I have notes for a blog post on parenting depression with a focus on teenage and newly adult depressed people. Meant to write it up today, instead my dishwasher flooded through the floor into the basement. This required every towel in the house and six buckets to contain the water. Now I have dehumidifiers and fans running in two rooms. Again.
On the up side, we had four functioning adults in the house to rapid manage the flood. Even though my daughter’s fiance was actually supposed to be convalescing on the couch with a head cold. We made him lay back down as soon as the crisis was over.
Also my parents were in town for a visit and we ended up having lunch in my house (instead of meeting at a restaurant) while I talked with the plumber whose error caused the flood (and who will pay for the damage to be repaired) and also the disaster recovery company guy who brought me the fans and will do the repairs. Visiting was squeezed in around signing of contracts and contingency planning. Fortunately my parents already planned to stay at a different house because not only do I not have guest space, I have one of my kids who will have to sleep on the couch for the next five days.
Also I fielded phone calls from my kid who is considering moving back home and shifting his trajectory for the next six months. He needed help possibly applying for a new job and considering his options. My plan had been to invite him to stay home over the weekend and do a test run of living at home, only now his bed has buckets on it catching dripping water. So if he wants to come home, he’ll join his brother in sleeping on a couch.
Also I took my one of my college freshman to find out how to do a medical withdrawal from courses because they haven’t been able to make themselves go to class for about three weeks now. Depression, anxiety, and OCD can be serious hurdles for getting to class. Grades are no longer salvageable and it is time for us to regroup and figure out what comes next. (The answer is likely: take a gap year while they get a handle on self care and basic adulting.)
Tomorrow I have to get up, put on professional clothes and spend the day at a conference giving a presentation. Fortunately it is a presentation I’ve given many times before, so I can use my existing notes.
So that is how I spent my Mental Health Awareness day.
One of the hugely important and joyful things of this past spring and summer was watching my daughter and her boyfriend grow close and figure out how they wanted to be together. There were ups and downs. Days where they cried (and I cried) and days where they spilled joy through the house. I couldn’t talk much about any of it because their story doesn’t belong to me. Now they’ve reached the point where they are making announcements and I can be happy for them out loud. Here is what they posted on social media last week:
I feel happy whenever I look at it. He fits so well into our family and even better with my daughter. They will take care of each other and balance each other for years to come. Now I’ve added “help plan and finance a wedding” into my tasks for the next few months, but I don’t mind. This is the happiest task on the list.
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I was at a party and a young man, to whom I’d been introduced when I arrived, was asking couples to tell the stories of how they met. The inquiry felt unusual to me and I had to pause to figure out why, because I remember when the story of Howard and I meeting was often pulled out and shared on similar occasions. I then realized that this young man was recently married. Stories of how people meet and fall in love was very much on his mind. Also it is one of the most significant shared stories that he and his wife have together. In contrast, Howard and I have been married for twenty-six years. We have so many shared stories they could fill a book. The story of how we met is no longer a defining element of our marriage. The hundreds of shared decisions, crises, joys, and adventures since are far more relevant to who we are now. Howard summed up this idea very well in a tweet:
Was at a party where @SandraTayler and I were asked about how we met. We’ve been married 26 years. How we met has very little to do with how we ARE. It’s a nice story, but a meet-cute is not a rom-com is not an actual life-long romance.
Life-long romance has far more to do with continuing to choose each other and make space for the other person in your life as you change (and they change) in all sorts of unexpected ways. When I try to imagine what story I would tell at a party to encapsulate Howard and I as a couple, I’m a bit at a loss. The story of a newly married couple is short and compact with a clear narrative arc. The story of a long-married couple is more like a series of epic fantasy novels with multiple points of view, lots of random external characters, and a plot that frequently gets lost in side tracks. The story of Howard and Sandra is not easily summarized.
