Honestly, it’s a fluffing miracle I get anything done at all.
Between the overwhelming amount of entertainment options to distract us, the constant barrage of crisis happening every hour of every day, and indecision on what to focus on, anybody who can continue making art deserves a medal and a lifetime supply of tequila and cookies.
Let’s tackle that indecision thing first, because I always have trouble picking one thing (like just one topic for this piece.)
My initial Diversion essay idea was a bittersweet tale about chronic illness: How I planned a really wonderful 2018, but then I got sick as shirt from medication. Symptoms include: tremors, nausea, inability to focus (literally and figuratively), electric shocks and neuropathy in hands, legs, and feet, heart palpitations, adrenaline rushes, insomnia (hard to sleep with that adrenaline), depersonalization, panic, skin burning, sensory sensitivities (smells/sounds/light and movement), cramping/twisting of extremities, and fatigue so extreme I would get winded doing the dishes. I lost 25 pounds in a month because I couldn’t eat.
Because I couldn’t do a lot of things for myself, it became clear how ableist the world is around us. My chronic illness knocked me down Alice’s rabbit hole, and I diverged onto a path unseen by those who are spry and healthy. Suddenly the suffering of others popped out of the scenery like their lives are now highlighted in neon green; the young man in the motorized scooter just trying to get his groceries, an older woman with a walker making her way to the doctor’s office. I recognized slow gaits, shortened arms, the hitch in somebody’s giddiup.
Life slowed to a crawl. My brand new job was gone. Making plans seemed ridiculously optimistic after staying in bed for months. One week I’d be moderately okay, and the next week I could maybe manage a hunched shuffle back and forth to the bathroom. Life as I knew it was altered and, because of my adverse reactions to a variety of medications, there was no treatment but time. I had to accept that.
My therapist suggested that a few diversions would help me get out of my own head. I’d always used writing, exercise, and volunteering before. But now my mind wouldn’t focus and my body wasn’t allowing a lot of movement. So I turned to the simpler things: Music, TV, Social Media.
Easy enough. TV and Music were my go-to distractions when life got tough before. I took a quick visit to Dr. Google and realized my shrink had a point about calming myself with distraction. Diversions can actually be an effective soothing/coping device. Not all social media is bad. Using TV, video games, social media, and books can help decrease pain and anxiety.
The smart people who treat Pediatric Cancer at medical centers across the U.S.A. and Canada used video games to help kids fight their illness and become less stressed before surgeries:
“For example, children are notoriously anxious before surgery. Their levels of preoperative anxiety are known to reduce the effectiveness of anesthesia and increase recovery times. Physicians need alternatives to sedative medications to keep them calm. A study, cited by McGonigal, used distractions to effectively reduce their stress.”
If it can work for something as difficult as kids with cancer, I thought it should definitely help me out. Which got me thinking–maybe this isn’t an essay on sickness being a diversion from a “regular” life. Maybe this is going to be about how a good majority of us self-soothe with TV and social media.
Social media is often blamed for separating us as a society, but it is also a godsend for people who are housebound (HELLO!) and folks with crippling social anxiety. Smarter people have written about this. Forbes noted that social media can help teens feel less isolated.
Using social media allows teens to follow organizations and causes that they believe in. It makes them feel like they are a part of something, even when they feel like an outcast in society.
I really wish I had contact with the world outside of my teeny hometown when I was an awkward, weirdo teen. But I did have television and books. I swear they saved my life. They also set up my imagination, leading me to writing.
I was an awkward child, sensitive, scrawny, and imaginative. My interests always turned to humanities, art, dance, books, theatre, music, vampires, ghosts, history, etc.
In school I was different from everybody else. In a town of 900 people, the world seemed small. There were only 23 other kids in my grade, the same crowd K-12. I didn’t fit in any of the cliques, at home or in school.
This wasn’t just my imagination. When I was six years old, my “friend” Amy (our parents went to the same church so we were forced to play together) made our mutual BFF choose between us. The BFF couldn’t be friends with both of us because I was stupid, said the other Amy. The BFF chose the other Amy, because at 6 you follow the one who acts like they are in charge. So basically, my confidence as a small child was shirt because of this evidence that I was stupid.
