Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Finer Things Book Club: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

This month, my book group discussed one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. 

The book is about two girls in 19th century China who become lao tongs -- best friends for life -- and together go through the experiences of foot-binding, arranged marriage, childbearing, and all the joys and sorrows of being women.

The best part of this meeting was the food. It might not have all been authentic, but it was delicious; we had pot-stickers, fried bread rolled in sugar, black rice, spicy tofu on white rice, Poxy sticks, honey dew melon, oranges, salted green beans, and the main course: a hot pot.

From what I'm told, hot pots are very popular in China. It's basically spicy broth with a bunch of random food added to make a soup. It's a social meal meant to get rid of left-overs; people bring whatever they have lying around to someone's house and dump it in the broth, eat it when it's done, and boil more in the broth until all the food is gone. Because it's so versatile, no two hot pots are the same.

In our hot pot, we had: lo mein noodles, shrimp, chicken, onion, green bell pepper, bean sprouts, water chestnuts, mushrooms, cabbage, and egg. Next time I have a bunch of leftover meat and vegetables, I might make it again!

We decorated the coffee table in the living room with as many Chinese knick-knacks as would fit. Most of it came from a study-abroad one of our members went to. Throughout the meeting, we had a slide-show going of pictures related to the book: bound feet, nu shu writing on fans and clothes, 19th century photographs, landscapes of the Hunan province. I felt we created a good, informative ambiance.

If you want to read the discussion questions for the book group, click "Read More" below. Most of the discussion centered around comparing American women to Chinese women, though we also talked about the main characters and the story itself. This book is so rich in topics, it's impossible for a discussion about it not to be fantastic.

If you discussed this novel in your book group, let me know. I'd love to hear about it!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

My Battle with Mental Illness

All around the blogosphere, people have been coming out with their personal stories of going through mental illnesses. I always felt like it was my duty to do the same. If I have an opportunity to help others by sharing my experiences, wouldn't it be selfish not to? Since I made a full recovery, I feel my story is especially important.

But I was afraid. It's terrifying to be so vulnerable and personal, especially since there's such a stigma attached to mental illness. I don't even talk to my friends about it, so a lot of people don't know.

After years of going back and forth on this decision, I think it's finally time to be open about it. My illness is nothing to be ashamed of. Not only do I want to reach out to others who are also suffering, but maybe I won't feel like I'm guarding a dangerous secret anymore. I think telling my story will be liberating.

Here it goes. (Deep breath.)

I had the perfect childhood. I came from a happy, healthy, middle-class family. Nothing bad had ever happened to me. I was smart, pretty, talented, I had lots of friends, and I didn't care what anyone thought of me.

When I was around twelve or thirteen, something changed. My life was still perfect -- middle school was one of the happiest times of my life -- but I started to feel heavy for no reason. It became difficult to concentrate, to smile, to enjoy things I used to enjoy. I felt awful so often that my friends got tired of hearing me complain about it. Clearly, I wasn't normal.

There was never any doubt in my mind that something was medically wrong with me. Sure, I had personality flaws, but they didn't align with my symptoms. After a little research I discovered I had a depression disorder. It wasn't surprising since everyone in my family and extended family had it too.

I announced my discovery to my parents and told them I needed to see a psychiatrist and get put on medication. They refused.

Their reasoning makes sense to me now, though I felt betrayed at the time. My mother had gone through a dozen medications and had severe side effects from all of them. She had to go to the emergency room at least twice because of negative reactions to anti-depressants, and she even lost her vision while driving on the freeway. Therapy had never helped her, so she didn't believe it would help me. 

They also didn't realize how bad it was. I wasn't very open with them, and after they decided not to put me on the meds I felt I needed, I was so hurt that I withdrew from them completely. If I had shown them what I was going through, they would have helped me much sooner.

One day when I was sixteen, I couldn't stand being in school anymore. I went home in the middle of the day even though my parents were there, went straight to my bed, and refused to talk to anyone. My mom immediately scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist.

I wish I had thought to do that in the first place! Hindsight is 20/20, I guess.

In that first appointment, the psychiatrist discovered I had had an eating disorder for the past few years. My parents were flabbergasted. I'm one of the last people you would expect to be anorexic. It explained a few things, though: why my period didn't start until I was fourteen, why my hair was falling out, why my skin looked dead and would peel off in large chunks.

My reasons for not eating are complicated. I still don't fully understand them. A big part of it was that I hated my body for not working properly. I couldn't handle my workload in school, I couldn't function socially, I couldn't be happy no matter what I did or how hard I tried. I hated everything about myself and the mediocre life I was given. Somehow, that turned into an aversion to food.

