Beta Readers ??

When I first got back into writing back in 2016, every Facebook group and newsletter kept talking about something I’d never heard of — beta readers. What the crap? All I could picture was my mother-in-law’s poor, lonely beta fish (sadly named Fish), floating around all alone in his little glass vase with a pair of glasses perched on his nonexistent nose.

After a quick Google search, I familiarized myself with the term and was simultaneously intrigued and confused. What a great idea to get someone (preferably strangers/potential readers) to read your book before you send it to publishers or agents. That way you get unbiased feedback from people who may be your prospective readers.

But of course there were questions — do you pay these beta readers? Who makes a good beta reader? What if they steal your idea? Who qualifies as a beta reader? And most importantly, where on earth do you find them???

I managed to get a handful of betas for The Month of May, and while I had two that gave me helpful, positive feedback, the other two or three were all over the place — their opinions and suggestions clashed with everyone else’s, and that made it more difficult and confusing for me to know what to change and how to change it. This, of course, is the down side to beta readers. That and the fact that it took me the better part of a year to get four or five people to read my manuscript.

Now that I’ve finished Ocracoke’s Daughter, I sent it to one beta who absolutely raved about it, top to bottom. Of course this made me feel awesome, but if I was being fair and realistic, I had to seek out one or two more. One woman offered to read two chapters, which I didn’t really think was enough for her to make accurate comments, but hey beggars can’t be choosers and all that. Her comments were . . . bland? for lack of a better word? She offered to read a few more chapters, and I replied back asking what she thought she could handle time-wise, and never responded.

I’m starting to realize issues like this are par for the course with betas. To be completely honest, I’m not sure how I feel about the whole idea. I understand the theory and can see the potential value in it, but personally it’s been a rather confusing and frustrating process.

That being said, this post is not actually to just complain about the beta reading process. I figured that if almost 200 people follow my blog, some of you quite regularly, then that means you like me and my writing style, so I thought it was worth a shot to search for a beta on Word Press.

TRIGGER WARNINGS — divorce, miscarriages, death, anxiety/depression

So without further ado . . . my pitch —

Ocracoke’s Daughter is a contemporary fiction novel with historical fiction elements, running around 105,000 words.
Adopted at birth and raised by conservative, religious parents, Sarah Sullivan thought she knew her fate – to marry her childhood sweetheart and spend her life raising babies. But after a decade of miscarriages broke her spirit and exposed the flaws in her marriage to an apathetic husband, Sarah finds herself at the end of a messy divorce with no idea what to do with her newfound freedom.
With her adoptive parents recently deceased and her house on the market, Sarah journeys to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to search for her birth parents. She combs the barrier island chain searching for clues about who she really is – why she has an inexplicable desire to be near the water, why her birth parents placed her for adoption, and if there’s any meaning at all behind the strange red birthmark on her shoulder blade.
On the whimsical island, Sarah rediscovers her true self and opens her heart to people and ideas she never imagined — her ruggedly handsome neighbor is friendly and flirtatious but has his own painful past, an eccentric shop owner stirs up long-buried artistic ambitions, and she even stumbles upon evidence that she may be a descendant of Blackbeard the pirate.
Ocracoke’s Daughter is the tale of one woman’s journey to discover the truth about her past and her seemingly endless journey to find independence.

If you’re interested in reading, please let me know in the comments. You can also send me an email at StacyAldermanWriter@gmail.com.

Right now I’m just looking for general feedback — like tone, flow, and the all important “does it catch your interest enough to want to keep reading?” I’m particularly interested in thoughts on the first chapter and first sentence. Usually that first sentence is really easy for me but I struggled with this one for some reason.

Fingers crossed, and thanks in advance!

25th Anniversary

I met my two best friends in sixth grade — Twenty. Five. Years. Ago.

In an effort to not feel obscenely old and to kick some excitement into the current world-situation, I reached out to both girls, KP & KF, to see if they wanted to go somewhere to celebrate this anniversary of our friendship with a girls’ weekend.

They readily agreed, and we began scouring the internet for road-trip accessible destinations that we’d be able to visit once we all received our COVID vaccines. Finally settling on a cozy cottage adjacent to a small winery in Ripley, NY, we made the three hour drive on the first weekend in June to relax and enjoy a few days away from our husbands, pets, jobs . . . and the nightmare that was 2020.

The drive north was impeded only by nearly three straight hours of an absolute DOWNPOUR. It rained so hard we could barely see the road at times and had to stop twice to settle our nerves. Still, we made it to the winery without incident, checked in, received our complimentary bottle of wine, and set about to explore the charming little cabin that would be our home for three days.

The place was perfect — the kitchen was well-equipped and the living room was cozy, complete with plush chairs and an entire wall of built-in bookshelves that made all three of us drool. Three bedrooms and two bathrooms gave us plenty of space, and while everything was comfortable and reasonably modern, there were also old fashioned charms like uneven, squeaky floors, sloped ceilings, and soft, faded area rugs that gave it a turn-of-the-century vibe.

On that first night, we chose our rooms, unpacked, and headed to the grocery store to stock up on snacks, coffee, and alcohol to last throughout our stay. We sat up late, talking and laughing about work, family drama, and sex, reminiscing about each other’s weddings and hilarious or painful middle and high school memories. We discovered at some point that we were only about ninety miles from Niagara Falls, New York, and decided that the state park would be our destination the following day.

The drive north was relatively pleasant, and we had no trouble finding a place to park so we could wander through the blocks of restaurants and gift shops before hearing the rush of the rapids and the falls that made up Niagara Falls State Park. We spent hours gazing at the water, walking through the pretty, lush grounds, and taking in the beautiful summer day. What started as a chilly, gray morning eventually gave way to a sunny, humid afternoon, and by the time we’d had our fill of the falls we were grateful to sit in an air-conditioned restaurant and enjoy a late lunch. On the way home we stopped at a massive indoor outlet mall, where we spent lots of time and money ducking in and out of a variety of stores — my favorite of which was the Lindt Chocolate Outlet store. Drool. We also stopped to get drinks at Tim Horton’s (my first time)!

