Sunbathing in Cemeteries Book Signing

I loaded up my minivan with my family and boxes of books, the detritus of road trips defying my boxes and tote bags as water bottles, chargers, candy wrappers, and things-we-desperately-need cluttered the floorboards. I was returning to my hometown for a Pies and Poetry event at Mayders and Tayders fruitstand. I get anxious as I cross into Mississippi, like it’s quicksand that I’ll get sucked into and never escape from casseroles, supersaturated sweet teas, and church invitations. That’s not to say that the South doesn’t have its charms. I can’t help but love the magnolias that line the highways at the state line. And I don’t think I can get the red clay out of my soul. The pine trees feel like home to me, even when I desire biodiversity and know there’s not much but pines. The Southern accent slips back into my mouth, whether I mean for it to or not, and my Minnesotan husband catches only about half of my words and less than that from the natives.

And, yes, they did remark, “He ain’t from ’round here, is he?” My pageant smile fell into place. And I forced air that sounded like a laugh out of my lungs. “No,” I joked, “I had to find him on the other end of the Mississippi River.”

I ate key lime pie with my kids, and they sampled the cheesecake, too. Aiden, my eldest, watched me like he’s never really seen me before. I usually exist in the silence and the gray tones of rain clouds. And he was watching me in the colorful walls with people who came out to support a local author and chat with an outlier. I took my anxiety meds before people walked in; PTSD has me watching every move from every person, and it’s a lot to process. I still felt my energy deplete like a cheap battery in a couple of hours. I was happy to catch up with friends and family, but it’s difficult for an introvert with PTSD–a bit like deciding to do a marathon after having knee replacement surgery.

I know the effort is worth it when I hear people with PTSD telling me they feel like someone else understands when they read my words. And I thoroughly enjoyed listening to rich laughter as the tiny town’s only black female minister laughed at my oh-so-real poetry before she bought copies. I, too, felt seen. Female ministers and female atheists are not that different in a small Southern town. We share an otherness and curiosity, a reckless abandon about public perception.

When I walk into book signings, I have a moment before anyone arrives that feels like standing on the ledge of a pit, right before I rappel into an abyss. What if no one shows up? What if they show up and hate my work? What if they show up and heckle me? I breathe and remember an anecdote that Neil Gaiman shared on imposter syndrome. He said:

“Some years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.

On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”

And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”

And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”

And I remember I am in good company with the Neils. And I do my job–talking about books, writing, and the things that inspire me.

Sunbathing in Cemeteries

I did a thing. I finally clicked publish on my latest poetry book, Sunbathing in Cemeteries. It’s been about two years in the making as I have lived through the aftermath of domestic violence and my own PTSD. This book explores those issues and tangential ones–motherhood, the South, and dating after a divorce. (Dating after a divorce with PTSD and a fairly high ghost rate the second I mentioned kids.) I have always woven scientific metaphors into my work, but there were more in this volume than in Hell and High Water. When I chose not to dilute the metaphors, I added footnotes in a few places.

This book is called Sunbathing in Cemeteries because it’s the best way to describe my frame of mind as I published these poems. I woke up and took steps to get me closer to medical school every day, sometimes appalled that the world didn’t stop with me and that the sun kept rising when I felt dead. I kept moving forward, deciding that if I am going to exist in this cemetery of who I used to be, then I can at least sunbathe in it. I adore ironic juxtaposition, and I keep imagining myself with a lounger, a hot pink bikini, floppy sun hat, and cocktail with an umbrella, tanning in an old and deeply Gothic cemetery. Things might get better, they might not, but I am determined to live my best life, wherever I am in the healing process.

On a personal note, I have been mentally meandering this summer as I took time off from my pre-med work to address my own health issues, get some of my art out into the world, and travel with my awesome kids. I don’t know if any of you suffer from PTSD, but I have learned that I definitely cope best with a boring routine. Not having anyone demanding lab reports, papers, or studying for exams has left me aimless for a couple of months. Who would have guessed that the rigors of organic chemistry would provide solace? I never thought I’d long for the drudgery of another chemical mechanism. And if you tell anyone I said such a thing, I’ll deny it vehemently. That said, writing new material and getting it published is occupying the puzzle-sorting part of my mind for now. And I hope you enjoy the latest poetry volume.

–Jessi

Final Grades, Flowers, and Mother’s Day Beauty

I spent a few hours today looking back at novels I started and wanted to pick back up. I got so lost in one that I added 3,000 words, not noticing how mentally tired I was until I walked away. (3,000 words is about 10 double spaced pages, FYI.) One of the hobbies that continues to make me happy pre- and post-attack is gardening. And my husband continually supports my plant whims and impulse buys. Over the weekend, it was Emperor Wu hostas. I had never seen them in a store before, and they could be mine for $10. They are the largest known hosta variety and exactly what I needed to make a shady back corner feel more lush, tropical, and inviting. Giant 4-5 foot tall hostas might do that. Or they might make it feel like I’ve stepped into Jurassic World. Either way, I really don’t mind.

