on PTSD

[Please note: this post may be triggering in its discussion of child abuse, incest, and mental health. I have tried my best not to write in a graphic or titillating manner.]

tumblr_n08ve6nPjL1qh2s1go1_500

When I was nineteen, a therapist told me she thought I had post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Like a soldier?” I asked, halfway laughing.

She pointed out that I was extremely anxious in our meetings, that I couldn’t sit still, but bit my nails to the quick and glanced around the room and at the closed door. I couldn’t sit with my back to an open window, and I talked as if I had to get the words out quickly, quietly, before someone else heard. That I often looked as if my heart was beating too fast. (It often was.) Hypervigilance, she said.

Hannah HolmesAnd then there were the nightmares, which were the ‘symptom’ that had made me seek out therapy in the first place. Intrusive dreams about my father hurting me, often with my mother’s assistance. Dreams that felt like memories, and memories that were starting to surface even while I was awake.

She asked me where I felt safe. I laughed again; nowhere, of course.

I’d started coming to her, over the summer vacation between my sophomore and junior years of college, because another counselor back at school had told me I needed to. I had to go back to my parents’ house to work over the summer, and we both knew I’d need a trained outside listener to get through it. I can’t remember what we decided to tell my generally therapy-averse parents that convinced them to let me go; I certainly didn’t tell them the real reason.

We talked more about PTSD during that session, and I recognized a lot of the symptoms she mentioned. Frightening, immersive flashbacks or panic attacks brought on by seemingly minor triggers; nightmares; memory trouble. Anxiety, exhaustion, absentmindedness, conflict aversion. Heavy, constant, seemingly sourceless guilt. Eating disorders. Shame. Self-loathing.

I told my boyfriend about it that evening, lying on our backs in the seaside park where we often met that summer. He said he thought it sounded right. He had talked me through more than a few panic attacks over the four years we’d been dating, held me when I’d woken up screaming or sobbing. He’d known about my father’s verbal abuse back when we were still in high school, back when I had no real memories yet of the other kinds. He was the first person I told about the memories that I didn’t want to, and often couldn’t, remember. We broke up a few years later and haven’t looked back, but I still feel grateful that I had someone supportive with me during that time.

It tootumblr_ne0x5pOGBd1qh2s1go1_500k a long time to tell anyone else. It was less than a month before my twenty-fifth birthday when I finally told the police. I’d known I wanted to make the report for years, and had only been waiting for the strength. That year, my youngest cousin turned the same age I was when, as far as my foggy memories can tell me, the abuse started. That year, I finally talked to someone who had once seen it happen, but who had been persuaded into silence, too. That year, I had to tell, so I did.

The memories are still foggy, though, and some of them are still absent. Is it possible to know that you don’t know, to be certain that your brain is still protecting you from some things?

Someone with PTSD would say: hell yes. Emphasis on the hell.

I’ve built my life in such a way that my anxiety, memory trouble, and conflict aversion aren’t major issues: I work from home, with lots of time to myself, a flexible schedule I share with my horse trainer husband, and unconditionally loving animal friends (shout out to my goats). I live in a quiet place in a different country, an ocean away from my parents.

Their stance on this whole thing, as far as I hear, is that I’m mentally unwell. Mental health issues run in the family, don’t you know, they confide. But I think it’s also important to mention that they haven’t contacted me, haven’t tried to help or confront their crazy daughter, even once since I made the report. (They’d lawyered up by the time the police talked to them, though.) By now, two years after the fact, I think that speaks for itself.

The thing is: they’re the ones keeping secrets now, not me. I don’t keep anything that has happened to me a secret any more, and that in itself has been incredibly healing.

tumblr_nmgk76vpoY1rv33k2o6_500Still, according to that therapist, I am technically mentally unwell. I have a Disorder. Certainly there are situations in which my brain reacts in ways I’d prefer it didn’t. I’d like fewer nightmares about my father bending over my bed, fewer full-blown panic attacks when there’s a rape scene on TV, fewer days when I barely have the will to move or breathe, much less write or teach or talk to my friends.

But I don’t really see it like that. I’m now a part of an online group of women who have PTSD, and they are not only some of the toughest and most resilient people I’ve ever known, but also the most empathetic, the least judgmental. They make me feel tough and kind, too, and those are great ways to feel, and great things to be.

My husband once said to me: “What happened to you was disordered, not your reaction to it. Plenty of reasonable people, having the same experience, would have the same reaction.”

