Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Not Without a Fight

When the dam broke and I was forced to come to terms with the state of my mental health, it caused me to start reevaluating things. One of the positive outcomes was that I gained a backbone. I have always had a smart mouth, but I gained the spine to go with it. Tkout and Dipper assure me that the sparkly Care Bear is still there, I haven't lost that, and I can outdo Mary Poppins herself on most days. What I don't do so easily anymore is back into a corner. Nowadays I'm more inclined to stand up for myself. It feels good.

While I was going through my struggles I found I wanted to push people away. Everyone. Almost constantly. I was angry with the people who didn't (or couldn't) understand what I was going through and as a result stepped back from me. I felt they abandoned me. The ones who held on but didn't seem to know how to help? I was angry with them too. The ones that tried to tell me I wasn't as bad off as I knew I was? I didn't want to explain it to them. I wanted them gone. Before I knew it, I had whittled my circle down and was in danger of getting rid of the few people who remained.

Tkout and Dipper tried to convince me not to continue pushing people away. At times they weren't even immune to the purge, but they held on. For them it was different though, I was selfishly trying to save myself the pain of losing them when they moved on. When they had enough of the crying, the insecurity, the wobbly moods, the struggle. What I refused to have faith in was the fact that they weren't going anywhere. They still haven't, and I won't claim that everything is always a field of wildflowers. I still have dark days. I still feel the need to push everyone away, but it's more when I know I'm not playing nice. When I have too much rage built up and nowhere to release it. When I find myself lashing out at the people I love. When I know intrinsically that "I'm not good with people right now". Lucky for me they both roll their eyes and stand their ground.

Recently I've found that I want people in my life again. Bit by bit. I'm starting to want to make room again. To make plans. To see those plans through. The big test was this past Saturday.

VTVT has been a friend for years. We met while working at PetSmart. I didn't like her at first. I thought she was a know-it-all and it drove me bugfuck. What I was unwilling to realize was that I was jealous. While I was scraping by living with my parents, scooping hamster shit at a pet store, and waiting for my big break as a teacher, this chick was living her dream. She was a vet tech (VTVT was the name I made up for her when I didn't like her, based on her penchant of reminding people she was a Vet Tech.) When my jealousy subsided and I started to see who she really was, I realized I not only liked her, but we clicked. She was the person who taught me how to crochet, which is one of my favorite hobbies.

During the Dark Year she was one of the people I pushed away. She was getting ready for her wedding, which I backed out of being a bridesmaid because of the anxiety, depression, and inability to handle crowds. The stress of that coupled with the fact that I couldn't seem to explain to her what was going on with me only frustrated me more. She made suggestions - do yoga, drink tea, crochet, go for a walk. These are sound suggestions, unless you're in a dark hole and looking for somewhere to vent your rage. I viewed them as unhelpful, and decided that they weren't going to make the pain go away or make me better. I pulled away. She still posted on my Facebook wall. She texted. The offer to hang was always there. But I didn't want to go to the Botanical Gardens. Or the craft store. Or the state park. Or anywhere that wasn't the dark of my basement or Dipper's house. She offered to come over, but I found the idea of hanging out with anyone who wasn't Tkout or Dipper or Phoebe too terrifying to even consider. I always said no.

After awhile I think she figured out that I had closed off. That didn't stop her from texting. Or offering a ride to the park. Or asking me if I needed to go to the craft store or out for coffee. She didn't get mad when I wouldn't text her for a few days. (Or weeks, if we are being honest.) She never blew up on me because while I couldn't hang out with her, I hung out with Dipper and Phoebe all the time. She was patient.

This past Saturday we finally hung out. She came over to my house and I gave her an afghan I made for her right before the Dark Year started. I also gave her a Star Wars pin with a Funko cartoon version of Wicket, her favorite Ewok. I found it at GameStop a few weeks ago. She loved them, and I felt embarrassed that I hadn't even wrapped them, or put them in a gift bag. She didn't seem to mind.

We sat in my living room with Zelda and talked for a bit. It felt like we hadn't ever stopped hanging out. It felt comfortable. We talked about her progress in yoga and my progress with finding a job that made me happy. We caught up. It felt good.

