Camp Nano: Writing with Anxiety

Originally written for the Camp Nanowrimo blog this month!


Chin up, PrincessThat meme, right there? That explains a lot about who I am. I’ve got what some people call “high-functioning” anxiety, the kind that makes you a constantly over-wound spring but determined not to let anyone know that you’re screaming internally. I am a Slytherin, driven to achieve and to do so publicly — because if other people don’t know about it, does it even count? And if I’m not doing my best, if I’m not meeting all my goals and checking everything off my list, aren’t I just a lazy failure? Aren’t I letting myself down, and thus letting down literally everyone I’ve ever met?

Well, of course not. But the demon in my head doesn’t know that.

If any of that is sounding familiar, my sympathies. I know how rough it is. Here are a few things I keep in mind to help manage the mental chaos:

#1: Block off time for things that are not writing. This is hard especially when you’re on a deadline or trying to meet a daily Nano goal, but it’s a crucial thing to learn. Anxiety and stress quite literally fray your nerves, neurologically speaking. Your brain needs breaks, but if you’re like me, it’s tough to give your brain that permission. Lately, I’ve been using my bullet journal’s habit tracker to make sure I do things like read for pleasure, tend to my spirituality, and not fall asleep with my phone clutched in my hand. Checking things off on the habit tracker feels like achievement, which assuages the sense of “but if you’re not constantly working, you’re an unproductive loser”. I’m trying to redefine my broken brain’s perception of what productivity is — sometimes it has to be those things which feed your soul and keep you sane. That’s not an indulgence. It’s keeping yourself in top working order by giving your nerves a chance to rest and heal.

#2: Celebrate the small victories. If anxiety is something that makes you super goal-oriented, learn to find some smaller benchmarks in addition to the biggies. Your end goal might be finishing your Nano project, getting published, hitting the bestseller list — but quite apart from the aspects of those things which are outside of your immediate control, those goals are also always going to be delayed gratification. That can make the day-to-day grind a frustrating endeavor. Give you brain a nice dopamine hit by finding things to celebrate more often: hitting a sprint goal, writing a smashing paragraph, learning a new word. Finding things to take pride and joy in on a more regular basis has really helped me to remember that the major goals do not have to eat my entire life or define my sense of self.

#3: If you need more help, get it. Whatever form that help takes — medications, therapy, changes to your life. I wish I had done so much, much earlier. Instead, I struggled for fifteen years, unable to figure out why every so often, my life just seemed to spiral apart beyond my ability to cope with circumstances. Finally seeing a psychiatrist and getting prescriptions to help with anxiety, depression, and insomnia helped immeasurably. They didn’t change who I am — but they dialed the trouble down to a level I could actually manage. That, in turn, made it much easier to actually write. Needing help does not make you weak. Seeking it out is not an indulgence. Accepting it will not dull your creativity.

This anxiety is always going to be a part of me, and in some ways, I’m okay with that. I like being driven to achieve. But I’m also really glad that I’m learning ways to keep it from counterproductively destroying my ability to function. It’s an ongoing process, to be sure! But then, so am I. And that’s just fine.

Change is the constant

Change is the constant, the signal for rebirth, the egg of the phoenix

[Warning: What follows is a heavy, introspective post broken up with humorous gifs, because that’s how I roll. I’ve been writing this post over the past few weeks, as I am wont to do, but it got harder to resolve myself to its spirit yesterday, when I lost the feline companion who has been my best friend since I was thirteen years old. But then I remember her royal sassiness looking at me, those beautiful yellow-green eyes seeming to say, “I love you, but get it together, woman.” And so I think I must do even better than I promised myself, for her.]

In the summer of 2012, I launched something that I called the Bold New Me Initiative. It was two years after the end of an abusive relationship, though it had taken me most of those two years to stop mourning for it and instead to realize that what had happened had been abuse. And, having realized it, I was mad as hell and determined to refashion myself into someone who could never have “let herself” be treated that way. I had finished drafting and doing initial edits on what would become From Unseen Fire. I was going to go to a convention and pitch it, and then I was going to query, and by the gods I was going to be the novelist I’d always said I would be, come hell or high water. I was going to glitter and glow as I knew I was meant to. I was going to recreate myself as something astonishing.

