victory versus failure

I need to compose a monthly Thing for the official blog, but in all honesty, I’m stumped. So here I go.

On February 23, I set out for a life on the road. A seriously, seriously hard life I definitely wasn’t prepared for, but I wanted it all the same. I wanted to know if I could survive far from home, in unfamiliar places, sometimes getting by only by sheer grit.

And I did. I drove all over the place. Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan. Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky. Illinois and Indiana.

On March 17, we were less than two hours from our destination when we hit a deer. We weren’t too worried at first–neither Jess or I were hurt. But then we realized the radiator was leaking, meaning we couldn’t limp on even if we wanted to. And so we came to be stranded in Kansas.

The bad:

Being stranded came directly out of our own pockets. Short and succint summary: the guy we were working for dumped us. Kaput. All the money we’d saved had to keep us afloat till we got home. There were no rental cars available until the following Tuesday–and the only one-way car was a blistering $750. (Ouch.) So we came home, and the search has begun for another job as the costs of meds ($280) and the cost of insurance ($308) are bleeding me dry. And…I still have to settle the costs for the divorce, so getting by on sheer grit isn’t stopping any time soon.

The good:

I can clobber my fear.

Despite a giant cluster of fear around agoraphobia, I drove all over the freaking country at all hours of the day and night. Usually, Jess slept while I drove, so it was just me navigating through places I’d never seen before. Quiet drives through a snowy dawn, balmy nights driving up the Gulf Coast. There was beauty to be seen everywhere, even in the giant interchanges of Dallas, Houston, and Austin.

 

Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma rendered me speechless. And every time we drove back into Appalachia and crossed from the Smokies to the Blue Ridge in North Carolina, it tugged at my heart. Somewhere in the Pisgah region, there is a place that is definitely home, and it’s just a matter of getting there.

Working up enough funds, getting through the divorce, surviving, surviving…There was so much ahead of me when I walked away last September. I wasn’t prepared at all for what was ahead. But I had a rough idea of what I had to do, and I’m doing it.

I stand up for myself now.

I know I’m capable now.

I know I can survive couch surfing and the heater going out in the van when it’s 14 F and tornadoes in the middle of the night. I can stay sane, level-headed enough to get out of a terrible situation and drive back home.

I can find the value in my adventure out into the world and call it a victory even if others declare it a failure.

I can survive.

I could get back up and choose the path where I had no husband, no home, no security. Just a broken marriage and all the pain that came with it.

But…I could, at the same time, deal with the pain that comes with losing your entire support network. I still scrabbled forward. I know I can live on next to nothing and not go into meltdown, because there are other ways.

There are so many ways to survive.

I was lucky to have Jess at my side–rough-and-tumble Jess who knew how to be homeless, how to weather the worst, how to keep thinking even when the screws are tightening and it very much looked like there were no ways out. Every time I thought I couldn’t, he would nudge me with the reminder that yes, I could. I chose to stay alive, and staying alive would always be hard for people like us, but that was the thing:

Staying alive is one of the hardest choices you can make, especially when all you want is an end to pain.

He knew that as intimately as I did–he knew exactly how hard it would be to keep walking forward into more hard choices. More pain. More failures. More rejection. And absolutely no guarantees that it would ever turn out all right.

But neither of us would find that out if we didn’t keep going.

It’s a funny thing. Grabbing someone’s hand and deciding to battle illness together, neither the stronger half. What matters is the understanding, despite differences, that it is terribly, terribly hard, but at least one person knows exactly how hard you’re fighting. It shouldn’t work, because it makes things even harder, but that understanding–that makes all the difference.

So what now? There’s a bevy of temp jobs, continued work as both editor and assistant on a publishing team, a possible job at a tea shop. Good–and necessary, given the staggering bill for the Pristiq ($228/month), the health insurance ($308), divorce costs ($2000), a hospital bill ($800), along with everything that comes with paying the costs of staying alive.

There are still six months to get through, to save up money to find a way to Asheville, and then…

Then the process of starting over begins all over again.

