Neurotypical Privilege: What is it?

It’s time to write another blog piece about neurotypical privilege! And yes, I think about this stuff all the time, unfortunately. (I have to.) So I have new insight on almost a daily basis.

A lot of people don’t know what neurotypical privilege means; even a lot of neurodiverse people don’t seem to know what it means. But my life is a study of it, so I’m in a unique position to describe what it is and how it affects neurodiverse people.

I am a neurodivergent person. What that means is my brain works differently than most people’s. Yes, I know—everyone’s brain is unique. However, mine is unique enough that I have a good deal of difficulty functioning in society on many levels.

I am bipolar, autistic, and have PTSD. I have a lot of trouble communicating with people sometimes, and I’ve had trouble maintaining steady employment and housing. My neurodivergence has put me in prison (for self-medicating), and has brought me into conflict various times with the police (for nonviolent behavior, to be clear). I have difficulty maintaining relationships of all kinds, as well, and not because I’m a jerk—this is one thing I’ve never been accused of by anyone who knows me—but because I’m flighty, have trust issues, and I often misinterpret what others say and am misinterpreted in turn.

Even though my neurodivergence has caused this level of disruption in my life, I still have some measure of neurotypical privilege. NT privilege is, like most other types of privilege, a spectrum…and I won’t even get into the interplay with other types of privilege, because that gets too complex. I’ll leave that discussion to others.

As some of you know, I’m waking up today alone for the first time in weeks. The man better known to y’all as Boy—my partner—went back to California yesterday. Hopefully he’ll be back soon.

Boy is schizophrenic, and he has even less NT privilege than I do. It affects every aspect of his life at all times, and is completely disabling. This isn’t, however, because he’s not capable, intelligent, or fully functional, because he is. He’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. He may function in a different way and on a different schedule, but he’s completely able to take care of himself. He has a rich and full life.

The immense majority of Boy’s problems come from other people’s ableism—their mistreatment of him based on their apparent need for him to function like everyone else.

People interpret neurodiversity—and/or what is called “mental illness”—as dangerous. When they see someone acting in a way that’s different than the norm, they get angry and afraid. But statistically, neurodiverse people are much more likely to be hurt by neurotypical people than the other way around. Both Boy and I are prime examples of this. I’ve been taken advantage of and worse during psychotic breaks. Boy has been beaten into a coma, and has been wrongfully arrested and involuntarily committed on various occasions. On none of these occasions were either of us armed or posing any actual threat to anyone. We were just being who we were born to be.

The stories of many of these incidents are peppered throughout my blog and my Tinkerbell anecdotes, if you’re incredulous or interested in the specifics.

Boy and I—especially Boy—are often kicked out of public places (libraries, parks) and private businesses for doing nothing else besides cheerfully being neurodiverse. Restaurants suddenly have no tables available when we show up. We’re followed around stores because we’re suspected of shoplifting (we aren’t). So many laws and rules are targeted at people like us: vagrancy and loitering laws, involuntary commitment laws, forced sterilization laws, the right to refuse service, and “no shirt no shoes”, for example.

Neurodiverse people aren’t hurting anyone by loitering/muttering to themselves/”babbling” (word salad isn’t actually a thing, people—we make perfect sense if you know us). The vast majority of our behavior is completely benign, and even when we’re in the midst of a psychotic break we’re really unlikely to be violent. We may have trouble following instructions (you would too, if you were in our state of mind), but we’re just scared and confused. If we’re treated with respect and compassion, the situation is likely to be resolved quite peacefully and to the benefit of all.

But instead, we’re treated brutally—hurt, killed, imprisoned, kicked out. People think we deserve it. That we’re doing something wrong.

We’re not doing anything wrong. We don’t deserve it.

Neurotypical privilege is the ability to get through life without being hurt/killed/imprisoned/oppressed/harassed, etc., simply for having a brain that works differently than the norm.

I’m sure I’m missing some points and/or conveying stuff in a way that confuses some people. I’m happy to discuss and clarify, and welcome being called out on anything I’ve gotten wrong. But anyone who wants to argue the very existence of NT privilege, or say they have a schizophrenic cousin and so they know better than I do…please just don’t.

Elizabeth Roderick is an author and neurodivergent activist. You can find her (and her neurodiverse characters) on Amazon.

Don’t Assume You Understand Neurodiversity. You Don’t.

I’m going to write another bitchy blog post, because I’m organizing my thoughts. I invite all people to read, and comment if you want, but this is really a conversation that needs to happen within the neurodiverse community, without paying a lot of attention outside input.

I love the term neurodiversity (or neurodivergence*). When I first heard it,  a light came on in my mind. I finally had a word for something I’d felt my whole life: that “mentally ill” isn’t the right word for who I am, because I’m not ill. This is just my personality, and you can’t (nor should you want to) cure me of it. (Yes, I want/need some symptoms treated, but that’s a different discussion.)

The problem is, the term “neurodiverse” is a catch-all term for A LOT of different sorts of people. This is one of those “duh” statements, but I think we need to meditate on it. I hear a lot of people say “I’m neurodiverse, too,” (or, worse yet, “my aunt is neurodiverse”) as a precursor to statements indicating they think they understand what life is like for ALL neurodiverse people.

Ugh. Amirite?

I don’t want to stop using the term “neruodiverse”. I lurves it, and don’t want to complicate the language by having more and more terms, or just labeling ourselves with our diagnoses. “Neurodiverse” expresses an idea about all of us, that we’re not ill and are okay the way we are, and thus is a good catch-all term.

