Pieces of Me: Creating Lily White

In a racially divided city a black cop and a white PI team up to solve a double homicide. What they uncover leads them closer to the truth, and to each other.

There were so many things I wanted to avoid when I started this book. I knew there would be violence and death. I knew I’d have to reckon with race, and I knew it would be difficult to get that part right, but I didn’t think I’d have an interracial couple on my hands. I was writing psychological mystery and deliberately decided from the first words on the first page that there would be no romance. Ha.

I knew there would be PTSD. What I didn’t know is that twice as many women suffer from PSTD than men. That shocked me. We think of PTSD as a war affliction, but cops get PTSD, rape victims, too. Anyone who suffers an overload of trauma is subject to PTSD.  One of the effects of PTSD is extreme anxiety that can play out in many ways: panic attacks and mentally crippling phobias are the two symptoms I have personally experienced.

It was both difficult and freeing to write about these mental conditions that have shaped much of my life. For a long time I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I knew I was different. Wired wrong. I did not know what the hell was wrong with me. Yes, sure, bad things had happened to me. As a teen, I’d been sexually assaulted by people I trusted, like my boss, like a close friend, like a relative. I was homeless a number of times from age 15-19. My parents, who had married in their teens, had their own complex issues and I was shoved aside, shoved out of the family home.

Many friends and relatives, including my dad, took me in for short periods of time. But I lived in an abandoned car for a few weeks, in my family’s garage for awhile. Slept on the beach in Key West. People wouldn’t treat their dog the way I was treated as a kid. Children who experience trauma at a young age are more likely to develop PTSD. I have never been diagnosed with this condition, but the anxiety and panic are nearly constant companions. Before I was diagnosed, I used to cool the stress with wine. Lots of wine. I was embarrassed by my inability to control my fear. I never wanted anyone else to know how it felt to be me.

Sometimes even wine didn’t help. I ruined parts of my beautiful honeymoon in Maui because I could not be a normal passenger driving up to see the sunrise over the volcano or winding up the road to Hana. My husband is the calmest person I know. I think that’s why I was attracted to him and married him. He was my opposite and I wanted to learn to be like him. I could tell how disappointed he was in Maui when I cowered on the floor of the back seat of the car with my eyes closed to the beauty surrounding us. Shortly after the honeymoon, I had a serious car accident. I’d had one just before the wedding, too. Now it wasn’t only high places, bridges, mountains, cliffs, winding roads, or closed-in spaces that made me panic, it was just driving down the road in a car. Any road. Any car.

My husband was eventually rattled by my actions. I would beg him to slow down, pull over, drive in the slow lane, take a back road, let me out of the car. One day he said “What the hell is wrong with you? Do you think we’re going to die?” And I thought about that. My heart was racing so hard I felt it would burst out of my chest. I said YES YES I DO! His reply was that I needed a shrink.

I’d had therapy before, in another marriage. But it was not about my phobias and anxiety. I hid those even from the therapist while I tried to figure out a way to save my marriage all by myself because my ex said I was the one who was unhappy so he didn’t need to go to therapy with me. I was ashamed to even tell the therapist about my anxiety.I’d been treated so horribly by so many people that I didn’t think there was anything wrong with his decision. I went to therapy alone for two years and at the end of it I learned that I should not be married to that person. Nothing was going to fix us because for him everything was fine.

But Al was different. He loved me enough to realize that everything was not fine and he wanted to make things better for me. He saw that I needed professional help for my acute anxiety and the sheer terror that is panic. One in ten women will at some point in their life will be mentally and emotionally damaged by trauma, especially if the trauma is sexual assault or rape. A traumatic childhood just makes it that much more likely the accumulation of damage will result in chronic anxiety, phobias, or even PTSD.

I got help with my problem and I’m fine. I use medication as needed, but meds are much better than a gallon jug of cheap wine or tiny bottles of emergency vodka for when only a shot will do. These damaged parts of me are also in Lily, although I’ve fictionalized everything except the way anxiety, panic, and PTSD feel.

