Posts Tagged: in my own words

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Sometime over the last month, I gave up on my second novel.

It hurt.

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Last night I didn’t go out for New Years. I had sort of plans, but I was exhausted, a feeling that’s often been my default for the last year, a feeling I still have even after being on break for two weeks. If 2013 was anything, it was my year to feel tapped out, frustrated, done.

It’s easy to minimize our own accomplishments in a year that brought so many of us to our knees. It’s easy to feel inadequate, or depressed, or even afraid of the year to come. Over the last couple of weeks, when I was finally given some time to slow down and process after the mad rush this year has been, I felt all of these things, sometimes all at once.

But when I look back at 2013 it’s not a dead loss. It’s the year I was given the opportunity to work with juvenile drug offenders and victims of sexual violence, fighters and survivors, people possessing incredible strength and resiliency in the face of extreme obstacles, trauma, deprivation. It is incredibly inspiring to work with people who are that resilient, and to come to understand my place in someone’s struggle: my abilities, my limitations. There were times it felt hopeless and I felt helpless, but I am grateful for that. I am grateful to be able to do this work, even when it feels like I’m failing. I am grateful to be able to try.

I am grateful I was able to write about my own experience with mental illness, and for the conversations that post started, and for what I learned about others close to me from sharing one of my best kept secrets. 

I’m glad I decided to return to writing my unconventional mystery novel after having to put my first unpublishable novel effectively in a drawer for the time being. It is beginning to come together in a way that makes me believe it will be finished one day, even if it never happens fast enough because that is the nature of writing and this business and this life.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to meet so many new people, wonderful people, and to deepen relationships with friends and family and the city I live in. I’m glad to be here, even when it’s hard. We are who we are when it’s hard.

I feel strange saying Happy New Year after a year like 2013, a year that was so unhappy and so hard for so many people. It doesn’t feel right, or like enough. I will say I hope this year brings you happiness, and laughter, and excitement, and love, and that when it’s sad there are people to catch you when you fall. Because if there was anything that I was most grateful for in 2013, it was that.

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I am mentally ill.

I blame October.

Should I start with my diagnosis? That’s what every insurance company in America would prefer: please give us the set of numbers we use to identify your pain and suffering. We will decide if it is valid enough to pay for your treatment, even though we have never met you and have no idea what you feel.

But I digress. Let me start with a story.

When I was 13 years old and in the 8th grade, October happened and I hit a brick wall. I will never know, exactly, what created this wall - Chemistry? Experience? Accumulated years of being the quiet good girl? Internalized anger? Genetics? The current general belief system in the psychology community is that mental illness exists somewhere between biology and what happens to us and around us. Basically: stuff inside us meets stuff outside of us and stuff happens.

In my case, the stuff was a sudden and major depression. Up until that point I had never seen a therapist, had never had behavior problems or mood issues. But within a week or so I was not sleeping or eating, and I was so sad I told my parents I wanted to die.

My parents did not want to hospitalize me. I was so desperate and so scared, though, that I asked to be hospitalized. I wanted someone to figure out what was going on inside of me and fix it, and my parents cared too much about me to do more than worry and love me. Having people who love you is an incredible asset when you are depressed, but it is not enough.

I was hospitalized for close to two weeks, which is not something we do anymore, by the way. Suicidal thoughts? Suicidal attempts? Overdoses? 72 hours. In and out in 3 days. Again, this is managed care. This is the mental health landscape we live in: we want to get you out rather than get you better.

I did get better. I was put on medication - an SSRI, a class of drugs they have since determined you should not give to teenagers, but they didn’t know that then - and saw a psychiatrist and went to groups and talked to people and realized I was not the only person on earth who felt this way. I met girls who had anorexia or addiction issues, a girl who slit her wrists to get herself out of juvie, girls who had been abused and assaulted. Part of me felt my mental breakdown was maybe not as serious as these girls with trauma histories. But part of me also figured out: I think I can make myself better.

I did make myself better. Other people helped, a lot. I went to intensive outpatient treatment for 3 weeks. I changed schools. Eventually I made new friends and I was okay. For awhile. And then, when I was in 10th grade, October hit. It hit me hard. I got hospitalized again. They kept me for less time, but still for more than 72 hours. Intensive outpatient. More medication, etcetera etcetera. The cycle repeats.