On a separate occasion I met a different young man along with his father. During our conversation the father shared a story surrounding the birth of his son. I could tell that it was a family-defining story which forever changed the shape of all of their lives. As evidenced by the fact that when asked to tell about his family, this is the story the man chose to tell, even twenty-five years after it happened. When the conversation with the father was over, I had a chance to talk with the son. I could tell that he was used to this story being told, and was surprised when I suggested that perhaps at twenty-five he could claim a different story. He didn’t have to be defined by this story of his birth, but could instead bring forth stories of things he had done as an adult. That defining stories of a family could be updated and recast.
As long as we are alive, we are in a process of re-invention. Sometimes it is a massive renovation akin to knocking down walls and completely re-invisioning a room. Other times it is as subtle as putting a new cushion on a couch. Yet even subtle changes accumulate over time, and the stories we tell about who we are have to evolve along with us. The stories we tell about those we love, especially the stories told in public, especially the stories told while the loved ones can hear, those stories have power. The stories we tell make others feel stronger or weaker. They can build people up or push them down. Howard and I frequently tell funny stories on each other. We have a rhythm and a set of performance roles that we use in public for effect and the amusement of others: Howard the goofball and Sandra the responsible. Yet we always check to make sure that we aren’t trapping ourselves in the joke, forgetting that we are larger than the stories we tell at parties. Making sure we remember the other stories, the ones where Sandra is funny and Howard is the hero.
Most of the best stories of us aren’t the kind of stories which are good to tell at a party.
After a summer of offices moved into living spaces, speed installation of drywall and flooring, then returning offices to their original homes, we were all ready to have life be calmer for a while. I decided to halt all house projects until after I returned from the Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat. I figured that would buy us five weeks of relative calm. The dishwasher vetoed this plan and instead chose to leak underneath hardwood flooring a mere three days before my departure. We had to yank out the machine, turn on fans, and tell the kids they were hand washing dishes while we were gone.
It turned out the dishwasher wasn’t entirely to blame, a leaky valve contributed to the problem. This was discovered by my kids while I was away. They solved the problem with a bucket that they emptied regularly. Upon my return, I summoned the plumber once again, and paid to have plumbing fixed. For those keeping count, the plumber has been to my house for urgent repairs six times in the past five months. Six. I’ve begun to question the whole idea of indoor plumbing.
Here is the buckling on the hardwood floor, that light reflection should be a smooth circle, not broken up like it is reflecting off of waves. Which it is. Because my floor is all wavy now.
We’ll be living with the wavy floor for a while. I’m still trying to pay for the mess downstairs and can’t spend resources to fix a cosmetic problem like this one. The gaps between boards are also water damage.
Replacing the hardwood with vinyl plank was already part of the kitchen remodel plan. All of which is on hold until I finish the repairs downstairs. The last, giant, piece of downstairs repair is that we have to remove all of the carpet from the family room and replace it with vinyl plank.
It is not a small room and we use it every day. Having it torn up is going to be seriously disruptive. Once I start I want to get the job finished inside a week. I think I can, even though I’ll be laying the floor by myself. The adventure begins in earnest later this week.
Post Script: A listing of the six plumber visits.
1. Disposal under kitchen sink failed and was actively leaking under the sink.
2. Dryer died and we decided to do the plumbing adjustment for the secondary sink in our planned kitchen remodel. If we’d known about the coming things, we would have put this off. At the time it felt urgent to get it done while we were moving the dryer anyway.
3. Downstairs toilet was clogged so badly we ended up replacing two toilets and discovering a major issue with the sewer line, ripping out flooring in three rooms, and flood cutting walls in two rooms.
4. Putting back the downstairs toilet and sink once the room was reconstructed.
5. The downstairs shower needed a new cartridge so that it could have hot water as well as cold. This felt urgent because I needed to be sure that the hot water wasn’t leaking inside the wall somewhere.
6. Replacing a valve under the kitchen sink that was dripping water down the dishwasher intake line at the rate of a gallon per day.