Our plans for day two took us to Erie Beach, about 45 minutes from where we stayed. We found Presque Isle easily enough, and I took the time to climb the tiny Presque Isle Lighthouse, where I very nearly had a panic attack when I realized how tiny the damn thing was and became claustrophobic while scaling the steep stairs and gazing out over the narrow observation deck. I’d been in lighthouses before, and always enjoyed the climb and the view, but this teensy tower was not like the hulking giants found in my frequent jaunts to the Outer Banks. Glad I had the experience, but just as glad to never climb those particular stairs again.

For the rest of the day, the three of us lounged on the beach. It was sunny and warm, and my Aquarius-self absolutely had to get in the water. After applying sunscreen and baking for awhile, I headed to the water’s edge — and nearly peed myself.

The water was ICE COLD. Looking back, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that water this far north hadn’t had a chance to warm up yet so early in the summer, but I was so looking forward to splashing in the waves that I couldn’t bear to stay on dry land. So I gritted my teeth and plunged in as far as I could manage before my skin puckered and my teeth chattered and I hurried back onto the sand to warm up.

And warm up I did. Over the course of five hours, I alternated between sunning myself and wading in the frigid lake. I noticed that my skin was taking on a slight pink tint, but I wasn’t concerned. My body hadn’t seen the sun like this in over a year, and besides, I was wearing sunscreen. We talked and laughed and munched on our PB&Js and veggies with hummus as the sun moved across the sky.

It wasn’t until we left, and I ducked into one of the bath houses to use the facilities that I realized how red my skin actually was. Still, I felt fine on the ride home, and was excited to get cleaned up and head to a Mexican restaurant for dinner. I showered and shaved my legs, looking forward to an evening of chips and salsa, margaritas and memories.

Then I tried to get dressed. All of a sudden, my skin was absolutely burning. Not pinching like normal sunburn. Burning like I’d laid myself in a frying pain of hot oil. Denim shorts were not an option. Neither were leggings. I managed a bra only by loosening the straps. Frantically, I thought about the bottle of aloe sitting in my chest of drawers back home. Instead I grabbed the bottle of sunscreen I’d taken to the beach and double checked the SPF strength — 50. What had gone wrong? Then my thumb felt the raised numbers on the seam of the bottle — it had expired six months prior. And I hadn’t reapplied it after my icy dip.

Jesus.

Luckily KP had brought a sundress with her. I delicately pulled it over my head and breathed a sigh of relief to have the loose garment flowing around my legs instead of clinging to them. We headed to the Mexican restaurant and placed our orders, and I promptly began fishing ice out of my water glass to apply to my thighs that were still on fire.

“Note to self — don’t shave overtop of sunburn,” I muttered to my friends.

“Why would you shave?!”

“What were you thinking?!”

“It didn’t hurt when I was in the shower,” I answered. “I didn’t even think about it. I shaved out of habit.”

Sadly my margarita didn’t do much to dull the pain, so we stopped at the store on our way back to the cabin so I could buy aloe. I also purchased another cotton sundress to get through the next day, and went to bed covered in green slime and only managed to sleep after downing a couple of Advil.

The ride home was pretty rough — it was ninety degrees and sunny, and I couldn’t escape the sun’s harsh rays beating down on my legs through the car windows. To add insult to injury, at one of our rest stops, I stubbed my toe on a huge, metal door, splitting it open and bleeding all over my sandal. Great, I thought, limping through the parking lot. If I don’t die of skin cancer in a few years, I’ll die of gangrene. Good thing I got a tetanus shot last summer!

At long last, I arrived home to be greeted by my over-enthusiastic doggos and husband, who could only shake his head at my bright red skin. It was certainly the absolute worst sunburn I’d ever had. The only plus side was that I had the following day off work — good thing, too, because I could barely manage to get dressed. I also discovered Sun Bum Cool Down lotion, which feels like magic, even when your skin isn’t on fire, and immediately purchased their sunscreen, lip balm, and dry shampoo. At the risk of sounding like a lifestyle blogger, this is one very satisfied customer.

Despite the horrendous sunburn, I’m really glad my friends and I got together for a much-needed getaway, as quick as it was. KF asked why it had taken us so long to take a trip together, and all of us agreed that it was something we’d definitely have to do on a more regular basis.

Fine by me!

Please Continue to Hold


I know, I know — I’ve been a bad writer.

I’ve been inconsistent. Undisciplined. Unfocused. Lazy even. Instead of tearing myself away from Netflix or reading to focus on writing for even half an hour a day, I’ve allowed myself to be lax. Or maybe relax?

I can’t believe it’s been four months since I’ve posted a blog. Sometimes it feels like it’s been a year. And while I haven’t been doing nearly as much writing as I did during the height of COVID (round 1?) in 2020, I’ve still been puttering about here and there.

Short projects have kind of been at a stand still, but I did work up the nerve to send my latest manuscript, Ocracoke’s Daughter, to its first beta reader, and the feedback was both helpful and incredibly positive. I’m up to four rejections from agents on The Month of May, but two of them included personal messages which were quite encouraging.

I have a few ideas floating around in my mind, but I’m finding it hard to form complete storylines and my attention span has recently become similar to that of a 12 week old puppy. At first I was beating myself up, thinking about all those writer message boards and Facebook groups where it talked about what a terrible person/writer you are if you go twelve hours without writing 5000 words — namely, that you’re clearly not devoted enough to your craft.

But enough with that bull shit. While I completely understand the mindset behind discipline and dedication, I also understand that those of us who are not full time writers yet — and even those of us who are — need to make concessions for ourselves. We are only recently learning the effects of “burn out culture,” and in addition to acknowledging the need to rest and reset, we also need to be cognizant of the fact that the world is (still) experiencing unprecedented circumstances right now. It’s no wonder so many of us are struggling on different levels.