To all that, I say:

“Yes.”

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Seven months.

About to be eight, if we’re really keeping count, but at this point, what’s the difference? Why haven’t I posted in half a year’s time?

Let’s throw out some guesses.

  • working on new projects
  • crappy mental health
  • crappy health in general
  • OCD

That last one. What the hell is that? is something I asked roughly two months ago. What are you talking about? There’s a long list of abbreviations in my medical file, but OCD is not one of them.

Sure, I have problems getting out of the house sometimes. But I’m not a neat freak by any means. I don’t get twitchy if something is out of place. I do have a thing about getting stuff on my hands, but that’s from working in healthcare. It’s not like obsess over it or anything.

Unless it’s bleach. Or engine oil. Or gasoline. Or chemicals.

Or someone’s sick. Or if it’s a bathroom. (Yikes.) Flu season? You best believe my hands will be freshly washed before I eat in a public place.

If I eat in a public place, because that’s difficult sometimes. The noise level bothers me at times, and then I feel a little on edge because it seems like people are staring at me, and I get weirded out when people see me eat. I can only eat half my plate, because if I eat more than that, I could get nauseous or get stomach cramps and end up having a panic attack.

And–oh yeah, if I have a panic attack in public, I start having trouble leaving the house. All that trouble with driving starts. I get to where it’s difficult to go to and from the mailbox. You know that lady on Shameless? Sheila? Yeah, I get her. I totally understand her deal.

Mine’s not that bad–really, it’s not that bad–it can’t possibly be that bad…

That’s what I kept telling myself most of this year. It’s not that bad. Bad was the time I was trapped in my bedroom at thirteen with the bureau shoved up against the door.

Bad wasn’t only being able to go outside very early in the morning or very late at night. In my mind, I could still get out–albeit with someone else, not alone. That was still something. I’d been in worse places.

But denial isn’t that great of a place to be, either.

Turns out that my definition of “bad” is pretty far off base. It’s easy to keep digging yourself into a hole when you believe it really isn’t that deep. You can jump out any time you like. You’re fine, really. And when you start getting pinned in a corner with meds not working and your view of the future getting really narrow, well, maybe you’re just not trying hard enough.

Or maybe you just can’t be fixed.

Here’s what I didn’t think OCD was: I didn’t think it had anything to do with the endless, ever-spewing thought tape running constantly in my mind. That was just background noise, you know? Just negative cognitions, a logical outcome of the things I’ve lived through. But there was a problem with that.

There wasn’t just the negative thought tape, running independently despite my attempts to shut it down. There was also the constant chess game of trying to out-logic myself.

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MR. ROBOT is awesome, by the way.

If there’s one thing I’ve heard over and over in my trials with my own mental health, it’s that to all appearances, I’ve got my crap together. I’m smart, I’m competent, I know how to advocate for myself. I stay on top of my treatment and I do my best to understand its rules so I can beat the illness at its own game.

Well, it’s a bit of a problem if you’re following the rules for the wrong game. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of this. So when friends and family threw together the cash to get me to see the therapist who pulled me out of the nosedive I initially fell face-first into at 19 and got me to graduating college with a 3.0, I kind of had to go. My own strategies weren’t working. The thought tape was getting louder than ever. Meds were failing. Everything we tried not only didn’t help, it made things worse.

So I sucked it up and I went to go see Bailey, because if there’s one person I know I can trust with their hands in my skull, it’s her. I filled her in on the last eight years, explained the situation, and almost immediately, she said “Here’s the thing–this isn’t trauma you’re struggling with right now, this is OCD.”

Say what?

What?

I was thinking, Whoa, wait a minute. I don’t have rituals. I don’t have compulsions. Obsessions? What are you…

Oh.

And over the past two months, it’s fallen into place fairly neatly. Not only have I not kept this thing we will call The OCD at bay, I’ve fed it. I made it bigger. And yeah, trauma has fed it over the past eight years, with good reason, but the presenting issue, the thing that is in my way, yes.

