Saturday, June 25, 2016

I Wish


            A cool breeze wafts across the porch. It carries with it the scent of the purple flowered bush next to the steps, sweet and tangy. It has flowered every spring, but only for about six weeks, when the flowers die and do not reappear until the following year. I wish I knew the name of it. I wish the flowers bloomed longer.
            I wish for a lot of things.
            It is bright today. Hot. But under the shade of my neighbor’s towering birch, it is cool enough on the porch. Cool enough to write, anyway. And think. Though only one thing dominates my mind these days. It follows me everywhere I go, lingers like a foul odor, does not allow much room for anything else. It is all I can do to go to work, and try, at least, for a little while, to forget that my life has changed forever.
            I glance over at the window where my cat has curled up on one of the many boxes that now fill my house. They line the walls and lay scattered across the living room floor. Books and kitchen things. Old files and memorabilia and photographs. Tools and Christmas decorations and things from my childhood. All packed away. The furniture is still there, but the shelves are empty.
The house is empty.
I am empty.
She left three months ago, and I still do not understand. I wonder if I’ll ever understand.
Last year was hard. I have wrestled with depression my entire life, but last year it struck in a way I had never experienced. I lost my job. I broke into hives. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking. Some days it was all I could to get out of bed.
It was hard on her, too. It is painful to live with someone with mental health issues, and last year must have been a nightmare for her. It is one thing for me to talk about the emptiness and loneliness inherent with depression, but altogether something else for our loved ones who are powerless to help. I had hoped that she would stay, counted on this year being better, but it was all too much, I think.
She deserves to be happy.
I would have fought for this relationship, done whatever it took to make it right, but sometimes we reach the end of our rope and must protect ourselves. We’re no good to the rest of the world if we’re miserable, and everyone deserves the right to be happy, no matter how much it hurts. No matter how much I hurt.
Love is not about me.
I take a deep breath and stare out across the street. Watch the leaves on the trees shift and sway in the wind. Love is not about me. I have said that a thousand times these past three months. I believe it, but it only helps a little. It certainly sounds right. Something you say to convince people around you that you’re being wise and kind and patient, when inside your emotions are a boiling cauldron of frustration and sadness and anger. When your emotions are desperately trying to escape so they can scream and yell and lash out, and all you have is this thin barrier, largely constructed of mantras and clich├ęs and whispered hope, to reign them in.
Sometimes they escape. Sometimes I do not think kind things. Sometimes I am so overwhelmed I can hardly move.
She deserves to be happy.
I have always believed this. That hasn’t changed.
Pain of this magnitude is a great teacher, if we allow it. It gives us a mirror into our lives that we rarely see. And for a while, we can see ourselves from the perspective of someone else. I have stared into this mirror for three months, and it has taught me a great deal. It has also given me more wishes.
I wish I’d known she was so unhappy. I wish I’d been a better husband. I wish I’d been enough.
I sigh and put down my laptop. It is time to pack again.
Back inside, I pack two more boxes. The wedding photos are the hardest, but I see her everywhere. I remember everything, every story behind every book and nicnac and kitchen appliance. And every time I put them in a box, part of me disappears with them.
Tears slide down my cheeks. It feels like I have been crying for a long time. I know that one day the tears will stop, and that spring will come again and I will live without pain. I believe that, I just can’t feel it. Not yet. Perhaps not for a while.
Some days I think about our life together. Think about what I could have done differently. At night, I sometimes dream that we’re together, that I’ve made better choices and she is happy. Those mornings are difficult.
I do not believe everything is my fault, of course. I am not that arrogant. But I cannot control anything but who I am and the choices I made, and to focus on anything else is fool’s gold. The intent of pain’s mirror is not to cast blame or throw stones, but to check my thoughts and heart and actions.
Where did I go wrong? What could I have done better? What kind of person do I want to be going forward? Again, these are the kind of questions that sound like I have things all together, but don’t be fooled. No one “has it all together” when they lose the love of their life.
As a Christian, I believe in God. I also believe in a broken world, which is as much a reflection of my faith as it is my understanding of humanity. We are not perfect. We make choices that hurt people. And we do it every day.
I do it every day.
And somewhere along the way, I made too many of these choices. Perhaps she made too many of these choices. And so we broke.
That doesn’t make me a bad person. And it doesn’t make her a bad person. It makes us both human.
I put down the third box and head back onto the porch. I scrub the tears from my face. I am greeted by the fresh scent of my little shrub. I wish she were here. I wish I could tell her how much I loved her and hoped for her happiness. I wish that my heart did not feel so empty.
I wish for a lot of things.


























