Old into New

Thanks for visiting again! Today’s post (I think) will be short: an apology for the unintended hiatus over the past couple of weeks, and a note about the upcoming (probable) hiatus until the New Year.

I didn’t plan to miss last week’s post, but a pre-Thanksgiving cold has been hanging around, making any extra work a challenge. Now, as we’re going into the extremely active holiday season, I’m expecting my brain to shut down a little over the next couple of weeks.

Can’t believe 2019 is already almost over. I thought that for this short post, I’d mull over the transition between the old and New Years a bit.

To be honest, I’ll be glad to see the end of 2019. It’s been a tough year overall. To begin with, it was a year of saying goodbye. Here, on a personal note, I remember Lee Abbott and Van Reiner, two bright and brave souls whose passing this year has left things a little darker. Lee was an extraordinary writer whose gifts touched the lives of countless students and colleagues. Van was a scientist and one of the warmest and most genuine people I’ve ever known. It was too soon to lose them both.

While I tell myself to remember their light and carry it on in my own life as best I can, sometimes that feels really hard to do. Sharing a link here to Maroon 5’s “Memories,” which has resonated with me a lot over the past few months:

 

**

Shifting from the personal to the professional, the past almost-six months have been pretty disappointing. Anxiety has kept me mostly in survival mode since early July, and as I look back on all that time, it feels like far too many weeks that I won’t get back. None of my 2019 goals really came to fruition; I didn’t have the energy to work or hustle the way I needed to. While I know I did the best I could, given how I was feeling, I still don’t like seeing all that blank time in the rearview mirror.

On the other hand, things are getting better. Mornings, especially, have gotten a lot better over the last couple of months. If you’ve dealt with anxiety, you know that mornings can be the absolute worst, because your cortisol levels are high after the night. Sometimes it can be impossible even to sit down for five minutes to eat a bowl of cereal or drink a cup of coffee (and that’s if you don’t swear off coffee for a while, as I did). It’s been good, lately, to sit down and eat breakfast the way I used to, and yes, savor that cup of coffee. The agitation is still there, but it doesn’t run things anymore.

And though the last five-plus months do feel like a professional blank, I also have to see them as a time of growth. My anxiety forced me to look at some big, deep-seated issues I have with the way I feel about myself: the roots of what I’ve always experienced as chronic depression. As I’ve written about before on the blog, I’ve gotten used to depression, but the anxiety of this summer was a real wake-up call. It’s made me see that taking a different view of myself wouldn’t just be helpful: it’s actually necessary if I want to continue to work and do the things I care about. Before this summer, I didn’t know that self-directed shame could explode into something so destructive and inhibiting. I don’t want that to happen again, so I have to work on the shame.

Going into 2020, I want to let go of my disappointment about that big piece of 2019, learn what I can from it, and hopefully come out stronger and more ready than ever to work. Whether you have goals for the New Year, or prefer to take things as they come and focus on the day-to-day, I send you all positive energy and good wishes for the holiday season and the year to come. See you in 2020!

Back to Work

Yesterday I wrote a little over eight hundred words on what I think will be my next book (Number Three 😊). This feels like a big step in the right direction, because part of me has been avoiding writing, and/or struggling with it big time, for a while.

If you’ve been following the blog, you know I’ve been wrestling with pretty severe anxiety since early this summer. This is a big reason why I haven’t been writing much (when at all). It’s not the only reason for the slump, though, as I’ll explore a little bit farther along in this post.

The anxiety first. Folks who have dealt with it know how, initially, you get scared of something, most often a perceived malfunction in your body or mind. Nobody else, not doctors or therapists or family or anyone, can see or confirm the malfunction, but you can’t explain the fear away or reason yourself out of it. Then, insidiously, you get scared because you’re scared. You think things like, If something wasn’t really wrong, I wouldn’t be this scared, or The very fact that I’m scared means I’m hopelessly messed up. The fear goes around in circles, escalating and dragging you with it.

Anxiety can also leave you confused about yourself. You spend so much time hyper-vigilant, watching yourself to make sure you’re still operating okay, that you kind of forget how it feels to just be in your own skin and your own mind. You might feel like you’ve turned into a different person, or you’re not really sure who you are anymore. It can feel terribly risky to trust yourself.

6.26.19 post - Pine Creek falls (2)

That’s how anxiety has been for me, and it made writing feel frankly dangerous. I felt like had to hold on super-tight to the objectively real. Otherwise how could I be sure I was still functioning okay? I couldn’t let myself escape into a fictional world, especially one of my own creation. How could I believe it was okay to imagine things? How could I trust myself to walk that balance between the world in my mind, and the one I lived in?

