What Does a Fist Know of a Hand?

It’s December. Christmas has just passed, and in a few days, it will be a new year. I started this post on December 3rd, and am only just finishing and posting it. That’s how my life has been for the past few weeks.The magazine for which I’m the editor in chief (it’s called Lunch Ticket, and we’ve got four Pushcart-nominated pieces that you should absolutely read), published on December 3rd, my first patent has been filed, and I’ve been working on the stuff I had to do for school, and three days ago, I had a whole bunch of surgery.

There have been days when I was up until three in the morning in tears, trying to do work that I was completely sure would be sent back to me, not marked with a failing grade, but packaged with a letter bomb and a note that I did not deserve to live. I am nothing if not grandiose in my neurosis. I’ve also had days where I’m in such deep denial of it all that I just play game after game of Plants vs. Zombies as though I have nothing else to do.

The upshot is that there are times when I actually get caught up on things and have some breathing  space, and the first thing that happens is that I begin to cry. For so many years, I have been so stressed every second of every day that on those few occasions when the stress lifts, I break down entirely.  How did this happen? It’s possible that I was just born this way. Being sensitive to noise, light, the emotions of other people in  way that makes daily life a challenge means that situations that are enjoyable for most people (parties, family gatherings, concerts, movies, etc.) are still enjoyable, but exhausting.

I have always wondered what it’s like to think about an upcoming social event with happy anticipation of meeting other people, of finding oneself in a crowd, of making new friends. I have always wished that I could be the sort of person who, when she relaxed, had that melty feeling where the muscles stop being tense and the mind empties itself. I’ve always been a tightly clenched fist who dreamed of being just a hand.

Mother’s Little Helper

Today was day two at grad school. At 9am, I showed up for the first lecture, and I stayed in the same room through 5 lectures, 1 debriefing (which I led), 1 orientation (which I also led), and four readings – 10 hours total. Looking back at my posts about my first residency, I know that I was tired, but I also see that I was so tail-waggingly enthusiastic about everything I experienced. During my second residency in June, I was a little more cynical, a little more weary, but still awake and moving through my days effectively.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret. The three of you who’ve read my blog for a while know that I’ve been on and off medication for quite some time. I’ve been taking Adderall for a while. At least, I was taking it for my first and second residencies. It allowed me to handle the otherwise-difficult task of interacting over extended periods of time with lots and lots of people.

When I’m not in grad school, my life is quite sheltered. On Mondays and Tuesdays, I literally do not leave the house. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I pick my kid up from school and deliver her to a karate class while I go to a nearby coffee shop, put on headphones, and do work. Most weekends, I either visit my mother or stay home and see no one. Being in the company of a new person stresses me out, but I had no idea how much it stressed me out until I came to residency this time.

About three months ago, I fired my psychiatrist. There are certain professional standards to which I hold people, he failed to meet them, I am no longer his patient. But that meant that I stopped my meds cold turkey. It didn’t make a tremendous difference until I came back to residency.

Adderall is normally used to treat ADD. It allows ADD sufferers to stay still and pay attention for extended periods of time. Coming back this time, I didn’t have a problem paying attention to the lectures, which range from 20 minutes to 2.5 hours. But I have found that the longer I am on campus, interacting with people, the more exhausted and emotional I become. Friday, the first full day of classes, I came back from school at about 6:30 feeling exhausted and weirdly emotional. Today, it was worse. By 3pm, my head was beginning to pound. By 5pm, I was dizzy. But 6pm, I was staring at the back of a man sitting two rows ahead of me. From the back, he looked eerily like my dear friend Cliff Brooks and all I could think about was how much I would rather be in San Francisco hanging out with Cliff. I caught myself starting to cry and hoped nobody noticed me daubing my eyes while a fellow student read his supernatural adventure story. By the time I left, I was shaking, tears streamed down my face and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to make the 5-minute drive back to the hotel without passing out.

This is what happens when I hang out with people I like.  

When I got back to my hotel, I called my family. I told my daughter that what would make me feel better would be to smell her and my husband’s smell again – bury my nose in their necks and breathe them in until I felt okay again. We decided that next residency, I’m going to have to bring one of each of their shirts with me, just to get me through. I talked to both of them until I felt that I could move around without weeping.

I may need to get a new therapist when I get home. This can’t be healthy.

Back in the Saddle Again

I’m back in Southern California for the third of what will be five residencies for grad school.

For the first half of the day, I felt like a different person! I was walking down the halls greeting all my old friends and smiling and saying hi to new folks. I got hugs from the faculty and walked around feeling like the grandest tiger in the jungle. At the end of the day came the opening night dinner where the head of the program was going to announce the launch of the second edition of Lunch Ticket, the MFA program’s literary journal (for which I am editor-in-chief), and I wanted to be there for the announcement, since I thought it would look bad if I didn’t show up, especially since I’d been talking the journal up to everyone I talked to all day.