Tuesday, May 03, 2016

What Do You Want?

When we're young, we're asked this question a lot. What do you want for breakfast? What do you want to do this weekend? What time do you want to leave for your soccer game? We have little control over our environment and our world, so we rely on our parents and guardians. We even rely on them to think of these questions, because the concept of creating our own world isn't feasible.

Eventually we move out. We get a job or go to college. We start our careers. And as life passes, we never think to ask ourselves, except vaguely, the one question that dominated our childhood. Perhaps we find someone, a partner, who is willing to ask us. Perhaps we're motivated enough to go on a retreat or vacation and ask it ourselves.

But most of us forget. Most of us get caught up in the routines of daily life, that unending cycle of busy-ness and business, and what once seemed so important now seems like the question from a children's story. It never strikes us that it's the one question that will dictate who we become.

The Most Important Person in Your Life

Who is the most important person in your life? I'm a Christian, and I know some friends who will say 'Jesus.' Others will point to their spouse, their children, or one of their parents. All of these answers are selfless. All of them speak to generosity and kindness.

And all of them are wrong.

The most important person in your life is you, if only because it is the only life that you control, and it is the only life you can change. Yes, you can have great impact on people around you, whether its your kids or your partner or your friends, but you can't make their decisions for them. You can't create their world, no matter how hard you try.

In psychology they call this 'self-care,' this notion that you have to look after yourself before you can be of use to anyone else. If you don't take care of yourself, if you're miserable, everyone else is going to feel it. That said, most of us don't identify as 'miserable.' If I asked fifty people how they felt about their life, I'd guess that about eighty per cent would say that they're "doing okay." That life was just... life. Most people would consider their complaints 'common' or 'part of life.'

If I were to rephrase the question, however, and ask if their was one thing they wanted. One thing that they could have, all things being equal, I would get a very different response. Why? Because everyone can think of one thing they want -- whether its a vacation to a certain place or a skill they never learned or just more time to themselves -- and when its asked without impinging on what they do for others, its easy to find something. In some ways, it's like asking for a dream, and everyone has a dream or two that never quite panned out.

We Have To Be Practical 

If you had asked me six months ago what I wanted, my answers would have been vague. A healthy marriage. To manage my depression in a positive manner. To be happy. If you had pressed me, I would have said something like selling a lot of books, though I doubted such a thing was possible. (I would have said it apologetically, with a smirk and a shrug, like someone who buys a lottery ticket.)

If you had pressed me further, I would have said that I couldn't control these things, and that I had to be practical.

I would have been wrong.

That is, I would have taken an important truth (I couldn't control certain things) and turned it into a lie. Which is exactly what I did. In turn, it sowed the seeds for the worst year of my life.

Dead In The Alley

I spent most of last year lying prone in a back alley. My depression had kicked me to the ground in a way I'd never experienced. My relationships eroded, some of them souring so badly the damage was permanent. A month ago, I experienced a loss so great, so unexpected, I was no longer certain of anything. If I'd spent the previous year lying in a back alley, this event was the equivalent of someone sticking a knife in my side while I was face down in a puddle.

It was like waking up into a nightmare, where one plus one no longer equaled two. A place where the sun rose in the West, and when it did rise, it burned like gasoline over an open wound. And in this scorched earth, I was forced to re-examine everything. Well, either that, or just give up. However kind I had tried to be, however generous I'd wanted to be, and however concerned I'd been for other humans, none of that seemed to matter.

Life Doesn't Keep Score

Sometimes life hands good people a lot of pain and sometimes it doesn't. Believing that life was unfair was probably true, but it was also unhelpful. I had a choice, made stark by my circumstances. That choice was to get up, find a different approach and do things differently, or wallow in self-pity.