He’s right. The disorder is my father’s, not mine. I still own the PTSD label, because it helps me to understand myself, to be kind to myself when I have reactions that are frustrating or counterproductive. Calling my reactions PTSD helped me come to terms with my past, and it’s helped me find a place in an extraordinary group of women, as I mentioned.

But I agree with my husband: it’s not a disorder. Maybe it’s PTS. I am a normal person with a weird past, and most days, that’s about it.

Aren’t we all?

tumblr_nf7v0uVKnV1qh2s1go1_500

(Art credits: Hannah Holmes)

Not the Best: Ambition vs. Peace of Mind

Tallmadge DoyleI rewrote the title of this post a good few times, and I still don’t love it. For a while it was “Goat’s Milk Caramel and Imperfection,” but I decided that was too twee . . . even though I’m a children’s book writer who spends much of my time making goat’s milk caramel in a cute little cottage in the west of Ireland, and there’s a fairly high Inherent Twee Index in that scenario.

I’ve been planning to write the post itself for days–weeks, now?–too. And yet.

It’s so easy not to get around to something, not to start, when if you leave it in the future it can still be perfect. Anything you haven’t done yet can still exist in a state of Platonic idealism.

Once you start, though, you see limits. You watch yourself fail, or at least not incandescently succeed. At the same time, you’re annoyed with yourself for even thinking you could ever do something perfect in the first place. I mean, who do you think you are?

And yet. And yet.

I wrote the first draft of Tides for NaNoWriMo 2008. I called my discombobulated monster manuscript The Undershoal Journals and I’m pretty sure it was terrible, but I could never even bring myself to look at it again after I finished writing it. I was embarrassed that I’d written something that I was convinced was so bad. I was supposed to be a brilliant writer; hadn’t I been put in the gifted classes ever since I could remember? How dare I dash all those parents’ and teachers’ hopes by writing something less than perfect?

Tallmadge DoyleSeven years later, I’m close to finishing Compass. It’s been harder for me to write this book than either Tides or Mechanica, partly because of all kinds of upheaval in my personal life in the last two years . . . but just as much, I think, because it’s the first book I’m actually writing under contract. If it’s terrible (as I’m often convinced it is) I can’t just banish it to a forgotten corner of my hard drive the way I did with The Undershoal Journals or any number of short stories from my MFA program, never to be seen again.

No. I’ve already been paid for Compass, and that money has long since gone into such luxuries as rent and electricity. There’s no going back on this one, baby. I have to turn in my manuscript very, very soon (I’m already behind on my deadline), no matter how bad it is. That’s terrifying.

It’s terrifying because that book is proof that I’m not the Actual Best Writer The World Has Ever Seen. That Compass isn’t the Great American Novel.

For fuck’s sake, of course it’s not. How arrogant could I be? But part of me is. Part of me is so arrogant that I can’t even bear to write blog posts very often, because they’re not perfect, either. I don’t want to write anything that isn’t total, pure genius.

Tallmadge DoyleIt’s embarrassing even to write that! But the thing is, I’ve learned from teaching that most writers feel the same way. And when I see that balking in my students, that perfectionism masquerading as procrastination (commonly called writer’s block), I can view it a little more kindly. I can say: the issue is how much you care. You love great writing (and reading great writing) so much that you can’t stand making anything less. Your great love pins you to an impossible standard, one that’s been reinforced by every class you’ve taken, every word of early praise or censure you’ve received. I don’t think that’s arrogance; I don’t even think it’s necessarily bad.

But it can still debilitate. It can still keep you from writing at all.There’s the bad.

So where does the twee caramel come into this?

I write nearly every day, and I milk the goats and make caramel (or soap, or cheese) at least as often. I’m ambitious for my goats and their milk; I’d like them to be a significant part of how I make my living someday soon. And yet I don’t have any aspirations–not even secret, arrogant ones–of being The Greatest Caramel Maker The World Has Ever Known. In my heart of hearts, my highest goat-related ambitions involve a small herd and a few jars of my caramel sauce in local gourmet shops, and maybe selling my soap on Etsy. Small potatoes indeed compared to the “Shakespeare can eat my dust” dreams that I know, I know, most writers secretly share.

So the question I want to ask is: why do we want that in the first place? Why are we all so desperate to be the best that we’re terrified of anything lesser? After all, not a single one of us will ever reach that dream. No matter how good we are, we’re setting ourselves up to fail. We’re never going to be as good as we want to be, because that level of perfection (any level of perfection) doesn’t exist.