But then came the part where I had to pay for it all. By the time I finished dinner, I was so exhausted I wanted to cry. I drove back to my hotel and talked to my family (always a balm) and just sat in my chair and spaced out for a while. If it weren’t dark and a not-great neighborhood, I would have gone for a long walk somewhere. I feel exhausted. I would love to take tomorrow off, and tomorrow’s only day 2.

I heard an  amazing talk from agent Peter Riva about the state of the publishing industry, where he talked about the fact that in the 30s and 40s, people bought books because they were excited about the author – Hemingway, Faulkner, etc. Then came the days of the big publishers and people bought books because they were excited about things that came from Harper Collins or Knopf. Now we’re back to people following authors, so authors need to take responsibility for getting their names in front of people’s eyes and keeping them there. He talked about what to expect from a good agent, and what to expect from a publisher. I’m looking forward to the second part of his talk tomorrow morning!

Then came the presentation for those of us who will be writing our critical papers this term. It was all about distilling your question into something researchable and how to write it in a way that’s engaging. I decided a month ago that I will be turning my critical paper into a TED talk that I will present after my graduation. I’ve set out a heck of a path for myself.

I’m finished with my paperwork for the day. I’m hitting the hay. I wish I was home.

Tech Raising pt 2

The Runup

When I conceived the idea for the novel, I knew exactly how I wanted it to work. There would be a single story told from the point of view of six characters. It would take place in three countries equally spaced around a fictional world. As in the world we know, it would have a night and day, people would sleep and eat and all the things they do in real life, which meant that there would be several characters active at any given moment, but others who would be sleeping.

I started writing the content, but quickly realized that I had to figure out an organizational means of keeping everything straight. I settled on a fairly low-tech solution – a spreadsheet and a series of linked documents. The writing itself was fun. The less-fun part was constantly trying to explain to people what I was writing and how it was all going to eventually work.

The Pirate encouraged me to pitch my idea at TechRaising. I signed up and had sort of mentally prepared myself for explaining my vision to a bunch of people, but I have to be honest – at no point did the real difficulty ever enter my mind. The real difficulty was less about explaining my passion and vision to others, and more about standing up in front of strangers and laying bare my hopes and dreams. I was asking a roomful of people who don’t love me to validate my dreams. I can’t remember ever being quite this nervous.

TechRaising

The Pirate had prepared me for the process, letting me know that I needed to keep it short, high-level and to the point. I gave my pitch, frightened that I might literally vomit on the people in the front row. But the funny thing was that the minute I got up in front of everyone, all I thought about was non-linear literature, the possibilities for storytelling and writing, the number of people who would become re-engaged with literature through this new medium.

I got through my pitch and was received with applause and cheers, although my brain tends to blank that bit out. But the pitch turned out to be easier than the next bit. Once everyone had pitched, we were all supposed to mingle and talk. Engineers with an interest in a project were to get together with the person who pitched the project to form a team. The problem is, I don’t do well in crowds. At parties, I tend to stick to the one or two people I know, only branching out if someone I already know introduces me to someone new. Here, there was no one to help me. I knew no one except Margaret Rosas, one of the three organizers of the project. A couple of people came up to me to express admiration for my idea, but none of them was an engineer, so it wouldn’t do me any good. I finally hid in the back, and Margaret told me that if, by the end of the evening, I still hadn’t hooked up with a team, she would see what she could hook up.

But in no time, a couple of engineers approached me with questions about my idea. They were excited by the possibilities, and wanted to be on the team. They were both back-end guys, but we needed front-end guys as well. I had ideas for the logic required and for the interface, but no idea how to code any of it. The great thing about a small community, though, is that everyone knows everyone else, and these guys knew other guys at the event who were willing to help. Late Friday night I sent them everything I had, including the documents I had describing the project and a PowerPoint showing my expectation of its functionality.

What Are You Afraid Of?

The therapist I’ve been seeing for the past five months today came out with this revelation:

Given the things you’ve said to me, it seems you find the world a threatening place.

My therapist often says things I’m not sure about, and I have to go away and think about them. He’s a Freudian, and I call him on his bullshit. He’s trying to sift through my past, looking for single traumatic incident that imprinted on me this need to defend myself. I could relive every day since I was about 18 months old, and my shrink can pick through  any of the dozens of sub-optimal events that have shaped my view of the world. He would say that I’ve subconsciously formulated defense mechanisms that color all my interactions with people, and that, as a result, my outlook isn’t what it should be.

