Fall is coming. The geese form wiggly skeins of pointed v’s, honking over the sound of their rustling feathers as they fly low over our yard. The trees are changing colour – not because of the season, but because the drought has gone on so long that they’re too stressed to stay green. Red and yellow leaves litter the ground, and the cedars are starting to show the impacts of their long battle with summer drought. The neighbourhood is full of conifers whose tops have become ratty and red, no longer the lush green of a temperate rainforest.
Daytime temperatures remain relatively high (28°C yesterday!), but overnight temperatures are dropping into the 10-12°C range, cooling things off nicely. And the long term forecast calls for rain—more than we’ve seen in months. All the rain we didn’t have over the summer has been packed into one week.
I know it’s Thursday today, so I’m a day behind on my regular Wednesday blog post. But I was at one of my four-times-per-year visits to my psychiatrist, which is a whole day affair as we have to go up-Island to see him. And I’m allowed to be a bit late with my first post after a month-long hiatus. 🙂
I’m glad I waited until today to write this post, as I’ve had a lot to think about since yesterday’s appointment.
In August I had a literary piece published at Chronically Lit. Entitled “Equifinality,” it was written just over four years ago—after I’d had my first visit with my current psychiatrist. The feeling of being diagnosed with a mood disorder was still raw, and the piece reflects that rawness. I don’t think I feel the same now, four years later.
But what I did notice is that I’ve failed to take my own advice.
In my piece, I wrote:
“I’m aiming smaller now—or maybe just more realistically. I may not have the great Canadian nature book written by next year. Instead I’ll just plug away an essay, a paragraph, even a sentence, at a time. In the end it’s the process, not the product, that makes our days sing.”
When I wrote this paragraph, I forgot to take into account my ambition.
As Esmé Weijun Wang writes about her own illness,
“Eventually, I stabilized. I could rely on a certain level of illness every day. Many things in life changed, including my ability to think, get around, enjoy “ordinary” outings, and plan for the future. What didn’t change were my ferocious ambition & dreams for the future.”
But chronic illness has a price. As Katharine Coldiron writes about Sandra Gail Lambert’s A Certain Loneliness,
“She must let go of what she enjoys, again and again, and in doing so, she demonstrates how ambition, coupled with a questing mind, adapts to a deteriorating body.”
And as Lydia Kiesling notes about the main character in her new book, The Golden State,
“she worries about failing herself as an intellectually curious person…she…has a lot of brain power she’d obviously like to put to some kind of use, and the way to do that is still not clear to her.”
I’m certainly not aiming smaller now, as I wrote in my Chronically Lit piece. In fact, I’m aiming big. For example, I’m interviewing Barbara Kingsolver about her writing career—and new book—in the next week.
But my visit to the psychiatrist yesterday made me pause and rethink things. He basically said that I have the worst mix of illnesses to try and deal with. He noted that my mental health is not well-managed, and we can only classify it as ‘managed’ when I’ve had two years of stable moods. Which at this point seems like a pipe dream. He confirmed that the cognitive decline I’ve observed is a result of my illness. And he suggested there’s a possibility I may be treatment resistant, given the time between onset and diagnosis /treatment.
As a member of several writers’ groups on Facebook, I see calls for articles and job postings and think “I should do that.” But I forget that I’m not whole. That me “doing that” requires that I apply myself 100% when I can only manage about 40%.
I have a tendency to take on more than I can manage. And since these days I can manage less and less, the impulse to take more on collides with the lack of ability to do it, and I’m left holding the pieces and wondering what went wrong.
I think I have to go back to that original piece I wrote four years ago and rethink my ambition. Where do I want to focus that ambition, given my limited time and ability to do much of anything?
First of all, I’ll stop pitching new story ideas. I’ve had this feeling that, to be a “real” freelancer, I needed to pitch and publish and prosper (the tagline of The Science Writers’ Handbook, which I reviewed for Canadian Science Publishing). And I do have a lot of ideas I’d like to share. But that’s assuming I’m functioning at 100% capacity – which I’m not and never will. I have a few pitches rattling around in the email abyss that may or may not turn into anything solid. But I can’t pitch anything new.
Secondly, I need to prioritize my physical as well as my mental health. I returned to the pool in August, which was exciting as it had been over seven years since I’d been swimming. I need to maintain this activity (once the pool reopens on Monday), as well as walking, and start up cycling again now that my injured knee is stronger.
Thirdly, I need to focus on projects that are exactly what I want to do instead of spreading myself too thinly. I want to write a book. So I need to focus on that and not procrastinate/distract myself by writing other pieces.
Sometimes I feel as though I’ve learned nothing in the five long years I’ve had this illness. Every time I leave the psychiatrist’s office I feel as though I’ve been deluding myself, terribly, about my limitations, and it’s true. I have been. I try too hard to be “normal” and do what “serious” writers do. Instead I end up in bed for a few days at a time, or staring dumbly at a Word document, unable to mentally process its contents.
But I can’t forget that, while those limitations need to be respected, I can still do some things within them. And that’s what I have to consider. Not what other people do, but what I’m able to do.
It’s a hard road to travel, and it feels like you’re always stopping to check the map and make sure you’re still heading in the right direction. But it’s how I have to think of the way forward – even if it’s taken me five years to figure out.
(Note: My review of Kelly J. Baker’s Sexism Ed came out while I was on hiatus – you can read it here).