How I’m managing my mental illness during Covid 19

The call came in.

Him: “How’s your day going?”

Me: “Fine.”

Him: “Everything good?”

Me: “What’s going on?”

Him: “We’ve just been told we’ll be working from home.”

Me: “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. (Deep breath.) Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.”

Of course I want my family to be safe. Of course I know I’m lucky to have an amazing spouse who has a job he can do from home. But I also have bipolar and am a recovering agoraphobe. Him coming home to work meant more than just a whole lot of togetherness. It meant

(1) this is serious (read: time to freak out!)

(2) I will have zero time alone, which I need a lot of, and

(3) it meant not leaving the house.

On number three, we’re all doing it. Also on number three, it is part of my treatment plan to leave the house and be around other people if not daily then at least 3-4 times a week. Daily rarely happens. But the longer I go without leaving the house, the more anxiety-provoking and panic attack-inducing it becomes.

So far, because we are not under shelter-in-place where I am, I’ve left the house more days than not, usually to go for a drive, sometimes to pick up take away. This seems to be doing the trick since I don’t fear going out any more now than when this started. (Going into places is, understandably I think, a different issue.)

From the get-go we’ve been placing bets on when (not if) the stress will trigger a bipolar episode. When this first started there was a lot of talk on social media about how much writing we could get done, how this was the perfect time to get in shape, how now we could finally finish all those projects.

Okay, y’all can fuck right off with that bullshit. What I don’t need right now is more pressure. There’s enough stress with all the uncertainty, sickness, and death. My word count counts for jack shit right now.

But still, I do have ongoing projects. And still, I do want to keep my brain busy enough not to spiral out of control. That balance is tough for me under regular circumstances, so it’s been tricky. I’m driven to do both more and less at the same time.

There’s no way to avoid stress right now, only to minimize it. Here’s how I’ve been doing that:

  • maintaining a soft daily routine
  • limiting exposure to the news
  • knowing when I’ve had enough social media
  • going outside every few hours, usually to play fetch with the dog (which, because she’s bad at it, counts as exercise)
  • trying to keep a good sense of humor and stay flexible when things don’t go according to plan
  • remembering that I am smart and resourceful
  • watching a shit ton of movies (or doing whatever is going to take my mind off things)

Turns out, if you’ve ever had to manage mental illness, every one of those coping mechanisms will already be familiar. The only thing that’s new is that now a whole lot more people can benefit from them.

Of course that’s not all I’m doing to keep my head on straight. Here are a few more that are somewhat more targeted for those of us with DSM diagnoses:

  • being open with my loved ones about how I’m doing
  • maintaining communication channels with my therapist and psychiatrist
  • accepting my limitations
  • taking my medications and not taking anything that will interfere with them
  • being aware of and diverting from irrational and excessively negative thoughts

No one knows how bad things are going to get or how long this is going to last. That’s not catastrophic thinking, that’s just how it is. The most important thing we can do right now is take care of ourselves. As harsh as it may sound, it’s the least we can do to avoid putting more strain on the already over-burdened medical infrastructure. And in the best of circumstances, if we take good care of ourselves, we can help take care of others.

Do you have other coping skills that you’re finding super helpful right now? I’d love to hear about them.

690px-Anxiety_Denoument

By Mccxlvv, CC BY-SA 4.0

On How I Continue to Absolutely CRUSH S. T. Cartledge in the Survivor Winners at War Pool

By eating crow, that’s how.

Two weeks ago I said I would stand against points earned from Edge of Extinction until hell froze over or until it served me to change my mind. This is the week it serves me to change my mind.

While I scored one point from Adam, who hung on to his life in the game by his fingertips, I scored two from EoE players: Amber for narrating the first quarter of the episode and Ethan for nearly passing out while going up and down that mountain for firewood 20 times. But he persevered, medics were called, he talked about surviving cancer and wanting to be an inspiration to people, the women rallied around him for the final ascent, and that’s how good TV is made. And how I get my third point for the week.

My beloved curmudgeon Tyson was sadly voted out, but hope is not lost and points can still be gained when Edge of Extinction is in play.