Yes. The thought tape. The obsessing. The attempts to out-logic the monster.

You can’t out-think a thing that has already overrun your thoughts.

I thought I was facing my fears, but…I wasn’t approaching them the right way. I thought, if I can just get through it, even if it’s awful, then I’m still okay. Wrong. Absolutely wrong. That simply reinforces thoughts like I just can’t eat in public or I knew I’d be miserable on that trip anyway. Sitting there, eyes closed, sweating, trying to wait out the anxiety or keep it pushed back far enough that it wasn’t obvious how scared I was–that wasn’t the right approach at all. Shutting my eyes, bracing, flinching…those things might have gotten me through the moment, but they never got me to see what was really happening. They hid it. And all those avoidance strategies just made it worse.

So, it’s been about two months since I’ve started working on rerouting my thoughts, and I’ve learned a few things. Huge things. Things that are now clicking and making sense.

Instead of tolerating the distress of a fear, I walk straight into it.

I see it, I recognize it, and I face it intentionally.

And then I do it again, and again, and again. Willfully approaching situations that make me nervous isn’t easy, but it’s getting easier. It comes more naturally. The instant The OCD whispers You can’t do this, I respond by doing it. Whatever it is.

Two months in, I can drive again. I’ve gone from seeing friends maybe once a month to at least once a week. I’ve even made new friends. I’ve made awesome progress getting back to doing things I hadn’t done in months. Life is improving so quickly now that it’s hard to think I was so hopeless two months ago. I thought there wasn’t any direction left to go in.

Now, I’ve realized I can go in any direction I want. I just have to take the first step. One of the biggest ones is actually talking about it:

Guess who said “hi” to the neighbors for the first time in months–and didn’t have a meltdown!! 

Okay guys…next up is going to the mailbox…without checking first…to get the mail. I CAN DO THIS. BELIEVE IN ME.

I RAN ERRANDS BY MYSELF. The bank. The grocery store. The DMV. I did it alone. And I didn’t freak out!!!

SAID HI TO MY NEIGHBOR. AGAIN. AND GOT THE MAIL WITHOUT CHECKING.

Had dinner in a loud restaurant which was kinda crappy at first, but eventually I acclimated and it came down WHILE I WAS THERE. WHAT?! I recovered enough that later I even swung by to meet Pru at the close of her shift and she and I hung out for a bit

Guess who had a giant panic attack and started sobbing in the grocery store but pushed through it and didn’t run and stared at people like YEAH I’M CRYING THIS PLACE SUCKS AND I HAVE STOMACH CRAMPS BUT I AM GONNA POWER THROUGH IT AND IF I VOMIT WHATEVER, DON’T CARE, I DO NOT CARE….and eventually I even calmed down and got through the store. The world didn’t end!

Biggest surprise? People are actually supportive of that stuff. No judgment. No laughter. No people making fun of a thing that has crippled me for months. Hmm. Another thing The OCD was wrong about.

Plus? A lot of people have messaged me that they’re glad I’m talking about it because they suffer from it, too.

Maggie Stiefvater has written some brilliant stuff on OCD, and there are plenty of other people in writing who struggle with mental illness. While stigma promotes the idea that we shouldn’t talk about it…it’s evident that we should. People feel less alone. They connect with each other. Help each other. Offer encouragement. Y’know, the things we all need to get by.

Anyway, that’s been my life for the past few months. I think I’m slowly getting back to writing. The thing tickling my brain now involves a haunted house set in a patch of woods where time gets weird and the kudzu is a little strange. It’s equal shades Lost Souls, Stranger Things, and Donnie Darko. So far, it’s very fun. We’ll see where it goes.

Take care of yourselves, guys.

 

Mania & its new best friend, Habitica

I don’t really keep it a secret anymore that I live with chronic mental illness. It’s something that touches every aspect of my life. When it’s impossible to hide, as it has been these past two weeks, worrying about stigma makes it worse. The only thing that makes it better is knowing other people who very much live in the public eye don’t hide it. They own it, and it makes me think “I can own my illness, too.” Even if more people own the depression side of bipolar and refrain from mentioning mania at all costs.