A year and a half into the pandemic, everything is still uncertain. How much longer will this last? Are we wearing masks or not? Do we send our children to school or maintain virtual learning? Is it okay to require vaccines or ask if one is vaccinated? What are my chances of contracting the Delta variant if I’ve been vaccinated? Is it okay to hug people? Shake hands? Is it okay that I traveled out of state in June? Will I ever get to visit my friends in Holland? Is COVID going to haunt me for the rest of my life?

Among all of these internal struggles, we can’t escape the very real controversies that each of these questions evoke online, on social media, in person, and on the news. It is exhausting to say the least, and I’m sure I’m not the only one to be absolutely, 100% OVER IT on every level.

I was talking to my therapist about this a few weeks ago — I’m so completely tired of waiting for things to get back to some semblance of normalcy. I’m so tired of waiting for it to be okay to travel, to have a party, to not panic every time I have a scratchy throat. I’m tired of the judgement, the arguments, the insults, the uncertainty. I’m tired of how this is effecting people, our hospitals, our economy, employment, our government. I’m tired of not going anywhere further than work and my own backyard. I’m tired of dreaming about “some day.”

Yet I cannot summon the energy to do much of anything. I get short bursts of inspiration to write, and that burst may last a few days, but it putters out as quickly as it came on. J and I have started half a dozen projects in an effort to ready our house for sale . . . at some point . . . but most of them are half finished. We can’t even take our dogs to the park or on day trips right now because Kitty was diagnosed with heart worm back in May and excessive exercise is absolutely no bueno. (She’s doing well so far, and I’m grateful that Heart Guard is paying for her treatment considering she’s been on their preventative the entire time we’ve had her, but I’m nervous about her wellbeing all the time and I am not looking forward to the second round of injections she has to endure at the end of August. Positive vibes for us and our sweet girl are greatly appreciated).

J and I talk about moving all the time. We desperately need a change and more space. We are beyond annoyed with our irresponsible, inconsiderate neighbors and we’re on the same page when it comes to wanting to sell. But the market is so unstable and unpredictable right now. Some days we want to take advantage of the seller’s market and get as much as we possibly can for our current house while there’s this much equity in it. But on the other hand, we don’t want to pay too much for any new house, regardless of how perfect it may be. And I can’t help but worry that the housing market bubble is going to burst at some point like it did back in 2009.

So here we are. Still waiting. Still holding. Still unsure. Itching to make a move, to feel safe, to feel confident, to feel normal . . . and still waiting.

I’m going to try to be more disciplined about my writing, including blogging. There are a few things on my mind that I’ve got to get out, even if it’s just to the handful of readers on Word Press. And since it doesn’t seem like in person conferences or writing events are going to return any time soon, it might be the best option for connecting with other writers. At the very least, I suppose it’s a place where I can unload my thoughts and worries.

When I started this post, I was hoping to have some sort of revelation about my mindset and the state of things in our world, but instead I’m just pausing every few sentences, picking at my cuticles and stare out the window at the hazy, humid day. Out of the corner of my eye I spot my empty curio cabinet, the one now void of Wizard of Oz treasures that I sold in an effort to clear out clutter in preparation for moving. Across the room is a cluster of plants I just watered this morning — an aloe plant sprawling from its yellow pot, situated peacefully behind an unidentified vine that has succeeded in crawling all the way across the floor to the other side of the dining room. There are two tiny succulent plants next to a tall, spindly tree whose leaves shadow a mason jar decorated in colorful letters. The thick glass shelters a dozen or so multi-colored notecards, each one folded to hide the word scrawled across it — Alaska, Chicago, Toronto, Ireland, San Francisco, Maine, — places J & and I want to see someday.

Someday.

Where’d Ya Go, Quirky?

Well hello, Internet friends. I’m still here, plugging along as usual. I realize that I’ve been sort of neglecting my blog over the past few weeks but it’s never far from my mind. To be honest, I’m in a bit of a writing funk at the moment. I recently added to my list of published works by being featured in Macro Mag’s “Pets” issue but all other projects are kind of at a stand still and I’m not sure why.

I’ve queried 7 or 8 agents for WIP #1, The Month of May, and although the first rejection I received was incredibly kind and encouraging, I haven’t gotten any other responses yet. If I don’t hear anything by mid-summer I’m thinking that I’ll have to re-examine my query letter and/or the first twenty pages of my manuscript and, well, I’d almost rather go to the dentist than even think about starting that project . . . again.

For WIP #2, Ocracoke’s Daughter, I’ve hit the 103,000 word mark on my second draft and I only have one chapter left to write, but I am riding the struggle bus with this one. I know exactly how I want it to end, but for some reason it’s stuck inside me and doesn’t want to come out. Maybe I’m having trouble channeling the beach and Ocracoke Island. Maybe I’m paranoid about the length, even though I figured it would run long considering it’s a dual timeline piece with a historical subplot. Maybe I’m overly concerned with the quality of my research when it comes to adoption and suppression of conservative religions. Maybe I’m worried about how agents/publishers/historians will view my fairy tale version of the infamous Blackbeard. Maybe I’m dreading the beta reading process. Or maybe I just can’t stop daydreaming about this handsome gent who played Edward Teach in Netflix’s Lost Pirate Kingdom. Fluttery sigh.

As far as my other writing projects go, I’m trying to write a moving piece for HerStry’s monthly feature, Friendship, but it’s falling really flat and I don’t think it’s going to be ready for submission by the end of the month. HerStry is responsible for giving me one of my first publishing credits and I love their vibe and message, and would really like to have more of my work featured by them, but no luck so far.
I’m also still slowly hacking away at the idea of my Pittsburgh-based travel blog, and while I’ve gotten a lot of drafts written, the thought of launching and maintaining another blog/website is overwhelming. I frequently refer to myself as “The Most Technologically Inept Millennial on the Planet,” and the mere thought of stating another big project gives me instant anxiety. The thing bugging me the most about this is the fact that I think it would be a really good time to launch such a blog, considering COVID is (hopefully) on its way out over the next year and I’m sure people are going to be itching for new and exciting adventures. Exasperated sigh.

