An Anxious Woman’s Methods of Staying Calm in the Midst of COVID-19 Panic

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

I want to preface this first by saying most posts exhorting me to be calm when the situation is frankly terrifying annoy the snot out of me, so I understand if you are already a little peeved from the beginning here. I get it. I think we’re royally screwed in a major way, the more so depending on whether or not you live in a country run by incompetent, criminally negligent assholes who are more concerned with lining their pockets and slashing regulations during a worldwide catastrophe than trying to halt a pandemic. Ironically, if the yahoos in charge had put the lives of the world population FIRST, the economy would have been better protected, but that’s a rant for another day.

I also have to share with you the fact that the threat of a pandemic is one of my personal bugaboos: the reason I can’t watch zombie movies or anything about epidemics. I’ve been terrified of things like that my entire life, so no Walking Dead or Contagion for me, thank you very much.

All this is to say that my fear is real. I’m not denying the risk to us all. I think we’re in big trouble. I don’t think things will just “go back to normal” in a few weeks or months. I think if we survive the pandemic itself (and that seems iffy for a large majority of us), then we will have to deal with shortages and disruptions of supply chains, the loss of our medical personnel, and people without the knowledge or means to grow their own food, and well-armed people who will likely take what they want. Wow. I’m not doing a very good job of decreasing anyone’s anxiety here, am I?

Deep breath.

Okay. The point to this is that many of us, myself included, were already at the top of our anxiety charts before this came up. We were stretched too thin, taking on too many responsibilities, working too hard, and putting ourselves last on the list every time. I’d been planning to write about my job burnout before the pandemic struck. I mention it now because this crisis coming on top of all the daily fires I had to put out sent me spiraling into a tailspin of anxiety. The kind that spikes your blood pressure, that crushes your head in a vise, that makes it hard to catch your breath. Is that panic or is it COVID? Who knows?

Well, if you’re not running a fever, the odds are it’s panic. I’ve had to reach for my anxiety meds more than once this week, though having a few days off in a row where I didn’t have to risk exposure to the general public helped a lot. Feeling stir-crazy on self-isolation? I find I’ve been able to cope much better by having a few days where I wasn’t on high-alert constantly.

So let me share with you some practical advice from the trenches, so to speak.

It’s okay to be scared. Most of us with any sense are. Stop beating yourself up for being terrified. Just remember that a lot of people around you are scared too, so be kind to them as well as yourself. I can’t emphasize this enough: STAY HOME if you possibly can. But if you MUST go out, treat your delivery people, grocery store attendants, bank clerks, pharmacists, etc with kindness and patience. It’s not their fault. Treat your customers with the understanding they are panicked as well. Also, WEAR A MASK. More on that below.

But the main thing here is there is no shame in being scared right now. Maybe you need medication to calm down. That’s okay too. Just be conscious of the other people in your life and allow them room to be scared or depressed as well. If they are always being strong for you, then you aren’t helping them.

Prepare as best you can, then let it go. Hopefully by now, you’ve done what you can with regards to laying in supplies. You’re stocked on acetaminophen and cough meds. You’re taking your temperature twice a day and self-isolating if you get sick. My advice from this point is to limit the news as much as possible. Check in twice a day, much like you take your temperature, but then turn it off. Many of you are home now with time on your hands: resist winding yourself into a tizzy over things beyond your control. Every time I start to feel a bit calmer about things, I check in with the news and I’m back to panic mode again. I don’t think it’s good for our immune systems to be geared up like that all the time. So turn off social media and the news once you’ve caught up on the important stuff–like what the restrictions are in your area.

Find some meditation apps, play your favorite music, explore some museums online, but stop haunting the news threads. (Side note: If you are taking MAOI medications (as many prescription antidepressants are) find out what OTC fever and cold medications you can and cannot take. NOW.) Remember what I said about being on high-alert constantly? It’s bad for your ability to cope.

Social Distancing is PHYSICAL DISTANCING. If you’re not sick or super high risk, and if you are physically capable of doing so, you should get out in your garden or walk the dog in your neighborhood. Sing. Dance. Move. When we become anxious, our bodies turn to flight or fight mode, and with nothing to battle, we direct that energy inward on ourselves. Movement of some kind can help diffuse this energy and redirect it into a better outlet. BUT, and this is a big but, this doesn’t mean you pile the family in the car and take them to the local playground! It doesn’t mean crowding down at the beach or causing traffic jams on walking paths or hiking trails. If someone isn’t going to give you six feet of clearance, avoid going in that direction. And please keep in mind not everyone can see you!

Give a person with a service dog a wide berth–their dogs aren’t trained for social distancing and it’s up to YOU to pay attention to the people around you. Better to stay home than to endanger yourself or someone else if you can’t maintain distance. Social distancing means STAY HOME if you don’t need to go out. It does not mean run to the store because you want Twizzlers, or take the dog in for routine vaccinations, or pop in to the nail salon. Come to think of it, if you have acrylic or SNS powder on your nails, will a pulse oximeter work? I don’t think so…  Bottom line: I can’t stay home because YOU won’t stay home. So just do it, okay?

Wash your hands. Yes, you’ve heard this. Soap and hot water, 20 seconds or longer. Frequently. Soap disrupts the lipid layer of the virus better than anything else, better than hand sanitizer. But sanitizer is better than nothing. You need to wash or sanitize your hands after you touch ANY public surface: gas pumps, door handles, keypads, etc. Before you touch your face or things inside your house. Change out of your work clothes if you’re not staying in, and shower before you interact with the rest of your family. I wash my hands before leaving work. I use my elbows to open the doors. I use hand sanitizer when I get to my car. When I was still going to the store, I sanitized my hands again after leaving the store and before I got out of the car at home too. And then washed my hands as soon as I got inside the house. I also wash my hands after every interaction with a customer. Yes. That often.