Little House on the Prairie became my refuge when I was old enough to read. (I am fully aware and awake to the problematic issues of it now that I’m an adult.) When I wasn’t reading or watching the stories, I’d be in the yard, pulling old tree branches and building my own “little house,” because I did actually live on the prairie. This was when I started pretending to be in a different place, time, and body. Good god it was glorious to escape reality. It was around that time I started making up my own stories and then decided to be an actress*.
*The exact moment I made that decision: 8 years old and the heavy ramp on a tractor trailer fall onto my head, requiring a trip to the ER for stitches and doctor supervision. When we got home that night I got to eat Totinos and watch Planet of the Apes. That was the moment I decided to be an actor. Childhood concussion FTW!
At 11, I found a copy of Salem’s Lot in the school library. The horror of those fictional children, of that town, felt so visceral. I crawled inside the story and hid there. For the next decade anything by Stephen King was a pool I could dive into again and again. His voice always welcomed me home.
His writing was in my head constantly, and I began to create my own stories. I would write myself out of my real life and into glamorous love stories with movie stars, or aliens. That led to more tales of people who weren’t me, ideas from gravestones, or stories in the paper. I could create my own world.
Then High School super sucked. Puberty hormones layered on top of really not fitting in at all was a special kind of jolly jelly joy. In a town that small, the main social event on weekends was to drag Main (drive up and down Main street) and drink. From what I recall, I didn’t want to do those things, but maybe I just wasn’t invited. Saturday nights were when I turned to music, choreographing complex routines to David Bowie and Cindi Lauper in my bedroom. I let myself get lost in the dance.
One Sunday I was waiting for D, the girl I thought was my best friend, to come pick me up. We were going to go to the next town over and do something totally awesome to celebrate her new driving license. She was about an hour late when I finally called out to her farmhouse. Her cousin answered the phone.
“D’s not coming” the cousin told me “K is so much better than you. She’s here and they’re not going to hang out with you anymore because you’re not cool. You’re stupid.”
Why or how did I not tell that girl to go fluff herself? If time travel were a thing, I would use it to go back in time and do just that. I don’t remember what happened next, but my body clenches thinking of how horrible going to school on Monday must have been. And how fluffing brave I was to actually go. (I am dropping a lot of eff-bombs in this essay. I hope my Mom doesn’t read this.)
With all of the external voices telling me how stupid I was, I watched a LOT of TV to get away from dealing with depression and isolation.
This was before there were a million TV choices. I’m totally aging myself here, but I am what I am, so who cares. There were only 5 channels then, ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and Local Syndicate (aka late night Star Trek TOS reruns), and you could dial them in with UHF and VHF* dials on the side of the set.
You can IMAGINE my FLUFFING DELIGHT when PBS started playing Tom Baker era Dr. Who on Sunday mornings! Not only was I transported away from the misery of being a lonely outcast in my town, I could travel through TIME (and relative dimensions in space). PBS was a great source of hilarious Monty Python eps as well. They broadcast Great Performances Broadway musicals and plays, dramas from all over the world (to be honest, mostly white programming from the UK).
Oh, sweet merciful Jesus PBS was a beacon of levity, depth of the human experience, and most importantly, hope. It gave me ideas for stories and hope for a future. Sure it kept me from getting a lot of homework done, but I saw the world outside of this place, this home that I could never quite connect to. The PBS diversion led me to strive for more. It let me know that other choices and lives existed outside the boundaries grew up under. It eased my pain.
Utilizing a distraction doesn’t make you weak or a failure. Life is a bitch and we need these side roads to help us cope and possibly even learn. If you self-soothe with diversions, it might be just what the doctor ordered. And like anything else the doctor ordered, it should be taken as directed or in moderation. For a while I hid in the distractions, and that didn’t work out so well either.
