Immersion Therapy 2.0 ~ Nope. I didn't die beneath a stack of newspapers.

(I've been told I ought to reassure people of this, from time to time. Also, in preemptive defense of this post, I wrote much of it in Vancouver, enjoying the very real panic-lessening effects of legal cannabis.** Experience the honesty, my lovelies.)


Portland. Is. Huge.

Understand that I grew up in a town of 400 people, and though I've traveled here and there, most of my adventures (even down the 101) have kept me smartly on the outskirts of anyplace bigger than Boise.

I was the picture of every small town girl in those movies where she first stands alongside a tall building in astonishment. Mouth open. Hands slack. Clearly feeling more uneducated on life than ever before. My husband, who is very like me in being more accustomed to single lane highways and using the four-wheel drive to cut through the field so as not to disturb the cattle drive*, winced and said he felt like the car was barreling beneath spiral staircases. Our necks strained from watching in every direction, including up.

We'd come here, both of us out of our element, because the walls were closing in again. I'd attempted a fundraiser for a disabled kitten and the feral cat community around my mother's property. A great many other things were going awry as well, but at this point it's all such a jumble that the only thing that matters is this: The fundraiser failed. The kitten died. And my heart was broken.

As an avoidant, you struggle with the question of whether or not you can muster up the voice to whisper. Then with whether or not you're really capable of being heard.

I'd called.

No one heard me.

It hurt.

I imagined the times when others had called on me, and the times that my agoraphobia kept me from ever reaching back. And I gave in, as I often do, to the most powerful emotion of shame. Shame that I had again gotten to the point of severing my phone service so I was that much harder for anyone to contact. Shame that I'm forever burdened by an invisible backpack full of extreme emotions and runaway empathy that is often too heavy for me to carry alone. Shame that I hadn't seen my own dear, sweet, marvelous and beloved mother and stepfather - who live less than three miles away - in nearly two months.

They'd called.

I hadn't heard.

My withdrawal, I realized for the first time in perhaps ever, was HURTING people. Really and truly putting wounds of neglect in their hearts that I can never take back. I'd never thought I was substantial enough in the world to wound anything. Like the clay and steel pot tumbling down the river, I always imagine that I'm the one who breaks in every encounter. Because they are steel and I am clay. They are strong and real and fully functioning beings. And I'm the accidental, brittle version.

But what if sometimes the Steel Pot hurts, too?

It was then that my husband saw in my eyes the first realization - not so much that I might be important or even strong enough to have any kind of impact on my surroundings without breaking like the clay pot - but that i was denying these dear people an answer to their call. And that act, in itself, might be capable of wounding.

Something had to be done.

Something serious and real and big enough (for me) to shock me from my prison of silence.

Jenny Lawson, I'd read, was doing a signing in beautiful Portland.

The internet's best human.
(image via RainyDayBooks)
Jenny Lawson, for those of you who haven't heard, is one of the goddesses of the Internet. She is best well known in the corners of the web where odd people get together and hold each other up. She is flawlessly flawed in the most incredible way and in person has a radiant weirdness that makes you believe everything really is going to be okay. She's hilarious and earnest and you should buy every word she ever puts into print from here to eternity. But this post isn't about her, so I'll reformat all of this later to include her every link, and do the rest of my gushing on Goodreads, like a good reader. (Props for the parent humor?)

Anyway.

This post is about the man who drove me kicking and screaming (...or, sobbing and trembling) hundreds of miles. The man who walked me into the store and rubbed my feet next to the outdated programming books (fewest people) while I stared at my hands through the Xanax. The man who kept saying, "I'm right here. You can do this." The man who, for sixteen years has been holding me up with strong arms and sweet messages telling me I handled that last deep plummet into despair "like a boss."

 The man who held my coat while I stood in front of a famous person and did something I'd never done before.

I showed myself.

My trembling, broken, true self.

The tears. The story I'm sure she's heard a million times of how her everyday bravery makes her a warrior. How she'd almost certainly saved my life just by being her.