I hated feeling like I couldn’t write. (Talk about not being sure who you are anymore!) The good news is – as I read when I was learning all I could about anxiety – that the mind will heal and get back to its accustomed way of working, once you figure out how to get out of its way. Hyper-vigilance doesn’t help. It only keeps the fear-cycle spinning. The best thing you can do, I read, is get on with your life as well as you can. Do the things you want to do, even if anxiety tells you that you can’t or shouldn’t.

This gets me back to writing, and to the second piece of the creativity slump. I call this piece the Why should I? phenomenon.

It was easy to say that I should write, to ground myself, to help with recovery from the anxiety, and because, when you get down to it, writing is what I love to do and the one thing I most want to do. But it was hard to get past the fear that it was somehow dangerous, and on top of that, there’s the uncertainty in the act itself. Why should I do it, when I don’t know if it’ll be any good? Why should I do it, when I have no control over whether anyone likes it, or whether anyone sees it, or whether it gets out in the world at all?

river 1

When I found myself starting to feel like writing again, it felt like deciding to go down with my colors nailed to the mast. Maybe diving into a fictional world was the wrong thing to do, even though it never had been before. (Anxiety also likes to tell you that no matter how many times you do something with no trouble at all, next time might be different.) I figured that maybe my brain just couldn’t handle it. But I was sick of not doing it, and I found myself wanting to get back into the world of my second book, Fourteen Stones.

Well. My brain fought that idea as hard as it knew how. You can’t do that. Who knows if Fourteen Stones will ever see the light of day? How can you possibly justify writing a sequel (editor’s note: it’s actually a prequel) when nobody might want the first one? Why do you want to waste your time? That’s stupid!

But the mind does heal if you can figure out how to get out of its way. In spite of all the messages about danger and uncertainty and the possible stupidity of the whole idea, I found myself putting a toe back in that fictional world. First I was thinking vaguely about my favorite character again. Then I was going back to a period in his life that I’d dreamed up while writing Fourteen Stones, but that hadn’t needed to go on the page in that book. And then – glory be – I was back in the farmhouse where he grew up, and I could practically smell the fire on the hearth in the front room, and run my hand along the generations-old wooden beams and floorboards.

It still felt like a huge risk, for more than one reason. It still does. But I’m learning that my writer-mind is stronger than the other stuff, and for sure, if I was going down, I would want to do it with my colors nailed to the mast…except I’m not going down. I’m off to the races.

After a couple of weeks of sketching and brainstorming, I figured out where this prequel-book needs to start. Yesterday I wrote the first couple of pages of Chapter 1. When the anxiety was at its worst, I thought I might never be able to do this kind of work again, but the words are coming back, and the story is already unfolding in shapes I hadn’t considered.

Getting back to work, for me, means coming home. I’m so glad to do it. Let the new adventure begin!

minebank view

 

 

 

Coming Back Changed

I didn’t think I was going to write a post this week. My husband and I are spending a couple of days at the coast, so I’d planned on a blog hiatus until next week, but somehow this evening – as I’m sitting in the living room at our rental, listening to the ocean outside – I’m finding myself inspired.

Time away from home can be a terrific way to recharge, but it can also be stressful, as I found somewhat to my surprise earlier this summer. I love traveling, especially with my husband. (Solo, not so much. 😉 ) Usually, I’m able to let my worries sit at home while we’re away, and let myself breathe freely while we’re checking out new places. This past summer, though, anxiety really got in the way of that kind of release during the couple of trips we took. These two days might be different. I’m hoping they will be.

I need some time out of my head and away from the worry. Especially, I want some time to re-ground myself as a writer. This summer was very challenging on that front, and I’m continuing to struggle with questions about what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and sometimes whether I can still do it at all. (Anxiety is weird that way. You can prove to yourself a hundred times in a row that you can do something – write a few sentences, come up with a halfway-decent paragraph, brainstorm for a story – and anxiety will still insist that, when you try to do it for the hundred-and-first time, you’ll fail. All you can do is keep showing it, again and again, that it’s wrong. Eventually it’ll wear itself out and go away, or so I’m told.) Thinking clearly about the things I want to think about, instead of getting caught up in loops of panic, seems to involve a kind of end-run around that unwelcome “guest” in my brain. Not easy, but possible.

prettyboy view
Loch Raven Reservoir, Maryland

So tonight I’m listening to the ocean and thinking, again, about why we tell stories. Stephen King said that storytelling is “telling lies about people who never existed in order to learn the truth about ourselves” (paraphrasing a bit, but that was the gist of his quote). We create these imagined places and people; we as writers pour ourselves into our fictional worlds, and then we translate all of that onto the page and send it – hopefully – into the minds of other people who may never see or meet us in their lives. And somehow, through this work of the imagination, we create a real connection between people.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post here on the blog about how I’ve struggled with the value of what my imagination creates. I’ve worked through at least some of that, but I continue to ask myself what my work as a writer really consists of, or what I really hope it can achieve. It seems to me that writing can do a lot, it can have a great deal of power…but what, exactly, does that power look like in my own work? What am I, as a writer, seeking to do?