Personally, things are moving along with a little bit more hope than I anticipated having, considering the state of the world. My 9-5 is still stressful and incredibly busy, but I recently made a (lateral) move from CSR to the title department, and although much of the new job is intimidating, I’m enjoying doing something new and have gotten some good feedback about my work. So there’s that.

I also received my first COVID vaccine at the end of March, and will get my second one at the end of April. I won’t lie – I’m pretty nervous, considering I was sick for three days after the first one. I had horrible chills, was absolutely exhausted, and really achy. Then I developed a lump near my collarbone which scared the living shit out of me, only to discover that per the Internet, my doctor, and several friends, swollen lymph nodes are a relatively common side effect of the vaccine. Who knew?
As nervous as I am about the second one, I certainly don’t want to get COVID again. Having it once was enough, and even being partially vaccinated has already given me some peace of mind.

On the home front, J and I are talking more and more about fixing our house up to sell and we’ve been looking at new houses and other neighborhoods frequently. This is definitely exciting but we have sooooooo much to do with our house first — replacing the kitchen floor, painting the foundation, painting the fence, painting the garage, cleaning out the basement, cleaning out the attic, etc. Last weekend I spent a few hours cleaning out my curio cabinet and a small corner of our attic where my Wizard of Oz collection has been gathering dust for nearly a decade. I posted 24 items on Facebook Marketplace and had over thirty offers on all of the items in less than 24 hours. I made some quick cash over the course of a few days, which I plan to put towards buying paint and such for the house, but HOLY SHIT sorting through all those offers and arranging meet ups with buyers was like having a second job! Hopefully when we start to clean out the rest of the house we can sell other items just as successfully.
We’re really excited about the fact that our house is now worth almost double than what we paid for it in 2013, but this is also intimidating on the buying side, especially considering so many houses around here are selling in a matter of HOURS. So fingers crossed that this process goes smoothly for us, whenever it ends up happening.

In addition to moving, I’m also looking forward to a girls’ weekend I have planned with my two best friends in June. We’ll be celebrating 25 years of friendship and I’m really glad that the three of us will be able to get together amid our crazy schedules and the pandemic. All three of us will be vaccinated by then, and although we’re not going anywhere exotic or glamorous, it’ll be nice to get away for a few days.

Despite my current writing funk, it’s good to be able to post a blog that’s mildly hopeful. I know we have a long way to go with the pandemic, and there are so many other horrible things going on in our world, but I’m trying to be extra thankful for the little things, and I have to say this spring feels much more positive than last spring.

Here’s to sunny skies!

What Dogs Can Teach Us About Resilience

As you may know, J & I are proud fur parents of Miss Kitty & Ghost, as well as the dearly departed Comet.

All of our dogs have been rescues, and while I’m no stranger to the love and comfort they offer, or the lessons they can teach, I continue to be amazed at how these four-legged creatures have repeatedly, unknowingly, offered me insights on life.

The other day, I took Ghost to a vet appointment for some redness that suddenly appeared around his left eye. When it didn’t go away with Benadryl, I took him to get checked out. I also asked if the vet could take a look at his other eye because J & I had noticed that something about his vision wasn’t quite right. During obedience classes, when using hand signals, we had to move rather close to his right eye before he’d react. And sometimes when the light caught the eye in a certain way, we’d see an unusual fogginess.

The vet prescribed us some ointment for the redness around his left eye, and then addressed our concerns with the right one. He wasn’t blind, and all of his neurological functions were intact, but he did have a scar on both his cornea and his lens. These were almost certainly caused by some type of penetrating injury from when he was quite young. By the time we adopted him, the injury was healed, but he does still have limited vision in that eye. Still, the vet isn’t concerned. He doesn’t squint or compensate for the lack of vision, and it certainly doesn’t slow him down. Ghost has learned to live with his injury in his young life, and although I feel horribly about whatever must have happened to our “little due,” I now look at him with a new perspective.

When Ghost first came to us, he was only nervous for a couple of minutes. He seemed to instantly make himself at home and wasted no time in harassing his older sister. His behavior has been frustratingly challenging at times, and we still have a lot of work to do, but I have a new respect for what he must have gone through with this eye injury. Since he was only about 8-10 months old when we adopted him, and anything but shy, we figured he’d had a pretty cushy start in life. But the new information about his eye tells us that he’s overcome his own struggles and pain, whether the injury was from an accident or abusive human.

Suddenly Ghost’s resilient and sometimes defiant behavior makes a little more sense. He’s had to adapt to his eye injury in order to keep thriving, and perhaps he tends to be defiant because someone didn’t treat him properly when he was a puppy. Maybe that person was cruel when trying to train him, and instead of cowering like most dogs with trauma, Ghost copes with it by running away and not obeying orders.

So while his personality is nearly the polar opposite of Miss Kitty’s, my eyes have recently been opened to how dogs deal with trauma differently — just like people. While Kitty was (and still is) wary and cautious, she’s learning to trust more and more each day. Ghost’s outgoing personality is bringing her out of her shell, and we hope that Kitty’s relatively good behavior will eventually rub off on Ghost.

But the most important thing I learned that night at the vet’s office was that we all have our traumas, our scars, our struggles. We all deal with them in different ways. And sometimes we don’t want to share those stories with others, or like animals, we can’t do it in a verbal way. Still, if we’re lucky, we find people (or pets) who are patient and kind and help us work through and overcome these obstacles that tried to hurt us or hold us back. And while ideally everyone would like to crush each hurdle easily like taking a hammer to an egg, sometimes we simply have to live with the scars life has given us.

