Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Meaning of Sisterhood

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines sister as, “a female who has one or both parents in common with another.”  Biologically, I have two sisters: Bridgette, a senior in high school, and Mary, a freshman in high school.   Growing up, we were all relatively close.  But sometimes, the symptoms that go along with mental illness can end up making you feel isolated and alone.

When the symptoms first started rearing their heads, I refused to tell my biological sisters anything.  Hell, I even refused to tell my parents anything.  I didn’t want them to rat me out to Mom and Dad, but most of all, I didn’t want to frighten them.  I had seen what the worst case scenario (suicide) did to families.  A student who was in my high school graduating class committed suicide a while after I left home.  Bridgette described to me the horrified and pained look on her friend’s face (who just so happened to be the younger sister of the boy) as she came to school for the first time since her brother’s passing.  I didn’t want my sisters to be afraid that this would be their fate.

However, my relationships with my sisters have been harder since I moved away.  I don’t get to talk to them often.  Bridgette and I have a lot of moments where we don’t get along.  Mary and I get along just fine, but the only time I really communicate with her is when I’m at home, and being a college student, that’s not very often.  So when I first left home for college, I was left alone to the mercy of my loneliness and mental illness.
But as I started school, I found myself in good company with the women in the music department (and with friends who were outside the program).  Many of the women were members of the school’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Iota.  They were all very supportive of me, especially since I was a freshman in a very rough and rigorous music program.  And once my panic attacks started happening on a regular basis, every person there was willing to help.

As most of my readers know, I changed my major at the beginning of my second semester.  The panic attacks were getting so bad that I would never be able to practice properly.  I was so afraid of not being perfect (a.k.a. being chewed out by my superiors) that every time I walked into a practice room, I would sit in the corner in fetal position and start crying like a crazy person.  I couldn’t live like that.  I thought that maybe a fresh start was what I needed.  So, the day after yet another visit to the hospital, I walked with my friend Julie to the English department and officially changed my major.  The change in scenery worked for a while, but things would get only worse over time.

As for Sigma Alpha Iota?  I had wanted to join the organization as a music major.  But as I switched out of the music program, I didn’t know whether or not they would still accept me.  I still loved music, but what if I still felt alone amongst other music majors, twiddling my thumbs as I listened to the discussions of music major problems that I couldn’t claim to understand?  Julie, one of the members of SAI (a different Julie than the one who helped me switch into the English program), helped make me feel very welcome amongst the sisters.  My friend Brittany (who would eventually become my Big) invited me to their informationals.  It was there that I learned that many members of the fraternity (yes, it’s a fraternity) weren’t even music majors.  Even though I wasn’t a music major, I could feel the bonds of sisterhood between them, and for the first time in forever, I didn’t feel alone.  So I submitted my interest forms, and I was given a bid to join Sigma Alpha Iota.  I was so happy.  I had finally found a place where I belonged. 

But my condition took a nosedive shortly after pledging.  Many times I would be too depressed to engage in many of the functions that the rest of my pledge class did.  I felt like that some didn’t trust me, and were having second thoughts over handing me that bid.  It wasn’t that I didn’t care; this period of time was just very difficult for me.  I needed time to get better.  But even through all of that, there was one moment that stuck out to me.  The night my ex-boyfriend dumped me, I received a call literally moments after the break-up from one of the members of the pledge class to let me know that I was late for a meeting with the rest of them.  I tried to hold back the tears, but to no avail.  I bawled my eyes out explaining the events of the evening.  Before I knew it, we were all heading to Dairy Queen to get ice cream.  They walked with me and sat with me to cheer me up.  I will never forget that.

Yet, I still never breathed a word to any of the other girls about my mental condition, the attempted suicide, none of it, even after I was initiated.  I insisted that I was sick, nothing more.  They seemed to accept it, and I just left things at that.  But even after everything that happened, they were my sisters.  I owed them a better explanation than just being sick.  I sat down with my big and the other members of the Executive Board and explained to them all that happened.  They were more than understanding, and their hugs and warm wishes helped alleviate the loneliness that came with my mental illness.  There are some that still don’t know about what happened; in fact, I’m pretty sure that several members will only find out about what happened that spring through this blog post.  I didn’t want them to hate me, to think that I was crazy.  I love SAI, and I want to do everything in my power to make my chapter—and this fraternity—better.  I just have a few blocks in the road. 