I’ve often thought about how writing can let me show a reader a perspective, a situation, a set of circumstances they may not have thought about before. Beyond a doubt, that can be valuable: show a reader a character whose life is very different from the reader’s own, and maybe you’ll help a perspective shift, just a little. But there’s another piece to this too. As a writer, I want my readers not just to follow my character through their his or her story, but know what it’s like to be that character. Inhabit that character’s heart and mind so deeply that, for a moment, those experiences become personal. After all, isn’t that why we love to read? To taste a different world and a different life, while the pages last?

ocean view 2
The Bold Coast, Maine

When I work on any project, but especially a book, I have to have at least one character I feel in love with. That character becomes my motive power through the project and beyond, when it’s time to talk publication: if I’m in love with that person, I can’t let him or her down. I have to see the project all the way through until it’s out in the world. When I’m writing that character, I’m writing as deeply from the heart as I know how to. My hope, then, is that those words go straight from my heart to the reader’s. And when they do, I hope the reader steps into my character’s life and experience, his own heart and mind, and for those pages, actually tastes what it’s like to become someone else.

If that happens, is it valuable? I’d say yes. It’s actually a kind of magic. The reader moves into a place that never existed until I thought of it; the reader looks out through eyes that never existed until I imagined them. And – if I’ve done my work well enough – by doing those things, the reader has an experience that changes him or her somehow. Can you really go away somewhere and come back exactly the same as you were before you left?

I like to think not, especially tonight, by the ocean. I like to think I’ll come back from these couple of days changed, just a little, with something to help carry me along and maybe make it easier when anxiety gets up to its tricks. And I like to think, too, that my words on the page do something similar for the people who read them. That, having read them, they feel a difference – however small – in their lives and themselves, and that when they come back from the place where I’ve taken them, they’re changed, if ever so slightly. That’s what this work is all about.

rocky point view
Rocky Point State Park, Maryland

Maryland photos by Kris Faatz; Maine photo by Paul Faatz

 

 

Why Imagine?

This one is for my fellow artists, especially the writers…

A number of years ago now, I read an article by a writer whose name I’m sorry to say I don’t remember. In the article, this writer was talking about the experience of getting her first book published, and all the challenges and setbacks that finally led up to that accomplishment. Specifically, she talked about how it happened a lot later than she’d initially hoped when she was an up-and-coming twenty-something. She’d had an earlier first book, which had landed her an agent, but after the usual period of effort, her agent hadn’t been able to sell that book. This experience sent the writer into a tailspin of despair. The rejections and the loss of hope were so difficult that she had to walk away from writing for six years.

When I read this, I was somewhere in the middle of my own first-book trajectory, trying to figure out what to do with To Love A Stranger and what might ever happen to it. (I still didn’t know a whole lot about the craft, and my efforts from that time would definitely qualify as “sins of my youth.”) My response to this lucky published writer wasn’t very sympathetic. You quit writing for six years? How could you do that?! I decided that anybody who could turn their back on the craft for that length of time just wasn’t very serious about it. I saw that writer’s exodus as a kind of tantrum, an “I didn’t get what I want, so I quit!” fit of bad behavior.

Now, though, with the perspective of a few more years and a lot more rejections, disappointment, and loss of hope of my own, I have to say: I get it, sister. I really do.

irvine field view

We writers and artists give ourselves an uphill task every day. We’re creating work that doesn’t exist until our imaginations yield it up and we weave it into something that holds together, something that captures some fraction of the beauty or message or thrill we hoped for when we started. We do it knowing that no work will ever seem perfect to us, and we often have to struggle against our own inertia and the constant intimidation of that “ideal product” that we know we’ll never create. And for a lot of us, the investment of so much time and energy into something so uncertain – will I ever get a return on this? will people like it? will it (maybe, possibly, ever) sell? – feels like a risk we maybe can’t afford.

I felt this way, profoundly, about my second novel Fourteen Stones. I’ve written elsewhere on the blog about the anxiety that set in after a particularly difficult rejection connected with that book. What I hadn’t expected after the rejection, though, was the experience of starting to attack my own imagination and, quite literally, my ability to write. It was as if my brain decided that I shouldn’t imagine things, shouldn’t write, shouldn’t take pleasure in or even be able to do something that had given me so much satisfaction…when, after all, the great gamble on that novel hadn’t paid off the way I’d hoped it would.

We artists tell ourselves we have to be tough, resilient. We tell ourselves we have to get up and keep fighting every time rejection and setbacks knock us into the dust. What I experienced over this past summer made me question whether – assuming I still could manage to do the work I loved – I should still try. Because, after all, if I let rejection knock me down and hold me down for so long, if I “let myself” feel so terrible about it and “let it” make me unable to imagine, create, or put my ideas on the page: if all those things were true, then maybe I just wasn’t cut out for it. Maybe I wasn’t meant to do this work after all.