Even if we never fully recover from a negative experience, injury, or trauma, there’s hope that we can adapt to it and work through it as best we know how. We may never be perfect, but that doesn’t mean that we’re unlovable or incapable of living our lives and pursuing our dreams. Sometimes the reality of things is completely different from how you imagined it or how you wanted it. But that’s okay too.

My fur babies — Ghost is the little one and Miss Kitty is the bigger one with the black ear

Mental Health VS Physical Health

In tenth grade English, I wrote a persuasive essay on the subject of making gym class an elective.

For ten years I had endured the humiliation of being naturally uncoordinated and completely un-athletic — I was picked last for kickball, taunted for being afraid of a volleyball flying at my head, and repeatedly endured the time honored tradition of having my glasses smashed against my face during each rousing game of dodge ball.

As if the physical and emotional mortification weren’t enough, my class mates and teachers assumed that I was unmotivated, out of shape, and not a team player. Never mind the fact that I got good grades, loved to read and write, and was active in band, orchestra, and the arts. Never mind that I marched around a football field and along miles-long parade routes every other weekend. Never mind that I lost 43 lbs. between the ages of 16 and 18. Never mind that I wore a size 7.  If I couldn’t put a basketball through a hoop or score a soccer goal, I was a loser. I was lazy. I wasn’t good enough.

Even during that time period when I was at my thinnest, physical activity wasn’t something I excelled at. One particularly painful memory took place during my senior year – where, at age 17 or 18, wearing a size 7, and in probably the best shape of my life – I had to “make up” a few missed gym classes. It must have been winter, because instead of doing a few leisurely laps around the track, I begrudgingly found myself in the musty-smelling weight room, surrounded by football and basketball players, cheerleaders, and soccer girls, all talking about their drunken weekends while admiring themselves in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors on three of the four walls. The only thing making the afternoon remotely tolerable was that the guy I was dating had come with me. We climbed onto side-by-side elliptical machines, where I set a moderate pace and planned on flirting and laughing for the entire allotted time period. He, on the other hand, being active in cross country and track, set out on a more aggressive pace and quickly encouraged me to do the same. I gave it a good effort, but despite being thin, despite being in shape, and despite my attempt to impress him, I was never be able to catch the frantic pace he was used to when competing. I knew he was only trying to encourage me, but when I couldn’t measure up I was left with the familiar feeling of inadequacy.

After a lifetime of these and similar instances, it’s no wonder that exercise and physical activity trigger negative feelings in my brain, and I’m surprised that it’s taken me this long to recognize how these feelings have negatively impacted my mental health.

I’ve written in the past about how I simply do not enjoy working out, aside from swimming, kayaking, and walking or hiking. But it wasn’t until COVID that I realized why I gravitate away from competitive sports, aerobics classes, or exercise equipment with harsh, glowing numbers measuring every step, every breath, and every second.

Six to eight months before COVID shut everything down, I had finally found an activity I enjoyed – I swam laps at a nearby pool 2-3 times a week and had even begun to attend an aqua Zumba class. This pool was housed in a small, local library/community center. There were no glaring bright lights, no buff super athletes, and no judgmental competitors. Zumba class included women of all ages, shapes, and sizes, and I felt as comfortable there as I did with my friends.  This was the way I preferred to stay active – in a welcoming, judgment free zone with no intimidation and no clock or scale measuring what I had accomplished. Still, I left the pool each time feeling cleansed, clear-headed, energetic and limber. And yes, my jeans had started to sag just a little bit, which was an added bonus.

But when the country went into lock down, I could no longer rely on the pool – for exercise or something that made me feel good about my mental health. Like everyone else adjusting to unprecedented restrictions, I did my best to stay active by walking my dogs and doing simple exercises at home. But I quickly lost interest and motivation. I was bored, I was lonely, and I was only doing these things because I felt obligated. Experts on TV, doctors on the Internet, and society as a whole soon began talking about how important it was to stay active even though gyms were closed and classes and group sports were cancelled. Not only did it help us stay healthy, but it would keep our mental state positive, they claimed.

So I pressed on. I walked when it was 90 degrees and humid. I strapped our new, 60-lb. dog into her harness and took her through our neighborhood, struggling to contain her strong, sixty-pound frame when she pulled and darted and startled as she adjusted to her new home. And it didn’t take long for exercise to become a stressful, negative notion again.

When the weather turned chilly, J set up an old elliptical in our basement. I hopped on it a few times a week for maybe a month. It didn’t take long for my legs to start burning and for me to be soaked in sweat. But I kept pushing. I obsessively watched the glowing numbers on the display tell me how much I had accomplished – or how much I had failed. Within a matter of weeks I had given up on the elliptical completely. It wasn’t because I wasn’t seeing results – I was, however small. But aside from the small positive change it was making on my body, the elliptical represented nothing but negativity in my mind. When it came to getting on the elliptical, I felt like a child who was being forced to take piano lessons because it supposedly taught them discipline and made them well-rounded. Even when I did complete a session, regardless of how many miles I covered or how long it took me to cover them, it was never enough. At first I thought this mindset was simply a matter of changing my perspective – that I should be proud of myself for doing 5 minutes or 50, 1 mile or 10. But then I realized that it wasn’t about the numbers. I simply did not care about measurements. I didn’t feel accomplished regardless of what the stupid display said, and I didn’t feel good or refreshed when I finished. I hated the elliptical and was angry at myself because I’d grown up hearing that all exercise should make you feel accomplished and refreshed. But this simply was not the case.

So yes – most exercises and physical activities trigger negative responses in my brain and uncomfortable feelings in my body. This means that sometimes what may be good for my physical health may be bad for my mental health. What am I supposed to do with that? Is this normal? Why does society judge people who don’t find joy in exercise? What am I supposed to choose when something that is good for my physical health (the elliptical) makes me hate myself? And what do I do when something that is good for my mental health (Netflix & chocolate) makes me inactive?
Why don’t you just ask me which leg I prefer to amputate – the left and right have equal value!