Lily White in Detroit is available now.

 

Anxious Characters

modestas-urbonas-14752-unsplashAfter ten novels or so, I imagine writers begin to worry about repetition. Did I use this plot device before? Have I named a minor character this before? I have always been careful not to repeat myself. Or so I thought. Last week I found out different. I was listening to the audio file of Love and Death in Blue Lake. The main character suffers from anxiety. Really? I was mad at myself. Anxiety is too close to PTSD, which is what my current main character in Lily White in Detroit is in recovery from. There’s only one book between these two novels. I should have remembered.

Looking back, anxiety wasn’t even relevant to Courtney’s character. The plot didn’t need it, there was so much else going on. I could have taken it right out of the book; my editor even mentioned that. Smart woman. My editor is extremely kind. So she probably said something like “Does Courtney need to be anxious? Where is this coming from? Maybe delete it or fill it out more so the reader understands.” So I dug in deeper, at least enough to please my editor, but now, looking back I realize I gave Courtney anxiety because I was going through a terrible phase of acute anxiety and having regular panic attacks during the time I wrote that book.

I had a good source for Courtney’s profession–she was a psychologist. Yes, a mental health expert with a mental health problem. But this happens in real life. The first time I knew I had panic disorder, my husband had about gotten fed up with my weird behavior in the car. Basically I freaked out every time the road wasn’t straight and dry. Curves, cliffs, bad weather (snow or rain or the dreaded black ice) even sharp turns all made me so fearful I’d beg him to slow down or stop the car or whatever. We hadn’t been married much more than a year and it had been clear to him for a while that I had this problem. I had no idea why I was so afraid sometimes when he was driving. Why sometimes I couldn’t drive.

He wasn’t super patient with me as it rattled his nerves to have a nervous passenger. One time he said “What do you think is going to happen? Do you think we’re going to crash and die?” And I said “Yes! I do!” He suggested I go to a psychiatrist, actually he said “You’re nuts. You need to see someone.”  The psychiatrist knew right away what was wrong with me. I was having anxiety attacks, later upgraded to panic attacks, probably because I’d been in one too many very scary car accidents and then there was my family history in phobias and panic. Basically I inherited my illness and it was exacerbated by experience. Anyway, this psychiatrist put me on medication that gradually erased my symptoms. It was like a miracle.

No amount of talk therapy can cure what I have. But she had to see me once a month for an hour in order to dispense the drugs. We used to swap stories of driving while anxious. She admitted to me she was also afraid to drive in certain conditions. Her way of coping with snow was to turn on her emergency lights and drive very slowly despite people honking at her and passing her. She didn’t care. If driving 30 mph on the freeway would make her feel safe, that’s what she’d do. She seemed to enjoy telling me these stories, but they made me a little anxious. Then one day I was cured. We said our goodbyes and I went on my merry way.

What I didn’t know then was that I would probably never be cured. But at least I knew what I had and how to deal with it. I’ve had a lot of therapy but I am not willing to drive over the Ambassador Bridge several times a day every day or lock myself into a small space, so aversion therapy is not for me. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is of minimal help when anxiety mounts and turns into panic, but nothing stops panic in its tracks like my particular cocktail of prescription medications.

As it turns out the character of Courtney came from an experience with my real life therapist while also being a therapeutic tool for me at that time in my real life. Because writing (for me) is therapy and always has been. I’m not sure this is true for all writers, but for me, writing is a terrific coping mechanism. Still, note to self: no more fictional character who suffer from any type of anxiety disorder.

 

Do You Believe?

No secret, I have a cluster of phobic behaviors I’ve tried very hard to overcome by just about every means out there. Some of my self-help methods will be familiar to anyone who has ever been in any kind of pain, physical or mental:

As a young girl: my journal and Jesus

In my teens: cigarettes and marajuana

In my 20s and 30s: cigarettes and wine (except when pregnant) also church

In my 40s and 50s: prescription medications and self-help

I’m 60 now and realize that although I’ve done a lot of work, drinking wine has probably had the most calming effect, although it is inconvenient to drink in the morning before boarding a flight to visit the grandkids. Self-help got me further. I can get on a plane and cross a bridge without freaking or popping a Xanax, but I’m still not ready to fly in a hot air balloon.