Set up a support network with family and friends. Email chains, chat groups, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, Zoom. I find I don’t need a lot of contact until I do, if you know what I mean. Make sure you check in with someone once a day. If nothing else, you’ll know you’re not alone in all of this. I’ve also found myself contacting relatives I haven’t spoken to in years. Let people know you care about them. I can tolerate a LOT of alone time. I love being alone! But even I can get too much into my head sometimes.

Talking with someone can break that cycle, even if you’re both scared. Be respectful of other’s fears though. Someone may need to NOT talk about the pandemic when you’re bursting to share your concerns. I belong to several groups and for many of them, we’ve created separate channels for voicing our fears so not everyone in the group is exposed to our anxiety. At the same time, I know there’s a channel I can do to where the conversation will be light and fun when I need it.

Can’t go to your convention or conference? Do something anyway. Consider an online version! I was supposed to go to the ATA Spring Writer’s Retreat this weekend. The organizers wisely saw the writing on the wall and converted the entire thing to online sessions. It’s been fabulous–but you know what? I had a hard time making myself attend some of the sessions. At first it was because I wanted to wallow on the sofa watching another 37 episodes of Monk. I couldn’t focus on the material in the sessions. But when I made myself join the Zoom groups, it was like purposely doing exercise: something I had to force myself to do that made me feel better for the action and ended up with me being glad I did it. For a couple of hours, I completely forgot about the world crisis. I learned things and shared things and made plans for the future–something that has more power than you realize.

Making plans means you believe there will be a future, and there is great power in that kind of belief. My point is if there was some event you were looking forward to attending that’s been cancelled, look for alternatives. If you think you’re too frazzled to concentrate on whatever project you are working on, give it a try anyway. You might get more out of it than you think.

Along those lines, I’m also planning to put in a garden this year. Okay, I’ve been planning to do this for the last ten years, but I’ve gone as far as to order seeds this time. See? Practical planning for the future is helpful to my state of mind.

Not feeling productive? Don’t worry about it. No, seriously, I realize that seems like the reverse of what I just said, but if all you can manage is Netflix 10 hours a day while eating Sugar Pops dry out of the box (not that I would know anything about that…), that’s okay. It’s okay if this is your coping mechanism of choice. Don’t beat yourself up because you aren’t “making the most” of your time to finish your opus or write the equivalent of King Lear (as Shakespeare has been said to do when quarantined during the plague). We’re all doing the best we can during a terrible crisis. It’s okay. And you know what else is okay? Not wanting to watch or read your usual comfort tropes.

There’s a reason why I’m watching back-to-back episodes of Monk and Psych. I have reasonable expectations that nothing in these shows will hurt me too badly, and yet I’m not so invested in the characters that watching the programs will somehow taint the show for me in the future by association with this horrible time. I’m not “spoiling” anything I love by linking it to my almost toxic fears. These shows are also just unfamiliar enough that they keep me engaged and distracted. So if you can’t bring yourself to read your favorite books or watch your favorite movies, it’s okay. I understand.

Wear a mask in public. So I know the CDC is saying don’t wear masks. And I know that our medical professionals are so woefully under-prepared for this pandemic that television medical dramas are sending their props to hospitals, so no one wants us buying up all the face masks our medical staff desperately needs. But there’s been a study out of the Czech Republic that shows when they went from zero masks to 100% usage in 10 days, they were able to halt the spread of new COVID-19 cases. They made their own! So if you already have the materials, think about making masks–as many as you can. Do NOT make them if you are sick, and after you make the first one, wear it as you make the rest. You need to keep the mask making process as clean as possible. Donate to hospitals. Give them to your friends and family. Because we’re probably looking at 18 months before a vaccine is available and we’re going to have to go back into the workplace before then.

Watch Jeremy Howard’s presentation on YouTube explaining the importance of #masks4all. I spent some time researching DIY mask making this afternoon and it’s a practical thing I can do to try to keep myself and my loved ones healthy–and it’s something we ALL should do. But here’s the thing: don’t run out to the nearest fabric store to buy supplies! NO SHOPPING. Talk to your crafty friends! They’ve been dragon hoarding materials for YEARS looking for the perfect opportunity to use them. CRAFTMAKERS ASSEMBLE! Having something concrete and useful to do during this time of crisis has been one of the best things for my head.

Here are the best videos I’ve seen so far. There’s one for if you have no sewing machine, as well as a very detailed one for if you own a machine. The best is by the doctor that’s embedded here (I recommend this if you have a high risk job or if you’re making masks to send to hospitals) but remember, any mask is better than none.

 

The important thing here is my anxiety and need to prepare is being put to GOOD USE here. It’s a practical redirection of my energy that has the potential to make a difference as well. Not the sewing type? Me neither. But I’m going to learn to be.

The Internet is Killing Me but My Support is on the Internet

The modern dilemma, eh?

About 15 years ago, I started a new job, moving to a new town, where I didn’t know anyone. I’d just finished a five year run as my father’s caretaker, and I was looking to start fresh with a new life–new everything. After years of working a full time job and then spending 6 pm to midnight caring for my father with dementia, I was looking for friendships, hobbies, and hoping to meet the love of my life. All those things happened, but not the way I expected.

See, at first, I looked into joining organizations that I thought would be fun and challenging, as well as a way of meeting new people. I was still competing my horse then, so I made a few friends at the new boarding barn. I tried inviting people over for movie nights or making plans to go out together, but we all were on such different schedules that trying to coordinate a get-together was as fraught with difficulty as scheduling a Middle Eastern Peace Summit. 

I tried joining a few clubs and activities around my new town, but found it nearly impossible to attend on a regular basis. As a former actress, there was great appeal in the notion of auditioning for a play with the local theater, but again, my schedule prohibited me from committing to something like that. I began writing again, which filled my creative void, but didn’t provide the social interaction I craved, until I began posting my stories online.

All of the sudden, I had friends.