I wish I had more faith in the power of sisterhood back then.  Sisters don’t have to be biological.  They can be your best friends, united in bonds stronger than blood.  Sisters are there for you no matter what.  There’s a saying that I found on Pinterest that says, “Your letters are in front of you, and your sisters are behind you.”  Sisters look out for each other.  Instead of hiding my weaknesses from my sisters, I should ask them for help and guidance.  Sigma Alpha Iota has helped me become a better woman despite the setbacks that bipolar disorder puts upon me.  Sisterhood is a healing experience.  I will never regret the decision I made to sign that bid.

Love and Coffee cups,

Writer's Block

Depression is hard enough but when you’re a writer it’s almost your very enemy negating writers block. I love writing and have been doing it for as long as I can remember. I do have medicine that I take for my depression and when I’m off of them I’m a totally different person. You wouldn’t think I was creative in anyway. But I like the road I’m on now and I’m happy that writing is in my life. Sometimes writing doesn’t help me and I just want to be lazy. It’s a conscious decision every time I sit down to write. I’d like to have a flow but it’s a struggle.

Taking a friends advice about writing; for ten minutes I sit down and just write. It doesn’t have to be about the particular book I’m working on but for those ten minutes it could be as simple as what I’m thinking. This helps during bad days where the thoughts of negativity plague my mind. Writing has done great to lift me away from the darkness of my moods.

Depression does play a role in my writing and I try to come with my work with a clear mind because being so sad during a comedic scene really doesn’t work well and I have to toss the entire thing. I step back and do my ten minutes of writing to get all the things I’m feeling out and separate my feelings from my characters. I don’t particularly enjoy writing when I’m depressed at first but after those ten minutes I feel like my mind had something to dump all that negative waste out into something pro-active.
To sum up my little tale of depression and being creative, this is always going to be a tough fight on days I want to give up. But, my desire to share my world with everyone out weighs the darkness.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sometimes You Have It, Sometimes It Has You

The point of treatment of my bipolar disorder, my therapist told me, is take me from being a whipping and drastic motion of a roller coaster, to that of gently rolling hills. Because the reality is, everyone has ups and downs, but there are some of us who require medication and talk therapy to maintain that balance.

Since my last entry I'd be lying if I said I haven't been struggling. Around Christmas the bottom dropped out, so to speak. Meaning, as I like to say things got to be a tad bit overwhelming. I had been doing so much that everything was too much.

So, like a responsible person I called my therapist and made an emergency appointment. And here is where the reality of an overburdened and understaffed system comes in. I made that call the first week of January. My 'emergency appointment' is for for the 28th.

Since then I have faced issues which only exacerbate my condition. In other words, I've been alternately, hypomanic, depressed, and freaked out levels of paranoid in the short span of a month. In fact, now, as dad watches a special on the rise of the third reich I'm so freaked out I can hardly stand being in my own skin. And one of the worst things possible is to be freaked out like this.

But I will say more often than not as the six weeks have gone by I have been able to put together more good days than bad days. But the ride has been more like a roller coaster. In a day's time I can go from tears to joy to hope to late at night heart stopping fear.

But let's take a look at what I've accomplished in the face of this. Close to 54K on the second book in my Bella Morte series. Arranging a good chunk of the rollout on this special series with the first book. An outrageous amount of marketing and networking done on Hekate Press. And have had avenues open up to a possible television series based on the Bella Morte books.

So how does one cope when your emotions are ripping you apart like that? Well, here is what I do.

If you're going to eat to it try to be responsible. Eat fruit. Eat a mega mondo salad with every vegetable imaginable. Or if you have the cash? Cracker Barrel's chef salad or Zaxby's cobb salad.

Whatever you do, don't exacerbate it with drugs or alcohol, they actually make it worse. Don't ask me how I know this, but suffice it to say I've seen it in action.

Music is cathartic. Exercise is cathartic. My tether to stability is my writing and my appointments with my doctors and others who share this similar journey. That and I have friends are, at times, my pillars of strength.