It almost worked.

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My intentions were certainly good, but there were still things in my life I was blind to. Those things held me back from managing to evolve entirely into the sort of person I wanted to be.

It’s rough to look at yourself and know you have been susceptible to toxic people. To know that you still have that susceptibility, that that weakness will always be in you, however strong and independent-minded you want to think yourself. To know you will have to learn to vigilantly guard against it.

It’s only a little mollifying to know you’re not alone, but the internet does occasionally help in that regard. I don’t know what reasons other people have that give birth to that vulnerability, but for me, it’s entirely because of how badly I want to be liked. Gods, I wish I didn’t. Life would be so much better if I gave as few fucks as I sometimes pretend I have to spare. But that’s just not who I am.

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I want to be liked, to be loved, to belong. And it makes me horrifyingly susceptible to the love-bombing that toxic people open and often sustain damaging relationships with. In 2012, I had freed myself from one poison but didn’t realize I was drinking another on a daily basis. And that would lead to… a whole lot of bad. It would keep me from living up to the image I have of myself. It would trap me and encourage me to make myself small in ways I wouldn’t be able to see clearly for years. It would cause me to isolate myself more than I realized, ignoring opportunities for fulfilling friendships and letting slip some of those I already had. It would dial my anxiety disorder up to 11 on an almost-constant basis.

Living like that… the center cannot hold.

Last year, I tried again. I left the city I’d lived in for close to a decade, the stable job I’d gotten right out of grad school. It all felt right, at the time — cleansing. So many things happened all at the same time — the car I’d had since I was 16, for example, finally gave up the ghost. It seemed like a sign. Yes, move out and move on. Let go of everything that has so ill-defined you these past few years. Start over, entirely fresh.

I still think the time was right for it. I very clearly needed to make some changes, or I was going to lose my grip on sanity entirely.

But I didn’t stick the landing.

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In a few weeks, I’m going to be going back to my high school to talk about careers and adulting. I’m likely to be a bit too honest about it. One of the things I’m going to stress? Don’t make decisions in crisis mode. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Because that’s really what I can trace this past Lost Year to. I had let myself get so knotted up that the only way I saw to get out was hacking through everything with a sword. And, I mean, that works… but then you’re left with a bunch of frayed ends that don’t do anyone any good.

I spent the dark of the year in a very dark place (literally as much as figuratively). I started my self-imposed exile a few weeks before the autumn equinox; I returned to a familiar home a few weeks before the vernal. The symbolism is too much for a pagan to ignore. A cold, lonely hibernation. Everything folding in on itself, unfed by the sun, blasted by icy winds. A journey to the Underworld, bleak and grey.

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But spring always comes. Snows always melt.

As miserable as it was, I’m starting to think this year nonetheless had Purpose. Perhaps I had to go through this year in order to really and truly strip away all those things I don’t want to be. I think I had to die a little in order to figure out how I want to live.

The phoenix, after all, has to reduce herself entirely to ash before she can blaze again.

So from here on out, I blaze. (And if I say it to all of you, perhaps that will force me to be accountable to myself and actually land on my feet this time.) No more excuses. No more ducking my head. No more making myself small. From Unseen Fire comes out in a few weeks, and I think I have a few lessons to learn from my own heroine. Starting now, I walk with my head up and my core tight and my hips under me, rather than slouching my way through the world. (You know, like this). I’m going to go back to wearing clothes that say “pay attention to me” rather than “please ignore me”. I’m going to start wearing high heels again. I will be the lioness, not the mouse. I will take what is mine — with fire and blood, should that prove necessary.

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I will live up to the image I want to have of myself — and I will live up to the image that those who love me have of me, because bless them, that my friends can still think me worthy of affection seems a miracle, some days. I don’t want to let them down any longer. I will spend more time nurturing those friendships. I will remember that I am an extrovert, that avoiding people makes me unhappy, and so I will engage with the world rather than shutting it out.

