Full Circle

I’ve been very secretive about some things going on in my life, but they have had a profound effect on me, so it felt like time to share. Yep, this is one of those personal, life story blog posts, although it is somewhat writing related. You’ll see why. Sorry if you’re only here for the writing stuff. You’ll have to get to know me a little this time around.

At the end of March, I had a hysterectomy. Now, for some, this would be a traumatic experience, but it truly wasn’t. You see, my reproductive system and I have never been friends. We had a brief truce for a short period of time that brought me a gorgeous child. But other than that, we were bitter enemies. I wasn’t sad to see the main troublemaker go. I was actually looking forward to it. 

It’s an odd thing. My womb was gone, and in that same week, I nearly lost the woman who carried me in her womb. It’s a long story, and not one I think my mother is particularly keen to share, but I thought my husband was communicating with my mother during my recovery. He thought I was. By the time we realized, neither of us had talked to her in a week. We all tried to call her to no avail and my husband rushed to check on her. As I recovered from my surgery, my mother collapsed in her home, was unable to get up for a while, and very nearly died. My husband found her unconscious. 

She has thankfully pulled through, but the outcome completely changed our lives. 

Mentally, my mother is as okay as she ever was. She’s always struggled with some mental issues, but she’s feisty and funny and, after a slight struggle, is 100% back to who she had been. Physically, though, she’s weaker than she was, and since April, she’s been in a physical rehabilitation center until she can get back on her feet. 

My mother had lived in the same apartment for 42 years, so the place had managed to accumulate a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff. All of which she kept. But after being stuck in that place as she was, unable to move, my mother didn’t want to go back. 

I set about cleaning out her apartment, scoring her a new one, and preparing it for her return home. And in the midst of all that, after visiting my mother regularly, something in our relationship shifted. We’d had this terribly complex relationship, both with our fair share of mental illness that would grind together whenever we butted heads. She has been mellowing out quite a bit as she’s grown older, and in this time, we have repaired a lot of it. Is it still fragile? It may always be. 

And then I received the proof for an upcoming anthology I will be published in. My essay in that anthology is about generational mental illness and how my mother’s sometimes abusive behavior impacted my life and informed the way I raised my son. There isn’t a single word I wrote that was untrue, but I find myself feeling horrendously guilty. 

In her famous writing book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott wrote, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” And perhaps that’s true. But it’s a complicated feeling. 

My relationship with my mother is healing. I’ve cast a discussion out into the world about that relationship at its worst. 

The point was important, and I believe that what I wrote will have a chance to help another. In the end, as a writer, I know I must be true to myself and what I’m trying to say, despite the difficulties it may cause. 

Still, I cringe whenever I read it. Have any of you ever put something in writing and had regrets afterwards? Share in the comments and make me feel better. :/

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When I Grow Up

Logan as a model again. I asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, and this was his face.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” We’re all asked a few hundred times throughout our childhood. And I realized that now that I’m, at least technically, “grown up,” nobody asks me what I want to be anymore. It’s an interesting thing that we’re all asked about our future vocation when we’re far too young to do much about it or to even know ourselves well enough to know what we want. And when do we lose that? When do we start to know ourselves well enough to know what we want for the rest of our lives? What’s the imaginary age that we decide what we’re capable of?

From the time I started school all the way up to my pre-teen years, I wanted to be an English teacher. Teachers are our heroes when we’re young, until we either fall apart under the pressure of expectations and testing and regimented thinking, or we realize they’re just human like the rest of us. I loved English in particular, and there was this amazing writing teacher in my school, Michael Shaw, who was incredibly quirky and pleasant and wasn’t afraid to be silly as hell if it made the kids in the school love to learn. Every year, he would dress up as Johnny Appleseed to teach us about Earth Day before people really cared about ecology the way they should. He was so engaging, that I quickly decided I wanted to be him.

That dream died when I realized I was decidedly not him. I was prone to outbursts of temper I was not good enough at holding back to work with tiny humans all day without being labeled as the monster teacher. I couldn’t even teach my full-grown adult of a mother how to use a computer mouse without losing my temper and treating her like an idiot. Not cool, I know. But I was journeying into teenagerhood with very messy role models and a burgeoning battle with depression and I wasn’t handling it well. And then I met Dr. Jonathan Dzik.