I was invited by one of them to join Live Journal, and before I knew it, I’d gotten sucked into fandom. I’d always been a geeky girl, a Trekkie and sci-fi fan, so this new and improved world of fanfiction archives and story fests was right up my alley. Even better was the fact I could participate on my own time, on my own schedule, be it 5:30 am before a 2 hour commute to work or at 1 am when I’d just finished a new story and couldn’t wait to share. Everything I learned about computers I learned from fandom, by the way: how to code html, how to embed images, how to make graphics…

Fandom expanded my horizons in other ways too. I made international friends, had attitudes adjusted, learned a greater degree of tolerance than I had growing up in my small rural towns. I found the courage to travel to meet up with my fandom friends–people who knew more about what was going on in my life than the people I saw in person every day. I was surrounded by acquaintances and coworkers in real life. My friends were mostly online. I even met my husband online through a dating service–something that I’d never have done had it not been for my time on the Internet.

But these days, the Internet is a bigger source of anxiety than it is a place of fun. Social media has become a huge part of everyone’s lives, to the extent that when you walk into a restaurant, more often then not, you see people sitting at tables across from each other with their eyes glued to their phones. I used to read a book when waiting for the bus (or waiting for anything, for that matter). Now I scroll my social media feeds. Around and around I go, from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to What’s App and so on.

And they aren’t making me happy. The news is horrific–and most of the time, there is nothing I can do about it. Pandemics. Wildfires. Global Fascism on the rise. Ice caps melting. Species going extinct. The end of Medicare and Social Security as we know it. The impending crash of the economy. People in cages. And if it isn’t some bit of terrifying news, it’s the unconscious competition to show that your life is more exciting and successful than those around you, or the drive, drive, drive to get your book (your art, your music) noticed.

Whenever I feel this way, I’m tempted into doing a social media blackout, but I never manage it very well. After a day or two of self-imposed going off the grid, I’m back because I couldn’t help but check out my Twitter feed, or I’d committed to doing something that required my online presence.

And then there’s the fact that my support group is still largely online. There’s the rub. Because I know I can share my fears and within seconds, someone will chime in with offers of support. It might only be a virtual hug or a funny gif, but those are the kinds of things that can get you through a bad day, especially if you work in a hostile environment and virtual support is the only kind you can get.

But I’m noticing a greater tendency on my part not to want to do anything but mess around online. Stay home in front of the laptop or with the phone in hand. If I could order my groceries and do all my banking online, I’d never leave the house on my days off. It’s an effort to put the dogs in the car and take them out for a run in the national forest or go horseback riding–things I used to love doing. I keep looking at my watch and thinking, “I have this block of time I need to use for writing!” only I pick up the phone, and four hours later, I haven’t typed a single word in the WIP.

And it’s not making me happy. So when I’m done with my current commitments for the month of February, I’m going dark for a while. Taking the apps off my phone. Unplugging from the internet and tuning back into the real world around me. I doubt seriously this will hurt my writing career in the slightest. We worry about losing followers or not keeping fans happy, but honestly, I don’t think most people will even notice. Like me, they’re busy doing the rat race of running in circles on the social media wheel. If anything, I strongly suspect the time off from social media will help my writing process immensely as I find the ability to daydream and brainstorm again. But the real value will be in becoming connected to the things that matter to me.

Just in time for this post, I came across this old Twitter thread from former CIA personnel, Cindy Otis. (I know, right? The irony…) In in the OP talks about toxic news cycles and how to cope. She doesn’t advocate ignoring the news–and she’s right, it won’t go away. But she outlines positive steps to take to make yourself feel better. You can check out the link or follow the tips here:

  1. Take Action: Volunteer. A hard one for me, I admit because I’m already on compassion burnout as it is. But that’s why I give money when I can’t give time, and why I focus on local rather than national or international efforts. You need to see the benefits of your kindness. Do it.
  2. Accept Your Limits: The flip side of the first, true. But critical. Remember, if the O2 mask drops down on the plane, you have to put YOUR mask on first before attempting to help others. You can’t do anything if you’ve passed out from lack of air.
  3. Research before Panicking: particularly important in this age of disinformation. Check your facts before sharing that post. For all you know, the crisis you’re sharing may have already been resolved by the time you hit ‘send’. Or it may not even be true.
  4. Get up and Move: that’s right. Unplug. Turn off the phone, go outside, play with the dog, call a friend. Your body and brain needs a break from stressful content but also you need to release that negative energy. Even if you don’t feel like taking a walk, do it. You’ll feel better afterward.
  5. Set Rules: I like this one. No Social Media after a certain time. Only fiction reading at home. Whatever works best for you. Shut out the negative so you can recharge.
  6. Avoid Dark Holes: Don’t go down the rabbit hole of one bad news story after another. Don’t succumb to clickbait. Deal with one thing at a time. Don’t get yourself wound up about the coronavirus and then leap to climate change and then hyperventilate about how unprepared we are for all of this and how the next thirty years is going to break us as a society and species… Ooops. That was kind of specific, I see. You see what I mean, though.
  7. Have Fun, Darn it: Another tough one. It’s hard not to feel guilty having dinner with friends or enjoying a movie when the world is on fire. But the thing is, enjoying those little things is what life is all about. And sharing our fandom squee, or a beautiful photograph, or the joy of bringing home a new puppy or kitten doesn’t mean we’re shallow, terrible people because the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we’re not screaming about it. It’s all part of recharging. It’s all part of making sure we’re rested for the next fight.
  8. I added this one myself: Celebrate Your Wins: No matter how big or small. Because that’s what life is about too. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for sharing about your new book or your concert tickets or pictures from that awesome vacation. Because that’s what life’s about too. The things that make us happy.

Now excuse me while I go walk the dogs. 

