Our Story Isn’t Over

Those of you who know me and/or have read blog or other posts I’ve made on social media are probably aware that I am married to a wonderful woman who has a primary diagnosis of bipolar disorder, along with borderline personality disorder (BPD), PTSD, and ADHD. When we first met almost eighteen years ago, she overwhelmed me with her energy. She doesn’t remember it as well as I do, but the first day we were introduced, which happened to be at a LGBT choir rehearsal, she bounded over to me, said “Hi!” and sat right down on my lap. All I can remember thinking was, “Why is this cute, butchy redhead flirting with me?” And then just like a puppy dog who spotted a new toy, she was off. She continued to be the ultimate social butterfly, chatting and laughing with everyone there. For the record, I do believe the only lap she actually sat on was mine. 🙂

Back then, she had been diagnosed with depression, which surprised me considering how restless and impulsive she was. My other thought was that the medications managing her illness were working really well! Turns out that my first instinct was right. After two years of seeing each other, which included six months of living together, we decided she needed to find a new psychiatrist. Something just was not right. Her mood swings were severe, she’d go and go for days, sometimes not sleeping at night, and then she’d crash, not wanting to eat or get out of bed.

The defining moment for us was when she ran to Target to pick up a few things for our apartment. She asked if I needed anything, and I told her that I could use a couple of pair of socks – primarily black – to wear to work. I liked fun, patterned socks, so she had carte blanche in terms of what was on those black socks. “Surprise me!” I had said as she left.

A few hours later, she arrived home with six bags. I didn’t think much of it since we had just moved in together and were still setting up our new space.

Then she started unpacking them.

She called me into the bedroom and set the bags on the bed. “Look what I got you!” She was so excited, and I watched in awe as she pulled pair after pair after pair of socks from the bags. There were white ones with flowers, and butterflies, purple and pink argyle ones, paisley ones, red, green, tan, and brown ones, lots of blue ones with different designs on them, and lastly, a pair of black socks. By the time I counted them all, which were now taking up almost half of our queen-sized bed, there were forty pair.

After I thanked her and hugged her, I sat her down and looked her in the eyes. “These are cool socks, but honestly, this is excessive. Is there a reason you purchased this many when I only asked you for a couple?”

She cried, and so did I. She had no clue why she had, besides wanting to get me what I needed. After a painful heart to heart, she also confessed to me that she had come into some money from stocks when she left her last job, and she had already spent almost all of it in the last eight months. Other than paying for a trip to Hawaii for her and her two best friends and my forty pair of socks, she couldn’t tell me where the rest of that money had gone.

Thankfully, living in Minneapolis near the University of MN, we had access to some great doctors. A new diagnosis was given to her at her very first appointment – bipolar disorder, or the name I was most familiar with, manic-depression. Her medication changed, her treatment plan changed, her daily regimen had to change to be more balanced, and our life together changed drastically. It was a scary moment knowing that the person I loved more than anything would have to live the rest of her life with this disease.

We are still together after seventeen years, but the road hasn’t been easy. We separated once, we’ve moved four times, we adopted two rescue dogs, we bought a house and lost it to foreclosure, we’ve each had several jobs, she went back to school and got her Bachelor’s Degree in Culinary Management, I published a couple of books, and we’ve made it through three of her hospitalizations when she was close to ending her life.

If you are tempted to say “I’m sorry…”, you don’t have to. Bipolar sucks, but it is a part of our lives now. After all she’s been through, the med changes, hospital stays, support groups, skills building classes, individual and occupational therapy sessions, you’d think she’d be jaded, but she is the strongest, bravest, kindest person I know.

Last year, when she got her semi-colon tattoo, (pictured above), I finally felt ready to write a story with a bipolar/mental illness theme. That’s when Unfinished was born.

We were sitting at the tattoo shop, talking with her artist, and she had shared how many semi-colon tattoos she had done recently. From there, a story blossomed in my head, and my characters, Garrett and Dev, came to life. Last week, I typed THE END to that story and felt the most amazing sense of pride–something that hadn’t felt nearly as powerful when I did the same with my other books.

Unfinished is the title I chose based on the semi-colon movement’s idea that your story’s not over yet. This full length novel follows two men who meet at a tattoo shop while getting semi-colon tattoos. One wants to commemorate eight years since his mental illness diagnosis, and the other wants to mark himself so he never forgets his failed relationship with a man with mental illness. They struggle to find each other, fall in love, stay together, and make sense out of a life that has thrown them both some serious curve balls. Most of all, though, this book is about how they triumph over these hardships.