Come October of 11th grade, I fell apart again. I got a sinus infection that lasted several months. Too many AP classes. The pressure of college prep and my looming future. Trying to juggle academic stress and being the stage manager for the fall play. It’s October. The bottom dropped out.

But this time I didn’t get hospitalized. I went to therapy more often, and I dropped classes, and I gave up the fall play. I disappointed people. I disappointed myself. I came out okay at the end of it.

I won’t bore you with the details, but there were many other Octobers in the next 10 years that were not kind to me. In college, I dropped two classes and took a year off after a particularly disastrous October. I worked for nine months and transfered schools. Several years post-college I made the decision to apply to graduate school in October while feeling trapped in my hometown and a terrible relationship. It happened again. It happened again. It happened again.

You may have noticed it is currently October. I am a social work student working toward the end of my second Masters degree. I am in full-time placement at an agency that works with people with trauma histories. I have a job. I am taking classes. It’s intense.

I could chalk this October’s horrors up to the curse. Two weeks ago we discovered our cat was ill and had to put him down. I’ve had a sinus infection for 3 weeks. A number of my friends are struggling to get by, including my closest ones. It has been a sad time in my hometown (D.C.) and a sad time in this country and sometimes I think I don’t know when it will ever be less sad, when the cycle will stop.

But this October I am not depressed. I’m sad. I’m angry. I’m frustrated. I’m tired. Not depressed. Maybe it’s because I’m mildly medicated, or that I just understand this better now. I know the warning signs. I know how to say no, I can’t do that. I have too much on my plate. I am not a superhero. I am depressive. This is who I am, it’s part of me, it doesn’t have a cure. It has a treatment, one that is constantly changing and shifting depending on my life and my illness and me.

I know it’s not an October curse because it doesn’t just happen in October. It would be nice if depression was that considerate, if it confined itself to a single month, but it doesn’t. Some Octobers may suck. Some may not. Sometimes I will feel depressed or vulnerable to depression in months where nothing is outwardly wrong. That is the nature of the beast, if you will. It’s how it works.

I could spend a lot of time bemoaning this, but I spent far too much of my life thinking my depression was a thing that was wrong with me, and I’m done with that now. I don’t see my depressive tendencies as weakness anymore. I see them as motivating, as part of what made me want to be a social worker, as a lot of what made me a writer. Many of the biggest shifts I’ve made in my life have been because of my depressions, and those changes have been vitally important and almost always good. My depression is the thing that keeps me in check and in touch with myself, that makes me go, Oh, that doesn’t feel good. It helps me understand others who have experienced what I’ve experienced. Depression is not my weakness. It’s my superpower.

I know many people don’t feel this way. I also know many people don’t know this about me. And that’s why I wanted to write about it - because I think it’s important people know it is not something I keep secret because I’m ashamed. I’m not. I just wish we didn’t live in a world that teaches us we should be.

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Spoiler: It’s not because I’m a masochist.

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I read my first Leonard novel when I was in high school. I’m pretty sure it was Out of Sight, and I read it for a class I took on Film Noir - a class you only get to take at weirdo hippie private schools, and a class that probably shaped me as a writer more than any class I had taken before or since. Leonard was held up as an illustration of contemporary noir, read on the heels of masters like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and James Cain.

The thing is, Leonard’s books hold up. He may have written 45 of them, but that doesn’t make them any less potent. I often think one of the most incredible powers a novelist can have is the ability to make the right choices, to know what to leave in and what to leave out. Elmore Leonard was that guy. As he once famously wrote, “Try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip.” 

The man wrote dialogue like it was easy and obvious, and any writer knows it’s not either of these things. He could sum up a character for you in two lines. His descriptions were always tight and precise, just the details you needed to know. For example: Raylan Givens is a U.S. Marshall who is quick on the draw and wears a cowboy hat everywhere he goes. Leonard didn’t believe in lingering on or worshipping his characters. He trusted his reader to fill in the rest. He didn’t condescend and he didn’t judge his characters. He didn’t write for stupid people.

What Elmore Leonard seemed to do better than just about anyone, though, was move a story along. I’ve always been jealous of that skill, because pacing is often hard for me, a struggle (hopefully) resolved in revision. As much as he had no patience for stories that dragged, though, the story of his own career evolution depended on his own persistence. He wrote 25 books before one became a bestseller. Then he wrote 20 more. I think it’s pretty clear that for Elmore Leonard, writing was a job. Not an art, not a craft. It was a motherfucking job, and you did it until you were done. He once told an interviewer he’d write until the day he died. “A long time ago, I told myself, ‘You got to have fun doing this, or it’ll drive you nuts,’” he said.