When I started this post, I was hoping that I’d come up with some sort of answer by the end. But I think this is one of those subjects that’s going to constantly be up for debate – and the answer will change depending on each individual.

I leave you with a quote from a book I recently read while doing research on sexual suppression in conservative religious communities. I found that many of the themes in this work that focused on sex were relevant to the constant push and pull between mental health and physical health:

Maybe rhythm, not balance, is the key to not falling off the too-much-or-too-little pleasure plank. Maybe here is where grace can enter. Allowing ourselves a bit of time in each place rather than continuously monitoring moderation. A rhythm of feasting and fasting. Of indulgence and denial. Lent and Easter. Based on attention for who we are, how we are wired, what we can and cannot handle, what brings harm, what brings joy … rhythm – Finding one that is danceable, livable, maintainable. A time for work, a time for sex, a time for service,
a time for cake ~
Shameless by Nadia Bolz-Weber

More Coping Mechanisms for Panic Attacks

Like most people, the last 10-12 months have tested my mental health. Even before I contracted COVID the last week of 2020, there were a lot of moments where I was sobbing, borderline hysterical, barely able to get out of bed, and feeling like all the progress I’d made with my anxiety over the last few years had gone out the window.

While I was able to see my therapist on a regular basis thanks to Zoom, there were a few times that I had to employ the help of friends, family, the Internet, and my own creativity to claw my way back to some semblance of calm.

So today, I’m sharing the new tips, tools, & techniques I learned in a year that has been rough on all of us.

Relaxing Music
This is a tool that can be used almost anywhere — at home, lying in bed, driving, or even (for most people) at work. When I need something to bring me down a notch, I pull up the Pandora app on my phone and tune into a station that makes me feel like I’m at a spa or on a relaxing vacation. I highly recommend the following stations:
* Instrumental Chill Radio
* Classical Relaxation Radio
* Happiest Tunes on Earth

Mantras
One of the most important things I learned doing EMDR therapy is to have a positive mantra to replace a negative thought or belief. My two favorites —
* I am safe. I am calm. I am quiet. (when I’m at work or trying to concentrate on something, I change the last part to “I am focused.”)
* This too shall pass or this is only temporary. Whether the source of my anxiety is a stressful issue at work or the fact that we’re nearly a year into a global pandemic, it helps to remind myself that nothing is permanent.

Cold Water & Body Tensing
If, like me, you sometimes experience the physical effects of a panic attack without your mind actually spiraling out of control, you know how absolutely infuriating this can be. Your heart is racing, your hands are shaking, and you’re breaking out in a cold sweat — but you can’t pinpoint why exactly it’s happening. My sister said she heard this once described as “when you’re playing a video game and you hear the music warning you that ‘the boss’ is coming, but he never actually shows up.” Truer words.
In these cases, I like to do one of the following:
* Run my hands and wrists under cold water for 60 – 120 seconds. The cold sensation refocus your energy and attention to something palpable instead of something abstract.
* Tense every muscle in my body for 30 – 60 seconds (or as long as you can hold it), then slowly release each muscle, one area at a time (your toes, your legs, your torso, your arms, etc). This apparently tricks your body into thinking you’ve just “fought” something (the panic attack), and it works to calm itself down once you begin to “let loose.”

Living in the Moment
Typically I loathe this term. Of course I want to live in the moment, but my mind doesn’t allow me to. That’s why I have anxiety. But this time I mean it quite literally. If my mind is racing out of control about something, I have to throw all of my concentration into exactly what I’m doing at that moment. This literally means forcing my thoughts in this pattern: I’m turning on the faucet. I’m testing the water temperature. I’m undressing. I’m stepping into the shower. I’m wetting my hair. I’m shampooing my hair.
I’m unlocking my car door. I’m putting on my seatbelt. I’m starting the ignition.
I’m walking into the office. I’m sitting down at my desk. I’m typing in my password. Etc, etc.

Sometimes my anxiety gets so out of control I have to deliberately remind my brain to focus on menial tasks in order to get the panic monster to stop roaring so loudly.

Five Things
This is a helpful tool that I read about somewhere that helps me fall asleep most nights and also helps me peel myself out of bed on those days when depression rears its ugly head and I can’t find anything to look forward to or work towards. Usually I just recite the thoughts in my head, but it can also be helpful to write them down.
5 Things I’m Grateful for & 5 Things I Want
Sometimes I’m grateful for something as simple as my bed and my favorite hoodie. Sometimes all I want is to find the courage to leave the house or the energy to make dinner.
Other times I’m grateful for more monumental things and I dare to dream about traveling the world and making a shit ton of money with my writing.
Either way, compiling these lists and reciting or reading each item several times is a sure way to calm your mind and distract it from becoming a run away train of doom.

These days, we’re all looking for ways to chase away the demons clouding out vision and messing with our minds. I hope some of these methods help you out, and feel free to share any tips if you learned something new during this bizarre period in history.





A Friday in January

I am working at my company’s small sublot for a few days, and on Friday the twenty-something yard employee who opens the gates is running a little late. He apologizes profusely, then tells me to forgive him if he seems a bit “off” today. His friend from high school was killed last night, so he’s understandably emotional. I offer my own shocked condolences, and he manages to give a few sparse details about their friendship and history before the tears he’s been holding back begin to flow. Male tears have always had the power to undo me, and COVID be damned, I rush over to wrap him in a friendly hug. There is no one else around to comfort him, and I cannot stand idly by as his grief overflows. He regains his composure and thanks me, and we turn to the demands of our jobs.

Hours later, I take my lunch break and wonder how he’s managing. I distract myself with Facebook, where I stumble upon an article about how the lack of physical touch over this last year is wreaking havoc with our mental health. I become teary-eyed near the end, thinking not only of my hug with my coworker this morning, but of the scores of people dealing with what may be the most difficult and bizarre period we’ve ever encountered.

