To listen

I haven’t had words for the past 24 hours.  For me, that’s almost unhealthy – I always have words.

The horrific murder of 50 people and the wounding of 50 more in Orlando has the entire world speechless, but we cannot remain that way.  We cannot remain speechless.

But we can listen.

We must listen.

My heart is breaking, but what I must remember – and what we all must remember, if we would be good allies – is that we need to listen when the LGBT community speaks.  When they tell us what they need, we need to hear them over the tumult in our own hearts, because as horrific as this has been for all of us, it has been so much worse for our LGBT brothers and sisters.

If they tell us that good thoughts and prayers simply aren’t enough, then we need to ask them, “What do you need?”

If they are angry, we need to let them be angry.

If they are in need of shelter, of blood, of protection, then we must offer it.

Most importantly, though, we need to do everything we can to avoid making it about us.  This was an attack on a sanctuary for LGBT people.  This was an attack on people whose only crime was to seek out a place to celebrate themselves.  This was homophobia at its worst.

It’s not about us.  So we need to listen.


A Guide to the Proper Care and Feeding of Your Person

Since I’ve started writing about mental health issues and my experiences, the question I get most often is, “How is your hair so shiny all the time?”*

The question I get second-most-often is, “My daughter/son/mother/person is going through depression/anxiety right now, and I feel so helpless. How can I help them?”

Never fear, gentle readers!  I’ve got you covered.

If you’re just joining us, I’m a college faculty member, tutor and general rabblerouser.  I am in a very happy, stable relationship and I have a great life.  I have also suffered from clinical anxiety for my entire life.  It hasn’t been easy, but I manage my symptoms – through therapy, lifestyle choices, and most importantly, medication – and am able to live a full life.  For all the parents out there, this should be reassuring. My parents weren’t certain I’d ever get there, but I did.

There is always hope.

In addition to hope, though, there’s you.  You love Your Person, whether that person is a girlfriend, boyfriend, child, spouse, parent, or friend.  You hate that Your Person has to go through the trauma of mental illness. You want to help, but you don’t know how. That’s perfectly logical: if Your Person had a broken leg, you’d know to move the ladders and not drug them and put them in your car trunk for funsies.  If Your Person had diabetes, you’d know not to forcefeed them Ding-Dongs while singing Fiona Apple’s Greatest Hits.  These are logical actions to take.

But mental illness isn’t clear-cut, easy, or logical.  If you’ve never experienced mental illness, it may seem like there’s nothing you can do to help.  It may seem like the person you used to know and love isn’t there anymore, or that you don’t know how to talk to this “new” person.  But that’s not true at all.

The person you love, Your Person, is struggling to process information and emotions in a way that may be new and frightening for them.  There are ways you can help.

Find out about Your Person’s condition – do some Googling!

Let me be clear: everyone’s experience with mental illness is unique. The brain is so complex and neural pathways are so particular that there’s no “One Size Fits All” to depression, anxiety, OCD or any other condition.  That being said, there are certain common symptoms that characterize one condition or another.  The first thing that you can do if you love someone with a mental illness is to educate yourself about that particular illness.

Blind Googling can be dangerous, of course.  Stay away from Reddit – though that’s more of a general word of advice than anything else – and trust reputable sources. is a great place to start.  So is MedlinePlus, which is run by the National Library of Medicine.  The One Source to Rule Them All, though, is the National Institute for Mental Health’s website.  There’s a lot of really great information out there that can help you get a feel for what Your Person is going through.  If you do your own research and gather some information, it doesn’t put the burden of explanation on someone who might not even understand what is happening to them, let alone how to explain it to someone else.

It’s important to talk to Your Person about their illness, the same way you’d talk about a broken leg or abdominal pain.  Help them to break the silence by asking about what you’ve read.  “I read that anxiety sometimes makes you feel _________. Is that what happens to you?”

Say the word out loud.  Say it.

Not “vampire.” Please don’t say that one.  If you say that one three times in a mirror, Robert Pattinson shows up and puts your name in the Goblet of Fire.

Depression. Anxiety. Bipolar disorder. Schizophrenia. Borderline personality.

Don’t call Your Person’s condition “the stuff you’re going through right now.”  Don’t call it “your issues.”  Don’t call it “your emotional problems.”

Use the correct terminology and don’t make a big deal out of it!  Could you imagine getting a diabetes diagnosis and hearing your mother refer to it as “your sugar problems”?  It’s diabetes, Mom. I’m not having a gang dance-off with a packet of American Crystals.

Saying the words out loud is important.  In some cases, just saying the word in casual conversation does more than an emotional heart to heart.  Your Person is going through an incredibly difficult fight right now, and one of the worst things you could do is refuse to call it by its proper name.  Calling it by its proper, medical name reminds everyone that mental illness is just that: an illness affecting the mind.  It’s biological, and it’s nobody’s fault.

Don’t tiptoe around Your Person.

Mental illness affects how Your Person’s brain processes sensory information. It affects their emotions and their thoughts.  It can make them frightened or sad or angry, but it doesn’t mean they get to treat you badly.  It doesn’t turn them into a raging dickwad.  That’s just called “being a raging dickwad.”

If Your Person demeans or belittles you, that’s not okay. Our illnesses are not carte blanche to mistreat others.  Coddling us because we have mental illnesses just reinforces the idea that we are irreparably broken.  I’ll be the first one to admit that I don’t always treat people the way they deserve to be treated.  It’s not because I have anxiety. It’s because I have a human brain and a human soul. We’re rude sometimes.

My loved ones and I fight – that’s normal.  But I don’t get a free pass because I have a mental illness.

Remind Your Person that what they’re going through is real.

I guarantee you that Your Person will be punishing himself or herself for this illness.  Your Person will second-guess every decision, play every moment over and over again, and feel guilty for being “weak.” Their mind is failing them, and they are internalizing that failure.

When I was at my lowest, and anxiety was running my life, I punished myself constantly. I felt weak because nobody else I knew got physically ill every morning.  Nobody else I knew was too afraid to drive a car. Nobody else I knew had panic attacks every night.  I remember turning to my dad at one point, in tears, and apologizing to him.  “I know it’s not real,” I said. “I know it’s just in my head.  But I’m so scared all the time.”

What he said to me changed my entire perspective on my illness.  He looked at me and he said, “Sure, it’s in your head.  But like Dumbledore said, that doesn’t make it any less real.”

My dad is a colossal nerd.

It was what I needed to hear, and it’s what Your Person needs to hear. Yes, mental illness is “all in your head.”  By definition, it affects your mind.  That doesn’t make it any less real than a disease of the stomach or the lungs. It’s real, and it’s happening to Your Person. It’s impossible to fight an illness without first acknowledging it.  

Encourage Your Person to take advantage of treatment, but don’t push “cures” on them.