And wherever I land next, I am going to summon every ounce of regality in me, and I will own that place.

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Bold New Me Initiative, v2.0.

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And, as is appropriate, an accompanying 2.0 playlist:

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/1270613493/playlist/4Kk5oVSgDDLaIl9qf6KIho

No Matter How Your Heart is Grieving: Some thoughts for #WorldMentalHealthDay

When I was a kid, Cinderella would never have made my list of top five Princesses. I loved Jasmine and Belle and Nala, because they were independent and fierce and they wanted things. Cinderella had a nice singing voice and I liked the mice, but she was never a fave.

It took me a long time to appreciate Cinderella.

And honestly, it hit me out of nowhere, on a trip to Disney World in 2014, when the Cinderella at the Princess Fairytale Hall in the Magic Kingdom brought me to tears. I was 10000% unprepared for the experience.

She started off my complimenting my hair (the princesses all loved my hair) and asked if my mice friends had helped me braid it. I told her no, I don’t have mice friends, but I do have a cat friend — but a nice cat friend, not an evil one like Lucifer. And we chatted about how she’s let Elsa redecorate her castle for the winter, though it does mean some mopping up when the ice melts, and how Prince Charming is helpful around the house (moreso, I got the impression, than some of the other Princes). We had a lot of time to talk, because the non-Frozen side of Fairytale Hall was practically deserted first thing in the morning.

And then, for some reason, I told her how much I’ve always liked her song, and how much it’s meant to me, because I’d been through some rough times, but “no matter how your heart is grieving” – and for no readily identifiable reason I started to get a little choked up. So she finished for me, “If you keep on believing, the dreams that you wish will come true.”

Then she gave me a big hug, pulled back, squeezed my hands and looked me right in the eyes and said, quietly and just for me, “I’ve always said that if your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough. But you can do it. I know you can.”

And then I somehow managed to get through the posed pictures and around the corner before dissolving into tears entirely, because Cinderella believes in me and my dreams.

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Seriously, in this picture I’m about 4 nanoseconds from Losing It. And I’m definitely not almost in tears now just from retelling the story.

When you’re broken — when your brain tells lies, when depression says you’ll never be good enough or brave enough or strong enough, when anxiety has you certain that no one actually likes you and even your friends are just pretending, when let-downs and betrayals occasionally hammer that message home, when toxic influences have magnified everything bad you think about yourself — just hearing words like those is… well, magic. I will forever be grateful to that actress, who somehow looked in my eyes and intuited that I needed a message of hope.

I went to see the live action Cinderella the next year with way more enthusiasm than I would’ve had without that experience in the Magic Kingdom, I think, and if you’ve seen it, you know it’s a more emotionally nuanced version of the story. I wasn’t the only woman who took away a different message than “marry up if at all possible”. Cinderella had become a story about surviving abuse and managing not to let it destroy the core of who you are.

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A lot of what I’ve had to learn in dealing with my anxiety and depression is remembering things like I am not my pain; I am not the fear and anger that pain causes me. I am more than the bad things that have happened to me. I am worthy of being treated well. I deserve to trust and be trusted. I deserve to feel safe. I deserve to be loved.

I haven’t dealt with it all as gracefully as Cinderella, I know. But I try to remember to Have courage, and be kind.

And there are worse things to think about on World Mental Health Day.

 

Critiquing for a Cause: #MS4MI

Last March, my literary agency celebrated its birthday by holding a charity auction to benefit multiple sclerosis, and I wrote about why that was special to me, since I have a grandmother with the disease.

This year, they’re holding a similar auction to benefit mental health research — actually, several auctions throughout the month — and my reason for promoting it is even more personal.

This is a hard and weird blog post to write, because I’m still getting used to the idea of acknowledging it out loud. I strongly feel, though, that only openness will combat the stigma, and I have a responsibility to help that as much as I can. So here goes: Since last October, I’ve been in treatment for anxiety and depression.

