successful coping strategies are a work in progress
So every once in a while I question my routine. I ask myself: those things I do every morning, my "daily gottas," are they worth it? They're my whole so-called morning shift, two hours of the day's writing in fact, and other than the bit designated Submission Procedures, they do not contribute tangibly to my career. If I honestly consider how very many days I never actually get to the so-called afternoon shift, the period of time designated for the actual career writing, must I not conclude that I'm wasting all my time and energy on what amounts to warm-up routines and busywork?
I may be asking myself this because, in the back of my head, at the ripe old age of 41, I still have those toxic voices, the ones I mistook for mentors, damping down my enthusiasm:
Me: "I get to write full time now! Bliss! I get to make my own schedule! Freedom! It will look like this..."
Them: "My dear, after you've done all those 'writing practice' sessions and 'morning pages' and the rest of all that new-agey hoo-hah, when will you have time to, I don't know, actually write?"
It's tempting, on a day like this--a day when not a whole heck of a lot gets done--to feel like I'm proving those voices right.
Except I'm not, and I will tell you why. I'm going to take the long way around, but hold tight; we'll get there.
Lindsey, as in Real Name Brand Lindsey ("None of that generic crap"), has a blog post, which you will find if you go ahead and click that link right there, about depression. It is an amazing post, actually, just a really frank and honest and detailed description of experiencing severe depression. And there's a bit of it I resonate with hard.
(To be clear, this is not because I have been diagnosed with depression myself. It may be that if I took myself to see someone with the appropriate knowledge, I would be diagnosed with depression, or anxiety, or even chronic fatigue, or something else I don't even know to anticipate. I may have just about gotten to the point where I'm ready to acknowledge I should make such a visit and find out, so I can get some help devising coping strategies. But my point is, whatever I've got, it's relatively mild. I don't say that out of some valiant but misguided attempt to minimize my own struggles because others have it worse. My struggle is real, and others have it worse. These are not mutually exclusive statements. Anyway...)
I don't have the suicidal ideation she describes. I don't have that fog, that disconnect from other humans or joy and beauty. What I do have, that she and her commenters mention, is a bucket of self-loathing that drops on my head at the least provocation, this weasel-brain voice constantly telling me that I am the worst and here's why.
A huge portion of the "evidence" for the weasel-brain's argument is, as Lindsey puts it, a sporadic inability to do.
There was a time, a season, maybe half of a year, when things were very bad. Day after day, I couldn't seem to get out of bed. Anything productive I could have done with the day (i.e. writing) seemed impossible, dreadful, horrible, threatening, inconceivable. If there was something I'd promised someone else I'd do, I'd eventually drag myself upright sometime in the afternoon to do that. I'd get myself to appointments. I could be motivated by external consequences, but the internal motivation wasn't there. There was plenty angst over knowing what I should do, and plenty self-loathing when I got to the end of another day without doing it, but I couldn't seem to find the impetus to actually do.
It's hard for me to place exactly when this was happening, or how that era ended and I returned to some semblance of a productive life. My memories are vague, very much as though I were half-asleep and experiencing that time as a sort of painful, shameful fever dream. The way my memory works in general, I triangulate: X must have happened at Y time because Z was also going on. In this case, I can't identify Y because there was no Z. Hell, there was barely any X. The whole alphabet was more or less impossible.
I know this much: It was after I quit my full-time web developer job, because there's no way I could have gone through that and held down a full-time job. It might have begun while I was part time staff for that non-profit I was volunteering for at the time, such that it began eating up my days off. I know we still had the cats, because they'd curl up in bed with me through it all, and that the cats were both still healthy, because Null's intravenous fluid administrations weren't something that dragged me out of bed.
It was well before I started skating roller derby. Which isn't to say I haven't had isolated days where I only got out of bed in time to go to roller derby practice. But they've been one-offs, infrequent enough that I can tell myself that "I must have needed a day of hibernation. Well, I've rested now, and tomorrow I will work." But roller derby helps. Regular exercise is known to mitigate symptoms of depression, right? Roller derby may have been one of the factors that helped bring that era to an end. It may be a factor in preventing a new onslaught. But I can't say for sure.
Today, instead of having days upon days of inability to get out of bed, I have days--in isolation or in batches--where I experience the inability to get started. In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll admit that today was one of those days.
I've adopted a strategy to help keep those days at bay, and to help limit the damage when they hit.
The strategy is to have a routine.
I have a clearly defined process involving several discrete steps, each small enough that, when avoidance/depression/anxiety hits and my brain slides right off the idea of getting writing done and into yet another hour of hitting refresh on some piece of the internet, I can say, "That's cool, I hear you. Life is hard and work is scary. That's OK. All I want you to do is this one little thing."
Just make some tea. Just water the plants. Just open up your notebook. Just get out your favorite fountain pen--isn't that nice to hold? Just jot down the time and date in the upper left corner of the page. Just write down what's on your mind. Good. Now another sentence. Now another. Now another page. Now another.
If you said "That sounds like Morning Pages!" then you win a prize.
The daily gottas are my routine. Each task follows the previous in mechanical succession, so that the automatic process of one step after another can provide its own momentum when I can't seem to provide any of my own. And that, for your information, O toxic voices from 2004, is the worth of morning pages and freewriting exercises and all that new-agey hoo-hah. It damn well is actually writing. It gets me actually writing. So you can go take a long walk off something short and made of wood that dumps you somewhere wet and full of sharks.
(And the Friday Fictionette project? That's the external-consequence-motivated activity. External consequences remain more motivating, for all practical purposes, than internal ones. But then I have this blog here for converting the internal consequences to external ones by saying HEY YOU GUYS THIS IS WHAT I PLAN TO DO and then I don't want to have to come back and say I DIDN'T DO IT I'M SORRY. So that's OK.)
So the reason I have trouble getting to commercial fiction in the afternoons is, I don't have a reliable ritual for getting back to work yet. The morning shift routine starts pretty much the moment I wake up, but the afternoon shift is... whenever I get off lunchtime chores and errands? Feeling like I haven't really had a break yet? Which makes me want to take just a little time to read blogs and play games... The train never leaves the station and avoidance corners me in the terminal.
And the reason nothing got done today at all was, the morning routine got interrupted. I had to take the Saturn in for diagnosis and maintenance. I was going to just initiate morning shift at the tea house down the street, and could have done, but somehow... didn't. Once the train gets derailed, unfortunately, avoidance/depression/anxiety/etc. sees its chance and pounces, and it's hard to get out of its clutches.
It's the failure state of all writing rituals--what happens if you lose your Special Pen, or you can't be at your Magic Desk, or you are otherwise denied the ritual? My goal is to keep tweaking the rituals until they a reliably undeniable. Until they don't depend on where I am, what time it is, or what I was just now doing. Until the ritual is, in its entirety, "Time to get to work."
Until then, I'm working on having compassion for myself, and I'm repeating the mantra, "I must have needed a day off. Well, I've rested now. Tomorrow I will work."
On the plus side, I did discover what a harmonic damper is, and why it may need replacing just shy of 200K miles on the odometer.
So that's OK.