Love that guy.

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Just posting this in rebloggable form in case anyone wants to like/reblog it. :)

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  • Question: you're writing your own fashion detective novel? may i ask what it's about?? :) - modernkids
  • Answer:

    Way late in answering this question but I am happy to do it - I was perhaps a bit facetious in calling my second novel a “fashion detective novel,” but it is, for sure, a detective novel that is highly stylized, and maybe that makes it sort of “fashion”? The protagonist is quite the dapper dresser as well.

    If I had to sum it up, I would say the book is the story of three murders, a disappearance, a first love, a failed love, and a whole lot of dangerous secrets. It is mostly about desire and agency. I wrote this somewhat hilarious summary several years ago when I first began thinking about how I would pitch it and even with expansions and revisions it’s pretty accurate:

    Who is Evan Hayden? It depends on who you ask.  In this unconventional mystery novel, six different narrators construct the life of this elusive Vegas casino hotel heir. Through the eyes of those who know (or think they know) him best, Evan emerges as a man of many faces: a lovesick schoolboy; a lonely girl’s best friend; the son of a crazy woman; his father’s criminal protégé – and, finally, a suspected murderer accused of killing his own wife.  

    But the only person who can tell the whole story is Evan himself, and so he does, in the final pages. As a man on the run, he’s trying to clear his name by unearthing long-kept secrets about his family’s tragic past. Evan may prove his innocence – but at the cost of his own life.

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Diversity: An Alternative/Supplementary Reading List - Google Drive

I should start out by saying that I am no expert on issues related to diversity. The desire to make this list emerged because I was so frustrated with the readings for my “Multiculturalism and Diversity” class as part of my social work program that I felt the need to seek out alternatives to the often dated, boring and irrelevant things we were assigned. This list is not comprehensive in any way – and I would argue it’s basically impossible to be comprehensive on such a huge, amorphous topic – but it does provide some options of articles and books to read that explore issues of diversity in ways that I’ve found to be particularly meaningful, interesting and thought-provoking.

I would love to get other people’s ideas for things to add to this list, which is why I’ve made it available as a Google document that can be edited by anyone who wants to contribute. This is just a beginning.

Another disclaimer: the categories I’ve used here to organize this list are problematic, because many of these articles and books touch on more than one of them. This is the nature of diversity: it is hard to talk about race without talking about class without talking about gender without talking about sexuality. The only reason I sub-divided at all is because I wanted to make this somewhat easier to read and allow people the opportunity to find resources about specific topics if they’re looking for them. Unsurprisingly, given the inherent complexity of these issues: this list got long.

Please make it longer!

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These last few weeks have been rough as far as the news cycle goes. The Farm Bill passed the House without food stamps. Down in Texas, they’ve managed to make abortion nearly inaccessible to women despite the fact that the Supreme Court gave women the right to choose 40 years ago. In the Senate, they’re debating whether to raise already high interest rates on student loans. And of course in Florida, George Zimmerman just got away with murdering a young black teenager because he believed him to be a threat because he was young and black.

These are all different and compelling and important stories, but they’re tied together by a common thread of injustice and prejudice, examples of how political wrangling often triumphs over the common good.

When I decided to go to school for social work two years ago, I didn’t do it out of some naive desire to save the world, whatever that means. I simply wanted to do what I had been doing - namely, working with kids who had a history of homelessness - better, working from a place of more knowledge and training and experience. But no amount of training can help when the government ties our hands this way: by taking away supplementary food assistance, by making it impossible for women to control their reproductive futures, by driving young people further into debt just because they seek to acquire skills and abilities and education, by sending the message that young minority males are dangerous just by virtue of their existence.

Over the last few years I have had clients scraping by on food stamps, worked with teenage mothers, tried to help kids from poor families get into college, and heard countless stories of the ways black and Latino boys are abused at the hands of the police.

I’m only just getting started, but I’m already furious. 

I wish I had some kind of magical solution to this systematic disenfranchisement, this persecution of the poor, this racist, misogynist, hateful bullshit dressed up as legislative necessity. All I have right now is this: if you’re angry, stay angry. It’s Bastille Day. It should be Bastille Day all year long, as far as I’m concerned. Push back. Push back until something or someone gives.