The Difficulty–and Importance–of Resurrecting Good Habits

A few years ago, I used to take a 30-40 minute walk on a near-daily basis. It was rare for me to miss a day, even when it was bitterly cold. The thing most likely to deter me was extreme heat and humidity (which we get more often than not now). Even then, I made it out there most days.

It wasn’t easy. I work long hours, and in the short time between getting home and going to bed, I have to feed all the livestock, cook and eat dinner, do the routine chores, and hopefully get a little writing done. A daily walk wasn’t virtuous on my part–it was necessary. I had a big high-drive dog who needed the daily exercise to keep him sane enough to wait until my day off to take him for a longer hike. The only way I’d get it done was to walk in the door and go straight to his leash–if I didn’t do it right away on getting home, the chances were much slimmer I’d take him out for the length of time he needed. Especially, after dinner, when exhaustion would kick in. But I made it work because it was necessary.

Fast forward two years: my beloved but difficult dog Sampson succumbed to cancer, and Remington, my current big dog, though young is made of less intense stuff. Remy is also even more heat intolerant than I am, which is saying something. Then back in January, I injured my foot, which exacerbated an old knee problem, and the next thing I knew, I was no longer walking every day. By the time the foot/knee problem improved, I’d gotten out of the habit. I’d gained weight and my fitness was down as well. Now it was the hottest part of the summer and it was just easier to throw the ball for the dog in the shaded yard where he could jump in and out of the water trough at will than it was to force myself to do that daily walk again.

Likewise minding my food choices. See, I have a mild form of acne rosacea, which has gotten progressively worse with age. In my case, while stress is a player, food is definitely a trigger for me. Which means many of the foods I could get away with eating when I was younger are no longer an option. And yet, sometimes I forget that. No, scratch that. Sometimes I choose to ignore the truth. It’s especially hard for me around the holiday season. For me, the worse triggers are cinnamon (sob), cheese (double sob), and wine (bawling now), but also tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes (anything from the nightshade family), vinegar, and citrus. I recently discovered that people with acne rosacea frequently have hypertension too (which makes sense, as rosacea is a vascular problem), which means I’ve had to take wine off the list permanently. Along with caffeine, it sends my blood pressure into the stratosphere. I also seem to be sensitive to gluten and peanut butter, staples of my diet for most of my life. No cheese, no snickerdoodles or apple pie, no wine, no coffee, no chocolate (yep, there’s caffeine there) no bread, no pasta, no peanut butter? Is there really anything left? Anything left I want to eat that is?

Recently on a trip with friends, I choose to ignore my ‘rules’. After all, I’d broken them over and over again without major penalties, right? Only the combined effect of abusing so many rules at once was two days of feeling like crap while I had a major rosacea and hypertensive flare, which left me unable to enjoy my time with my friends. In response, I made a strict effort to eat according to the rules as I knew them, limiting myself largely to roasted chicken and massive salads (no dressing, limited tomatoes) for the rest of my trip.

What I discovered was not only did I calm my current BP and rosacea flare, but I felt better than I’d felt for a while. It made me realize that all that “cheating”, while it hadn’t erupted into an outright flare, was keeping me from feeling my best. From wanting to take the dogs on evening walks. From wanting to do anything more than flop on the couch when I got home from work. Even from writing. Because let me tell you, when you feel like crap, it’s much much harder to be creative.

You know what else is hard? Picking back up your good habits when you’ve fallen off the “habit” wagon. Just like exercise (or writing), practicing a good habit is a muscle that gets stronger with use and weaker with disuse. And when you’re already tired and not feeling well, finding the fortitude to stick to the changes that will make you feel better again isn’t easy. I come back to this point again and again in life: the realization that my current (minor) health issues now must dictate my eating choices, something I’ve resisted mightily ever since I was diagnosed. I drum my heels and wail in protest like a two year old, and yet the only one I’m hurting in all this is me.

I also know without a doubt that if I don’t start, I’ll lose even more ground than I already have. With fitness, with my health, with my writing… and even though I don’t feel as though I have the time to chip away at making these habits part of my life again (seriously, by the time you walk the dogs, and go shopping to keep fresh food in the house, or food prep in advance, and don’t forget that yoga/meditation/prayer–30 minutes here and there adds up to hours you must carve out of your daily schedule), if I want to see change in my life, I have to be the one to make changes.

I used to believe it took 21 days to create a new habit, good or bad, and honestly, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? It’s not even a month. Anyone can manage 21 days. But the truth of the matter is this is a misleading conception: It takes a minimum of 21 days to effectively instill a habit. It can take up to 90 days of regular (ie daily) engagement to make a habit stick.

At first glance, that seems discouraging, I know. After all, I’ve been telling myself I need to get my act in gear for years now. I’ll try for a few weeks–sometimes, depending on how hectic my life is only a few days. Invariably, I slide. But really, the only difference is time. We’ve been taught by too many advertising campaigns to Expect Results in 2 Weeks or Less! It’s just not true, whether we’re trying to institute new habits or return to old ones. No matter what we want to do, whether it’s to change our eating habits or get back into some form of regular activity, or learn a new craft, or improve your current skills–the key is regular practice of the thing in question. So really, the long time course to creating a habit is a good thing. It means I can keep trying and not give up.

I took this photo today and it made me so happy. 🙂

November will soon be upon us, and I know many will dive into NaNoWriMo as a result. Not me, I know that particular pressure isn’t one I need in my life right now. However, I fully intend to take advantage of all the great articles and conversations surrounding NaNo, and hope to make daily writing another one of those habits I pick back up again.

Today, I started with throwing out some of the trigger foods I know are problematic for me. Others, like the unopened jars of peanut butter, I’ll donate to food banks. I also took the dogs for a nice long walk in the woods, and though I’m a little stiff tonight, I managed without the pain I feared the activity would trigger. I ate a relatively healthy dinner too. Now I’m going to sit down with the WIP.

You don’t have to run a half marathon, go on a radical diet, or force 10 K words out of yourself in a single afternoon to call it progress. Slow, steady, and regular wins the habit-making race.

