Wellness Wednesday – Extroversion and Agoraphobia

Extroversion and agoraphobia – it’s hard to imagine them going hand and hand, but sometimes they do. It’s taken a peculiar series of life events starting at a young age to get me to this point. I’m not going to hash over all that. The short version is that for all my adult life, I’ve wanted to be out and around people, and I feel better when I do. However, the default is to stay in because I get tied to a single place (which can be as small as a room depending on the severity of that moment’s agoraphobia). The irony of all this is that my agoraphobia becomes worse the longer I stay in place, and it improves when I am forced (one way or another) out of my comfort zone and begin to interact with people again. I’m not talking just family, the people I live with. I mean getting out into the world. Having conversations that go beyond polite small talk. Being with people out in the world somewhere.

November, 2009. I’d joined NaNoWriMo for the first time, and I’d forced myself to go to a meet-and-greet in October with the local NaNo group. I enjoyed the night, but now that it was time for the second meet-up, anxiety reared its ugly head. My agoraphobia was reasonably controlled enough to leave the house, but as I drove, things got worse. I was driving to a place I’d never been (cue severe anxiety) to meet with a bunch of strangers (cue more anxiety related to how I was supposed to find my group etc). It wasn’t the actual meet-up that worried me – I like being with people, and writers are my people! It was all the rest. I was coming up on an exit for a shopping center I knew well, where there was a bookstore I liked. I thought, hey, I could reward myself for my hard work by going into the bookstore and getting something I want, rather than going out to dinner with a bunch of folks I barely know! Agoraphobia vs extroversion; comfort zone vs making new friends. That time, extroversion won out, and you know what? I had one of the best nights of my life that night. I made friends that I still talk to a decade later.

(post-NaNo write-in, Jan 2010, with folks met because of the above)

I have a lot of examples like this: early Sparkpeople meet-ups when I didn’t know anyone; various book blogger meetups and conferences; creating a book club at my library that was open to the public; joining fitness groups and classes. Nearly all of the time, when my desire to be among people can conquer my fear for venturing outside of safe spaces, the result is positive. And yet…

December, 2008. My favorite singer in the world was giving the only concert he ever ended up giving with his new band (at least so far, but it’s been over a decade…). I’d gotten to meet him and two other members of their former band from the 90s the year before, two trips to New York that were incredible for many reasons. The moment I heard that this new concert was happening, I bought plane tickets. The date got closer and closer, and anxiety grew. My sister no longer lived in New York, so I’d be on my own. Shouldn’t have been a problem – one of the other two times I’d gone had been the same – but it was also winter, and I didn’t have the right winter clothes, and I’d gained a lot of weight and felt self-conscious, and technically I’d have to fly home on my anniversary so I’d miss that, even though Jason told me he didn’t mind, and… You can see where this is going. That time, agoraphobia won out. I canceled the tickets. I missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and still kick myself for that.

(July 2007, one of those previous meet-ups)

This, like my previous example, isn’t an isolated incidence. I can name dozens of times when agoraphobia and anxiety took something from me – school concerts and performances from my kids; missed doctors appointments I desperately needed; 5Ks I’d signed up for and really wanted to do; classes missed in college that caused slipped grades. You get the picture.

These two forces war within me all the time. It becomes simple math/logic: If agoraphobia is winning a greater percentage of time, then 1) it’s likely to win even more, and 2) I’m going to be unhappy and my mental health will be increasingly disordered. If extroversion can start getting some wins, then 1) it snowballs until (eventually) I resemble a well-adjusted, normal human being, and 2) these times stand out as the happiest times of my life.

One of my goals for this year is to help extraversion snowball. I’d gotten to a good place back in 2014 before my family began its insane moving years. I’ve recovered enough from those years to start thinking about improvement rather than survival. Because I live in a military town, many of the friends I had pre-Boston have since become virtual, online friends. I still have in-town folks, but not the larger circle of before. I’m going to build that circle again. It may take years, given my personal mental health limitations, but that is the goal. Join groups. Make groups. Revive old groups. Get out of my damn house. Push the comfort zone circle wider and wider until I can only barely see its barriers. Then guard those barriers vigilantly, because I do not want them closing in on me again.

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The Family Upstairs, by Lisa Jewell

When Libby Jones discovers that her birth parents have left her a house on her 25th birthday, she doesn’t know what to think. Then the house turns out to be dark, oppressive, and creepy. And that’s before she reads the articles about the crazy cult that lived there and the suicide pact that left her orphaned.

