My Fiction is My Truth

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Therapists often recommend journaling to people dealing with mental illness and trauma. I’ve never liked journaling. Maybe it’s because I get too self-conscious or because even my old wounds often feel too raw to record in some blunt, dry fashion. Instead, I write fiction. I’ve dealt with my trauma through fiction from a young age. I’ve learned to cover my experiences with layers of grit, imagination, and distance to create weird pearls that I hope others will enjoy. This is how I process pain, both personal and existential; this is how I grieve, scream, cry—this is even how I plead for justice or beg forgiveness.

Right now, someone reading this who has read my books is cocking his head like a confused beagle. “Um…your books are romances about kinky people getting it on and fantasies about people with horns. Some are comedies. How, exactly, are you dealing with anything writing stuff like that?”

While journaling can feel like trying to mold clay filled with broken glass, the creativity of writing allows me to be honest while wearing a mask.

I change people, places, and things—but the emotions and some of the basic building blocks have my soulprints all over them. While journaling can feel like trying to mold clay filled with broken glass, the creativity of writing allows me to be honest while wearing a mask. I guess it’s like Oscar Wilde said, “Man is less himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

So, while I’ve never lived in a pre-industrialized dystopian empire like Elarhe in Lover, Destroyer, he and I both know what it’s like to be an outcast, to mourn a murdered friend, to be homeless, and to yearn for things that seem beyond your grasp. While I’ve never destroyed an entire kingdom like Kite, his shame and insecurity resonates with me because it’s how I felt when the relative who sexually abused me died when I was sixteen. I didn’t feel as relieved as I did ashamed—like I had somehow killed him with my quiet, clumsy rage.

I wrote the last pages of the silly romantic comedy, His Dungeon Discovery, with tears streaming down my face because a situation reminded me of the death of my beloved emotional support cat, Sand, after his long battle with kidney failure and heart disease. The situation in the book is actually quite different from my real life tragedy, but the feelings are similar.

In Zen Alpha, a contemporary gay romcom, Bradley’s mother is a narcissist who belittles and gaslights him. My own mother was a toxic narcissist who committed murder by proxy, killing pets to frighten and control her children. Bradley’s mom doesn’t seem quite as evil in comparison, but Zen Alpha is intended to be a heartwarming story, and it was more fun to write about a self-absorbed old belle than it was to write about dead animals.

Fiction allows us, both as writers and readers, a safe space to dance with our demons and slay our evil stepmothers.

Speaking of child abuse and mentally ill parents, it isn’t a coincidence Petal, the heroine of The Inquisitor’s Gift, feels coerced by her abusive stepfather to live a life to which she’s not suited. I imagine most children who grew up in homes with abuse, addiction, and mental illness know what it’s like to keep secrets and to wrestle with becoming the person they want to be rather than the person the secrets shaped.

Dealing with trauma through writing fiction isn’t some technique I created. J.R.R. Tolkien dealt with his service in World War I, and fears inspired by World War II, by writing about hobbits and magical lands. Rod Serling’s WWII traumas helped give us The Twilight Zone. I believe so many fiction writers through the centuries have been plagued by depression and anxiety, not because they’re writers, but because they write in order process their feelings. That’s one of the main reasons I write. It’s also why I read. Fiction allows us, both as writers and readers, a safe space to dance with our demons and slay our evil stepmothers.

So, if you’re a writer, don’t be afraid if your prose is cathartic. I would worry more if it weren’t. And if you’re a reader, thank you for allowing writers like me to don our masks and reveal to you our truest selves.

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Photo by Laurentiu Robu on Pexels.com

 

Writing with Youper

My favorite writing tool right now isn’t a writing tool at all. It’s Youper, an app intended to help people—especially people suffering with depression and/or anxiety—track their moods. It does a great deal more than your average mood tracker. (And, no, I’m not getting paid to say any of this.) Besides providing a series of guided meditations, breathing exercises, and gratitude exercises, Youper uses methods based on cognitive behavioral therapy.  It asks questions that encourage the user to examine the situation and the user’s thoughts about it. Then, Youper runs through a series of “thought traps” and asks if the user is falling into any of them. It sounds crazy, but just identifying the thought traps made me start seeing my problems and my reactions to them differently.