Walking the Fine Line of Burnout

Let me start off by saying first of all, this is not meant to be a whiny post about how I wish I could quit my Evil Day Job and spend all my time writing books (although I do). Nor is it a contest to see whose job sucks the most. Since I’m writing this post, chances are I’ll think it’s mine, no matter what you say. 🙂

It’s a post about walking that fine line between being able to do your job to the best of your ability and burnout–and what to do about it.

See, I think most of us are closer to burnout than we think. It’s almost a given these days. Who hasn’t heard of the newly minted lawyer or the medical resident who is worked to the bone as some sort of rite of passage, putting in over a hundred hours a week into a job that demands nothing less because they think that’s how it’s done. That’s how you advance, become partner, a senior staffer, move up in management. That one day you’ll have the corner office and the healthy paycheck and you’ll be able to catch up on sleep or your kid’s recitals or afford that really awesome vacation.

Only it’s never enough, is it? Because (at least in the US), our workplaces demand more and more from us every year, expecting us to get more done with less support staff, improve the bottom line with fewer rewards. Accept a “promotion” that is largely a title for doing the work we’re already performing. Forcing senior, experienced employees out because they can hire two new graduates for what they have to pay the veteran employee. I recently overheard employees at my local grocery discussing how everyone’s hours have been slashed to just under full time so the national chain can avoid paying benefits like health insurance. At the same time, the company is replacing cashiers with automated systems for checkout, and eating the cost of shoplifting instead of keeping the live people on staff.

And we accept it because we’re scared we’ll be the next on the chopping block.

I live in a rural area where work is hard to come by. I have a mortgage and bills to pay, which as I age, increasingly includes medical bills. I’m lucky to have a FT job which contributes significantly to the household economy. I know this. And at the same time, I resent the degree to which the job owns me.

I resent putting in 10 hour days and having that never be enough. I resent the advent of mobile technology making you accessible to your employer 24/7 with demands you fix something or take care of something on what should be your down time. Twenty years ago, my employer would have paid my health insurance in full as a perk of the job. Now I’m expected to contribute $400/month out of my paycheck every month to retain coverage.

I resent coming home at the end of a long day irritable and fried, unable to interact pleasantly with those I love. By the time I get to the house, I’m too tired to make reasonable decisions about what to have for dinner, let alone find the energy to work on the current story. I don’t like the person I am right now. And yet I scarcely know how to change.

It’s a little thing, but one of the dictates of my workplace is that management gives me the next day’s assignments before I’m finished the current day’s work so I can review them in advance. They take this one step further in that I receive the workload for the day after my day off as well. The end result is my inbox is never empty. I never get to check off the day’s assignments as complete because there is always more sitting in my inbox.

Small wonder I dream about work as though I’ve never left, nightmares in which I look out the office window to see long lines of people waiting to be seen, like the lines outside Best Buy before a Black Friday sale. I never get to say I’m done for the day.

For a while now, I’ve been saying I’m on the edge of burnout, because in my head, “burned out” is a state of non-functionality, where you are incapable of doing your job, one step away from a nervous breakdown. Not willing to declare myself a charred cinder, I admit to being close just the same. And I have to admit there are days when the idea of a nervous breakdown sounds good if it means weeks spent in an asylum with nothing better to do than stare at the ceiling.

But I’m starting to think the gradient toward burnout is more subtle than you’d suspect. Whatever it is, I think I’m nearly there.

But if I am, then what? I still have bills to pay. I can’t just lie on the couch and read books all day, though I’d dearly love to give that a shot for a few weeks.

Which was why I was glad to stumble across Burnout:The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA. Various people on my social media feeds had been talking about it, and though I didn’t want to admit to actual burnout, I felt I was close enough to consider reading it.

I haven’t gotten very far into it yet, but I’m already of the opinion almost every woman I know could benefit from reading it. Not just those suffering from near burnout, either from work or their family lives, but also women struggling with PTSD, or relentless perfectionism, or just the demands that society seems to place on most of us. Men, too, with their struggle to meet society’s needs as well as those of their families, all while holding their emotions tightly in check.

According to the book, the biggest factors in burnout stem from never completing the cycle: as cavemen, if we were attacked by a saber-toothed tiger, we either survived the attack or we died. If we died, our stress was over. If we survived, there was a huge sense of relief and a celebration among our other cave-dwellers as  we shared our story of our exciting near-miss. The adrenaline spiked, our muscles expended the energy in our survival, and then it was over.

In modern society, it is never over. The saber-toothed tigers are always with us, snapping at our heels, demanding we run faster, jump higher to escape–only we never do. We nap fitfully on the ledge outside our caves, always ready to leap up and run again.

Small wonder we struggle with weight issues here in the US. Our adrenal glands are on maximum overload all the time. And how do we handle stress? We eat. It’s a physiologic drive for survival because we always feel under threat.

Frankly, I’m not sure how I can change things given I have so little say so in how management tells me to do my job. But change I must. I can’t keep dozing on the edge of my ledge, longing for the day when I’ll be able to rest knowing I am in a saber-toothed tiger-free zone.

So while I take most self-help books with a grain of salt, this one is resonating with me.

Feeling Guilty over Joy When the World is on Fire

photp by Ashutosh Sonwani pexels.com

TW for frightening world news events and the despair they cause. (I promise I’ll make it better, though)

 

 

I have a new book coming out this week, and I gotta tell you.

Most days it feels wrong to talk about it.

I’m not the only one. I think when you take the natural reticence many authors have about self-promotion and add it to the fact most days, the world news is a dumpster fire, it’s difficult to feel right about promoting something as trivial as a new book, or celebrating any event in your life. What if you line up a bunch of timed social media releases, and they hit your timeline on the same day of some horrific event? I don’t know about you, but something like that makes me cringe inside. If that happened, I’d rush off and delete the rest of any planned posts and downplay my book news.