At this point, Mr. Cartledge has 1 point to my 5. It’s getting a little embarrassing. I’d throw him a bone if I could, but choices were made and the unfolding of events is out of our hands. He’s just lucky that Natalie is going to come swooping back in, kick everyone’s ass, and win it all.  And that might—just might—give him a chance against me.

Installing Dog Doors to Outer Space

Dog Doors CoverThe idea for a collection of bizarro writing prompts really took hold of me in October of 2018, while I was on a family vacation. We’ve all been there, scrawling out the first draft of a proposal on the cold bathroom tile of a mid-rate hotel because it’s 2:00 in the morning and we don’t want to wake the sleeping spouse and child. And from those meager beginnings, a year and a half later here we are, getting ready for release. That’s not a bad pace in the world of small presses.

What makes Dog Doors one-of-a-kind is its TOC. At first I was relieved when almost every one I invited to submit agreed to. Then with the open call, the radness just kept coming both in the form of authors with whom I was familiar and a few delightful surprises. In the end, my original plan for 12 contributors expanded to 15, each one bringing something unique and valuable to the collection.

Of course, it isn’t the TOC but the actual content that really makes is special. So many of the ideas are balls out weird. What? Really? Did they just do that? Some are in-your-face crazy and some are sleepers. Each has the potential to spark dozens of different ideas in thousands of people. With 99 prompts, that makes the idea potential in the quadrillion bobillions. (Pushes glasses up nose.)

This was my first experience acting as editor of a collection, and there were a few things that surprised me about the process.

  1. As I’ve intimated, the quality of the submissions.
  2. The varying levels of complexity among the entries.
  3. How professional and enthusiastic everyone was. (I might be a cliché—what? A writer with social anxiety?—but this project meant putting myself out there in a whole new way. I was relieved to find my fears were unfounded.)
  4. The voice thing.

And by that I mean, when I first had this idea I figured bizarro writers especially would come up with prompts really unique to them. Bizarro encourages individualization like perhaps no other genre. And it was as I hoped, each entry is a tiny, well honed example of the voice of the author who submitted it. If you’re familiar with their work, you could cut the entries into strips, pull them anonymously from a bowl, and be able to say, “This is David Barbee” or “This is Katy Quinn.” The prompt may only be 15 words, but no one else would have come up with that idea or put those words in that order.

To give some thanks, as you can tell I am enormously grateful to the contributors, of whom Bradley Sands and Sam Richard have been especially supportive (or unknowingly said the right thing at the right time), and also to Ira Rat of Filthy Loot, who didn’t hesitate whatsoever when I approached him with the idea, who has been nothing but patient and helpful, and with whom I wouldn’t hesitate to work again.

I created Dog Doors because I wanted a collection of bizarro writing prompts on my shelf—something that would be a crazy, over-the-top, outlandish good time; that would never fail to inspire, to set pen flying across paper—and I couldn’t be more pleased with the result.

I hope you like it too.

Click here to see the full list of contributors as well as some example prompts, and to learn how to order.

Indie Lit Survivor S40 Pool is Lit Indeed

How does it feel to have double Shane’s point (no typo)? Just fine I tell ya, and thanks for asking.

This week in e2 of Winners and War, Natalie (Team Shane) and Adam (Team Amy) both claimed enough screen time (5+ confessionals) to garner us each a point. Is it fair that Natalie was voted out last week but she’s still earning points from beyond the grave? No, it isn’t, and I will double down on this until the day one of my players earns me a point from Edge of Extinction.

More importantly: (1) Is there really an epic war brewing between Rob and Sandra? Could the producers hide their boners and lady boners at the thought of it?

(2) Ben’s lovable doofus nature was on full display this week. Is he as naïve as he appears? All I know is, I want to see lots more of Ben.

(3) Danni freaked out early and let paranoia take hold. But isn’t part of the failure of the Old Folks’ Home alliance Parvati’s? Just a few words of reassurance over the course of a couple days, eye contact even, and Parvati would have kept her numbers. Oh well, c’est la vie.