I know it doesn’t exist for me. But the only time I enjoy writing is when I let go of the hope for perfection, when I let myself be bad. I would hate making caramel or soap if I needed it to be perfect every time. I botch batches every week, adding flavors or scents or other ingredients that don’t work, fudging my measurements. Experimenting. Imperfection, failure, is ultimately the only thing that’s fun about creativity; and ironically, it’s often what a reader will latch onto in a piece of writing, as well.

I love–loveJessica Williams’ response to claims that she suffers from an inferiority complex because she declined to take over the Daily Show. I love this analysis from newwavefeminism on Tumblr just as much:

There’s a specific arrogance and entitlement with white patriarchy that says you must prove that you’re the best at everything.

Like so many young feminists, I’m sick of individualistic, lean-in feminism that says empowerment is about being the best (and, by extension, better than everyone else). I’m sick of a feminism that’s all about me, my journey, my empowerment. My feminism, or at least the feminism that I strive toward, is about building a better world, about fixing our structural, institutional illnesses at every level. Feminism shouldn’t be about climbing the ladder, but about dismantling the damn thing in the first place.

That philosophy trickles into my writing and my teaching like this: I am trying to unlearn the need to be perfect. I am trying to help my students unlearn that need, too. It’s hard, especially with my gifted students. We’re taught to value ourselves based on how good we are–meaning how intellectually or creatively elite we are–because that’s how we see other people valuing us. Parents, teachers, even friends; even ourselves.

What a blessing it would be if we could let it go.

(Art credits: Tallmadge Doyle)

Women of Irish Folklore: Neasa, Warrior Queen

image_005

I almost don’t want to tell you about Neasa, because I’ve been hoarding her as a namesake for a book character/future child. I still might be doing that; after reading up on her for this post, I’m tempted to write a book called Neasa the Gloriously Delightful or something. Watch out for it.

But it was just Paddy’s Day—I’m continuing my new pattern of coming late to the writing-about-holidays party—and I think you all need to hear about one of my favorite women of Irish mythology. She was the mother of Conchobhar Mac Neasa, one of the great kings of Ulster, but she was also a foundling, a warrior, and a queen in her own right. If The Mists of Avalon’s Morgan Le Fay and, like, Beyonce had a love child, she would be Neasa.

I told you she was a delight. Get ready.

a59d52c3bca6fca011a32c7f99e65919So, as with any folktale, there are many versions of Neasa’s story. Most of them, however, start when she is abandoned as a young child, and then found and fostered by a band of fianna, the roaming warriors of ancient Ireland. All twelve of her new foster-fathers adore and dote on her. They give her the name Easa because of her sweet and loving nature; it’s pronounced “Essa” and means “gentle.” Pretty name.

She wouldn’t keep that name for long, however. Cathbad, the druid leader of another band of fianna (and, in some versions of the story, Easa’s brother by birth), murders all of her fathers. He’s stealthy enough that none of the local authorities can identify him as the killer.

So Easa, the sweet and gentle princess-among-rogues, decides to deal with Cathbad herself. She brings together her own group of fianna and exacts bloody vengeance on Cathbad’s army. Her ruthlessness as a fighter becomes so renowned, in fact, that she’s renamed Neasa: “not gentle.”

This story is just begging to turn into a movie or, say, a YA novel or something, right?

MachaDespite her own and her warriors’ prowess, however, one day Cathbad catches Neasa alone and unarmed. The only way he’ll let her live, he says, is if she marries him. (Remember that in some versions he’s her brother, just to add another layer of evil to his already murderous, rapey character.)

Neasa agrees and lives to see another day, but a woman named “not gentle” is hardly going to be so easily beaten. Soon after their marriage Cathbad asks her to bring him a drink of water from the river, but when she brings him a cup he sees that there’s a worm in it, so he tells her to drink it instead. We’ll have to move into Mythology Symbol-Logic for this one, but because Neasa drinks the water, it’s the worm, and not Cathbad, that gets her pregnant.

(If getting pregnant by worm-water is a bit much for you, in other versions Neasa simply keeps a lover who happens to be one of Cathbad’s rivals. Either way, the stories make it clear that her son is not Cathbad’s son, and she’s never the least bit blamed for any infidelity. Which is good because Cathbad, as previously mentioned, is the obvious villain here—but you might be surprised how many fictional ladies get blamed for these things nonetheless.)

