Mental Health Day

Sometimes with anxiety disorder, life gets on top of you. You’re just cruising along in your normal routine and then one or two new additions to your schedule crop up. These are not terribly taxing each in themselves, but the cumulative weight of everything starts to build.

You carry the weight because what choice do you have? Life needs what it needs. But the weight gets heavier every day, the exhaustion sets in, and eventually all you want to do is put it down.

Put. It. All. Down.

But if course you can’t put it all down, because life doesn’t stop, especially when you have a child. So you do the next best thing and put down the things you can.

So today I put down the blog, just for this week. I’ll be back next week!

Be kind to yourselves out there. If you need a break, find a way to give yourself one, even a small one. Put down what you can. You can always pick it back up when you’re ready.

The Insidious Persistence of Grief

Regular readers of my blog know I struggle with anxiety disorder. Anxiety can be exacerbated by many things, such as lack of sleep and a collision of multiple outside stressors. Basically, anything that knocks aside my regular routine can trigger a rise in anxiety—even if I really want to do whatever it is that rocks the boat.

Over the past few weeks, my anxiety has been through the roof. I assumed at first that the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference was the culprit, since that is a major bump in my routine. Three days away from home, mixing and mingling, add in lack of sleep, and that’s enough to trigger me.

DSCN9802The PWC came and went, but the anxiety remained—a tension that ran from my throat to my stomach. Maybe my daughter’s preschool graduation was stressing me? That, too, came and went with no change. On top of the tension, I felt weepy, too—rather odd for me. What was going on?

Friday, June 19th, my anxiety peaked. The strangled feeling at the base of my throat made it hard to swallow, and made talking difficult. I didn’t want to eat. Anxiety-fatigue sucked the life from me, but I fought against it, recognizing my long-time enemy. I got my daughter ready for her first sleep-over, while often on the verge of tears.

That night, my husband and I went to see Huey Lewis and the News at the Borgata in Atlantic City. I knew the concert couldn’t possibly be the source of my anxiety. I had hardly even thought about it, I’d been so busy the past few weeks. Besides, the normal things I stress about—the driving and the venue—didn’t exist this time. My husband drove, and I had been to Atlantic City (although not the Borgata) enough times to feel at ease. I had even seen Huey Lewis twice before.

DSCN1540Huey Lewis put on a great show, as I expected. I rocked out, and every song brought a tsunami of memories from my younger days. Then he played Jacob’s Ladder. I teared up. My nose got sniffly. A sob rose in my throat.

And I understood.

Jacob’s Ladder was never one of my favorite Huey songs, but it took on new meaning when my friend Donna Hanson Woolman got cancer. The song is about a man trying to better his life, climbing “step by step, rung by rung” and all he wants from tomorrow “is to get it better than today.” Whenever I heard that song while Donna was fighting for her life, that was my wish—for the chemo to work a little every day, to climb back to health—to get it better than today.

One of the memories that had come flooding back as I listened to Huey Lewis play at the Borgata was the last time I had seen him play. Back in 2001, the group had toured to support their new album Plan B. Donna and I had seen them at the Keswick Theater, and that concert stands as one of the best I have ever seen. Huey played for more than 3 hours. He had to get permission from the unions to play past curfew. He rocked the house and Donna and I rocked with him, thrilled when he played songs he rarely played in his regular length sets.

That was the last concert I went to with Donna.

My mind had forgotten…

But my heart remembered.



When has grief caught you unawares?

Marketing: Doing The Things You Don’t Want To Do

For those who read my blog last week, you can see that I’ve done a lot of things to help with the marketing campaign for my book THE WITCH OF ZAL. If you look at the list, however, you will see a common thread—the majority of items did not involve interacting with people.

I am a classic introvert and I have an anxiety disorder that manifests mainly in social situations. So I tend to a hermit-like existence. As soon as I signed my book contract, my published friends told me to do two things: network with other writers in my genre and get to know the book bloggers in my genre. I put those two things on my To-Do List, and there they languished.

Why? I could tell you that since 18 months seemed like a long time until publication, I just let it float and lost track of it. I could say that the research involved in both of those things was overwhelming. Both of those things are true. But they are not the reason I kept putting them off.

I kept putting them off because they are hard and scary for me and my subconscious made every rationalization it could to avoid them.