Edited to add: As of 10/8/19 we’re now up to seven visits from the plumber. We had him back today to install the new dishwasher when the Home Depot install team completely failed to do their job.
While I was on the Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat I had the opportunity to talk to other writers about Writer’s Groups, how they can work brilliantly and how they can fail. I happened to mention the structure of a group I currently belong to, and other writers requested that I write it up in detail as a reference for others who might want to start a group that isn’t solely critique-based. This is that write up.
I am fascinated by the underlying structure of communities, the ways the stated goals and guidelines of a community shape what the community will become. Sometimes I see how a rule intended to bring a community together can unintentionally create divisiveness and competition. This is the reason I feel concerned that so many writer’s groups are formed around the core of exchanging critique. Critique is absolutely critical to writer development so we can learn to see our blind spots and develop good craft, and yet critique is inherently deconstructionist. It pulls apart the work to examine what is working and what is not. This process can be kind and careful, or actively destructive depending on how the tools of critique are wielded. This is why so many critique-based writer’s groups are carefully structured to build trust and to help their members navigate being critiqued. I’ve seen it done remarkably well and I know many writers who depend heavily on their critique-based groups to help them.
The thing that often gets missed when forming writer’s groups is that critique is not the only way that writers can help each other with their craft. I recently joined a group that is structured very differently than any group I’d heard of before. I’ve been fascinated by the ways that this group is specifically structured to nurture and build up the group members.
The group meets once per month for three hours at a time. We meet in person, but the same structures could be adapted to an online group. Portions could be dropped or added according to the needs of your group whether you meet in person or online.
Hour 1: Social Hour
We all bring food to share and we visit. It is a chance for us to catch up on each other’s lives, hear about current crises, or talk about recent experiences. Sometimes we talk about writing, sometimes we don’t. This time allows the group to bond. We learn to be friends and care about each other as people. The more outgoing group members take care to reach out and include the quieter members.
Hour 2: Education
One member of the group comes to the meeting with a presentation/lecture about a topic that they have prepared. Sometimes it is a topic they’re already expert in, other times the person had to research and learn. During the presentation members are encouraged to discuss the ideas being presented. The group has had lectures on pacing, marketing, character development, etc. This portion engages writer minds with new topics and helps us face the current problems we may be having with our work. Also by rotating who teaches, the group ends up with different perspectives. Additionally, putting in the work to present keeps members invested in the group.
Hour 3: Collaboration
The content of this hour is variable. Sometimes it is critique where a person has submitted work in advance so the members come ready to discuss it. Other times it is a brain storming session for a magic system. It could also be an encouragement session for a person who feels hopeless about where they are in their craft. The point of the time is to work collaboratively to meet the needs of the members whatever those needs happen to be. Not every member gets their work focused on each meeting, which is why if a member has an urgent collaboration need between meetings, email chains are encouraged.
Other structures around the group: There are shared google drive folders containing notes from previous lectures/presentations and also work that is submitted for critique. This allows members to catch up on anything they might have missed and smooths the way for members to share work with each other.
The group co-leaders take turns writing up a weekly email with a writing concept or word of encouragement. This keeps the group members engaged and in touch with each other during the weeks that we don’t meet.
Membership in the group is capped to keep things manageable. This is particularly important since we rotate meeting at various member’s houses and not everyone has space for a huge group. By taking turns hosting, we get to see each other’s homes and thus get a better understanding of each other. Some members don’t host because they don’t have enough space or they live too far away. Others don’t host because the thought makes them too anxious.
Membership is filtered because the group wants to make sure that new members understand that the primary goal of the group is to encourage and help each other. Ego and competition have no place in this group. We gain new members by existing members suggesting someone they think would be a good fit. The prospective member exchanges writing samples with the group leaders and then attends a meeting. If everyone agrees the fit is good, the new member is added to the google folders and email chain.
Members are dropped from the group if they can’t regularly attend or contribute to online exchanges. If someone’s life is too busy to participate, then the space goes to another writer who can. Former members can cycle back in when their life calms down and if there is a space open.