It will take Your Person a while to develop the coping mechanisms and treatments that they need to function.  One antidepressant might be a bad fit for them, and that might send them right back to Square One.  One therapist might not be helping, so it’s time to find another.  Perhaps cardio isn’t as good a fit as yoga, and maybe cutting out alcohol is the ticket.

This is a lifestyle shift for them – moving from illness to wellness.  There isn’t a magical cure, but there are a host of options out there to help.  It usually takes a combination of medication, talk therapy, lifestyle changes like exercise and diet, and meditation to train the brain out of depressive or anxious pathways.  Encourage Your Person to try a variety of treatments to see what works best.  Above all, encourage them to do what feels right to them – not to their mother or their friend or some idiot on Fox News.

It makes me furious to see people suffer because they’ve bought into a stigma surrounding psychiatric medications.  Our culture tells us that people who take medication for mental illnesses are dangerous and uncontrollable, even though statistics show that one in eleven Americans takes antidepressants. Now, not every medication is going to work for every brain, and Your Person may find that other methods are more effective.  As someone who loves them, your role is to encourage them to do whatever it takes to get well – and to avoid pushing one “cure” on them.  So essential oils really help you feel less stressed? Fantastic.  That doesn’t mean they’ll “fix” your depressed child.  Don’t swallow the snake oil, ladies and gentlemen, and don’t buy into conspiracy theories about “Big Pharma” and neurotrackers in Prozac.

Understand the sensory aspects of mental illness.

Anxiety doesn’t just mean feeling frightened or stressed. Depression doesn’t just mean feeling sad.  Mental illness affects Your Person’s perception of the world, and many people with mental illness struggle to process sensory information the way a neurotypical person would.

I can’t handle tags in clothing. Many children can’t, but I never outgrew that particular quirk, and if they’re left in, I can’t focus on anything else.  Please bear in mind that I’m a functioning adult who holds down a job and meaningful relationships.  I had a 4.0 in college – I have my act together.  Want to see me throw a temper tantrum?  Leave the tags in. They make my skin crawl.

Loud noises, busy streets, parties – these are all places where our senses can become overwhelmed by a mixture of sound, sights and smells.  If Your Person shuts down and stops responding to you, they’re probably having a panic attack as their brain tries to sift through all of this material.  Be patient.  If you feel like building them a blanket fort, I can guarantee you they’ll appreciate it.  If they don’t, then you should reconsider your relationship with this fool who can’t appreciate a blanket fort.

Take “No” for an answer – and reassure Your Person that you still love them.

Spontaneity is terrifying, guys.  It’s like finding a walnut in brownie not labeled as a “Nutty Piece of Shit.” That’s the moment you realize that life is all a giant lie and that the universe is moving slowly towards entropy.  All of a sudden, there are terrifying new social obligations to consider and choices to make.

At my very worst, I couldn’t even consider parties.  It took all the piss and vinegar I had to force myself out the door every morning for classes and work.  All I wanted was to stay at home where it was safe, and there were few things more terrifying than a room full of people.  Clearly that wasn’t the healthiest mentality, but even though I’m in a better place now, I still have to pace myself. I’m a work in progress: I go to parties now – but I usually turn down any invitation I get the day of.  I just don’t have enough time to psych myself up for an evening of peopling.  As rewarding as socializing is, it takes a great deal of effort.

Your Person will likely turn down a lot of your invitations and suggestions.  It’s not because they don’t care about you; it’s just that when you have mental illness, everything seems insurmountable. I used to panic after refusing an invitation because even though I didn’t want to go to the party, I didn’t want people to forget about me.  I was convinced that eventually, I’d have missed my chance to matter to people.

Reassure Your Person that it’s okay if they don’t feel up to a kegger.  Tell them that you’re not going anywhere and that you love them even if they never touch a beer funnel again.

Remind Your Person of what they’ve accomplished.

When I’m feeling particularly terrified of the world outside, my darling boyfriend always reminds me that I’m not literal garbage.  Yes, I drive right past the Publix to go to Kroger because Kroger has auto-checkout and you don’t have to talk to a cashier; yes, I refuse to watch documentaries about disasters or tragedies because I won’t sleep afterwards; yes, I think that day trips were invented to punish introverts by giving them no place to take their pants off and not talk to people.  There are many things that remain terrifying to me.

And yet I cope. I survive every day in a world full of things that scare the everloving shit out of me.

Your Person feels like literal garbage right now.  They look at themselves and all they see are the ways in which their mind has betrayed them.  They need to hear you tell them they are brave and good and strong.

The path to wellness isn’t a straightforward one. It’s a rollercoaster of backsliding and breakthroughs, of tears and laughter, of chemical imbalances and spiritual awakenings.

And there are things you can do to help.

*Genetics and the Grace of God.

World Suicide Prevention Day 2015: Stop Saying, “I Don’t Understand.”

September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day.

Whenever someone commits suicide, whenever the news gets wind of it or it goes viral on Facebook, the first thing people say is,

“I can’t understand why someone would want to do that.”

“I can’t understand why someone would do that to their family.”

“I can’t understand.”

“I don’t understand.”

On behalf of mental illness sufferers everywhere, I’d like to say:




It doesn’t help.

We get it.  You don’t understand.  It’s unfathomable to you that someone would take their own life.  But when your response to illness is simply “I don’t understand,” you stigmatize us all.

People with mental illness have a condition.  When someone dies of cancer, it’s obvious what killed them.  No one says that they don’t understand why someone would let their cancer cells grow like that.  It would be like saying, “I can’t understand why your blood sugar is so low,” or “I don’t understand why anyone would want to have a ruptured appendix.”

Mental illness is not a choice.

When you say, “He should have fought harder for his family,” you’re showing that you don’t understand the fight against mental illness.  It’s not the final knockout match between Rocky and Apollo Creed, where everyone’s itching for a fight.  It’s not a boss battle, when you’ve practiced and leveled-up until your guns shoot atomic sparkles and you fart fire.  It’s not even the Death Star run, although the odds are definitely not stacked in your favor.

No, mental illness is not a battle we walk into because we want to, sixshooters blazing.  Mental illness isn’t even a battle, per se, because battles have beginnings and endings and monuments in city parks.  It’s a creeping war of attrition against the demon riding shotgun.  You’re not entirely sure when he jumped on, until you look in your rearview mirror and there he is, smiling like rot in your backseat, and before you know it, he’s next to you, messing with the stereo with his cold hand on the nape of your neck.  You don’t ever toss him all the way off – not really.  The most you can do is to keep him – it – at bay, nipping at your heels instead of looped around your throat.

That’s what kind of a fight mental illness is.  

I’ve been fighting to shake that demon off my entire life.  That’s 27 years of war.  That’s basically Vietnam.  You give up some territory because you just can’t keep it, win it back later when you’re feeling stronger and you want to go to that party or get that drivers’ license. Some days you get out of bed, and some days you don’t.  It’s a back-and-forth struggle with no demilitarized zone and no United Nations intervention.  Sometimes you survive that war with your body and soul intact.