I'm pretty sure I also nervously chattered over the top of her every word. And I KNOW I left a puddle of sweat somewhere near the signing table. But that's not the point.

The point is that I had a breaking moment in recognizing how Every. Single. Person. who reaches out deserves to know that they've been heard.

Yes, little Braveheart the disabled kitten had died. But she had a warm, safe place to end her days. She had food and massages. She had a family that cared enough to reach out on her behalf. She went quietly. And she was buried with roses.

Maybe it was the universe's way of saying it was the reaching that mattered.


We made the decision to go to Portland, then and there.

A marvelous woman had made a huge impact in my life. She deserved to hear me say, "Thank you."

Somehow, with my partner by my side, I think I may have managed to say it. Honestly, the whole thing was such a blur that I only really remember one thing. I hope you'll indulge me long enough for me to tell you that story. The important one.

You may or may not know of SL-1. It was a nuclear facility in Idaho where things went horribly wrong in 1961. To put it as quickly and (hopefully) as respectfully as I can, the reactor went critical. People died. It took them ages to get near enough to even begin sweeping up the ashes. And all the while, the reactor burned deeper and deeper into the ground.

My husband and I have often lamented the huge gap in the English language where mental health is concerned. It's sometimes difficult to describe the more nebulous feelings without lapsing into metaphor. So I hope you'll understand me when i say that, as an agoraphobic, standing in a crowded store in a crowded city, it felt like my brain was spinning in the stratosphere, a hawk on caffeine with night-vision goggles. It's a well meaning and tiring-ly vigilant sort of primal high that I've felt many times before. Fight, flight, or freeze. Eyes down, I'm memorizing  exit paths and watching the patterns on people's faces. Every sense is turned to eleven. I'm staying small, but I could duck and run so fast you'll never know I was here.

But my heart?

My heart feels like the SL-1 reactor.

It shouldn't be approached.

It sears with things that are hard to see.

It hurts.

And OH MY GOD IT'S OPEN.

Hit the alarm and bury it beneath a mile of concrete as it burns deeper and deeper into the earth. Don't touch it. Keep away.

For sixteen years, one man has been fighting through the disaster zone, plucking my mind from the sky and my heart from the earth and stitching them back together in the gentlest way possible.

His is the story that matters.

The story of the caretaker. The story of the beloved people on the sidelines who willingly put themselves on the sharp edge of your spin and reach out. The ones who say, "Take my hand."

Maybe this doesn't make sense or mean anything to anyone but me. Maybe I'll look back on this tomorrow and realize that legal weed is really not my thing and admitting having tried it on a blog that only my mother reads was a really, really stupid idea. But i had a moment after standing in front of The Bloggess and speaking - it wasn't just the words, but the physical act of moving my face and making noise and being earnest with a stranger. Showing gratitude in a way that a shut-in like me doesn't often get the chance to show. I realized the power of "Thank you"out loud.

"Thank you" matters.

Reaching back matters.

So this is me saying thank you and reaching back to the people who keep me going. My beloved husband, most of all. And to everyone who might be holding someone together right now:

You are all amazing. We are clay pots trusting steel, and your pain matters to us as much as your strength.

I'll be reading all of this to my beloved in the morning. Out loud.

And I'll do the same for whoever else might need to hear it, should ever we meet. Because the connection matters more than I ever imagined before today.


See? Travel is good for you.

And there may be hope for me yet.








*I feel like that was a lot of hyphens. Were those correct? I don't have an editor. And remember I grew up in a town of 400 people. Where they taught it really wasn't important for us to count past potato, as we lived in Idaho (aka: "Where?").
**Good heavens, WHY is this illegal elsewhere?

Ode to a Squeaky Canal Pump

(Alt. title: The Very Certainly Pathetic Revenge of a Passive-Aggressive, Rhyming Insomniac)

Oh ye, canal, what lies below,
And pump, what lies therein;
Must you howl as though repaying
Me for some grand sin?

Did my dogs e'er leave a mark too crude?
Did my poultry tribe offend?
Did I wrong you in another life?
Will your wailing never end?

