Category Archives: General

When Anxiety Becomes Outright Fear

Let me be the first to admit it — I lost my mind for a little while today. The anxiety I’ve been feeling all week has been weighing heavy on my mind and heart. It has been interfering with my ability to perform my job, a job that I love and enjoy and would hate to lose. The anxiety has been intruding on my sleep, causing me to wake up multiple times a night, tossing and turning and even, on occasion, feeling like I’m suffocating. It’s caused my mind to race with a thousand thoughts a once but prevented me from effectively focusing on any one of them. In short, anxiety has been making life hell this week.

So I was glad I had an appointment scheduled with my psychiatrist today. I wanted to talk to him about the increase in anxiety, the increase in sleep disturbances, and even the possibility (suggested to me over this past weekend by a former psych professor) that I might have Type II Bipolar. We made the decision to increase the dosages of a couple of my medications and to add an additional one to help with mental focus. And I left the office feeling optimistic and hopeful that these changes will start to make a difference quickly.

But I’m also currently without medical insurance, and one of my medication refills that’s critical to maintaining my sanity — Effexor (or rather, its generic, Venlafaxine) — turns out to be not so cheap without insurance to cover the bulk of the cost. I watched in horror as most of the money I’ve been saving away the last four week disappeared just on these medications I need to keep me mentally stable.

And that’s when the fear ripped through me. That knot of anxiety I’ve been living with all week exploded, erupted into uncontrolled anguish as every little worry and concern I’ve worked so hard this year to confront and face down came crashing back down on me like an anvil. I’ve been worried all week about maintaining this contract I’ve landed that I enjoy so much, so the fear that I might lose yet another job because my health is real. Plus, I have a car payment now, and I’d been planning to sock every spare dollar away to pay it off early and quickly. Instead, I got to watch as half the money I’d saved this last month disappeared in about three seconds.

All those feelings that I’ve been dealing with for the last 18 months hit me again. Hard. I felt like a failure. I felt like I can’t do this, that I’m never going to get ahead because every time I start to gain ground, I’m going to get knocked back again. I felt like I’m never going to get my life back, get a chance to really start it again, that I’m going to regress into a state of mind where nothing makes sense and everything is large and overwhelming and terrifying.

I had to take some time for myself.

So I drove to a local park and just sat in my car for an hour or so until I could calm down, slow my thoughts and my racing heart, and remind myself that things could be worse, much worse. This is a setback, yes, but it’s not the end of the world. And I’m still stronger and healthier than I was a year ago. I’m still fighting and clawing for every inch of forward progress I can get. And even if I do get knocked down a peg or two, so what? I pick myself up and start climbing again. There is no way but forward, and the only things behind me are the past and the lessons of life I’ve learned so well recently. There are still things I can do to improve my status and my situation, and I’m smart and clever. I have friends, family, and support. There’s no reason why, together, we can’t figure this thing out.

Yes, my anxiety turned into fear today, but it didn’t stay that way. I wouldn’t allow it. I’ve worked too damn hard to get where I am right now to let a little thing like this defeat me. And on top of all that, I know my God is still in control, still walks by my side, knows all my heartaches and troubles, and will not abandon me even now.

So here I go again, one foot in front of the other. There are things to be done and work to be completed. It’s just going to be a little harder than I expected, and that’s ok.

One day, one step, one breath.

Living with Anxiety

The thing about living with an anxiety disorder is that you never know when those cloying fingers of fear will wrap themselves around you and bring you to a debilitating halt. Sure, there are medications you can take to ease the symptoms and cognitive behavioral techniques you can employ to gain some measure of control. But even with those tools at your disposal, there are more than a few days when it’s still not enough, when those sneaky tendrils of anxiety, stress, and paranoia snake their way into your mind and body and wrap themselves tightly around you, holding you immobile and paralyzing you completely. You can take a self-care day, of course, focusing on resting and regaining the upper hand, but after taking a couple self-care days in a row, it’s easy to start feeling guilty about it because you know there are things around you that need to be done.

