Writing From Inside a Septic Tank

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Septic Tank

It’s no secret that 2017 has sucked for a lot of people. I’m no exception. My creative output has been in the tank and everything just feels more difficult than it used to. Some of it is personal; a lot of people I loved died this year and there have been other challenges, as well. And some of it is political/global. I’m not going to get into politics, largely because I don’t have to: Whichever side of the aisle you’re on or not on has delivered a spectacular array of assorted fuckwittery this year. (Thank you, Bridget Jones, for introducing me to the word fuckwit years ago. It covers a lot.) Fear mongering, hate speech, racism, terrorism, sexism, ageism, and pretty much any other -ism you can think of blanket our days.

All of it has combined to wreck what was already a pretty fragile mental health ecosystem I had going. Much of this year has felt like I’m trying to write from inside a very deep septic tank. Just when I think I can see the top, someone flushes the toilet and I’m drowning in another heap of shit. Yep. It’s been that kind of year.

For most of the year, I’ve tried to fight this feeling of “wrongness.” I kept thinking it was related to some kind of health problem, or an unfortunate side effect of getting older. Why have I had so much trouble writing this year? Other years have sucked and it hasn’t been as much of a problem. But this year? I finally figured out that it’s been a perfect storm of crap. In any other year, I’d have some personal challenges but get past them. There’d be some events on the world stage that would upset me, but they’d quickly fade.

But this year? This year has been one punch after another, often multiple punches on the same day. Where do I look? What do I worry about? What’s going to impact me the most? It’s been impossible to know or to filter it down to a manageable amount. And the result? I’m in my septic tank, just hoping for a glimmer of daylight before the next crap storm rains down.

Now that I understand the problem, I’m trying to deal with it. (Fixing it is too much to ask. I’ll settle for “dealing.”) So what am I doing? What are my thoughts? Here you go.

Adjust to (and accept) your “new normal.”

When the poop hits the fan, what was normal often goes out the window. What once was considered a productive day may now be considered a freaking miracle. The energy you used to have all day may only appear for an hour a day, now. Your concentration may be halved because… reasons. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re failing at anything. It’s simply your brain and body’s way of telling you, “Hey, something’s wrong and we’re gonna have to deal with it.”

Figure out what your new normal has to be. If it’s being happy with 500 words instead of 1,000, then so be it. If it’s having to work in the morning instead of at night, then make it so. Maybe you can’t write about the tough stuff right now, so you only choose projects that are easier or more fun. Whatever it is, work with it and accept it. Things may one day go back to the way they were, or they may not. But you have to deal with the reality of today, at least for now.

Get help if you need it.

There’s no shame in asking for help, whether that help comes from a friend, a priest/minister/member of the clergy, or a professional therapist/physician. Repeat that: There is no shame in asking for help. If money is tight, there are lots of free support groups or hotlines. Get the help you need to deal with whatever crap storm is raging through your life.

Tune out, if you can.

If you can tune out the horrific noise going on around you, by all means do so. At least for part of the day. Don’t listen to the news, don’t get on the internet until your work is finished for the day, or refuse to answer the phone when your friend who loves to argue about political crap calls in the middle of your work time.

You don’t have to remain uninformed, just take in the noise in controlled bursts, timed after most of your work is done for the day.

Adjust your workload accordingly.

I used to be a productive wonder. I got so much done in a day, some people called it frightening. Not anymore. While some of it is a function of slowing down as I get older, much of this past year has simply been because I can’t. I can’t do what I used to do because I’m too busy hiding and hoping that the next load of crap somehow misses me.

As a result, I’ve lowered my workload. I’m taking on fewer assignments, opting for quality over quantity. My book writing has also slowed and while I hate it, I’ve learned that (at least right now) forcing myself to go faster leads to disaster. Someday I’ll get back to being frightening. At least I hope so. But for now, I’m scaling down.

Temper your social media consumption.

Social media, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. Social media may be good for many things, but for mental health in challenging times, it sucks. So much of it is packed with rage, hate, stupidity, and arguing that it’s a wonder anyone can stay sane. While I was never a heavy user to begin with, I’ve become an even lighter user, now. Now I’m on only long enough to post what needs posting, respond to messages, like a few tweets, and then get the hell out. I do not dare linger because I know sooner rather than later, something is going to piss me off and send me down the rabbit hole of depression and despair and then my day is done. Nope. Not happening.

If you have the same problem, I encourage you to adopt my approach. Get on just long enough so people know you’re still alive and then get out. Don’t wallow in the cesspool.

Practice extreme self-care.

Usually I’m pretty good at practicing healthy habits, but lately I’ve been paying even more attention. I’m eating better, sleeping more, and exercising more (exercise is great at burning off bad emotions). Meditation, getting out in nature, and reading fluff instead of heavy material all helps, too. I’m engaging in hobbies that “take me away” for a while and let me socialize with friends and family. (Even though I’m an introvert, social time with people I love and trust serves as a reminder that there are decent people in the world.) I don’t listen to the news or go on social media before bed because I don’t want to jeopardize my sleep.

Whatever you need to do to take care of yourself, do it. Note that I’m not saying to drown your problems in booze or drugs. That’s not helpful and only creates more problems. But do find ways to improve your overall physical and mental health so you can face whatever with a stronger body and mind.

Dump the crap somewhere else.

I’m afraid that my “real” work is going to end up infected by the crap that’s flying around in my head these days. I don’t want my work to be full of bitterness, rage, and helplessness. So I dump it elsewhere. I take a few minutes every day to write out my ugliest emotions. (I won’t call it journaling because journaling, to me, is something beautiful and healing.) This is simply taking a dump on the page so that I can clear my head and get on with the real work. Sometimes I skip the writing and, if I’m alone in the house, tell it to the plants or scream it into a pillow. Some days, I put on some heavy metal and rage with the music for a while. Whatever. Don’t judge me.

Find a positive outlet.

Maybe you need to volunteer for a cause that’s dear to you, or you need to spend some time writing to your representatives to lobby for the changes you want to see. Perhaps there are things you can do to improve your local community or help a local family.  Maybe there are initiatives you can start to make things better for someone else. (Writers are great at leading story times, teaching literacy skills to underserved communities, helping people write things like resumes and cover letters, creating fundraising or promotional materials for non-profits, etc.) Yes, these things take time away from work, but they also remove some of the feelings of helplessness that seem to dominate many people these days.

Hell, even just performing one random act of kindness or finding a small way to pay it forward every day can help offset some of the toxicity in the world. Just holding the door for someone, or saying, “Thank you,” can go a long way to brighten someone else’s day.

Accept that all you can do is “all you can do.”

On any given day, you may find you can do more or less than the day before. Or the same. Things may come easily or not. Despite your best efforts to deal with life in the septic tank, it may still get the best of you on some days. Remind yourself that all you can do is all you can do, whatever that means on any given day. No one can ask for more than your best. If you’re giving all you have and it’s simply not up to what it was before, well, sometimes things just go that way. Getting twisted up about it only makes everything worse.

Cut yourself some slack and realize that we are living in extraordinary times. It’s no wonder that we don’t know how to cope, or that our lives and work are upended. Do the best you can. That’s all you can do.


(Photo courtesy of 2211438)

2 thoughts on “Writing From Inside a Septic Tank

  1. mirkabreen

    Well, one good thing that happened to me this year was discovering and following your excellent blog, Jennifer. It’s honest, informative, and sufficiently personal to be one I don’t miss. Thank you for the input, and keep trucking.


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