I recognize that most readers will not know bipolar as intimately as I do, and the last thing I want is for it to be a doom and gloom story ending in tragedy. I want readers to feel hopeful. I want people to know that despite what you see on TV or hear in the media, mental illness does not mean that you’re going to become a serial killer. There are thousands of people living with mental illness who maintain jobs, relationships, have kids and families, volunteer, go out to dinner, have hard days, pay bills, and overall live “normal” lives.

I’ve asked my wife to co-write with me a foreword to the book. Even though it is a work of fiction, I hope her perspective will add credibility to some of the situations depicted. Just as all my other writing is informed by my past experiences, so is this story, and my portrayal of bipolar disorder is only a small representation of people with the disease. I admit that I’m scared to put this out there, until I remember why I wrote it in the first place: if even one person learns from the story, has more compassion for people with mental illness, or seeks help because of reading my book, then everything I’ve put into it is worthwhile.

Life goes on for us. Like that semi-colon, there were and will continue to be times we have to pause, to rethink our decisions and focus on what is most important to us, but then we move on. My wife is my hero, and our story isn’t over yet.

Unfinished is set to be released on August 25, 2016 and will be available on Amazon.com.

*The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number is: 1-800-273-8255 and they can be found online at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.*

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Labels and Porn

Judgement and ignorance abound, and I’m at the point where I just can’t take it anymore. So I needed to write.

According to my parents, growing up in a smaller, very Catholic town seemed to be the perfect environment for raising children. We were private schooled, played outside until after dark, and we walked just about everywhere. I loved my hometown and developed some of the best relationships that have withstood the test of time.

But as a teenager growing up in that environment, it also meant that there were so many other cultures, creeds, beliefs and walks of life I never was exposed to. Thank goodness my parents are progressive Catholics, and overall, their main message to us was more about loving our neighbor than following the bible to the letter. I strongly believe it’s what led me to this place of questioning and grave concern for the future (especially in light of potential political outcomes in the US).

Like many of us, I was constantly labeled: fat, ugly, different, geek, nerd, know-it-all, coward, lesbian, bisexual, lazy. I have always been a curvy girl, and in the world of dance thirty plus years ago, that was not a good trait to have. I was also in AP classes – or as my catholic school used to call it – the TAG (talented & gifted) program. The idea that anyone not in these classes was neither talented nor gifted is a travesty of epic proportions. When I started dating a woman twenty years ago, I was labeled lesbian because it was much more acceptable than bisexual, which is what I really considered myself to be. And most recently, suffering from depression and living with my wife who has bipolar disorder has earned me labels such as lazy and enabler.

I wasn’t so innocent either. I participated in my own shaming of those who were different from me – redheads, dumb jocks, people of color. To this day, many of us struggle with our own self-worth so much so that we are still tearing others down to make ourselves feel better. Fat/body-shaming and slut-shaming are a couple of the recent newsworthy triggers. When will we learn that our time and energy is better spent focused internally? That if we loved with the same fervor we criticized, we become better people? The world becomes safer…stronger…healthier…and more joyful?

Why are we freaking out that a curvy girl in a bikini made the cover of Sports Illustrated? Why are t-shirts and profiles that say “no femmes, no fatties” laughed at and accepted? Why is non-monogamy viewed as being promiscuous and slutty? Why are people still refusing marriage licenses to same-sex couples? Why do we care that a trans woman wants to use the women’s restroom because that’s where she feels most comfortable? Why are we denigrating everything Prince accomplished in his life because he was human and (allegedly) suffered from addiction?

Why are so many still operating from a place of fear and not acceptance? Why are we still trying to group people into neat little boxes that only make it easier for us to talk about but debilitating for those being labeled?

Finally, this leads me to the topic of pornography. Now if I revisit that young girl that still exists in my brain, the one who grew up sheltered and stifled in that small town, she would say that porn is bad. I used to believe that exploring and being curious about our bodies was a sin. Masturbating was wrong, and porn was synonymous with prostitution. That everyone in the industry was forced or manipulated by creepy old men to perform sex acts in front of a camera. But then the older, more open me sees that as just another misjudgment of an industry that I don’t know.

That person also asks what the difference is between seeing nudes painted and sculpted, hearing explicit lyrics in music, and reading the details of sex and making love as described in a book. Is it different? And then how does the filming of two adults having consensual sex not fall into the same category? Isn’t it all art? Aren’t they all expressions of life, beauty, inquisitiveness, emotion, self-exploration. and understanding?