TW (book and review): Sexual abuse, sexual assault, child abuse, physical abuse

I heard about this book last month, I think. I put it on hold at the library and grabbed it as soon as it was available. Generally, I prefer mysteries to thrillers and I often find thrillers disappointing, so I was perfectly willing to try it out and return it unread to the library. Then I began reading, and the book felt far more nuanced than most thrillers I’ve read. There were three narrators: Libby, who now has to deal with the discovery of her true origin; Lucy, a homeless woman living in France with her two children; and Henry, a clear sociopath who narrates the goings-on in the cult-house before Libby’s birth. In the beginning, a lot is unclear, like the relationship of the narrators to each other. I enjoyed piecing together the mystery.

Then. Then came the middle of the story, and a particular moment where everything went sour. That’s when I should have closed the book, called it abandoned, and stopped reading. But as often happens with thrillers, I was too engaged to quit, too invested in the story, and I read right on through even as the book unraveled and made me feel sicker and sicker to my stomach. Everything from here on will be spoileriffic, so please stop here if you don’t want spoilers. Read on at your own risk.

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There’s a particular moment in the book where all these complex situations – the cult, the adoption, the homelessness, the abusive ex – go from explored to exploited. There is horrific sexual assault and abuse, physical abuse, child abuse, murder, and stalking. This would be fine, if the elements were there for some other reason than to shock the reader and move the plot along. This story thrived on knee-jerk reactions, and any subtlety that existed in the first half of the book went out the window. Furthermore, there was heavy reliance on a trope that makes me angry and sick every time I see it: the sociopath repressed homosexual who obsesses over an individual to the point of violence. Lastly, the characters suddenly grew unbelievably naive, and many of the plot elements were also stretched to the point of disbelief. Cops not even going to bother investigating the sudden reunion of a murdered man and his ex-wife when she’s disappeared without a trace? Sure, why not! Investigative journalist can find all the threads of this story and all the people involved when the police can’t? Makes perfect sense! Woman deciding a family member is trustworthy despite him giving her a false name, locking her into a bedroom overnight, and stealing her phone to spy on her? Um…

So yeah. This book fell apart completely. Not only did the threads not fit together believably at the end, but the unique and interesting elements that could have made for some great conversation were just twisted into something to gawk at.

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Sunday Coffee – Third time’s a charm?

Morrigan starts school tomorrow. On Tuesday, Jason drove him up to Kansas. We were both planning to drive him up together, but then the school required him to come mid-week for a second orientation (first time wasn’t enough?). That, plus needing a full-time carer for Ash at the moment, meant that Jason drove up with Morrigan and I stayed home to watch over Ash and get the other two boys to school each day. Everything went smoothly, Jason got Morrigan moved into his new dorm, and returned home on Thursday. Tomorrow, Morrigan starts his third attempt at an independent life. We are all hopeful that this time, things work out in his favor!!

As for home, we had a couple bits of good news this week. First, we accepted an offer on our previous house. This is all still in the prelim stages, so nothing is finalized, but it’s exciting nonetheless. Second, we weighed Ash in on Friday, and in the six days since he got that antibiotic shot and began eating again, he’s gained 0.7 lbs! He’s up to 10.6 lbs and needs to gain about another 1.5 lbs to be at a healthy weight. He definitely has more energy and has spent a lot more time moving around the whole house rather than being confined to the bedroom for recovery.

The rainy season has begun here. It had been so dry for so long that I didn’t think about the rains potentially coming when I started doing outdoor couch-to-5K practices on New Year’s. I only made it through the first week before it started flooding every other day. And it turns out that the park I chose to train in – because it’s fairly level – runs right though a flood plain and has a big swath of it covered in water after big rains. Often, in other words. I’ve only been able to use the park ONCE in the last two weeks. Pretty soon I’m going to have to make a decision – keep running outside only as I’m able, or start again inside and just do outdoor walks when the weather is slightly nicer. Last time I did all this, I started with indoor runs, so that’s more likely to be my decision. I just hate to lose any strength/stamina I’d built up already. Ah well. It’s better than losing all that strength/stamina because I have to wait for the rains to stop, I suppose. I don’t think trying to run through running water – even a few inches of it – would be particularly safe, especially not with my messed up feet!