Because of the aforementioned illness, I’ve been meditating a LOT this year. Most of it is about acceptance of life and limitations, etc. The one main thing I pulled from mindfulness to use all day, every day is this: It is perfectly normal and okay to get distracted–by thoughts, people, events. The key to being mindful is to not chase that distraction, or keep holding that same thought, until you can’t get back to where you really ought to be going. At some point you have to get back to The Point.
This is something I need to apply in my writing. As you can see from the variety of topics above, I try to climb all the idea branches on the tree at the same time. Time to return to the breath, and the point. Diversions are like a bandage. They can help you heal but if you don’t eventually take the bandage off, or just keep putting bandage on top of bandage, at some point, you’re whole tail is going to be buried under gauze and sticky tape. Wow, is that a shirty analogy. Sorry, my cat just had an abscess on her tail removed. What was I talking about?
Adulthood has been its own fun mix of finding friends and like-minded weirdos, most of them are nomads like me. A community is built and then, one by one, everybody moves and loneliness and isolation set in for a time. The cycle repeats. While I’m happy I’ve chosen how and where I live my life, part of me is envious of those who can find comfort in living within miles of where they grew up, family and friends static for a lifetime. That constant for me has been books and television. And now all of my wandering friends are on social media, so I can still feel the presence of their acceptance and love. Wherever I go, there is a familiarity of home in those diversions.
There are still days when the world is shirt, depression and anxiety wrap around me and pull me down into a bleak, dark hole. Now with this new illness dealie, there are days when my legs won’t work right, or I get winded climbing the stairs to the apartment. My therapist has let me know it’s okay to let those days happen on occasion, it’s okay to not fight it out for a few hours. It’s okay to lose yourself in the beauty and imagination of art somebody else has created. It’s okay for me. It’s perfectly fine for all of us.
To be open and honest, I set aside a weekend as a Stay At Home Retreat (SAHR) to get this essay finished. The schedule was very regulated to keep me on focus. During the morning, I really got into writing. Three hours of focus! When my alarm went off, alerting me it was time to take my lunch break, I happily stopped writing and ate. During that time a few ideas popped into my head so I ran back into the retreat cave and jotted them down. After lunch I sat for 25 minutes and I reread this 18 times. All I really wanted to do the entire time was:
- Check email
- Check Twitter/Instagram/Facebook
- Write that song about an El Camino that I’ve been meaning to write
- Look at the poems I’ve gathered for my chapbook
- Reread the second draft of a memoir I shelved 5 years ago
- Put more ointment on the cat’s tail sore
- Find out the ingredients in bit-o-honey
- IM my friends to let them know how great my writing is going
- Post my Day 5 of book week
- Look at the recipe for the strawberry shortcakes I’m making tonight
- Basically anything but keep writing an essay on focus and Diversion
Because I have spent the last decade on a smartphone, my brain is now rewired to pay attention to the shiny diversion, not the topic at hand. Where I once found solace, I have now started to fall deep down the rabbit hole and am worrying I won’t emerge from Wonderland. In a year this tough, it’s easy to shut down everything painful and just focus on the comfortable distraction. Being an adult in modern times means making the decision on how to deal with that choice daily.
Plus, I’m really trying to avoid writing about the next part. The BEING AN ADULT BONUS ROUND, which comes with that fun benefit of health issues (see above) for yourself and your loved ones. BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE: The awareness that everyone you love will die someday. I like to call this “Oh Shirt – Mortality!”
The year I turned 40 everything spiraled to the point where a little bit of TV wouldn’t fix it. Turning 40 in this society is already a punch to the ovaries. It’s time for you face your own mortality, and realize that some choices are wholly in your past, like choosing to have a kid, or more kids, biologically speaking. When I turned 40, the path of a normal life diverged onto a broken road which my brain refers to as The Year That Sucked.