The first week I wallowed. Much as I had the year before, when I didn't understand why the world seemed so dark. I complained bitterly to God about my circumstances, about how it wasn't fair. Why bother being a good person when life was just going to crush me anyway? And yet, somewhere in this vague haze, I heard a single question, over and over.

What Do You Want?

At first, the question enraged me. I wanted what everyone wanted! I wanted to be happy! I wanted a healthy marriage. A job that I liked. A life I could be proud of. The question refused to let go, probing my mind, goading me, angering me.

What Do You Want?

I told you what I want, dammit! I want the same shit everyone else around me already has! All my friends have these incredible lives with great families and nice homes. I want what they have! The voice refused to relent. Refused to leave me alone.

What Do You Want?

Like a child after a tantrum, I remember mentally slumping against the wall of the alley, too tired to fight anymore. And so I thought about it. No more lazy answers. No more vague niceties. Nothing to do but answer the question. And so I did.

The answer was surprisingly simple. I wanted kids, and I wanted to own my own house. Yeah, I know. That doesn't seem like much of a revelation, does it? But my path was unlike that of my friends. I'd been a writer for the past twenty years, an aspiring novelist. My day job was working with special needs kids. I'd never made very much money. Not enough to consider buying a house. Not in one of the most expensive cities in Canada. As for kids, it had always been a dream, but never practical. I didn't make enough money to consider having them. And so much of my life seemed wrapped up in my writing. And yet, as soon as I said, out loud, what I really wanted, the voice left.

We Must Be Practical

The lie I'd believed earlier, that we only controlled certain things, was only a lie in the wrong context. Yes, we only controlled certain things, but we had far more control over our life than we imagined. This was, again, a revelation. By stating aloud (and writing it down) what I really wanted, these two simple goals that were deeply embedded in my subconscious, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders.

Pointing Our Life Towards the Solution

Those two simple goals, difficult but not unattainable, created something I hadn't seen before: a map. They were markers on a board I didn't know existed. Whatever else I wanted -- selling a lot of books, good friendships, a life of giving back -- revolved around those two locations. And with those two goals in place, I was able to start placing other markers. If I wanted a house, especially in this market, I would need to work. A lot. I would need to squeeze out TV and mindless surfing to be able to keep writing. My writing would have to become more efficient. If I wanted a family, I would have to switch my priorities, be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to put children first.

For the first time in a long while, I stopped worrying about the questions and unfairness and complaints about my life and started seeking solutions. Something vague and hopeless had just become a math problem. A challenge. One plus one suddenly equaled two again, and if I didn't have all the answers right away, that was okay. I could do this. It wasn't going to be easy, but I could do it.




First Steps

As I chewed on the end of my pen, poised over my recently acquired "goal" notebook, I realized the first question I needed to address was that of my mental health.This meant understanding what my depression meant, how it worked, and what I needed to do to manage it in a healthy way. Last year I'd been blindsided, but mostly because I lacked the tools to see what was happening. If I was going to stay healthy, I would need those tools, which included professional help, accountability from my friends, and other resources. I could not have a family and go AWOL for a year.

The first thing to go was alcohol. No more drinking. I'd used it to manage my depression, to take the edge off, for the past few years, but the more I drank, the less it worked. Depression makes it difficult to control your emotions, and alcohol is a depressant. It can fool you for an hour or two, but it's an illusion. And it only makes things worse.

So I stopped drinking.

I'd also learned the past year the importance of regular exercise. The endorphins and physiological benefits helped counter my depression and gave me confidence. So I set a goal to work out thirty to sixty minutes every day.

I haven't been in this kind of shape for nearly two decades.

I needed to be more efficient about it, but I still needed to write. I thought about my regular schedule. I tended to be a night owl, but never really accomplished anything after 10:30pm. So I would need to go to bed earlier and get up earlier.

I'm up by 6:30am every day now.

