Tag Archives: emotional issues

Monday Musings: The Things We Care About, a #HoldOntoTheLight Post

#HoldOnToTheLight

I honestly don’t know where this post is going, and so please bear with me as I work through my tangled thoughts.

I am struck today — as I ponder a life that is both fraught and wonderful, complicated and strikingly simple, weighted with deep worries and buoyed by simple yet profound pleasures — by the oddity of the things we choose to care about minute to minute, day to day, year to year.

As many of you know, last year our daughter was diagnosed with cancer. Her initial treatments went well, her maintenance regimen has been harder to pin down and she recently had a small setback — minor, but with cancer nothing is truly minor.

I suffer from anxiety anyway, and so any change for the worse in her situation can send me into a tailspin. The truth is, lots of things, big and small, can send me into a tailspin, but I am hardly unique in that regard. And when it comes right down to it, I am not convinced my anxiety explains the emotional phenomena with which I’m grappling in today’s post.

Perhaps an example will help me clarify my topic and allow you to follow along as I muse and ponder. I find — and this is nothing new — that one moment I can be focused on my daughter’s health, or something else of equal importance and solemnity, and the next I can be completely put out by my inability to solve the day’s Wordle puzzle in four guesses instead of five. A frivolous, even absurd, example to be sure, but I offer it in all seriousness. The frivolity is kind of the point.

This has been a difficult couple of years to say the least. I often begin my morning walks mired in dark thoughts, consumed with worry about my kid, or the state of the world, or, for a long time, the persistence of the pandemic. And then I will spot a hawk along the trail, or a warbler will pop up and start to sing in plain view, and I will be filled with happiness. Fleeting perhaps, but not any less powerful for its brevity.

We can be resilient creatures, we humans. And I do think some of what I’m writing about is resilience. Part of it might be as well the simple reality that our emotions demand respite. It can be exhausting living with worry or with grief. Many of us, myself included, live with anxiety or depression or other mental health issues, and these conditions can compound that weariness. Many of us struggle to find those moments of pleasure, those glimpses of resilience.

But the fact is, our minds — or at least my mind — seem to seek out breaks from the toughest issues. How else can I explain being consumed with the threat of global climate change one moment, and truly caring who wins the Tottenham v. Manchester City soccer match the next? How can I worry about my children, or the health of my in-laws, and also care whether I solve the puzzle on my phone in the allotted sixty seconds?

Do our minds do this to preserve our sanity? Ophthalmologists tell us that we can ease strain on our eyes when sitting in front of our computers by taking a few minutes periodically to focus on something farther away. Isn’t that what our brains do, too?

Okay, so I’m nearly six hundred words in to this post, and I still haven’t figured out what the hell I want to say. I suppose I am trying to explain to myself how my own coping mechanisms work. I know that for me, constant worry is debilitating. The intrusions of the frivolous save me from myself. I care about Wordle not because it matters, but because in making it matter, I force myself to look elsewhere, to focus on something other than the hard stuff right in front of me. I allow myself the pleasure of a bird sighting — or a song well played on my guitar, or a successful photograph — because without such pleasures my world would be a bleaker place.

I suppose I am merely describing distractions, which all of us have. And perhaps what I’m actually doing, in public, and in a roundabout way, is giving myself permission to be distracted. Because, I have to admit, in the depths of my legitimate worries, I am embarrassed by the trivial things I care about. Resilience. Distraction. Fun. Pleasure. Joy. When we confront serious matters — including life and death matters — these things can feel wrong, like violations of self-imposed gravity. How dare I take pleasure in a new music CD when my kid is dealing with cancer. How dare I care about a soccer match, or a Wordle puzzle, when the world is in crisis.

The thing is, though, without all those pursuits that delight and distract and bring joy, why does anything else matter? We help no one when we deny ourselves simple pleasures. Because they not only are born of resilience, they also promote it. And without resilience we are of no use to the people who need us, to a world that demands our attention and our compassion.

Perhaps this post is one long rationalization, a way to convince myself it’s okay for me to have fun now and then. But I think it’s more. In the depths of difficult times, I believe we need to remind ourselves to take joy when and where we can. Life is hard. We face no shortage of excuses to be sad or frightened or angry. Our humanity demands we also create opportunities to find happiness and peace, even if just for a short while.

