Happy Holidays 2018

I want to start with a brief apology. I haven’t been here on my website blogging in a real way for a while. It’s become a place where I shoot off a brief update every one or two months, and maybe you’re curious about what’s going on with me, but this isn’t maybe what you signed up for. I honestly am hoping that with the new year I’ll have a bit more time for the sorts of posts I want to do: mini-essays. I’m not there quite yet. Let me quickly explain why.

My essay collection/memoir about living with chronic illnesses is nearly complete! I have a few more chapters that need to be begun from scratch, and about ten that need minor revisions, and one that needs a complete overhaul. But, I will most likely be 100% complete (just a touch over 80,000 words) before Christmas. The next step in the new year will be sending it to beta readers (people who aren’t close to the manuscript who give you notes), querying agents (an agent is really important for traditional publishing) and completing a book proposal (some agents request book proposals-something you usually write before you write a non-fiction book outlining what it will be about). My daily writing time will be mostly spreadsheets and paperwork at that point, as you set your hook and see if you get a bite. Writing is a long process, and from what I understand of it, publishing is a long process.

This weekend I used some of Greg’s hotel points to stay in a room in town for 24 hours, writing as much as I could in that time-frame. In all I wrote 3,112 new words (over four new essays), revised seven essay/chapters successfully and revised one unsuccessfully. Not bad. I did have to take quite a few breaks before I felt sick. Luckily the lobby was nice and had excellent people watching.

Fancy hotel
Image Description: My feet, in black heeled boots, propped up on a cushion in front of a fire with a shiny steel hood.

There were two galas happening at the hotel (which was fancier than I expected). One was a black tie/sequined evening gown/fur coat affair. The other was for Gigi’s Playhouse, a support organization for children and adults with Down’s Syndrome. I met teachers who work for the org in jeans and t-shirts in the elevator, wine glasses in hand, heading up to their rooms to change into the dresses they bought for the night. The teachers were my people-a lot less pretentious than the tuxedos and a lot more fun. There was also some sort of pyramid scheme sounding seminar happening that weekend-and I steered clear of that altogether.

And with all the normal bric-a-brac of life-like colds and lessons and clubs and groceries-it is of course the holidays again. Otherwise known as the time of year I fall in love with food writing again. I devoured the latest Bon Appetit and want so much to spend all day tracking down recipes and watching Food Network and writing about food traditions and finding a fun new recipe to try out. Last year it was the NY Times cranberry curd tart (which a good friend of mine had made, unbeknownst to me, as well) which was lovely, but time-consuming, and the hazelnut crust made my allergies flare. We host Thanksgiving (I think I mention that every year-I swear one day when I can’t host I won’t know what to do with myself late November) and this year we’re hosting Greg’s family for Christmas day. There is shopping and cooking and concerts and a whole bunch of other stuff to accomplish.

Bon Appetit
Image Description: The cover of the Thanksgiving Bon Appetit Magazine, with a roasted turkey on the front
Cranberry Curd
Image Description: A sliver of an orange-leafed fall tree and a close-up of a bright pink cranberry curd tart

Then there is my health. So much steadier than other years, however I still am having to tweak medications every week. The ENTIRE time I was writing last weekend, I had a skull-crushing headache. My med dosages were off. Anxiety about not being “productive enough” seemed to have knotted my back, and kept me awake too late and then the next morning too early. It was lovely to have the means to do this (the first overnight trip away from the kids in five years) and to have uninterrupted time-but I was still sick the entire time I was trying to yank a ton of emotional work out of my body. I am sick less often and in more manageable ways than I have been in eight years, but I am still not “healthy”. I have to remind myself of that when I beat myself up over, say, not getting good blog posts out in a while.

But here is an update. I haven’t fallen off the edge of the world, I still exist (though the social media algorithms have abandoned me for not posting as regularly as I used to) and I am keeping busy with things that I hopefully will get to share with you. And I hope to get back to my mini-essays that don’t fit neatly into a book about illness, on whatever I feel like writing about!