The largest criticism I’ve heard of this format is whether we’re too soft on each other, surely critiques need to be brutally honest in order to be useful. I agree that they need to be honest, but not that they need to be brutal. It is entirely possible to help a fellow writer see the flaws in what they have written while simultaneously leaving them feeling encouraged and excited to go fix those flaws. Which I believe is far better than leaving a fellow writer to go home and emotionally process a harsh critique.
Obviously, ymmv. Some writers may thrive on competition and harsh critique. I know that I don’t, and judging from the interest in the format of my group there are other writers out there looking for alternatives as well. There are as many ways to form writer’s groups as there are writers to form them.
It was a summer of Many Things. I’ve known that since late June, but last Sunday I ended up on a two-and-half hour plane ride where the entertainment system was broken. I spent the entire time with my notebook simply writing down all the stray thoughts that went through my head. Earlier that same day I’d talked to a friend about how I’ve been in a very strange brain space for months. During all the writing I figured out why. I made a list of all the ongoing life experiences which require significant emotional processing. These are the kinds of things where they happen and I have to sort out how I feel about it over the next days or weeks. My list took up three pages of closely written text. There were thirty-eight distinct Things to Process. Some of them happy, some stressful, some grieving. Thirty-eight in the span of about twelve weeks. That averages about three per week. Except during those twelve weeks, I also had two week-long conventions and a fourteen-day-long writing workshop and retreat. I also had weeks of manual labor as I worked to restore our house to functionality. When I remember those facts, I realize that my list of thirty-eight things only included experiences that I’m still processing. Not on the list were things I processed and let go of. Or things that I boxed up in the back of my brain to consider later.
I frequently use blogging as a method of processing life experiences. I find it very telling that in the last twelve weeks I’ve barely blogged at all. So today I write this list of things I’d like to find time to blog about:
1. A description of a writer’s group that I currently attend which has a unique structure designed to help writers nurture each other and help each other grow instead of being focused on critique.
2. The things I am learning about helping non-neurotypical adults adapt to college, the resources available to them, and where I need to step back so I don’t interfere with their growth.
3. How I feel about having two adult children who are launching into adulthood and greater independence. I may yet get to experience an empty nest someday, though I’ve already adapted to the idea that my home might always be multi-generational in one way or another.
4. Detailed posts about all the summer construction. Including the carpet tear-out we plan to launch next week and the dishwasher that leaked and buckled hardwood flooring two days before we left on a twelve day trip. (We’ve been hand washing dishes for weeks now.)
5. The ways that social anxiety affects me and my ability to believe in friendships. I’ve had to put a lot of conscious practice into believing that I am wanted/loved/valued even when I am not visibly useful.
6. Details on a new professional focus which I may be launching. Several friends suggested that I take some of the presentations I give at conventions and turn them into online lectures that people can purchase. I know I need to be establishing additional sources of freelance income and this may be one of them.
7. The epiphany I had about my novel in progress which requires me to fundamentally shift it away from some of the original concept that prompted me to write it in the first place. Yet even as I let go of an idea, I recognize that the idea still informs what the novel will become and the novel will be better for it. It couldn’t become what it needs to be unless it first spent time being what it needs to stop being.
It seems that the Tayler clan is in a very transitional phase of life this year. Many joyful and beautiful moments have happened mixed in with all the physical renovation and stress. I want to unpack and share more of it than I have. I want to be able to show how the good and the hard are all mixed up together and how so much of the good is made possible by the hard.
Life is good, even with the financial stress and physical fatigue, and too many things scheduled.
This time next week I’ll be in Houston for the Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat. We’ll have a few days on land and then we’ll be on a cruise ship for the remainder of the event. I’ve gone on these trips annually for the past four years, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity. They aren’t trips we ever would have been able to afford on our own, so we work hard as staff to make the event amazing and thus pay for our tickets with our efforts.
