At a writers’ meet-up about a year and a half ago, a fellow writer remarked on how happy I was. That comment has stuck with me because, despite how I acted on the outside, I was far from happy at that moment in my life. In fact, I was reeling – inside – from a number of things that had happened within the past three years. At that point, in the middle of 2013, I was not happy.
I don’t talk much about this stuff. Mostly because it hurts, and reliving pain is never really fun, you know? But when Brenda put this call out for guest bloggers on the topic of depression, I knew I needed to share. I have no idea if what I say will help anyone. I hope it does. There’s no great moral to this story, just that I know how hard it is to fight through all of the bad stuff to survive. I’m also not sure how to tell this, so I’ll go chronologically. This is what I call my series of unfortunate events (to get literary with it, as I do). I hope I don’t sound whiny or self-indulgent. This is just the stuff that happened, and how it made me feel, and how I made it through.
Because this post needs some funny!
(Creative Commons License, Attr. Kristina Alexanderson)
2010 – I lost my job. Big deal, you’re probably thinking. But this was my first real, professional job in a field I’d spent years (and tens of thousands of dollars in student loans) studying. I’d been there for three years, and then . . no more. I was angry. Sad. Disappointed in myself. And really, really confused about what the heck I was doing with my life. I immediately started looking for a new job, but it was 2010 and I was in an oversaturated field. I finally took a job working retail for minimum wage. There, I met a realtor, a former construction business-owner, and several other people, all cast adrift in the land of barely making ends meet. It was a humbling experience, that’s for sure. While all of this was happening, my husband and I found out I was pregnant. For a brief couple of months, I felt okay with the world again, until I miscarried. The 2010 Word of the Year for me was failure. I’d failed at work. Failed at having a baby. Failed at life. But I kept writing, working on revising a book I’d started drafting a few years earlier. I wrote during breaks at work. Plotted while folding sweaters. I even sent a few queries. Writing was my escape.
Admission: I really liked organizing the clothes. And trying them on.
(Creative Commons License, Attr. Randy P.)
2011 – This year started off pretty great. I found a second job at a wonderful non-profit. I was working a lot between the two jobs, but that was okay. I was pregnant again. I was able to quit the retail job halfway through the pregnancy, so I was working just the one part-time job. Nine nail-biting months later, I had a sweet baby girl. For two and a half weeks after she was born, life was perfect. While she napped, I wrote. I’d started a figure skating manuscript earlier that year and was making some great progress on it.
This is not my baby.
(Creative Commons License, Attr. Edgar Barany C.)
But just a few weeks after my daughter was born, I found myself in the emergency room. I’m going to try to keep this as un-gory as possible, so suffice to say I was losing a lot of blood. I got home at about 4 a.m., and by 6, I’d passed out in my hallway. I couldn’t even stand up. My husband called EMS. Approximately six burly men arrived to stand in my bedroom (and if you know me, you know I couldn’t keep from cracking a joke here, bleeding to death or not), and I was whisked off to the hospital. My blood pressure was dangerously low. That night, I had multiple blood transfusions and underwent the my second abdominal surgery in a month (the first was a c-section two weeks earlier) as the doctors tried to figure out what was wrong with me. After surgery, I was in ICU for a couple of days. There was no diagnosis.
And that began almost two months of me going in and out of the hospital. I’d be home for a few days, and the entire cycle would start over. If you’ve never spent time in a hospital, you’re lucky. It’s basically hell on Earth. It’s never quiet. You often have to share a room. Sounds sneak under your door at all hours—crying, yelling, praying. You rarely get to shower. The beds are encased in plastic, which means you sweat like crazy while you sleep. While I’m thankful for the treatment I received, those weeks in the hospital were the most dehumanizing moments of my life. And I missed so much of my daughter’s first few months – reflecting on that still hurts.
If you read this far, you need a picture of a kitten.
(Creative Commons License, Attr. xlaozhen)
At one point, right before another surgery, I felt certain I was going to die. I vividly remember calling my parents and my husband over and giving them my last wishes. I was sure I’d never see my newborn baby again. I said what I needed to, and I was ready. It was a weirdly calming moment in the midst of chaos. It took a month before I was diagnosed with choriocarcinoma, a very rare and very aggressive pregnancy-related cancer. Immediately after the diagnosis, I underwent a hysterectomy and started chemo.
But I didn’t die. And I had to deal with two horrifying realities: 1) I had cancer. At 32 years old, I was going to be admitted for chemo, lose my hair, wouldn’t be able to breastfeed my baby, and maybe none of it would even work; and 2) I’d had a hysterectomy. Sure, I’d have bled to death without it, but losing the ability to have children so quickly is not that easy to deal with. I wrestled with the guilt of feeling greedy – at least I had one child when so many women can’t have even have that.