Like depression, anxiety, too, is a chronic liar. It tells you that everyone and everything is out to get you, that you’re constantly in danger. It takes everything in your willpower to fight against those lies, to push back against that fight-or-flight instinct, and to settle into a state of gentle repose instead. But it’s hard because that ball of fear stays lodged firmly in the pit of your stomach and, for me at least, my mind loses its ability to focus and my skin feels like it’s on fire with hypersensitivity.

Today is one of those days where it’s a fight and a struggle. Tears have been threatening to slip down my cheeks most of the afternoon already. One part of me wants to slip back into the safety of my bed, to sleep and to hide. Another part of me recognizes that won’t help nearly as much as I want it to and insists I stay put and fight. And so I write. I wield the only weapon currently at my disposal, the sword of words and the sharing of experience. I’m thankful for good friends I can talk to on days like this, friends who won’t judge and who will, in fact, do what they can to support me and prop me up when I can’t seem to do so myself.

This anxiety will pass. It always does. I rely on my mantra to remind me to breathe, and to keep breathing, in and out, as often as necessary, in order to make it from this moment to the next. I fall back on my faith, reminding myself that God walks with me and beside me, and that even if all my human friends were to turn away from me, He is still there for me. The key to all this is patience, a lesson I’ve learned all too well in the past 18 months and which I continue to learn and put into practice. I am a fighter, a warrior, and I wage battle inside myself, with myself, as often as necessary to bring my own body into submission, using whatever tools I have at hand. And I have put together quite the toolkit over the months, but I haven’t done it alone, and for that I am always grateful.

Life marches on. I insist on marching with it. Yes, I have mental illness, but I refuse to allow it to define me. Instead, I learn anew every day how to define myself, in spite of my illness — and perhaps even because of it — and how to keep moving forward. Because forward is the only acceptable direction. I’ve lived in the darkness before; I refuse to go back. The light is what I seek because that is where hope lives and life thrives.

One day, one step, one breath.

Postcard Micro-fiction

I’ve been a fan of Apex Magazine almost since the day of its inception. So when Jason Sizemore posted on his Facebook page recently that he had free Apex postcards, I immediately thought, Sweet! Free Apex stuff! and messaged him to make sure he had my current address. Then I promptly put it out of my mind.

Until the package showed up a few days later containing 30 beautiful postcards. I had two subsequent thoughts upon opening the package: 1) Wow, these are a really nice! and 2) Oh. Um, what the heck am I going to do with postcards?? I don’t even write letters anymore? The solution I came up with is both simple and apropos — write very short stories on each postcard and then mail them out to random people. Only I’d rather mail them out to people who request them and would enjoy a unique story experience.

You can read through the story archive here on my site and get a sense for the kind of fiction I write. If you’re interested in receiving a very short, handwritten story from me, the only thing you need to do is let me know. You can use my contact form to email me your address or, if you’re friends with me on Facebook, send me your address via Messenger. (Please don’t post your address in the comments in either place, as I’d like to protect personal information.)

I have 30 postcards in stock, 15 in two different layouts, so it’s first come, first serve. This gives me an opportunity to spread my writing around a little in a fun way while giving one of my favorite speculative fiction publishers a little more visibility. And please feel free to give this a signal boost to your friends and family who might enjoy this. I’d love to meet new readers.

Mental Wellness: It’s an Ongoing Process

The last four days have been some of the hardest I’ve experienced in quite some time. I’ve been mired in a state of depression that probably hasn’t been this severe since the early part of my recovery last summer. I’ve fought and struggled and despaired and clung onto anything that would help me keep my head above water. I’ve immersed myself in video games as a distraction and temporary escape. I’ve reached out to friends I’ve known would be understanding and sympathetic and supportive (and I thank all of you who’ve taken the time to give me some of your attention). I’ve raged inside my own mind, angry at the relapse, knowing the way I feel is stupid and ridiculous and irrational, but unable to shake free of it nonetheless. I’ve been afraid — terrified, if I’m truly honest — of an irreversible spiral back into darkness.