It does mean that I end up spending the week of the trip in something of a liminal space. I’m staff and therefore not able to blend in with the attendees. However I’m not one of the Writing Excuses podcast hosts or an invited guest instructor. I assist with the family programming for non-writers, helping them connect with each other and learn things about supporting their writers. I fit in that role since I am the life partner and enabler of a person with a creative career. However I’m also a writer myself, so I bounce into those spaces as well. Being not exactly one thing or another provides fertile ground for anxieties to grow. So this week I’m spending significant amounts of mental energy weeding anxieties out as soon as they pop up. The minute I realize I’m worried that I’ve disappointed attendees I remind myself that it isn’t possible for people to be disappointed by me when they barely know I exist or haven’t met me yet. When I have thoughts about how I probably shouldn’t speak up in conversations about writing, I remind myself that I have as much right to speak about my writing struggles as anyone else. Anxiety sprouts, I pull it out like a weed. Repeat.
This year I’m going on the trip with a specific writing project and goal. I’m eschewing shore excursions so that I have longer stretches to sit and write. I’m trying to refocus myself as a writer and remember that projects only get complete if I actually put in the time. I’m anxious about all of this as well. Writing is surrounded by a whole garden of anxiety weeds which have barbs like thistles They are thoughts that sting and hurt whenever I bump into them.
What is the point, it’ll never be published anyway.
What do you have to say that hasn’t already been said.
You don’t have the skill to do this.
Who do you think you’re fooling, if you were a real writer you’d… [fill in the blank]
And dozens more related thoughts. I already know the words to counteract these thoughts. I speak them regularly to students and friends. I teach them in classes. I believe them when I say them to others, yet somehow it is harder to accept that they also apply to me. Anxiety is like that. It is a lying liar who lies.
I write the counter argument here to remind myself: creation is always worthwhile even if the only one who is changed by it is the person who creates. I’m very good at nurturing the personal growth of others, and I need to turn some of that effort inward.
Along with the writer anxieties, I’m also dealing with anxieties about the things and people I need to leave behind while I travel. Also dealing with the inherent anxieties around the ways that travel can go wrong. Thus far the all the anxieties (travel, writerly, etc), while abundant, have been low level. More like background noise than something obtrusive. But the volume will increase the closer I get to departure. Writing this post is one of my ways to stare anxiety down and say “I see you. You don’t win.” It may be silly, but it works.
This week I’m at my house looking at damaged flooring, clutter, and bathrooms that need to be cleaned. Next week I’ll have vistas of caribbean water and white sand beaches. Yet I’ll be the same me in both spaces. I’ll carry anxieties with me on the trip and then back again, unless I can figure out how to shed them before I go. And if I want to feel calm, serene, happy I need to not wait until I’m surrounded by loveliness to cultivate those emotions, otherwise when I leave the lovely location I’ll also leave the emotions behind. Travel definitely provides an impetus for me to examine my internal landscape, but it is at home that the real work gets done.
About two years ago I stopped participating in mental health themed panels at conventions. The last one I was on, was focused on helping writers understand details of what it is like to live with depression, anxiety, bipolar, OCD, etc so that they could portray the conditions well in their writing. The audience was great, my co-panelists were great, I was just so raw and worn out from living with the difficulties that the conversation sent me sideways. I was sitting in front of a room of people, filled with anxiety. Every time I spoke up, I was flooded with doubt that my contribution was useful and a simultaneous fear that I’d said too much, that I’d exposed my life and my loved ones to scrutiny in ways I should not have. And then, from the shape of the conversations it was clear that some of the audience was also seeking affirmation, validation, or hope along with writerly education. That was what stabbed me to my core, because I wanted to say “yes this is hard, but it gets better.” Only I couldn’t. Me and my family were still in the middle of hard and better wasn’t even a glimpse on the horizon. It was too hard to sit there describing the hard without having hope. So I stopped volunteering for those panels.