And sometimes you don’t. 

I have never felt the need to harm myself.  It’s one of the few blessings of my condition – I’ve always been too terrified of death to even think about it in the abstract, let alone the specific. I turn off documentaries about cancer and avoid clickbaity titles about terminal illness and tragedy because the feeling of my own mortality is just too much most days.  But I have been afraid of wanting to hurt myself.   I have woken up in the middle of the night, terrified that one day I might just step off the curb and wouldn’t that be terrible? 

You might be thinking, “That sounds insane.  How can you be afraid of thinking something?”  

That’s what mental illness is, kids.  That’s what it does.  Diabetes robs your body of the ability to regulate its blood sugar. Cancer robs your body of the ability to regulate cell growth.  Mental illness robs your mind of the ability to regulate its thoughts – to push them aside in order to go about living.  When I first told my therapist that I had thoughts – powerful, frightening and compelling thoughts, thoughts so intense that they made me physically ill – she called them “intrusive thoughts.”  Everyone gets signals from their brain. They tell us not to touch a hot stove or that puppies make us feel happy.  They can keep us safe and healthy…when they’re working right.  When you have mental illness, your brain is wired in a way that it sends you mixed-up signals. Can you imagine trying to fight your perceptions, your emotions, your sensations for years on end?  Decades?

When I don’t take my medication, it takes me all the energy I have to filter through the sensory information coming in to my brain.  Every single touch, taste, smell and sight spikes another anxiety flare.  That’s what mental illness is.  Mental illness is not just “sadness” or “stress,” any more than diabetes is just “indigestion.”  I can eat a cake and feel a little sick in the morning.  My diabetic friends can’t shake that off.

So don’t say, “I don’t understand.”  Suicide happens because of mental illness.  When someone commits suicide, they have died because mental illness took their life.  And if you want to help, if you really want to help, then you need to acknowledge that suicide is not “a coward’s way out.”  You need to acknowledge that mental illness is a disease.  You need to stop saying, “I don’t understand,” and start saying, “What can I do?”  You need to vote for candidates who will expand, not cut, mental health resources in the United States. You need to talk to your kids about mental illness – take the stigma away so that they can talk to you if they feel their mind is out of control.  You need to support teachers and counselors because they are the front line of defense for our kids’ mental health.  You need to support men, and tear down the outdated notion that men who struggle with their emotional health are weak.  You need to support women, whose bodies and minds are under legislation. You need to support your LGBTQA* brothers and sisters, who are at a higher risk for mental illness and who often lack the resources they need.

You need to be aware.

You need to understand.

What Teenagers Need to Hear

Right now, you’re starting another year of school. You might be excited. You might be bored already.  You might be both.

You are at a point in your life where you are constantly being told things by Grown People.  You’re sitting in classrooms, going over syllabi and textbooks, getting parking passes and bus assignments, and being Told Things.  Grown People love telling teenagers things.  It’s up there with avocado and taking walks.

I pay taxes now. I own a car. I pay bills and have to serve on juries and have a permanent address now.  From what I’ve been told, this means I am a Grown Person.  As a Grown Person, it is possible that I have Words of Wisdom for the Young Folk.  However, I have also been assured that I am still, how shall we say, hip and with-it.  I know what’s on fleek.

Actually, I don’t. I know what’s on leek*, and that’s almost the same thing, right?

In all of the things that Grown People Tell You, there are a few things missing.  There are a few words that I worry no one is telling you, a few things that you need to hear.   

You matter.  Your thoughts, your feelings, and your opinions matter.  

If you speak your mind, I promise you that at least one person will tell you that you are “too young” to have an opinion. They will tell you that you’ll change your mind once you’ve seen more of the world.  They will do everything they can to belittle you and make you feel like you can’t have an opinion.

Don’t listen to them.

Every time I speak my mind, there’s at least one person who, instead of merely disagreeing with my position, tells me I’m not allowed to have a position. That I’m too young, too female, too liberal.  That I’ll change my mind “once I’ve seen more of life.”

It just makes me louder.

If someone uses your age, your gender, your sexuality, or your experiences to silence you, it means that they’re afraid of what might happen if you were allowed to speak.  Speak anyway.

You won’t always be right, and you won’t always be as eloquent as you’d like to be, but no one ever is.  If you are happy, sing and dance. If you are sad, cry.  If you are angry, scream.  You matter.

When you see injustice, you have the power and the responsibility to fight it.  

Racism. Sexism. Homophobia.  Economic inequality.  It may feel like you can’t make a difference. After all, you can’t vote yet.  You may not have the money or the access to participate in rallies or parades.  Heck, you may not even be able to write to your congressperson.

But you know what you can fight?  You can fight stupid, backwards, harmful ways of thinking.  You can object to racist remarks – it doesn’t matter if the person making them is another student, a teacher, or a family member.  You can object to homophobic remarks.  You can befriend the girl who’s being ostracized because she wasn’t born in the body that matches who she is inside.  You can offer compassion where the world would offer judgment.  Most importantly, you can question.  Instead of simply giving to the homeless, give to the homeless and then ask, “Why are there so many homeless people in our country?”  Befriend the boy in your class who’s just come out and then ask, “Why is this such a big deal?”  Object to the racism you hear every day – because you’ll hear it every day – and then ask, “Why are we still clinging to a history of brutal oppression?”  

It may not seem like much, but here’s what you have to understand: injustice thrives only so long as no one questions its validity.  You are the future!  You can help us to build a better world by actively challenging injustice.  If you’re still doubting the power of questioning, think about this: this year, the highest court in the land ruled to legalize same-sex marriage. Fifty years ago, nobody was even asking why marriage was limited to a man and a woman.  Nobody asked because they accepted that certain kinds of people were less worthy under the law.

And look at us now.

Who you are is never a phase.

When I was 15, I went through a phase in which I dressed like Avril Lavigne.  Upon reflection, it wasn’t the most flattering aesthetic for me, but it was 2003 and that was in vogue, so to speak.  Straightening your hair and wearing four pounds of red eyeshadow because the salesperson at Hot Topic said it was a good idea is a phase.  Exploring who you are – your gender, your sexuality, your spirituality – is not.

You’re not too young to know who you are.  You also don’t have to know exactly who you are right now.  In fact, you might never fit into a box – and that’s okay.  If you want to date a girl, date a girl.  If you want to be a girl, be a girl.  You are a human being, with unlimited potential, and you have every right to develop that potential.  Figure out who you are. Figure out who you love.  Figure out what you believe about your place in the universe.  The world is too full of unhappy people who never looked within themselves because they were frightened of change.  

You are not a “late bloomer.” That’s crap.  

People used to tell me I was a textbook “late bloomer.”  I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 22. I didn’t buy a car until I was 24.  I didn’t date until I was 25.  I never enjoyed parties, didn’t think of myself as a pretty girl, and spent a lot of time pining over boys who never felt the same way.