And I absolutely dread closed in spaces. The scariest film I’ve ever watched is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, about locked-in syndrome, a condition where you are alive but trapped in your body and everyone, including doctors, think you are a vegetable incapable of thought yet your mind is screaming “LET ME OUT.”

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is based on a real-life experience and book by a French man who was able to break through the wall. It’s a triumphant and beautiful story but it terrifies me more than a Stephen King novel.

Several years ago I read a self-help book called The Instruction that posited our phobias are all past life shadows clinging to the present. This is because the soul gets confused about intense (usually traumatic death) experiences and will take on a past life phobia or three without realizing the past life is over. I thought this was interesting but wasn’t sure about reincarnation, even though, through the years, much of my self-help work has had a decidedly Buddhist influence.

So reincarnation. More people in the world are Buddhist than Christian. More people in the world believe in reincarnation than the resurrection. Surprised? I was when I found that out in all the literature that came pouring forth after 9/11 when we had such fear and loathing in this country around Muslims.

 

I made note of this fact, and that the psychic who wrote the book, Ainslie Macleod, was available for consultations where he could read your past life, then interpret the phobias in this life through past-life experiences. I thought about booking a session for a long time as I went along my journey toward healing these fears.

Eight years after first reading The Instruction, I joined a private group of like-minded seekers, led by Ainslie, as we talked about reincarnation, past life influences on current life, and the workings of the soul. After spending time with these old souls, I got comfortable with the idea of reincarnation. I wasn’t sold, but I wanted to give Ainslie a shot at helping me eradicate my phobias, all of them, even the road to Hana, for good.

When Ainslie told me my past life, and how I died, I immediately saw the connections to both my life this time (which he knew nothing about) and the phobias that followed me. I felt the truth of it down to my soul. I believed as surely as I’d once believed in the virgin birth. (My evolution from “religious” to “spiritual” happened as a direct result of all that self-help.)

And I have to ask myself is believing in the teaching of the faith I was born into (Christian, Roman Catholic to be exact) any crazier than believing the soul lives many lifetimes? No. I think they are equally absurd so therefore equally possible. Time will tell if my past life revelations will heal me in this life, but I can say that they affected me profoundly, to the point where I am committed to getting off a drug I’ve used for more than thirty years that is known to cause cognitive decline in aging people. Which would be me. I need all the cognition I can get.

So, without this panic button in pill form, how will I cope? I have a feeling I will do just fine, although I’m not reserving a seat on a hot air balloon any time soon.

Rosemary for Remembrance

Thinking about alternative therapies lately for health issues. It’s not like I haven’t tried herbal remedies before. Ginkgo and zinc and I still use, um, what’s it called? Starts with an E? Echinacea! I swear by that stuff for colds. Ginkgo did not help my memory, alas. But now comes a new option: rosemary.

Actually, it’s pretty old. Shakespeare wrote it into Ophelia’s speech as she goes mad with love of Hamlet, strewing flowers and herbs hither and yon. “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance…” she says, tossing the flowers like scattering tears. Sometimes not remembering can be a blessing. Remembering better times with Hamlet, after all, is what brought about Ophelia’s suicide. Memories can be precious or poison.

But forgetting an easy word, or someone’s name, is simply annoying. When I get together with my friends, we say this forgetfulness is because we have so much more to remember now. Passwords, for example. I have a million of them. You, too, right? So maybe that somewhat wonky memory of mine is a product of life today. And maybe putting a drop of rosemary oil into my shampoo will make my hair healthier and improve my memory.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to pop fewer pills. Not because taking tons of pills is an old person cliché. I don’t mind being old; I quite enjoy it. For one thing, I have lots of time to peruse the dictionary or just putter patiently until the right word comes. It almost always does. Personally, I like pills just fine, it’s the side effects I despise. I’ve heard certain essential oils (herbs in concentrated liquid form) are cures for sleeplessness, migraine, acid reflux, even stress, which, come to think of it, probably caused all the other things.