But we all need to check ourselves when we start thinking we understand what it’s like for all people under the neurodiverse umbrella. There’s a huge spectrum not only of different diagnoses under that umbrella, but also of levels of marginalization. Some of us struggle daily with the problems our neurodiversity causes us. It’s affects everything we do, and every conversation we have with others. Other people’s neurodiversity has only a minor effect on their lives.

If you have minor clinical depression, for instance, you’re neurodiverse in my opinion (unless you choose to not identify that way, of course). Depression is something I experience, and is super shitty. It can make you miss work, sabotage relationships, hurt yourself. But, in the case of minor depression, most people won’t know you have it unless you tell them.

mentalOn the other end of the spectrum is my partner, Phoenix. He has schizophrenia and can’t even walk silently into a room without people reacting to his neurodiversity: his strangeness radiates from him like a glow—a beautiful glow, in my opinion, but not in the opinions of most others. He’s one of the very best, coolest, smartest, kindest people I’ve ever met, but most folks will never know that because their reactions to him are almost uniformly negative. They avoid him, or have a (misguided) “protective” anger reaction (for instance, they call the cops on him for yelling and pacing in his yard. They beat the shit out of him for talking to himself, because they think he’s “talking shit” about them). At best, they pity him and don’t take anything he says seriously.

You can imagine the effect this sort of marginalization could have on a person. Phoenix is positive and confident, but he’s told me on various occasions that before I came along, he thought he’d be alone for his whole life.

I, for the sake of you knowing my viewpoint, fall somewhere in between that. I struggle daily with my bipolar and PTSD on an internal level, and it’s been a defining force of my entire life path. It’s destroyed more than one relationship, and caused me to seek out abusive and toxic ones. It’s landed me in prison. It’s made it extremely hard for me to maintain employment for more than a few years at a time, and has cost me many promotions because of latent bias (and no, I’m not being paranoid. I have direct evidence). The list goes on. But in my daily interactions, at least at times I’m not in crisis, people generally just think I’m a little bit eccentric or “off”. It certainly colors their reactions toward me, but they might not even guess at first blush that I’m neurodiverse. Plus, I have the advantage of not being one of those people that comes off as creepy. At least it doesn’t seem like it, usually, based on how I’m treated (I mean, I’m not creepy, right? Tell me if I am). So my neurodiversity doesn’t isolate me in that way (though it will cause me to self-isolate at times).

So, what I’m saying is, someone with minor depression can’t know what it’s like for people like me, or people like Phoenix. And I can’t know what it’s like for someone with Autism, or schizoaffective disorder, etc. But I can probably identify with what other neurodiverse people go through better than most neurotypical people can, and I will endeavor to listen and be accepting—to be a “safe space” for other neurodiverse people to express their feelings and experiences. I will never say neurodiverse people are “doing it for attention” or any of those other horrible, marginalizing things neurotypical (or self-hating neurodiverse) people say.

The reason we label ourselves as neurodiverse is to try to seek out people who understand what it’s like for us, and will listen and accept us for who we are. Thus, it’s very, very important to be careful of behaviors in the community that can cause us to marginalize and isolate our peers even more. We need to be there for one another. Let us remember to listen and be good allies, as well as good peers.

* I don’t like that this term as much, for the silly reason that I don’t like the novel Divergent. We all have our quirks.

Mental Illness is Not Weakness

A few days ago while addressing a group of veterans, Donald Trump said that strong people can handle trauma without getting PTSD. In effect, he was stating that only the weak are susceptible to mental health issues after they experience trauma.

I myself suffer* from PTSD. My case arises not from wartime trauma, but from physical, mental, and sexual abuse. The idea that people with PTSD—and really, people with any mental health issue—are somehow too weak to deal with the fact that life sucks sometimes, and that we need to buck up, get over ourselves, and move on, is prevalent in society. In my case, it’s a belief that hinders my recovery.

I was diagnosed with PTSD about a decade back. At the time, I didn’t really know what the diagnosis meant. I thought PTSD was something ONLY combat veterans had, and thus I thought my doctor was joking. I’d never had to experience the horrors of dodging bombs and watching my buddies get blown apart. What kind of whiney bitch did my doctor think I was, that I would be as traumatized by my own experiences as a combat veteran would be by theirs?

I dismissed the diagnosis and refused treatment of any kind. I didn’t even investigate what PTSD was, or how it might affect my actions. I even went so far as to have that—and my other diagnosis of bipolar—removed from my medical records. I didn’t want to suffer the stigma. I didn’t want people to think I was weak or attention-seeking.

Then, a few years ago, I went through a period of very high stress in my life. The stress coincided with, or perhaps triggered, a severe manic episode, and I started writing obsessively and behaving a little oddly. My husband at the time became pretty snide about it. His behavior triggered something in me that sent me over the edge, I guess because it in some ways mirrored the behavior of a person from my past. He started to smell like this person, and sound like him. Whenever he would say something unkind to me, my emotions became uncontrollable: I’d get really, really angry, or hurt, or hysterical. I began avoiding him, disappearing for weeks on road trips.

The situation became a sort of feedback loop: the more emotional and erratic I became, the more critical my husband became of me. He told me I was an immature loser and that he was done with me, and kicked me out of the house on a couple occasions. For my part, I was drinking heavily and, eventually, cheating on him.

I wanted to either act “right”, or leave, but I literally couldn’t bring myself to do either. I was terrified to be alone, yet incapable of pulling myself together the way my husband wanted me to. I would watch myself do incredibly self-destructive things and be absolutely powerless to stop.

It’s hard for me to say that: absolutely powerless to stop. After all, lack of self-control is the ultimate weakness. I told myself, day in and day out, that my marriage and my life were in shambles because I was too weak to fix them. If I’d had any control over my emotions and behavior, I would have been able to make my husband love me again.