Some of the things we do in marketing are not easy for us. But we have to do them anyway. I didn’t network with authors in my genre until very late in the game, so when it came time to ask for blurbs, I stressed. Luckily, I had other fantastic authors willing to blurb for me, so my procrastination was not as destructive as it might have been.

Now, I am seeking reviewers in my genre and once again it caught me by surprise, even though it should not have. I knew I had to do it, but my brain kept saying, “Tomorrow. Tomorrow.” And because my brain told me what I wanted to hear, I listened. So the Procrastination Pressure is on again! Once again, a fellow author gave me a huge boost in the right direction, and I am now on the road to reviewers.

My first point is this: my avoidance of the things I didn’t want to do could have seriously damaged my marketing efforts. We have to do the parts of marketing we dislike or that frighten us with the same diligence and planning as the parts we enjoy. I knew what I had to do, but allowed my inner demons to get the best of me anyway, causing a great deal of pressure and stress I didn’t need to go through.

My other point is: be grateful for the writer friends you have in your life. My writer friends caught me when I fell on my face. They have listened to me when I freaked out. They have been with me through this whole long process, and I could not have made it this far without them.

Marketing involves some things we are reluctant to do. Your list of uncomfortable marketing items will differ from mine. Do them anyway, when they need to be done. Save yourself the stress of waiting until the last minute.

And lean on your friends to help you through the hard parts. You can return the favor when it’s their turn.

Which part of marketing do you find the hardest? How do you motivate yourself to get it done?

Pushing Through

All of us have times in our life where we just have to push on through. Just clench your teeth, put your head down, and walk straight into the metaphorical wind of whatever you are fighting against. Living with anxiety disorder, I have done some version of this pretty much every day of my life. In fact, I attribute my stubbornness in overcoming a lot of writing obstacles to the fact that I have a lot of practice in not giving up.

This past month I have been pushing through a lot. I’ve just been feeling physically awful for much of the month. I’m not sure how much is physical and how much is a result of an anxiety flare-up like I haven’t had in years. But I’ve been pushing through because when you have a 5-year-old, you have things to do. So I’ve done a lot of pretending lately.

Pretending my stomach doesn’t feel like the acid is churning like a whirlpool.

Pretending the acid isn’t crawling back up my throat.

Pretending my head isn’t pounding.

Pretending my brain doesn’t feel foggy and silent.

Pretending my brain doesn’t feel under so much mental pressure that it might explode.

Pretending that I don’t feel as if I truly will go insane.

Pretending that I don’t want to scream or cry.

Pretending that my legs aren’t weak and shaky.

Pretending I don’t feel unstable or vertiginous.

Pretending everything’s fine when all I want to do is go back to bed.

I am good at pretending. Most people never know. I want it that way.

At the moment, I think all this is anxiety-related. Some of it feels familiar, although it doesn’t present like it did the last time I had a major flare up (years ago). But all of the above COULD be anxiety-induced. October was a very stressful month, both good stress and bad stress, and now that the stress is over, as usual, I “fall apart.” And the end of November is always a hard time for me. My best friend’s birthday is November 29th. I lost her to cancer almost 12 years ago. The grief sneaks up on me every year at this time. So that’s likely a component of the anxiety, too.

I will continue to push through, because that is what I do. And, really, it’s the only thing to do, so I can get to the other side of this and move on. I’m dusting off my “anxiety coping mechanisms” and hoping they’ll help.

So that’s a glimpse into my world and what I’m pushing through to reach my dreams. What are you pushing through? What have you pushed through to get to where you are?

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What’s Your Observational Intelligence Quotient?

This article on the Blood-Red Pencil brought to my attention the idea of observational intelligence (OQ). We all know that most writers are pretty observant people, but did you know that there are two types (and a continuum in between)? An “innie” focuses more on the interior direction, and the “outie” focuses more on external observations. Neither is “bad” or “wrong,” but if we know which we are, we can work on strengthening our observational skills.

I took the OQ quiz confident that I would be a solid “innie.” It’s no secret that I am an introvert and prone to introspection. So my score—20—shocked me. It placed me dead in the center of the continuum. So I examined my answers to see how I had gotten that score.

I found that I had rated several of the major external observational factors quite high, while others didn’t register at all. How could that be? Then the pattern became clear.

My anxiety disorder had tipped the scale.