Then we hopped in her car and headed to the local park. I knew VTVT liked to bird watch. She does it while sitting in her garden at home. I had a fuzzy recollection of her purchasing some binoculars. I didn't realize how into it she had become. We walked the park trails and she kept her eyes out for birds. We saw a woodpecker right off the bat, as well as some catbirds. She told me about the different birds and what made them special. People often feed the wildlife in the park, but we hadn't brought anything. Neither of us believe in feeding the wild animals. We think familiarity with humans is to their detriment. Even so, we had quite the entourage. A squirrel, chipmunk, blue jay, and some other assorted wildlife were following us along the trails. They kept their distance, sort of. It allowed for some really nice photos, and certainly it was nice to get closer without the animals being behind glass at a zoo.

VTVT is a bit of a shutterbug, like me. She kept trying to take pictures of birds, whereas I was more into the bugs and the fuzzy animals. Not to mention plants. I love taking pictures looking up into tree canopies. They're like a slice of comfort. One of her goals was to get a picture of her doing Tree Pose on a tree stump. We managed that with flying colors!

I think we spent 3 hours in the park, and walked just under 10,000 steps. It was definitely refreshing and fun to get together again. I'm looking forward to it in the future, and am thinking of reaching out and asking her for some help breaking the ground for my garden. I have bulbs that need planting, and I find creating flowerbeds to be a bit of a pain in the ass. VTVT built her garden from the ground up, and adds to it every year. But that's a topic for another post.

This morning I thanked Dipper for not letting me cut everyone out of my life. He was the first to notice it, but only because he had done that himself during his dark times. Tkout listened to my complaints about people, but was always the devil's advocate for not getting rid of them. He always argued that there was merit, even if it meant that I needed to take a little bit of a break here and there. At the time, I went along with their suggestions, but wasn't fully sold on them.

After VTVT left on Saturday I started to think about the Dark Year and why I pushed people away. I'm not going to take all the blame - there were more than I few moments where I was justifiably angry with people. However more often than not, I just wanted something concrete to fight. Mental illness is invisible. Even when the symptoms present themselves, there's nothing you can fight. You can't strangle depression. You can't lock anxiety up and throw away the key. You can't get on a train, plane, or boat to escape them. The same is to be said of the other disorders and diseases. Like it or not, they're with you for the ride.

I'm a person that, while I don't relish conflict, I prefer to meet my challenges head-on. Tkout says that I like to fight things out and be done with it. He's not wrong. During the Dark Year I didn't know what to fight. I felt helpless. The medicine adjustments were a hellacious rollercoaster. The soaring highs and crushing lows were unbearable at times. When I was suicidal, I didn't want to reach out and bother anyone. I know everyone says, "If you need anything let me know." The problem is, when you're so sick of it all, you don't want to let anyone know. You want to be out of the picture. No longer anyone's problem.

Lacking a corporeal target, I turned on my friends. I found fault where there wasn't any. Where there was fault, I amplified it to gargantuan proportions. Tkout and Dipper saved me from getting rid of everyone, and I can't express how thankful I am to both of them. On Saturday I realized how much I miss VTVT. There are other friends I miss too, and it's my hope that I will be able to bring them back steadily. That's not to say that everyone is coming back, because in going through it and finding my spine, I came to realize some people really are there to use you. The ones that aren't, the ones that waited, they're the ones I am looking forward to letting back in.

This post is longer than I meant it to be, but I hope the message I intended to convey came across. Don't let your illness and the struggle make you blind. If you need space, take it. But whatever you do, don't listen to the voice telling you to let everyone go. At times your illness will find every excuse in the book to get you to get rid of people. Don't listen. Don't allow it to isolate you. Keep fighting the good fight.

 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

An Impressive Offering

Back in 2014 I had the pleasure of reviewing These Old Tales by Kenneth W. Cain. It was an anthology of his dark fiction. I still remember the tale of the man whose life is too good to be true, until he finds himself in a Chinese buffet run by a very shady proprietor. Every time I see shrimp at the grocery or on a menu, I hear "irucky shrimp!" in my head and I shudder. Suffice to say, Cain's stories have a way of staying with you long after you've read them.