Today I had a contrasting experience. A friend of a friend called me because they are seeking help for their son and they wondered about a program that my son has participated in. As I listened to her, I knew exactly the emotional path she is traveling. I was able to validate and sympathize. And as I spoke describing where my son is now in comparison to where he was, I saw so clearly that “better” is all around me.
I’m still not certain I’m ready to start volunteering to talk about mental health on panels again. In part that is because I’m going through a period of self doubt in relation to teaching at conventions and events. But it is also because I’m braced for “better” to vanish again. It was so hard for so long. And every advance seemed to be followed by a disastrous crash. So part of me expects everything to fall apart again, reverting to what the emotional / mental health chaos that was our normal for six years.
Except I don’t think things can revert. We’ve all changed shape so that we can’t fit back into the old patterns. Things could fall apart in new and exciting ways, but I don’t think we get to go back. For which I am exceedingly grateful. I’m also truly grateful that this time when I was giving someone useful information, I was also able to heap on a serving of hope to go along with it.
We had some forced renovation this summer because of water damage. Here is our progress thus far.
I remember on the day that we realized the scope of what needed to be done that one of the workers tried to cheer me up by pointing out that I’d be getting new flooring for free (because insurance would pay for it.) I politely didn’t respond, because these newly restored rooms are anything but free. We were (and still are) out of pocket for portions of the work since it wasn’t covered under insurance. I’m out hours of physical labor because the economics of insurance, my skill set, and our calendar dictated that the best way to get things done was for me to do them. Our entire household experienced major disruption across the largest part of the summer.
In the end, we like the new flooring better. It is more durable and has a better feel under our feet. We still need to extend it across the family room where we’ll have to tear out twenty year old carpet. We still need to put Howard’s painting table back into place. But these two rooms are fully functional again, for which I am quite grateful.
Yesterday a friend stopped by with a head full of thoughts. After a few minutes of visiting, she apologized for jumping from topic to topic somewhat at random. I told her not to worry about it, she just had a lot of thoughts jumbled up in her head and I was there to help her sort. Sorting often begins with just pulling things out so you can see what you have. I know exactly how she feels. I’ve been packing thoughts, experiences, and emotions into my head for two months now. At this point it is all jumbled up rather like a bin full of multi-part toys or 3D puzzles. Emotions are separate from the experiences that triggered them. Thoughts are scattered so that I can barely tell what they are let alone how they fit together. It means that every shift in my life brings new things to the top of the heap, but no sense of order.
It all accumulated because there was no time to sort or assemble. No physical spaces in my house because offices resided in my front room and kitchen while I was making walls and floors in the places where they belonged. Every room was over full, while extra belongings overflowed into a storage pod occupying most of my driveway. No time to pause because the sooner I got physical spaces organized, the sooner offices could return to where they belonged. No time because several high-stakes tasks had very short deadlines to make sure that my two neurodivergent college freshman were set to start school. No space in my brain because every day I was slotting physical tasks like plastering walls in between administrative tasks like talking to the insurance company and in between emotional tasks like helping my loved ones sort all their emotions about the life disruption and the impending onset of school. Sometimes all the spare thoughts and emotions just have to be tossed into a bin to be sorted later.
Now I’ve reached a point where I’ve begun to have time and space. Yet I stare at that bin and wonder if I really want to dig into it all. Sorting can be so messy just when I got things cleared up. Except the bin will linger, shifting randomly, spilling, and making me unbalance until I take time to sort.
So then the question becomes how do I sort? I frequently sort by person putting all the thoughts and experiences relating to that person together. Yet it might also make sense to sort by category: Thoughts and experiences related to kids going back to school, or emotions about the ways life got expensive, or Thoughts and emotions about things which are finally happening that I waited a long time to see. It is very much like sorting puzzle pieces. I could sort by shape or color or texture. Except there is more than one puzzle, and the pieces are mixed together. So I make guesses about which pieces go where, knowing that I’ve almost certainly sorted some things into the piles where they won’t actually fit.
Sorting can be tiresome, but the results are good.