The anxiety disorder makes me hyper-aware of certain things, such as:

  • Where are the exits
  • What is the mood of people around me
  • Hearing even soft sounds while immersed in something else

In other words, I am highly observant of anything that will help keep me safe, help me avoid dangerous situations, and allow me to flee if needed.

Other external factors, not so much. I am rarely aware of:

  • What people are wearing
  • The color of walls in a room
  • If something subtle has changed in the room since last time I was there

So the good news is that I am more observant than I thought. And I could work to become even more observant of those factors I rarely notice now, which could improve my writing.

I think, though, I would have to have a limited observational improvement. As with most anxiety-disordered people, sensory overload happens easily for me. And when I get overloaded, I shut down and stop interacting. I feel like I’m not really there, as if I’m watching everything from outside my body. It is an uncomfortable and frustrating feeling. So while I would like to up my OQ, I think I would only “engage” the new skills at selective times and places, when I am not already feeling overwhelmed.

What’s your OQ?

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Crossing Bridges

I never used to be afraid of heights, but as I got to around 30, I started feeling disoriented when up high. Not spinning dizzy like true vertigo, but unstable and with the overwhelming certainty that I would fall. For a person who used to crawl around amongst the lights high above the theater stage, and shoot video from ladders and often-rickety press boxes, this was disturbing.

Nowhere else in my daily life does this impact me more than when I have to drive across a bridge. Most bridges terrify me. I am not talking about butterflies in the stomach. I am talking about my heart pounding so hard I can hear the blood in my ears, my throat so constricted I can’t swallow while feeling like I’m going to throw up, hyperventilating or forgetting to breathe at all, and my thighs shaking like I’m freezing while my face is burning red hot—all at the same time. The anxiety over crossing the bridge is amplified by my body’s out-of-control betrayal.

So, yeah, it’s a problem.

The disorientation is worst at night. When I am out on the bridge, I simply get lost in space. Although my logic knows that if I keep straight in the lane, I will safely cross the bridge, I get a physical sensation as if something is pulling me toward the edge. I irrationally fear that someday my brain will “give in” to this imagined pull and I will allow myself to steer over the edge. Again, my logic knows I will not (since I am fully aware of what is happening), but this irrationality is part of the panic response.

The other day I had to come home from Delaware at night, and I had to cross a bridge. I knew the fear was getting the better of me when I actually considered driving an hour out of my way to take a route that would cross a bridge that did not scare me. I convinced myself that 5 minutes of terror was smarter than an extra hour of driving. So I crossed that bridge when I came to it.

I have several methods of forcing myself across a bridge. If the fear isn’t too bad, I sing. The music is relaxing, and it forces me to regulate my breath, thus avoiding hyperventilation. When the panic is at its height, my brain goes deathly silent and I cannot bring any songs to mind. Then I talk my way over the bridge. Another mechanism is putting the sun visor down (even at night) because cutting off parts of my peripheral vision seems to lessen the disorientation. A third coping skill is “hooking,” where I “hook” the tires closest to the center of the bridge over the dotted white line. Yes, this does put me a little in the other lane, but it somehow decreases that physical feeling of being pulled toward the outer edge of the bridge. I only do it when I think it will not impede traffic—or when the panic is so bad I have to use everything.

This night I couldn’t find any music in my head (“Danny Boy” had gotten me across going down to Delaware earlier). I put down the sun visor, white-knuckled the steering wheel, managed to find a tar strip down the center of the lane closest to the middle of the bridge to “hook”, and talked myself across: “You can do it. You can do it. You can do it.” Over and over.

And then I was across.

The reason for this long tale? Because we all have bridges to cross in life, and many times it’s scary. Even when what’s on the other side is a goal we have worked toward, a life we have dreamed of, or a person we love, crossing that bridge can seem a terrifying task. We fear the disorientation, the possibility of crashing off the edge before we reach the other side. But if we really want what’s waiting for us on the other side, we have to find a way to cross.

Today, on Thanksgiving, I want to thank all the people in my life—colleagues, friends, and family—who have helped me cross myriad bridges, both real and metaphorical. I would not be where I am without each and every one of you, and I am grateful.

If you’re facing a bridge you’re afraid to cross, remember: What’s on the other side is worth the fear. You can do it.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

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The Runaway Brain

Happy Fourth of July, everyone!