(4) The whole dumping the bags things at tribal was watch-from-behind-my-hands embarrassing. Rob should know better than to whip out a command like that. That people followed it only demonstrates to those same people how much power he has. He learned nothing and showed his hand. I know a lot of people appreciate his aggressive, take-control style, but I find it wildly overbearing.

(5) And finally, from e1 rather than e2, but IMO the best thing s40 gave us this week, is this exchange between some unsuspecting Twitter user and my state-mate, Tyson.

Screenshot_20200220-221613

 

How am I kicking S.T. Cartledge’s ass in our Survivor pool?

Narrowly, very narrowly.

Ok, to start with, here are the rules. We did a school yard pick of all the Season 40 Winners at War castaways, and points will be assigned as follows.

Winner – 10 points

Second place – 3 points

Third place – 2 points

5+ confessionals in one episode – 1 point

First boot – minus 3 points

So, where do we stand after the first extended episode with its double elimination?

One of my picks, Sandra (who, yes, I got by default, but now that she’s mine, I’ll cheer her to her final, conniving breath), had 5 confessionals. So that is +1 for me.

Three of Shane’s picks—Tony, Parvati, and Natalie—had 5 or more confessionals, giving him +3.

But hold on, because Natalie also got FIRST BOOT, which is a -3 and negates all those confessionals, leaving the final tally at ME: +1 and SHANE: 0.

Of course, Natalie could come back from Edge of Extinction and win the whole thing. Anybody could, for that matter. The important thing is living in the moment, in this moment right now, where I’m winning.

The Shelter has Found a Home

By Krolk

Relief of Diogenes with lamp and dog. Rathaus (Bern), Wikimedia Commons

I’ve recently signed a contract with Cabal Books to publish The Shelter, my Diogenes and the homeless dog-people revolution book!

Sometimes writers are asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” And often the answer is, “I have no idea,” or “In the furthest recesses of my anal column.” But in this case, I know exactly where I got the idea for this book.

There are three strands to this braid. The first strand, Diogenes, goes way back to the Bad Religion song “Get Off” on Against the Grain.

“Lascivious,” the song starts out, “It’s all that I can think of as I drag my feet searching like Diogenes.”

I would have been a senior in high school the first time I heard that song. Of course I wanted to know who Diogenes was, but without the internet (because this was 1990), or a decent library (bless the Sierra Vista library system, they do their best), all I could discover was that he was a crazy old philosopher who gave away all his possessions and lived in a barrel in the marketplace.

Which made him, of course, a perfect symbol for punk rock, with its anti-materialism, pro-individualism, anti-government stance.

And I was nothing if not punk rock when I was 17. Other bands—Minor Threat and Fugazi; Subhumans and Citizen Fish; NoMeansNo—drove home these ideas, planting them firmly in the fresh dirt of my adolescent mind, where some of them flourish to this day.

Later, I studied philosophy and even taught it at Cochise College for five years. But Diogenes is a blip in the history of philosophy when you’re doing a survey course. I always thought, some other time, when I have the time, I’ll research the crap out of Diogenes. That time was 2018.

And during that research I kept asking myself, “What if Diogenes was alive today? How would he live? Would anyone listen to him, or would he just be ignored or even institutionalized?”

The second strand came about because while I was researching Diogenes, I was rehabilitating a highly anxious shelter dog for the second time (different dogs). I had recently read quite a bit about breeds and dog socialization. And we—my dog, Penelope Facehumper, and I—were taking classes from top notch trainers who certify therapy, emotional support, and service dogs. I was steeped in dog culture, and often covered in drool.

The third and final major thread in this story-making story is homelessness. For a long time I was hobophobic, afraid to make eye contact with the homeless, afraid they were crazy or violent, afraid they’d see my guilt for being privileged. Then, in the mid-’00s, I found myself teaching yoga at a day center for the seriously mentally ill. Not everyone there was a homeless schizophrenic, but some of them were, so I had to get over my fear and fast.