One by one, I was able to draw branches from my two goals and create smaller branches needed to support them. I'd expected the process to be hard. Instead, I found myself motivated. Excited even. The pain of recent events had not diminished, but I was doing the only thing I could do; I was taking control of my life. I couldn't control the people around me. I couldn't control how they responded in certain situations or what they thought about me or the way some would react to this "new"me. And frankly, I didn't care. I was more excited about the possibility of something great than anything anyone might say or do. I had, if unwittingly, created purpose in my life. Something for my compass to point to. I wasn't about to give that up.

There were, and still remain, other questions. Other challenges. I have a new job, and it will be challenging. I will be expected to work in some difficult environments. I will be expected to do some things that make me uncomfortable.

Even that creates one thought: bring it on.

Fear was no longer part of the equation. I could handle it. I'd taken the hardest blows the past year, and I was not only standing, I was creating a new life. If I had learned one thing, it was this: the choices we made dictated our life.

Movie Moments

I've always loved inspirational sports movies. (Rudy is at  the top of the list) I love the scenes that show the hero or heroine getting knocked down and getting back up again. Of course, in a movie, those scenes depicting weeks and months of hard work only last for twenty or thirty minutes. But they inspire me just the same.

Why? Because we have the ability to do that! Because we have more say in our life and who we become and what we attain then we realize. Because we are the ones who determine our life.

E + R = O. Event + Response = Outcome. 

We cannot change the events in our life, but we can change our response. That is what determines the outcome.

What Do YOU Want?

So let me ask you this. What do you want? Take a look at your life, really look, and tell me what it is that's missing. Maybe you're one of the lucky ones. Maybe you have everything you ever wanted. Maybe you can't fathom losing everything or feeling like you were dumped in an alley. Chances are, however, that there is part of your life that feels incomplete. Relationship issues? Familial difficulties? Job problems? Or maybe you want to try that new hobby. Maybe, if you're honest with yourself, you realize that you're just going through the motions. that you 'lost control' of your life a few months ago or a few years ago and have no idea how to get it back.

I know that feeling. I've been there. Hell, I feel like I spent too much of my life there. But if I've learned anything, I've learned that we CAN control our world. We CAN create a new life. New habits. New routines. And yes, it may be painful. It may require more falls, overcoming fears we didn't realize we even had, and thinking about ourselves in a completely new way.

But you can do it. We can do it. We are all so much more than we realize. We are not just a mother or a husband or a friend. We are not just a son or an accountant or a deacon. We are more than a profile on a page. We are beautiful and boundless and limited only by our own expectations. We are unique and special and gifted. And we are all here, together, sharing time and space and relationships, for one purpose: to make this world a little bit better.

I don't have it all figured out, and I'm not writing this to suggest that my new life, my new approach, is easy. It's not. There are days when I am torn about the past year, days I wish I could go back and scream at myself to get off the floor and do something. And there are nights when it is hard to fall asleep, because the goals I've set seem so very far away. Nights when I feel very much alone, as if the whole universe has gone quiet. As if I've set some impossible tasks for myself that won't make a difference.

But those are lies. To get to where we want to go, we have to create new patterns of thought, and consequently new habits, that refute those lies. Dwelling on them does nothing but bring us down, however difficult that is at times. We have no say over our past, all we can control is our future.

So today, before you get into your daily routine, before you set your weekly schedule, might I suggest something? Look in a mirror, look at that beautiful person staring back at you, the one who has been with you through every heartache, every sorrow, and every storm, and ask them this one question.

What do you want?

-Steve












Thursday, April 21, 2016

Time To Live



         
            The first thing you notice when you work with people with special needs is the reactions of able bodied people. If I’m working with someone in a wheelchair, a stranger’s eyes will immediately be drawn to the chair. If my client moves awkwardly due to low functioning physical abilities, that’s what the stranger will notice first. It’s natural, our gaze is always drawn to difference, but it also creates tension, because most people don’t know how to act in the presence of a disability. They’ll stare, then realize what they’re doing and look away. Or they’ll smile and watch their feet or perform a hundred other nervous tics. Every movement screams discomfort.