My window sits above, you know,
This ruckus echoes there.
It keeps me up! It truly sucks!
I'm pulling out my hair!

Nanny said be patient,
And mother said be kind.
But goodly thoughts are hard to keep
When going from one's mind.

I don't believe I ask too much
To spend my nights in peace.
I understand your work is tough,
But, canal pump, let me be!

For scream tomorrow in that ditch
- I'll teach you how to fly.
You've heard it said that life's a bi$@#,
But, canal pump, so am I!

*Update: The squeaky pump has been fixed! Blessed sleep! Thank you, kindly canal runner!*

Coming Home

"Roads go ever ever on,
Under cloud and under star.
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar."
                                ~ J. R. R. Tolkein

Schmaltzy? Maybe a bit. But if schmaltzy bothers you, you might want to take this opportunity to avert your eyes, close the tab, and forget you ever clicked on that link mysteriously favorited by Taye Diggs.*

This is a travel post. Ergo, according to the rules of the internet, it's riddled with schmaltz.

Consider yourself warned.


So we went out. We saw the world. And now we've returned home to familiar fences, a welcoming driveway, and a passel of wet and wiggling noses.

I'm not sure what to say about it all. It's a strange feeling, coming back to find the walls aren't nearly as close as they once seemed. For someone who's made it her business in life to avoid the world at large, being forced to face it day in and out, to acknowledge its splendor without turning away, to shake hands with woodworkers and make eye contact with sailors... it challenges your perspective.

Badass gunner, binding sails on The Hawaiian Chieftain.
To me, the world has always seemed a cruel place; a labyrinth of missteps, harsh stares, and sharp edges. I don't take chances because losing seems the most likely outcome. I don't go out on a limb because the ground is twenty feet below and I don't take in nearly enough calcium to survive the fall unscathed. But travel is powerful enough to show even me that boldness has a kinder side, too.

A side with banana slugs, redwood giants, and replica ships. A side that introduces you to badass gunners and warmhearted veterans working to give purpose to soldiers and underprivileged kids. A side that leaves you wandering the Nye Beach book district, where a retired astrologer reads your fortune and a sweet German shopkeeper insists that you "Take the Ishiguro" in exchange for your autographed work.

A side that makes you smile and feel a part of something that matters.

People need to go out on a limb for reasons great and small. To feel the sun. To stretch and lean and see things from every angle. To find the rare fruits and spy the silkiest threads.

Just as walking new paths leaves sand in your shoes, braving new adventures leaves sunlight in your soul. Will it last? Probably not.

But, as with bathing, there's a reason we repeat the process every so often, now isn't there?



“At the end of the day, it isn’t where I came from. Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and never have been before.” ~ Warsan Shire


*Totally never happened.

Immersion Therapy: (HWY) 101

Anyone who is a little bit broken can tell you that phobias have a way of bolstering themselves. Something scary crops up in your day and rather than confronting whatever it is, you kick up your feet like a frightened cottontail and bolt for the nearest briar patch. Once there, your jerkface brain REWARDS you with a big ole dose of feel-better fuzzies for having run away. Trigger. Run. Reward. Trigger. Run. Reward. Over and over until you’ve programmed yourself to feel that flight is always the better option, even when every rational ounce of you knows that it isn’t.

Take travel, for instance. Most wouldn’t consider travel as something to fear, but I’ve hippity-hopped from it nonetheless. Every year we plan a vacation – and every year I find a lame, totally invented, perfectly valid reason why we shouldn’t take it. 

 “Gosh, winter’s a terrible time for travel, isn’t it? Can’t we wait until summer?”

“But look at all these baby chicks I just brought home! You don’t want to leave them here alone, do you? Of course you don’t – because they would die and you’re not a heartless monster.”

“Vacationing in the heat of the summer, are you mad?”

My husband is either sweet enough or fond enough of chickens that these (not to belabor the point) perfectly valid reasons sway him more often than not, and our idea of venturing into the world at large is tabled for another year.

Reward.

Only… every rational ounce of me knows that it isn’t.