 

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Kristin

Gluten, Gluten Everywhere, but Not a Crumb to Eat

GF
ID: A lot of gluten-free products that my wonderful cousin Michele gifted us to help us on our gluten-free journey

Whew. I’ve been writing a book for the last two years now (off and on between everything that has happened to us and the world between August of 2016 and today). A large chunk of the writing is about what it has been like parenting with chronic illnesses. As I looked back on blog posts and diary entries and photo albums I have been reckoning with the idea that my youngest had inherited pretty severe anxiety from me. I wasn’t sure if it was the messaging he got when I was undiagnosed and very sick (that the world can be scary and unpredictable), or a unique set of genes that seem to have skipped my oldest. I blamed myself, often, for passing this on to him. I had stalled out on a chapter called “Inheritance” because I needed to make peace with my internalized ableism, with the idea that having my children become like me might be a curse. I have passed Lyme down to my oldest, but so far his immune system is keeping it in check. Lyme is awful, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone much less my children who didn’t ask to be born. The harder part, though, is seeing some personality traits that had plagued and tortured me much of my life live on in them.

Especially with my youngest. I recognized the same reactions to failure that I had, the same reluctance to try something new or to try something new publicly. The same pressure to make creative endeavors perfect. I have a lot of blog posts about these moments with him. I have worked with myself so much to make sure I am not passing down an environment soaked in perfectionism. I’ve tried so hard practicing being kind to myself. I’ve tried to model taking chances that just ten years ago would have been completely unthinkable because it would have involved too much risk. But, just as with my illnesses, a purely cognitive, positive-messaging, psychological approach made only a small amount of difference. That difference was important, and necessary, and has made our family life a lot happier, but it didn’t change the underlying anxiety that was humming throughout our days.

Even though I gave up dairy six years ago based on a food diary and accompanying horrible symptoms, I never felt I had a problem with gluten. I swore up and down that the few times I gave up gluten felt worse that ingesting it. Until I got treatment for Lyme. And we tested my oldest for Lyme. And tested out an elimination diet for all of us this summer. Turns out a huge amount of my immovable fatigue was related to eating gluten. And my inability to regulate body temperature. And my neck and shoulder pain. But it was so obscured by all of the other horrible symptoms I was experiencing that I didn’t recognize it.

Turns out that the current of disabling anxiety electrifying my youngest’s brain starts when gluten in his system flips the switch. I don’t want to tell all the details right now, because it is hard to think about how often he must have felt so awful. Suffice it to say, when he eats gluten he becomes inconsolable. All those years of trying to comfort him through his worst times with a hug and the right words and not having them work became clear. There is only so much a hug can help when your brain feels like it is on fire. And until he had days without his brain being on fire he thought this was an inevitable part of who he was. He would tell me he hated himself. He can feel the difference now. He doesn’t hate himself any more. He does still hate how he feels when he is off, but he can separate that feeling from who he intrinsically is.

One morning recently he had cereal that was not officially gluten-free; it was made in a factory that also produces wheat cereals. Within fifteen minutes his eyes became glassy and he started to tell me his joints hurt and he didn’t want to go to school and just hugged me tighter and tighter. I had him take enzymes that can help break down gluten in case of accidental ingestion. Within another ten minutes his emotions righted themselves. It was scary and telling. There is no doubt in my mind that gluten has been hurting him for years.

This may also be inherited. It could be Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that can run in families with other autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto’s or Rheumatoid Arthritis. I could take a 23 and Me test to see if I carry genetic mutations for Celiac. As I go gluten-free some of my autoimmune conditions seem to be reversing, so it is possible that it isn’t just a sensitivity but a trigger for my body to keep damaging itself. My youngest has had lots of disparate and seemingly unrelated symptoms that also make sense in the context of Celiac, although he never had classic symptoms. I never had classic symptoms. If it hadn’t been for this experiment I may have never known. And as an Italian-American foodie, I might never have given up my carb-heavy lifestyle without this push. And my youngest inherited those sensibilities from me. He wants to have a cannoli food truck when he grows up. We’ve ordered some gluten-free cannoli shells online.

One article I read said that a child’s system may repair itself 3-6 months after adopting a gluten-free diet. All I know is that after about six weeks of a gluten-free diet my child’s sense of self-esteem and self-worth has improved a ton and a weight that was on my heart has been removed. He talks about his ideas so much more. Homework isn’t the same struggle, neither are chores or new hobbies.

My chapter called “Inheritance” isn’t stalled so much now as it is complicated by every new twist and turn, but somehow I don’t feel the same guilt as I once did. Quite possibly because my youngest isn’t suffering the same way he once was. Quite possibly because I’m not suffering the way I once was. The random nature of how the universe assigns predispositions and chance encounters in diverse environments and how that all comes together to create your life – I cannot take the blame for the whole universe. I can’t take blame for possibly being an asymptomatic Celiac sufferer born to family with a great-lasagna-making Italian grandmother. I can’t take the blame for not knowing I was bitten by a Lyme-carrying tick when I was six.

