Refocus on Mental Illness

I have played with a memoir on and off for five to six years.

So much to write: being a parent of a child with autism, family rejection, the non-cliche 32 year age difference between my husband and me, social rejection, being pregnant while working two jobs during graduate school, my career, and postpartum depression.  I tried to write it as a piece of fiction. I couldn’t get all it out.  I have mentioned a poetic memoir, but I realize how abstract that is.

My unnamed memoir lacked center. Is it about my son and his autism? Is it about battling postpartum depression while trying to finish graduate school?

It’s about those events, and then again it’s not. None of them are the center.  My previous novel had a center: a story inspired by my grandfather’s youth. I needed something that united all of my experiences.

It wasn’t until my husband and I were verbally attacked by his oldest daughter outside of a family reunion that inspiration struck.

How do you respond to anger? With anger?

Nah, doesn’t work.

My husband started writing. Then I started writing again. I scribbled through pages, and I could not stop writing about my Mimi. It was at the end of a rough draft passage that I found my center:

I spent a lot of my childhood with Mimi. She became a second mom, influence, and example of a complex woman. I think I loved her more than anyone because she let me by myself even when she gave me a mini-lecture about what I’d done wrong.  She never diagnosed me–as I would be later–with all my oddities, but saw my passion; my writing.

Before and after my first diagnosis in the second grade, all I wanted to do was to get lost in stories whether I read or wrote them. They could turn and twist down different paths. People weren’t so easy to understand. I was supposed to fit into a box that fit the social order.


When I reached the end, I realized the story’s center was my journey with Mental Illness and ADHD. I was diagnosed when I was in the second grade with ADHD. At age fourteen, I was diagnosed with depression.

How do you navigate a social world you don’t understand, but everyone else seems to get?

When I examine my son’s journey with ADHD and autism, I see many events that parallel my own.  All of the sudden, the pieces in my memoir connect.

Rough draft of my Prologue:

Imagine you travel to a different country. Use a translation app to ask a local person directions, or if you’re old school, use a Guide to Speaking French. Someone looks at you as if a piece of spinach is stuck in your teeth while you continue to eat a steak. You ask for directions in a foreign language again. Maybe louder or with an odd accent. You don’t realize you’ve become a version of Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s European Vacation.

            The traveling scenario is like my experience as a person diagnosed with Mental Illness, ADHD, anxiety, and the eternal struggle to understand people and their social cues. I feel as if I’ve spent my life figuring out how to ask people for directions in the right language. Then when I figure out the correct language, is it better to use the words left or right, or to be more specific with north or south? Throughout my life, I’ve struggled to learn the language of the real social world spoken by those people, who seem to fit in easily. Like the moms who are friends for life and go away to the beach for a girl’s weekend. How to know when to ask about another person’s life, when not to, what you’re supposed to ask or not ask, or which girl is talking to a certain boy.

            Some people got that social chemistry, but not me. If I pause for a moment, I feel alone. As an adult, I’ve met people as a teacher and through my husband’s experience with the National Alliance for Mental Illness, NAMI, who have felt like they are stuck on a city street in a strange country struggling with the act of how exactly to ask for directions. People like me are born with different diagnoses. We do not choose them. Although culture in the United States has become more accepting of people with disabilities, people like me are still figuring out how to ask directions out of the city.  

            Sometimes people with Mental Illness don’t understand themselves until they’re adults.  It took the birth of my son, and his later diagnosis of autism and ADHD to revisit the trials of my childhood, youth, and early adulthood with every social hiccup and failure or success. Only by backtracking can I help my son understand himself and maneuver through the world at a younger age.

This is only a rough draft, but I’m inspired again. It’s been a long, long time, since I’ve had a center for my story. I think Mental Illness and other disabilities need to be discussed in order for people to feel like they’re not alone in a room full of people. My grandmother, as I wrote, is one of the most complex women I’ve met. She’d say, “Don’t put all your business out there” while also advising to “write what you know.” But the most important thing she ever told me that no one else did was: “Write.”

Dedicated to Mimi. 


Monsters in the Closet

This is something I wrote on my other blog about being a mom and teaching. The struggle is real in teaching right now, and we often get vague ideas as to why. No one is talking about the depth of it.