It’s gone on long enough that the excuses are no longer necessary. We still go through the motions, but we both know that the AvPD itinerary of NEVER GOING ANYWHERE EVER is going to win out in the end. And the longer this continues, the harder it is to fight. 

Year by year, my world shrinks. From a town… to a house… to a handful of rooms in which I feel safe. This poses a problem. You know, beyond the miserable isolation part. I couldn’t stop writing if I tried and, as you’ve probably heard it said, you can’t write about a world you’ve never experienced. 

Long story short…

I’m writing this from a hotel room on the coast. 

It’s been a hard few days on the road (Highway 101, to be specific) but my darling husband and his ever-faithful GSD are here too, having both given more than their fair share of emotional support through panic attacks, motion sickness, and at least one attempt (not intentional) to get us so thoroughly lost that we couldn’t continue. We’ve argued and I’ve hyperventilated. We’ve been sunburned, waylaid, and invaded by ants after an unlucky roadside bathroom break. 

We’ve also found sea glass and played cat and mouse with the waves. 

The world is full of experiences, it turns out. Some of them change you for the better, make you stronger. Some of them send you crabwalking away from an anthill mid-stream, swatting at your extremities like they’re on fire WHICH OF COURSE THEY ARE BECAUSE THEY’RE BEING BITTEN BY A BILLION ANTS. 

But you know what? 

It gave me something to write about, didn’t it? 

And I’m hoping that this will widen the boundaries of my briar patch. A little more hopeful than I was yesterday, in fact. Probably more an indication of delirium than of mental and emotional growth, huh?

Maybe it’s all this salty sea air.

Fortune Reads: Time heals all wounds. Keep your chin up.



The Truth: On Wattpad, Nim's Island, and "Quitting" my Job as an Independent Author

Shut-in.

Go ahead and say it aloud, if you like. Odds are not in the label's favor for having crossed your lips recently. Maybe it will appreciate the chance to be uttered outside of short stories, delivery service check-boxes, and obituaries about that crotchety old neighbor who was almost certainly eating cats behind his/her corduroy drapes.

I'll join you. Because, though I've made allusions to my particular brand of crazy in the past (through select interviews and guest posts), I've never actually said it, either.

I am a shut-in.

A stock character like a Feral Child or an Occult Detective, only without the hope of landing my own television series.

A: I look awful in a trench coat.
B: Were this me, you know I'd have set the tie on fire.

On the surface, it seems a simple enough thing to be. You don't socialize. You keep the curtains closed. And you pretend nothing is wrong. Predictably, I haven't been capable of working outside of my home in a very long time (we're talking over a decade) and letting my family members know I haven't had an aneurysm in the many weeks since they've heard word one from my sorry face is still on my to-do list.*

Truer words, mate.

I wish -- as fervently as the well-meaning writers of Nim's Island -- that the drawbacks ended there. But the primal fear that, by the end of this post, I'll be weeded from my office chair like a sucker branch from mankind's metaphoric tree says otherwise. No backsies on the "primal" part, either. My chest is tight, my fingers shaking. In writing this post, I feel I'm making myself vulnerable in a way that threatens the health of the other lion cubs and, ought I not just wander into those jackal-shaped bushes to get this over with and give the rest of the pack its strongest chance at survival? Not in so many words, of course. It's an animalistic urge from a portion of my brain that isn't entirely under my control. Still, in any given moment, the little jerk is crowing danger in my ear like a glitched RPG playing boss music over a tavern scene.

*SOBS* I'M TRYING!

(Strangely, neither lion cubs nor RPGs were included in the afore-mentioned film.**)