I put a little drop of lavender into my palm last night, rubbed my hands together, and swiped the bottoms of my feet. My little instruction book said I could have put the lavender on my pillow, too. Slept like a baby. Another perk of being older, as in old enough to retire from the day job: I can stay in bed as long as I like. After slumbering a soothing eight hours (almost never happens) I lolled around in my warm cocoon for another hour, meditating. Not only had the lavender given me good rest, it had calmed me to the point of an early meditation, something I used to do regularly until anxiety to get my day started robbed me of that meditation time.

Meditation is the best way I know to cure ills, particularly mental ones like fear and panic. I regularly meditate in the afternoons (I’m happy to add a morning meditation in as well if the lavender keeps working!) and recently I added an element to a twenty year practice. I’m phobic and have been for most of my life. I’ve written about my struggles before. Until recently I thought that phobias were a permanent part of what it meant to be me. I accepted them and made peace with my less than easeful mind. Then I decided I’d try a few things, like facing my fears and learning to be braver with age.

Somehow just deciding helped. My plan was that I would, instead of immediately reaching for a pill or (worst case scenario) emergency vodka, I’d breathe and I let myself feel fear.  I’d face it with the in breath and do my best to let it go with the out breath. I practiced this letting go during afternoon meditation and on sleepless dark nights. And breathed it in, tried to let it go with the out breath. I worked at it. I didn’t just auto-pop a pill or six.

Photo on 10-20-14 at 5.39 AM

When you meditate, everything slows down, so it’s very easy to watch fear unfold, to feel the heartbeat slowly accelerate. I have even meditated my way through mild panic attacks. It’s interesting. Not pleasant, but the side effects of doing this inner work are remarkable. Some months back fear of public speaking abruptly departed, and a few months later I started flying without meds. That’s actual flying in a plane, not a metaphor for euphoria. But I do feel euphoric!

Because, amazingly, without warning, in real life, phobia number three vanished a month ago. It happened in Florida while Al was driving. I knew about the bridge. I knew we’d be driving across it. I knew soon it would come into view and that would start the panicky feeling in my head, in my heart. I had already decided to let the fear come and to white-knuckle it. After all, I’d done that for years before things got too unmanageable and I went on medication.

Then, as the bridge came into my line of sight (I believe it’s the tallest suspension bridge in the world. Or maybe just the country. Or perhaps only Florida.) I didn’t feel the fear. I expected it and had my little bottles of emergency vodka in the glove box, just in case. But emergency vodka can be very inconvenient at nine o’clock in the morning, and I was hoping not to have to resort to it. So no fear. No anxiety. No panic.

To say I was amazed is making light of the liberation I felt. I was so happy and uninhibited, I opened the sunroof and popped out of the top, snapping photos as we approached the bridge. Absolutely zero fear. Also, I arrived sober at our destination, which is always nice. I gradually realized that I didn’t have to face that fear in the moment because I’d already done the work, months before. Meditating. It works.

So those are some mental miracles, but the physical ones still stubbornly cling. I’m making progress, though. My neurologist of close to two decades told me on our last visit that my migraine symptoms had decreased so dramatically that he felt I was fine to just let my GP handle the occasional medication refills. That is huge. No more “my” neurologist. No more “my” migraines.

Yeah, sure, I still stress. I still have fears. Phobias. Probably I have not experienced my last panicky moment. But full blown out of control panic attacks? I can’t remember the last time one came upon me. I had a dream last night about one of my remaining phobias. I have two left to conquer before I shuffle off this mortal coil, claustrophobia and fear of heights. I know the bridge is high, so maybe that’s all gone, but I need to tackle a mountain before I’m sure. So I had the “buried alive” dream under lavender’s spell. And I didn’t wake up in a panic. I woke up calm and ready to face anything. And that is something worth remembering.