Anyway. Time of transitions and all that, boys back in school, Morrigan off to college, hopefully selling our house soon and having all our kitty-babies healthy…maybe soon my head won’t be wandering off in multiple directions at once…

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There Will Come a Darkness, by Katy Rose Pool

A hundred years ago, the last of the prophets disappeared. Society has corrupted, religions have splintered, and a new zealot known as the Hierophant is preaching the destruction of all who are graced with magic. Now a new prophet has arrived, foretold by the prophets of old, to either usher in or prevent an Age of Darkness.

Let me start by saying this: There Will Come a Darkness absolutely blew me away. By the time I was 150 pages in, I could already tell it would be a new favorite. It was the book I wish I could have written, a book I can and will read many times in the future. And I cannot wait for the next volume to arrive.

Five narrators tell this story. There is a murderer and her dying sister, an exiled prince in hiding, a runaway with dark secrets in his past, and the new leader of a group that has kept the old prophets’ final prophecy in secret all these years. Other than the two sisters, none of these narrators know each other as the book starts. Their stories develop separately until they begin to collide, weaving into a complex narrative as the reader tries to figure out what may or may not be true and/or relevant to the prophecy that encircles them. All the while, the Hierophant is inciting riots, killing innocent people, torturing enemies, and keeping his face hidden behind a golden mask. There is So Much Going On, and it’s wonderful from the very first page. By the second half, I could not stop reading. In fact, if I had anything to complain about, it would be that the second half sped up way too much, losing some of the breadth and rhythm of the first half. It’s not often that I say that a book feels like it needed to be longer, but this is one of those times. Another 50-100 pages filling out that second half would have made this pretty much the perfect book.

I’m going to say this again: I LOVED THIS BOOK SO MUCH. The flaws were so minor as to be insignificant, and everything – world-building, characters, writing, history, psychology – was spot on. Technically, this book wasn’t my first of 2020, as I had two rereads before it, but I’m very happy that my first new read of 2020 was this wonderful. Now the rest of 2020 has to try to keep up!

Quick note: This book is being marketed as YA, but it isn’t really YA. The narrators are late teenagers, but the narrative doesn’t focus on themes common to YA novels (even speculative/fantasy YA novels). This is built far more like modern traditional fantasy. It’s character-driven with emphasis on politics, sociology, and theology.

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Wellness Wednesday – Epiphany

Note: I wrote this post on December 11th but haven’t had the courage to publish it until now. This was an epiphany I had right after moving into my new house, when I was unpacking and had decisions to make on how to arrange furniture and decorate walls. A casual derisive comment I received brought my blood to a boil, and for the first time in years, I actually expressed my anger. For the first time in years, I didn’t bury the feeling and just keep smiling. It felt like the first time I’d truly been myself in ages. The next day, I wrote this. And then kept it sitting in my drafts because I didn’t have the courage to publish it. Until now.

July 2nd, 2013 – My world cracked open, the foundation splitting just enough to cause tremors. To deal with this, I threw myself into the things that I loved. I began training to run a half-marathon. When a foot injury derailed that, I began a weight training program. I pinpointed a nutritional issue I was having and worked religiously to fix it. I finally took the financial hit to have a surgery I’d needed for a decade. For a year, I fought against those cracks and tremors by embodying myself 100%.

Then in mid-2014, the foundation stopped splitting, and simply crumbled into dust. I was left flailing with no support to stand on, lean on, rely on. Everything in my world was gone.  my home was no longer a safe place. My body wasn’t safe. My family wasn’t safe. Nothing was safe. I had no choice but to keep going, to keep taking care of my kids, to use whatever means necessary to bandaid the wounds as best as possible. This was not a recoverable injury. I lost everything that made me me. I stopped running, and my attempts at exercise were sporadic at best. I began experimenting with fad diets like Whole30, which in the long run destroyed my metabolism. I began binge-eating and drinking too much, things I’d never done before. I got rid of all the artwork in the house that I’d loved, all the bits and pieces of my household that were mine alone. I stifled every emotion as best as possible and became a bland, inoffensive version of Amanda. It was the only thing I could do.

It has been almost five years since I underwent that transformation, and yet I still had to stop typing while writing that out because I couldn’t see through my tears. This is still very raw, undiluted grief, because these things take so very long to sort through, and because I spent so long squashing the grief away so that it wouldn’t mar my bland, inoffensive exterior. In the early days, I had breakdowns of deferred grief, and those at least have gotten better over time. A few years ago, I had the realization that I was tired of “Becoming Someone Else To Make Everyone Else Happy,” and that I needed to be myself instead. It’s been 2.5 years since then, though, and nothing has changed.