So when things start to seem dark don't be afraid to lean on those around you who are there to help you. There is no shame in treatment or needing a little more help than just the ignorance of a well meaning loved one saying 'you'll grow out of it'.

Staying balanced on the see-saw of life--


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Albert Camus Saved My Life

Not literally. The French-Algerian Nobel-winning novelist and essayist died seven years  before I was born. But he had a profound influence on me, and was instrumental in my decision not to commit suicide when I was in college.

Let me backtrack. Like many people who suffer from depression (although it’s been years since I was clinically diagnosed), I felt like an outcast. Bullied in school, and emotionally and psychologically abused, my only escapes were writing and reading. It was during my senior year in high school that I discovered Albert Camus. We read the short story, “The Guest,” and I was immediately hooked. I needed to read more by this author.

But my infatuation with Camus had to wait until college, when I took French I, and wrote a paper on The Stranger. During the course of my research, I read The Myth of Sisyphus, a collection of  essays, the first being “Absurdity and Suicide.”

What did this mean for me? As someone who felt disconnected from other people, who struggled to maintain my individuality, no matter how “weird,” I felt fragmented. For Camus, the world was absurd. What mattered was how one approached it, and, for Camus, suicide was not the answer.

Let me digress. This seems like a simplistic answer to a complex question. As a philosopher, he gave it considerable thought, apparently so much so that the first line of “Absurdity and Suicide” is “There is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”

The mantra, to choose life over death, even in the face of incredible odds, has stayed with me all these years. Camus had influenced me so much in college, I even wrote in one of my journals (an English assignment) that I couldn’t kill myself because I respected him too much. I suppose someone would say it was because I respected myself too much, and that’s probably true, but anyone who’s gone through depression knows you can’t go through that personal hell alone without needing help from somebody.

That isn’t to say the specter of suicide is long gone. To believe so would be to take an arrogant point of view that we somehow hold sway over Death. Even Camus, who chose life, was not immune, dying in a car accident.

Our writing paths are wildly divergent, but, like Camus, I’ve touched upon suicide and its impact on people, including myself. And yes, it has threatened to overwhelm me even years later.

But that’s a story for another time.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Day I Don't Feel Anxious

I think that I have always battled anxiety. As an extremely shy child I felt the most at ease when I played alone or with my sister Shannon. I’ve never been a big talker, in fact my parents use to request (without my knowledge) that teachers place me with the more vocal students. It was years before they copped to that one. I always thought I must have the worst luck in the world to always be sitting with the “bad” kids.
As I grew up and into my adulthood I had a wide group of acquaintances but only a few close friends. That was by choice. For a person with anxiety the fewer people you have to fool the better. Many people with anxiety limit their social interactions to situations they can control with people that they trust. I am no different.

Three years ago a situation occurred that I had no control over.  My dad, who had been battling liver issues, was put on the transplant list. Despite his illness, he looked fine. I knew he was sick but not that sick. It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving and we got the 6am call that a liver had been accepted for transplant. I didn’t have time to be anxious. There were a million of things to do. I had to get ready and drive to my parents’ house. I still didn’t have time to be anxious. Once there I had to talk to my mom. What did they say? Where do we have to go? And all the other who, what, when, where and how. After that I still didn’t have time to be anxious. My dad needed to show me how to pay the mortgage and where he kept all his passwords.

Finally we got out the door. Funny…I didn’t have time to be anxious then either. We talked the entire ride about the surgery. We got the hospital and went through the registration process. We talked about anything dad wanted. I didn’t have time to be anxious. After a while I started making phone call to other family members. Then they started arriving and asking questions, some I knew the answers to and other I didn’t.
After waiting all day my dad was finally wheeled down for surgery. I didn’t have time to anxious. By then I was consumed with fear.

For the next 32 days I lived in a perpetual state of fear, hope, anguish and exhaustion. Every day was spent thinking of dad. I’m not going to go into details here but his transplant story did not end the way you hear on the news. Most of those are success stories that make light of all the trials and tribulations that go with transplantation. The media also showcases the failure known as rejection. My dad suffered or was unconscious for most of that month he lived after the transplant. Not once did he reject the liver or livers as there were 2 transplants done.

