The Impossible Pursuit of PerfectionPosted
I was asked by author, Gail Martin, to participate in the #HoldOnToTheLight campaign discussing mental illness. I told her I would, but as usual, I’ve been procrastinating. I’m pretty sure I’ve been procrastinating because the story I have to tell is my own, and therefore, more than a little painful, and one that I have no doubt I will regret posting, but in the hopes that even one of these campaign posts can help even one other person dealing with depression, thoughts of suicide, or some other form of mental illness, here goes:
My readers know it’s been over two years since my last book. It was almost three years since the last book before that. The reason is something I have vaguely referred to publicly as “personal and health issues.” What I haven’t said, until now, is that a good portion of those “health issues” are mental health related.
Most people, when asked to describe what sort of person I am, would probably say things like “funny,” “outgoing,” “friendly,” and “happy”. Almost no one would ever use terms like, “insecure” or “constantly beset by feelings of inadequacy” or “frequently contemplates suicide” Yet all of those would also be accurate.
I have a funny little brain (and by “funny” I mean funny-wonky, not funny-haha). I guess I always have. I have ADD. I have memory and focus issues. I have trouble remembering many things. But painful things–those I find almost impossible to forget. They run around and around and around in my head, bashing me repeatedly. If I do something embarrassing or stupid, the memory of it stays with me for decades and, like one of those little cartoon devils sitting on my shoulder, rears up at random times to undermine my confidence, tell me I’m not worthy, I’m not good enough, not smart enough, that I never will be. It took me almost thirty years to realize that the only way to exorcise those particular devils was to talk about them, to share my most embarrassing moments with someone close, laugh about them, and thereby deprive them of the power to haunt and hurt me.
But just because I can exorcise the painful memories doesn’t mean the feelings of inadequacy are so easily shed. (Or that I can share and laugh off the wounds that hit the deepest.) So in order to avoid feeling inadequate or get hit on a truly deep level, I try very, very hard to make sure that no one will ever tell me, “That isn’t good enough. You aren’t good enough.” Thus, when it comes to things that really matter to me on an emotional level, my writing in particular, I am in constant pursuit of perfection.
My first book was published after being bought at auction. It spent two weeks on the USA Today list of bestselling books in America. My second book, out a month later, hit the extended NY Times. Since being a NY Times bestselling author had been my dream since I was 15, you can imagine how I was floating on air. I’d never been so happy. This was it! Nirvana! I was finally achieving my dreams. The world was my oyster! I had it all planned out. I was going to be a multi-millionaire, bestselling author, producing one great story after another, with movie deals directed by Peter Jackson (I still live in hope, Pete. Don’t let me down.). My house would be paid for. My husband could retire and play golf. My kids could go to any college they wanted. Everything was going to be PERFECT.
Nirvana lasted maybe two or three months. Because by then I was deep in the writerly agony of writing the next book and trying to make it even better than the first two (which I’d spent 5 years working on, BTW). I’d never had a book deadline before. Business deadlines, yes. For years, I’d been a Proposal Manager, writing RFP responses and making one hard deadline after another. But writing proposal responses (ie, explaining how a product meets a requirement and benefits the customer) is one thing. It’s far different to create entire worlds, people, languages, etc. If we didn’t win a proposal…well, that was unfortunate, but it didn’t affect me on a personal, emotional level. My writing, however, was and is a totally different story.
Putting a book out there isn’t the same as launching a product some group of guys in R&D created. It isn’t the same as sticking a proposal in the mail and waiting to see if you won the business. It’s far more personal than that. At least, it is for me. For me, publishing a book is like putting a very vulnerable piece of my soul out there for perfect strangers to pick apart and find fault with.
By now, I’d also had my first run in with vicious reviews. I can honestly say 95% or more of the reviews for my first book were overwhelmingly positive. But all it took were a few really ugly, nasty reviews from snarky people for the “You aren’t good enough! You’ll never be good enough!” devils to start roaring on my shoulder. It got so bad I would become physically nauseated every time a google alert popped up with a review about my books. I had to turn off Google Alerts. I told myself to ignore the mean reviewers. To write the next book. And to help prevent future nasty reviews, I would do whatever it took to Make. That. Book. PERFECT.
For the next three years, I worked 16 hours a day, 7 days a week trying to achieve that aim. Writing, rewriting, rewriting again. My books hit the printed Times list. Publisher’s Weekly. Outwardly, my dreams were coming true. Inwardly, I’d never been so miserable. I’d been revising so much, for so long, I couldn’t even read another author’s book without going into editor mode. Me–who’d devoured books daily since before I could read them myself–couldn’t lose myself in a book anymore, not even the ones by my favorite authors! And on a family front..things had gone south. I was so busy writing, I don’t remember anything that happened with my children during those years. To this day, my kids will say, “Don’t you remember when we…?” and my mind will draw an utter blank. My husband got furious with me for ignoring the family. We’d get into big fights. The closer I came to deadline, the worse we’d fight. My publisher would put out publication dates for my books, and if the books were pushed back because I had trouble making deadline, readers would write to me asking why the book was delayed or (or worse, post publicly about how they weren’t going to buy my next book because I was so unprofessional I couldn’t meet a deadline). By this point my entire sense of self-worth was tied to my writing success, and I was letting everyone down. Everything I feared most was coming true! I wasn’t worthy. I wasn’t up to the task. I wasn’t even close to achieving perfection. Instead, I was a total failure! I began thinking about driving to the Sunshine Skyway bridge (Tampa’s premiere suicide location) and jumping off. I didn’t think about it once or twice. I thought about it hundreds of times a day. Hundreds.