Whenever these situations arise, I always attempt to smooth things over, act graciously. But there are times I just want to scream. “It’s just a wheelchair! Stop treating my client like they’re a freak!” I never do, of course, but it is often tempting. And when you see that reaction happen consistently, it can affect you. Especially if you’re dealing with your own noticeable disability.

In my case, it’s depression. Some days my mental limp is hardly noticeable, even to me. Other days it’s more obvious, so much so that I’ll avoid public places. Last year, things became so bad that I could no longer move.

I felt trapped. Like I’d fallen out of my wheelchair and everyone was staring at me. I’d always been fairly honest about my struggles with depression, but it had never been this bad. This debilitating.

It was a strange and entirely terrifying place to be, as if I’d fallen in a crowded shopping mall and people were glaring at me as they passed by. I heard the accusations in their expressions. I was a loser. I was impotent. I was weak. I felt and heard those things, and my response was to cower into a corner. My disability was no longer a limp. It had produced a live corpse.

Months passed, and slowly, ever so slowly, I was able to sit up again. I was able to stand. I was able to walk, though only with crutches. Every step was painful. I did my best to ignore the stares and pretend I didn’t see them. That was how I’d dealt with my depression for most of my life, but this time it wasn’t enough. There had to be more. I was tired of “surviving.” I wanted to live again.

But how did I do that? Was it even possible? The answer was, and is, yes. Here is what I started doing, just a few things that have helped re-shape my life.

1.     Ignore The Lies

Like most mental health sicknesses, depression tells you a lot of lies. In fact, I’m certain that depression has a Ph. D in Bullshit. These lies are highly destructive. In my case, they separated me from my family and friends. My depression told me that if I was honest with people around me, I would only bring them down. That if I relied on my friends and was honest with my wife, it would drive them away. In fact, the reverse was true. No one understood what I was going through because I lacked the courage and understanding how important it was to tell them. I ended up secluding myself. Self-medicating with alcohol because I just wanted the pain to stop. What I didn’t realize was that seclusion is about the worst thing for mental health sufferers. When we are alone, the voices that tell us those powerful lies become louder, and we hear them more clearly.

I am learning to reject those lies. I rely on my friends now, more than ever. I am either on the phone or texting them every day. I need them, and I know I need them. What’s truly amazing is learning how much I have to offer. When I was trying to “spare them” with my self-imposed banishment, I was actually missing a chance to help them. I was missing the chance to hear what was going on in their lives and be there to console and counsel them, just as they were doing with me. (Depression can manifest itself in narcissistic behaviour, even when that isn’t the intention of those who suffer from it.) I’ve also found a community at SickNotWeak, and I can go there every day to interact with fellow sufferers for encouragement and comfort.

2.     Seek Professional Help

This one hurts. I’ve battled depression for nearly two decades and am only now getting professional help. There are numerous reasons for this, including a lack of income or insurance, but basically it comes down to fear and ignorance. I’m finally be addressing this issue. It’s fine to read blogs like this one and talk to your friends, but NOTHING matters more than getting professional help.

3.     Don’t Be Ashamed

Over the years, I’ve mostly been honest about my mental health issues, but more like an old high school football injury than a sickness that is potentially fatal. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t do anything to deserve it. Neither did you. Embrace it as much as you can and do NOT be ashamed by it. The special needs children I work with at school didn’t ask to be born with disabilities, and no one blames them for it. The same is true for mental health sufferers. Yes, some people are going to be Climate Change deniers. They’re going to accuse you of being lazy. Or weak. Or tell you that “it’s all in your head.”

Ignore them. You can accomplish your dreams regardless of your mental health issues, but never be ashamed of them. That will push you into hiding, and that’s the worst place you can be. I had to learn that the hard way.

Moving Forward

Look, dealing with this kind of struggle is never easy. Mental health problems are nuanced and difficult. Not only for the one who suffers from it, but for the people around them as well. It’s easy to fall into the trap of simplifying something that is actually quite complicated, and listening to the voices in your head that tell you awful things about yourself.