I continue scrolling through my feed, trying to focus on positive posts. I smile when I see one wishing my favorite composer, Mozart, a happy birthday. There is a video to go along with the post, one I’ve seen a dozen times before, of opera singer Diana Damrau expertly nailing the Queen of the Night aria. This stunning and exceptionally difficult piece always makes my heart flutter happily, but today it shatters me.

Tears of my own grief and despair pour over my cheeks as I watch the artists on stage, and suddenly I am painfully aware of just how long it’s been since I sat in a darkened auditorium absorbing culture and theatrics and feeling the rush of human interaction and our shared passion for the arts. And then I am sobbing for everything.

I cry out of frustration for the linger, all-encompassing fatigue that COVID has left in my body, and I cry out of fear that the virus will have some future negative effects on mine or my husband’s health. I cry because it’s been nearly a year since I’ve swum laps or splashed and laughed with other women as we aqua-Zumba our way across the pool to Bruno Mars and Ricky Martin. I cry for the restaurants and small businesses, the non-profits and schools, the students and teachers, the nurses and travel industry. I cry for my friends in Holland and the missed opportunity to visit them in The Netherlands. I cry for the unfulfilled desire to see the Van Gogh Museum, the canals, the windmills, the tulips. I cry because I just want to sit at my friends’ kitchen table, laughing and talking and catching up while we sip beer and wine and finally taste homemade Olliebolen.

When lunch is over, I force my tears to an abrupt halt in the way that women do, in order to attend to the necessities of work and life until there is another spare moment for release.

I stumble through the rest of the day as best I can in this fog of emotion and brain fuzziness and exhaustion and wonder how long the remnants of this virus will inhabit my body and mind.

At 5pm, I head to the pharmacy for prescriptions, resting my head against the steering wheel in the parking lot for 60 seconds just to gather my wits. I have not known fatigue or frustration like this since I had mono in my early twenties, but there are errands to run and a house to clean and meals to cook and dogs to attend to.

On my way home I am sitting at a red light, fighting the urge to close my eyes for only a moment, when the tears break through again. I am sobbing because I am so tired. I am sobbing because it is so cold — the bitter January air is cutting through my coat and gloves and laughing at the meager attempts of the heat in my car. I sob because it seems like spring will never, ever come. I sob because I want to exercise swim and take my dogs to the park. I sob thinking about my messy bathroom and kitchen. I sob because I want to go to a restaurant with my friends and have a glass of sangria and eat too much rich food. I sob because I miss my mom and dad and sister and friends. I sob because we still do not know when this will end.

When I finally walk through my back door, I greet my dogs and my husband. I eat a bowl of cereal for dinner, take my pills, and go upstairs to read and rest for an hour before starting laundry and making a grocery list.

But after awhile, I fold down the page in my novel, set it aside, and flick off the bedside lamp. And I sleep. And I sleep. And I sleep.

the one where i get covid

Welp, I am officially a number. On December 28th, I developed a sore throat and began feeling really, really tired. That same day, it was confirmed by our HR department that “an employee” had tested positive for COVID. Though they claimed they didn’t consider anyone at our facility to have been exposed, I immediately went online to schedule a test.

The next morning when I woke up, my sore throat felt worse, I was still EXHAUSTED, I had a headache, and the sniffles. I called off work and went to a drive-through testing site that afternoon — luckily it was just a mouth swab and not the dreaded brain tickler.
My symptoms intensified over the next few days and I developed a cough. Still, during those first three days I truly didn’t believe I had anything other than a cold. I was most definitely sick (AND I MOST DEFINITELY STAYED HOME) but I’d been sicker — like when I had mono in 2005, like when I had the flu last March, and when I had 3 sinus infections within 2 months in 2012 and had yellow junk leaking out of my eyes.

On New Year’s Day, 2021, the day when the shitstorm that was 2020 was supposed to over and done with, I woke up feeling the best I had all week. And then I got the email that my rest results were in. After a few clicks it was confirmed in bright red letters — I was POSITIVE for COVID-19.

I immediately notified my husband, parents, and sister, the only people I’d been with other than my coworkers. Then I began to panic. What if I relapsed and got worse? What if I had lingering effects? What if my family was sick? What would happen to my job?
A few hours later my husband began to exhibit symptoms and I became even more stressed out. A few days after later, HE tested positive for COVID and my guilt swelled. J was born premature and his lungs and sinuses never fully developed. He’s had pneumonia a few times as well as bronchitis. I was scared.

It’s been about two weeks for me, and I am sloooooowly starting to feel normal. My nose is still stuffy, my cough is still lingering, and I get tired really easily. Oh and I have almost NO sense of smell. For someone whose mom used to call them “dog nose” this is a really interesting new way to navigate things.

J’s symptoms are about 5 days behind mine, and while his cough seemed worse than mine and he had stomach issues, I’m hoping he’ll be on the upswing shortly. I’m not much for organized religion, but any good vibes or prayers would be appreciated.

So now my house is a disaster of epic proportion, the dogs are going nuts, and since we can’t leave these 4 walls it’s almost impossible to turn off CNN as we watch the US tumble into an even more disturbing and embarrassing example of a democracy gone wrong. And don’t even get me started on how indescribably LIVID I am about the way my workplace has (mis)handled this whole debacle.

Yay. 2021.

As I wait for my second round of test results, I’m trying so hard to keep things in perspective. I’m trying to focus on my health and my husband getting better. I’m trying to be thankful that my family didn’t get it and that J & I are generally young and healthy and should be able to beat this. I should be thankful that both of us should still have jobs after this. I should be thankful we still have a home and food on the table.

But all I can think about is what I’ve lost thanks to COVID — 80 hours of PTO. The possibility of personal days and vacations, even if they were stay-cations. Trust and faith in the system. Dreams of having a girl’s weekend with my best friends to celebrate 25 years of friendship. Traveling to Holland to see our friends that moved there in 2019. Seeing the Grand Canyon with my husband. Buying a new house in a better neighborhood.