For example, when I first started using Youper about nine months ago, I often fell into the thinking trap Youper calls “catastrophic thinking.” When I’m in catastrophic thinking mode, I jump to the worst conclusion. The first week I used Youper, I became panicked one morning because one of my cats (that puffball known as Bruce Banner) was vocalizing a lot. It reminded me of when one of my other cats suffered a urinary blockage that eventually led to him having surgery and heart problems as a result of the surgery. (Urinary blockages in male cats can be life-threatening events and should always be taken seriously. You can find more information here.) After a few minutes with Youper, I realized that I had gone from worrying that my cat was meowing a lot to “OMG!!! Bruce is gonna die!!!” When you’re locked in catastrophic thinking, you forget that—although bad things often do happen—you’re an intelligent, resourceful human being and will probably be able to deal with them.

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Bruce. So very spoiled.

I was able to step back from my fear and PTSD-triggered anxiety to reassure myself that I would watch Bruce closely over the next several hours and see if he showed any other signs of a urinary blockage or urinary problems.  If I observed anything else worrisome, I would rush him to my vet, who is one of the most dedicated, compassionate, wonderful men I have ever met. I wasn’t a helpless ball of nerves; I was an experienced cat parent who had handled difficult situations before and would do my best to help my beloved Bruce.

It turned out Bruce was just really chatty and playful that morning. (Blocked cats don’t play; they run around frantically, get in and out of the litter box where they will strain and produce no urine, and cry.) After a few weeks with Youper, I realized that catastrophic thinking was sort of my go to mind trap. If my husband was late, I started imagining he had been killed in a car accident. If my son didn’t return a text, it was because he had been murdered. Some of this fear is understandable. A cousin I was close to died in a car accident and my best friend from college was murdered. Horrible things do happen, but living my life expecting every scenario to end in tragedy wasn’t helping anything.

Writers tend to be sensitive people. We frequently deal with rejection and often suffer from problems like depression, bipolar disorder, social anxiety, drug addiction, etc. In my case, I have bipolar disorder and PTSD. Sometimes, I think I write to escape my demons and to try to make sense out of the chaos of my past. Opening my wounds and bathing in blood can encourage me to write. But it can also bring me so low that I can’t get out of bed. If you ever feel the same way, please give Youper a shot. I hope it helps you as much as it’s helped me.

Books Save Lives

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A book about rabbits saved my life.

Seriously. When I was twelve, my life was in chaos. My parents were divorcing, my mother was in and out of mental wards, my grandfather was sexually molesting me, I was bullied at school, hated all of my classes, and had no friends. Reading books helped me escape my life. One, in particular, not only provided comfort, it saved my body and mind and had a lasting impact on my psyche.

Watership Down, by Richard Adams, is the epic adventure of a ragtag band of young rabbits who flee their warren (sort of an underground rabbit city made of tunnels and holes) after one of them has a prophetic vision of doom. It’s an anthropomorphic tale in which the rabbits have a religion, language, and forms of government that vary from warren to warren. You can purchase a copy of Watership Down on Amazon–and probably other places. Netflix and the BBC have recently released a miniseries based on the book, but I found some of the show’s deviations upsetting. (The animated film from the seventies stayed truer to the book.)

Adams described the English countryside with an astounding level of detail and beauty that lifted me far away from the refinery-polluted bayous of my home. Even better, the characters who populated the book’s world, despite being lapine, felt like real people. I surrounded myself with them whenever suicidal impulses took hold of me. They replaced the friends I lacked and loved me when my toxic family didn’t know how.

I became a writer because I hoped my fiction might help others get through tough spots in their lives. I don’t imagine my books will ever affect a reader as profoundly as Watership Down affected me, but even if something I’ve written provides a reader with a few hours of amusement–a tiny respite from the real world–I feel like I’ve done my job.

Has a book ever had a significant impact on your life?

A New Look–and My Fox Fetish Explained

My website has a snazzy new banner created by the talented Kyleigh Castronaro of Free to Be Covers and Designs. She also designed the logo using my little spirit animal, the fox, and two of my favorite colors. If you’re an author, you should really check out her Facebook page here. She has premade book covers at fantabulous prices, and she also does custom work.