That other writer might have experienced exactly this when she walked away from her work for years. Or maybe her experience was a little different, but in any case, I now understand why someone would make the choice she did. I understand how it feels to question the value of your work, question the reason and worth behind investing so much in the products of the imagination. Why dream? Why create?

I continue to struggle with this, months later. Once anxiety gets its claws in, it doesn’t want to let go. Working around it every day, one step at a time, the single biggest thing I’ve learned so far is that I must not give up on the imagination.

prettyboy view

Why do we artists do what we do? Why dream, why create, when there’s so much risk, and when the rewards sometimes seem so few, transient, and so very far between?

Because what we create would not exist without us. Because only we can do the work we do. No one else could write my book. No one else could paint your painting, or compose your music, or tell your part of the story that is an irreplaceable piece of the greater story of the world. And – maybe even more importantly – because no change is possible without imagination. Artists dare to dream about ideals. We dare to see people and the world differently. We dare to believe that the things we think, feel, and create in our work can reach others, and that as we reach out in the way only we can, we can create change in the world.

It’s a crazy dream, right? It can feel huge and scary and impossible, but the fact is, our work has power. When someone takes in something we’ve created, they’ll experience something they’ll never find anywhere else. They can’t find it anywhere else, because it could only have come from us. And it starts with the work of our imaginations.

So if this game has knocked you down: believe me, I understand. If you need a break from it for a while, I know exactly how that is. But in the long run, please don’t let it make you quit. Now more than ever, we need to see how things could be. We need the dreams and creations only you can bring to the overarching story of the world.

rocky point view

Keep On Keeping On

Two blogposts, two weeks in a row! Maybe I’m getting better at this… 😉

Last week I wrote about anxiety, as related to the performance I was scheduled to give that afternoon. I’m glad to report that – as was maybe expected – the performance went fine, and my well-seasoned performer training kicked in and did what it needed to do. It felt good to follow a familiar pattern. At the same time, it felt even better to know that no matter how tense or scattered I was, I could think on my feet and tailor my program to the audience the way I always do. All of that helped to reassure my over-reactive hindbrain that I’m still getting through life reasonably well, and it doesn’t need to rush to protect me countless times a day.

When I first started having problems with intense anxiety, over the summer, I’d hoped it might run its course in a couple of weeks, like a bad flu. Little did I know! I certainly never thought that three months later, I’d still be trying to work my way through it. A new medication I started taking about a month ago is helping, but most of all, keeping on with my usual routine and doing the things I have to do makes a big difference. I’ve done a lot of reading about anxiety and different ways of treating it, and one of the wisest pieces of advice I’ve come across is that we have to keep living as if we don’t have anxiety. In other words, is there something I would normally do, enjoy, look forward to? Then I must do that thing, even when my brain tells me I can’t or shouldn’t. Pushing myself to do things “anyway” can feel stressful and exhausting, as if maybe I’ll push too hard and snap, and it can also feel like I’m trying to fake it ’til I make it (which might actually be the case). But I don’t want to hunker down and sideline myself until some indeterminate down-the-road day when I might finally feel better. Life is short. I’d rather not waste the time I’ve got, especially not by giving it up to the paranoid twitchy mess in my own head. 😉

minebank view
Therapeutic view

So this week, I’m thinking more about all the things I want to be doing and working on. Another piece of advice I’ve read is that it’s a good idea to plan out what you’ll do with any given day, promise yourself you’ll do those things, and then stick to it. Today I intend to work on the first brand-new short story I’ve started in months; I haven’t written anything new from scratch since before what I’ve named Super-Anxiety (the anti-superhero). Working with words is now a pretty big trigger for me. In the wake of some rejections of my novel Fourteen Stones, earlier in the summer, I definitely got it into my head that I’m not much of a writer and shouldn’t be doing this work. Anxious hindbrain took care of the rest and does its best to freeze me with panic every time I think about sitting down to write. However, anxious hindbrain and I both need to understand that I am and always will be a writer, rejection doesn’t define my work or me, and I will carry on with wordcraft for as long as I live: hopefully a long while yet. There are so many stories I want to write. (And also, anxious hindbrain, let’s not forget that Fourteen Stones is a damn fine piece of work I am proud of. It was a joy to create, and whatever happens, I can think of no better use of my time and the best of my energy.)

It’s good to focus on getting back to work, and to know – no matter how much I sometimes resist the idea – that I can work, no matter how I feel. If you’re like me and you struggle with anxiety, you know how sometimes you win, and sometimes it wins. I’ve had days where, all day long, without even thinking about it, I successfully avoid doing whatever activity scares me most. I’m trying to get better at noticing those days and when I’m coming up with excuses not to do the scary thing. When I can catch myself in the act of avoidance, I can challenge myself to push back against it. You’re scared to write? Go sit down right now and write a paragraph. Two sentences. One line. Every time I resist the avoidance, I get another piece of myself back from anxiety. Even before Super-Anxiety, I was always good at finding ways to avoid the things that make me uncomfortable (highway driving, anyone?). These past three months have been teaching me that I have to face fear, rather than run from it, and I think they’ll result in some permanent changes. (Silver lining!)