It was not until about a month after my dad died that I had my first major panic attack. I think that my grief 
had keep it at bay and as the initial shock subsided the anxiety returned with a vengeance. I was at home watching television when I felt the nervousness. I had a hard time getting a deep breath (even though I could if I concentrated).  I felt as if I was having a heart attack but I wasn’t. The attack went on for a minute or two and then I was fine.

This continued every day for the next few weeks. My dad’s death just intensified my anxiety (also my depression). The fact that I knew it was a panic attack didn’t make it any easier. In fact I think it made it worse. I lived in fear of having an attack. What if it happened at work? Or at the movies? Or with my friends? What would they think of me?

I wish I could tell you that I have conquered the beast but that would be a lie. I battle it constantly. Some days I win and others I lose. It took me two years to finally share my problem with the doctor. Given what my dad experienced I have a huge mistrust of the medical profession. Thankfully I found one that seems to listen to her patients.

I am a work in progress and I look forward to the day that ... I don’t feel anxious.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Lie

"I'm fine." 

Those two words comprise the world's most common lie. Especially for someone with depression.

Someone like me. 

Over the last decade or so, I've mastered the happy face. It comes in handy when you're a mom of three, expected to volunteer for class parties and fundraising events. Handier still when you must join your husband at company functions. No one wants to mingle with a woman who's slumped over and crying in the corner. 

Mom with my new baby girl
December 2001

What I didn't realize after having my first child is that I probably had post-partum depression. I wish I had seen the signs and sought help back then, but I thought all the stress and tears were just a result of sleep deprivation and worrying about my firstborn. If I'd have sought help early on, I might have been better able to handle my mom's diagnosis of terminal lung cancer that same year and her death a mere 10 months later.

I was a wreck when she died. A young first-time mother suddenly without her mother there for support and guidance. Yet over the course of the next decade, I toughed it out, had two more kids and started a writing career. 

By that time, I had gotten incredibly good at answering "Hi, how are you?" with "I'm fine" when in fact, I was anything but fine inside. The worst thing was, I became a total Cleopatra, Queen of Denial. It told myself it's just temporary. You can pull yourself out of it. I managed to keep my family going, write two books, blog and attend book signings while hiding behind that fake smile and that lie: "I'm fine."

The inner dialogue grew more ugly over time. You're just being lazy, lying there in bed trying to avoid your responsibilities. You could get up and be normal if you wanted to. But you don't want to, do you? You know how pathetic and worthless you are, so why bother? Nobody wants you around anyway.

Depression put on a great act, but like all charades, the act was eventually identified about a year and a half ago. At the urging of my husband and my own realization that lying in bed half the day crying for no good reason is NOT normal, I sought help. Despite my fears that my doctor would just laugh at me and say it was normal for a mom of my age to feel like this, she totally understood and wrote me a low-dose depression medication. She also recommended a counselor. 

Scared as I was to commit to any sort of chemical intervention or to spill my troubles on a therapist's couch, I took her advice. Within a month of taking the medication, I felt surprisingly better. I was able to think clearly for the first time in a long time. I was able to start setting goals again and work toward completing them without the infernal self-hatred telling me I couldn't succeed at anything. 

And to spite it all, I finished a book that had been buried under depression for too long. That third book in my Tallenmere series, Hearts in Exile, was published this June. I've written two children's books that are with an agent who's working hard to find a publisher for them. I won NaNoWriMo by writing 50,000 words on another novel I'd barely started a couple years ago. That one, a historical romance, will be finished this coming year, and if I play my cards right, I'll finish the fourth Tallenmere series book too. Besides the writing, I'll be starting a job as an editor atFirst Page Last Page and will probably be a class mentor again in the free six- week online writing course, F2K (at Writers Village University)

The road isn't smooth just yet. I've had to work with my doctor to find the right medication and dosage for me. I still have to be careful to not bite off more than I can chew. Learning my depression triggers, like taking on too many responsibilities at once, is very important in preventing the setbacks.

I'm thankful to Amy for inviting me to share my experience here. It feels good to open up about it among people who understand. I hope our stories will inspire others who are dealing with mental illnesses to seek help and know that they are not alone. There IS a light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes we just need a little help in getting there.