My parents signed me up for an outpatient treatment program. I went there for six hours a day for about a month and a half. A group of about a dozen of us went through therapy, did yoga, went to workshops with dietitians, had our meals supervised. We each planned our own menus while therapists tried to encourage us to make healthy choices. It was an incredible program and because of it, I've been anorexia-free for eleven years as of this April.

My eating disorder went away, but my depression didn't. I kept telling my doctors that the medication I was on wasn't working, but they just increased the dosage instead of putting me on something else. The therapy had helped immensely, so I accepted that I had improved as much as I was going to. I made peace with my improved but still mediocre life.

In my freshman year of college, my boyfriend helped me to see that I was still very sick and needed more help. He told me it wasn't normal to skip classes or work because I was too depressed to go, to sometimes only sleep four hours a night for a month and other months sleep fourteen, to cry for no reason, to have panic attacks.

(Of all the symptoms I went through, the anxiety was the worst. I would get attacks where it felt like my whole body was crushing itself, and I couldn't control them. Once in high school it happened while I was on my way home. I hid under a fenced-in overpass and prayed someone would find me and help me. Eventually, someone did find me. A worker saw me sobbing, gasping for air, and clutching my chest, and he threatened to call the police if I didn't get off the private property. I hope God holds him accountable for doing that to me.)

After much prodding from my boyfriend, I went back to a psychiatrist and asked to be put on new meds. Let me say this: treatment is available, but it is not easy. You have to take the meds for about a month before they start working, and if they don't work, it takes about a month to wean off of them. By that time your symptoms might get better on their own, especially if you're also going to therapy, so you might think the meds are working when they're not. Then you get hit with the symptoms later and have to go through the process all over again.

Over the course of about five years, I tried Paxil, Prozac, Wellbutrin, Cymbalta, and two or three others I can't remember. None of them made any difference.

By this time, I had married my boyfriend. My husband had a harder time handling my depression than I did. He tried to be nurturing but nothing he did helped; I was still sad, irritable, angry, and lethargic. It quickly broke his spirit. I had accepted my life, but he never could.

Throughout my ordeal, many people suggested I might be bipolar. I always hated that. Everyone assumes a bipolar person has two personalities, but they actually have three: the manic, the depressed, and who they really are. I felt like I was being diagnosed as manic on the rare times that I was myself. Yet since I wasn't getting any better, I suggested it to my doctor. He said I wasn't bipolar, but that he'd try putting me on mood stabilizers instead of antidepressants to see if treating me as bipolar would help.

It worked.

Once I got on Lamotrigine, I slowly started to heal. My marriage started to heal. I didn't have to call in sick at work all the time anymore. I didn't fail anymore classes. I stopped bailing on social functions. After a lot of work breaking bad habits, I was finally the same happy person I was in middle school. For a long time I was afraid the symptoms would come back, but it's been three years since I've had a problem.

There's a lot of negative stigma attached to medication. People think they're weak if they have to be on them, so they make it their life goal to function without them. They claim medication is dangerous because you don't know what it's doing to your body. 

That's all absurd. I am never going off my medication. Never. I'd rather die from side-effects when I'm 60 than live a long life with depression. 

I want everyone to know that treatment works. It's not easy. I was sick for eight years before I finally got better. Finding the right meds can be a pain, and sometimes therapy downright sucks. No matter how hard it gets, don't give up. The wonderful life I have now was worth the struggle.

Monday, April 15, 2013

An Article About Me in the Newspaper

Great news! A journalist for the local university's newspaper heard about the writers' group I started and wrote an article about it. Click here to read it. I'm tickled pink! It's so thrilling to have an idea, such as starting a writers' group, and see it come into fruition and even gain recognition. Huzzah!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Writing is Hard

During my time as a stay-at-home writer, I’ve learned an important and difficult lesson;

Writing is really hard!

Sure, everyone tells me writing is hard – goodness knows enough writers complain about their woes – but to be honest, I never believed them. To me, writing always seemed like the easiest job in the world. You do what you want, when you want. There’s no pointless busy work. It’s never boring. You answer to no one.

Yet despite all the benefits, there are challenges. Sometimes the words just won’t come. Rough drafts are humiliating. Research is laborious. It’s completely thankless. Getting critiqued is heartbreaking. Revising is like taking off a band aid. Temptation to procrastinate is rife. Guilt and doubt is consistent. You never know what you do will be useful and what will end up being a waste of time.

Why am I just now figuring out that writing is a hard job? Because up until now, it’s always been a hobby that I thought was a job. Boy, was I na├»ve.