But I can take credit for every time now I try to make my youngest his favorite foods without gluten, and how I’ll tell him that this isn’t my most polished or logical essay, but I got writing done today and I am proud of myself for that, and all those years of hugs that didn’t solve him feeling horrible but at least let him know that we were there.

Essay at Rooted in Rights

 

Garden Lites
Image Description: A box of Garden Lites Chocolate Muffins that are dairy-free and gluten-free

 

Hi Everyone!

I have a sort of unusual essay/article out today at Rooted in Rights, a disability advocacy group. It is called As a Chronically Ill Mom, Even Tater Tots Are a Way to Show My Kids Love . It’s about being a mom, food being love, preservatives, the Standard American Diet and convenience foods, and it’s part of the conversation around Mother’s Day about what it means to be a disabled mama. I hit a lot of topics in 1000 words!

Hope you are all having a great Mother’s Day weekend!

Love,

Kristin

 

My Digital Home

Digital House
Image Description: a house with most of it’s siding removed
and some grey siding newly installed on the side

I haven’t blogged in a long time. It isn’t for lack of trying-I tried to post something just a couple of weeks ago and a glitch erased it all, pictures, image descriptions, the whole text. Which is probably a good thing as it was kind of pitiful, as in, I was feeling a lot of self-pity. It felt like the universe correcting me, telling me to try again with a little less blah.

Here I am. I started this blog in 2014 as a creative outlet for myself, a place where I could get short essays down and into the world and feel more connected to it. To have a space that was mine to shape and polish and decorate as I wanted, away from the needs of my two kids and the needs of my errant (and in a nod to Roxane Gay, “unruly”) body. I haven’t been able to use this that way for a bit. Oh, there has been self-promotion here and there, but a little essay every other week? Not so much. And that has started to bum me out.

Sure, there are somewhat good reasons for it.

I got warned by ambitious freelancers to never post a piece to your blog for free until you try to sell it. You know, realizing that writing is work and should be appropriately compensated. A great idea in theory-in practice I am absolutely wretched at pitching, and waiting forever to see if a submission has been accepted or if a pitch has landed is bad for my mental health. It was unsustainable for me. And I have discovered that I am really bad at coming up with timely think-pieces that have enough foothold for a broad audience.

Another factor was that I didn’t want to take what little time I had away from actually completing the book I am working on. It’s a work-in-progress, a collection of essays, a memoir about being chronically ill, that is going incredibly slowly at the moment. Part of the problem is that my illnesses, the subject of the book, keep shifting and changing requiring rewrites and reimagining and review. Time is eaten away quickly.

A third factor has been managing my health. I was diagnosed in January with Lyme disease, and I have most likely had it since I was six. The infection just took over when my immune system was under so much stress from two pregnancies and two C-sections and a recession about eight years ago, and I couldn’t cope anymore. So many mysterious and seemingly unrelated systemic problems came from that. Treatment is hard, many hours of the day it feels as if even my individual cells need deep breathes and stillness. Most of the day is spent letting my body rest. I never let it rest before-because I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia which has no known cause and no known cure I had opted to play through the pain, pushing through because my life was going to stagnate if I didn’t. I had social media schedules where I planned on Sunday night what Facebook posts I was going to post that week. I tweeted. I participated in every group I could get into. I got a blog post done every two weeks. I submitted and submitted and submitted. Then I got tired. And more tired. And more tired. And finally had to stop. Because I just couldn’t go anymore. I submitted, finally, to my body’s needs.

In the midst of this I asked myself what was it I wanted out of writing and getting published. I really thought it through because moving the goalposts was wearing me out. With the election of 2016 I wondered if what I wanted most was to be a voice for change, an activist. I asked myself if what I wanted was to be famous, like David Sedaris, or Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess), having fabulous fun book tours and interviews and the like. Did I want respect, to have the approval of the upper echelon in the literary world? Did I want to have a followers who can’t wait to see what I say next?

Then it hit me. All those things are wonderful. Any of those goals fulfilled would be rewarding. When those goals are achieved by other people I feel envious and there is a tendril in my heart of longing-especially on days when illness and treatment make those goals dance further and further away from my grasp. My real goal? I will do anything in my power to keep being allowed to tell what the world looks like from my point of view.

