All this month, we at YA Outside the Lines are talking about fresh starts. While we typically draw some parallel to our writing journeys or to our work, this month, I'm going to drop the curtain and get real and talk to you about my experiences with therapy and why I decided to give it a go.
It started in 2015, and it started off horribly. I'd lost my job after 13 years of employment and a few days later, my god-father passed away. Reeling from all of that pain, I began experiencing some severe and new physical pain. An elbow. A knee. A few fingers.
My author career was at its high point. My third novel, SOME BOYS, had been published the year before and was now racking up the honors. It was named a finalist in the CLMP Firecracker Award, the Greater Detroit Booksellers' Best Award, the RWA Rita Award, and several others. I'd also found a new day job. These achievements took my mind off my pain, but only temporarily. Always temporarily.
By May, I couldn't ignore things any longer. My left hand was almost useless, with radiating pain so acute, I could feel a tap on a keyboard straight up to my ear.
It took a few doctors and one emergency room visit to diagnose psoriatic arthritis, which is much like rheumatoid arthritis with the fun bonus of an itchy skin rash to complement the pain. My new rheumatologist immediately started me on prednisone, methotrexate, and Humira injections. Prednisone is a steroid, methotrexate is a low-dose chemotherapy, and Humira is a disease-modifying drug. I packed on 20 pounds within weeks, stopped sleeping, and couldn't seem to focus on the work. Meanwhile, I was supposed to be finishing my fourth YA novel, NOTHING LEFT TO BURN.
I existed in this state for the next few YEARS...trying to fight a disease that had latched on to me, trying to write through the pain, trying to lose the weight I kept gaining with each round of prednisone. (Since 2015, I've gained over 40 pounds.) When you're in near constant pain, most people notice, but few people actually care. I'd had friends and family try to out-hurt me with things like "You think that's bad, try this..." or "I had my leg in a cast and still cleaned the house." As if I were in some contest... Friends didn't care all that much and my family just figured I was exaggerating. For the rest of 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018, it was up to me and me alone to deal with all the flares, the medications, the side effects, the appointments, and the comorbidities. At one point, I had toxic levels of methotrexate in my blood so had to discontinue that and then, manage the resulting flare (this time, in my collar bone) with over-the-counter meds, which do not work on this disease. So, another round of prednisone and more pounds later, I started asking myself questions like, "How am I going to do this for the rest of my life?"
I hated the pain, hated the condition of my body, hated all the extra weight, hated myself.
For my birthday, a friend handed me a gratitude journal. It had space to write down 3 things for which I was grateful for every day.
I couldn't think of one.
There wasn't a single thing I felt grateful for. My life? Pfffft. It was consumed by pain and meds and when I could keep my eyes open long enough, a few paragraphs of writing. My family? So they could shrug off my situation as "no big deal"? My friends? They had their own problems and had no room for mine.
It was up to me and me alone.
I found a therapist nearby and during my first visit, I told her my goal was to learn to love myself, to become my own best friend. My therapist taught me the power in living deliberately. Many of our responses to the world around us are unconscious -- part of the inate fight-or-flight response our bodies produce in response to danger. Fear is part of that response. Avoidance is part of that response.
When something causes you pain, your natural in-born response is to avoid it. Because much of my pain was in my hands, I was avoiding writing, which created a different pain for me, one that made me feel like I wasn't ME anymore.
But we are also rational beings. We have the power to reason and can wield that power when we know we're safe and in no danger. We can short-circuit the fight-or-flight response but it takes work. Deliberate work.
And she started by forcing me to face the good in my life, the things I hadn't been able to see through the pain. It wasn't easy, but once I caught on, I could fill that little gratitude journal in minutes a day. I learned how to spot the baby steps of progress. She also encouraged me to stop using words like "fight" this disease. At first, that sounded counter-intuitive to me. But because PsA is not curable, she explained that words like "battle" and "fight" are setting me up for those moments of crushing disappointment. There will always be flares. There will always be pain. So instead, she encouraged me to think in terms of "acceptance" and "living with" and "listening to my body." While my PsA and I will never be BFFs, that shift in thinking has made a big difference in my outlook, in my planning. I know when to say no, and that it's okay when I do. I know when I can push through pain and when it's better if I don't. I know what it means when I can't sleep and I know what foods to avoid.
