|Been yellow or orange for a while now.
Dipped into red this week.
I'm going to Texas in a few days. And I've been euphemistically saying "It's probably the last visit with my mom where I won't be putting affairs in order." That phrasing has been very carefully, very deliberately preventing me from saying what is a lot more accurate: "I'm going to say goodbye." But my therapist unzipped me last week, pointing this out, along with tallying up what a year it's been. Pregnancies. Miscarriages. Health issues. Cancer. Surgery. Recovery. Major life break ups. PTSD. Long term mental health challenges. Covid-concern estrangement from a significant chunk of my chosen family. My mom's terminal illness and final stages of COPD. And that's without even counting the stressors I've willingly taken on like moving in with Rhapsody and suddenly living with the dynamic duo of Treble and Clef.
For the most part, my anxiety has improved since cancer/surgery. I have more days I feel okay. I can get to okay more of the time by focusing on my breathing or feeling my feet against the floor. I'm sleeping better, more often through the night, and less often with some kind of sleep aid. I'm writing a little more every week.
I'm doing better.
But I'm far from all better.
What I've found is that when life is challenging me, it goes out the window pretty quickly. I'm in a narrow window of tolerance (if that's a reference that you understand), and I get activated easily (or disassociate, but lately it's usually been activation). A doctor's appointment at the oncologist can still send me spinning for hours. The thought of losing 25 minutes of a carpool with someone throws me into scarcity panic and feelings of loss and abandonment. I wake up from anxiety dreams a in a panic that my partners are moving on because I've lost my glitter, and I can't find my way back to sleep for hours. I'm fine—just BARELY fine—until any challenge hits.
Going to say goodbye to my mom turns out to be JUST such a challenge.
Last week was…very difficult. I was struggling most days and feeling in crisis for a couple. I was in a difficult place with how my anxiety was affecting my personal relationships, and at one point I even had a bad enough intrusive thought that I made sure I wasn't alone.
Writing has become one of the hardest things for me to do. Maybe not as hard as admitting I have a real problem with anxiety after surgery but…oh sorry you were probably hoping for a joke here. It's not as hard as stoichiometry. Yeah, that's it. Stoichiometry.
I still love it. It's still an emotional outlet and catharsis and some kind of (shattered but hopefully re-assemblable) career. But keeping my mind from buzzing with some kind of anxious thought for long enough to focus on the writing has been Herculean. And getting up the motivation every day has been Sisyphean. And opening up my heart has been Pandorian. My attempts at metaphor fall well short of being Orphic.
And it's all Greek to me.
Some days—and I still write every day just like I advise everyone else to—I am doing little more than a half an hour stolen between visits to stores and picking up kids from school. Or I'm doing an emotional splat on my private Facebook page instead of working on an article or my fiction.
Not every mental health challenge is surmountable—certainly not with naught but a GED and a give-em-hell attitude—and I'm not here to be the ableist fucknoodle with a leaf blower (that shoots rainbows and glitter) blasting up your skirt by claiming that you have to just keep writing no matter what happens or you're not really a writer. That's a bunch of fucking bullshit.
You're a writer if you write. That's it. End of line. (The kid watched Tron so my dated pop culture references are going to be even MORE dated for a bit.)
I mean….I don't know how that career so many seem to yearn for is going to look like taking months-long breaks (mine is pretty much in tatters), and I can tell you for sure that in order to get your novel published, you're going to have to sit down and WRITE IT. There's a lot to be said for treating writing like a job if you want it to be a job, and understanding that weekend warrior effort will probably never get you career caliber results.
But I also know that writing has very few external motivators. It's pretty much you telling yourself to get to work…day after day, and that is really fucking HARD when everything feels like it's going off the rails and you can't concentrate on anything that isn't six-inches-up-your-ass urgent. Anxiety and depression—whether chronic or situational—have a way of making things that used to bring you joy bring you a lot less joy. And there's not a lot of money, fame, or glamour in writing (despite how glamorous and ritzy we definitely appear to be from the….sorry I couldn't even finish that without laughing), so if you're not getting your dopamine fix, you're down to sheer willpower.
My best suggestion is to push yourself to do absolutely as much as you possibly can and then be unswervingly compassionate with yourself for how far you fall short. If that's five minutes or ten, give yourself some grace for having written at all. If that's not your work in progress, be gentle with yourself. But try to do something. You want the habit to be there when you start feeling better. You want to know right away when the muse starts coming back. And you want the skills to have atrophied as little as possible.
This is like brushing your teeth. Your mental hygiene can absolutely decay to the point that brushing your teeth gets neglected, and I'm not here to say pollyanna shit like "Just do it." But the more it's "habit" instead of "chore" the longer you will be able to hang on during the rough times. And if you can't do thirty seconds in each quadrant with swirling strokes, you at least give them a good swipe. So that the habit is still there when you start feeling better. So that at least you've done something.
Push yourself. Be gentle with your limits. Over and over. Don't give up. Don't punish yourself. That's how you get through and come out the other end still writing. Still a writer.
I wrote the second half of this post from Texas on the second day of my trip. My mom is a little better than I thought. The world seems not QUITE so bleak, and the writing bug returned. Fortunately for me all the tools were right where I left them because I had kept writing even during the bleakest, hardest moments.
You can do it. Because all "it" is…is as much as you can do.