If you, like me, struggle with anxiety, what particular thing would you like to do today, or need to do today, that maybe scares you or you feel you can’t really accomplish? Maybe you can promise yourself, right now, that you will do that thing. Write that one sentence. Go for a quick walk. Drive on the highway from one exit to the next one. Show your mind you are okay, and keep on keeping on.

As always, thanks for reading. See you next time!

cat trio sickbed
Therapeutic view 2

Trusting It

Thank you for visiting the blog again. Trying to stay a bit more reliably up and running! 🙂

This afternoon, I’m giving a lecture-performance about my book To Love A Stranger. Before I started having major anxiety struggles this summer, this kind of performance was a little nerve-racking, but mostly no sweat. Today, I’m considerably more nervous than usual. It’s a familiar format, and the kind of gig I’ve done many times before, but I’m having to trust that my performance chops are still there, and will do what they need to do.

It feels like a risk. Part of me wants to run from it, but I’ve learned that the worst thing you can do with anxiety is let it win. When the panic starts telling you that something isn’t safe, or isn’t possible, that’s the time to push back and show it how you know better. Over the summer, when I was really struggling, I had a few days where I let the panic dictate. I canceled my commitments (not many, fortunately) and holed up in bed, listening to music for hours on end. The music was great, but overall, taking this approach to panic was definitely not the right thing to do. It taught me that the only way I could respond to fear was by digging myself a burrow and crawling in.

It’s much harder to push yourself to do things when you’re scared, but it’s also the best way to re-wire your brain and learn that the fear reflex isn’t telling you the truth. Anxiety is an interesting phenomenon. Your hindbrain thinks you’re going into danger, and it wants to protect you, so it kicks in your fight-or-flight response, sometimes so intensely that you feel incapacitated. (If you’ve had the kind of panic attack that involves chest pain, nausea, shaking, dizziness, and the other kinds of symptoms that make you believe you’re in the middle of a heart attack, you know exactly what I mean.) All of this fuss on your hindbrain’s part because it wants to keep you safe from what it sees as danger. Meanwhile, though, its perception of that danger is a little skewed: it doesn’t need to protect you from working, or driving, or staying home alone, or any of the once-ordinary things that might be triggering it. You have to teach it this by doing those things that it doesn’t want you to do.

For me, today’s lecture-performance falls into that category of things. My hindbrain tells me it’s very scary, I won’t be able to get through it, it would be safer not to try. But I know I’ve done exactly this kind of performance before and will do it again, maybe many times. I can get through it, I will get through it, and in so doing, I’ll teach myself and my over-reactive anxiety a valuable lesson. I will trust myself instead of the fear messages.

The video below is a taste of what I’ll be playing this afternoon: the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 90. (Apologies for my somewhat out-of-tune piano. Also, yes, that is a Christmas penguin in the background. 😉 ) Beethoven is one of the composers whose music helped inspire To Love A Stranger, and I’ll be reading an excerpt from the book in which his music features, and talking about why he’s perhaps my ultimate musical hero if I could only pick one. As I write this, I tap into the familiar pattern of these performances, and I get a taste back of my own excitement and enjoyment at the idea of giving one. Take that, anxiety. 😉

Hope you enjoy the music. As always, thanks for visiting the blog. See you next time!

How Can I Help?

Apologies for the longer-than-expected silence on the blog. If you’ve been following it, you know it’s been a pretty challenging summer. As the fall routine starts up again, I’m planning to get back to regular posts, as much as possible!

This week’s post will be rather short, and mostly consists of a question (more on that below). This summer, as I’ve been dealing with an (extraordinarily, frustratingly, intensely) annoying amount of anxiety, I’ve been thinking a lot about the experience that artists, in particular, can have with this disorder and with its flip side, depression. Here on the blog, I’ve posted before about how artists, especially those who routinely put their work out on display in the world, encounter a lot of challenges that can trigger and exacerbate any mental health situations we might be dealing with. Criticism (particularly the blanket, non-useful kind) and rejection hit our buttons and can make it hard to continue our work, and sometimes even to get out of bed in the morning. (Been there.)

We’re lucky to live in a time when mental health care and resources are available, although many mental health conditions are still improperly understood and all-too-often stigmatized. It can be hard to admit that you have a chronic condition that makes life harder than you’d like. You can feel that you’re just not trying enough, or you’re not being positive enough, or you really don’t want anyone to know how you actually feel because it seems unreasonable, silly, paranoid…the list goes on. (One thing I’ve learned this summer, in a far more up-close-and-personal way than I would have liked, is exactly how paranoid anxiety can make you, and what kinds of wildly irrational fears it can convince you to believe in.) Long and short, even though resources and help are out there, it can be hard, sometimes, to reach out for them, and to find the right match for our needs.