Which brings me to the subject of my current review. When I heard that Cain was publishing another anthology I couldn't wait to purchase it. Previously I had read his works on my Kindle, but this time I was bound and determined to get myself a copy I could hold in my hand. I ordered Embers: A Collection of Dark Fiction off Amazon as soon as I was able. When it arrived I held it as close to my face as I could in order to see the intricate detail of the cover. Laugh all you want - it's true. The cover, like so many of Cain's stories, is frightening in it's subtlety. The tiny red glowing eyes of the child and the setting which evokes thoughts of a catacomb. Truth be told, I'm not sure I've come across Ben Baldwin's cover artwork before, but I will be on the lookout going forward. It compliments the stories within the book extremely well.

From time to time I have found that when an author writes their own anthology it can be problematic in that the stories start to take on a formula. Cain defies this monotony by switching the perspective his stories are written from as well as their settings. Every story is unique but fits extremely well within the whole. There are several that I can tell will be staying with me for some time. Cain also varies the monsters in his stories. I was surprised when reading that a few of them were from the perspective of the monster itself, and often it can be debated who really should wear the mantle of "monster". The human characters aren't always the most horrifying and evil in the stories. The only aspect of Cain's work that could be considered formulaic is that he enjoys leading the reader in one direction and then completely ripping the figural carpet from their feet. Rather than being disorienting or annoying, this tactic is one of my favorite aspects of his writing. Cain's stories are interactive, in that I'm always guessing who the narrator and characters are and what the surprise will be. I can say that with Embers I never guessed correctly. I came sort of close in the story "The Bad Men" but I wasn't quite on the money.

I loved Cain's work back in 2014 and didn't think it could get much better. I was delightfully wrong! Cain has honed his storytelling to a razor-blade precision that cuts deep every time. He's more confident in his storytelling and it shows in that he's willing to go even further into the odd and unfamiliar in order to scare his readers. Back in 2014 I compared his writing to The Twilight Zone. I almost would have compared it to Tales from the Darkside, but I think even that isn't really getting to the marrow of the matter. Cain is in a class of his own. His stories are short, wickedly clever, and have a way of burrowing into your mind.

As a reviewer, I would be totally remiss if I didn't speak to the quality of his characters. Cain doesn't need to go in-depth describing every facet of his characters. Most of the time he lets the characters speak for themselves through their actions and choices. From the tiniest human to the most tentacled being, all of Cain's characters are relatable and so realistic you can't help but become immersed in their stories. One of my favorite characters is Boris, the anxiety-riddled bystander in "To Save One Life". He knows the identity of a heinous killer and wants desperately to step in, but he's not sure how much he can do to save the victims. The reader watches helplessly as Boris tries to figure out some method of intervention, and it's impossible not to feel for his distress leaking off the page.

The girl in "Valerie's Window" faces a terrible dilemma. If she leaves the safety of the house in which she hides, she risks being eaten by the undead. However, the house isn't as safe as it should be, and she has a difficult choice ahead of her. Cain goes beyond the usual trope of being trapped with nasty people during the apocalypse to bring a multi-layered and heartbreaking story to life. I had to re-read parts of it because I couldn't help but hope that I was wrong in my assumptions. I was correct, and I don't envy the girl her choices one bit.

His story "Soul Tapped", about a man named Henry who lives in a nursing home reminded me of one of my favorite movies. Like Bruce Campbell's character in Bubba Ho-Tep, Henry is up against a supernatural foe that is hell-bent on killing. Henry tries to stop it, and in so doing finds out a truth more awful than he could have ever imagined.

For those who love a good Lovecraft story, there's "The Water People", in which a man spends his life researching the myth that there are tentacle beings inhabiting Chesapeake Bay. As is usually the case in these stories, he is proven correct with disastrous results. Cain's parting shot, however, will leave your jaw swinging and your mind spinning. It's anything but the usual fare.

Cain's characters are anything but black and white. They are as multi-faceted as any real person you know. They are presented with difficult decisions and even worse situations, and they do the best that they can. Monster and man both are tested relentlessly, Cain never taking the easy way out. Some of the stories are predominately scary, some are predominately sad. All of them will evoke a range of emotions while you read and long after you've finished.