I was already in a severe depressive episode when my husband finally served me with divorce papers, on the day after Valentine’s Day. I had a suicide attempt (a fairly halfhearted one, since the means at hand were poor), and finally ended up in a mental health crisis center where they said, no really, you have PTSD and bipolar disorder, and we’re going to help you with them.

I’d never been able to stay on medication before. I thought the whole point of pills was to dull your brain and render you inert, so you wouldn’t cause problems for yourself or those around you. I thought they’d kill my creativity and prevent me from going manic; that I’d never have fun or feel any real feelings anymore. After all, pills couldn’t fix what was wrong with me, because they couldn’t cure weakness or repair personality flaws.

But I stuck with treatment this time, because I was tired of my life being unstable, and I had a kid to stay alive for. I didn’t know what else to do. I had to try something.

After trying a lot of different horrible meds, I was finally put on a combination that didn’t make me feel like a disjointed, sleepy puppet from the dream dimensions. It actually made me feel better.

The first time I realized they were working correctly was when I got into a very stressful situation. I’d been in the same situation before, when I was unmedicated, and I’d reacted very badly. My anxiety, self-loathing, and other distress had swelled up in me until I couldn’t see; the only thing left in me were those feelings, and so they were all I had that could inform my actions. When you feel like that, you can’t behave in healthy ways. You want to destroy yourself so that you don’t feel like that anymore. However, with the medication, I was in control, and not my emotions. I was still upset, yes, but my feelings didn’t send me skidding into the walls off-kilter.

That’s when I realized I’d never actually lacked self-control. My brain just worked differently than most people’s, and pretty much anyone would have acted the same way if they’d felt like I had when I’d done those self-destructive things. This was probably the most amazing self-realization of my life.

Some people might still think I’m weak—Donald Trump maybe thinks he’d be able to go through what I’ve gone through, and still be his pompous, egotistical self. And maybe I am more susceptible to PTSD than others, because of my bipolar, or for some other reason. I don’t know.

I was in the supermarket once and saw a young woman with no arms, using her bare feet to grab cups of yogurt from the cooler and put them in her cart. I tried not to stare, but it was pretty amazing to me. I’m sure it wasn’t amazing to her, though: it was just what she had to do, because she had no arms. No one with any scrap of insight would call that woman weak. I would even make the claim that nothing was wrong with her whatsoever. If she broke her ankle, it would probably affect her life more than it would someone who had arms, but that still doesn’t mean she’s weak. She’d just have to cope in different ways.

Those of us with neurodiversity and mental illness are not weak. We just have to learn to cope differently than other people. I actually think that my experiences have given me more self-knowledge, depth of character, compassion, and insight into the human condition than someone like Donald Trump will ever have. And that isn’t a disability: it’s a beautiful thing.

*I use the word “suffer” intentionally here. I would not use this word with any other sort of neurodiversity (and whether PTSD is truly a neurodiversity, I will leave others to argue, because I think each individual can choose for themselves how they want to identify). However, PTSD is unlike bipolar, ASD, schizophrenia, and other diagnoses that are an organic part of the brain. PTSD is caused by trauma, is preventable and, unlike those other diagnoses, has no component to it that I would call desirable (and yes, I think that neurodiversity can be a good thing, though there are some struggles that definitely go along with it).

Elizabeth Roderick is an author. Many of her books deal with neurodiversity and abuse issues.

Signing at Inklings Bookstore on September 10!

I’m happy to announce that I’m going to have a signing at Inklings Bookstore in Yakima, Washington on the afternoon of Saturday, September 10th. I also landed an interview on KIMA TV news. I’ll have more info soon, and hopefully more dates! I hope to see you all there.

Owning the Label of “Mentally Ill”

I wanted to talk about something that’s been on my mind a lot lately: how we, and those around us, deal with mental health issues, along with the stigma and complications that label brings. It’s a subject I’ve been exploring in my own life, as well as in my book The Other Place (which has a schizophrenic main character, and came out TODAY!!)

Background on me, for those new to my blog: I’m a neurodiverse person. Every time I go into the psych doc, it seems like they diagnose me with a new letter of the alphabet. Pretty soon they’re going to have to make up new letters, just to diagnose me with them. My main diagnoses are PTSD and Bipolar I (or II, depending on whom you ask, but since I sometimes go totes whackadoodle, I’d probably say I).

It’s only recently I’ve discovered that I don’t have to call myself “mentally ill” (or “nutball” or “whackadoodle”)—I can call myself “neurodiverse”. I think that term fits a lot better, and feels better. Illness is bad, but diversity is something we should be proud of.

The problem is that we as a society don’t typically see neurodiversity in the same light as we see other types of diversity. Neurodiversity is something to be hidden or cured. It’s something to “rise above” and “be successful in spite of” (indeed, some people still see racial, cultural, religious and sexual diversity in the same light, but we should try our hardest to forget those sorts of people, at least for a few blissful moments before Trump opens his mouth again). And sure, there are certain symptoms that go along with being a neurodiverse person that most of us in that category do want some help dealing with or rising above. But, mostly, the impetus should be on society to realize that neurodiverse people aren’t going to change, and shouldn’t have to change.

I’ve spent a lot of my life denying and trying to escape my diagnoses, along with the stigma, danger, and (often) horrible and ineffective treatments that come with them. It’s only recently I’ve realized that there isn’t really something “wrong” with me, and that perhaps it’s society that needs to change in some ways, and not me.

Society has a long way to go with regard to understanding mental illness. Having certain diagnoses on your record can prevent you from getting certain jobs (or any jobs, if you’re open about it like I am online, because employers tend to stalk you before hiring). A record of mental illness can cause you trouble with the law, can affect the quality of your medical treatment even for conditions unrelated to mental health, and a bunch of other things.

