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.

Passing for Normal

I felt normal today because I got to drink coffee from my favorite place, something I haven’t done since February. There were tables very far apart, so I sat drinking and feeling a breeze on the lower part of my face. Such a normal thing that I’ve missed a lot. It made me think of other times I’ve felt normal, or—more likely—just felt as if I looked normal.

I remember passing for thin. Around 2013, I was at the tail end of a very low-calorie diet that took my weight down close to “ideal.” I took a ballroom dance class but never lost the feeling of being an imposter. The body I had, even as it moved while held in someone’s arms, felt like an illusion tricking them.

I remember passing for normal as a mom, mostly when my daughter was little and I’d sit in the park exchanging innocuous facts with other mothers while laughing at toddler antics. Although I was far, far from okay on the inside, the outside looked wholesome.

I remember passing for a normal person at a ball game. The SF Giants were in the playoffs and I was in the stands with my spouse and daughter. I wore an old orange Giants T-shirt of his. I was in orange, just like everyone else. I felt happy to be part of the crowd.

And oh, God, I remember passing for normal at jobs, back when I could. Wearing an ID badge, nodding at meetings, writing up notes. Helping others. Looking competent and adult between my secret anxiety-attack bathroom breaks.

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.

Are They All Right?

I can’t stop thinking about people from my past. Wondering if they’re okay, what they are doing, how they are dealing with the pandemic. Whether they live alone or with others, whether they’re working. Do they have enough money, how is their health, how are they coping spiritually?

I can reach out to some, if I get up the nerve. “Hey, it’s me, I know we drifted apart decades ago, but how’s it going?” People would understand even if they think it’s weird. These are weird times, after all.

But in a few cases, I can’t for fear of harming the person by bringing up memories that might disrupt their current life. The most painful case is an ex-partner from my mid-twenties. There’s a lot I would like to say to him and a lot I’d like to apologize for, but I’ve never tried because I don’t want to risk negative consequences for him. But I miss him, almost three decades later.

Thoughts of him normally come and go, but they’re so strong now. I don’t know whether he’s married or has kids, if he has a job, if he is struggling to care for an elderly parent…I know nothing. He could be sick. He could be dead.

Over the years, I’ve often pushed away the thought of hiring a PI or paying a website to get just a few pieces of information without him knowing. Just enough for me to know whether he’s within reach of OK. But it feels unethical.

I know I’m probably not alone. I hope other people are braver than me, and free from reasons to hold back.

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.

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.

Calla Lilies

(Reposted from my archive, Not This Song)

My daughter brought me calla lilies on Mother’s Day.

It was 2011, and instead of carrying them into my room or proudly displaying them on the breakfast table she held onto them tightly during a long car ride.

She and her father signed in and had the bouquet inspected, then waited while I was notified that my visitors were there. Only then did she get to give them to me. Only then did she get to be hugged, and hear how beautiful they were, and see me read the little poem she wrote on the homemade card shaped like a butterfly.

That is Mother’s Day in rehab, and I can never see calla lilies without thinking about that day. I wasn’t the only one getting cards and flowers, and I wasn’t the only one to gaze at them with a mixture of emotions too tangled to articulate.

Mother’s Day is hailed by therapists as one of the most stressful days of the year for a reason–none of us is without feelings on the subject of the mother we had and/or the mother we are. Told by commercials and companies how we should feel about our mothers and children, we writhe in discomfort with our more complicated internal landscape.

Complicated it may be, but it’s a pretty fair bet that being institutionalized isn’t in any of our personal “what kind of mother I want to be” manifestos. It kind of kicks things up a notch in terms of regret.

After that day’s visit was over, I looked at the smooth whiteness of the lilies beside my bed with a kind of doubled vision, seeming to see bouquets like it in many other places. I knew that many children wouldn’t get to deliver one at all due to the rules of the rehab, or hospital, or prison their mother was currently inhabiting.

I’m happy to be at home on Mother’s Day this year. Didn’t get any lilies. Don’t want any. But she can give me flowers, or a hug, or a thorough trouncing in video games, any time she wants to, because I am here.

Mothers who can’t be at home today, I remember you. I know better than to judge your love for your children based solely on where you are. Don’t give up.

Children, fathers, grandparents and all who visit, I remember you. Thank you for your love and effort.

Happy Mother’s Day.

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.

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 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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

You Don’t Say?

So, my psychiatrist thinks I am depressed.

More than usual, I mean; my general diagnosis includes a type of depression. But just because I told him about how often I’ve been thinking about death lately, and how much I’ve been struggling with food and other self-destructive behavior, and how much time I spend in circles that talk a great deal about the dark aspects of all our futures on this planet…he thinks I need more help with depression.

So out he comes with this particular health care organization’s chart of meds and starts suggesting things to add to my regimen.

Poor man. He means well. But either he hasn’t been taking notes at our previous sessions, or he hasn’t been looking at them.

