time of year. Archaic language, religious references and all, I love that they’re songs a lot of people know. So I’m doing the meatball challenge with holiday song titles. It’s fun, but I’m running out of carols I know. So if anyone can help, please comment a title for me. Maybe even share so I can get more. Thanks in advance.

Joy to the Meatball!

Third Time’s the Charm?

Today I wrote the third version of the few pages that mark the beginning of a new phase of my book. The first version got okay feedback, but I and my fellow writers agreed the voice wasn’t quite right.

So I wrote it for a second time. I changed the voice and changed the tone in a way I thought would sound more personal. I put in some new, clever stuff as well. Satisfied, I stuffed the stapled pages into my backpack and brought them to the group.

They hated it.

I wasn’t even surprised–by the time I finished reading the section out loud, I knew it wasn’t working. What had escaped me at the keyboard became obvious to my ears. I hadn’t just failed to improve it; I’d made it much worse.

So today I wrote a third draft. It’s different from the first two; it doesn’t try to cover as much and it’s definitely more personal. (Cried while writing it, which is usually a good sign I’m being authentic.) But I have no idea whether it works or not.

What’s really hard is that I haven’t got a plan for what to do if this isn’t better. I’m pretty sure I’ll need to put it aside for a while and try to work on another section, but I don’t want to. I want to be happy with this piece before I do later ones.

And I want a pony.

Sick Squared

Being sick is depressing, sure. For me, though, being sick is clinically depressing.

Maybe those of us with mental health issues are more sensitive than usual to the tiniest changes in our brain chemistry. If we’re on meds, maybe illness changes the way our bodies metabolize them. Whatever the reason may be, even a minor illness seems to guarantee a sharp depressive dip for me.

It was just a bad cold, for heaven’s sake. Severe congestion, touch of fever, no huge deal, only lasted three days…but I’m clawing my way out of leftover mental fog, compulsively pessimistic thinking, and hair-trigger anxiety.

Yesterday was the first day I actually thought about my writing projects again, and it wasn’t pretty. Every gloomy, nihilistic, they’re-no-good-and-even-if-they-were-it-wouldn’t-matter thought I’ve had about them came cascading down at once.

I know what to do; what I’ve had to do thousands of times. Baby steps. Little things like this. Do not try to tackle everything that has piled up, or I’ll end up crawling back under the covers.

I want my brain back to its best functioning now–but what I’ve got is a blog post and a sink full of clean dishes. And that’s probably it for today.

First Principles

What helps me when I get overwhelmed by my writing projects, or by life in general? Sometimes nothing…I get to be overwhelmed for a while. I do mindless things, try very hard to choose mindless things that are not self-destructive, and generally buy time until the intensity of the feeling passes.

But when the overwhelm is about my books, it helps if I can go back to what I call my first principles: Why am I working on these projects? What is my duty in regards to them? Do I understand that I am not in control of how they are received when the time comes to send them out? Am I willing to do my best, with no guarantee that they will be published or widely read? Am I willing to resist comparisons and fight insecurity when I hear of fellow writers’ productivity, networking and other successes?

The insight I had (and was questioning) about the structure of my nonfiction book has crystallized into an updated plan. This is exciting, and it’s making me more connected to the book’s arc…which, in turn, sends my mind into the future where the book’s a book and I’m querying agents et cætera. This is not the time for those thoughts. Maybe some writers can do it, but I know I need to concentrate on getting a draft of the book done.

I’m not trying to seal off any knowledge of or respect for the realities of the publishing industry. I’ll continue to get feedback from other writers, but right now I know I’ll hamstring my creativity if I try too hard to write for anyone but me and the people I’d like to help.

Inspiration or Hypomania?

Both of them present the same way: I have an idea. An amazing idea. The best idea I’ve had in a long time. My head begins to whirl with plans for executing it, alternative plans, and alternatives to the alternatives. I sleep even less than usual because the ideas keep chasing themselves around in my head.

Eventually, one of two things happens: If it’s just inspiration, I question it obsessively, but (hopefully) eventually overcome procrastination and insecurity to take some step toward carrying it out. If it’s hypomania (a symptom of my condition, Bipolar II) I just whirl and whirl until I eventually burn out and crash. After I come back from whatever self-destructive crap I might have done while crashing, the idea seems ridiculous or lackluster.

But what if it’s not either-or? What if it’s a little of both?

The large-scale planning of my book continues. It’s reached the next level after a recent attempt at rounding out a chapter instead of focusing on shorter segments. For several days, I could tell my brain was in high gear, no matter what I was doing. I did mindless things quite often in an effort to slow down and relax, but while I was doing said mindless thing the thoughts were churning in endless circles.