Letting myself be diagnosed didn’t really seem worthwhile, because, let’s face it: a lot of treatments for mental health conditions aren’t very effective, and not much progress has been made in making them so in the last few decades. A lot of the treatments don’t make me feel better; sometimes they actually make me feel worse, at least in the short-term, and/or can have long-term negative health effects. It’s always a trade-off, and it sometimes doesn’t seem like a net benefit. So, every time a doctor has tried to slap a label on me, shower me with shitty pills, or put me in therapy, I’ve gone to another doctor or just quit treatment altogether.

I recently had a pretty big breakdown, though, so I’m back in treatment again. I’m struggling to make it work this time, for a couple big reasons. One is that I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can see what effect my mental health was having on my life, and that perhaps I could do better if I took care of myself. Another reason is that I’m ready to accept my diagnoses, and deal with all the fallout that happens from owning the label of “mentally ill”.

What made me ready to own the label was meeting my friend Phoenix, who has schizophrenia. He is hands-down one of the most beautiful, intelligent, and interesting people I’ve ever met. If he can be so incredibly awesome, then I figured maybe I wasn’t so bad, either. Maybe it is society that has the problem, and not us.

I’m also ready to accept the label of “mentally ill” out of a sense of obligation. I can pass for reasonably sane on good days. I can speak fairly coherently about my experiences with psychosis and mental illness in general. But Phoenix, as awesome as he is, doesn’t have much of a voice in society at large. I understand the turn of his mind, but a lot of people just think he’s a ranting lunatic and don’t stick around to find out he’s not. They’re angered or frightened by his behavior. They think he’s on drugs. They abuse, exploit, and ignore him. He’s been beaten into a coma for trying to be friendly (seriously), and has been arrested for standing in his own yard yelling about cow-worshiping vegans (long story). He was almost shot by police during a psychotic break, even though he was unarmed. And he and I have gotten kicked out of so many places just for being unobtrusively weird.

So, I feel the need to speak up and be proud, not just for myself, but for him, and for people like us everywhere.

It’s not easy to be proud a lot of the time, though. Having a mental health diagnosis hits you in two ways: it changes how you look at yourself, and it changes how society sees you. Those two things can also affect each other, so it becomes sort of a feedback loop.

Getting the correct diagnosis can help you to understand yourself better, and why you feel and react in certain ways. That can lift some of your heavy burden of guilt, shame, and self-recrimination, so that you can go about changing or dealing with those behaviors in a more constructive way. Having a diagnosis can also help those close to you recognize your behaviors for what they are, and respond to them in a healthier and more appropriate manner.

However, a diagnosis can also bring a new level of shame, and cause a different kind of inappropriate and unhealthy backlash from society.

People are more open about their mental health problems now than they were in the past, so you can find some very supportive friends if you start talking about your experiences. You also get a lot of pity, though. Pity isn’t what most people are looking for when they talk about their mental problems: they’re looking for understanding, for a way that they can fit into society and be accepted.

Pity, however, is better than the fear, anger, or condescension a lot of people display if you talk about your diagnosis.

Like I said before, I usually pass for reasonably sane. Sometimes, though, I don’t. I don’t usually realize it when it’s happening, but I behave pretty oddly sometimes. I’ve lost friends and loved ones because of it. I’ve been told to “just stop acting that way”, to “get over myself”, and to “grow up.” I’ve been told I’m attention-seeking. I’ve had people say, “Everyone’s crazy, but most of us don’t have to put it on full display.”

Here’s my answer to that: everyone is an ignorant dickhole in some ways, but most of us try not to put it on full display.

Sanity is definitely a spectrum. I have a pretty wide view of sanity, because pretty much everyone has some pretty kooky habits, paranoias, anxieties and beliefs. But I have intimate experience with that ethereal border over which be mental dragons; the line which, once crossed, puts you in the territory of bona-fide insane. I’ve been there, and I’ve witnessed others in that place. It’s not a place most of us choose to go. It can be terrifying, frightening, embarrassing and dangerous, not just because psychotic people are sometimes apt to hurt themselves, but because others tend to misunderstand us, take us for dangerous, and hurt us because of it. I’m lucky I get to spend the majority of my time on the sane side of that line. Others aren’t so lucky.

Most of us probably can agree that the lunatic ranting on the street corner didn’t get that way by poor life choices, right? Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t see it that way. People really do say things like, “Get a job, you lousy bum!” Seriously. I’ve seen it.

But for people like me, who maybe are a little bit there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I with regard to becoming a ranting hobo on the street corner, but probably won’t go there because we’re more stable and functional, it’s more difficult to sort out what part of our behavior is intentional on some level and can be changed, and what part is just who we are. It’s even difficult for me to sort out, with regard to my own behavior. So when people get frustrated or angry with me for doing certain things, and give me the “straighten up and fly right/get a job you lousy bum”-type lecture, it really hits home.

I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with myself and beating up on myself for being certain ways. I end up walking this tightrope; on one side is things about myself that I can’t change, and just need to learn how to deal with; and on the other side is behavior that I could change, and would be copping out if I blamed it on my mental health issues. Everyone else has their own opinions about which side of that tightrope certain behaviors fall, which makes it even harder to sort out for myself.

And then there’s the added stigma that a lot of people think I’m being attention-seeking or trying to be a “special snowflake” for even talking about these issues publicly. Since I’ve seen even POC and other diverse individuals get that brand of bullshit, though, I try not to let it bug me too much. I’m talking about these issues for the same reasons any diverse person talks about the issues related to their diversity: to understand it myself and to garner more understanding from others, so that someday maybe people like me will have a comfortable place in society where we don’t suffer discrimination, abuse, violence, and misunderstanding.