(Look at that title. So much for that.)

I’ve lived with bipolar I, among other mental illnesses, since I was 14. It’s the easiest to identify as my bouts of depression and mania typically run on a seasonal clock. Summer brings depression, early autumn brings hypomania, late autumn brings moderate depression, and the end of winter is marked by brutal mania. Usually the mania is controllable, but sometimes it lands me in the hospital. The last time I had a flare of mania bad enough to be hospitalized was 2007. Nine years of not being hospitalized–what a streak! There have been times where I probably would have been better off in a hospital but…that’s something I can’t financially afford, so I do the best I can to keep myself functioning. It’s crucial that I watch my habits and behaviors like a hawk. If I see a dip or a swell, I have to act quickly before it takes me under.

And this is where Habitica saved my butt.Screenshot 2016-02-05 04.59.29

Habitica is a neat little RPG that turns daily tasks and behaviors into a game. When you accomplish things, you gain experience, gold, and pets. As a lover of RPGs and a person who needs to watch behaviors and habits very closely, I figured I’d give it a try. And it did help, especially with keeping me motivated to accomplish my tasks. It helped me figure out what my averages were for how much I could realistically accomplish and how much energy I had.

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Like paintings for HOLLOW FOREST, though I should have been asleep at four AM.

When I had to add “not sleeping” to my habit list I wasn’t overly worried. Sleep is always a battle. My brain hates it. Doesn’t know how to do it.

But then I was adding “take Pristiq earlier” and “limit bright light” to the list. I was knocking out an amount of tasks that would have been impossible in December. Feeling almost better, if faster. My brain had finally found the accelerator and after months of depression, I’ll be frank: it was a relief to be getting stuff done. I fixed things that had needed fixing months ago, but I was fixing them when I’d had two hours of sleep and had been up for eighteen, nineteen, twenty hours. Thirty hours. My body was exhausted, but its pilot had dropped a brick on the accelerator. And I was so exhausted that checking off behaviors was the only thing that made the lightbulb go off in my head that I was in major trouble.

If I hadn’t been tracking my behaviors and habits so closely, monitoring them via a game every single day, I’m not sure whether I would have been able to steer myself out of the slide and called the doctor. Would I have done that if I hadn’t been watching my behaviors? I don’t know. But the thing that made me realize I was in trouble was the little game on my phone.

I’m still having trouble navigating this flare, but the doc is confident that I’m watching myself enough to get through this. I have the little game on my phone helping me know when I need to come in again again. I have an incredibly strong support network. And even though I don’t like the medicine that slows me down, I take it because without it, I can’t function. So having an app that reminds me to take my meds, enforce rest times, and call on my support network really helps–much like the routine I’d follow in an acute unit or partial hospitalization.

My hair is a really unfortunate shade of blonde, my house is bizarrely spotless, and I’m still exhausted, but I’m confident I’ll get through this. I’ve got the tools to do it.

Thanks for watching over me, Habitica.

 

 

NYC (a review)

Last week, I visited New York City for the first time. Despite living a mere two hours away from NYC as a child, I’d never experienced the Big Apple. I have plenty of memories of Philly (gray, pretzels, gray, more gray) but New York? None.

So when I got onto a plane at 5:30 AM last Tuesday, I had no idea what I was in for. I mean, people try to prepare you. My mother wrote a very careful itinerary including directions for getting a cab. I was warned that the driving could be a little scary.

Let me tell you. I am TERRIFIED of planes. Like, I cried most of the way to New York (quietly and with dignity…sort of) but that cab ride from LaGuardia to Riverdale? Ha…hahahaha. Hahahahaha.

(It wasn’t quite as scary as the ride from the Bronx to the Met, but at least I had my big sister to protect me then.)