Templeton hug
Hugs can help, as Templeton demonstrates.

This is where my question comes in, the focus of this post. I’d like to create my own small resource specifically geared toward artists who deal with depression and anxiety. It would come out of my own experience, and I see it as addressing and sharing that experience, and maybe also offering some affirmations, particularly for the times when we face things like rejection and destructive criticism. I also see cat pictures being involved, because why not?

What I’d like to know, though, is if you are an artist who has these challenges, what would be most helpful for you. What kind of resource would best encourage you, maybe offer a perspective you haven’t seen before or seen enough, or help you feel supported in your own work? What has been missing from the resources you have?

Making art can be a lonely process; doubly lonely, sometimes, for those of us who also feel isolated by mental health challenges. That’s where I’d like to help most. If you have thoughts about what you’d like to see, what might best give you some extra inspiration and support, please feel free to leave a comment here or write to me at kfaatz925@gmail.com.

More on the blog soon. Meanwhile, as always, thank you for reading!

Fergus therapist
Another therapy cat: Fergus.

Growing Pains

If you’ve been following the blog over the past few weeks, you know that one of the big things I’ve been writing about is recent experiences with anxiety. While panic attacks are familiar territory for me, the higher level of pretty-much-constant anxiety I’ve been living under is a new and highly unwelcome situation. I know I’m not the only one to go through something like this, though, and it’s been helpful for me to spend some time looking at causes and sitting with the feelings, rather than always trying to push back against them. If you’re a fellow struggler in these particular trenches, maybe some of these thoughts will help you too.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about how a lot of what I’m currently experiencing started immediately after I made a promise to myself to take my work as a writer seriously. I was making the commitment to stand by my second novel until I find the right path to publication for it, and I was making the commitment to honor my work as a teacher and editor, and to remember that those skills are valuable and I should never doubt that fact. When I made that promise, I knew I’d get some level of pushback from depression, that longtime inhabitant of my brain. I didn’t know how strong the pushback was going to be.

ocean view 3

I’ve posted before about what my particular experience over the past few weeks has been like: the intense discomfort, the worry that I can’t trust what my mind is doing, the cycles of concern I go through. (“What if I can’t function? Okay, I can function, but what if I can’t do this specific thing? Okay, I can do that thing, but what if I can’t do this other thing? OMG, I almost put the milk away in the pantry instead of the fridge; I knew I was losing it!” and on, and on…). Along with worries about basic functionality, I’ve been afraid to trust my imagination. Of course that’s the most fundamental aspect of writing fiction: being willing and able to create imagined worlds and people, to take small threads of reality and spin them into a new and unique fabric woven from the mind. Sometimes I’ve worried that I’ll suddenly lose all my skills in that area. Other times I’ve worried that maybe I shouldn’t imagine things so much, in case someday I have problems figuring out what’s real and what isn’t.

It’s taken me a while to realize that much of this really is the pushback from my old nemesis, as I honor the promise I made to myself. Writing is more than a thing I do: it’s a huge piece of who I am. It’s a delight, a challenge, an obsession. I’ve always been deeply reluctant to accept myself as a writer, and to give my work and myself the respect they deserve. The depressive part of my brain still doesn’t want me to do that. It’s trying to stop me in whatever way it thinks will work, and it fights as dirty as it knows how.

But I’m stronger than it is. Over the past few weeks, I’ve found that in spite of all the things I’ve worried about, yes, I can still function. (Surprise! 😉 ) I’ve driven long distances, run errands, made meals and desserts, played the piano, taught writing workshops, done housework and yard work, and often have actually been more productive than usual, out of a need to keep busy. Ideas for my third novel have been percolating, in spite of my worries about using and trusting my imagination. I’ve read good books and laughed at episodes of Good Omens (speaking of books, if you haven’t read that one, you must). Life has gone on. Looking at it from the outside, it’s been fine.

ocean view 1

Most recently, over the past couple of days, I’ve been able to think again about “what comes next.” I’d put that aside for a while, since getting along from one day to the next – and sometimes from one hour to the next – has been enough of a challenge. Now, though, I’m thinking about the workshops I want to do, the next book I want to write, the way my schedule will look in the fall. I’m finding myself honestly believing that in spite of everything that’s been going on, good things are on their way.

The other piece of this is that I know I’ll come out of all this stronger than I’ve ever been. I’m used to being scared of a lot of things. Now, though, I know what real fear feels like, and other fears seem a lot smaller. I’ve always been scared of driving on highways, but last week I did it every day without a twinge. Pretty much any challenge I can imagine feels like a problem that has a solution, rather than an unscalable wall. In a brutal, backhanded way, the past few weeks have given me a gift: perspective.