Wishing you wonderful week.

 

Professional Wednesday: Work as Balm

Continuing this week’s theme of maintaining mental health through difficult times . . .

Back in March, when our daughter’s cancer was diagnosed, my first impulse was to put everything on pause. I contacted my editor and agent to let them know I was not going to be working for a while. I announced on my various social media platforms that I would be pulling back from them as well. I don’t know what I thought I would be busy with. I don’t know what I thought I would do to fill my days. But in that instant, I couldn’t imagine doing . . . anything.

I can’t say for certain if this was a good decision or a bad one. I did what I needed to do in that moment. I made time for myself to deal with something utterly devastating and unprecedented in my life, for the very reason I stated above. I didn’t know what I could do and what I couldn’t. And, being self-employed, I have the luxury of being able to clear my schedule when I need to.

I’ll pause here to say this is why paid family leave should be universal across the country. People deal with crises of this sort every day. The privileged few — people like me — shouldn’t be the only ones who can take the time to care for themselves and their loved ones in this way.

Of course, Nancy had work, and though her colleagues and boss would have understood had she taken time off, the truth is the nature of her position at the university, and the fact that the school was in the middle of implementing the Covid response she helped formulate, made this impossible. And so, perhaps not so surprisingly, after taking only a few days to be shellshocked and emotionally paralyzed, I got back to work as well.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)I was in the middle of writing a book — Invasives, the sequel to Radiants — and I dove back in. It’s a book about family, as so many of my novels are, and about discovering powers within. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand why I would find that particular story line comforting.

At the time, I wasn’t very far along in the book — maybe one-third of the way in. But with my reality frightening and sad, I threw myself into the story. Work became the place I went to escape my dread, my grief, my rage at the injustice of my kid’s illness. The emotions came with me, of course, but I was able to channel them into my characters, to turn them into narrative. That is the magic of creation, the alchemy that allows us to convert anguish into art. Each day, I couldn’t wait to get back to my book; I can’t remember a time when work has meant more to me. My haven, my outlet, my balm.

I finished the book in less than two months, which is pretty quick for me, and I knew immediately that I had written something special. I love all my books. Someone asked me just the other day what my favorite book is among those I’ve written, and I answered as I always do: the newest one. But in this case, it was especially true. Invasives is laden with emotional power and it is, to my mind, one of the best plotted books I’ve written. Often when I write, I have to fight off distractions. Not this time. With Invasives, writing was the distraction.

I was sad to finish the book — which was definitely new for me. Usually I celebrate finishing a novel. This time, I wondered how I would cope without the book to write. My child was still sick, still dealing with treatments and such. And I was still scared, still sad.

"The Adams Gambit," by D. B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)And so around that time, unsure of what to write next, I acted on an idea I’d had for several years. I hung out my virtual shingle as a freelance editor. Work came in quickly, and before I knew it I was editing a series for one friend, and talking to others about future editing projects. I also released the Thieftaker novellas. And prepared for the October release of Radiants. And started gearing up for the Kickstarter for Noir, the anthology I’m co-editing for Zombies Need Brains. And wrote a story for another anthology.

In other words, I worked the way I normally would. Yes, some days were harder than others. Some days I got nothing done at all. And part of working through this ordeal has been giving myself permission to have days where I do nothing more than spin my wheels. But more often than not, work has continued to offer me solace.

I’ve watched in awe as Nancy, who has even more on her plate than I do (elder care issues involving her parents and a job that is emotionally and mentally exhausting), has found the strength and discipline to be a loving, supportive mom, an attentive daughter, a skilled and focused professional, as well as a loving partner. She, too, has found refuge in her job.

Looking back, I feel a little foolish for having retreated from my professional life the way I did those first days after learning of my daughter’s diagnosis. From this vantage point, it appears rash, unnecessary. I feared that in some way my job would keep me from giving my full attention to my daughter’s health. I was right. The mistake I made was in thinking that would be a bad thing. Believe me, I spent a ton of time thinking about her, worrying about her, searching for ways I might ease her burden. But I couldn’t do that for every hour of every day, not without doing real damage to my own emotional and physical health.

Work saved me.

Now, I know each of us deals in unique ways with anxiety, fear, grief, and other emotions, and so I offer this post not as a prescription for others, but simply as a description of my experience. I hope that some of you find it helpful.