And yet, as of the first of this month, there have been more mass shootings in the US than there have been days in the year. It’s fair to say it’s nigh unto impossible to avoid releasing your doves of happy news on a day when nothing bad has happened. Not a day goes by when we don’t learn of fresh horror: be it rampant, unchecked government corruption (honestly, there are too many stories to link here), the acceleration of climate change, the news that the same insecticides killing the bees are also affecting songbirds, another dozen stories on racial injustice, or whatever hits the news that day. With today’s social media, it’s easier than ever to connect to world events, whether or not the reporting is accurate.

Recently, I wrote a blog post about a reporter who attended a romance conference under false pretenses in order to blast the industry and those who work in it. A point this so-called journalist kept making was that these authors came together to “peddle their soft porn” while “the Amazon burns.” Essentially, she compared romance authors to Nero fiddling while Rome burned (another case of history being written by the victors).

The article by this journalist seeking a free weekend away from her kids enraged many romance readers and writers alike. And for me, it pointed out one glaring hole in her argument about the frivolousness and uselessness of romance stories: as long as the Amazon burns, ANYTHING someone takes pleasure in counts as a selfish waste of time. That includes taking your kids to Little League, being excited about a new job, sharing your vacation pictures online, or seeing the latest blockbuster movie. By this standard, there should be no sports fans, no knitting groups, no book clubs. Why bother getting a new puppy or kitten; we’re all going to die.

Problem is, that holds true regardless if the end is 20 minutes or 200 years from now. Sneering at romance is simply more acceptable than belittling diehard football fans.

Face it, “the Amazon burns” is the perfect metaphor for human civilization as a whole right now. Moderating climate change should be our greatest priority, but that requires a whole chain of events, including putting people in power who believe in science and prioritize global concerns instead of lining their pockets. To take pleasure in the little things in life isn’t a repudiation of making things better in the world.

It helps.

It reminds us the world is worth saving, that people are worth saving. That there are good things in this world, worth sharing with others.

On a more practical level, our social media interconnectedness, while great for sharing things, can also make us more anxious and depressed. And for many, reading is a stress-reducing activity as powerful, if not more so, than meditation. I know this to be true. Without even realizing it, I stumbled upon this a few years ago. I work long hours at a high-stress job, and while I’ve always been a big reader, I desperately needed to spend my 20 minute lunch break with a book each day. If I’m behind my book, don’t talk to me. Don’t expect me to answer work-related questions. I’m the taxi driver sitting at the wheel with the OFF DUTY sign engaged. That twenty minutes absorbed in a story is twenty minutes in which my brain has disengaged from a vicious cycle of worry and anxiety. And I can take a deep breath and come back to slog through the rest of the day’s problems.

The truth is, regardless of whether the world is on fire, we still have to go to work, raise our kids, take care of our elderly parents, deal with relationship issues or that cancer diagnosis, decide if we should take the promotion that moves us across country, and mow the lawn. We still have to live our lives and living without joy is no way to live at all.

So I say, revel in your vacation photos to the Grand Tetons. Celebrate your daughter’s win at the science fair or your son’s award in the local talent contest. Post your puppy pictures and make someone smile. Learn to crochet. Share images of that crafting project you finally completed. Go out to that anniversary dinner. Laugh with friends over a movie. Live-Tweet your favorite TV show or the book you’re reading.

And don’t be afraid to promote your art. It might be exactly the thing that helps someone get through their day.

Dealing with Writer’s Block: Creativity Thrives in the Quiet Places

I’m in the process of final edits on my current project with a tight deadline, so I’ve been spending a lot of time with the manuscript lately. To the exclusion of just about everything else, I might add. No long walks with the dogs. No taking photographs on my rambles. Not riding the horse or swimming or anything. I sure as heck am not cleaning the house!

Just me and the manuscript, day after day. I’m in the final stages of polishing—looking for typos and making sure I have my ellipsis with consistent spacing throughout—that sort of thing. No major changes.

Yesterday we got a cool breeze rolling in, another hint of fall to come, and I decided to ride for an hour just to clear my head and move some muscles.

Shortly into my ride, as I was trotting around the arena in a circle, I had a eureka moment about the final scene in my book. Something that by changing, I could deepen the connection between the main protagonists and honor the fact that real character change doesn’t happen overnight. It was a great moment, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the draft and make the changes.

I love these moments, but as I finished my ride, it occurred to me I’ve been having less and less of them lately.

It’s really not that hard to see why. Fifteen years ago, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to take a phone with me on a dog walk. Ten years ago, when I began writing again, the phone stayed in my back pocket while I climbed hills and crossed creeks behind my dogs. Five years ago, when I began writing intending to publish, the phone was in my hand, but mostly to take pictures. But two things have happened in the last couple of years that give me pause. The first is an injury has sidelined me for months from many of my former activities. I haven’t been walking in ages because of plantar fasciitis, and then a knee injury.

The second is more insidious. I’m always looking at my social media feeds.

I used to watch my dogs at play, or take pictures of cool mushrooms, or close my eyes to the sun on my face and listen to birdsong.

Now I endlessly scroll, react, comment, or RT. Most of the time, to be honest, I’m in a state of rage over what I read. Not good for my mental health, but not good for writing, either.

In the book, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, the author speaks of the importance of freeing the creative power within you. Of releasing the imagination to go on rambles of its own. She describes how talking 5-6 mile walks does this for her, but only if she exists in the present during those walks. If she heads out on them with the intent of either plotting a story or performing “exercise”, the ideas don’t come. I recently read that Tolkien plotted out large bits of the Lord of the Rings trilogy on similar rambles with his dogs.

But it doesn’t have to be a long, physical activity. The Queen of Mysteries, Agatha Christie, once said she got her best ideas while doing the dishes. I find this to be true myself. Some of my best ideas–my eureka moments–come while I’m doing mindless tasks, such as cleaning stalls. And Ueland herself describes “little bombs of revelation” that go off when doing other things: sewing or carpentry, whittling or playing golf, and yes, dreamily washing the dishes.