Confronting My Heart

Photo on 9-27-14 at 5.15 PMOpenness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Mix these five ingredients, psychology says, and you have the human personality. Add intersections of relationship and environment and the impact of each trait lessens or heightens. And none are all good or all bad, either, although the word “neurotic” has never been a favorite of mine. Much to my surprise, I recently learned that because I have, at times, suffered acute anxiety to the point of panic, that’s part of my personality. And the phobias that have been part of my life for so long are part of being neurotic, too.

Everyone suffers from anxiety. Neuroticism, like all the traits, is a spectrum, everyone falls somewhere on it. I just happen to be left of center. Way. Or I was. I’ve been getting better and that’s because without understanding why or even what I was doing, I was working on it, intuitively.

My wedding anniversary was this past weekend. There I am in a photo on “the day” happy not to be cooking but not really looking all wedding anniversary happy. That’s because my marriage has been going through some changes. It seems that as my anxiety lessens, and I confront each of my fears and face them down, my marriage takes another hit. Which is ironic because my husband is the one who first led me to seek help. We were driving and I couldn’t catch my breath. I was telling him I was scared and could he slow down as I held my hands in front of my face. “What, do you think we’re going to die?” He was really angry. “YES!” I said. “I think that. It feels like that.” A beat of silence. “Well you’re just crazy. You better go see somebody.”

Neither of us knew I was having a panic attack brought on by a phobia related to driving. He just knew crazy when he saw it. So I made an appointment with my doctor, who referred me to a psychiatrist. Lovely woman. She gave me the information, and the help, I needed for that particular phobia. I also learned that it’s really not crazy to be afraid for your life if someone is driving drunk or high, if there is black ice or a blizzard or a severe rainstorm. Those are pretty natural reactions to driving in dangerous conditions. Beyond the pale, I had those kind of reactions all the time, for no reason. But I kept at therapy, and I got better.

After psychotherapy, I started to crave calm. I’ve always been impatient and anxious, busy and social. Those things didn’t feel so right anymore, so I took up, and have kept up, yoga, meditation, prayer, visualization, nature walks, vegetarianism, periods of retreat, alcohol moderation, and yes, medication for when the panic gets severe. After 25 years, I have crossed several former phobias off my list. I am no longer afraid of speaking in public, flying, or heights. I drive with very little anxiety except for brief flashbacks due to a recent accident that totaled my car and bruised my body and mind.

That’s my history of anxiety. What I didn’t know was that my problems took a toll on my husband. And my marriage. He is not a nurturing type. He’s not given to huge emotional gestures. He really doesn’t get it or me and even after all these years I cope alone, which is fine. He never asks me for help with his personality issues. Or anything else, for that matter. He actually likes being in charge of stuff. Which has led to some problems now that I’m sliding more toward normal on that neuroticism spectrum. Because now that I’m less focused on my own wellness, I want to help decide the wellness of our future.

Neuroticism never defined me. I have other, better, stronger traits that have led me to follow my dreams and do some things I never imagined. Persistence is part of “conscientiousness” which really just means you finish what you start. Like that novel. Or you do what you say you will, like send the finished novel to publishers. I have that persistent thing in vast quantities, which helped me publish my books way more than my writing skills.

Twelve years blogging? Again, that’s just me following through. Seeing something to the finish. I’m pretty open to new experiences, too. Yeah, funny for a fraidy cat. But I never jump in the water fearing sea serpents. And I’ve never met one yet. So, I’m not an extrovert. I do a great imitation of one. Even I didn’t know I was an introvert until Myers-Briggs told me so. And it’s a good thing I am, because writers need a lot of time alone. Those words take time to put on paper.

You might thing agreeableness is a wonderful trait. I have a lot of that and it’s caused me as much trouble as the phobic stuff. Because when you always say yes, some of those things you are yessing to are things you should be no-ing. And my Mr of 29 years now doesn’t much like the word no coming from the lips of his formerly compliant wife. He doesn’t much like some of my ideas for changing things up in this relationship of ours. And I can’t believe how long I lived with things the way they were. Bet he wishes he never called me crazy.