I hope that by writing these blog posts and books like The Other Place, I make some headway in that regard.

RELEASE DAY FOR THE OTHER PLACE !

Today is release day for my magical realism novel, The Other Place! This is book two in the series, but it can be read as a standalone. It is the story of Justin, a young man with schizophrenia, who is trying to make it as an artist, find love, and find his place in the world. Basically, it’s a sort of coming-of-age story, but with a very unique character and more action than those sorts of books usually have. It’s not a dark book at all; it’s very different from The  Hustle, though you do get to read about the further adventures of Arty and Liria.

The Other Place is based on my own experiences with psychosis, as well as the things I’ve witnessed and experienced while hanging out with my friend Phoenix, who has schizophrenia.

People with psychosis can live beautiful lives, but they deal with a great deal of discrimination, misunderstanding, and outright abuse by police and the general public.

I hope you check it out and enjoy it!

The Other Place is Available for Preorder!

After a long and daunting struggle, release day for The Other Place is almost here. You can preorder the book in either Kindle or paperback format, and read the story of Justin, a young man with schizophrenia trying to find his place in the world.

It’s not easy being a person like Justin, but I think you’ll find a lot of beauty and wisdom in his life, and in the way his mind works.

I hope you read and enjoy this book.

Kindle Preorder

Paperback Preorder

Magical Realism and Realistic Magic: How Stories Come Alive and Keep Us Alive

The three books in my Other Place series are magical realism books. The reason for this, technically, is that the main characters experience shared dreams and sometimes foray into psychotic states.

I have a hard time calling that magical realism. Shared psychosis is real. I’ve seen it, and I’ve experienced it; not at quite the level my characters do, but pretty close.

The part of the series that seems magical to me is the overarching story. Many plot events are larger-than-life and fantastical. All the elements in the “real world” and the “dream world” fit together perfectly in a way that makes sense and is orderly.

That’s because an outside power is organizing them (me), and because there are a limited number of characters in the plot to affect events. If your life starts having a plotline that coherent, it’s either time to get your medication adjusted or go to church: the meddlesome Old Testament God is back and he’s got his eye on you.

Human beings create order where there is none. We constantly tell ourselves stories about the world in order to simplify and make sense of it. This process is what keeps us alive.

Our need to create order stems from an animal need for survival and procreation. We build houses, plow the earth into neat rows for crops, and comb our hair in order to get laid and have a safe, hospitable place to replicate our genes.  However, our need for order has far outstripped what is needed for those basic purposes. We essentially are in a battle against the unknown: we’re trying to organize the chaos into something we can understand and manage. We’re trying to build walls to keep out death.

That is because man cannot survive on bread alone. We have self-awareness and the ability to reason. Without claws and fur, we need to figure things out to survive. We do that by making connections between events and outcomes. But we make a lot of connections that don’t necessarily exist in a physical sense. Those false connections can take on such meaning in the context of a culture, however, that they affect human behavior a lot more than physical stimuli. Sometimes this results in whole groups of people being organized out of existence, because there’s no place for them in someone’s scheme of things, but often they work to our advantage.

These ethereal connections are based in our survival instinct, also, and in many ways they keep us alive. Our laws and moral sense—all of them stories about what is acceptable human behavior and what isn’t—make us feel safer and more comfortable, more in control of ourselves and surroundings, and can keep people from acting too much out of fear or anger. We also have rituals to help us through grief, trauma, and loss. This helps us make sense of the weirdness of life, so that we don’t go insane.

Most of us lose the thread of our cultural story sometimes, though. We look around and wonder WTF is going on in this crazy world, and why anyone even bothers trying to survive in a place that’s so messed up. Other animals don’t have to worry about this existential shit—this is our gift for being conscious, self-aware creatures. Happy birthday.

After those moments of angst, however, the great majority of people are able to pick up the common thread again and move on. Some of us have a harder time with that.

I’ve been diagnosed with all sorts of fairly insane-sounding disorders. If you ask me, my mind just works a certain way, and usually the only major disadvantage to that is how it can bring me into conflict with others’ story about the world.

On good days, I trundle through as well as anyone else, laughing at mindless television shows and finding beauty in the little things. I still feel like I’m a minor character in someone else’s story, but I can play along well enough.

Other times, everything most people see as reality seems to me like it’s a movie projected on a thin veil that could be ripped away at any second. Life seems so weird that I figure I must be missing something, because the ways people act make no sense to me. I can’t suspend disbelief well enough to participate in my cultural story very well.

On bad days, that veil gets ripped completely away. All those stories we tell ourselves to keep ourselves alive and procreating cease to have meaning. I have to struggle to even maintain the basic-survival notion that I need to stay alive for my kid. The sense I’m missing something that others have, or failing to understand something that they do understand, is much stronger. I figure that’s why they keep living when it is so pointless to do so. I think most people reading this can identify with that feeling on some level.

Here is where I lose most of you, though. On the very worst days—few and far between, thank God—all those stories we tell ourselves disappear so completely from my consciousness and my poor brain starts making up completely new stories to make sense of my surroundings. That means that you and I could be looking at exactly the same thing but our brains would interpret it in completely different ways, so it’s very hard for me to effectively communicate with anyone. My brain making up these stories is a survival technique because, like I said, these stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world are how we are able to function. The stories my brain makes up are actually generally no more ludicrous than the ones supposedly sane people make up, but they are inconsistent with our cultural narrative and so make me vulnerable. My brain’s survival technique makes it more likely that I’ll be hurt or killed—written out of society’s plotline because there’s no part for me.