Doc, as all his students called him, took a chance on a moody student who purposely pressed his buttons for entertainment value. And, persnickety by nature, he had a lot of pushable buttons. While I actually attempted to drive him crazy, he actually attempted to guide my efforts to more useful things, like the school musical. He was right, I was a far better singer and actress than I was a teenage asshat. And just like that, I discovered a new answer to what I was going to be when I grew up. An actress and a singer, obviously.

The truth was, I wasn’t actually good at being a teenage asshat, my compassion and empathy often tripping me up and making me suffer after my various attempts at being an unfeeling wench. So, it wasn’t very difficult to be a better singer and actor than an asshat. Another truth? I sucked at acting. And while I still think I possess singing talent, that 1) often comes with a dancing requirement and I can’t do a choreographed step without tripping over myself; and 2) after a year and a half of auditions with professionals, I quickly learned that the industry was not ready for a singer who shopped in the plus sized section. I was in the era before Kelly Clarkson and Adele, when every singer looked like Britney Spears and were lucky if they even grazed the gorgeous sounds of Christina Aguilera’s vocal chops. I could have kept trying, but the constant requests to lose weight killed my self-esteem dead enough that I became determined to find a thing where people could value my brain and not my belly.

I had been writing since back in the days of Mr. Shaw, but I didn’t really think it could be anything. Mostly, I just wrote silly stories based on television shows. And then, one day, while I stood at the counter of the video store I worked at, stuck in the job-with-necessarily-flexible-hours I needed to go on auditions. It was an incredibly boring day. I was the only person on shift. So I picked up the pad I used for inventory lists, and started writing an idea that had been running around my head like a squirrel searching for a nut.

I’ve broken up with writing a few dozen times since then, but it’s always been a lie, and I always come back. My love for it birthed my intense desire to learn more about the hows and whys behind what works and what doesn’t. That led me to editing, to helping other people learn what will work best for their manuscripts.

That girl who thought she couldn’t possibly have enough patience to teach a room full of kiddies all about reading and language finds herself slaving over manuscripts written by authors of various skill and scope and helping to teach them what they don’t already know and guide them on the path to a more polished manuscript. And suddenly, I can hear that little girl’s voice, answering the question of what she wants to be when she grows up with a very self-assured “An English Teacher” and she doesn’t sound so foolish. Because she must have seen something within herself that the grumpy teenager somehow missed.

That kid wasn’t exactly right. She was close enough though, and it makes me wonder. I may not have known what I wanted to be, but I always knew I wanted to help others, to spread knowledge, to share. Perhaps we shouldn’t be asking children what they want to be when they grow up. I’m a legal secretary who writes and edits in whatever time she can scrounge up and that’s far from what I imagined. Perhaps we’d be better off asking who they want to be when they grow up. That, at least, lends them a greater chance of landing far closer to the mark.



It Really Does Get Easier

You see that lady? The vacant stare? The irritated-looking but adorable baby? This was just the very beginning of my struggle with post-partum depression, and the beginning of my Logan’s colic. It was a hard first few months, made worse by my already existing anxiety disorder and what we would later discover to be a burgeoning Sensory Processing Disorder for Logan.

Since then, it’s gotten harder in many ways. In other ways, it’s gotten easier. What it has never gotten was boring. As our little family of three struggled with various and multitudinous mental struggles, we coped with love and, in my case, pouring my heart out through my pen.

“Organized Chaos” was a personal essay written in the height of my post-partum depression and maybe even was what led me out of it. Which is why, when I saw a call for submission to an anthology on motherhood and mental illness, I struggled to hit send. This was a deeply personal exploration of the things that made me tick, and why they caused me a struggle to cope.

But I sent it anyway. And now it will be published in the anthology, “It Will Not Be Simple: Motherhood, Mental Illness, and Trauma,” compiled by writers Liz Howard and Christina Xiong. More details are forthcoming, but I hope you will take this journey with me.

More on my other writing projects, as well as my wonderful time at the Author-preneur Workshop, to come soon. And as always, thank you for sticking by me. It’s never the destination, it’s all about the journey.

All my love,

Justine

Learning to Fail and Other Rude Awakenings

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I don’t like to brag, but I’m really good at NaNoWriMo-ing. Like, really good. I have participated in many NaNos since 2012, and I have always completed my goal of writing 50,000 words in one month. I have also participated in the Camp NaNoWriMos, in that time, often pulling out 50,000 words in April or July, in any of the years I chose to participate. And then came this year.