The damnable thing about agoraphobia is that it rarely stands on its own.
Mine comes courtesy of a rarely-discussed disease called Avoidant Personality Disorder (AvPD). Feel free to google it, though I can tell you now that the results are not flattering. Like Social Anxiety Disorder driven to its final form, AvPD is characterized by patterns of extreme social inhibition, a preoccupation with lifestyle stability and physical safety, intense feelings of inadequacy, a reduced ability to experience pleasure, and -- for added flavor -- a heavy comorbidity with the fickleness of a depression that can't decide between emotional emptiness or, for whatever reason (read: NO REASON AT ALL), abject anguish.
To describe it in more relatable terms, it's like being slightly autistic with an ever-growing edge of PTSD. You can't relate socially and your neverending list of triggers is only too likely to just keep growing as the years wear on. The American Psychiatric Association sadly admits that some mental health workers would prefer allowing a person with AvPD to develop an addiction to benzodiazepines rather than asking them to suffer the severity of their pychological distress. Articles about my disorder are replete with fatalistic phrases like "has difficulty connecting to others," "lasting treatment is often untenable," and "ultimately abandons even the idea of self." That last one is my favorite, as it is the most upright way of gesturing in the general direction of suicidality you're ever likely to read.

Discouraging, but accurate.

I'd like to point out that it's a weird thing to see yourself laid out like this; in cold, clinical terms that don't seem to have any bearing on reality. The spotlight seems forever focused on the rarest parts of your life: how you relate to people in the outside world; how you fare in situations of small talk; whether or not you employ suitable coping strategies at work. I don't think of my disease in the context of social structure because I so rarely participate in anything social. (Like trying to understand yourself as a Londoner but only ever having access to texts about Nairobi, it doesn't feel like a viable reference point.)


Here behind these four walls, I don't obssess over whether or not the grocery store clerk will react poorly to my weirdly-warm-but-still-inhibited personality -- the one that seems to leave a lot of people believing I'm masking disdain or otherwise acting disingenuous. 
Instead, I worry about whether or not my son can take the strain of failing grades because his mother can't always handle driving him the four miles to the bus stop. I don't scour the internet for how-tos on preventing blushing over coffee or wring my hands over the casual dismissal of the person who cut me off on the freeway. But I do contend daily with the meanest parts of my brain telling me that my husband will ignore for only so long my plainness, my ineffectiveness, before seeing my love as the burden it certainly must be. It feels as much for their sake as for my own (though I know that my feelings can't be trusted) that I've appropriately practiced the varied ways of keeping my illness hidden - with varying levels of success. 

"Hey, we haven't heard from you in a while, is everything alright?"

"Aren't you going to answer your phone?"



"You know, we don't have to go out if you aren't feeling up to it."

An unfortunate handful of people are completely "in" on the family secret. They always react the same way, at first.

"You have a phobia? I never would have guessed that about you."
"But you seem so together all the time!"

"How can that be? I've always thought you were happy enough."

It's very kind of them to make me feel adept at something, though.

I should explain that people with AvPD are VERY careful to only interract with you when they know they can keep their symptoms under control. That is, only in settings where they feel sheltered from shame, and only on "good" days when the hurt isn't too raw to be tucked away beneath a polite smile.

Inside, we're all doing this:

Pretty much ALL the time, too. Just in greater and lesser degrees.


A few months ago, I had a breakdown featuring this same, ugly cry face. In keeping with the modus operandi of an AvPD postergirl, I withdrew.
Completely and totally. The lovely people of Twitter, Facebook, and (most especially) Wattpad were left with no reason to believe I was still invested in otter pirates, quip exchanges, or working to maintain the small internet platform that (prior to now) I'd worked quite hard to build. Some of those amazing folks have sadly reached the point of apologizing for bothering me with their messages. A painful thought, as the connections I've made on these sites have kept me feeling worthwhile, even when my mind was at its worst, and writing has historically been one of the only ways in which I've really, truly been able to feel heard.

The best boundaries are always arbitrary.

Though I have a pattern of retreating from once-cherished activities the moment my brain labels them as tainted, recognizing the obstacles brought on by AvPD and understanding that the problem is one of chemistry and not of character has allowed me to maintain a fairly
normal relationship with the pitfalls of authorship. Bad reviews sting and criticism is ubiquitous, naturally, but these things are no more unkind to me than they are to other working writers. I've always found it quite easy to excuse negative evaluations of a creative work as being no more personal than a difference in taste or preference of style. So making things up and putting them on paper has been an untouchable refuge these thirty-five years, one that my disease hasn't had much chance of corrupting.