I say all this, not as an admission of defeat or failure, but as a reminder that the journey through and toward mental wellness continues to be a day-by-day process. There are going to be setbacks, relapses, dark valleys. And that’s ok. It’s fine to have those moments because they pass. They always pass. This is why I’ve spent so much time this past year building up a support network around myself. I have two or three very close friends I can go to anytime about anything and know they won’t judge me. There are at least a dozen others I can touch base with for casual chats, brief and uplifting moments of light, who I also know “get” it and, even if they don’t realize it, give me their support and encouragement just by granting me some small measure of their attention.

And I know, in clear and painful detail, what caused this latest bout of depression. Yes, part of it is the chemical instability that is a permanent part of my brain chemistry. But it is also the daily stress I have been under for the better part of the last month. It has been the constant disappointments and frustrations of living life, of encountering roadblock after roadblock after roadblock preventing me from getting to the place in my life where I really want to be. It’s the deep, deep loneliness I feel every day, missing my children (even when they drive me crazy), the inability to have much of a social life because I can’t afford one financially. (And isn’t that just a kicker right there, that, on some level, money is almost always required for socialization, even if it’s just for the fuel you need for your vehicle.)

I’m doing better today. The mental pall has lifted, and I feel more like me again. The stresses that afflict me continue to be there, but I’m in a better frame of mind to cope with them. And I’m continuing to try to lean on God and my faith to get through this seemingly never-ending waiting game. It’s an ongoing process, and I’ll keep going on.

One day at a time.
One step at a time.
One breath at a time.

Small Blessings

It’s Saturday morning, and my children are taking advantage of the cooler morning air to be outside, playing in the yard, blowing bubbles, creating chalk creations on the sidewalk. I was able to get a full night’s sleep last night, the first all week. My mood today is stable, even though the challenges I’m facing haven’t gone away. I’m finding my voice in written words again, something for which I’m always grateful.

I’ve been taking no small amount of inspiration from Mandy Harvey this week, the deaf singer who recently won a golden buzzer on America’s Got Talent. Here’s a young woman who has overcome severe adversity to follow her dream. It reminds me that there’s no reason I can’t do the same. I’ve always wanted to be a professional writer, to make my living crafting words. And really the only thing stopping me from doing that is me, if I’m perfectly honest with myself. Despite my circumstances, I’m still blessed with a place to live, and I have copious quantities of free time while I continue the frustrating process of seeking employment. I’ve simply squandered the time I have.

I’ve much to be grateful for today, and I need to start looking at my unemployment as a blessing rather than a curse, as an opportunity to pursue my dream. There’s really no reason I can’t make a living off my writing, and this does seem like a perfect opportunity to start doing that. Small blessings sometimes come disguised as great challenges.

Caught Between a Lull and Quiet Place

I’m sitting here right now, trying to decide what to do with myself. And I don’t mean just on an immediate, here-and-now, should I pick up a controller and play a game or write a story sort of way, though that’s certainly a part of it. I mostly mean it in the sense of what do I do with myself moving forward with my life? I find myself caught in this lull of a place where I’m unable to find work, much as I need and want it. I’m either overqualified for certain positions I’ve applied for or job postings change scope mid-stream so that my application is no longer relevant to the position or maybe I’m just interviewing badly. I don’t really know, but whatever the case is, landing a job has become this herculean task that has started to feel impossible. And it doesn’t help that my anxiety disorder, while much improved from what it was even just a couple of months ago, still limits and prohibits me from taking on work that is fast-paced and high-stress. I’m working on that, trying to retrain my brain to interpret those panicky fight-or-flight signals as excitement and enthusiasm rather than fear and trepidation. But it’s not easy, it’s a process, and it takes time.

I’ve been telling people recently that if there’s one single lesson I’ve learned above all others this past year, it’s patience. When I got out of the hospital last April 28th (yes, exactly one year ago today), I had the expectation that, for the most part, I’d be better and healthy again within six weeks. And guess what? Here I am a year later, much improved but still struggling in some areas. Yes, I do feel healthier and stronger as a person than I have in several years, in spite of the lingering anxiety. I’m more stable and more self-aware than I have been in years. But I’ve also had to learn that healing takes time, it requires patience because it can’t all happen at once, as much as one might want it to. It takes effort and discipline and consistency to change your lifestyle to accommodate the changes in your brain and body and overall physiology. There are new skills to be learned, new coping methods, new ways of thinking and behaving, new habits to form, all the while wrestling and struggling on a daily basis with the depression and anxiety that started this whole mess to begin with. And the medication that is available for treating these disorders is a God-send, but it can’t do it all. You have to do your part, too.