Before anyone goes there, I do draw the line at abuse, lack of consent, rape, assault, violence, and knowingly involving children under age. As someone who suffered a rape at a “friend’s” hand and both physical and mental abuse by a previous partner, I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of the difference between choice and force. And let me tell you, some of the adult films that are currently being made show a realness and honesty that’s so refreshing and yet still so taboo. I no longer group all pornography or adult models into a category of “bad”, as my younger, ignorant self did. I’ve seen films labeled “pornos” that are tender, raw and more true-to-life than the fluffy, romanticized and highly censored films that show us only what someone else wants us to see. (As a side note, my only wish is that there were a more diverse body type and ability featured in adult films.)

So what’s the point of all this rambling? First and foremost, I needed to express how pissed off I am at the world right now. I needed to lash out at those who degrade or discard us for being something they aren’t. I needed to rage against people who would vote for a misogynistic, disrespectful, deceitful, bigoted man who views money and power as more important than real people’s lives. And I guess I needed to purge my own demons too.

I don’t expect you to agree with me. If you do, great. But please understand that while I appreciate all respectful and thoughtful comments, I will not engage in any sort of debate about how I feel. This is me. Take it, read it, respond to it, or hate it, and leave it.

 

 

 

 

 

Our Bipolar Life

There are days when I feel like basic communication with my wife is almost impossible. There are days when nothing calms her down, nothing settles her racing mind, and nothing gives her comfort. There are days when she disappears downstairs to her work area, and I have to bring her food or she won’t eat. There are also days when she cannot seem to get enough sleep and spends the day in bed.

And oftentimes this happens within the span of just one week.

For those of you who live with someone with bipolar or other mental illness, or have been diagnosed with one yourself, you know that all the medication and therapy in the world will never eliminate sypmtoms entirely. There will always exist a struggle to to live life as “normally” as possible. And there will always be people who question or criticize your need for self-care. That, to me, is without a doubt the most frustrating, tedious and painful aspect of living with mental illness. 

My wife was misdiagnosed for years. In fact, when she was a kid, she remembers suffering through many days not understanding why she felt so agitated or discouraged, and everyone wrote her off as a tempermental, hard-to-manage child. Eventually as an adult, a doctor told her she was depressed and medicated her for that. And while that addressed part of her symptoms, it only made her feel more out of control. Finally, at the age of 32, a psychiatrist she just started seeing approached her with a bipolar diagnosis. She was devastated but relieved at the same time. She’d have to deal with new medications, new treatments and new knowledge that explained behavior she previously didn’t understand. But it also came with newfound hope that someday she might feel more “normal.”

The road to living with bipolar has been a hard one. Medications help but some have horrible side effects. Therapy helps but it also means unearthing painful memories that break her down. Outpatient treatment helps but working through issues within a group comes with its own challenges. Over the sixteen years we’ve been together, it wasn’t until last October when she had to be hospitalized for the third time that she was offered a regimen that included all of the above. Sad that our healthcare system is still so underequiped to help those with mental illness.

I love my wife but I hate bipolar disorder. I know that sounds severe, but it’s true. On days when she feels so angry that everything I do only irritates her more, on days when she leaves to buy a few groceries and comes back with hundreds of dollars of stuff we don’t need, on days when she can’t get out of bed or doesn’t feel safe driving or is so frustrated she hits her head against a wall or can’t stop crying, life feels almost too hard to bear. And though I’ve never been suicidal myself, I understand why sometimes she thinks that may be the only way to end her suffering. 

When we were finally able to legally get married last year, I had someone question if I really wanted to do that and be tied to a person with mental illness. I couldn’t believe my ears. If her husband was diagnosed with cancer, would she leave him because she didn’t want to deal with it? Because it would make her life easier? No. And I view my wife’s illness in the same way. It may be less understood and still carry the stigma that she’s “crazy” and just needs to “think happy thoughts”, but it can be as debilitating and difficult and frustrating and horrible as other diseases. 

Would I change anything in my life? Maybe. I wish she had been diagnosed ealier in her life so she would have had years to learn to cope and adjust; I wish we had pressed harder after the first hospitalization for more comprehensive treatment; I wish she didn’t have to deal with the pain and frustration of not understanding her own behavior; But bipolar will never make me love her any less. I have just had to learn to love her differently, and I have gone through my own therapy and skill-building process. But I would never leave her simply because she has bipolar disorder. In truth, it has shaped who she is; it has made her the quirky, clever, hard-working, sensitive and compassionate woman she is. 