In April, I already knew I was competing with a crazier schedule, and set my goal of Camp Nano (the version of this challenge that has changeable goals) to 30,000 words in the month. I managed to make that goal. In July, I did the same, hoping to finish out a decent chunk of the book I had started in April. By a week into the month, I could already see that I wasn’t going to get to 30,000. I cut my word count to 15,000.

You see, there was this scene. Or worse, there was this book. And it slowed everything to a stop.

When I started work on a new book while waiting for notes back from my edit-partner for my last completed first draft, Never Say Never, I intended to work on a light-hearted superhero tale. Often, to get myself into telling a story, I will first write my first draft of the book blurb, a teaser description to tell myself what’s at stake and who my main character is. I do this prior to outlining, just so I can get into the proper frame of mind. When I set out to do this, my simple superhero book became a dystopian novel about two teens living off the streets of a derelict city until they choose to fight for better. With zero superheroes. And I don’t know how. I often scoff at people who say the characters took control of the story, or who claim they need their muse, but this was definitely some kind of whacked out magic at work. I hadn’t had this idea before I set out. This was not the book I was looking for.

But perhaps it was the book I needed. For one, writing it scared the shit out of me. It required a level of worldbuilding I’d never done before. It required a set of research I’d never considered. Worse, as I started plotting out the outline, I began to discover the story was meant to be in third person, which I almost never write.

I went to a book signing a few weeks before, for one of my favorite authors–Patrick Ness. He said he always likes to scare himself with his book ideas. He said he didn’t want to write anything that didn’t scare him–it was part of the adventure of writing. So when this strange story sprang from my head, I went with it–I did the scary thing. I started outlining this story. I started doing the research. And perhaps, I jumped into writing the thing too quickly.

That was my excuse when I cut the word count in April.

But then, my life was changing. I started work with Craft Quest, continued working with The Inkwell Council, and started taking on occasional freelance editing jobs. I dove into a new fandom (I haven’t been part of a fandom in awhile), which was time-wasting, but also reminded me why it’s so damn fun to be a geek, and saved me from dealing with a lot of this next part–as I mentioned earlier this year, I recently was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. My symptoms had been growing steadily worse for the entire year before I figured out what was wrong, and have now continued cropping up in new and interesting ways. My husband and son got into a car accident, ending up in the middle of a seven-car bumper-to-bumper on the highway–they were fine, but the car was decidedly not. We frantically struggled to replace it. There was an awful slew of bullying at our son’s summer camp that was impacting him directly. And I got stuck, horribly stuck, on one scene in the story that I just couldn’t figure out. I crashed. HARD. I never made it to 15,000 words. That has never happened to me before.

From the end of July to now, I have written four pages. That’s it, folks. Four whole pages. And anybody who follows this blog regularly knows that’s a joke. It wasn’t even like I was editing Never Say Never. I got the edits, got stuck on the first thing that was said, and pushed that aside as well. I just didn’t know how to handle any of it, so I didn’t touch it. I put it all away.

I celebrated my son’s birthday. I handled that damn summer camp. I celebrated my best friend’s pregnancy, my sister-in-law’s new apartment, my other best friend’s journey through Thailand and Japan. I sat beside another dear friend as she struggled to (successfully, thank goodness) battle breast cancer. I got to work on another project close to my heart that I can’t discuss yet, but is arts-based and local, and should it take off, would touch on a long-standing dream of mine. I swam around in my new favorite fandom and made some new friends there. I lived my dang life. I took a break.

And I feel better. I feel clearer. I think this needed to happen to remind me I couldn’t do everything at once. I need to crash to remind myself that despite my protestations to the contrary, this illness has given me new limitations. I needed to crash to remind myself I had other priorities in life. I needed to crash to remind myself to have a little fun. I needed to crash because I don’t need to hit my goals every single time. Sometimes I’m allowed to miss them. I needed to crash to remind myself I didn’t need to get this story right on the first draft. That I could completely screw it up, go back in and rewrite it like I was bound to do anyway a few times, once I figured out what I was trying to say and how it was going to work. I needed to crash to remind myself that the work of sculpting doesn’t get done until the clay is on the damn table.

I needed to crash. I needed to fail. I needed that to learn how to take care of myself so that next time, I may succeed.

Tl;dr: I’m back, folks. How was your summer vacation?

Puzzle Pieces

When I initially created this blog years ago, it was called Pieces of the Puzzle, and it discussed all of the different aspects of who I am. That puzzle is still a work in progress, and every now and then I get a different piece to set in place, and with it, a new understanding of who I am. This time, I didn’t just place a piece, I placed an entire corner of the full picture and gave myself a better understanding of the challenges I’ve faced, and what may come down the road.