Then a breakthrough seemed to happen: I had a vision for a new way of organizing the chapters that would be more blended and less choppy. It calls for changes about what goes where, using the 90,000 words I have so far as raw material but not necessarily in their current segments.

Evidence on the side of inspiration: I’m already making a lot of notes and at least trying to get the ideas down in some form, which counts as action.

Evidence on the side of hypomania: My brain fucking hurts and I really want to go eat donuts to club it into silence.

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.

Now That You Mention It…

The other day an old friend asked me about my writing. We hadn’t seen each other in many months, so a lot had happened. As you can imagine, I was off like a shot, talking about progress on the nonfiction book project.

“Sorry,” I said sheepishly, five or ten minutes later. “I’m going on and on, aren’t I? It’s just occupying a lot of my brain lately.”

She smiled. “No, it’s interesting.”

I believe it is interesting to her–but even if it weren’t, it would probably be hard not to at least start chattering about it. It runs so close to the surface these days. Last month I met a friend-of-a-friend at a party and ended up rhapsodizing at length. Again, he seemed interested, but was he just being polite? I can’t be sure; I’m biased.

Truth is, I don’t want to restrain my enthusiasm about my writing projects. I feel like they’re the most distinctive thing about me at this stage in my life. And they represent what I have to give in terms of outreach to the addiction and mental health communities.

So yeah, it’s going to come up when you talk to me for any length of time. It’s inevitable. Your only hope is to steer the conversation to specific topics and not ask open-ended questions.

Tear It Apart

So I’ve written something. Do I have the guts to rip it apart and put it together a new way? Or more than one new way?

The workshop I went to a few days ago talked about this. It was interesting to hear–although I’ve read a lot about revising poems, I’m not as exposed to writers talking about how to revise a short story or book. Joshua Mohr, the instructor, wasn’t shy about suggesting big changes instead of just small ones.

Chop out the first 600 words of this scene and start here instead. Move this scene and do this other scene first, then put in some of the first scene with suitable alterations. Shuffle the chapter order in your book. Cut a chapter that no longer fits with the arc of your story. Take the whole damn piece and rewrite it in a different voice.

I notice that, even when I’m excited about the possibilities a change has, I’m resistant to some of the big ones. One reason is I cling to the version that exists because it’s been around long enough to be my baby. To change it, I have to say goodbye to the previous version–or at least shove it into a smaller area of my brain to make room for the new one.

Perfectly normal. But the other reason change is hard for me is one that’s more problematic: it’s an attitude of scarcity.

Wait, I spent time and effort writing this. Maybe every word was an ordeal if I wasn’t in a good place at the time. If I rewrite a scene, or drop it completely, all that effort has been wasted! Oh no!

This flawed logic leads me farther into the land of scarcity: I only have a certain amount of time, strength, focus. I have a limited amount of words in me! If I don’t use every single one I manage to squeeze out, I’ll never write the things I want to write!

Unsurprisingly, I don’t write very well when I have this attitude. Nor do I enjoy it very much. My first book’s an intimidating project, but I must make room for the happy preschooler with her scissors and paste.

Cinderella

I spent yesterday in a fairy-tale world, feasting on delicacies and dancing with handsome princes and princesses. But the ball had to end, and I departed without leaving so much as a shoe behind.

Okay, so it was really a one-day writing workshop at the office of ZYZZYVA magazine in San Francisco. They accepted my piece for the event, and I’d promised myself that if I got in I’d go. So I did.

I call it a fairy-tale world because it’s so unknown to me; I had never been to that type of workshop before. I compare it to the ball because I associate it with having more money than I have; the cost was such that I don’t expect to be able to do such a thing again any time soon. Let’s just say I got my Christmas present early this year.

I enjoyed myself very much. The author who led it, Joshua Mohr, had insightful things to say about writing personal narrative. Here’s a distillation of what I feel was the most valuable reminder for me as I work on my book:

When you write a narrative that’s about yourself, you still need to treat the “you” in the story like a character. You need to pay attention to the same things you’d look at when working with a fictional character you’re creating: Are they interesting? What am I doing to let the reader get invested in them and want to know more? Is it clear what they want, or think they want? What are their obstacles, internal and external? Am I building complexity; giving the reader new perspective on them with every scene? Do I avoid either idealizing or demonizing them?

This kind of perspective will help me as I make choices about the structure of my book: order of chapters, what to keep and what to cut, and what isn’t written yet but needs to be.

I’m aware of a part of me that feels envious when I think of how many workshops and classes some of my fellow writers go to, or that focuses on my wistful desire to be someone who can do the same (or, for that matter, who can submit a ton of stuff without worrying about how those submission fees will add up.)