So I wrote. I lugged my laptop to the hospital and typed away while chemicals were pumped into my body via IV. I wrote when I was admitted for a pulmonary embolism from the PICC line I had in my arm. I wrote in between bouts of hysterical crying and phone calls to the insurance company to figure out bills. I wrote while accepting money from our parents to pay our bills because I couldn’t work, and my husband was taking FMLA leave to care for our baby. I wrote while I watched my parents struggle with their own fears. At one point, a nurse came into my room and jokingly asked if I was writing a book. I said yes. I was writing what would become BREAKING THE ICE. I made myself a promise that I’d keep writing until I had a book in Barnes & Noble with my name on it. My baby and my writing were the only things that kept me from dissolving into the deep depression that was always right there next to me during those months. Writing was really the only thing I had total control over.
(Creative Commons License, Attr. Mary-Beth Sancomb-Moran)
2012: I had my last round of chemo in January 2012. It may sound shallow, but I’d gotten to the point where I felt really ugly. People would tell me I was brave, and I just felt . . . gross. I had little tufts of hair on my head, a port embedded under my collarbone for chemo drugs, and worst of all, (sorry, gory again) a machine attached to my abdomen to clean the open wound from all of those abdominal surgeries. All of this made that extra 30 pounds I’d gained in college look pretty darned appealing. Slowly, my stomach healed, the port came out, and my hair grew back. I still have scars, but it took a long time for me to start feeling good about myself again. As I started feeling better, both physically and mentally, I revised an older manuscript and started querying in earnest. I finished revisions on BREAKING THE ICE. I joined Twitter and broadened my circle of writer friends. Life was looking up, and I was a writer and mother. I was alive.
2013: The year started out with a bang, because I got an agent! Just after I signed with her, one of the worst things I could even imagine happened. On Valentine’s Day, my marriage fell apart. It wasn’t a slow, inevitable falling apart. It was sudden and took me by complete surprise.
I disintegrated. I felt as if everything I’d survived had been for nothing. Everything I’d achieved in my writing was for nothing. I questioned why I’d even lived through cancer if this was what I’d gotten for it. I can say with all honesty that this hurt far more than any of the physical pain I’d experienced. He was my entire life, and then he was gone.
I am so lucky to have some amazing friends and a great mother and sister who talked me through this. I leaned on them – for the second time in two years – to survive. I put all of my energy into my daughter and into my writing, and just a few months after all of this happened, I had a book deal.
Am I okay now? I am, most of the time. I have a great life, even with all the challenges that have come with it. I’ve figured out that I am my own rock. I’m insanely thankful for my family and for the writing career I’m establishing. I admit that I sometimes wonder when the next awful thing is going to happen, but I’ve also become a lot more empathetic to other people’s troubles. And I’ve learned that what might not sound so devastating to me could be the thing that’s wrecking someone else’s life. There’s no worse-than on the scale of terrible things.
I count myself lucky to come through all of this and still feel pretty optimistic about life. But that isn’t true for everyone, and I think that’s something I would never have understood if I hadn’t been through my own trials. Truthfully, I don’t know that I’d be in the same place with my writing if I hadn’t been knocking on death’s door.
So for everyone who’s dealing with something devastating, it’s okay to break down. But then get back up, even if you get pushed down and over and over. Chances are, you’ve got people in your life who’ve dealt with their own private struggles, and they’re more than willing to take your hand. There are so many people out there who get it – who get you – and we need you here to join our club of survivors.
Hugs to you.
Gail lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her family and more cats than necessary. When she’s not writing books, she manages grants for a homeless shelter and chases her toddler. She once drove a Zamboni, has camped in the snow in June, and almost got trampled in Paris. Gail’s middle grade debut, BREAKING THE ICE, will be out from Aladdin/S&S on January 13, 2015. She is also the co-author of the upcoming YOU’RE INVITED books with Jen Malone (Aladdin/S&S, May 2015 and Spring 2016). She’s online at gailnall.com [http://www.gailnall.com], blogs at Kidliterati [http://www.kidliterati.com], and tweets as @gailecn [https://twitter.com/gailecn].
BREAKING THE ICE is available for preorder now!
Kaitlin has always dreamed of being a champion figure skater, and she’s given up a lot to pursue her passion. But after having a totally uncharacteristic and decidedly NOT figure-skating-approved tantrum after getting her scores at a major competition she’s dropped by her coach and prestigious skating club.
When no other club in town will have her, she’s forced to join the ridiculed and rundown Fallton Club, jokingly referred to as the Fall Down Club. At first Kaitlin thinks this is a complete disaster, but after meeting some of the other skaters, including a boy (who happens to have the most perfect hair she’s ever seen) Kaitlin thinks it might actually not be so bad.
But when she’s tasked with learning a whole new program right before Regionals and figures out that almost all the other skaters target Fallton, she thinks joining the Fall Down Club may just be the second biggest mistake she’s ever made.
In this figure skating themed debut, Kaitlin learns that when you fall down, you have to pick yourself up – even if it’s in front of judges and a crowd.