There are plenty of hard days as you work through things, but as you do you find those hard days occur less and less frequently, even if they never go away completely. But you learn how to do self-care, how to be patient with yourself and not blame yourself for regressing, because that’s what it feels like. Going backward. Teaching yourself a healthier form of self-talk is important, catching yourself when your thoughts turn negative and turning them around into something positive. Inserting reminders that your brain is lying to you, that you have worth and value, that people actually do love and care about you. And again, all that takes time to learn and turn into a habit.

And of course, life doesn’t just stop around you and wait for you to catch up. It keeps on traveling by all lickety-split, almost seeming to laugh at you as it does. You find yourself moseying along at what already feels like a break-neck pace but is more like a cripple hobbling along on crutches. You find yourself watching things happen that you want to be a part of — and just can’t right now. And you either have to learn to make your peace with that or give up altogether — and I don’t consider the latter to be an option.

So I find myself caught between a lull, where I can’t find work and have trouble sometimes finding ways to occupy my free time, and what feels like a never-ending quiet place, because it feels like nothing is ever going to change. I fight impatience on a daily basis, both to continue finding victory over my anxiety and with the frustrating process of finding an employer who will hire me. I also face discouragement and loneliness and criticism — and facing all those things down demands patience. I’ve been learning more and more over the last several months to lean on my faith and rely on my God, trusting that He has a plan for all this and that it’s part of His plan for me right now to be exactly here. It’s a difficult thing to accept most days, but it is what it is and there’s nothing for me to do but accept it and continue to be patient, to wait on His plan. His timing is perfect, his plan for me is flawless, and I just have to trust and hope and wait.

It’s a journey and a process, and I continue to take it one day at a time, one step at a time, and sometimes even one breath at a time.

Little Black Boxes

The refactoring of Ficlatte has begun. I don’t expect this to mean anything to any of you, not even the ones who frequent the site on a regular basis. The work I’m doing right now is 100% completely behind the scenes, hidden by the large curtains that lead to the cold and drafty back rooms of the castle. Let me just put it this way — if I do my job correctly, no one will notice that I’ve even done a thing.

And that’s as it should be. But despite the fact that no one will see the changes, they are necessary ones to make. Right now, it’s a fair comparison to say that all the code that runs Ficlatte, if it was poured into a large, black box, would look like a messy tangle of colored wires looping in and around each other, making snarls here and there, and generally just looking like an entire troop of monkeys got in there and started mucking around with things.

And it gets worse every time one of us on the development team adds a new feature or tweaks a little bit of code. We just keep adding new wires to the box that link existing things together in new and interesting ways and other wires that do new things they’ve never done before. Looking at it right now, for example, you’d probably see a bunch of blue wires in there. Those go to all the authors and users who come to the site. The white wires link to all the stories and interconnect a fair few of them together in long chains of storytelling logic. The green wires are the prompts, there to spark new and creative ideas. And the red wires — well, those are the dangerous ones. You don’t want to go playing with those. No, sir. They lead to the challenges, where some of the heaviest lifting gets done. And somewhere in that tangled mess are these little copper wires. They looks haphazard and random, but they’re really not. They connect some of the most important bits of logic together that keep the site running smoothly. Pull any one of them, and the whole thing comes to a screeching halt. Probably with flames. And smoke.

All that to say, someone has to sort this mess out. The more things we add, the worse the mess gets and the harder it is to maintain. So I’m working on a little project called refactoring, where I take this large, black box of tangled wires and carefully pull it apart — without breaking anything, mind you — and tear it down into several smaller black boxes that are all connected together. The blue wires go into their own box, and I write something like ‘Authors’ or ‘Profiles’ in white Sharpie on the lid. The white wires go into a different box, which gets its own appropriate label. The same goes for the green wires and the red wires. And when I’m all done I should have a separate box for each modular function where the wires inside are all neatly patched together and organized and easy to see where they go and what they do. The copper wires stay in the central box, of course. That’s the beating heart of the whole thing. And all these newer, smaller boxes have new wires that lead back to the primary box, as well, because everything still has to be able to talk to each other. But what that leaves me with is a system that’s clean, neat, and tidy, easier to maintain if something does break, and even easier to add on to as we develop new features for the site.