My final grades got posted, and I am beyond excited. Y’all, I managed to get an A in organic chemistry 2. In fact, I got a 4.0 in cell bio, organic chemistry 2, microbiology, and all of their respective labs! The A in organic is what really flabbergasted me. I adored the biology classes and could read biology textbooks for fun, but I had to work at organic chemistry.

My husband has been with us for three Mother’s Days now. One, we’d barely begun dating. The next, we were newlyweds. And now, I think we’re comfortable and finally know more about who we both are. I was told to go sit upstairs and read on Saturday by my plotting daughter. I read, but I do have superhearing, courtesy of the PTSD. And I heard the sewing machine whirring and wondered what they were plotting. On Mother’s Day, my family gifted me with chocolates (a tried and true, much beloved option) and my daughter had been sewing me a constellation-covered pillow case. Ben bought me plants because he knows anxiety simply can’t survive the thrill of putting a new plant where it will thrive and be beautiful.

But the things that made me happiest were the cards that my family all wrote messages in. My kids are all old enough to say heartfelt things in cards now, and I love it. My eyes roam over the ink, and I soak it in. And for a bonus, we got to hike with a dear friend and her family to a local destination. My kids trudged through 8 miles, four downhill, four uphill. And we saw a few wonders–hundreds of tadpoles, many wildflowers, waterfalls, and huge butterflies. But mostly, I adored my kids seeing new places and experiencing the world. We were all exhausted, but happy.

Back to Writing/Life Update

I am back to my writing–finally. The pandemic was a terrible time for so many people, but for me it was a chance to heal. Just a few months after my attack, the whole world shut down. And the expectations that I would be able to pick up my life as it was disappeared. I’m more grateful for covid lockdowns than most people. I thrived in the isolation with my family and my hobbies and work.

I often tell my daughter that people can be more than one thing. And I have been furiously working to be many things–author, mother, and medical doctor. I went back to school during the lockdown, and it’s been a wild ride. (Everyone needs a biology degree and chemistry minor along with a medical degree to accompany their English degrees, right?) My poetry has become more infused with science than ever–who else is going to write about DNA cleaving enzymes and people that are like ligase? At my core, I want to heal people, physically when they need it and with stories when their minds need a refuge. The little explosion turning my wheels is knowing that people feel less alone when they read truths laid bare by people like them.

And people I meet usually want to put me in a little box that says “Author” or “Aspiring Doctor”. But I’m not having it. Both sides of a brain can work and make beautiful art.

I received rave reviews on my latest poetry book from beta readers and am still reading it, searching for errors that will haunt me if I publish them. And I worked on creating my own cover. I don’t know if you adore ironic juxtaposition, but I do. And poetry books so often have big blocky titles that scream “High Literature”. I just can’t take myself that seriously. I could be the poet laureate and that wouldn’t happen. Or they have the face of a well known, beloved poet. That’s when you’ve made it, right? When you put your face on a poetry book and people think it’s natural? I’m looking at you, Mary Oliver and Nikki Giovanni. But my little book is full of contradictions, the kind that Southerners know about, the sorts that run society and confuse non-natives. So, I put my title in swirly romance novel font with a Gothic cemetery in the background. It’s not a mistake. I want you to feel as jarred as I did, too stubborn to die, but furious that ordinary beautiful things like sunrises kept happening.

And if you’re looking for more of that deliciously Southern ironic juxtaposition with a streak of science, Hell and High Water is on sale for $0.99.

Poetry: Winter Solstice 2021

Context:

This poem is a wish that the universe would take care of justice for me. I’ve been handed a few glorious moments over the years, moments I felt that the Fates were spinning my villains into the corner they deserved and offering me a window to see. For the record, my husband says that the best revenge is a life well lived. And he’s right. But sometimes I still curse my attacker on my bad days.

My attacker’s court date got pushed back, and it’s been years already. So, I wait. And I recently had what I hope is the final surgery to fix the physical damage from the attack. It was a rough one.

Winter Solstice 2021

Does the frost lick your veins like the post-op splints tickle my nose?

Just a little too cold, a little too painful to sleep.

Does the darkness blend into your shot-in-the-dark soul?

I raise another glass, hoping your nights are long and that you forget the wonder of the galaxy. (It’s you who gobbles nanometers.)

I hope you live in the winter solstice and can’t see the fractals in the frost.