Psychotic people are much more likely to hurt themselves than others. We are probably less of a threat, on average, than non-psychotic people. But we are much more likely to be hurt or killed by others than non-psychotic people are. You all know, I trust, your propensity to shy away from psychotic people under the (almost always false) impression that they are dangerous. I’m a five-foot-tall female, so people rarely consider me dangerous, but I’ve been taken advantage of, physically and emotionally hurt, and abandoned because of my propensity to believe my own story. Those people thought they were justified in their behavior: they thought they were helping me, or protecting themselves. They were the delusional ones, in my opinion, but to each their own.

My friend/partner Phoenix, who has schizophrenia, is six-foot-three and well-muscled, but as gentle as they come. He has been beaten into a coma just for talking what other people saw as “nonsense”. He’s been arrested for having a nonviolent psychotic episode in his own yard. And he’s been nearly shot by police, simply because his brain lost the thread of the common narrative and started making up a different story, even though he posed no credible threat to anyone.

As soon as Phoenix and I walked into each other’s lives, I felt like I’d finally found another human being on a deserted planet. Even when I think I’m dead and that everyone else is a spirit trying to guide me into the afterlife; or that everyone else knows something I don’t; I know Phoenix is real and that he’s usually living in the same story I am. And that makes it a lot easier.

This is what is called shared psychosis.

Anyone who follows me on social media knows about Phoenix. I wrote him into a novel after having a short conversation with him, and ended up extrapolating what little I knew of him into a well-rounded character—Justin, from the Other Place series. Justin isn’t Phoenix, but when I felt the compulsion to seek Phoenix out again (after the novels were already drafted) there were spine-tingling similarities. And, after I knew him, the similarities in character seemed to extend to similarities in plot.

These connections, real or imagined, form a more coherent plotline than I usually see in real life. It seems at times our lives are intimately connected with my writing. In fact, Phoenix gets mad if I write about something that would cause harm to either of us if it came true. For his benefit, I try to loosely correlate those plot points with stuff that’s already happened, or else write about characters so wildly different from us that the connection is harder to make. Or I just don’t tell him my plotlines, because I don’t think the connection between them and our lives is as close as he does. Or I usually don’t, anyway.

Once, when I lost the thread, I began to believe I could make my dreams reality through the force of belief, and that I had the power to completely organize our lives through my writing. I thought that I was meant to write the Other Place series in order to give people a window into what it’s like to be psychotic, so people like us would be more acceptable to society. I might make some money off of my stories, too, so Phoenix and I could have something to survive on.

I believed that, like in the books, the physical world and the world in our minds were orderly, and fit together seamlessly. Essentially, I believed I could write us into society’s narrative.

Just as further illustration of how deep shared psychosis can go, I also thought, during that episode, that Phoenix and I could hear each other’s thoughts—that our connection in the real world was as intense as in the books. He says that part was true, but I can’t remember what we said out loud and what we thought, so I can’t call him on his bullshit. I do know that we’re often able to follow one another’s thoughts without speaking, and start conversations in the middle; we pick up on cues from each other that other people completely misunderstand. Other people do this, too. If you know someone well, you can follow their plotline well enough to gauge their thoughts even at a distance, at least at times. Telepathy isn’t too far off. My story isn’t much crazier than most.

Unfortunately, the physical world intrudes into our plotlines more in reality than it does in books. We’re not the only ones in control of events, and the story isn’t just about us as individuals. I, for one, do believe there is a coherent overarching plotline, but one of the ways almost sure to drive me over the edge to one extent or another is trying to figure out what it is and how it works. It’s too big for my brain to understand completely, so it cuts it into bite-sized pieces. This can result in some fairly out-there plots.

Maybe the Other Place series will create some order in my personal narrative, though. Maybe I’ve captured enough of the truth within our human experience to make my books compelling to people. I do know that this belief has been a driving force in my life, and makes me work hard to gain more control over my personal plotline. It’s made me feel like I have purpose, and like there might finally be a comfortable place for me in society’s narrative. Whether I’m ultimately called crazy, or just a heavy dreamer that made her dreams come true, all depends on how my life story goes from here on out.

The first book in the Other Place series, entitled The Hustle, released on 5/31/16. The second book, The Other Place, releases on 7/5/16. The third and final installment (Synchronicity) is in the process of final revision.

Find The Other Place Series on Amazon.

 

 

 

Writing Through Adversity: The Story of the Other Place Series

About a year and a half ago, I was living in my little ranch house in the tiny (like no-stoplights sort of tiny) town of Shandon, California.

I’d moved there with my husband and child for my husband’s tenure-track job as a biochemistry professor. He and I had been together for eight years, very happily, but once we moved to California our marriage started to fall apart.

I didn’t work outside the home, and so had time for writing when we moved. A year and a half ago when this story starts, I had just finished a series of seven YA fantasy books. Book one of that series was the first novel I’d ever completed. I’d been completely engrossed in the story, and I’d written all seven books in slightly less than a year. It had been part of the way I’d dealt with the myriad of stresses of moving to California.

That writing took up a lot of my time. I cooked and cleaned, sure, but everything else was  writing. I only left the house to go to critique groups, and about 99% of the conversations I had with anybody, including my husband and kid, revolved around writing and the querying process.

My husband was really frustrated with me. He wanted me to quit writing and get a job—not because we needed the money (we didn’t) but because he told me I was miserable.

I wasn’t miserable at all. I was the happiest I’d ever been, because I’d finally found what I was put on this earth to do, if you believe in that sort of thing. Writing fit completely with my personality. It helped me organize my sometimes racing and random thoughts, and I could do it in the middle of the night (I have a habit of waking up at 2 a.m.) I didn’t have to try to act professional or worry about the wrath of my boss. And it was the most fun I’d ever had. Sure, it was shitty sometimes, but isn’t anything?