This is all still a work in progress. It’s easier, though, when I understand that what I’m experiencing is the growing pains associated with keeping my promise to myself. My depression doesn’t like it, but I’m doing it anyway, and everything is going to be better on the other side.

If you’re dealing with challenges like these, keep the faith. Good things are coming.

harbor

 

Photos by Paul Faatz

Centering

My new post is a little late this week: it took an extra day for me to gear up and put some thoughts in order. These past couple of weeks, but this past week in particular, have been incredibly challenging. I’m writing about it as a shout-out to all artists who deal with depression and anxiety. Solidarity, folks!

Last week I posted about traveling and some anxiety that came out of that. What I said less about, I think, was that right toward the end of the trip, I gave myself a “pep talk” about what I needed to do once we got home. Those of you who’ve been following the blog know that for the past six months or so, I’ve been looking for an agent for my novel Fourteen Stones. You also know that I’ve been trying out some new things, professionally, and generally working on building a writing career through a few different angles.

Toward the end of the trip, as I looked at getting back into “real life,” I tried to gear myself up for the next round of efforts. I knew I was likely to hear back fairly soon from at least one agent, and I had a couple of other important irons in the fire. On the blog, I’ve talked before about the effects that rejection and (perceived) failure can have on artists who deal with depression and anxiety. They can be annihilating experiences, making us call everything about our work and ourselves into question. Before the trip ended, I tried to impress on myself the importance of holding onto an ironclad belief in my work. After all, if I stop believing in it, who’s going to fight for it? I promised myself that no matter what, I would hang tough, always keep trying, and never forget the value of what I do as a writer and teacher.

Brevard dawn pic

And then I got home. Within the first couple of days, a handful of failures and rejections came in, one from the agent who so far has been most interested in Fourteen Stones. It was a very nice rejection, stressing the things that the agent had liked about the book, and the fact that the whole process is so subjective and that overall my work is very strong. But that, along with some other unwelcome news, created what turned into a perfect storm of panic.

For those of you who’ve dealt with severe anxiety, you know how disorienting it can be. You’re in constant fight-or-flight mode, unable to relax, burning through gallons of adrenaline a day, and maybe feeling like you can’t even totally trust your own brain. This is how I felt. While on the outside, I was functioning absolutely fine, on the inside I felt like I was hanging onto my sanity by my fingernails. Every day was exhausting.

For readers wondering if I knew to get help: don’t worry, I did. I spoke with a doctor and therapist, making sure things were okay, and finding effective ways to counter the surges of panic. Mindfulness practice is new to me, but even my first introduction to it was very helpful, letting me separate out my objective experience from the messages the panic was giving me. I took anti-anxiety remedies, got extra exercise, found constructive things to focus on – to break the cycle of “worrying about the worry” – and gave myself space to rest as much as possible. The whole experience has been tough, though. I’d expected to go into a depressive cycle after bad news. This different reaction scared me exactly because it was different.

What I realize, though, is that it’s all part of the same mental challenges I’ve always had. It’s a different and, for me, scarier side of my depression, but it ties back to all the same issues I work with every day. Putting myself and my work on the line, putting my words and ideas out into the world, is always hard for me. Now I know that my reaction to those stressors can take a couple of different forms.

waterfall pic

This experience has shown me what kind of work I still have to do, to stay centered and grounded no matter what happens on the outside. It’s shown me that hanging onto self-belief might be even more important than I thought. At least part of the panic I experienced, I think, came from deciding that if my work “wasn’t viable” (because of rejection) then maybe I “wasn’t viable” either as a productive or functional person. Again, that message is nothing new; it just took a different form this time.

Coming out on the other side of that very difficult week, I’m feeling better. Ideas and enthusiasms are reawakening. I’m feeling like I might just be able to follow through on some plans I made before all this started, plans that got forcibly put on hold when life became such a day-to-day fight. I’m waking up again. And yes, I’m going to go back to work on the next steps in my writing career, including finding the right agent for Fourteen Stones and for my books going forward. There’s so much I want to do. Depression and anxiety aren’t going to keep me from doing it.

If you, like me, have dealt with feelings like these, you’re not alone. It gets better. Panic is a horrible experience, but there’s help available. You are strong. You are okay. You can get through this.

I’ll close this post with some good music. The Temptations had a different message with their lyrics, but right now they sum up how I’m feeling, doing better and getting back to work. “Get ready, ‘cause here I come…”

 

 

 

“How Long Will You Let Them…”

As promised, new content on the blog today.