I can't recommend Embers: A Collection of Dark Fiction highly enough. Normally I wait until I am done with a book before putting up a review, but I couldn't wait. I have to finish "Parasite", which is visceral, nasty, and totally engrossing. (And, it might be mentioned, somehow I've found up eating while trying to read this story three times, having lost my appetite every time!) Then read "Strip Poker, Crabs, and Blue Women", "The Benefit of Being Weighty", and the "Afterword" by Cain, and I will be finished. In many ways I wish Embers would never end because it's so damnably enjoyable. However, considering Cain seems to enjoy these anthologies of dark fiction, I am hopeful that there will be many more volumes in the years to come.

If I may make one last suggestion, if you like what you've read in this review, not only should you pick up Embers, but his other books as well. You can find a full listing at his author site here, and it's worth noting that he writes several types of books. He has offerings for middle grade, youngsters, and the seasoned horror reader just to name a few.

 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Outrunning the Beast

Previous posts go into the history of my discovering that I suffered from depression and anxiety, so I won't go into it here. What I want to focus on, instead, is the daily struggle.

It's open for discussion, but for me personally, the greatest struggle is not the illness itself, but how I am unable to communicate my feelings to other people. I was talking with a family member today and trying to explain that it's just not a good day for me today. It doesn't matter that the sun is shining, or that I love my job, or that I have people who are very dear to me. When you're hanging over the abyss much of what normally makes you happy just doesn't. It's not for lack of appreciation, but more that you're missing some core component.

I was trying to explain to this family member that despite the many blessings I count, today was going to end the same as the last two. I am going to finish my work shift, go home, walk my dog, take a bath, and curl up on the futon downstairs in the finished basement. I will either read, put on a movie, or read a book. The response I was looking for was something along the lines of how sometimes you just have to take care of yourself.

Instead, she tried to comfort me by telling me how she was feeling and what she was going through. What it did was actually make me feel like not speaking up at all. Without meaning to, she had started up a "Who is Sicker?" competition. I said depression and anxiety. She saw that and raised it by a stroke. I told her I had a nervous breakdown. She told me she had one in her late 30s.

I understand how callous this can sound, but hear me out. I just wanted her to listen. I am aware of her conditions, but she's always saying how she wants to help me. When I try to open up and speak, the conversation always goes back to her somehow. I explained this, and she understood. It seemed like we were getting to a place of understanding, but as it turns out, we weren't really because my anxiety derailed that pretty quickly.

Immediately when she began to understand I fought not to backtrack. Whenever I speak up and fight for understanding, there's always this voice (that sounds an awful lot like the one that tells me I'm worthless in the beginning) that starts telling me I've been too strong. Too bossy. I've trampled someone else and am guilty of what I was accusing them of doing.

I'd say that's a slippery slope, but in truth, it's more like being kicked into the abyss. Before I can stop it, I'm running through everything else that I do wrong. All the ways I hurt the people I love. All the things say and do that are wrong. Then, just for good measure, I circle back to what I should have said and done but didn't. From there, I find myself drowning in the things I've done days, months, and even years ago. All the damning evidence piling up to prove what I already know in my secret heart: I'm a flawed human being and it's unbelievable how lucky I am to have people that look past that and find something in me worth loving, and it's not going to last.

I used to let it end there. I would stay in that lightless oubliette, all of my successes and all the love I give forgotten. Cancelled out by the twisted monster I was. The knowledge that I would never get better anchoring me in the mire and filth of my self-hate.

At my lowest point, something happens. It's like I hit the bottom and then bounce. I'm not going to lie and tell you that I become fully operational again. But usually it's enough of a bounce for me to be vertical. To get the laundry done. Or answer a phone call. Then I start thinking of how bad things used to get when I would stumble, and I know that I've made progress.

From there it's not too much of a stretch to remember the good moments that I've been a part of. I think of something Dipper told me, which is that the anxiety is loud, I just have to make sure the love is louder. Usually around this time I start swimming up from my cocoon in the covers, and I find Tkout ready to give me a kiss. Provided he can push Zelda out of the way long enough. A quick glance at my phone shows me previous messages between Dipper and I, and if he's awake, sometimes I'll reach out. I'll start looking around the room (any room of my house, actually) and seeing the momentos of happy times from Tkout, Dipper, and Phoebe. Most of the time that will bring me out of it, with a little more help from my Ride or Die Family.