My husband is a differently-minded person, though. He doesn’t understand feelings the way most people do, so he tends to construct an emotional model for people. If your description of your own feelings doesn’t fit in with the model, he dismisses it as an outlier.

I could find no way of communicating with him about our relationship problems, and we ended up in a lot of brutal fights. He called me immature, selfish, and lazy; told me he’d lost all respect for me, and he was done with me.

We were like two mentally-odd ships passing in the night, firing randomly at each other in the darkness.

Anyway, when I finished my YA series, I was plunged back into the real world without my characters for companionship. A new character had arrived shortly before I’d finished the series, but she wasn’t very good company. Her name was Liria, and she was a somewhat languid and depressed junkie. I’d quit heroin almost twenty years ago and I didn’t feel much inclination to be pulled back into that world, so I kept telling her to slouch back off from whence she came.

She wouldn’t leave, though, in that way characters do. I started writing her book.

It was a bit horrifying. I hadn’t worked through a lot of the issues from that period in my life, and Liria brought them back pretty vividly. I’d been diagnosed with PTSD—I didn’t really know what that meant at the time, but I guess a symptom can be that you run away and/or have an overblown emotional reaction when confronted with reminders of your trauma. That was me in spades. Writing the book made me even freakier, and my husband didn’t have the resources to deal with that. When I tried to talk to him about the stuff from my past that was bugging me, he’d tell me to get over myself. He said, “Having a baby is worse than getting raped, but you’re not complaining about that.”

When my husband and I fought, I started closing down completely. I’d turn into a screeching banshee when anything even resembling a slight left my husband’s lips. Sometimes I’d get in my car and end up hours away without a very good notion of why I was there.

Add that to the fact that, when I brought chapters of the book to critique group, some people said, “There’s nothing likable about this character. Why would anyone want to read about someone like this?” To them, Liria was nothing but an object of contempt, fear, and pity. They’d never thought of someone like her as a real human being, with a rich and complex inner life. Liria had a lot of me in her, and so those critiques felt like rejections of me as a person. I was already getting enough rejection from my husband and agents. I didn’t need more.

I tried to quit writing, but I couldn’t. It was an addiction as much as the heroin had been, and I got anxious and morose if I didn’t do it.

I was sitting in the local park one day during this time—I’d taken a temp job running the food bank’s summer lunch program—when this guy walked up to me.

“I like your shoes,” he said. “They’re red, white and blue, like Captain America, or like my house, which is red, white and blue, also. It’s the Captain America house.”

We talked about his workout routine and his muffin pancake recipe. He was the coolest guy in the world. I couldn’t get him out of my head after that conversation, and he ended up in Liria’s book. I named him Justin.

Unlike Liria, my critique partners LOVED Justin. So did I, but I was pretty sure he would be one of the darlings I’d have to kill. I didn’t see how he played into the story.

Except he did end up playing into the story. Justin wove himself in and out of Liria’s dreams the way the kid from the park wove through mine. I created a well-rounded character based on that half-hour conversation about my shoes and the coat rack exercise.

When I finished Liria’s book, Justin’s character kept talking to me, so I started another book.

Justin’s book was even more brutal than Liria’s. The kid from the park had obviously been schizophrenic, and so was Justin. I was terrified of schizophrenia. I’d spent a lot of my youth worried I had it. I didn’t talk to people about it much, but I’d had some pretty severe episodes of psychosis in my life, and putting myself in that mindset was even harder than being in Liria’s shoes.

As I wrote the book, though, I realized I wasn’t scared anymore. Justin was a wonderful person. His episodes of psychosis didn’t mean he was bad—that was just the way his mind worked.

Justin’s book had a sequel, and I was almost done writing it when I decided I had to talk to the kid in the park again. I knew he wasn’t Justin, but I felt like getting to know him better would help me get Justin’s character right.

I hadn’t talked to him in more than five months, and wasn’t sure where he lived—the “Captain America” house not being what you’d call a precise address—so I went down the park for lack of other options.

He walked in just as I did. “Hey, it’s you,” he said. “I was looking for you.”

The kid in the park’s name is Phoenix. He isn’t much like Justin, but he still helped me to round out Justin’s character in a very big way.

Phoenix became my new obsession, my new best friend, and my new way of avoiding the increasingly horrible fights with my husband. When things progressed to my husband telling me to get the fuck out of the house, Phoenix was the shoulder I cried on. That summer, when my kid was visiting her dad, Phoenix lived with me in campgrounds and my car for quite a while as I looked for jobs and tried to put my life together. When my husband finally asked me to come back home, though, I went. All I wanted to do was write, and the only way I could see to do that was to try to repair my marriage; being a single mom working two jobs wasn’t a recipe for success as an author. Besides, I still thought my husband would eventually realize he still loved me. I thought he’d change. I’d been in abusive relationships before and knew I was being naïve, but things always look different when you’re in the midst of them.

Meanwhile, I eventually got tired of trying to break into the publishing world with one of my bizarre novels populated with unlikeable characters. I wrote a romance with the idea of pitching it to small publishers so that I could establish myself, and maybe have an easier time getting my other stuff published. That romance was Love or Money—it was still bizarre and populated with unlikable characters, but it got published pretty easily. Soon after, I signed a contract on Liria and Justin’s series—the Other Place series.

A few months after that, my husband gave me divorce papers.

I tried to stay in the house so my daughter could finish the school year. It was a complete emotional shit-show. It wasn’t long before—you all saw this coming—Phoenix and I were in a relationship.phoenix n me

I ended up moving out before the end of the school year, because it was just too hard. I renovated and built onto a cabin on my parents’ farm, and I’m living here rent-free, trying to get my writing and editing career off the ground.

