I made waffles for breakfast this morning because tomorrow my sons are getting on a plane and flying far away from me. They love waffles, so it was a good excuse to gather everyone into the kitchen at the same time. They sat across the table from each other taking turns with the butter and syrup while they talked about a game that they’ve been playing. Points and bosses were discussed with smiles and humor. I watched them and listened to the timbre of their voices, they both sound like Howard now. Particularly if I’m upstairs and can’t make out what is being said. They’ve negotiated who gets which suitcase and after church we’ll fill up those suitcases with clothes. Tomorrow they fly to go visit grandparents. I will drop them off and a few hours later I’ll welcome my girls home. Last week it was my girls that I watched knowing they’d be traveling.
Tomorrow I’ll help the girls unpack their suitcases and their experiences. They did things that were fun. Things happened that were stressful. They visited my grandmother who no longer has a clear grasp on who anyone is. The saw an aquarium, went ice skating. Yet I think the whole trip has been a good thing. Even the hard parts. I’ll be glad to have them back where I can hug them.
“You seem better since the pioneer trek.” My sister said. I was surprised to hear it, because I hadn’t realized the shift was visible from the outside. Possibly my sister is particularly attuned and able to discern how I’m doing. Yet I can see dozens of things each day which are easier now than they were before. Some of this is because I don’t think that anything else this summer has to offer will be as difficult as the trek. Some of it is because I’ve started taking medication for depression/anxiety.
Today and yesterday weren’t great days. Nothing bad happened in them, but I found it difficult to get things done because in order to engage with tasks I had to push through a cloud of thoughts. Most of them were about how I’m not good at [task], how I’d fail at [task], why [life thing] will only get harder, and how much work needs to be done. For several weeks I’ve not had that fog of negative thoughts. Before that it was thick, dark, and constant. What I don’t have today is the pervasive fear that causes me to over react to small things. When Patch begins to ratchet up in anxiety because something is wrong in his world, I’m able to observe and offer calm guidance. This is in contrast to me crashing into tears because I’m afraid his anxiety is evidence that nothing we’ve done has helped or will ever help. “Doomed forever” is not a very comforting world view and it landed on me a lot.
Naturally part of the brain fog is the thought “see, even medicine won’t help.” Which is a ridiculous thought, because even though I’m having a slog-through-it day, I’m not crying. Since starting medication I’ve had entire weeks without crying in them. I’d stopped believing it was possible to have non-crying weeks. Today’s ambient mood has more to do with some conversations I had in the past few days. The conversations churned up some feelings and thoughts. They reminded me that while things are better, our family still has emotional work to do, and most of that work is outside my direct control. I can encourage my kids to grow, I can’t make them. Even with the emotional churn, the conversations were good to have. They are part of the emotional work that must be done. Also affecting my emotions is the fact that my two daughters are off in California to visit grandparents. I know they’re safe and having good experiences, but the portion of my brain that tracks the status of my children keeps pinging me to tell me that a couple have fallen off the radar. That raises the ambient tension level in my brain.
Despite the brain fog I’ve managed to get quite a bit accomplished today. I focus on one thing at a time and work my way through. And every time a portion of my brain begins to fret about the next thing or things of next month, I reign it back in. One thing at a time is plenty. Or at least a way to get the necessary work done. The trouble is that I need to figure out how to sort and banish the fog. That’s about as easy as it sounds. I’m not even sure where to begin, except to keep taking the medicine for a while, and to feel grief when it occurs rather than to shunt it aside for later. Maybe one thing at a time will gradually make the fog disperse. For this week, I’m preparing for GenCon.
In April and May we finished a room in our basement which became a bedroom for my two boys. They love their new space. They even got to pick their paint and carpet. The room they vacated got repainted and turned into Kiki’s bedroom. She decorated with all her lovely things and it became a warm and welcoming place. This left Gleek as the only kid without a new bedroom. A few weeks ago she confessed to me that her room felt a little depressing to her, particularly when compared with her sister’s room. I can’t say I blamed her. The white walls felt bare and the wall hangings hadn’t been arranged, they were accumulated. And many of them had been put up with an entirely different arrangement of furniture.
So we spent time over the next weeks helping her sort through her accumulation of things. It was past time for this anyway. She’s a teenager now and many of the collections of her younger years were simply clutter in her life. We had to take it in batches because each box of random objects contained both treasures and garbage. The difference between the two was not always apparent to eyes other than Gleek’s. So we sorted and then we talked paint colors. Gleek confessed a desire to have a bright purple wall. We picked a bedspread that would go with such a wall and then we put up test patches of paint.