The names of the meds are listed in little boxes by group, and as he proposes things I have to keep shooting him down.

No, we can’t add anything from this box. I’ve tried many of them, and they increase anxiety to a dangerous level. No, I don’t care if this one is new, I’ve seen the chemical formula. They moved a hydrogen atom so they could get a new patent, that’s all.

No, we can’t add anything from this box. They’re all addictive. I know my addiction history is in my chart. I made a point of putting it there.

Dear God, no, we can’t add anything from this box. Two of them almost killed me when I tried them; I’ve told you that before. You cannot give me any of these unless I’m an inpatient under close supervision so I don’t walk into traffic.

We could try a slight increase in this one med I’m already taking, or we could try one from this tiny box here…or maybe we could get me a therapist I could see more than once every six weeks.

Ha, ha, just kidding, I know that’s not going to happen.

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.”

Through the Cracks

I just found out I am one subject of criminal irresponsibility on the part of my particular health care system.

After some of the struggles of this spring and summer, I decided it was time to make a couple of appointments with my mental health team. When I went onto the website, the name of the psychologist I see was gone. I inquired with the department and discovered she doesn’t work there any more.

I assumed I would be scheduled with a replacement, but was told that it would take some time. Basically, I am going to be treated like a new patient again.

It took nine months to get in to see someone when I was new.

So, first, putting me back in the new patient group isn’t right. Second, even if they had to, someone could be letting patients know their care provider is gone and put them in the queue for upcoming openings, instead of only starting the process when the patient (who, hello, has a mental illness that affects their functioning) manages to reach out.

I’m upset on my own behalf, but I think I’m more upset about people who are doing worse than me right now. Being cut off like this may tip them from barely coping to needing hospitalization.

Not to mention the stress of losing what may have been an emotional support without warning, or a chance to say goodbye, or a single sign that anyone associated with their treatment gives the slightest fuck about them.

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.

Doing Nothing

My job today is to do nothing. Specifically, my job is to do nothing self-destructive. I hate days like these, where I’m just trying to get back to zero by letting my body and mind recuperate from whatever abuse I inflicted on them recently.

But the days when I’m actually doing the harm are, of course, worse. After nearly a year and a half of grace on my let’s-keep-diabetes-in-remission way of eating, I began to struggle in the spring and have not yet recaptured the blessed place I was in. A week or two of difficult abstinence has tended to be followed by a few days at a time of the hideous and painful rituals of binge eating. Although I haven’t relapsed on drugs, the eating disorder brings plenty of suffering in the form of sickness, shame and secrecy.

Sharing about this is important, because I don’t ever want anyone to get the idea that the work I’ve done on myself has solved anything. It hasn’t. I’ll be dealing with my issues for the rest of my life, just like I’ll be an addict in recovery the rest of my life.

If you think that’s a defeatist attitude, I understand, but I must disagree. Understanding that these things are a part of me and my life, rather than some demon I can exorcise forever if I just get it right, has been vital in acquiring more self-acceptance.

This is only day two back on plan. If and when I rack up a few days and get my mind clearer, I may look at whether to get in touch with my psych team over the general pattern I’m seeing (sleep worse than usual, biting nails until they bleed, anxiety spikes.) It’s the usual dilemma: are my struggles a sign that I need more help with my symptoms, or do I just need tough love and other attitude adjustments?

But today, the goal is nothing. Like the old story of someone who’s deep in a hole crying out to their God, “Please, God, get me out of this pit!” And God replies, “Okay, but I can do it faster if you stop digging!”

I’m not digging today. And that’s going to have to do.

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.

Where the Hell Have I Been?

…one might ask. Well, I’ve been writing like hell.

Just not here. Part of my brain seems to think writing sections of my book, or writing new poetry, means there is no time or juice left for updating this site. And that’s bullshit. It’s not as if doing a post takes me a long time; it just takes the willingness to sit down and write something about what’s going on in my head or my life right now.

The hardest part is picking out a subject from the thousands of possible ones. I’m seriously considering getting a jar with scraps of paper and pulling out a random one every day.

I’ve also been house hunting and moving. Yes, after seven years, my family is living in a house again. It’s not really any bigger than the apartment, but it has a little yard for the dog…and a room that has a corner that’s MINE with a DESK in it that belongs to ME and NOBODY else can put so much as a PENCIL on it or I will SMITE them like an Old Testament plague.

*insert maniacal laughter*

Pain 1, Me 0

Chronic pain sucks.

This week I am receiving a reminder of this. I did something to my back 8 days ago; thought it was no big deal at first but it got worse as the week went on. It’s been hurting at the level that used to be going on all the time for me.

I’m spoiled these days; often pain free with occasional flareups. I haven’t had one this bad in four years or more.

So right now I’m being reminded how much pain screws me up–and I’m getting to see how it screws up parts of myself necessary for writing.