I am so glad to be home where there are proper lane divisions and driving is DRIVING, not furious salmon fighting upstream and/or for dominance. Everything was so much FASTER up there that me and Husband felt like a pair of true bumpkins. Luckily we had my sister to lead us from the Met to St. John the Divine to Broadway and the Bronx Zoo. She compacted a true tour in the space of three days–a miraculous feat, honestly, when you consider she also wrangles three young kids.

So here’s the quick and dirty on New York:

Bus rides can take two hours. The subway involves running and confronting the most harrowing ranges of your personal bubble. Never hang out in the road, because a Caterpillar going 50 mph might run you down as soon as a Lexus. The roads are pure Darwinism. Survival of the fittest, whether you’re driving or trying to amble across. Yet somehow, passengers still thank people when they get off the bus and people can be very cheery and polite.

Everything is big and close together, and deep in the city it feels like you’re navigating around some hectic man-made mountain range. The buildings have a way of making you feel like a mere speck amongst thousands. When I followed my sister through the subway and up into Time Square, I wanted to clutch onto the back of her jacket because I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen so many people in one space before in my life. I ended up clutching Husband’s jacket instead and watching my surroundings very owlishly because I was experiencing some kind of weird deja vu. I’d seen the city countless times on a screen, but never in person. The screen doesn’t provide the scent of street carts and the sensory overload of hundreds of flashing screens and people shouting for your attention while you try to follow your long-legged navigator.

I followed my sister through a number of cool places. She took us to the Met, and I enjoyed the Asian exhibit while Husband dorked out over the medieval weaponry. After that, she took us to Alice’s Tea Cup, which was rather lovely. I had a white chocolate strawberry scone that was worth flying up for again at a later date.

Thursday, we took off a few hours early for a show and wandered through Columbia’s campus and St. John the Divine. I’m fairly certain that when Cassandra Clare was imagining the Institute, she was thinking of St. John the Divine. It’s IMMENSE. HUGE. I had a true sense of awe walking around in there, and was so pleased at how quiet it was. I’ve never been in a cathedral that big, and wow, I wish I could have used it somehow for a book idea. (Unfortunately, I already picked North Brother Island, which I was able to vaguely see as we crossed over the East River a few times.) It was a nice pause before we headed into Time Square to go see Aladdin.

I’ll say something for Broadway. It defines entertaining. The stagecraft and the sheer glitz of the performance was unlike anything I’d seen back home. I’m not usually big on musicals, but this one made me realize why people make such a big deal out of it.

11196237_10152737032390740_3348405704266045595_nOur last day was spent almost entirely at the Bronx zoo. We met up with a very old friend who drove four hours just to see me and Jeremy, and we traversed the entire zoo. The butterfly garden was wonderful, I enjoyed the birds probably more than anyone else did, and I got to spend time with a friend I hadn’t seen in five years. We picked up like we’d seen each other the day before, same as always, and had a very nice time giggling and just BEING with each other.

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(I also really liked the peacocks everywhere. It’s very clear who actually runs the zoo.)

All in all, it was a good trip. My sister and I got to spend some time together–which is very nice considering how far apart we are. Our family has always been spread between the North and South, and there’s no telling where she’ll live next. However, I did manage to cope with being on not one, but three planes, so hopefully travelling will get easier for me one day. At least I can survive plane flights.

And New York.

For someone as anxious as myself, the fact that I did not experience a SINGLE panic attack in New York is pretty phenomenal. On the planes, yes, but they were easier to control than in the past. It proved to me that if I can survive the subway, terrifying cab rides, planes, Times Square, and nearly getting lost a few times, I can survive anything. It gave me a huge victory over anxiety, which was almost as nice as seeing my sister.

Almost.

So that was the trip! IN THE HEART OF THE HOLLOW FOREST is still in progress (now sitting at 81k, oy vey). I’m close(r) to finishing it. In the meantime, I’ve been making some decent coin with freelance editing projects, trying to get over a rather nasty tooth extraction, and Early Summer. It’s already 90 degrees here in South Carolina, and spring is gone for another year. My yard projects are about to become downright hellish, but once they’re done…they’ll be DONE.

If they get done. Book first.

See you guys next month!