I still stand–a tree in the pitch–awaiting morning’s kiss. But I didn’t forget to watch the night undress the light of a thousand stars.

I Was Wrong About Dogs

I didn’t want a dog or a pet of any kind. The hair, y’all. And I was drowning in the responsibility of three kids. If I had to feed another thing and take it for its shots, I might die. Or that’s what I thought.

Then, I met the man who would become my husband. And he had two fur children he simply adored. I decided that if the dogs were a part of the package, I’d learn to deal with them.

The first time I met them, Odin, the German Shepherd, jumped up on me and put his paws on my shoulders. By the end of the night, he’d abandoned the man who would become my husband and was guarding me at every room I went into.

I still didn’t like him though, or his sister Ushi. But little by little, he won me over. He learned not to lick my face or be loud near me. And he didn’t jump on me, he just laid on his side, inviting me to snuggle him if I’d like. Y’all, he’s the wiliest dog I’ve ever met.

In a few short months, we went from me being terribly uncertain about the furry creatures to me snuggling them when they demanded it. And Odin reassures me by offering certain death to everyone making sudden moves at our front door.

You might think you’re not an animal person, but I would say that you have to relearn most things about yourself after a trauma. I’m happy I was wrong.

This concludes my series of posts on Domestic Violence Awareness and living with PTSD. We’re getting back to the poetry and novel writing and life updates soon. Thanks for hanging in here with me, and I hope the posts helped.

–Jessi

Friends: Before Trauma and After

So, a terrible thing happened to you. If you’re like me, a man beat you up and terrified your children. If you had the strength to tell the whole world, people were probably shocked and kind. You might have had people reach out to help with specific needs or want to grab dinner.

Here’s the thing–some of the people you most want to hear from won’t call. They don’t know what to say and might have the emotional capacity of a peanut. Some of the people you haven’t seen since high school will want to check on you. But in my experience, this was not a way to tell who cares about me.

People who didn’t call did actually care and did still want to talk and send birthday presents. And they still don’t know what to say.

People who weren’t around for years and wanted to get dinner didn’t become my best friends. They didn’t want to grab dinner again. You don’t really make great impressions during those freshly post-trauma meetings. You are at your worst, but you’re interesting. And you become a golden star for debutantes who are monied do-gooders. You’re good enough to help, but not actually good enough to be friends with.

At first I was confused because I thought some of these people wanted to be my friends, but time passes, and when you’re at your lowest, weakest, most unwilling to live, those people are not the ones who are still around.

Don’t judge people by how well they react to trauma.

I lost people because of the trauma, too. The guy I was dating couldn’t take the PTSD-ridden woman I was, and I didn’t know if I would ever be better. I lost friends when I lost interest in hobbies because it turns out we were only connected by our mutual interest. People drifted away from me, but I have to say that the rate I lost people was equal to the rate I gained new friends and acquaintances.

The one beautiful thing about my attack was clarity. I gained crystalline certainty of who my friends actually are. And not all of them are people who called me after my attack or said nice things on Facebook. Your friend group likely won’t be the same as it was before, but I think it might even be better.

–Jessi

How Do I Feel Safe Again?

This is a big topic at the heart of PTSD. Our bodies keep setting off the alarms over nothing because we’ve been wrong before. So, how do we thoroughly convince every part of ourselves that we are safe now?

I struggled with this topic, and I still do. My attacker is still free thanks to covid-related court delays. And he’s a few minutes’ drive away (unless he’s moved). He was crazy enough to attack me before; what would stop that from happening again?

It’s an unpopular opinion, but I don’t believe restraining orders do anything. What they would have forced me to do is reveal my location again if I moved so that he could “avoid” me. And I know all too well what can happen before the cops arrive. So, getting a restraining order wasn’t at the top of my list.

Things that made me feel safe so far:

Blocking all access my attacker had to my information. This was an onslaught of blockings across sites, changing passwords, and changing my phone number.

Replacing my wooden splinters of a door with a steel door. (I know. It’s a placebo. Anyone can come through a window.)

Giant veteran I married who knows plenty about guns.

Fierce German Shepherd who hates strangers coming near me.

Things I think might help others to achieve that sense of safety:

Taking a shooting course and feeling comfortable with guns. (I am a tree-hugging hippie. This one has been tough for me to get used to.)

Any security features added to a home, like cameras or alarm systems.

Martial arts courses. (I am not ready to do this one yet. I think I would freak out if someone sparred with me.)

Staying in shape. Running and getting stronger seem to be helpful across the board.

I hope this gives you a place to start as you work on convincing yourself you’re safe again. Some of these are easy purchases, and some are habits. And some of them are sheer dumb luck (like finding a man I loved on Tinder whose German Shepherd insisted on keeping me). Keep swimming. It gets better. I promise.