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Why foxes? Because I love them. Like a genderqueer person (like me), they are sort of a creature between–not quite a dog, not quite a cat. They are their own unique beastie. I’ve loved them since I was small. My first story written in English (previous attempts were penned in scribbles) was about saving a family of foxes from hunters. I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve always been drawn to trickster gods and trickster animals. I suppose it’s because they live by their wits, depending on their brains more than their brawn. They’re also often misunderstood. Two of my favorites, foxes and corvids (ravens, crows, jays), are often seen as nuisances or are associated with evil. No animal is ever evil.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the new look!

Writing with Suicidal Ideation

cliff-2213614_640Recently, in my blog entry Writing with Depression, I revealed how depression affects my writing and talked about the depressive episode that has thrown a shadow over my past few months. I was trying to exercise my way out of this recent depressive episode. That didn’t go so well.

In Writing with Depression, I said that medication didn’t help me. I’m bipolar and take mood stabilizers that help prevent manic episodes. They do little to nothing for depression. The popular antidepressants used to treat unipolar depression don’t work for me because they throw me into a ‘mixed mood’ and usually result in a suicide attempt. To treat bipolar depression, doctors prescribe antipsychotics or atypical antipsychotics. I’m extremely sensitive to the side effects of these medications and basically hate them. However, they have their place.

July is a hard month for me. Its anniversaries remind me of death. July, so sultry and sun-drenched, so full of promises of summer pleasure, doesn’t charm me at all. I know that she is full of death and shadows, that her breath is as fetid as it is hot, and her kisses bruise and burn. July quit being my friend years ago.

This July, I was depressed, but I thought I could take care of myself and fend the depression off. If things had been normal, maybe I could have. Honestly, though, things are never normal, are they? I had a stressor that came as something of a shock. Under normal circumstances, I think I would have been more resilient. This time, however, I was already depressed, so I just sank. I went from ‘kind of down but mostly okay’ to suicidal in a matter of minutes. It happens like that. Fast.

I hatched a quick plan and started to implement it. At a pivotal point, I had second thoughts. I actually thought about that depression blog entry and called the suicide hotline that I mentioned. They were really nice and talked me through the maelstrom. Afterward, I called my therapist and made an appointment for the next day, then followed up with my psychiatrist a few days later. During the time between the call and the psychiatrist, I felt constantly plagued by thoughts of suicide. Having suicidal thoughts is called suicidal ideation. (Suicidal ideation sounds like a band I would have liked in my twenties. Sadly, it’s not as fun as it sounds.) I felt like I was caught in some kind of loop. I thought of better plans. I settled on one that met all of my requirements, held it close and nurtured it. The morning of my psychiatric appointment, I dressed in the clothes I thought would work well for my best plan in case she had nothing to offer. I wanted to be ready.

I didn’t tell her that. I did tell her that I was having constant suicidal thoughts. She put me on an atypical antipsychotic called Vraylar. Honestly, so far, I don’t like it. She said it would give me lots of energy, but it makes me sleepy and lethargic. I’m having to drink a lot of caffeine to stay awake. It did, however, stop those destructive thoughts. It stopped them cold. Now, I feel embarrassed for having them, and I can see that it was all over something that shouldn’t have bothered me so much.

I apologize that this entry is even more pointless and self-indulgent than usual. I just thought, since I write about depression and bipolar disorder and have tried to be transparent and honest about my illness, I should admit to what happened with my self-care strategy. I’m hoping I can get off of this medicine soon and go back to trying to self-care my way to normalcy again. Despite this post’s title, I haven’t been writing much since everything blew up. My characters are bothering me to get back to it, and my cats have been trying to get me to go into the office where I do most of my writing. I’m trying to give myself some space, but characters and cats have little patience.

If you’re reading this and having suicidal thoughts, please seek help immediately. I know everything might seem clearer now than ever before and that suicide is the only way out, but I can promise you that pain is clouding your judgment. Please call one of these numbers:

 

Writing with Depression

women_with_gauze As I said in an earlier post, writer’s block and depression are different things. Depression isn’t fixed by a writing exercise, brainstorming, or reading books on the craft. If a writer had a heart attack and didn’t write the next day, we wouldn’t say he had writer’s block. If someone is clinically depressed and doesn’t write, he probably doesn’t have writer’s block either. Depression is a mental illness. That decreased ability to perform even simple tasks–let alone writing–is caused by a dysfunction in the frontal lobes. This article explains it.