So, I researched. (There seems to be a trend.) I read about homelessness, about its causes and what it’s like. I read about violence against the homeless and especially against women and the mentally ill. I kept teaching those classes and talking to people, and eventually my fear turned into compassion. (A cautious compassion, but still compassion.)

Because of the confluence of these ideas, the thought kept occurring to me as I walked my dog around our central Tucson neighborhood (near Speedway and Swan, which is infamous for its cardboard sign holders), that we treat stray dogs better than we treat people who are homeless. And, of course, we put them both in shelters.

Combine this with the fact that if Diogenes was alive today, he would no doubt be homeless–he didn’t believe in ownership, and he lived in a giant wine cask until he was sold into slavery in his old age–and with the fact that Aristotle’s nickname for Diogenes was “the Dog” and Diogenes’ followers were called the Army of the Dog, and the symbolic potential was just too good to pass up.

And that’s how I ended up writing a novella about Diogenes and revolutionary homeless dog-people.

As for that lyric about “searching like Diogenes?” That refers to the time Diogenes wandered the town with a lit lamp in the daytime. When someone ask him what he was doing, he said, “I am looking for a true man.”

This Episode of Bipolar Depression Brought to You by Anhedonia

Two days ago I was a writer, a reader, and a passable vegan home cook. Today I am none of those, because I don’t care. It is as if my life as I knew it simply ended.

Anhedonia is the inability to feel pleasure. It causes “lack of interest,” one of the most prevalent symptoms of depression. Anhedonia takes the color out of the world. There’s no draw to do anything or see anyone. There’s no reason to get out of bed, let alone leave the house or turn on the TV or check your phone. Making decisions is impossible because nothing sways you to one side or the other. The overwhelming feeling is that of a void, an absence.

Biologically, anhedonia is caused by the failure of a particular reward pathway in the brain. You can read the details of it here, but basically the “pleasure pathway” between the prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens in the basal forebrain doesn’t fire as strong or as long in depressed brains.

Where I would have laughed out loud, now I just smirk. Where I would have been excited about doing something—or at least willing to do it—now I just shrug and maybe, just maybe, lift my eyebrows for a second.

There is no treatment for anhedonia besides those for depression in general: meds, exercise, diet, sleep, company.

I will not be anhedonic much longer. On my current meds for rapid cycling Bipolar II (which are lithium and levothyroxine with the occasional alprazolam), anhedonia comes for me once a month for four or five days. Rips the rug right out.

When the things that made life interesting and meaningful the day before simply vanish, when nothing is worth doing and the days stretch out long and empty, it’s easy to feel like everything that came before was completely false; it’s easy to feel like a fraud; and it’s easy to get paranoid. It takes effort, on these days, to keep myself from permanently disconnecting from the world, from canceling plans, appointments, social media accounts.

My coping strategy is distraction, which is more challenging than it sounds when I literally could not care less about books or movies or TV or video games, and when conversations are crazy difficult and draining. Conversations are full of decisions. My memory problems and aphasia seem to intensify on these days also, which adds to the frustration and exhaustion.

The good: at least on this medication combination I rarely think about killing myself. That has been a relief. And at least the depressions are only a few days long and my manic episodes are under control. I miss them, especially the energized and productive obsessions, but the mania is hard on my family.

So far and from inside it, it feels like every episode of anhedonia separates me from who I used to be a little bit more. I appreciate this from a yogic / zen perspective: if characteristics can be stripped away so easily, they never were essential. But damn man, who am I without reading and writing? Without bad movies and good food? I need those things to keep me tethered to the planet.

These pieces of my identity may not come back as strong as they were before, but they will come back. In the meantime, I have great empathy for the majorly depressed who have to deal with this bullshit all the time. Godspeed friends.

Depression_red

Depression, by Sabine Sauermaul

 

(This little post has taken a long time to write. Hopefully it will add to the effort to normalize the discussion of mental illness, and maybe a few people will be able to identify something going on with them or feel less alone or understand a loved one a little better because of it.)

Digging Past Trash

After reading Diane di Prima, I was floored. Her poems were unlike anything I’d seen before: unfussed, insightful, relatable. She made the other Beat poets more accessible to me. More importantly, she made me want to write.