No one moves without some pain in their life. Whether they acknowledge it or not doesn’t matter, it is part of being human. The key is understanding that no matter how bad it gets, you aren’t alone. You may feel like you can’t do anything but crawl. Maybe it feels like everyone is staring at your wheelchair. Those are lies. There are plenty of people willing to help you up, people who suffer the way you suffer, people who understand that only a life lived in community is a life worthy of living. We all walk with a limp, whether someone can see it or not, and by reaching out and ignoring the lies, you’ll find that you can do more than just survive.

You can live.  

-Stephen



















Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Behind the Scenes: City of Slaves

Less than a week from now, I'll be releasing CITY OF SLAVES, the second novel in my Desolate Kingdom series. And yes, I'm pretty excited about it. I get a number of questions from people regarding all kinds of things when it comes to being a novelist entails, and while I tried to answer a number of those questions on my FAQ page, I thought I'd take you behind the scenes a bit for this particular novel and talk about how it came together and the particular challenges of writing this story.

For those of you who have read THE LAST ANGEL, you already know that this world is set 100 years after a series of nuclear Storms have all but wiped out humanity, creating a desolate wasteland. With the Storms have come winged creatures called Ganath. They have hounded and terrorized the few humans left on the planet. And along the western coast of what was the United States, only one great city remains.

I don't want to reveal any spoilers for those who have yet to read the first novel, suffice to say that the sequel focuses on a secondary character, Lieutenant Cale "Sendz" Edsen, a powerful but troubled soldier.

Origin of the Story

For the second book in the series, I wanted to do two things. I wanted to darken the tone/ explore a few different issues, and I wanted to focus on characters other than Tommy and Kallie, the stars of the first book. From the moment I met Cale in Book One, (yes, this will sound artsy) I wanted to dig deeper into who he was. He is the only straight white male featured in the entire series, but his back story was complex. And sad. How did I write the story to present his challenges while staying within the confines of the genre, which meant a lot of action and set at my typical lightning pace? That was the question.

As I have mentioned in my FAQ, I write the first draft at hyper speed. Two to three thousand words a day for forty days. I do not outline. I rip the story from my imagination and hold on for the ride. It is both exhausting and exhilarating. I am always relieved when the first draft is finished. For CITY OF SLAVES, however, the first draft needed a LOT of work, and the copy you'll see when it hits the shelves went through an additional twelve drafts, which is a lot for a novel that is only 65, 000 words long.

Sensitivity in Fantasy?

Fantasy is a genre that prides itself on power and strength, but part of what allows me to enjoy my work to such a great extent is by flipping that notion and empowering those we would consider 'weak.' This is harder than it sounds. Creating female characters that are equal to men, or minorities who are leads, forces me to write with my left hand. I've never been a woman. I've never been a minority. So for all I am empathetic of the things they have to deal with, I have never dealt with those things myself.

In the case of CITY OF SLAVES, more than anything else, including the structure of the book, the real difficulty was the sensitive subject matter. How did I portray the tragedy of Cale's past and his inner turmoil without being insensitive myself? (Yes, I'm being a bit obtuse here, but I don't want to spoil anything) This required delicate handling, and it still wouldn't have worked without two of my female beta-readers and my editor to walk me through some particularly hard scenes.

Why Another Tone?

I heard a number of great things/ reviews from people about THE LAST ANGEL. And the logical question would be: why change it? Simple. Different characters create different tones. Just as in real life. While I wanted to write a book with a different flavor to it, that was only possible because of Cale's nature. He was the one who determined it. Besides, having different sets of main characters within the same world appealed to me. (And don't worry, Tommy and Kallie will be back for book three, WINTER, due out September 2nd.)

What Did I Learn Writing COS?

The biggest takeaway from this book was just how important my beta-readers were, particularly my female beta-readers. They caught things that quite frankly, I should have noticed. In the end, they changed the dynamic of the book completely. Any woman, any feminist, can read COS and identify with the female characters. I've said repeatedly how important it is for me to create worlds and stories that people from every gender, race, and sexuality can identify with, particularly in the all too often "whitey white" worlds of fantasy.

I'm really excited about the final version of it, and I can't wait to hear back from all of you. Thanks for your support and encouragement. Remember, it'll be here in less than week!! (April 6th)

Stephen