From time to time, well-meaning adults would see that I was unhappy about these perceived failings and would tell me that “my time would come.”  I spent a lot of time waiting for “my time” to come, and as a result, I never learned to love myself the way I was.  When I became an adult, I realized that “your time will come” is something that adults say when they don’t know how to deal with a teenager’s unhappiness.  They always mean to be reassuring, but it comes across as patronizing.  Life’s a party, and your invitation’s still in the mail. Once you become somebody else, life will be better. 

Let me tell you one thing: you’re not a late bloomer.  A “late bloomer” is just someone whose life doesn’t look like the All-American All-Star stereotype.  You are you. Your life might not look like your parents’ lives did when they were your age.  That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, or that your life isn’t worth anything until you “bloom.”  Human beings are in a constant state of flux – you’ll never be finished growing or evolving.  But I promise you that you’ll be the same person when you get older.  A little less spotty, maybe, and you might weigh more, but you won’t lose your sense of humor, your geeky interests, or your shyness.  You shouldn’t have to.

My life is different now than it was.  I have a car and a job and a boyfriend.  That being said, I’m still the same person I always have been, and my life is neither easier nor harder than it was when I was a teenager. I’m still geeky. I still spend a lot of time on Tumblr.  I still hate parties.  The only difference is that I’m no longer apologizing for the person I’m not.

Abusive relationships are real – and they’re not always romantic.

Adults spend a lot of time telling teenagers that their romances and friendships are just temporary.  The phrase “you’ll get over it” gets used a lot.  But your relationships mean as much to you all as they do to adults, and you deserve to be treated well in both sexual and platonic relationships.

If you have a boyfriend, girlfriend, or friend-friend who uses you, that’s a problem.  If they try to manipulate you using money, sex, or threat of violence, that’s a problem.  If they try to control who you see, what you read, where you go, or what you do, that’s a problem.  If they make you feel guilty on purpose, pick fights with you, belittle you, or call you names, that’s a problem.  If they know your insecurities and hit below the belt, that’s a problem.  If they tell you that you’re making it all up, that’s a problem.  If you ever feel that you’re “not allowed” to be sad, angry, or happy, that’s a problem.

It’s not just boyfriends and girlfriends who can abuse you.  You should never feel afraid or miserable when you’re in the presence of a friend.  If you feel this way, talk to someone.  If your parents don’t listen, find a teacher.  If you can’t find a teacher, find a counselor.  Find a pastor.

We’re all terrified of “being alone.”  I promise you that it’s better to be by yourself than with an abusive person.

Your teachers, parents, coaches – they’re all people too.  

I’ve got two big points here – prepare to have your mind blown.  First of all: people are often wrong.  Parents, teachers, coaches, presidents, popes – nobody is perfect.  You make mistakes.  They make mistakes.  You don’t have to accept their authority without caveat.  Be uppity, be passionate, and be idealistic.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t listen to your elders.  They’ve got a lot to offer, and yeah, you do need to listen to them and respect them.  That’s the key term there: respect.  There’s a huge difference between blind obedience and respect.  Blind obedience is suffocating, but fragile, and it rarely builds strong relationships.  Respect your parents and respect your teachers and respect your coaches, but don’t be shattered when you find out that they fart, and lie, and pick their noses, and forward stupid email chains.  You do the same things now. You’ll do the same things when you’re older.

My second point: be kind to them.  They’re people.  You might think that because you’re young, what you say has no effect on the people in power.  You might think that when you get mad, it doesn’t matter what you do.  That’s not true.  Your words can hurt as much as they can help.  Yes, your math teacher might not be able to explain things in a way that you understand.  Yes, she might be snappish. Sure, you wouldn’t hang out with her if you had the choice. But she’s also a human being with feelings.  So don’t be a jerk.

You deserve to be healthy.

I write about mental health issues because I know what it’s like to be your age and mentally ill. Young people are particularly susceptible to mental illness.  Your brains are growing, you’ve got new hormones coming in and messing everything up, you’re under stress, and you’re expected to accomplish incredible feats in four years.

Many of you are struggling to live with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or other mental illnesses.  I know what you are going through, because I was there.  Every morning was a fight against the panic and the fear that lived in my gut, and just the act of going to school was a triumph.  Some days, I didn’t have the energy for that fight.  You need to know that what you’re going through is real.  It is real, and it is in your body, and it’s happening to you.  You didn’t make it happen. It’s not your fault.  And you are a champion.

You deserve to be healthy – to be mentally whole.  Being mentally whole doesn’t mean you’re happy all the time, but it means you feel real.  You feel in control of your mind and body. It means that you have access to the help that you need to heal.  If you feel that your emotions are out of control, find someone to talk to. If you feel disconnected from yourself, or if you feel like you’re in a fishtank, find someone to talk to. If you struggle to wade through sensory stimuli (people talking, bright lights, the chaos of school), find someone to talk to.  School counselors are great resources if you can’t talk to your parents.

The last thing I think you need to hear is that you are brave, and you are bright, and you are bold.  You’re not always going to be right, and you’re not always going to be good, and you’re not always going to be the kind of person you need to be.  But you have more power to do good than you realize.  Have a good year, everybody. 

*Garlic butter and a nice lemon zest.

Forgiving Ourselves, Snarls and All

I’m backsliding this weekend.

Backstepping, falling off, backsliding, riding the Struggle Bus – however you’d like to put it, I am sitting a few steps back on my journey this weekend.  I can see the footprints in front of me, marking how far I was a few weeks ago, when I decided to pursue my passions and leave a steady job because I could.  Last week, I submitted a piece of fiction to an online publication – my first attempt at publication, I’ll have you know.  That’s probably a few steps ahead of where I’m sitting, plopped down on the road and rocking back and forth.  It’s a comfort thing.  Don’t worry.  I’ve had three panic attacks in two days, and right now there feels like there’s a river of clamor running just under my skin.  Everything feels noisy. I’ve changed my shirt three times today because everything itches.  I’ve been letting the noise leech out of my skin slowly: yoga and classical music helps tremendously.  I’m beginning to feel a little bit more like myself as I write this, exhausted and finally sedate.

My wonderful boyfriend picked up on it before I did, and it took him suggesting a walk for me to realize that I’d been grinding my teeth for the last half-hour while trying to read.  I’ve always found physical activity the most effective treatment for my episodes, and if I’m lucky, they happen on a Sunday, so I can dedicate two hours of yoga to resetting my brain.

I’m not always sure why these episodes happen.  Sometimes, I can pinpoint an obvious trigger – hunger, impending sickness, poor sleep, or stress.  It’s easier to forgive myself when I can detect the cause of the panic.   Isn’t that the case for all of us, though?  Isn’t it easier to forgive behavior when there are mitigating circumstances?