Things that happened… ahem:
- I turned 40
- 16 year old cat died (my girl since kittenhood)
- Our house was burgled
- I started having episodes of horrible vertigo
- I left my job
- My Dad was diagnosed with leukemia
- My Mom had a rare aggressive skin cancer
- My husband got laid off with no notice or severance
- We lost our house to foreclosure
- My Dad died (which I was in the room for)
- 18 year old cat died (16 yo cat’s sister)
Just FYI–I didn’t want to write any of that just now. My brain kept telling me to check Twitter to see if anybody joined my writing retreat. My mind is constantly telling me to “Pay no attention to the real thing. Look over there! What is that shiny thing? Don’t think!” Sorry, brain, I have to finish telling this story.
That year, Dad was in the hospital more than he was out. I would fly 1,400 miles back home to visit every 3 months. When I wasn’t there, I would wish that I was. It was comforting to be around family. During my visits, I would read to Dad, because he used to read to me. When I was a toddler, he taught me to read The House That Jack Built. He read it to me so many times that I memorized it when I was 2 years old. I knew when to turn the pages while reciting the lines, just like I was reading. Now it was my turn to give him a diversion, from the pain, boredom, and frustration of lying in a hospital bed.
Towards the end of his stay, he wasn’t well enough to keep wearing his “World’s Greatest Grandpa” t-shirt and grey flannel pajama pants that Mom made him a few years earlier. They’d swapped him into a thin, blue-flowered hospital gown. That made it easier for the nurses to get him onto “the commode” in the middle of the night. And later the gown offered easier access to his catheter bag and transfusion port. I’d pile the nubby, white hospital blankets over him, hoping he’d stay warm in the freezing oncology ICU room. He didn’t know that the August sun was baking the world outside. Then I’d open a book and we’d be transported to a world that Mark Twain built with words, or continue the Roald Dahl stories my sister left behind from her last visit. In retrospect, I should have been reading from his quarterly Beekeeper Journal magazine. He loved getting lost in his bees and any info he could get his hands on to make those bees happy and produce loads of honey.
I did it again, didn’t I? I got lost there in the past, took another side road and followed it down to the river. We were talking about soothing yourself with TV, books, and social media, weren’t we?
This all is intended more as observation than advice. You absolutely don’t want to follow in my footsteps. I wrote a lot before Dad died, even for a good amount of time after. And then my writing slowed way down as I sought diversion from the “dealing with mortality” thing. My anxiety shot through the roof, so I found more ways to look away from the pain. I watched way too much TV and put my writing off “until the weekend.” My TBR pile that was about the size of Andre the Giant. Writing turned to a slow drip, waiting for inspiration instead of practicing a daily exercise.
After my first panic attack, I took Alprazolam PRN (as needed), about one every month or so. A bottle of 20 would last me well over a year. It was a “low dose” (that’s in quotes because it’s subjective, I realize that now). I never took anything more than what I was prescribed. When I started going through menopause, I added hormone replacement pills to the mix. Those two combined poorly and I had a super bad reaction. They stomped around my central nervous system in combat boots and stirring up those symptoms I told you about earlier, and a whole other host of body bullshirt. After being out of commision for 7 months, my body is still recovering. It gets better for a few hours, even a few days, then it goes back to being an asshole with nausea, cramping, fatigue, and foggy brains.
That’s what I was going to write about, but I guess I got distracted.
After all these decades of looking for diversions, trying to skirt my pain and find peaceful moments in the imaginations of others, here I am at my laptop. The afternoon I devoted to writing has flowed with such ease, the breeze is rocking the ficus outside my office window, and I’ve somehow forgotten that my body hurts today. Every day I think, “I need to write,” but then I run away from it because I’m too tired, because I think I’m going to be really bad at it, because I’m stupid. But I’m glad I dug in and wrote all this down, because Jesus on a toadstool, I needed the diversion of writing to help me see what’s really going on.
Amy Henry Robinson Owner/Senior Editor, Poetry Editor, and Webmaster
Amy has a chequered past leading writing workshops for Writing Pad L.A. & Write In Ventura, and as the column editor for FierceAndNerdy.com. Her poetry & spec. fiction has been in Strange Horizons, Pearl Magazine, & Flash Fiction Press. She lives in a small house beside the ocean with her husband. Amy can be found on Twitter being weird, and mocking her cats, at @Amyqotwf