Post-2014 me began crocheting and gardening. She took up yoga. She never yells or expresses anger. She bought a showpiece house instead of one she felt comfortable in because it seemed the proper thing to do. She owns a lot of scented wax and painted her kitchen apricot even though (deep down) she hates that color. She gives up easily because trying takes passion, and she doesn’t have passion. What she doesn’t do: run, write, dance, express her feelings honestly, strive for goals, decorate with art and items she likes, express opinions, believe in herself or her abilities.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the things I acquired during those years of earthquake and survival, and there’s nothing that says I must discard them and/or return to being the person that I was before that trauma. What I don’t want is to continue being a person who chooses her habits, hobbies, words, and environment based on being as invisible, crowd-pleasing, inoffensive, and unmemorable as possible. I’ve spent so many years hiding myself so far in the dark until even I couldn’t see me anymore. Nothing around me is going to change until I change. And that means letting go of (or fighting through) the fear that if I am truly ME again, the trauma will re-descend.

Y’all, this is classic PTSD sh*t. I’m so, so, so sick of it. I’m so sick of living it, I’m so sick of writing it, and I’m sure you’re all sick of hearing about it. I’ve basically spent the last five years living on quicksand, moving as little as possible so I don’t sink. I WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO RELY ON THAT OLD FOUNDATION AGAIN. That foundation is gone. The world is not the same place as it used to be, and it never will be again. That is fact, plain and simple. I will never be the person I was before the trauma. But I’m not going to be a trapped animal any longer. I’m building a new foundation, because I am strong. I’m strong enough to have survived five years of living on quicksand, strong enough to keep myself alive all that time, and I’m DONE spending my strength on survival. I will claw my way out of this pit. I will speak when I need to speak, yell when I need to yell, and turn my new house into a home that I actually exist in. And if things break apart this time, I’ll be the one doing the breaking, because this is MY choice: I’m not going to be the broken thing hiding in the corner anymore.

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20-20 in 2020 – A Mini Challenge

Y’all know the year 2020 is going to have so many puns about vision and clarity and foretelling the future and all the rest. I gotta join in somehow. So on that note, I thought I might as well make this about weight loss or fitness or something related to health goals. I have a longstanding tradition of double-numbered health-related challenges. Why not, right? So, I made myself a little challenge for the year:

The bulk of the challenge is simple: Lose 20 lbs and 20 inches in 2020. My primary weight-related goal was to lose 20 lbs anyway, and this’ll give me a fun little way to compete with myself. But that little statement is more goal than challenge, so of course there have to be little 20-20 steps along the way, too. I decided to pick five health-related habits that I want to incorporate into my daily life, and build them into this challenge. So along with the big challenge to lose 20 lbs and 20 inches this year, each month I will:

  1. Walk/run 20 miles (worth 20 points per month)
  2. Eat 20 whole fruits (ie not juice) (20 points)
  3. Eat 20 whole vegetables (20 points)
  4. Exercise on 20 days (20 points)
  5. Turn off electronics before 9pm on 20 nights (20 points)

These, of course, are minimums – I’d love to eat more veggies, walk more miles, etc – but there are no bonus points for going over. Just 20 points per category, and for each month that I get a perfect score, I get some kind of reward (as of yet to be determined, though I have a few ideas).

It’s a very simple challenge. A friend of mine is doing this with me, and hey, if anyone else wants to participate, feel free! Make yourself five little mini-goals (they don’t have to be the same as mine!) and leave me a comment below. And have fun!!

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Sunday Coffee – Ash

If you’ve been following along with Ash’s story on Instagram or Facebook, I apologize for the repeat.

Ash is my oldest kitty-baby, at 10 1/2 years old. He came to live with us in early November, 2009, when he was only four months old. He and Christabel, who was 2 1/2 years old, came home together and were named for the poets in AS Byatt’s Possession. Christabel had lymphoma and sadly passed away six months after we adopted her. For the next five years, Ash was our only cat, and he preferred it that way. He was none too happy when Gavroche joined our family, heh, and the only kitty friend he seems to really like is Nimi. He’s a bit of a curmudgeon, but he loves people and he’s the gentlest cat I’ve ever known.