There is still work to do in order to make the room truly Gleek’s space. She needs to open up her box of wall hangings and make decisions about which of them will go up on the walls. We may want to do something about the old, stained furniture. But this is a good start for Gleek to truly take ownership of the room and begin to figure out who she is as a teenager.
I like the purple wall already.
“How are you today?” She asked.
But today I answered “good” without thinking about it. And I was telling the truth. Sometimes it is the smallest of details where I can see how things are getting better.
I remember when planning for GenCon was hugely terrifying and stressful. It loomed like a giant in my brain and I was always terrified that I would get it wrong. Yet this year I’m departing for GenCon in less than two weeks and the whole preparation process has felt… uncomplicated. The list of things to do was huge and complex. There are lots of niggling details I have to get right, but they’re all familiar niggling details. I know how this works. I can just do the things and not be afraid it will all fall apart. A large part of why GenCon has become routine is because we have a stable and amazingly effective ground crew who make everything possible. Without them the show would be much harder to manage.
This year is particularly fun for me, because I get to go. I’ll get to attend the writer’s symposium. I’ll get to find game professionals and ask pertinent questions about how I should put the Planet Mercenary book together. I’ll get to wander around and feed my brain with details about how the game industry works so that I can create something that will work in that space. I don’t have any scheduled program items. I won’t be tied to the booth, we have a crew for that. Though I’ll undoubtedly step in to give people breaks as necessary. I’ll get to thank the crew in person. I’ll get to spend hours talking to writer people about anything and everything.
It is going to be a good show and I’m glad I get to be there for it.
I like this space we created where trek is complete and I excused the kids from most of their scheduled events. I’ve had three days in a row where I focused on business administration, customer support, accounting, and design work. I don’t think I’ve had a run of three good work days in a row since some time last fall. I think I might get two more before the end of the week, which would be exceedingly helpful. Next week is going to be a strange week, three of my four children will be away on trips. Patch has scout camp and my two girls will be off for their trip to visit their grandparents. This probably means that Link will need extra attention from me as I encourage him to contact people outside our house for company. I might get two solid work weeks in a row.
I’m still untangling the threads of thought from trek and from all the months before. I suspect the process is going to take a while and I need to just let it happen naturally rather than trying to force it to go faster. I suspect I’ll pull together thoughts and stories once I have access to the pile of pictures that Kiki has been processing as the Trek photographer. Until then, I’ll just enjoy the fact that I feel calmer and quieter than I have in a long time.
We’re still sorting our thoughts and our house post pioneer trek. There was a lot of physical clean up because of mud, wet clothes, wet sleeping bags, and all the miscellaneous camping gear. The three adults in my house have spent several long conversations talking about things that happened and how we felt about them. The three teens in my house have dived back into their video games and other familiar activities. I continue to feel scoured out. The inside of my mind and soul feel spacious, as if I’ve gotten rid of emotional clutter. Or maybe the space inside me has gotten bigger. Either way, everything that I can see coming feels more possible than it did before the trek. I still don’t know how all the things will turn out, but I’m less afraid that they’ll turn out badly. Peace and calm are strange sensations after spending so long in daily emotional turmoil.
This next week is a rest period for the kids. We’ve cancelled some things and intend to just let them have an easy week. They’ve earned it. Howard and I will spend the week focused on plowing through work and getting things done. We have two weeks until GenCon and there are things to prepare. This “get piles of work done” also counts as a restful week. We are so glad to have a couple of weeks where we can work unimpeded.
After the storm there is a calm. It is calm inside my head today and it feels strange. Only inside this calm can I see how very afraid I’ve been for at least six months. Pioneer Trek was not the only reason I was afraid, but it seemed specifically designed to punch every single fear I had. It took my family outside of our comfort zone and far away from all our usual coping strategies. It made us uncomfortable and miserable. We were obligated to a large group of people and so we had to find ways to keep going even when we felt broken. All of the struggles I’ve had with my kids were exposed to view because there wasn’t any privacy.