I feel like an idiot complaining about my dream job, especially since so many people long for it. When I don’t complain, however, I do myself a disservice. In my head writing is supposed to be easy; when it’s not, I feel like something’s wrong. I pull away. If we only write when the words come easily, pretty soon they won't come at all.

I need to face my work head on and say, “Writing is hard and I still love it.” 

Monday, April 8, 2013

All Day Q&A

One of my favorite bloggers, Natalie Whipple, has one day a week where she lets her readers ask her any question they come up with. I've always wanted to do it, but I was too nervous. What if no one had any questions and I ended up just feeling embarrassed?

Today, I've finally decided to give in. The questions will likely inspire other blog articles, plus it would be a good way to find out what interests my readers.

So, ask away! The questions can be relevant to the blog (writing, reading, querying, historical research, Vestal Virgins, voodoo, etc.), they can be personal, or they can be silly. I'll even tell you the color of my toothbrush if you really want to know. (It's purple.) 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Reading Through my Work Diary

I wrote this article over a year ago and for some reason, it never got posted. It's a good article, so I'm posting it now. At the time, I was still working at a call center and I had just decided to revise Sacred Fire for the upteenth time instead of shelve it.

I had an interesting experience today.

I’m going through a little funk, so I decided to read through my work diary from the last time I revised Sacred Fire. At the time I wrote in my diary religiously every day. I’d say how long I worked, what time I worked, what I worked on, what I was struggling with, and what my goals were for the future. Since my last revision went by perfectly, I thought I might gain some insight into how I should progress this time around. 

I read a lot that surprised me.

Some of it was depressing. Often I complained about the same problems over and over. I’d say, “From now on, I’ll do better,” only to complain about it again the next day. I also read how much work I put into scenes that I now have to redo, or that I ended up cutting out of the book altogether.

Most of it was encouraging. There were times that I made a goal and I actually accomplished it. I wrote about several challenges where I outlined how I wanted to overcome them, and I wrote down each step I took along the way until I cleared that hurdle. Some challenges, I don’t even remember having. I also put a lot of worry into things that ended up not being a big deal.

It was educational, too. I was able to see what worked in the past and apply those lessons to today.

A couple parts made me chuckle. On August 5, I wrote: “Was going to open book at 3:00, but joy oh joy, I got laid off. So I’m a little upset.” Yeah, I remember that day.

Finally, some parts were exciting. It was fun to watch myself progress as a writer and a person.

August 10 was an especially insightful day. I was trying to decide how I wanted to structure my writing sessions (if I wanted to write every day, how long, etc.). At the time I had a goal of querying agents October 31, but I was stressed because I was unemployed and I was a little burnt out. I considered taking a break. This is what I wrote:

“If I stopped working on my book for two weeks, no one could blame me. But I don’t want to. I liked what I was doing, who I was becoming. It just takes adjustment. Everyone resists adjustment at first. I want to be done with my book by November. The world isn’t going to fall apart if it doesn’t get done, but it’s important to me. So, no breaks. There’s always an excuse.

“What kind of a writer am I?" it continued. "Am I the person who writes every day? Who gets up early, or stays up late, or stops relaxing in the evenings because I have to buckle down and get to work? Do I have the emotional capacity for that? I never have before. I’ll try a few different things, build a schedule, see what happens. But I’m not going to take any breaks.”

I actually got more work done when times were hard than when they were easy.

Update: I still read through my work diary every now and then, and I still learn a lot from it. In my opinion, every writer should keep one!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Books I Read in March

Illuminations by Mary Sharratt

Hildegard von Biden is given as a tithe to the Catholic church when she is only eight and is locked away as an anchorite with the masochistic Jutta, but with the help of her indomitable spirit and visions from God, she becomes one of the world's most famous nuns.

I love most any book on a religious topic, and I especially loved this one. Hildegard was a fascinating woman, and Illuminations beautifully depicts her liberation and her development into a cultural icon.

Song of the Nile by Stephanie Dray

Selene's struggles in Lily of the Nile lead her to become Queen of Mauritania, but she won't rest until she claims her throne as the Queen of Egypt... even if the cost seems too great.

I enjoyed the second book about Cleopatra's Daughter just as much as I enjoyed the first. Stephanie Dray got creative with the limited amount of historical data available and crafted a novel that kept you rooting for the heroine up until the satisfying ending.

Shadow of the Swords by Kamran Pasha

This epic novel of the Crusades follows the battle over the Holy Land through Muslim, Jewish, and Christian points of view.

The history of the crusades is as intricate as it is interesting, and this book successfully captured it. The fact that the author is a Muslim made the book even more of an eye-opener. One thing I love about Kamran Pasha's work is he gives meaning and purpose to all his stories. While Mother of the Believers is still my favorite, I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in the crusades.
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