The problem is, we have less and less time to free our minds to wander these days.  Something constantly demands our attention. We have tendonitis from constantly scolling and a crick in our necks from looking down at our phones. And that wonderful, lovely brainstorming time, those little bombs of revelation? Well, they aren’t happening nearly as often because our brains are never quiet enough to meander freely. And I’m coming at this as an adult who didn’t grow up with a smartphone plugged into my ear. I can’t imagine how much harder it’s going to be for the people behind us to find that sweet spot of creative revelation. It’s not just so you can get those little bombs going off either. If you’re blocked on your current project, I believe letting your mind out to play is one of the best ways to get around whatever hurdle is blocking you.

I’m reminded of an article I once read about a bomb-sniffing dog who got burned out on the job because his handler used to take him to the golf course on the weekends and have him find missing golf balls. The handler mistakenly thought the dog was having fun doing this simple activity, but what he didn’t realize was the dog took finding golf balls as seriously as hunting out explosives, and the poor dog was effectively working seven days a week as a result.

So I plan to incorporate more ‘free time’ into my brain’s activity each week. I challenge you to do the same. Find “your moment of Zen” by whatever means necessary. If music takes you there, make a playlist and run it on repeat. Pick back up some of the activities you’ve set aside so you can grind out your stories. Stop grinding and let your brain out to play.

You’ll be glad you did.

The World May Be Burning but Romance Saves Lives

photp by Daria from pexels

Like many in Romancelandia this morning, I woke to hear about the hatchet piece done on NYT bestselling author, Nalini Signh, by someone named Vicki Anderson for New Zealand’s Stuff magazine. I won’t link to the post. Suffice to say, not only is the overall tone condescending about the romance industry and community, but the best part is Ms. Anderson attended the romance conference she skewered as a paid guest of Nalini Singh.

Yes, you read that right. Ms. Anderson entered a $1500 all-expenses-paid scholarship contest held by Ms. Singh so that two recipients could attend the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference. 

After opening with a scathing commentary on how the participants of the conference are discussing “beautiful jiggling breasts” and “manly bulging thighs” while “the Amazon burns”, Ms. Anderson then blasts the romance industry further by sneering with the voice of literary purists, describing romance authors as laughing all the way to the bank as they peddle their soft porn.

At this point, I have to ask Ms. Anderson: who hurt you, baby?

In all fairness, I, too, have said E. L. James is laughing all the way to the bank, but my tone was more of envy than scorn. Ms. Anderson has nothing but scorn for the genre, though she admits to liking many of the people she met at the conference, including the lovely Ms. Singh. She also admits that attending the conference basically amounted to a free weekend away from the kids, so whoo-hoo! Let’s go.

As she describes her weekend experiences, you can tell the conversations and the people are making a difference to Ms. Anderson. Her descriptions become less arch, her attempt to be witty, cutting, and clever as a store-brand Dorothy Parker fades as she becomes more involved with her subject. But as the weekend draws to a close, she has to go back to her real life, and her bitterness and cynicism resurface.

It would have made for a better, if still unethical, article for Ms. Anderson to say how the experience of attending the conference changed her mind about romance stories. That she now understood the joy that brings romance writers together, that as a community, we believe in hope. I might have forgiven her dismissive and belittling manner if she’d come to that kind of conclusion, but she did not. She finished her post with a reminder that the Amazon still burns.

I can see where she might be bitter and disillusioned. I’m angry too.

I’m livid that the wealthiest people in this world aren’t content with what they have, and must grab more to the detriment of us all. I’m furious that people can willfully deny climate change, and that we’re escalating to an unsustainable world habitat that will destroy societies and take us back to the Stone Age—if we survive at all. Daily I despair over the irreplaceable loss of species, and how toxic algal blooms that can kill your dog are becoming more widespread, how arctic ice is melting, and extreme weather events will only become more common, and how these end-game climate changes are likely to take place in my lifetime, to say nothing of the mess we’re leaving behind for our children. Perhaps that’s also why Ms. Anderson is so mad.

But I have to ask, why is her sneering disdain reserved for romance writers? Why not mock the scores of people who sit fixated in front of television sets or packed into stadiums this weekend to watch football or soccer? Why not rail at the parents taking their kids to Little League, or the theater-goers piling in to see the latest blockbuster?

Because making fun of romance isn’t new, and oh by the way, Ms. Anderson, your misogyny is showing too. And if you’re so bent about the fires being set in the Amazon, fires that the President Bolsonaro of Brazil refused financial aid to battle, tell me, what are you doing about the Amazon? Didn’t you just get $1500? How much of that went to fire relief?

For some time now, I’ve been writing about the struggle to find your creativity in a world that seems hopeless, and how I take refuge from the news in comfort reads. At the recent RWA conference in NYC (the American version of what Ms. Anderson attended in NZ), keynote speaker and author Jennifer L. Armentrout told the audience flatly that “I am here to tell you, 100%, you have saved someone’s life.” Today, authors and readers have filled my timeline with statements of how reading—and romances in particular—has saved them in dark times.

Readers share the series that got them through chemotherapy or that terrible divorce. Books that helped them survive crushing depression, when it was all they could do to get out of bed. The books that gave them temporary respite from their lives as caretakers to the elderly, or suffering from chronic pain, or a job that sucked the life out of them. Please tell me how reading a romance is somehow a stupid waste of time, an activity to be mocked, but being obsessed with Game of Thrones or a video game is not? (I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with things either. Hey, man. Whatever gets you through the day…)

I went through a spell a while back when I read a book every 2-3 days. For months, this was the only way I got through the day without panic attacks or taking a fistful of pills. I tried meditation apps, counseling, binging-watching The Nanny (do NOT judge me!), but reading made the most difference to my mental health. The only thing that stopped the loop of anxiety and depression.