And that was just my emotional stuff. There was six hours of driving with an hour where the caravan of nine vehicles was stopped on the side of the road because of a faulty tire. We had another hour stopped because our bishop received word that his mother had died suddenly. It rained while we were setting up camp the first night. Then it rained again halfway through our second day of hiking. Not just rain, but cold, blowing, almost hail. We were soaked and cold. My son Link was riding in a rickshaw because the walking was too much for him. Other people had to pull him every step of the way and I felt the burden of that. By the time we came to the river crossing, no one bothered to change into their water shoes because everyone had been walking in squelching shoes for more than a mile already. Then back at camp we discovered a wet mess. We’d collapsed the tents because we worried about them blowing away in our absence. All of the tents were covered in puddles of water. Many of the tents had leaked through. Lifting the tent sent water inside of others. About half of camp had wet bedding and it was still raining. We’d taken some of the smallest kids (twelve year olds) and put them inside a heated van because hypothermia was a real possibility. We had word that our planned third day of hiking was not going to be allowed because the group who had gone out that day had to be rescued off the trail. The goal was mild hardship, not actual peril. So the leaders met and decided we needed to pack up and go home two days earlier than planned. Wet things were rolled up and stashed chaotically into the trailers. We fed everyone and then drove from six pm until midnight-thirty. The last part of the drive was through an astonishing amount of rain, thunder, and lightning, all of which was headed right toward where we would have been camping.
We spend the third day all gathered at the church building. We put tents back up to let them dry. We lay out sleeping bags and pads. We cleaned out the rented vans and ate some of the left over food. We finished up some of the planned activities and put a closing prayer on the whole thing.
All of that, plus months of advance stress. And I’m very glad for all of it. Here are the things which would not have happened if we hadn’t been miserable:
Link got to see other members of our congregation willingly pulling him along in his rickshaw. In fact there were more people who wanted turns than got them. I didn’t hear anyone complain that he got to ride when they didn’t. On the first day I broke because he had shut down and I was terrified that the experience would break him in a permanent way. By the third day I saw him working side by side with others and talking to them.
Gleek, Patch, and Kiki all checked up on me to make sure I was okay, because they saw how stressed and cold and miserable I was. They saw me cry messily. So did others and they took care of me too.
Gleek walked with me through the cold and rain, her arm around me.
Kiki stepped up and had some hard conversations with Link during the time when he was so emotionally shut down that he was ready to just sit in a van until time to go home. He talked to her about things he’s never said to anyone except me.
Patch forgot his rain poncho back at camp, so during the cold, wet walk he was completely soaked. Yet he kept going. He was one of the hypothermia kids we put into dry clothes and into a heated van as soon as we hit camp.
And those are only the specific instances that I can remember off the top of my head. More than anything else I think that the calm comes from knowing that this hard experience was really important for all the members of our family. I still don’t know why, at least not all of the whys. I do know that hard experiences force growth and we’ve been in sore need of some growth. I feel like this experience has shifted some things in me. It has built connections with our church community. It pushed all of us beyond our limits, so now we get new limits. I am less afraid of things to come, because I can’t imagine that any of it will be harder than the past three days. I feel scoured out and clean with most of the mental chaos washed away.
All that remains is to put away the camping gear, wash away the mud, and to sleep until we’re not physically tired anymore.
It appears that more than a week has passed since I last posted. I was wondering how that could happen, then I made the following list of my projects in process:
And then there has been a full load of anxiety attached to all of the above. I’ve spent quite a lot of energy telling myself that everything will be fine. The truth is that trek may very well be an entirely miserable experience. Or it could be a fantastic one. I don’t know how this will turn out, I just know that it is an important experience for our family to have. We felt that strongly when we agreed to go. I’ll admit that I’d like to come home and help my kids process and learn from amazing experiences instead of helping them process miserable ones. I have to remind myself that my job isn’t to make sure that my kids only have good experiences. My job is to help them learn and grow from whatever experiences they have. It is really stressful spending so much time and energy preparing for a thing without knowing how much emotional clean up we’ll have to do afterward. We leave at o’dark thirty on Tuesday.
Mental Health Management
Schlock Mercenary / Regular business
So that’s what I’ve been up to and what I’ll be doing in the next few weeks. I’m sure I’ll return from trek with stories to tell. Though if the stories are hard, telling them may wait a while.
Scott King of The Creator’s Cast recently interviewed me. Those interviews are now live. I’ve listened to them and am glad to say that either I didn’t say anything dumb, or that Scott used his excellent editing skills to make me sound good. They are good interviews. Scott asks good questions.
The first is a Meet Sandra Tayler interview where I talk about all of the things that I do. The second digs in deeper to talk about creative process.