I’m beginning to realize, though, that looking for an excuse – a mitigating circumstance, a trigger – to explain and justify my panic just encourages me to keep blaming myself.  Yes, it’s important to understand our triggers, so that we can understand our reactions to them, but we don’t need to understand our triggers to forgive ourselves. When we make reasonable cause a prerequisite for forgiveness, we punish ourselves more harshly when we feel ways we don’t understand. That way of thinking makes a panic attack more acceptable in certain circumstances than in others. It validates people who ask us, “What have you got to be depressed about?”

The unfair truth is sometimes we don’t have anything to be depressed about, or afraid of, or anxious about.  We just are.

It’s that knowledge – that my brain is often setting off smokebombs and flares in response to no threat – that makes me feel prickly.  It makes me feel tired.  More than anything, though, it makes me feel guilty.  I feel guilty because I worry obsessively about showing that side of me to the outside world – letting the snarls and thorns grow on the outside and prick the people I love.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve apologized to my sweet, understanding boyfriend for the way I am this weekend.  Of course, it was always unnecessary and he always made sure I knew that, but I wasn’t really apologizing for his sake.  I was apologizing for me, to soothe myself, to reassure myself that I was controlling whatever damage my snarls were wreaking on the world around me.  I wasn’t sure what justified my episode this weekend – I’m still not entirely sure – and so it seemed to me that I didn’t deserve to be afraid. I was mad at myself for messing up the progress I thought I’d made. I couldn’t forgive myself for feeling this way and let myself ride it out.

But here’s the thing: it’s never about whether you deserve to feel sad or anxious or mad or terrified.  The feelings exist because they exist.  You didn’t cause them, and it’s not your fault.  

I’m slowly learning to trust the people I love to tell me if I hurt them, instead of assuming that my anxiety will seep out of my skin and infect them.  They are strong, and they are capable of taking care of themselves.  They love me, and they realize that my mind sometimes goes too fast, like a broken carnival ride.  Sometimes I have to write those things down, so that when my mind’s a maelstrom of white noise and I feel like if I open my mouth I’ll just scream, I can look and remember that I’m loved.   People with mental illness aren’t stupid, but sometimes when our minds short-circuit, we need reminding.

I’m also learning that recovery isn’t a road.  I’ve always liked checklists and recipes, because if you follow the directions exactly, nothing bad can happen to you.  People with anxiety try to make their lives into checklists, and in true fashion, I’m guilty of doing that to the recovery process.  I find myself assuming that if I do everything I’m supposed to do (medication, exercise, diet, meditation) that I’ll just keep getting better and better and someday I won’t have any problems anymore.

The truth – as always – is more complicated than that.  Living with anxiety means living with it.  There’s no cure for mental illness, only treatments.  I’m never going to not be prone to anxiety, and some days I’ll have episodes.  Some days, I’ll have episodes for no reason other than the way my brain is wired.  The measure of my recovery won’t be the total absence of symptoms, but the fullness of life I’m able to achieve given the brain I have.  In that respect, I’m doing fabulously.  I’ve done brave things not without fear, but in spite of it. I have built relationships, full knowing that they will cause me emotional stress.  I’m slowly learning to let go.

And I’m slowly – oh so slowly – learning how to forgive myself, regardless of the reason for my fear.  It’s a difficult process, but a necessary one, if I’m ever going to love myself the way I need to – snarls and all.

Snarls and all.

The Riotous Courage of Being: Bravery and Mental Illness

I have never understood people who sleep easy. For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with falling asleep. Don’t get me wrong: I adore dreamland, once I’m there. The passage over, however, tends to be rough. I have the most difficult time turning off my mind. As an example: I’m writing my first draft of this piece at approximately 12:34 AM on my iPhone, after several solid attempts at slumber. Insomnia hasn’t been as bad of an issue lately, but my old friend visits from time to time. When I was a child, though, it was unbearable. I spent the first 45 minutes to two hours every night trying to stop the day from wheeling about in my head.  It was in those moments that my constant companion, Fear, would crawl into bed next to me like the worst housecat ever.  Every shadow was a monster, and even the air was suffocating and foreign, as if my lungs belonged to someone else.

When I got older, those first few hours would play like a blooper reel of my most embarrassing moments from the day, paired with contingency plans for every horrible event that could possibly happen.  What would happen if my parents suddenly vanished?  Who would take care of us? These questions were punctuated by mental calculations: if it was 1:03 right now, and I have to wake up at 5:15 to catch the bus at 6:00, how much sleep can I get tonight? And what if I don’t get enough sleep and something terrible happens?

My mind is a busy place.

And so I developed a method for helping myself to sleep, which worked about half of the time.  I would make up stories.  If I didn’t think about my own life, I could usually lull myself to sleep.  I usually made up stories about my favorite cartoon characters and put myself into them.  That’s right: I was writing fanfiction before I could actually write. If I’m being honest, I made some vast improvements to the canon of The Cowboys of Moo Mesa.

I still put that technique to work when I can’t sleep.  Some of my best stories have come from those pre-slumber moments. When I was trying my hardest to fall asleep, I used to tell myself stories about bravery.  When I was a child, I knew what bravery looked like. Bravery meant women warriors in fantasy lands, starship captains, queens and princesses and sacrifice. I knew that I wanted very much to be brave. I used to imagine what would happen if an adventure were to appear at my window. I used to dream that I would be brave enough to take it, but as I couldn’t recall reading about any heroes who had to sleep in their own bed with exactly three pillows and a stuffed animal on each side for symmetry, I felt that I would be ill suited for bravery. I didn’t think that brave people spent most of their time being wary of the toaster or checking the under-the-bed every half-hour or telling themselves stories so they could get to sleep every night. Brave people, I reasoned, could do things I couldn’t.

Later in my life, bravery came to mean different things. Bravery meant going on dates with boys, driving on the highway, and studying abroad in France.  Bravery meant throwing parties, going to parties, and deciding to road-trip at the last minute.

I did none of those things.

Because I had such conscripted ideas of what courage was, I felt as if I were a coward. A coward with an advanced degree and a stellar work history, but a coward nonetheless.  I felt that I spent so much time managing my anxiety that it took me twice the effort to maintain what other people thought was a “normal” life.  Constant policing of my mind left no chance for valor. I was afraid of spontaneity because I thought it would break the brittle ice standing between my outside composure and the maelstrom of tics, compulsions and noise that threatened to spill out of my mind. I saw other people my age dropping everything to travel abroad, to pursue a calling in New York or Los Angeles, to fall topsy-turvy in love and embark on a romance for the ages.  I didn’t understand how I was supposed to go out and chase my dreams when it took all I had to hold myself together, and I was ashamed of my fear.

I’ve learned, however, to both forgive myself for my perceived shortcomings and to redefine courage in the face of all I have undergone.  I’ve learned to weather life in a world that I find often overwhelming and frightening.  I’ve overcome the clamor in my head and the roaring in my ears enough to engage with the life all around me.  I’ve moved through the panic to form attachments – which, if we are honest, are messy, entropic things by their very nature.  Love is complex, intuitive, and absolutely terrifying. People are unpredictable. If courage is defined as moving outside of one’s comfort zone, then I may be the bravest of people.  Do I take medicine to help me do this?  Yes. Yes, I do.  But the fact that I take medicine to keep myself healthy in mind doesn’t undermine the strength I have at my very core.  The courage.