But there’s one other possibility. I’ve said before that I’m an introvert. No, I’m not going to link to a blog post where I’ve said it, because I say it all the time. Here’s a thing that’s true about many introverts: their nervous systems are wired differently. They experience sensations like sound, light and touch as more stimulating than other people feel them, and therefore have a stronger reaction. When you’re wired up so that bright lights, people talking in excited voices and people, clothes or stray breezes touching your skin feel uncomfortable to you, of course the world is a threatening place.

So it should be no surprise to anyone that, not only am I generally defensive, but that I don’t see that as anything I want to change. What I would like to change, though, is how this particular therapist views me. Because I’m now realizing that while I do have a fair few real problems (like an obscure obsessive/compulsive disorder that is the reason I keep my hair short), viewing the world as generally challenging isn’t a neurosis for me. It’s a reality.

Sincerely Yours

One of the many things that marks an introvert is the tendency to live in one’s own head. I don’t know how conversations work for extroverts, but for me they work something like this:

Me: Hello! It’s nice to see you! Is that her real hair color? I wonder if she thinks my dye job is awful.

Her: How are you! I haven’t seen you in a while. What’s going on?

Me: Nothing. I mean, I’ve been really busy, but it’s just the same old stuff. I sound really lame, don’t I? Oh, crap. She’s looking at her watch. She thinks I’m boring.

Her: I’m going to lunch with George at 1. Have you met George? He worked with Marshall in purchasing before Marshall moved to Des Moines. I heard he’s doing really well there. Really happy. He and his wife bought a five-acre property with a 100-year-old farmhouse that they’re fixing up.

Me: Wow! That’s great. He’s working in Iowa, or remotely? She thinks my house sucks. I know she does. For crying out loud, I’m not the DIY type! Or does she think I’m not happy? Why did she say “really” happy? Like I’m faking it? 

Her: Oh, he’s working remotely. Well, I’ve got to run. Call me! Let’s get together for lunch next week!

Me: Absolutely! Does she really want me to call, or is she just trying to be nice. I’ll call her, but I won’t mention lunch. Just in case she didn’t really mean it.

That’s right. Every single exchange is questioned. And long after that one-minute exchange is over, I’ll still be playing it in my mind, continuing to question “Did she really mean that?” for the rest of the day. In practice, it’s exhausting. I never feel like I know the truth about how other people feel about me. Whether someone is laughing at my jokes because my jokes are really funny, or because they think I can do something for them. When someone expresses delight or admiration for the work I’m doing, I don’t know whether it’s the work, or whether they’re trying to impress me by being impressed by me. I’m as susceptible to flattery as the next person, but I would also like to know that when someone is nice to me, they’re nice to me because they actually like me.

And just so you know, if I’m nice to you, it’s because I like you.

At the Top of My Game

It happens every time. I’m feeling good. I’ve got a lot going on. I’ve scheduled myself pretty tightly, partly from necessity, partly from neglect. I can’t control when other people want to have meetings or need to pay rent or get sick, and I tend to forget that planning a birthday party takes more than a day, or that I can’t be in two places at once.

At first, I’m humming along. I’m hitting on all cylinders, I’m cranking out the work, I’m feeling good about the number of things I’m checking off my “to do” list. You’d think I’d be happy, right? And I am! In fact, I’m so happy that when someone says to me “Can you take this on?” I say “Sure I can!” And I will trot out the old adage that if you want to get something done, give it to the busiest person you know, which is generally me.

I’m staying up all night reading for school, spending all day on the phone taking meetings while revising my manuscript while sending emails to the library board about our next big event.

And then comes the day when it all goes sour.

It could be that my kid mistook the deadline for her school project, thinking it was due a week later. Or somebody in the family gets sick and my down-to-the-second timing gets thrown out the window. Or worse, that I get sick, so not only can I not do all the things I’ve planned, but I feel horrible both mentally and physically.

As fast as I came up the hill of “I can do anything! I’m an achieving machine! Nothing can stop me!” I’m now screaming into the valley of “I’m a fuckup! Who do I think I’m kidding? Why do I keep doing this to myself?”

At one point, I put together a list of criteria for myself for which projects I should take on, and which I should decline. The problem is that when I can do anything, I can do anything. I don’t need to consult a list or a calendar. Certainly I can give you feedback on your website, write four chapters of a novel, help you move across country and meet you for drinks! But once it becomes clear that I can’t, it’s not just that I feel bad for letting people down. It’s what I imagine all those people are saying. That I’m a flake. That I’m incompetent. That I’m not as bright as I’d like to think I am.

The end of the cycle is where I start believing that it’s all true. I’m not looking forward to that.