–Jessi

Parenting with PTSD

I fought hard to maintain normalcy for my kids after my attack. My son’s birthday was four days after the attack, and I wrapped presents and took him to the Aquarium as he requested.

But looking back, I wonder, how did I do that? And more importantly, why did I do that? I was still having panic attacks every time I went to my house. We opened birthday presents at Starbucks and stayed out all day. I had bandages on my face and bruises on my neck, but we went to the Aquarium.

Do parents ever have a good enough reason to selfishly take time to recover? Yes. And they should.

I have since learned to communicate my needs better and to put my needs first when I am struggling. If I don’t, I tend to panic, fall victim to my sensory hell, and not sleep anyway. And if I am in that state, you can imagine what it’s like for everyone living with me.

Here are the best suggestions I have for parents living with PTSD:

1. Be honest with your kids. I told my kids about my sensory issues and that is not their fault that I freak out about every sound sometimes. If your kids know about your struggles, they will minimize them (be quieter) and they won’t think you hate everyone when you sit by yourself in a quiet place.

2. Put yourself first. This seems counterintuitive to selfless moms. But it’s like when an airline tells you to secure your mask before assisting others. You can’t help anyone if you’re gasping for breath. If I need time to veg out after a bad day, I tell my kids that. If I need help with dinner, I tell them that. If I feel lost or upset or panicky, I tell them that. I started with going for a run, even when I didn’t really have the time. My family learned to do without me for an hour, and we were all saner.

3. Have concrete ways they can help. My kids wanted to make my life easier. Sometimes that means making dinner. Sometimes it means helping with chores or just doing something quiet instead of blaring the dulcet tones of Minecraft. My kids all watch TV quietly now, conscious of their volume, and we are a family that loves captions. Sometimes help is simply muting the TV. They do best when I give them lists on sticky notes with reasonable requests.

Being open with your kids is tough because you want to shelter them from adult problems. But you both can grow through that real, raw relationship. My trio became more empathetic and aware of things happening around them from people being bullied to kids with eating disorders to kids who wanted to be out and proud. Give your kids a chance to be the awesome humans you are raising them to be. Sometimes they’ll disappoint you, and other times you’ll be bursting with pride.

On this journey, my kids became some of my biggest cheerleaders. They saw the bottom I hit, and my slow rise from “I’d like to die now” to “I’m going to be a doctor. I need to study.” Treat them like they are on your team, and you’ve got a playbook.

I hope this helps you when you’re tired, overwhelmed, despairing, and clueless. Hang in there. Keep swimming.

–Jessi

Switching Career Paths after a Trauma

I have English degrees. Maybe you gathered that from my writing. And I love creating new worlds in my novels and sharing my poetry with you. But both sides of my brain have always been hard at work. I haven’t figured out the magical marketing combination to write full-time, and poetry, even the best and greatest poetry, doesn’t have a huge audience.

So, I was working in IT in addition to writing when I was attacked. But here’s the thing about IT work, no one calls you unless things are already broken and they are upset about it. And it doesn’t matter if you had anything at all to do with the breaking. Whoever answers the phone gets the full force of anxiety, aggravation, and sometimes anger. And after my attack, I couldn’t handle the noise of it all–constant phone ringing, constant talking–or the people who were taking their frustrations out on me. On top of that, I worked with toxic people who had already given me every reason to leave before my attack.

So, my decision wasn’t difficult. I already knew I would rather be dead than spend another minute with PTSD at that job. My blood pressure dropped twenty points in a week after I quit. The job was literally killing me.

The difficult part was finding the energy to explore alternate career paths. I felt like my life was over, and I spent days, weeks, and months hiding from noise and everyone. But I learned new things about myself. I was no longer squeamish after going through hell and no longer so empathetic that I cried with everyone. I could do hard things now. The premed path I almost took before looked possible now.

I started talking about going back to school, prepared to justify it and fight for myself. But I didn’t have to. My family and friends and random acquaintances all showered me in encouragement and convinced me I could succeed before I began. One of the things I wish I had known before was the power of “and”. We ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, like it’s just one thing. I started asking my kids, “And what else?” I was already an author, an IT worker, and a volunteer rescue officer. Becoming a doctor, author, artist isn’t really a stretch.

I’m in my third semester back to school now for a biochemistry degree with a premed concentration. It cuts into my writing time, but I am not giving it up. And now my scifi novel game will be next level. You’ve probably noticed that my poetry has a science flavor as well. I’ve found metaphors for daily life in the principles of chemistry and biology. I don’t view art and science as mutually exclusive, and I am lucky to live in a community that adores science-y art.

If your career isn’t working after a trauma, I’d advise you to quit and explore what you almost did instead. It’s changed my life for the better.