May is Mental Health Awareness month, which is why I felt compelled to share this on my blog, but living with a partner with mental illess impacts life every single day, every week, every month, every year. It challenges the bond we have and constantly tests our love for each other. And I know that we will never have a “normal” life that fits most people’s standards. 

Well, most people’s standards are what need to change, because according to the National Institute of Mental Health, almost 19% of the adult U.S. population has some type of mental illness/disorder. The number is even higher for kids, with 1 in 5 having had at some point in their life a debilitating mental disorder. And we wonder why there’s so much violence in schools, and why kids are being bullied, and why suicide rates are increasing again within certain populations. As a society we blame mental illness for behavior, but we don’t do enough to educate and understand. Not nearly enough.

One of my ways to cope is to write. Often I feel I talk to my computer with more honesty than I do anyone else. But it helps me gain perspective. And I realize how lucky I am to be blessed with such a wonderful, amazing, talented, kind, and loving partner to share my life with. I’m not a successful writer – yet – but I believe I will be and so does she, and no matter how difficult life feels, she has always encouraged me to follow my dreams. 

This coming week, my first book will be released. Dream come true. And she’s been by my side for the entire journey.

My next writing project features a character diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I am doing this not only because it’s cathartic, but also because I feel that the characters in our books don’t reflect the prevalence of mental disorders in relationships. Or at least they’re not always identified as such. My hope is to bring awareness to a story that is typically only seen in crime novels. It is possible to live with mental illness and have an amazing life, and that’s the story I plan to tell. I do it for me, for all those whose lives are impacted by mental illness and for my wife, who has taught me so much about perseverence, courage and unconditional love. She will always have my heart.

My Book is Coming Soon…Now What?

I’m kind of freaked out about it. And I’m not afraid to admit it.

Writing a book and having it published is a dream I’ve had for years. Well, the third time ended up being a charm, as the saying goes. After receiving two rejections, I sent my manuscript to the publishing company my dear friend, Tyler, works with, and a couple of days later I’m signing a contract. Encompass Ink (Hot Ink Press’ GLBT imprint) liked my novella, “Back in the Saddle”, enough to invest in me as a writer. Very few moments in my life (except my senior voice recital, wedding, & first nephew being born) even come close to the excitement I felt. I was flying high for months!

And then came the reality that my work, the words I put my heart and soul into assembling together to make a story, would be out there for all to see. This voice in my head, the one that still feels like an awkward teenager with braces and no date to the prom, tells me I should have thought twice before exposing myself like that. The other voice, the more mature, fearless one with perspective and wisdom, assures me that I have to take risks in order to reach my goals.

“Fall seven times, stand up eight.” Japanese Proverb

Now it’s less than two weeks until my release date. I find myself floundering through Facebook groups, the Goodreads author programs, and a variety of other social media outlets looking for followers, even though you have yet to read a stitch of my writing. It’s a daunting task. It has the potential of depleting my hard-earned self-confidence before my book is even out! Yikes!

So what do I do? I have my release event scheduled, most of my swag & giveaways ready, and I’m on social media every single day. The truth is – I don’t know. I’m in the same boat as many of you who are brand new to publishing or preparing to publish. But I’m open to trying anything and learning from those who have been in my shoes before.

If I’m being honest, my biggest concern is how I’m going to react to the first negative review. Will I crumble under the criticism? The last thing I want is to put my first book out there and become too scared to do another. So, I resolve to handle all comments with humility and grace, focus on what I have instead of being afraid of what I don’t, and count my blessings.

Vital to my survival are a couple of really great author friends, Eddy LeFey and Tyler May, who have always been there for me to listen and to make me try again; I have a fantastic publishing family who is supportive and encouraging; My family and friends and wife put up with my easily distracted mind and endless hours at the computer. And I’d be remiss if I failed to mention all those authors (you know who your favorite go-to storytellers are) who have led the way for newbies like me.

As for my own book and writing career being a success, that is yet to be determined. But I have a slew of characters in my head who are begging for their stories to be told and the courage and determination I’ve not felt in a long time. Will J.R. Barten become a household name? Probably not. Will you give me a chance by reading my stories? I hope so.

I’d love to hear from you! As a newer author, are there strategies you found most effective for gaining an audience? As a veteran author, are there obstacles you’ve encountered along the way that we can learn from?  Feel free to comment here.

To learn more about me, check out my page on Facebook and Goodreads. The links to both are to the right. Thank you!