Part of this reset involves journaling. I'd been tracking my meds and symptoms since 2015. Now, I take it a step further. I track everything. My goals for the day, and for my fiction. My eating plan. My exercise progress, anything that matters at the time. I can even get creative, similar to the photo below. (Don't judge :) )
And yes, I still track 3 things to be grateful for each day. They are specific things that matter to me on that day, in that moment. Sometimes, I'm grateful to be able to get off the floor without groaning, or open a jar by myself. Other days, they're more general like being grateful for my ability to learn new things, even at the age of 55. And still other days, they might be filled with little love notes to myself like "Great job staying patient even when your boss was clearly wrong."
I've taught myself to provide the kind of support I would get from a best friend. A best friend would never tell you, "Oh my God, you're so fat now, you may as well eat all of the cake anyway. It's not going to matter." A best friend should remind you that you've worked so hard to lose two pounds and even though that cake may be delicious, it will likely start a flare up, which means another round of prednisone, pain, and gain. Is that moment of deliciousness worth that price?
As for my writing, I've learned how to use dictation software when the pain is really bad and to hit the keyboard running when it's not. I leave notes to myself where I want to pick up a scene in my next writing session, what emotion I'm looking for. I know I work better in the mornings, so I shove myself out of bed for that time. I know a little exercise, even just 10 minutes before work means I will be able to stand up without assistance later in the day. I know how to show my body the love it needs to feel good again.
You've probably noticed I have not had a new novel drop since 2018. I changed agents and changed genres. I wrote a romantic suspense that is now in my new agent's hands. And I'm currently working on a YA Christmas novel. I write about 300 words a day now and no longer curse my body for NOT writing 1000 or 2000 but instead, thank myself for those 300.
It's all in how you look at things. In 2015, I wasn't sure I'd ever be happy again. In 2021, I have done the work needed to convince myself that happiness is a deliberate action I have to take every day.
Inspirational post. Glad the gratitude journal works for you. I remember realizing many years ago that sometimes gratitude means something I'm not, like a horrible former president. Looking forward to your next book.ReplyDelete
I love what my therapist said about being deliberate and intentional. Seeing the negative is natural and easy but it takes hard work to see the positive. Once I started putting in that work, it got easier, like everything else you practice. I am happier for it!Delete
I have 2 projects in the works right now so hopefully, will have news on next book soon!
Thanks for your comment, Berek. :)
So glad you are in a better place, Patty!ReplyDelete
Along the lines of working to see the positive, there is an amazing pain management technique I teach my chronic pain clients. When pain signals become entrenched along certain neural pathways, they are so reactive that they don't know how to shut down and are easily stimulated. It's helpful to do a visualization technique at the earliest sign of pain. When you notice a pain in your body, acknowledge it, then take a deep breath and imagine in your minds eye a picture of a brain scan. See it colored with reds and yellows (pain). Then imagine those colors fading to yellow, then green, then blue and finally, purple. By the time you get to that final color, the pain should be somewhat reduced since you have rerouted your awareness and natural pain response to a new neural pathway. It might take several attempts to begin to notice a change, but as with retraining anything, consistency is key. I I'm not saying your arthritis will go away, but with practice, you can make a dent in changing how your body perceives and manages pain. Good luck and keep up the good work. Your readers will still be there for your sure-to-be-awesome future books!
Thanks, Paula! What you've said is much like what my therapist says, as well.
I learned of that visualization technique in a book on the neuroscience of pain. It's helped me with my own chronic pain issues as well, and a few of my clients swear by it. It's been a game changer for me.Delete
Thank you for being so open about your journey, Patti. Changing the language from a "fight against" to "living with" a disease sounds like an excellent thing to do. Self-care and gratitude are so important. We are the choices we make, and I look forward to choosing to purchase your future books. Big hugs!ReplyDelete
Hi, Bonnie!! Thanks so much for your comment and hugs. Changing the language is the first step in changing our thoughts. It really works!Delete
Your gratitude journal is such a great idea, and how much better that you've actually stuck with it!ReplyDelete
That's such a beautiful quote there at the end. I so need to start a gratitude journal. Especially in these times!ReplyDelete