Fortunately, it’s not overly difficult work. It’s just a matter of doing it, and as I said earlier, I’ve already started on it. In a day or two, the whole refactoring process will be complete and no one but myself and the other two developers on the team will even know I’ve been in here working. But I’m excited about it, because we have some really neat new things planned for Ficlatte, and this refactoring process is going to make it so much easier to implement those features. Some of them are even done already; they just haven’t quite made it down the pipe to the site yet. (And frankly they’re part of the reason why this whole refactoring is even necessary in the first place; we kinda made a little bit of a mess back in these cold, drafty rooms, so now we have to clean up after ourselves a little).

Stay tuned, folks. I love the work we’ve done already for Ficlatte, and I’m excited about what else we have planned. And if you haven’t checked out Ficlatte yet, this is a great time to do so. It looks a little drab and grey around the castle yet, but the interior decorators have already been hard at work to give the place a little more color, I assure you. And it’s a great place to meet some great folks who love words and for you to practice your use of words, as well.

Ficlatte, Code, and Making Use of All This Free Time

For the last three or four weeks, I’ve been coding away feverishly. This, by itself, is notable. I haven’t had the energy or the mental focus to work on any project like this for so long in a very long time. It’s been exciting and fulfilling to finally feel like I’ve reconnected with a part of myself that’s been missing for so long. I’ve also been doing some writing again, micro-fiction of course, but I’ve done more writing since the first of the year than I think I’ve done in the last couple of years combined. And it’s the writing that’s led directly into the coding.

Back in the days when Ficly was still in business, I’d wanted to help contribute to that site’s code base. The site’s owner was the original developer of Ficlets, which was, in turn, owned by AOL. And when AOL effectively all but went the way of the dodo, Kevin migrated Ficlets into the daughter site Ficly. I wasn’t fortunate enough to learn about Ficlets until far too late, but I was an active member of Ficly for a number of years. I wrote quite a few stories during my tenure there, including some really fun collaborative series with a couple of other users.

Active development and maintenance of the site was slim, unfortunately, and for good reason. Kevin had a job, family, and other life responsibilities, and I think Ficly ultimately got relegated to a hobby project and a labor of love for him over time. As a result the code base became somewhat stagnant and outdated, as the Ruby on Rails framework it was built on moved forward and left our little realm of micro-fiction behind. I’d offered at one point to help contribute to the site’s development, knowing I’d have to learn Rails in order to do so. But I ran into technical difficulties setting up a development environment at home, due in no small part to the fact that several of the packages that powered Ficly no longer existed. So the result was that Kevin opted to shutter the site rather than bringing the code up to spec, which would involve basically rebuilding the site from the ground up.

And so we as a community were forced to move on.

There were several of us from that community who made attempts to work up replacements. The one that got off the ground fastest and most completely was Ficlatte. A handful of us from the Ficly community migrated there, but since its inception, Ficlatte has been more of a shell of Ficly. It’s had the basic tools to write stories and interact marginally with other users, but many of the key features that Ficly a community have been missing.

Until recently.

I haven’t particularly enjoyed being unemployed for the better part of a year, but one of the advantages I’ve discovered is that right now I have the opportunity to add to my knowledge and programming skillset. Ficlatte is built on Python and Django. Both are frameworks that would be useful for me to be familiar with, and so a few weeks ago I offered to contribute to Ficlatte’s development and thereby enhance my own skillset.

I’ve plunged in with both feet. Writing code these last three or four weeks has become almost a kind of addiction for me. It’s filled almost all of my free time, supplanting even most of the other hobbies I’ve engaged in the last few months to deal with my anxiety. I’ve always found it thrilling to put together strings of code and watch them come together to do something useful and practical.