So Neasa gets pregnant, is the point, and she goes into labor while they’re travelling along the banks of the river Conchobhar (pronounced “crahoor,” for some godforsaken reason that no one has been able to explain to me). Another druid rushes up to her and tells her to wait a day, because if she does her child will share a birthday with the still-in-the-future Jesus Christ.

So Neasa just stops and HOLDS IN HER BABY so that he can be born on Christmas.

maeveWhich, I mean, I’ve never been in labor, but that seems like a superlative act of willpower and pelvic floor strength to me.

Anyway, Conchobhar is born, Cathbad dies under mysterious circumstances (although my friend Not Gentle and I have our theories) and now that Neasa has supposedly given birth to his heir, she becomes the undisputed lady of Cathbad’s lands.

But she’s still not finished: a few years later, the High King begins to court her, and Neasa knows a good opportunity when she sees one. She tells the king that she’ll only marry him if he lets her seven-year-old son Conchobhar be king for a year, so that his future children may call themselves the children of a king. The king consults his advisors, who tell him the child will be king in name only, and how much harm could it do?

Which seems like really bad advice from King’s Advisors, but whatever. Through her son, Neasa implements such popular policies during that one year that at its end, the people of Ulster insist on keeping Conchobhar as their king, and they threaten revolt if the old king resumes power. The old king shortly dies, probably of being really bad at predicting things, and Neasa and her son live happily ever after.

I mean, I can’t not write a book about this woman, right?

Happy late St. Patrick’s Day, everyone—and remember, it’s always spelled Paddy’s Day, never Patty’s. Just pretend you have a Boston accent while you write it.

Good Things {No. 1}

22535481{Good Things will be a regular feature here: five books, links, events, or any other Good Things I’ve come across lately. You can expect it every fortnight, because that’s a unit of time people still use regularly here, and I’m adopting it, too.}

·I got to read A Wicked ThingRhiannon Thomas‘ Sleeping Beauty retelling, early. It released yesterday and is so much fun: entertaining and frothy, but with a genuine feminist slant that won’t leave a bad taste in your mouth. You can read my review on GoodReads.

·Mechanica was featured on the New York Public Library blog, along with Ella Enchanted and some of my other very favorite retellings. Ten YA Retellings of Cinderella – NYPL

·There are all sorts of Good Things on The Rose & Chestnut lately, including Alex’s springtime playlist and my posts on conditional love and mori-kei, or forest style.

·I’ve recently joined the Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners, and Dyers, and am looking forward like crazy to their next Dublin conference in just a week’s time!

·Honey On Tap. Can you just imagine?

Imbolc

As usual, I’m late to the holiday. February 2nd was Imbolc, the feast day of Saint Brigid–or, as it’s called in America, Groundhog Day. Much less romantic.

10895347_1379926685651755_70330293_n Imbolc is the midpoint between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, the shortest day of the year (December 21st) and the one that balances light and darkness (March 20th). The word itself comes from the Old Irish word for “ewe’s milk,” since sheep coming into milk was traditionally one of the first signs of spring.

Saint Brigid was once a Celtic goddess; funny how these things change. An eternal flame burned in her honor here in Ireland for over a thousand years, in a temple no man was allowed to enter. The Church extinguished the flame in the fourteenth century and turned the temple into an abbey, but it was run by nuns, and still, no man could enter. Funny how some things don’t change.

My two dairy goats, Nanny and Ninny, have in fact really come into their milk this past week; they had their kids back in August, and we’ve been kept in milk all winter, but suddenly–right in time for Imbolc–there’s a huge excess. So in addition to the garlic-and-herb soft cheese I always make, I have several jars of cajeta, a Mexican milk caramel sauce, which I’ve been drizzling over plain yogurt and stirring into coffee (raw goat’s milk makes an especially fluffy foam for cappuccinos, too).

10524330_10100142246967790_219012350449593756_nI also made my first batch of goat’s milk soap, which it turns out takes just three ingredients: milk, lye, and some other fat. I used sunflower and coconut oils, and the bars turned out a pale, buttery color. They have to cure for a few weeks now, but when I washed the bowl and hand blender I used to make them, the lather was creamy and promising.

The goats themselves have been kicking up their heels lately, too. They know spring is coming.

10953315_828318637228168_384292700_n

 

And the biggest miracle: pools of snowdrops, growing at the edges of our yard and in a little hidden glade down the road. In a few weeks it will look like snow again, but warm, living snow, the snow of springtime.

Imbolc. These are the real holidays: the turning points of the year, which come whether you remember them or not. Even if you’re an absentminded writer–or a groundhog.