But that’s my baggage talking. It’s understandable that I want these things, but focusing on what I don’t have is toxic. I create things when I am focused on what I do have, what I truly want, and what I can do to move closer to it.

The Devil’s Playground

There’s an old saying that “an idle mind is the Devil’s playground.” This can be especially true for addicts. Not only addicts, of course, but anyone to whom the inside of their skull is a potentially dangerous place.

Today I have the house to myself for eight hours. I’m not used to being alone here for more than a couple of hours at a time, because between my spouse and our 19-year-old there’s usually someone around. But my daughter just got a job (yay!) so she’s at work (weird!) and I’m here by myself until it’s time to go pick her up.

It’s not that I don’t have plenty of things to do. I could work on one of several writing projects I have going. I wouldn’t even have to write; I have storyboarding and planning I need to do. I could unpack more stuff. I could put away the laundry sitting in the dryer. I could take a walk, or do ten minutes of my neglected Tai Chi. I need to take a shower. If I feel the need to be completely unproductive, I could watch a show or read a book or play a video game.

Or, I could eat things that harm me. I could sit and stare at the wall, building darker and darker scenarios in my head, with no one here to ask me if I’m okay. I could call up someone toxic in my life and have a conversation I’ll regret. Anxiety has been especially troublesome for me lately, either paralyzing me or goading me into unwise action.

So for the moment, I decided to do this. And now that I’m done, I’ll have to decide what to do next.

The Deadly Reflex

Have you ever won something, or been chosen for something, and immediately started playing a negative tape in your head about it? Coming up with reasons it’s no big deal instead of just being happy and honored?

Two weeks ago I sent out a piece applying for a narrative writing workshop. I thought getting in was pretty unlikely, but decided to give it a shot. Well, I’m in.

Any bets on how many seconds it took that part of my brain to go from joy to rationalization?

They must not have received many submissions. The submission process was probably just a marketing ploy to make the workshop seem more exclusive and therefore more desirable. They’re really taking anyone who is willing to pay the fee.

It has to be something like that, right? Surely they couldn’t have really liked my writing and chosen it over some actual competition?

Yeah, I do this. When I won a couple of prizes in a local poetry contest last winter, I told myself the contest must have had very few entries. When I shared the happy news that one of my poems was accepted for a gallery show project, I always emphasized that it was a small gallery!

The weird thing is, not all of me is this way. I’m capable of the opposite. I can admit that I really like how I write; that I think it’s good. (And why not? Of course I like my own style, and work toward improving it in ways that make me like it even more. It’s mine.)

But that other voice is eager to chime in, and I need to recognize it. “Oh, you again. Hi. Uh-huh. Really. All right, you’ve had your say, now fuck off.”

We Shall See

Yesterday, I sent about 2500 words of my nonfiction project to be considered for a day-long workshop on personal narrative writing.

“Which piece should I send?” I asked an experienced writer who has heard many segments of the project. “Which works best as a stand-alone?”

“Doesn’t matter,” they replied. “You won’t get in.”

I was surprised, but not offended. I knew he wasn’t saying my work isn’t good. He likes my work (or he’s been doing a really good job of faking it.) He’s just of the opinion that my style doesn’t match what they are looking for, based on his perception of the people and publication behind the workshop.

I decided to give it a try anyway. Going through my binder, I considered and rejected many segments. From what I had heard, I had an impulse to choose one that included my time at MIT or some other attention-getting intellectual thing. But many of the segments don’t work well as a stand-alone, because they’re far along in the book.

In the end, I chose an early chapter. The protagonist is not at MIT, or studying to be a therapist, or having an edgy time in rehab. She’s a preadolescent torturing her toys. It’s often funny, sometimes sad, and very authentic. I like it. Don’t know if they will.

Raw

Don’t you hate it when you bite your nails late at night until they bleed? And tear bits of skin off around the nail beds, exposing raw red flesh? And it hurts, but only for a little bit, and you finally go to sleep. Then you wake up in the morning feeling as if your fingertips have been dipped in acid.

Washing your hands is excruciating. The thought of doing the dishes makes you want to cry. But the dishes don’t care. They sit there waiting. And you don’t live alone, so you can’t just let them pile up. And you think about asking someone else to do them, but you tell yourself you don’t deserve that kind of consideration, because you did this to yourself.

Then you try to put bandaids on all ten fingers so you won’t keep bumping the skinned flesh into things. Then you realize you need to wash your hands.

Then you sit down to work on a poem and can’t stop looking at your stubby, raw, red fingertips moving over the keyboard.

Oh….what’s that you say?

Not everybody does this?

Shit.