Last week, my husband and I went on vacation to north-central Pennsylvania. We were in an area known for its beautiful night skies: we rented a cabin close to Cherry Springs State Park, which is actually an international dark-sky park where amateur stargazers can take in their fill, and professional astronomers can set up telescopes for all-night viewing. While my husband and I didn’t join the stargazers at the park, we had a gorgeous view of the night sky from the backyard of our cabin. More stars than you can imagine, points of clear light spread out dazzlingly across a perfectly black sky. Some were so small and faint that they disappeared if you tried to look straight at them, but when you glanced away to the side, the spread reappeared magnificently.

Ideal stargazing means no light pollution, so by definition you have to get away from civilization. Our cabin was on a dirt road away from the highway, and the highway itself was a two-lane strip across the top of the mountain, where a passing car meant excitement. We could sit out on our porch and hear nothing but bird calls and distant sounds of sheep, cattle, and chickens from a couple of farms farther along the dirt road. On our last couple of nights, we heard coyotes calling in the woods not far away: first the eerie wolflike howl of a single adult, then another joining, and then the high excited yapping of what we guessed were puppies just learning the communication ropes. I had never experienced coyote calls in the wild before, and I have to admit they spooked me, especially when we heard them at midnight as we sat beside a campfire with the dark all around us and the stars overhead.

 

6.25.19 - campfire (2)
Campfire evening

I learned a couple of things about myself on this trip, as we were out there mostly on our own, running into very few people even on our hikes in the area’s many state parks. For one, I learned I’m more of a city slicker than I’d like to admit. As an introvert, I don’t necessarily want to interact with people, but it seems I like to know they’re around. And secondly, as someone with anxiety, I learned how much harder it can be to control dire imaginings in the context of solitude.

“What if?” Anyone with anxiety knows that question and the chain of sub-questions it can call up in your mind. “What if something happens? What if one of us gets sick or hurt? What if we have car trouble when we’re out on the back roads and we don’t have a cell phone signal? What if it rains enough to wash a road out?” If you’re like me, you’d run through all of these questions multiple times each, along with others, and you’d try to come up with answers for all of them. You’d assess distances and travel times to the nearest towns with facilities you might need, and you’d eyeball the roads and try to guess exactly how much rain damage they might sustain before it would cause a problem, and you’d monitor your cell phone signal, and you’d imagine various hazards (possible types of injury, possible sicknesses) and how you would deal with them…and then, after a while, you’d realize you were very, very tired. Unremitting fight-or-flight does that to you.

I got frustrated with myself on this trip, more than once, because of the way my anxiety went into overdrive. The line between taking sensible precautions and catastrophizing can be narrow indeed, but I know how often I come down on the wrong side of it. It’s tough when you feel like you can’t trust what your own mind is doing. It’s tough when you feel like it’s fighting you, and you always have to try to fight back.

At home, going through my usual routines, I can keep a lid on my over-the-top feelings, rationalize them, wave them away. Out of context and outside my comfort zone, I had them shoved starkly into my face. I saw, again, what a problem they really are, and how they carry over into every aspect of my life.

Every time I started to get scared, I told myself, “There’s no demons here except the ones you brought with you. The ones in your own head.” And I asked myself, “How long are you going to let them call the shots?”

6.26.19 post - Pine Creek falls (2)
Pine Creek waterfall, at the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon

 

Anyone with anxiety and its corollary, depression, knows how crippling they can be. They can hold you back from doing things you want to do, things you’d like to try but aren’t sure you can succeed at, or things you normally enjoy but suddenly don’t seem as important or valuable anymore. If you do try to do something anyway, anxiety and depression can make your efforts half-baked, or they can make the whole experience so terrifying and/or miserable that you come out of it convinced you’ll never do it again. They’re the enemies inside your own head.

The funny thing is, though, I’ve come to believe that in a backwards way, those destructive messages are actually trying to keep you safe. Anxiety and depression make you honestly certain that the new things, the different things, the risky things, are much too dangerous. You shouldn’t stick your neck out that far. So the over-the-top messages come along to hold you back, wrap you up tight in what your mind accepts as a safety net.

This trip made me realize exactly how hard my mind will fight me if it thinks I’m stepping too far outside my comfort zone. It also made me confront the question I’ve sidestepped many times: “How long will you let those demons call the shots?”

In case it sounds like I didn’t have much of a vacation, I can tell you that in many ways, the trip was beautiful. I already miss the solitude of the cabin, the bird calls, the clear cool air of the mountains and the peace and strength of the woods. But I’m grateful, too, to have had such a wake-up call about what my mind will do to try to keep me safe, and I’m glad to have come home with a clearer plan for how to address that. Re-programming my mental messages, giving myself new thought patterns to hold onto, and taking medication are all parts of this plan. Now that I know exactly how far my inner “demons” will go, I’m more determined than ever not to let them keep calling the shots. There’s a way to make this better. I will make it happen.

6.25.19 - Hills Creek Lake
Hills Creek Lake, Hills Creek State Park, PA

 

Photos by Kris Faatz