I don’t know about most people, but my brain has a tendency to run away with me—and not in a good way. My anxiety disorder is fueled by my brain’s insistence on making mountains out of molehills and borrowing trouble. No matter what the circumstance, my brain screams past the most logical and likely outcomes and jumps up and down screaming, “This is gonna end in DISASTER.”

For example, say I send out some queries. I hope some agent will like my book. So far, so good. Then let’s pretend an agent asks for a partial or full (hey, it will happen someday!). I am overjoyed an agent liked the idea enough to want to read the manuscript. Happy dance!

But then my runaway brain lets loose. What if they actually want to rep me? What if another agent would be better? How will I know? Will I make the right choice? And if they rep me, they might actually SELL the book (hey, it will happen someday)! Then I’ll be in a whole new world, and new worlds are scary, and oh good grief it’s a huge CHANGE!!!

Change is hard for those of us with anxiety disorders. And since change is inevitable, life with an anxiety order can be pretty crappy sometimes.

So there I am with my runaway brain telling me that my entire life is crashing over a cliff—all because an agent requested a manuscript. So even good news can lead to a bad ending—in my misfiring brain, anyway. So what do I do about it?

Sometimes I can derail the runaway brain. If I can feel it happening, I can stop the downward spiral by literally talking myself out of it (sometimes out loud, if needed). I can divert it into a more positive outcome.

If I missed the warning signs and my brain has accelerated all the way to the Big Crunch that is OBVIOUSLY going to occur if I go down this path, I can contemplate the fears one by one and again talk myself down from the ledge.

But most times, I say to my brain, “Very nice. Save it for the next book. The reality of what happens will never be what you think.”

Because usually it isn’t. Life is unpredictable (much to my brain’s chagrin), but it is rarely as bad as I fear. And it rarely takes the path I envisioned in the first place.

The biggest weapon I wield against my anxiety, though, is experience. I know the worst I can imagine is unlikely to come true.

I also know that if the worst happens, I am strong enough to face it.

What about you? Do you get hijacked by fears you know are unrealistic but paralyzing just the same? How do you overcome your fears?

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The Horror! The Horror!: Write Your Fears Away

I am not a horror fan. Even in the absence of gore and blood (which will cause nausea in no time), I have never been able to deal with the horror genre. In a discussion in a workshop last month, I finally realized why I don’t like horror – and it isn’t because I’m scared.

As long-time readers know, I have an anxiety disorder. Aha! you say. So you are scared!

Not really. It’s not the fright that gets to me, it is the disturbing images/thoughts that horror deals in so deeply. Disturbing images stay with me far longer than with the average person—sometimes to the point of obsession. I can get trapped in a downward spiral of darkness that takes me to places I really shouldn’t go. It’s not healthy for me, and it’s very hard to break out once the spiral begins. Not only can it lead to disabling physical panic attacks, but it affects my mental state to the point where my daily activities are disrupted.

So that’s why I don’t read horror.

That said, I actually wrote a horror story last week.

Jonathan Maberry, head of our Advanced Novel workshop, had our class brainstorming outside our usual genres in the last class. One of the things he asked was, “What scares you the most?”

My answer was, of course, something happening to my child.

And that opened the floodgates in my head.

Terrifying visions of things that could happen to my toddler are nothing new for me. I shove them away quite often. They pop unbidden into my head, and I must use my coping mechanisms to turn them off and keep them at bay. Even though I know most of them are extreme and unlikely to happen, the terror is there in my brain. So I have no need to go there intentionally.

Opening that box in my brain even a little bit, one scenario leapt fully-formed into my imagination. I tried to put it back in the box but it evaded me, growing stronger during the long ride home from class. By the time I pulled into my driveway, I was on the verge of an all-out panic attack.

Over the next few days, I wrestled with that scenario, but whenever I closed my eyes it would jump up and laugh at me. My brain could not let it go. So I did the only thing I could do.

I wrote the thing down.

In an hour and a half, I knocked out a 2,000 word rough draft. I poured that horrendous vision out of my head and onto the page, and sent it off to a friend of mine (who was so scared by it, I am surprised she is still speaking to me.)

And, finally, the feedback loop in my head stopped, and the images went away.

I’ll go back and polish it up, and maybe see if I can get it out to the public anywhere, but I can tell you right now any horror stories that comes out of my pen will be few and far between. I can’t live in that place in my head—not if I want to have a healthy life.

So, do you love horror or hate it?

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