I’ve always felt like a complainer. I have back pains due to scoliosis, migraines, pelvic and stomach issues, and I’m always feeling just a little icky. That’s not even to mention my ADHD, my depression, my anxiety…so when a person comes up to me and asks how I’m doing, I have a tendency to smile and say “fine” no matter who they are. Rarely do I admit to all this stuff going on with me, because if you’re in pain every day, and you tell someone every day, it feels like you’re whining. This has been true for nearly fifteen years, but over the last five years, this feeling has intensified. Now, not only did I have these problems, but I had random muscle cramps and spasms in places other than my back, muscle weakness, burning on the bottom of my feet.

Where I used to bop around the office, I started begging off projects that required me to run between floors because I seemed to always have a strained muscle. Where a three mile walk from the office to my doctor’s appointment was never a big deal, the half-mile walk to my son’s school had me limping to the office.

More than anything, I was just exhausted–a person who was always hyper-alert and jumping from project to project, and suddenly, I was falling asleep at the slightest lull in activity. Then my fingers started tingling, like my hand had fallen asleep. Suddenly, I felt crushed by all of the many different things that were bothering me on a day to day basis. If it wasn’t one thing, it was always, invariably, five others.

I still didn’t do anything substantive about it. Wear a wrist brace until the tingling stopped. Put some BenGay on a back muscle, keep my feet warm so they don’t cramp. But these were easy fixes. Nobody needed a doctor for this.

Then a friend of mine was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

I didn’t know what that was, and I’m never content to have holes in my knowledge base, so I googled and learned. Fibromyalgia is a pain syndrome, and it effects the way pain sensors in your body process pain, amplifying pain signals. It also causes many neurological and muscular issues. The list of symptoms was like a punch to the face. Nearly all of them were things I experienced on a regular basis. I called the doctor and set up an appointment.

I went to my general doctor, and then to a specialist. And now I know.

The pieces of the pain puzzle I’ve been dealing with for years has finally come together, and the image I’ve been building is one of a fibromyalgia sufferer.  Surprise!

I have to be honest. When I first got this diagnosis, I wrapped up some things I was handling, then laid down and cried for hours. I completely melted down. Because the questionnaires I had to fill out on the way to diagnosis listed symptoms I hadn’t had yet. LOTS of symptoms I hadn’t had yet. And the anxiety-ridden side of me (see my short story, One Percent, about a girl who genuinely believes she will fall into the 1% of people whose spinal surgery paralyzes them–that may have been based on a true tale), went straight to the worst. I cried, imagining myself unable to play with my son, unable to work, unable to write. I completely tanked out in an image of continual level-10 pain.

Because I had to go there. My brain had to let it out. And the next morning, I woke up ready to fight. Because fibromyalgia doesn’t mean these things for everybody. Because I was already living with this, and giving it a name wasn’t going to change that for the worse. Because I would find a way. Even if every one of the things I worried about the night before came true, I’d still be okay, because I would find a way to cope. Because this is my life, and I’m gonna make the best of it.

Because I’m a badass.

Just now, I’m a badass who knows she has fibromyalgia.

Which, let’s face it, really just makes everything I do that much more badass, right?

 

Guest Post: Shelving My Emotions

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Today, I’m guest posting at All the Way YA about the emotional and professional lead up to my decision to shelve my first novel. Here’s a snippet of the post.

The Order of the Key was my dream novel, the book of my heart. I invented the idea for it when I was fifteen years old and I never expected to be shelving it, unpublished, twenty years later.

Jeez. Twenty years later. I don’t think I ever thought of it in those terms.

To be fair, I haven’t been working on it this entire time, and the book I’m stuffing in the musty shelf of my mind is definitely not the book I started with. The version I’d created at fifteen contained a completely unlikeable, hormonal, emotional (possibly based on myself) super-cool highly powerful sorceress teen, and she hunted vampires as she romanced her way through a team of stalwart heroes. Hey, cut me some slack. It was the age of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it showed. The current, much cooler, much more mature version involves a fun and likeable geek who blunders her way through a semi-corrupt organization that fights interdimensional monsters and manages to find herself leading the rebellion to overthrow the corrupt portion of it.

When I say it has grown by leaps and bounds, I’m not just talking about its intriguing premise. The writing of the original novel was horrid. But it was the first thing I’d ever finished. I was proud of it.

To read the rest of the post, check it out on All the Way YA.