I finally lay my story down in the hopes someone will get something from it.

Maybe home.

Maybe a career change.

But, as I say, there are always monsters in the closet.

via Monsters in the Closet

From Fiction to Prose Poetry

My husband said, to my family’s horror, the poet has gone into the cave this week.

I didn’t grade or check my work email. I let the most essential part of myself, the author, fly free.  I love teaching, but so much of myself has to be constrained. It goes with the professional atmosphere, and I try to keep the artistic side of myself bundled up in a parka in my classroom or anywhere near work.  I don’t think it has to be that way anymore because I’m finally in a place where I’m away from the fear of being unable to support my family.

The year, 2015, was the last time I had something creative published by a press or online lit mag. I had a co-authored academic publication about educational technology and equal access published last January.

Most of my publications have been journalism, freelance, short fiction, essay, and one poem connected to my novel, Sons of the Edisto. I don’t talk about writing much in person to people I work with or I’m friends with because I never want to appear egotistical. In fact, there is nothing — besides the faces of my children — of which I’m more proud than my writing.

I reached my goal to be published by the time I turned thirty. I was first published as a journalist when I was twenty-two.  My first creative publication happened when I was twenty-six. They are small publications, but they matter to writers like me because they give you a platform. I’ve never been much for self-publishing beyond what I’ve posted here on my blog.  I was grateful, but also fortunate that my different styles of writing were published.

The most natural form of writing for me is fiction.  I can manipulate conversation, character depth, and plot. I had classes at the University of South Carolina and the University of Kent at Canterbury in the UK. I was grateful to Alfie Dog Fiction in the UK for publishing three of my Adventures of Elliot McSwean stories from Summer 2014-August 2017 for purchase. Before the company downsized, it was one of the few places that would publish middle grades stories.

The essay that was published twice, “We Never Said Hello,” and it’s follow up “The Write Mother” were both published in collections. KY Story out of Kentucky published “The Write Mother” in its collection Motherlode. “We Never Said Hello” was published in Impact and in paniK as “Grass from the Grave.”

The reaction to my essay inspired me to do something with creative nonfiction because I had so much to tell: journalism, mascara-running-down-your-face kind of relationships, autism, losing my home, battling to represent my son’s needs over a teacher program, and being forced to change a grade at a previous school for a child who plagiarized because of influence and the good old boy system.

I tried doing stories based on them. I wrote the first set of poems about Ben and I, but they were too abstract at the time I wrote them. I was grateful to feedback from one magazine that almost published my poem “Bad Economics.” There were issues with random rhyme scheme.

I had to figure out how to do poetry in a way that fit my writing style.  I am not a Shakespeare.  I loved what Carl Sanburg did in his poetry. The way he opens “Mag” makes your heart sink to the bottom of your stomach, because there is nothing elaborate about it.

I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
I wish you never quit your job and came along with me.

Sandburg just told the story of a broken relationship.  He told a story of broken, messed up, and destroyed without pretty floral rhymes.  Until I read his work, I never knew poetry could be that way.

I began changing poems like “Bad Economics,” and stripped them of rhymes.  I reconstructed what was a collection called Fractured Snowflakes to Never Saw Jesus in the Mirror. I started fresh with reconstructed poems and new material.  I was inspired by the title from a poem I  wrote because I faced a lot of judgement when I stood up and spoke loud or made mistakes.  Can there be forgiveness in depression, anxiety, and anger?

I met so many people in the last twenty years of my life, yes going back to twelve, that changed my perspective on people and forming close friendships. You have to be so careful. People will easily judge you, but what I love about writing is it doesn’t judge me. I can judge it, and I am free.

To be an author or poet, it’s not enough to bleed on paper. You have to take what you’ve written and form the pieces. The one exception, for me, after all these years is “We Never Said Hello”/ “Grass from the Grave.” I blasted out that essay in ten minutes. The only thing that changed about it was the fact one publication wanted to change the title. I said, “Okay.”

“We Never Said Hello” is about the choice to have my son and my husband’s family choosing to never speak to him or their brother and his mother’s death. It inspired me to take a storytelling, creative essay style and mold it into prose poetry.