After reading Diane di Prima, I wrote poetry every night for years. I made chap books and gave them to my friends. I won a few honorable mentions and was published in some probably less than aboveboard anthologies.

I stopped writing poetry when I moved away from my hometown and got serious about academics. I wrote papers instead. But I kept all my poems. I put them in a shoe box, a boot box actually, that was a perfect 8.5 x 11” fit for loose papers. It was full to the top. There was well over a ream’s worth of poems in there, maybe close to two–a thousand pieces of paper.

I carried that box with me through a dozen moves. I don’t remember the day I threw it away, but I think I was pregnant and moving into the first home that had my name on the mortgage. I think I was leaving behind childish things and past lives. Perhaps I was manic. I often purge my possessions when I’m manic.

Either way, I wish I still had them, all those poems from my twenties. Even if it might be embarrassing to read them now, I bet they weren’t all bad.

babyo

Excerpt from Song for Baby-O, Unborn by Diane di Prima

Hammer Horror Films: A List

In February 2019, I set out to watch all of the original Hammer horror movies. Last night I saw the very last one. I’m working on a piece exploring why these movies, with all their schlock and cheese, still hold such a dear spot in so many of our hearts, but I just can’t help but celebrate being done with this silly movie marathon.

Hammer TV (2)

From Hounds of the Baskervilles (1959)

It wasn’t easy. Not only did it take a whole lot of hours to watch them all, but several were very hard to find. Most came from Amazon and YouTube, but DailyMotion and some even less reputable sites were mined. More than once, our local hipster haven of a video store came through for me when I couldn’t find a title anywhere else.

(It’s probably no mistake that the most difficult ones to find turned out to be the most egregiously racist. Of course, if they tried to hide the sexist ones, very few would be left in circulation at all.)

Below is the Hammer horrors list that I followed, which I adapted only slightly from a list I found at iMDb, removing just a couple that weren’t actually horror but were adventure or sci fi instead.

How many have you seen?

Hammer Horror Films

(*Second titles are U.S. release titles)

  1. The Quatermass Xperiment / The Creeping Unknown* (1955)
  2. X the Unknown (1956)
  3. Quatermass 2 / Enemy from Space (1957)
  4. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
  5. The Abominable Snowman / The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957)
  6. The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)
  7. Dracula / Horror of Dracula (1958)
  8. The Mummy (1959)
  9. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
  10. The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959)
  11. The Brides of Dracula (1960)
  12. The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll / House of Fright / Jekyll’s Inferno (1960)
  13. The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
  14. The Shadow of the Cat (1961)
  15. Captain Clegg / Night Creatures (1962)
  16. The Damned / These are the Damned (1962)
  17. The Kiss of the Vampire / Kiss of Evil (1963)
  18. Paranoiac (1963)
  19. The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)
  20. The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964)
  21. The Gorgon (1964)
  22. Nightmare (1964)
  23. Fanatic / Die! Die! My Darling (1965)
  24. She (1965)
  25. Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
  26. The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
  27. Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966)
  28. The Reptile (1966)
  29. The Witches / The Devil’s Own (1966)
  30. Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
  31. The Mummy’s Shroud (1967)
  32. Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)
  33. The Devil Rides Out / The Devil’s Bride (1968)
  34. Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
  35. The Horror of Frankenstein (1970)
  36. Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
  37. Scars of Dracula (1970)
  38. Crescendo (1970)
  39. The Vampire Lovers (1970)
  40. Countess Dracula (1971)
  41. Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)
  42. Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971)
  43. Hands of the Ripper (1971)
  44. Lust for a Vampire (1971)
  45. Twins of Evil (1971)
  46. Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)
  47. Demons of the Mind (1972)
  48. Straight on Till Morning (1972)
  49. Vampire Circus (1972)
  50. The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)
  51. Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)
  52. The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires / The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula (1974)
  53. Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974)
  54. To the Devil a Daughter (1976)

From Kidney Stones to Ass Goblins, or How Bizarro Fiction SAVED MY LIFE (or at least made it a little more bearable)

(This post was inspired by S.T. Cartledge and Zé Burns, who both recently shared their stories of how they discovered bizarro.)