To achieve this goal, there are barely any gatekeepers. I can do that here, any time I want. I don’t have to wait for editors or agents or the Submittable queue. I don’t need to have an MFA to be allowed to do this. Nor do I need to wait the six months after I enter a contest to find out if the judges enjoyed my work. I don’t have to start my own literary magazine. What I want to be able to do, I already can do. It’s rare that that is true, especially in my body. What I really want to do is what I already am capable of doing.

This is my digital home. If I want to write about what Vanellope Von Schweetz means to me I don’t have to wait until I find just the right quirky paying home for that essay. If I want to talk about my son’s broken ankle and how people think he is perpetually miserable about it when he isn’t, I can do that without fighting for a spot in the Washington Post Talent Network, pitching the idea and hoping it doesn’t end up with a misleading title.

I want a place to show the peonies in my garden, and a little girl refusing to play Duck, Duck, Goose just to give the appearance of friendliness. I have that place. I just forget that I already do.

The other day at Ulta I found myself looking at every shade of lipstick, drawn again and again to the reds, which is unusual for me. I almost shelled out 35 bucks for a lip liner and lipstick. Then I realized that although I hadn’t used it since a gala fundraiser in 2015, I had an almost identical red at home. Here’s to using the clothes and the makeup and the utensils and the tools we already have before going out and buying more. Here’s to remembering that if what I want to do is be allowed to tell my stories, I already have a way to do that.

Here’s to putting up siding, painting the hallways and redecorating my digital home.

New Essay at Full Grown People- “Spectator”

Rectangle of outside
                                          The Rectangle                                              Image description: A picture window that shows a wintery outside world

 

Hi Everyone!

It’s been a bit since I posted, huh? I am really happy to be able to, to let you know I have a new essay up at Full Grown People today called Spectator. It is about living life watching instead of participating, because often that is what I am able to do. It is also about parent participation night and third grade basketball. It’ll all make sense, I promise!

Love,

Kristin

 

N Basketball
            The Basketballer as a Third Grader                  Image Description: A smiling brown haired boy in an orange Illini jersey sitting at a table

BCP

BCP
Image description: A countertop with a contact case, contact solution, nail scisssors and hormone replacement pills

As a writer who mines her life for stories, it guts me to know that women have to put intensely personal stories of suffering on display every time the government wants to strip away protections we need for our well-being.

It makes me sick that women who may not be ready for anyone to know about the sexual harassment or even assault they endured feel compelled to speak out when Betsy DeVos rolls back protections for rape victims.

That women who have never before publicly shared the pain of losing a much wanted child after twenty weeks gestation have to go into detail about how they and their baby were on the edge of death to explain that banning abortions after twenty weeks is not protecting lives but endangering them.

And now Republicans are stripping away the federal protection that says employers must cover access to birth control pills and women are once again having to share personal stories about what access has meant for them.

I am extremely grateful women have, and I am going to share my story with birth control today to continue that conversation. We are realizing that we have more in common than we knew by breaking open these taboo subjects. We are reaching new understanding and empathy for what women have had to be silent about. But I firmly believe it is a form of violence to create a situation where someone has to bare their souls and all the intimate details of their lives at a time prescribed by someone else. It is a violation to create an atmosphere where people have to beg for their lives publicly, sharing things no one else has really known to get oppressors to see their victims as human. Yet here we are.

I would have told these stories anyways, in my own time, and I feel they may do more good than harm, but I do believe my agency to tell them when I want to has be taken away.

As a teenager I had intensely painful cramps. Every month the first day of my period was wave after wave of rolling pain that left me unable to stand, unable to breathe without pain, unable to live my life. The pain would be so intense that crying was out of the question, as the irregular jarring motion of a sob would tug my body even more painfully. I would eventually vomit from the pain and once I had I would practically pass out and sleep would help erase most of the pain. Ibuprofen and naproxen helped some, but were unable to touch most of the pain. I would miss a day of work or school each time this happened.

One afternoon in high school my period came a day earlier than I had expected. I started to slump over at my desk in pain and asked to go to the bathroom. About twenty minutes later a teacher found me there, lying on the floor, unable to get up the pain was so intense. I was taken out in a wheelchair barely conscious.

Going on birth control pills a few years after that saved me. I still felt tremendous pain each time my period started, but it became bearable, livable. I could go to school, I could go to work. I was finally able to not spend a day each month willing myself to be silent and calm and still when the worst pain of my life washed over me because breathing deeply through it was the only thing that could save me.