Mental illness has a pronounced, devastating effect on one’s sense of self.  I don’t mean “self-esteem” in the fabricated, superficial way we so often encounter.  I mean, rather, the connection between our minds and our inner selves – our personality, if you will. As a person of faith, I think of that transcendent part of myself as my soul. Mental illness kills your ability to recognize the value of your own soul, because your perception of reality is skewed and sick.  I know that from first-hand experience, and having people pat you on the back and tell you “You’re all right,” does very little good.  It feels like charity.  And you know for a fact that it’s a lie. You’re not “all right.”  I certainly wasn’t.

Instead, let me reassure everyone who suffers from mental illness that you may not be “all right,” but you are brave.  When you feel as if every breath will collapse your lungs, breathing is brave. When you are frightened of the Outside World, going to work is brave. Holding conversations is brave when you feel yourself drifting away inside yourself whenever you start to speak. You may never travel abroad. You may never “find your calling.” For some of us, life itself will be the greatest battle.

Simply being is act of riotous courage.

Yes, mental illness is “all in your head.” By it’s very definition, it is in your mind.  But that doesn’t make it any less real.  This is something that is happening to you, and it is real, and you are brave – however you choose to weather this storm.  And once I realized that – once I realized that forgiving yourself is wonderful, but not as wonderful as not punishing yourself to begin with – I started living my life, not in spite of my anxiety, but with it.

I decided what I wanted and threw out the list of “Things You Have to Do Before You Die,” because life cannot be a checklist governed by the fear of Death. I accepted that my fear will always be with me, but that I am powerful because I stand in the face of Fear and know it by its name.

I did drive on the highway – at age 24, on my own terms.  I never lived abroad – but I learned to treasure the close relationship I gained with my parents in its place.  I did quit a job to pursue my passions – though I still have to manage the panic caused by jumping out without a safety net.

I’ve even fallen in love.

All of that seems pretty courageous to me.

Why “24 Steps?”

You may have noticed that my little corner of the internet has gone through a name-change recently.  “A View from the Geek Seats” is no more, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop writing about geek culture.  Of course not – I’ve been steeped in science fiction, fantasy, and comic books too long to give that up entirely.  However, I’ve realized that I want – I need – to tell another story: my story.

I have clinical anxiety.

There’s something vaguely liberating about seeing those words in black and white, a phantom notion given concrete substance as I write.  At the same time, it seems so much smaller than it really is.  A four-word sentence seems hardly adequate to describe an emotion that has been at the core of my being for as long as I can remember.

Some of you may not understand or know what clinical anxiety is or how it works. When I say “I have anxiety,” I don’t mean that I get nervous giving speeches, or panic when the nurse gives me a tetanus booster.  I don’t mean that I get scared watching scary movies or stressed when my workload is high. All of these situations are normal incidences in which human beings may feel anxiety.  I have these reactions, and I bet you have at least some of them.  Who wouldn’t feel nervous when a cop pulls them over for speeding?  Who wouldn’t feel fear waiting for the results of recent medical tests?  Fear and stress are normal human reactions – and they serve a purpose.  Fear keeps us from engaging in risky behavior that might endanger themselves. Stress motivates us to accomplish our goals.

No, friends.  When I say “I have anxiety,” what I mean is that I lived in the house of fear, with few windows into the outside world.  My earliest memories are of waking up and dreading the day ahead because even as a child, I knew – I just knew – that there was some great, unfathomable Bad Thing that could happen to me that day.  Have you ever met a fearful child? They go through life knowing in every fiber of their tiny beings that the world is a terrifying place and that they are very, very small.  When I say “I have anxiety,” what I mean is that there is a demon on my shoulder and that demon is fear. Imagine falling asleep after a long day.  As soon as you begin to drift off, you feel as if you aren’t breathing and you start awake.  That’s what it feels like to live with anxiety. All day, every day.

When I tell people that I struggle with anxiety, it usually surprises them.  I don’t “look like” someone who is mentally ill.  I don’t “talk like” someone who is mentally ill.  I was a straight-A student. I have an advanced degree. I have always been a stellar employee and an academic and social leader. I don’t seem like society’s picture of a “crazy person.”  But I was good at school. I was good at work.  These were controlled environments where if I put in effort, I would receive stability.  I got a remarkable amount of work done because I felt like if I stopped or slowed down, then everything would cave in and that omnipresent Bad Thing, the one I had been holding off since childhood, would happen.  Can you imagine being on guard your whole life? Feeling the fight-or-flight instinct from the moment you wake up until the moment you fall asleep?   It’s exhausting. And about 3/4th of the way through my graduate school career, it became too much.  I had what could only be described as a nervous breakdown.

So what did I do?  I got help.  I got counseling. I got medication.  I went home to stay with my parents and to start over.  This war can be fought, and it must be fought to live a full life – one not shaped by fear. I manage my life now, and I’m in the best mental health I have ever been in.  However, I can’t overstate the struggle it has been – and continues to be. I’m not “cured.”  I never will be.  My anxiety is a part of my life.  But it’s not the only part of my life.

I have not been eager to share this part of my life with the people around me.  I didn’t want to be judged. I didn’t want to be second-guessed in work situations by people who might tag me as “crazy” or “insecure.”  I have labored like Sisyphus to control my reactions to the world around me. My reticence hasn’t helped anyone, least of all me. People – good people, kind people, brave people – lose the battle against their demons every day.

They die, thinking they are alone.

It’s time to open up a conversation about mental health, one that doesn’t go away a few weeks after a publicized suicide fades from the media circus.

Why “24 Steps?” When I was at my worst – jumping at every car horn, compulsively checking the door locks – I would pace in my tiny apartment to calm myself. It took me 24 steps to make the circuit through my kitchen.  I will never forget that circuit, pacing like it was the only thing keeping me alive.  No one needs to feel as small as I did then.

Let’s change the story.

Seven Things Nobody Tells You When You Go Off to College

Dear Incoming College Freshhumans,

Welcome to college.  For the next four years (and change), you will be in a unique social class that gives you all kinds of opportunities.  You will get discounted movie tickets, drink specials, and enough free koozies to build a squishy mountain of theme-colored joy (so you never have to worry about finding a soft place to land ever again).  You will become a culinary artiste – Easy Mac is an underrated, but oh so cheesy, medium – and a late-night philosopher who plumbs the existential depths of syndicated reruns of Walker, Texas Ranger because that’s all that’s on at three in the morning and who needs sleep anyway?  