One: Pain makes me afraid. I future trip like crazy–what if it doesn’t get better? When can I go back to my regular activities? How am I going to function when sometimes I can barely function without pain? Writing in a state of fear tends to be joyless and stripped of its usual juice.

Two: Pain makes me stupid. Even less sleep than usual, fatigue from stiff muscles; it all leaves me cloudy. Writing is slow and awkward.

Three: Pain triggers bad memories and cravings. Back pain will always be associated with the worst time of my addiction. The physical sensation triggers memories of standing in line, filling out forms, and talking to doctors in order to get more painkillers. Even though I know all that is in the past, my body isn’t sure. Writing is harder because it’s difficult to stay in the present.

Four: Pain ups my level of depression. Understandable. Limited mobility leads to boredom, which makes me more vulnerable to depressive content from my head. Writing is harder because the grayness of depression works against my creativity.

Five, and most dangerous of all: Pain makes me self-absorbed. I regress, as many in chronic pain do, to an ego state where I lose perspective and my pain becomes the center of the universe. Writing is hard because I lose touch with why I write.

I really hope this won’t last much longer. But if it does, I need to remember that the imperfect writing I can do in this state is still approximately ten thousand times better than a blank page. So what if it’s not quite up to my usual standards? That’s what editing is for.

Hurricane

“I’ll write my way out, write everything down far as I can see. I’ll write my way out, overwhelm them with honesty, this is the eye of the hurricane, this is the only way I can protect my legacy…”

So, my 18 year old daughter has infected me with the “Hamilton” virus. I’m not one of those lucky rich folks or lottery winners who have actually seen the play, but thanks to her I’m nearly letter and note perfect on the soundtrack.

The words above come from the song “Hurricane,” in which the Hamilton character recalls how his writing after a hurricane’s destruction helped him win support from the townspeople to get to New York and an education. Now he’s resolving to use his writing skill to find a way out of a scandal threatening his career.

At any rate, I think most writers identify with parts of this song. I certainly do. The power of writing, of storytelling, is sometimes the only power I think I have. Maybe some writers don’t feel this way; maybe they feel powerful and successful in other aspects of life too. But when we’ve failed at other things, when we’ve been to some dark places, we can start to believe that our creativity is the one power we possess that no one can take away and its products are the one unique thing we have to offer the world.

In the end, our best shot is to “overwhelm them with honesty.”

Raising the Stakes

When my drug addiction was at its worst, the stakes were life or death.

Many years later, the stakes are still life or death.

But it’s different too. Back then, in the state of despair I was in, losing my life felt like a numb inevitability. My major regrets about the idea had to do with how it would hurt the people I loved.

Now, I feel as if there’s a lot more to lose. Through a process that has taken years, I’ve come to value the things I do have to give. I feel at least somewhat useful to my family and even my community. I have things I value so highly, and so sharply, that the thought of losing them makes the idea of dying before my time suck. Especially my writing.

I’ve been clean for more than seven years now, but I recently had a couple of brief bouts with overeating after being relatively sane around food for the past 2 years. Each only lasted a day or two, thank goodness, but it was enough to remind me of the insanity it brings. One thing I really noticed was how frustrated I felt not to be able to write or even think effectively about writing. The obsession, the fear of gaining weight, the shame…they were all there, but there was also the sharp awareness of a wall the binge eating had put between me and my creative self.

I have a richer life now; a more precious life to be destroyed if I make the choice to use drugs again.

Writing Into the Void

So, about that voice in my head saying civilization is doomed and there is no point to me writing…

I’ve been writing a lot, both poetry and prose. My nonfiction book is beginning to take shape in my mind as the segments I write start to arrange themselves in order and bring ideas as to what should go between them. It’s raw, it’s real, and I genuinely believe it will be worth reading. My first full-length poetry collection is taking shape nicely as well…neither of these things will be done soon, but they have a new level of form and reality.

Then I hear the latest lecture on climate change and nihilism crashes into me. We’ll all be dead soon. No one will ever read my work and it wouldn’t do them any good if they did.

Granted, those thoughts belong to the extreme end of the spectrum…not everyone believes in the very short-term extinction of our species. What is certain is that change is here, much of which is irreversible. Life will get harder, conflicts over dwindling resources will grow, and catastrophic events will occur.

So is there a point to me writing about the subjects I do? Why try to help addicts, or the mentally ill, or both, when the larger world is in crisis? Why does it matter, in the quick or slow apocalypse, whether John Doe stays off drugs or out of the hospital?

I start to drown in these thoughts, and must return to my most basic principle:

It matters to me.

Even if it’s only about how present people get to be for whatever happens, it matters to me.

Being conscious and capable of love matters. Suffering and dying as a human rather than a numbed zombie or cornered animal matters. Being in the mix, a member of humanity, instead of watching from the sidelines, matters.