I’ve come to love this little community of micro-authors, so it gives me great pleasure to be able to add to the site in this way while developing some new skills that make me more marketable as I search for work.

As always, if you like to write — or think you might like to write — I highly encourage you to visit Ficlatte and check out our little community. All the stories are short, so there’s no pressure to jump straight into writing long fiction. And we now have a development team actively working on new features, so the site is about to change for the better in the coming days.

Pieces of Me

I broke,
Shattered into a thousand little pieces.
And the world broke with me,
And around me.
Or at least so it seemed.
I remained broken for a time,
Fragments of myself lying all about,
The quiet after a great trauma.
But after a time,
And little by little,
I began to gather myself,
Scooping up the shards,
The pieces of me,
And I gathered them into a pile.
With time, and help,
I began to fit them back together,
Piece by little piece.
And in so doing,
I learned something new.
It has taken time,
And courage,
And not a little pain.
But after a while,
I came to a realization,
An understanding, of sorts.
Those pieces,
The pieces of me,
They fit together a little differently
Than they did before.
They had taken on new shapes,
New dimensions,
And some pieces, even,
Were no longer needed at all.
It has taken weeks,
Months, even,
And I’m still working on it,
But I am mostly whole again,
Mostly complete.
But I am not the same.
I look a little different now.
I have a new shape,
A new definition of self.
But I guess that only makes sense
For someone who was as broken as I.
You might not recognize me now.
You might not know me.
In fact, it’s likely.
But I know myself,
Better than I did before,
Because I have picked up
The pieces of myself,
Those jagged little shards.
I have examined each one of them,
Cut myself on them,
And learned where they go.
I have fit each one into place.
No, I do not look entirely the same,
And parts of me are still broken,
Remain to be reassembled.
But I am me,
For perhaps the first time in years.
The cracks are still there,
The gaps still showing,
Scars of my breaking
That may not ever completely go away.
But for all that
I am more whole than ever,
More complete,
And I am stronger than I have ever been.

Year in Review

It’s difficult to know just how to summarize this year, to put it into perspective. 2016 has been a universally bad year for everyone, from the number of celebrity deaths to the fiasco that has been the US election cycle to the myriads of personal trials that so many people have experienced these last twelve months.

For me, 2016 has been the single most difficult year of my life. The fight with my own mental health has reached new levels of hardship, uncovered previously hidden layers of anxiety, and spun my entire life into wildly unexpected directions. During this year I’ve lost my marriage, my home, my job, and my security. I’ve had to wade through some truly deep waters, at many times floundering as my feet have been swept out from under me, nearly drowning in the waves of turmoil I’ve faced.

But I’ve survived it all, even when I was certain I wouldn’t, and couldn’t. I’ve learned more about myself this year, become more self-aware, than I have been in years. I’ve been forced to face my shortcomings and mistakes and deal headlong with illnesses whose severity that before I’d only guessed at. But through it all, I have prevailed, partly due to a rediscovery of a faith in and reliance upon God and partly because I’ve made an effort to surround myself with people who are both supportive and sympathetic. 

There’s still a long road ahead of me, but 2017 is a new year. I’m looking at it as a fresh start. There’s so much that needs to be done, but I’m finally starting to feel like I’m up to the challenge. I’ve gone through several medication adjustments this past year, and I feel like they’re finally starting to make a difference in terms of my ability to focus for extended periods of time and to think more clearly overall. I feel stronger as a person, a survivor, if you will. 2016 was hard, and I’m under no illusions that 2017 will be easy, but I firmly believe that the work ahead of me is work I can do. 

I have good people beside me, encouragers, listeners, and cheerleaders. And I’m grateful to each and every one of you. You all have helped get me through the dark times, and I know I can count on you to see me through the difficult times ahead. 

2017 is going to be my year, and for the first time in a very long time, I’m genuinely excited and hopeful about the prospects before me. I still don’t know the answers the most of the questions I have, but I’m certain God will provide, and I’m eager to see where He leads me this coming year. I’m certain it’s not where I’d originally planned to go, and that, my friends, is a very, very good thing.