Today is one of those rough days, where I feel like I can't outrun the beast fast enough. I've managed to stay for most of my shift, and in 47 minutes I will be able to say that I stayed for the whole shift. I can cross that accomplishment off in my daily journal-list. Then I can go home and start to convalesce, and within a few hours I should be feeling better.

What I'm getting at is that it doesn't do any good to push everyone away. Or to wallow in self-hate. (When I figure out how to consistently do those things and never fall into the trap, you can bet there will be a post on that!) But until then, I'm going to keep practicing not giving up on myself, and being kinder to myself. If my Family doesn't see me as a monster, then I'm sure I can find something worthwhile to hold onto until I'm able to properly see myself again when the clouds lift.

 

 

Not Your Average Monster {Anthology}

One of the things I love most about being a reviewer is that I get to talk to so many different people all over the country - and even people outside the country. I was talking with author Pete Kahle recently and he told me that he had started a publishing house called Bloodshot Books. I told him that if he needed any reviews, to let me know. He passed along a Kindle copy of Not Your Average Monster! A Bestiary of Horrors, along with some of the other titles. Along with the book came a warning about his story, which is featured last in the anthology. He told me that it was a gross-out. I don't really think that was an adequate description! (To my absolute horror, I found myself attempting to eat while reading it, because I didn't want to put the anthology down. Without giving too many spoilers, I'm really struggling with the thought of eating rice any time in the next month or so!)

{Before I go into the review proper, I want to make sure that my readers are aware if they want to read Bloodshot Books, they can either borrow them on Amazon.com with Kindle Unlimited or purchase them from Amazon.com in digital or traditional format.}

Not Your Average Monster is a page-turner filled with talent. I know I said a few paragraphs up that I love anthologies, but don't let that weaken my claim. The monsters contained in the pages of this anthology defy title. The only other time I've encountered a lamia in horror literature or cinema was Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell. Kahle managed to find not one, but TWO lamia in one story.

The remaining monsters in this tome don't have a name. They seem to be pulled right from the shared human subconscious, from the days where we were little more than primitives scratching stick figures in caves by firelight. The monsters Kahle has collected come for you in sunlight, in darkness, but always with teeth and deadly intent. I'm not afraid to admit that they scared me so badly that I had nightmares. But you know, I couldn't put my finger on exactly which monster did it. Was it the horrible two-legged beasts rampaging through a school as a little girl tries desperately to hide? Or the boojum, a nasty sort of beastie that one girl must defeat using the advice of the Parliament of cats, before it can come back and finish the job it started? Or the story of the family in the tunnel, who survive a horrific pile-up only to find themselves fighting shapeless monsters? Maybe it was the parasite hidden deep within a cave, stumbled on by some friends reliving their wilder days. It could have been the spirits summoned by human hatred and bloodlust to the carnage of a battlefield, to claim souls for their own.

Truth be told, I think it was all of them. There wasn't a single weak story in this entire anthology, and I've only scratched the surface of what horrors lurk within. I don't want to rob any readers of the terror and surprise waiting for them in Not Your Average Monster! A Bestiary of Horrors.

There is a second volume, Not Your Average Monster, Vol. 2: A Menagerie of Vile Beasts, which you better believe is high up on my to-read list! There are two main reasons I'm not jumping right into the second volume. Firstly, the stories are like a horror buffet. I don't want to run through it all at once. Secondly, I'm well and spoiled for other anthologies, probably for the rest of my life. This is hands-down one of the best anthologies I've ever read. And, well, I lied, there's three reasons. Kahle has not confirmed the intent to publish a third volume (to the best of my knowledge). I don't want to go through everything now and be left like an addict without a fix.

Oh, and if you're stuck for what to get mom for Mother's Day? Well, here you go! Volume 1 and 2 make great gifts for your favorite horror hounds! Or for yourself, if you're looking to sample the work of several extremely talented authors all in one place.