Writer’s block can feel pretty bad, but it’s not an illness. It’s just a hurdle. It’s deeply frustrating, but it ends at some point. Depression claws its way inside you and lives there until you die. It might go into a sort of remission, like cancer or herpes, but it’s always there, lurking, waiting, gathering its power for the next attack. At least, that’s how it is for me. I’m bipolar. Unipolar depression might be different. I’m not a doctor, just a writer who struggles with this stuff. Medications work for some people. They don’t work for me.

I’ve been in a low grade depression for a few months. (I say low grade because, although I’ve had days where I didn’t get out of bed, I haven’t had any suicidal thoughts. So, this is a good depression.) I haven’t written much. Instead, I’ve focused on self-care. I set a few small goals in the morning and try to accomplish them. Walk five thousand steps. Shower. Do laundry. Walk another five thousand steps. The walking has been really good for me. I’m able to commune with my characters and ‘write’ while I walk. I sweat, which forces me to shower and change clothes. If you’re able to do some type of exercise when you’re in a depressive episode, I highly recommend it. It might just be my superstition, but I feel like that is what has kept the suicidal thoughts at bay. (Actually, that article I linked to above says exercise increases serotonin and dopamine in the brain, so maybe there is something to it.)

Although I do take breaks from writing, I try to push myself to write at least once a week when I’m depressed. It isn’t easy. I’ve noticed that when I’m depressed, I:

  • Make more typos

And some of them are really weird. I’ve understood homonyms since grade school and know the difference between too, to, and two, etc. When I’m depressed, I’ll find words like that switched around in my manuscript.

  • Have trouble finding words

A word is there–then just vanishes. Poof! Usually, I can jog my memory with Google searches and music. Sometimes I’ll ask my husband if he knows what word I’ve lost. Sometimes I simply find a different word that works well enough.

  • Take longer to write a scene than normal

Something that would ordinarily take me a couple of hours to write takes four

  • Have trouble answering questions

Although I construct a ‘rough sketch’ outline prior to writing scenes, I often run into places where I don’t know how something happened or why something is the way it is. It’s tougher to ferret out these answers when I’m depressed.

  • Feel pessimistic about the outcome

When I’m not depressed and in the midst of writing a book, there are spaces where I lose myself in the story. I forget that any other world exists. After I finish, I’ll often have misgivings and worry that readers won’t like it. When I’m depressed, I feel like no one will enjoy it even as I’m writing it. These kinds of thoughts crush creativity.

On the plus side, a depressive episode, by slowing down the writing process, gives me extra time with my characters. (This is mostly with a low grade episode. Deep episodes are a hell I don’t want to even discuss at the moment.) During this current episode, I ended up spending a lot of time with Frank. I would lie in bed and suddenly discover Frank with me. (This wasn’t an hallucination; my logical mind knew he wasn’t there. But…he was. That’s called writer crazy.) Anyway, he was usually quiet, but sometimes we would talk about his friends, his jobs, his lovers. I felt him more acutely than when I did his character worksheet. He entertained me, buoyed me, and we became friends. I usually bond with a character while I’m writing, but not this early in the book.

If you’re reading this and are depressed, please seek help—especially if you’re feeling suicidal. Some resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance

International Association for Suicide Prevention

 

Zen Alpha Audio Book!

So, I’ve been doing some other things besides wanting to strangle Facebook and WordPress for their horrible lack of support regarding GDPR. (They could really learn a thing or two from MailChimp, who provided tools and easy to follow instructions for their users. I LOVE MailChimp!) But I’ve actually been focused on more than just GDPR. I’m creating an audio book!

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Soon, my M/M contemporary romance Zen Alpha will be available as an audio book. I found a wonderful voice actor to narrate it, Hugh Bradley.

This is my first audio book, so I’m really excited! Working with Hugh has been fabulous. If you’re an author looking for someone to narrate your book, you should check him out. He not only has an attractive voice, he has a great sense of timing and seems very versatile.

Zen Alpha should be coming to Audible soon!