I call my representatives in Congress to urge them to do the right thing, even though my voice shakes. I attend marches, despite my extreme fear of mass shooters and crowds in general. I donate to causes I believe in. Most days I have to choose: do I send something to the candidate I support, or help out a friend’s GoFundMe for medical bills?

Ms. Anderson’s take on reading and writing romance is akin to my boss thinking I’m not a hard enough worker because I read a book during my 20 minute lunch break, despite the fact I’m putting in a 10-12 hour workday. It’s like telling a soldier they should never try to take their minds off the battle ahead, or a climber Mt. Everest must be scaled in a single day, forget acclimating to the thinner air or taking shelter when a storm blows up.

I’ve said it many times, but while I dream of hitting bestseller status, I don’t write for that reason. I write because life is pretty crappy most days, and we get inundated with horrible news on a daily basis. I write because spending a few hours in my own universe every day, one where I can make sure the good guys win and the heroine gets her happy ending, keeps me sane. I share my stories because if I can take even one person out of their crappy existence for a few hours—to make them forget their chronic pain, their financial woes, their mean boss, their dying family member, the fact the world is a dumpster fire and we’re all going to die—even for a brief time, then I’ve done my job as a storyteller.

When I think about why this is, and why writing stories with happily-ever-after endings MATTER, damn it, I can think of no better way of putting it than this statement by a very good friend of mine:

We build instead of destroy.

Maybe you should think about that, Ms. Anderson.

 

 

Fighting “Productivity” Culture

I work weekends, and my husband doesn’t, which frequently leads to me coming home on Saturdays and asking how his day went and what did he do? Often, he sheepishly tells me he didn’t do anything, and then he apologizes.

“What are you sorry for?” My asking about his day isn’t meant to make him feel bad. I’m just showing interest in how he spent his time while I was gone.

Invariably, he says, “I feel like I should be doing something productive.”

I know what he means.

I work 10-12 hour days. My “free” time is so constrained that I feel I must get the most out of it. The dogs have to get some exercise every day, and if I don’t ride the horse enough each week, it’s not safe for either of us. I want to finish my current WIP (and I’m so close! Nearly there!) but I also need to write blog posts, work on my newsletter, schedule social media postings, write some Bookbub reviews, and read or watch all those marketing posts and videos jamming my inbox. Weekends are when I try to do a little meal prep for the coming week, which usually means a grocery run, and then there’s trying to cram in yoga and meditation to manage my stress levels. I have so much to do on any given day, I feel as though I can’t waste any of it, especially if that means just sitting around watching TV or reading a book, or God forbid, taking a nap.

Too often I come home from work completely fried, unable to make healthy dinner choices because my decision-making capacity is used up for the day. Sometimes I can barely muster enough energy to watch TV or read a book. Because of my tight schedule, I have to plan everything pretty far in advance, and sometimes I resent the hell out of that. Most days I have to pick and choose what I’m not going to get done, and I feel resentment and guilt over that, too. 

This morning I was scheduled to meet friends to go horseback riding, but I’d slept badly the night before, and had only just dropped off to sleep when the alarm went off. The day dawned in the upper 20s with the threat of light snow–and it would still be close to freezing by the time we mounted. Normally I love riding in brisk weather, but I couldn’t make myself get out of bed. I texted my friends and weenied out. I just didn’t want to go.

More and more, this is becoming a default choice for me, even for things I love doing. I realize it isn’t necessarily a good thing–I’m missing out on activities I enjoy and spending time with people I like–but the truth of the matter is many of the things I do for fun don’t feel like fun right now. They feel like another obligation, another task that Must Be Done. Sundays can be the worst because I’m all-too conscious of the coming work week ahead and am already dreading it.

I’m reminded of the article I read about a Search and Rescue dog whose handler inadvertently burned him out by taking him to the golf course every weekend and letting the dog search for missing golf balls. The handler thought he was giving his dog a little fun, but the dog took searching for the missing balls as seriously as his ‘day job.’ In short, the handler never let his dog take a break and just be a dog.

That’s how I’m starting to feel about the things I do for fun. It’s my cue that I’m overbooked, over-committed, and completely exhausted.

This past weekend, a friend of mine confessed she was feeling guilty for not doing anything except sitting on the couch watching TV. The thing is, I know (like me) life has thrown her a series of hard blows in a row, finishing up with a debilitating illness. That sort of thing takes it out of you, and yet we live and work in a culture that expects us to shake off everything and keep going. This is so ingrained that we expect it of ourselves as well. We expect to be doing something “productive” at all times and feel bad when we don’t.

Especially here in the US, we burn the candles at both ends, scrape up the wax, slap it back on the wick, and burn it some more. We’re penalized at work if we take sick days and we’re weirdly proud of how little vacation time we take. You’d think if anyone understood the value of keeping the staff healthy and minimizing the spread of disease, it would be medical professionals, but I once had a conversation with a nurse at my doctor’s office about the fact there was an employee’s notice on the wall about staying home if they had a fever–and yet she pointed out to me they got written up if they missed too much time off work.

We’re a culture of do more with less means and yet we don’t understand why our bricks are substandard because we ran out of straw a long time ago.

This weekend, my friend needed to sit on the couch and veg out with some comfort-level movie-watching. Mentally, emotionally, physically, that was exactly what she needed to do. Know what happens to fields that constantly bear the same crops without letting the soil go through fallow periods? The dirt becomes depleted of nutrients, the quality of the crops goes down, and eventually, nothing grows.

So stop beating yourself up for those “lazy” Sundays. Doze on the couch with the cat. Read a book. Take a long walk or lie in a hammock and do nothing. It’s not a sin. It’s allowed. More importantly–it’s necessary to your mental and creative health.

Sometimes you climb the mountain. Sometimes you admire the view.