I had to leave Phoenix behind, but I think about him every day. I’m headed down to visit him today, too.

Phoenix and I have a sort of shared psychosis. It’s not an easy relationship, but the strength of the connection is more epic and magical than anything I’ve ever known. It’s the connection of two people living in a world very different from the world of those around them. After all, the definition of psychosis is a belief in things that aren’t real, and that aren’t consistent with their society and culture. Everyone is psychotic, but Phoenix and I are just psychotic in a slightly different way.

Yes, perhaps I destroyed my life by writing the Other Place series, but I think it might have been a good trade-off. Even if the series completely flops,my divorce was probably for the best. Writing this series taught me who I am, and that it’s okay to be that person. It’s not much use for me to try to change to make someone happy.

I hope the series doesn’t flop, though. I hope all of you read it and learn to love the unlikable characters in my books. I hope you’ll also take a second look at the unlikeable characters in your real life.

My books on Amazon.

My website.

 

General Update

Hello, wonderful people. I know it’s been a very long while since I’ve written a post of substance. A lot has been going on in my libeekeepingfe, so I haven’t had a lot of time.

Those who follow me on social media know that I was served divorce papers the day after Valentine’s Day. I’ve since moved back to the family farm, where I’ve been gutting and renovating an 80-year-old one-room cabin to live in, working on growing my editing business, and—apparently—taking up beekeeping.

I have a new boyfriend, too: Phoenix, my best friend, who has inspired so many of my novels and taken me on so many dark and hilarious adventures over the past year. It’s a long-distance relationship, and an odd one, and I don’t know where it will go. He is fifteen years younger than I am. He has schizophrenia. His lifestyle and rituals are very different from my own. I love him to cabina (probably literally) insane degree, though. He has taught me more about myself and the world in the past year than I learned in the thirty-seven years before I met him. He is an important part of my life and always will be, no matter what happens.

A lot of you also know that I ended up in a mental health crisis center a few weeks ago, after it all got a little too heavy. I got help, and will get to start psychiatric treatment again this coming week. I’m going to finally be honest with the psychiatrist and hopefully get a valid diagnosis and some treatment that works.

Throughout all this, I’ve been writing, editing, marketing. I went to the RT Booklovers conference in Vegas. I’m finishing up the final edits on my May 31st release The Hustle, which is Book 1 of my Other Place series. I’ve also worked with some truly aphoenix n memazing editing clients, continued work on a YA alternate-earth fantasy novel, finished some of the parts of my Wattpad series The Story of Tinkerbell (which will be featured when it’s done), and I started pitching my neurodiverse YA romance True Story to agents.

All this stuff is hard to process and integrate, as you might imagine. On the one hand, there’s the supposedly professional Liz, who is writing/publishing/editing/marketing, trying to grow her business and her brand. Then there’s the Liz who is trying to keep her life from disintegrating, who is trying to keep herself alive, off the streets, and out of the mental institution, all while taking care of her wonderful daughter.

At the RT conference, I got the opportunity to talk to a lot of the panels on writing and publishing diverse novels. In the midst of all those thousands of writers and readers, I felt most at home amongst those authors. It was so comforting to hear them talk about the barriers they’ve faced in marketing and publishing, because they’re some of the same ones I’m encountering: people want “diversity” in their novels, but they don’t necessarily want books that explore what it’s really like to live as a diverse person in this world. The term for this is, I believe, “whitewashing”. I think this term is applicable to my situation, even though I’m not a POC, I’m a neurodiverse writer who writes about neurodiverse characters.

I also learned a lot about “branding” at the RT conference—about presenting yourself and your novels in a way that’s both unique and compelling, so that readers learn to associate you with a certain image and type of writing and know what to expect when they buy your books. I learned that you’re supposed to simultaneously present an marketable image while being professional and genuine.

It’s hard for me to be both professional and genuine, though. I can’t present an image to the public that’s widely compelling while still being myself. The problems I encounter with branding myself and getting the public to embrace and accept me are the same problems I’ve struggled with in getting people to want to read about my characters: most people like the concept of a story about a person with psychosis or other neurodiverse behaviors, but when it comes down to seeing what it’s like to actually live with neurodiversity, it’s a little much for them. I’m told, about my books, that the writing is good but people can’t relate to the characters. I’m told my plots are odd. I’m told that I, as a person, am oversharing and trying to be a special snowflake. That “we’re all crazy, but we don’t have to talk about it all the time.” In short, I’m told that I’m annoying, and that my characters are, too.

I am being the only person that I know how to be, though. It would be more convenient to be someone else sometimes. I’d still be happily married if I knew how to be someone else, and I’d probably have a much easier and more lucrative job. But I love writing. It’s what I was meant to do. And I love my characters and my plots. I wouldn’t want to write books that were more “typical”.

There are some people who love me despite or because of all this, and there are people who love my books. The Other Place Series will be coming out soon, as I mentioned—The Hustle on 5/31, The Other Place on 7/5, and the third and final installment shortly after that (it’s currently with betas). This series is about a recovering heroin addict and a young schizophrenic man, and I’m grateful to Limitless for taking a chance on it. Additionally, my YA romance, which stars a young woman with bipolar psychosis, got five requests on the lovely Beth Phelan’s #DVPit for diverse novels, and one of those requests so far has turned into a full. I’m hopeful that book will find a home soon.

So, for what it’s worth, I’m growing my brand: I’m the crazy lady who writes books about crazy people. I’m being genuine. I’m hopeful that sooner or later the world will accept me for who I am. For now, I’m still alive, and I’m still writing. Thank you for reading.