You will have a socially-accepted reason to sit around in a coffeeshop for days (you might consider moving in), grow creative facial hair, take four-hour-long naps and stay on your parent’s insurance.  It’s like being European, except better because you know what college towns have that European cities do not?  Bojangles.  Bojangles on every corner. Late-night Bojangles.  Your veins will flow with Bo-sauce and you will love it.

I loved college.  I loved it so much that I went on to do more college (i.e. grad school).  Much to my surprise, grad school is not college and there was significantly less of the Walker, Texas Ranger and more of the sobbing uncontrollably over papers and learning and stuff.  Don’t get me wrong, grad school is great and all – I got a whole lot smarter, Ma! – but there is something special about life as an undergraduate.  For many students, college is their first time away from home. It’s a pivotal time in a young person’s life: you’re learning about yourself, your dreams, your plans, and what you’ll put up with from other people.  Dorm living is especially useful in this aspect.  College can be a place of reinvention, but it can also be a place where you crash and burn like the Hindenburg (too soon?).  

I received quite a bit of good advice when I went off to college, but here are some things I didn’t hear – things that I think a few of you might need to hear as well.

1.  College will not make you a better person. You’ll hear a lot of talk about the possibility of reinventing yourself when you go to college.  Were you a nerd in high school?  BAM!  College.  Now you’re the freshman studmuffin.  Those co-eds can’t get enough of you.  Were you a goof-off?  BAM! College.  Now you’re the top of your class. Your advisers are calling you for mentorship.  College is the real-life equivalent of the Old Spice Guy. 

It’s not that easy.  Yes, college is a place where you can stretch your boundaries.  You can let aspects of your personality – sense of humor, courage, compassion – shine through because you’re in a new place.  You’re a blank slate to the people around you.  But you’re still you.  You can very easily exhaust yourself when you try to become someone else.  At your very core, you will be the same person when you arrive at Freshman Orientation and when you cross the stage to get your diploma.  And that’s okay.  Don’t stress out because the fears, the insecurities, or the things you hate about yourself don’t go away.  They don’t just disappear when you become “an adult.”  

2. College is a scary, scary place sometimes.  You may have some of the highest moments of your life in these four years.  Travelling abroad, doing internships, discovering your passions, sharing friendships, falling in love – these are all the awesome things people tell you will happen to you in college.  What they don’t mention is that you may struggle through depression. You may struggle through anxiety.  You certainly will struggle through stress, and broken relationships, and anger, and homesickness.  I don’t mean to dampen your enthusiasm.  College is awesome, except when it’s not.  

And when it’s not, remember that you have resources.  Know where your college counseling center is.  Know where the chaplain’s office is (if you are a person of faith, and even if you’re not). Know where the fitness center is (exercise is key to staying mentally healthy). Know where the student health center is. Use these resources.  There’s no shame in asking for help. 

3.  You will fall down. You’re going to screw up. Embrace this. You will tread too roughly on tentative new relationships. You will annoy your roommate. You will be annoyed by your roommate.  You will be too much or too little in a given situation.  You will find yourself in over your head.  The sooner this happens to you, the better, because the first time is the worst.  After that, you get used to stumbling.  

Just remember: everyone around you is also struggling, even – and especially – the kids who seem like they’ve got it all together.  That perky, 4.0 biochem major in your Intro to Soc class spends just as much time as you do – if not more – feeling absolutely inadequate to the task.  You will both be okay.

4.  Your mentors are just people, at the end of the day. The mentoring relationship between a professor and student is one of the coolest parts of college.  You may have a special mentor in your major, or you might make an impression on a professor who then takes an interest in your academic career.  They can help you, and help you to find opportunities, and encourage you, and even challenge you to be more than you think you can be.  You’ll find yourself putting a lot of stock in what they have to say.

They fall down too, though.

You will disagree with your mentors sometimes. You have to to grow.  It’s not the end of the world. Sometimes you’re wrong, and sometimes they’re wrong.  It can be a sticky situation, especially if they’re your adviser, but you are building yourself; you’re not creating a clone of your favorite Physics prof.  And you may lose a mentor through this process. That’s a part of growth as well.  As with other types of friends, mentors may come in and go out of your life, crossing paths with you when you need them and then passing by.  It’s perfectly normal.

5.  Don’t be afraid of “missing out.” Yes, try new things, even if you only try them once.  But if your instincts tell you that tantric yoga, or beer pong, or Young Republican meetings, or Young Democrat meetings, or chess club, or any other new pursuit isn’t for you, listen to them.  When someone says, “Oh, but you’ll be missing out,” do not listen to them. Listen to yourself.  I promise you: in five years, you will not miss being miserable at parties that you didn’t want to go to.  What you will miss is time you could have spent doing things that make you happy with people who make you happy.  If that’s tabletop gaming, then find a group to do that with.  If it’s salsa dancing, then find a club.   Always, always, always put time aside for yourself to not do anything.  You’ll drown if you don’t.

On that note, you can’t force “life events” to happen to you.  You may find your calling in these four years. You may not. You may fall in love. You may not.  You’re not “missing your window” to do any of these things.  Your life is not a checklist of major events.  It’s not a script to someone else’s movie.  No time you spend on this earth is wasted.  You can get stressed out about how “little” you’ve “accomplished.”  Always, always, always remember that your path is unique, and that no matter what you do, it is worthwhile, unless you are kicking puppies or a Nazi. 

6. Know the difference between your dreams and your plans. Dreams don’t change; they’re a part of our core identities. Plans are how we aim to reach our dreams; they are meant to change and evolve.

I’ve known I wanted to write, in some capacity, since I was five years old.  Well, that and be President and breed unicorns. I’ve always felt that writing is the way I connect with people the best.  I want to use my words to bring joy and comfort, to inspire, to rally my community to action.  This is a dream that I have.  

My plans, on the other hand, have changed so often that I have lost count.  I was going to be a journalist. Then a minister. Then a teacher. Then a professor.  Now, I am doing none of those things.  But I am still writing.  

Don’t invest too much of your self-worth in the plans.  More often than not, the plans don’t work out, and I’ve seen too many bright people shattered because their plans for medical school, or grad school, or internships, have fallen through.  Even if your ideal life-plan shrivels up like a potato-chip bag in the microwave, your dreams, the reason for your being, exist untouched. Don’t forget them.

7. Being “good” at something doesn’t mean it’s the right path for you.

We thrive on feedback.  Since college is such a new experience in so many ways, we need outside reassurance that we’re doing the right thing pretty much constantly.  We seek affirmation before we choose a course schedule, before we move off-campus, before we take that internship or go to that country for a Maymester.  If everyone around you says that you’re good at, say, business, but your real dream is to teach, it’s hard to separate your own needs from the need to please other people, especially the people you live and work with.  

Sometimes you have to say “no” to the praise.  You may even get that rare beast, the unwanted Mentor, who tells you that you’re “wasting your potential” to do something you don’t really want to do.  You’ve got so many paths ahead of you right now.  Don’t let someone choose one for you.