(Jan 2014)

Unfortunately, he’s also a bit prone to illness. He has had frequent stomach issues since he was three years old, and several times he’s lost weight rapidly due to this. About a week after we moved into this new house, he again began to lose weight. He wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t drink, and he was hobbling around the house. Most of the time he was very lethargic. At first we thought it was the stress of moving – this has happened before, and after a lot of extra feedings, he gets better – but this time, he wasn’t improving. We brought him in to the vet on the 2nd. By that point, he’d lost about 1.5 lbs.

I wasn’t prepared to hear some of the things our vet said. Ash was severely jaundiced (gums, skin, ears, etc) and she was worried that he was in complete liver failure. She wanted to get bloodwork done on him, and get him straight onto an IV because he was so dehydrated. I said goodbye and let him go, hoping to get good news later that day. Which was a partially fulfilled wish. Ash’s bloodwork came back with elevated liver enzymes, but not nearly to the level our vet was expecting and not high enough to cause the issues he was having. Nothing else appeared weird with his bloodwork, so we had no idea what might be causing the problem.

(July 2015)

After two days of IV and eating only at night when the vet’s office was closed, Ash was sent home with us. He had a lot more energy, though he still wouldn’t eat or drink and that energy faded quickly as the IV wore off. We quarantined him to the master bedroom so that he wouldn’t have to compete for food/water. The goal was to see how he did over the weekend to determine if he could stay with us until the vet’s office could schedule an ultrasound (mid-week), or if he needed to get back onto the IV. Poor baby. Sadly, he didn’t eat or drink a thing over the weekend, and we brought him back to the vet on Monday morning.

This is where things got really tough. The vet scheduled an ultrasound at a specialty clinic so that we could get in early. The ultrasound revealed nodes in his intestines that possibly indicate lymphoma, and abnormalities on his liver that could be cancer, liver disease, or (somehow?) renal disease. Three years ago, Ash was diagnosed with having a slightly shrunken kidney and was put on a special low-phosphorus diet. He improved greatly, but this is probably just a continuation of the same condition – dehydration, failing kidneys and liver. The specialty clinic wanted to do some biopsies, and I admit, I just broke down. I couldn’t bear to put Ash through all that if in the end he would just be scared and miserable and in pain. We brought him home – his platelet count was too low for surgery anyway – and contacted our regular vet for next steps. I couldn’t stop sobbing while we waited.

(May 2010)

The vet’s news was less dire. She recommended skipping the biopsies. There was no point of doing them as the treatment for all of those conditions would be the same: IV fluids, antibiotics (for the fever Ash had now developed), and steroid treatment to decrease inflammation and help him to feel more energized and able to eat. It’s not a cure, but it might help him to feel better for possibly up to a few years with a regular steroid maintenance dose. And miraculously, after Ash got home from the ultrasound, he actually began to eat a little again. Not much, but far more than he had been over the weekend. He drank some water as well, just a tiny bit. It was enough that instead of an IV, the vet just gave him some subcutaneous fluids during Tuesday’s treatment. Ash came home that afternoon, and we’ve been nursing him along (and force-feeding him steroid pills) ever since.

(April 2015)

It’s very hard to know when it’s time to stop trying and let a kitty-baby go. Ash was the first pet I’d had since I left home for college. I hadn’t wanted any animals. There had been some trauma with pets when I was young, and I think part of my reaction (tied to the other PTSD stuff I was going through) was to shut out animals altogether. I had no connection to them. Jason wanted a cat, and I agreed to adopt Ash and Christabel for him. I never expected that Ash would be the creature that taught me how to open my heart again and love without protecting myself from the inevitable hurt. He’s my baby, the kitty who deemed me the alpha, who wouldn’t eat when he was young until I sat down to eat first, who claims my office chair is his own and periodically challenges me for alpha position. He’s my Ash, and no matter how many kitties I’ve loved afterwards, he holds a very special place in my heart. The thought of being without him, especially after such a short time (only ten years!), is heartbreaking.

But I’m also not going to force him to suffer. I’m not going to terrify him and make him feel unsafe at home. I’m not going to put him through needless surgeries and painful procedures, not if it’s time. I won’t syringe-feed him food just to keep him alive. I know where I draw my line. Hopefully, I won’t have to meet that line any time soon – Ash actually ate almost an entire can of food last night, for the first time in weeks!! – but the entire family is preparing ourselves, just in case, and spending every last minute we can with our baby.

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