Enter the business end of indie authorship.


As everyone knows, that consists primarily of one thing: marketing yourself along with your work.

Asking someone with AvPD to willfully draw attention to themselves?
Yeah, that'll work out fine.

To avoid getting maudlin, I'll simply say the marketing has gotten... difficult.*** Enduring the spotlight is hard enough on its own, but when your brain frequently lies to you, you have a driving need to know that your efforts aren't wasted. Just as you wouldn't subject yourself to a dentist's drill if you didn't have any cavities that needed the work, my willingness to stand up and shout about the worthiness of my beloved creations is tied to whether or not the shouting produces results. Regrettably, my only gauge for measuring the effectiveness of a marketing attempt is through constant monitoring of income and sales rank. You might imagine that such a thing would be soul-suckingly horrid for a person with ZERO competitiveness, and you'd be right.


But that's what authors do, isn't it? Indie authors in particular. They compete. They vie. Not to say that the community isn't a supportive one -- it absolutely is -- but when the creating is over, there's work to do, and work must be quantified in hard figures or accolades. Following their lead, I assumed that in order to do what I love and not be bound by the impossible pressure of a publishing contract, I had to push my wares and check my sales.

Promotion day.
Promotion ends.
The following week, being dramatic.
Receiving royalties at the end of the month
and realizing you weren't being all that dramatic.

AvPD has one thing to say about hanging your life's work on the swing of a fickle pendulum:


"Better to give up," the little jerk says. "Pack it up. Pack it in. It was only a matter of time before they saw you for the fraud you are, anyway." Were telling stories just a means of making money, it would be only too easy to acquiesce to thoughts like these. But, as everyone I've ever known is quick to point out, even were I homeless I'd be dreaming up songs and scrawling ships on cardboard. So why did I ever allow it to become about the numbers?

I highlight Wattpad in the title of this post because that community has been instrumental in reminding me that a thousand downloads aren't nearly so rewarding as finding that one person who connects with what you're trying to say. The last thing I want from the increased visibility of the Sons of Masguard is to lose those readers in an algorithm that favors not what people are most likely to love but what they are most likely to buy.

All of these long and rambling words are my way of telling you I've come to a conclusion.

Rather than abandoning Secora as she stands, as my disease desperately wants me to do, I'm going to revitalize my love for the pen by excusing it from the rat race. Starting now, I'll be working toward making all of my ebooks completely free on every platform that I can. Those who feel the need to pay me for my work are welcome to buy the paperbacks, if they so desire. (Jerome Jacinto's artwork is certainly worth having in your home.) But I write because I must, not because you pay me to, and it's time that I remember that.

If I'm going to see McKinley and Marshall to the end of their adventures, as they deserve, then I'm going to have to do it on different terms than a traditional indie author.



Maybe others with similar afflictions have already settled on the same path. May it work for them as I hope it works for me. I won't ask that anyone recognize how difficult this level of confession is for my still-shaking fingers, but I do want the waiting people in my life and on those sites to know that:
  1. I am often lonely and very much wish I could reach out to you as you have to me.
  2. For me, panic is a way of life, one that will likely lead to future situations of withdrawal. Please allow me to apologize for those now.
  3. I haven't given up yet. And I don't intend to. 
  4. If, like me, you are burdened with a mental health issue that you fear exposing, maybe it's time to step out of the shadows and live your life on your own terms.

I hope to fare better than the rational predictions. I hope to see the world. Today, I'm settling for the other side of the front door and an honest telling of my current situation.

At least, I hope it was honest. As I said before, my emotions and interpretations are seldom to be trusted. In the end, I probably still tried to gloss it over, pretty it up, make it palatable. But my family has to see all of this in the flesh, on a daily basis. And, "author" or not, that's a hard reality to be putting into words.

*Does blogging about contacting someone count as contacting that someone? It totally counts, right?
**It's almost like they were TRYING to get it wrong.
***Scratch and claw to #1. Experience temporary elation before an algorithm shuffles your work to the bottom of the pile. Rinse. Repeat.