With that wisdom, it’s off to school! Hit up IKEA for some furniture you can’t pronounce or put together, and pray there’s either an aspiring engineer or a foreign-exchange student from Sweden on your floor during move-in day.  Call your parents every once in a while. They need it, and you need it to keep you grounded.  Make friends the first day, and don’t worry about seeming awkward. Everyone feels like they have a giant, visible booger hanging out of their nostril on the first day.  It’s okay. You’re okay.  You’re in for a hell of a ride.


On Laughter

Tonight, the world grieves.  

It grieves the loss of one of one of the great Funny Men, a man who faced more demons than he ever showed.  The world is a little bit duller, and the stars a little less twinkly.

Someday, I may write about the sorrow and the unfairness, about the way we stigmatize mental health issues, about the shockwaves his death has sent into our lives as a cultural body.  But for now, because mental illness hits too close to home for me to speak of it coherently, and out of respect to those who grieve his loss the most, I will not.  Instead, let’s celebrate his great gift to the world: laughter.

I will never understand those who say that comedy is a lesser art than “high drama.”  Let us never underestimate the undertaking that is comedy.  Humor is hard.  Humor is complex.  Humor must be crafted carefully, tested meticulously, and refined constantly before it’s released into the wild. Oftentimes, we don’t know why something is or isn’t funny; tastes vary, of course, but there’s no recipe to suit. Good humor is like true love or a flawless bacon cheeseburger: you can’t build it on your own, but you know it when you see it.

Humor is one of the most powerful ways of connecting with other human beings that we have. Would you marry a person who couldn’t make you laugh?  No, of course you wouldn’t.  You’d say, “We just didn’t connect.”   If you’re me, that’s the deal-breaker that keeps you from a second date.  No laughter, no connection, no relationship.

At its very core, comedy is the relationship between a speaker and a listener.  When someone makes a joke, the underlying question is, “Do you see the world the way I do?”  When you laugh, your underlying response is, “Yes.”  In that instant, you two are bound to one another in a shared understanding.  That’s what it means when we say that Robin Williams touched millions of lives.  He looked at the universe and shared what he saw.  When we realized we saw the same, our laughter bound us to him and to each other.  

And that skein of laughter, that bond, it is a beautiful thing.  Laughter is a complicated response. It bubbles up when we’re uncomfortable, when we’re joyous, when we’re hurt, when we’re angry, when we lash out or put up a facade or let down our guard. We trot laughter out when life goes beyond words.  Laughter crosses language and cultural barriers; in that sense, humor is the sole uniting force in our fragmented world.  Maybe we laugh at different things in different lands, but we all know what it’s like to breathe in oxygen and breathe out joy.  We all know what it’s like to feel our bellies ripe-full with rippling chuckles, or to find ourselves doubled-over, heaving and crying with silent giggles.  We are never alone so long as we can laugh together.

 Thank you, Mr. Williams.  

Fiction Friction, or “Why Can’t I Ever Finish a Story?”

Every time I sit down to write out a story, the beginning is the interesting part.  Ideas come bouncing out of my head, hitting the keys and then bouncing right into the screen. I’ll type five single-spaced pages in an hour.  I don’t even take bathroom breaks, and since I have a bladder like a thimble, that’s not insignificant.  It always starts with characters: the cranky spinster princess, the eccentric inventor, the dashing pirate.  I see them taking form in my mind – what color hair, how tall, what their voices sound like, what their relationships to each other are. 


After that, their universe starts to take shape.  It’s a fairytale kingdom or a steampunk coal mining boomtown or an ancient empire or something like that. When it comes to settings, I tend to follow the “go big or go home” philosophy.  Universe-building is an easy task for me, but after that initial stage, I usually hit a wall: what are they all supposed to do?


Stories are about characters, but they’re also about plot – sequences of events.  Sometimes I can sketch out a rough outline: Character A is supposed to rescue Character B from the lair of goodlooking-but-heartless Villain C; Mechanical men invented by Protagonist II upset the economic system of PrimarySettingTown, where Protagonist II lives; Something-something-something-metaphor-for-19th-century-politics-something-magical-beans-something.


And then?


I run out of steam.  I have upwards of a dozen files saved on my computer with titles like “Unnamed Quest Adventure,” “Awesome Historical-Novel-Fairy-Tale,” “Characters of Awesome,” etc.  They’re junk drawers filled with descriptions, snippets of dialogue, character sketches, and anything else my mind spits out while I’m high on ideas and listening to one of my four iTunes writing playlists.  Essentially, it’s brain vomit.  My Documents folder is full of brain vomit.  After I hit that roadblock, I stop.  Sometimes I stop writing completely for several weeks for one reason or another.  I always go back to it, either out of a genuine desire or the creeping feeling that it’s what I ought to be doing, but I rarely revisit those epic sagas I frantically shaped at 1:30 in the morning when I couldn’t sleep because there were these ideas jumping around in my head.  And so these documents become mausoleums for characters and stories that burst forth full of life, but soon wilt.


These ramblings rarely merit editing and revision, because I have discovered that my writing is never as clever upon a second reading, and it sometimes makes me cringe to read it.  Writing fiction is like drunk-dialing: you think you’re articulate and deep at the time, but in the cold, clear light of morning, you get the sinking feeling you’ve made a terrible mistake, and you can’t even understand the messages you left for yourself.  


More troubling to me is the fact that I’m not emotionally invested in these stories.  Sometimes they’re aesthetically pleasing; despite my harsh criticism of my own writing, I’ll admit that I’ve written a few pretty passages here and there.  No, it’s not that: I just don’t really care what happens next.  I should: I created these characters.  I find it difficult to identify with my heroine when she’s in the depths of despair or – especially – the heights of romantic passion.  My heroes begin to bore me, and my villains never seem terrifying enough.  And so I fluff – I add more and more until I’ve produced a mountain of meaningless prose.  


I read through my graveyard every once in a while.  I have deleted a few stories that aren’t going anywhere, but I think I keep them around because throwing them away means admitting that I’ve wasted time, or that I’ve had another false start on this “being a writer” journey I am on – the fear of mortality, I suppose.  I keep asking myself, “What do people like to read?”, instead of, “What do I know?  What do I care about?”  This is probably at the heart of my writing troubles.  I’m writing about interesting, fantastical places and people, but there’s no core to the stories.  It’s all very interesting window dressing.  It’s time for me to write about what I know, about what I want to say to the world, about what I want to accomplish with my writing:


I want to write about bravery.  I want to write about imagination.  I want to write about the power of love, but not in that shallow, sappy, only-romantic way we get spoonfed so often in movies.  

I want to help young people through my writing. I want to make somebody like little!me feel less alone and powerless. That’s what I want. 

And starting today, that’s what I am going to do in my writing.  Less fluff, less self-congratulatory purple prose and oh-so-clever dialogue, and more reality.


There will still be pirates, though. What’s a good story without pirates?