The walls were white—not eggshell or ivory or smoke-stained, but white-white—and the room was small. There was barely enough space next to the bed to wedge in a nightstand, and on that nightstand there was barely enough room for a lamp, a clock, a bottomless glass of water, and a small amber bottle of pain killers. The good stuff.

In the bed was me, laid up sorry after a bout with a good-sized kidney stone, and disappointed to be finishing Chuck Palahniuk’s Damned on my trusty Kindle. I wasn’t let down by the story; I was sad because it would be a long time until another book came out from an author I liked this much. Most fiction, it seemed to me at the time, was either boring or pretentious.

Click—Other books by this author . . .

I was all caught up with Chuck P.

Click—Customers who bought this book also bought . . .

Fuckness by Andersen Prunty.

What’s this?

magazine of bizarro fiction 1Going nowhere and doing nothing, I bought the book based only on its title and I read it with delight. An old friend came to mind, someone I thought would also dig something like Fuckness. I looked him up, wanting to introduce him to something new, to be that cool friend who makes the find. Instead, he already knew about Prunty and this whole movement called bizarro.

He sent me the first issue of “The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction,” which could have opened up a whole new world of fiction to explore. But too soon I was back at work, and back in the flow of researching and writing nonfiction.

* * *

Five years later a cascade of tiny stones tried to escape my left kidney all at once. Their spiky structure led to a log jam in my ureter, just even with my navel. It was exactly as fun as it sounds.

The walls are a pale blue-green now. We’re in a different house and I’m on the couch with my never-ending glass of water and bottle of oxy, in need of fiction. This is when I got hooked for real. With only Kindle recommendations to guide me, I floundered around, from Prunty to Mellick to Mykle Hansen, Jeff Strand, Jeremy Robert Johnson, Cameron Pierce, Laura Lee Bahr, Danger Slater, more Mellick, Bradley Sands, Max Booth III.

Two surgeries kept me out of commission for over a month. I read bizarro and bizarro-related authors the whole time, most of it in a gentle opiate haze that didn’t hurt my fondness (and at times downright glee) for what I was reading.

Gina Ranalli, Betty Rocksteady, Adam Millard, Jeff Burk, Tiffany Scandal, Violet LeVoit, more Mellick, Cody Goodfellow, Edward Lee, CV Hunt, Vince Kramer, Justin Grimbol, Bix Skahill, and Emma Johnson.

By the time I finally healed, the place I’d been working had evaporated. I was back to being a housewife and a mom with a lot of time on my hands, so I just kept reading.

That was the winter of 2016-2017. So it wasn’t very long ago, really, that bizarro books helped me through some of the most intense physical pain in my life. There’s a joy to them, an energy, even at their darkest, that I don’t feel in any other genre, a reveling in the weirdness and absurdity of life and in the possibilities of one creative mind to communicate with another. The punk rock ethos isn’t lost on me, either.

At its best, bizarro is surprising, insightful, and inspiring—not in any superficial way but in saying let’s explore this fucked up world, even if it is full of tentacles and ass goblins and everybody’s going to end up sprouting antlers. Let’s make our metaphors bigger than life and let things be funny and tragic at the same time, because that’s how life is. Let’s write stories that are fun to read even if not everybody gets it.

I’ve moved from the voice of the reader to that of the writer now, but that transition is a story for another day. For today I just want to say “Hooray for bizarro!” With all its pock marks and blemishes—the social turmoil that sometimes happens outside the books and the failed experiments that can happen inside them—there’s something uniquely valuable in this genre, something that goes beyond the superficial weirdness and shock value to the heart of what it means to be a human who has to wake up and face this fucked up world day after day.

And thank you to all the writers I mentioned and all the others I’ve discovered over the last two years, as well as to all the small presses who print them. Thanks to you all, I’ve gone from having nothing to read to having a to-be-read list as long as a human Santapede.