I didn’t realize how bad things had gotten until I went to visit my best friend. When I slept the entire way from Sarasota to Atlanta to San Francisco, I didn’t realize that was a sign of my complete physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. When I got to her house, we had fun, like we always do. Then one morning I woke up crying and I couldn’t stop. I cried for hours. Half a dozen times I’d get myself under control, go upstairs to be with my friends, hear their voices and laughter, then I’d burst into uncontrollable tears again and run back downstairs to hide. I cried for at least ten hours straight. I was having a complete breakdown. Concerned about me, my friend came downstairs, and somehow, despite my constant sniffling and snuffling, we had a long talk. I don’t even remember the particulars any more, but she talked me down from the ledge, and I was able to pull myself together enough to finish my fifth book.
After that, however, I discovered I couldn’t write anymore. I spent hours sitting at my computer, staring at a blank screen, unable to type a single word. Every creative wellspring in my body had dried up! Going into my big, lovely, sunshine-filled office to write felt like walking into a prison. I went to see a psychiatrist, blaming my ADD, and my resulting difficulties with focus and memory, for my inability to write. I’m not the kind of person who can open myself up about really personal stuff to strangers, so I didn’t mention my Sunshine Skyway thoughts. The ADD meds helped a little but I couldn’t tolerate them, so had to stop. I also quit writing period until I could find away to read other people’s books without going into editor mode.
Eventually, I was able to read, and then to write again. I finished my sixth booth and published it. I thought I was back on track, only to so spectacularly miss my seventh book’s deadline that my publisher pulled the book from the schedule entirely. I was back in full “You’re a failure” mode. I tried to pull it together again, but by this time, I was going through a period where my memory and focus were so bad, I couldn’t remember my characters’ names from one page to the next. I was terrified that I was in the beginning stages of the same dreadful Alzheimer’s that was erasing my beloved father day by day. And I was so afraid of that, I was (and remain) too cowardly to go see a doctor and have it confirmed.
Then I had another emotional blow that sent me reeling. At the time, I was once again on the west coast with my friend. The Sunshine Skyway was a continent away, but the Pacific Ocean was right out my hotel room door. It occurred to me that I could just walk into the ocean, start swimming, and keep swimming until there was no way I could make it back to shore. The really scary part? Contemplating it roused no emotional response in me at all. I’d spent the last five years struggling to get back to a place where I felt like I would one day have a chance of being happy and strong and successful again, and this blow knocked all of that down. I think I honestly had reached the point where I was ready to just say “enough” and be done with it.
Looking back, I think the only thing that stopped me was my children. I have three wonderful kids. They are all smart and beautiful and have such good hearts. And I don’t ever want any of them to think I’m a quitter, or that I’d choose to leave them.
I had another long talk with my friend. This time, I do remember what we said. I remember opening up to her in a way I never really have before. I don’t think she ever really understood how little self-confidence I truly have, or how easy it is to rip it to shreds. I don’t let very many people that close to me. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to hide my vulnerabilities and laugh off my insecurities, and I’ve gotten really good at it. There isn’t much I let myself care enough about to really hurt me.
Since that trip, I’ve gone back to the drawing board again, examining why I do the things I do, feel the way I feel. Writing–being published–has always been my dream, and I am not willing to let it go. I have to find a way to balance my desire to write and publish with my need to be healthy and happy. I’m beginning to realize that, for me, that’s probably always going to be a struggle. I will probably always have anxiety attacks, depression, and days I cannot write a single word. I will likely always have trouble with bad reviews, so for now at least, I just won’t allow myself to read reviews about my books.
I’m taking one day at a time.
I still have Sunshine Skyway thoughts. I probably always will, but now, when I do, I pick up the phone and call a friend. I make a point of spending time with family and friends, to let myself play and have fun, putting some balance back in my life. I remind myself that, contrary to a statement I once made in an interview, I actually do love to write. (If I didn’t love it, why would I ever have spent years before I published voluntarily getting up to write from 3-7am before going to work at a 50-60 hour a week job?) I’m trying various natural supplements to help me improve memory and focus, so that when I do sit down to write, I can be more productive. (One day, when I’m feeling braver, I may actually go see a doctor to be checked for the possibility of Alzheimers.) I’m working to lose weight, exercise, get healthier. And I’m trying to make a point of writing at least a little every day, switching between projects when I get stuck so that I can keep making forward progress, and thus (hopefully) have more work closer to being complete so that I can do better at making deadlines. Because every bit of forward progress is a success, not a failure.
Most of all, I constantly remind myself that perfection isn’t really possible. I’m not a perfect human being, and no matter how hard I try to make them so, my books aren’t either. And I tell myself that’s okay. If someone hates my books, that doesn’t mean I’m a failure. If I never write a #1 NY Times bestseller, I am not a failure. If I never live up to someone else’s idea of a success, I’m not a failure. If I never publish another book, I am not a failure.
That the only real failure comes from making that drive to the Sunshine Skyway a one way trip.
#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.
Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Hope for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
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