I understand that right now so many people are focused on survival mode, and thinking about these types of luxuries might seem selfish and immature. But in the past when I’ve been struggling to get through tough times, I always try to focus on something good to look forward to. Unfortunately, right now no one knows if or when those good times will ever come around again.

I talked to my therapist yesterday and she reiterated the importance of focusing on little things, especially in the dismal winter that has consumed western Pennsylvania. We probably won’t see the sun here very often over the next few months, which only magnifies mental health issues — global pandemic, financial crises, and unstable government aside.

Sadly I feel like I have to put aside big dreams of traveling and moving right now. I have to dust off my happy light, restock my essential oils, and try to be satisfied with mundane things like chocolate cake, a (shortened) hockey season, warm towels out of the dryer, and my dogs’ adorable head tilts.

I’m trying to hard to think about better days. Sometimes that makes things easier. Sometimes it makes things harder.

Until next time, please take care. And for the love of all that is holy — WEAR A MASK.

5 Good Things That Happened in 2020

By the time this post goes live, Christmas will be over and we’ll all be muddling through that weird final week of the year where we’re not sure what day it is, we’ve eaten too much rich food, and we’re waiting to ring in 2021.

Like most everybody else, I am sending 2020 into oblivion with hopes that the next twelve months look brighter and happier for everyone. While I know that the change of the calendar isn’t a magic wand that will make everything shitty suddenly go away, I’m trying to stay hopeful that we can put the ugliness of this year behind us and move forward to a more positive, inclusive, and healthier way of life.

That being said, I do want to take a moment to reflect on the fact that there were a few good things that managed to happen in 2020. These are the things that kept me going over the last twelve months, and I invite all readers and bloggers to reply or re-blog with the little things that kept them going in these unprecedented times.

  • I finished my manuscript!
    January of 2020 started with a slap in the face for me, and this was way before the word ‘Coronavirus’ was a thing. I wrote here about losing my (completed) 90,000+ word manuscript that I’d been slaving over for YEARS thanks to a USB crash. Also on that flash drive was the first draft of another novel in progress, as well as countless other short stories and nonfiction articles. I was devastated. I cried for two days and sulked for another week. But then I opened up a blank Word document and started all over again. Admittedly this was infinitely easier thanks to a very early draft that my friend (and lifesaver 10X over) had saved in her email, and I used that to rebuild the entire thing over the next couple of months. Being quarantined for spring and summer definitely helped the progress along, and I spent the second half of the year getting feedback from beta readers and editing. I plan on 2021 being the year of the query and already have my first five perspective agents picked out! Wish me luck!

  • We rescued 2 doggos!
    As if 2020 hadn’t started off crappily enough, and as if the beginning of the ‘rona pandemic weren’t scary enough, J & I lost our fur baby Comet in April. Saying goodbye to our fuzz bug was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and having a house devoid of any paws or barks or clumps of fur was beyond depressing — especially in the middle of quarantine.
    The silver lining to having a fur baby cross the rainbow bridge is, of course, welcoming a new one into your home. J and I happily welcomed Miss Kitty into our home in May, and Ghost joined us in October. It’s been a crazy ride with quite a few struggles, but overall I’m so happy that we have two crazy mutts sharing our home. Kitty is the epitome of a rescue dog — she was found lactating and emaciated on a four lane highway near San Antonio, TX, and clearly had a history of abuse and abandonment. Seven months in, she has made SO MUCH progress and is quite simply the sweetest girl ever. Ghost still has a lot to learn (we have puppy classes scheduled for January!) but he too has made lots of progress, including learning how to ‘give paw.’ Watching these two play and snuggle together absolutely warms my heart and I cannot say enough about how good it feels knowing you saved a life (or two) by adopting rescue dogs.
    If you’re searching for your own companion, may I suggest God’s Dogs in Texas? https://godsdogsrescue.org/
    Both Kitty and Ghost were adopting through this nonprofit and they were awesome every step of the way. If you prefer to meet your 4-legged friend before adopting, I highly encourage you to visit your local shelter or rescue. There are so many animals out there who need homes!

  • I had 2 poems published!
    While I am most certainly a writer, I wouldn’t exactly call myself a poet. I dabble from time to time, and a few years ago wrote a couple of pieces about the Outer Banks. This summer, Capsule Stories published those two poems in their print journal, and I was super excited to be able to share my love of the barrier islands with strangers and other writers.
    Capsule Stories is a refreshing, accessible literary journal that actually publishes in print, so check them out if you’re looking for something new to read: https://capsulestories.com/
  • Joe Biden & Kamala Harris won the election!
    I still get emotional when I think about that day that my husband texted me the news — I was standing in line at the deli at the grocery store when I learned that love, peace, and integrity had triumphed once again and that Joe Biden & Kamala Harris would be the next pair to occupy the White House. While Biden wasn’t my ideal candidate and I know that his presidency won’t solve all the issues in our country, I am beyond relieved that we won’t have to suffer another four years of hate and lies. It is also incredibly refreshing and encouraging to see how much diversity Biden will have in his cabinet, and I look forward to seeing his efforts on bridging the massive divide that currently separates this country.
    Love trumps hate. Love trumped hate. Love is love.
  • We went on vacation!
    When our friends moved to Holland last year, I was hopeful that J & I would get to visit them sometime in 2020. Of course those plans derailed like a train running on moonshine, and god only knows when we’ll ever get to go overseas again.
    However we did manage to make it to the Outer Banks for the first time since 2017, and though this vacation looked different than any other, it was nice to get out of our zip code and feel the sand and sea on our skin, especially when we were so desperate for some type of peace and relaxation.
    I’m keeping my fingers crossed that travel won’t be out of the question for the rest of my life, and in the meantime am having fun living vicariously through books and movies and Facebook posts.

So did anything good happen to you in this mess of a year? Please share, even if it’s something as simple as buying a favorite shirt or learning to cook a delicious batch of cookies. Stay safe, stay healthy, and here’s to a better 2021 — whatever that means!