Part of the challenge in treating mental health is that, even when folk come forward and ask for help, it can be hard to figure out what the cause-and-effect is. For me, I’ve got comorbid conditions, and in my case, anxiety seems to trigger depression. I get obsessively fixated on something — some problem, something that is going wrong or could go wrong, some person in my life, some scenario — and if I can’t fix it immediately, I end up in this destructive spiral where I can’t think of anything else. My brain tells lies. It magnifies problems far out of proportion, it tampers with my ability to moderate my emotional responses, and it convinces me that because I can’t handle one thing, I can’t handle anything. That’s where the depression starts, eating away at my sense of self-worth. It’s an ugly spiral, and I’ve never before been able to pull my nose up out of it. I’ve always just had to ride it out and hope that not too much got destroyed in the interim.

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Art by everybodyhasabrain.tumblr.com

I can look back at my life and know that I should’ve gotten this treatment a long, long time ago. I can see this pattern going back to high school. There have been months at a time, sometimes close together, sometimes years apart, where I just can’t brain correctly. Everything I think of is a worst-case scenario, and when your mind is doing that to you, it tends to have some pretty wretched effects on your emotions. My defence mechanism isn’t avoidance, as is often the case with anxiety disorders — rather, I steel myself to try and perform as perfectly as possible so that no one will guess anything’s wrong, sometimes re-exposing myself to stressors just to prove I can handle it. Neurologically, over time this quite literally shreds your brain’s ability to process correctly. If it goes on long enough, I start having panic attacks.

You would think that alone would be a signal that my body and brain were screaming for me to pay attention to them, but it was actually reading Wil Wheaton’s stuff about how depression lies that convinced me to go seek something out. I’m so glad I did. I walked in and, after discussing my various symptoms, told the doctor, “I think I may be approaching a nervous breakdown,” and she said, “Honey, you’re in the middle of one.” I was so determined to put on a strong face and stay positive for the sake of others that I couldn’t admit I was coming apart at the seams.

Why didn’t I seek help before? A lot of reasons. I didn’t think my problems were “bad enough”. I still managed to dress myself and go to work, after all. I wasn’t trying to kill myself. Who was I to think that I needed anything special? So much was going so well in my life, what did I have to be worried or sad about? I was embarrassed (and still am, a bit). I was skeptical that anything could be done to help. I wasn’t sure I could handle the expense of office visits and medication. There were, in my head, a lot of reasons not to seek help, and they were loud enough that I couldn’t listen to the reasons to get it.

I’m not “better” — I still have bad days and emotional outbursts, as everyone does, and figuring out the correct medication cocktail can take some time — but I can handle things now. I can pull out of a nosedive. I don’t automatically assume the worst. I get less fixated on what I can’t control, and if my emotions do get the better of me, I recover more quickly.

It also helps me as a writer. I know that some people fear medicating mental health issues because they worry it will somehow deaden their sensibilities, stem the flow of creativity, grey things out. But what it can do is clear the clouds. Getting help has allowed me to focus and to re-access the willpower and the determination I need to finish projects. Writing is hard enough without having to clear extra hurdles before I even sit down at the computer!

generalizedanxiety.pngStill, though, the stigma — I know that when I finish writing this blog post, I’m going to hem and haw for days before posting it. Which is ridiculous, really — I don’t feel shame because I’m nearsighted and have to go to a doctor and buy medical aides to fix that. I don’t feel shame for taking vitamins to help my body function well. I shouldn’t feel any shame just because my brain needs some help, too. I also know I’ll end up deleting and re-writing the more personal bits about how the anxiety and depression feel to me, thinking, “No one cares” or “That exposes vulnerability, don’t do that.” But I also know that… it might help someone else, to read it and recognize it. That’s the real thing that will get me to post it, in the end.

Mental health research won’t just give science better ways to help those who are struggling, it will also help to de-stigmatize the diseases so that more people feel comfortable getting help. I’m so, so glad that Fuse Literary has decided to make this the focus of this year’s charity auctions.

So – if you’re in the writing and querying trenches, or if you want a great present for someone who is, I encourage you to bid on a critique! All of the money will go to a truly excellent cause, and one that affects so many of us — if not you, then absolutely someone you know. Multiple someones. Too many someones.

But it can get better.