I was on a low dose birth control through college and the early years of my marriage when I became pregnant with my first born while still taking them. For a short window of time my body was very fertile, sending out eggs even with the hormones in birth control pills trying to convince my body I was already pregnant and didn’t need any to be sent out. I was surprised, but happily surprised when this happened. I don’t know how I would have felt if, without birth control pills at all, I would most certainly have gotten pregnant in my early rather than late twenties. I would not have been remotely close to ready at a younger age.

After the birth of my first child I went on very strong birth control pills, and was able to prevent pregnancy during a tenuous stretch of time when I was a very new mother with post-partum depression living far away from family. It should be noted that once we decided we were ready to be parents again I got pregnant the very first month I stopped taking birth control pills.

After my second child was born I developed fibromyalgia and for the first few years of his life I was in near constant pain. It would have been a huge burden for all of us to bear if I had gotten pregnant again in the throes of lightening pain that went up and down my arms and legs and back. We would have all suffered tremendously.

I am no longer on birth control pills, but only because I am now going through early perimenopause and take hormone replacement therapy that helps control the pain of fibromyalgia for me.

For nearly twenty years of my life birth control pills were absolutely necessary, both to let me live without the excruciating pain that ran my life like clockwork as a teenager and to allow me to have an intimate relationship with my husband without becoming pregnant with more children than we could plan for.

Birth control pills made my life MINE. It gave me some mastery over my body and my circumstances and was so very, very, important.

And I am beyond angry that they are to become less accessible again, that the agency of women to have control over their own family planning and in some cases the ability TO LIVE LIFE IN LESS PAIN will be put at a price many women can’t afford to pay.

And I am beyond angry that the agency women have to control the narrative of what birth control pills have done for women has now been compromised.

But here is my story anyways.

 

Moving

We decided last spring that it was time to start looking for a new house.

Scratch that “we”. My husband has been ready for a long time. Every other time we’ve moved -from Illinois, to Tennessee, to Texas, to Illinois- we had to do it quickly. A transfer with a few weeks notice, a three day hunt for a new place and about a month to say goodbye and hello and forward all our mail and set up a new phone number. Each time we knew that we would be staying just a few years, that the company would pay for the move and buy our old house if we needed them to.

Our last move was done this way (we saw about twenty different houses over two days with headcolds) when we moved back to Illinois with our one year old baby. In fact, his first birthday was when we closed on it. It was the absolute best option at the time, even with a fence that blocked off any and all access to the back yard. It felt airy and roomy. Light spilled in the way it had in our house in Texas, which was not an easy feat as the money we paid near Houston stretched a lot further than it did in the Chicago suburbs, making windows and space a bit of a luxury. We had three bedrooms which worked at the time-one baby+one home office+one master suite. It gave my husband space to renovate without being a complete renovation. We knocked down the fence and had this view-

Outside View
Image Description: a patio furniture set with a green yard and hedges in the distance

-for the next ten years. It was my favorite.

Then it got small for us. The house sat on a slab, and we never had a basement or a crawlspace. The shed that had been on the property had been…odd. It had blocked our view and had been illegally wired with electricity and air conditioning for the previous owners’ pet dogs, and it really needed to come down. We had little storage to begin with and we added another kid. Both boys fit in one room when they were preschoolers and kindergartners, but as they got bigger, as my oldest got to be almost as tall as me and his clothes literally busted out of the changing table we had converted into a dresser, the whole place felt tighter and tighter. My youngest plays piano and my aunt’s neighbor couldn’t find someone to buy his upright but wanted it to have a good home. We had to turn down a free piano because all the space we had was already spoken for.

I had resisted the idea that we needed somewhere new for a about six years of the last ten. I argued that we were accumulating things too thoughtlessly and discretion would buy us more space. I argued that I never wanted my kids to become spoiled, that it was important to me that they be grateful for what they already had. I argued that a bigger house just meant more to clean, or that it meant I had to pretend to be fancier than I was, or that we would be tempting fate and might drown in debt that I couldn’t help pay down because I was sick.

Because I was sick.

That was the real reason. The house had become my world for the last seven or so years that my health had started to decline. Whenever I was too sick to move, I could still see the backyard through our sliding glass door. The house was always there for me when venturing in the outside world was not possible, when I had been in too much pain to risk going out in the cold, when I was exhausted to the point of vomiting after being up half the night with babies or low blood sugar, when new medications made me too dizzy to drive-home was there for me. When my husband traveled for work and the boys were in bed and insomnia had a hold on me, the house held me and helped me feel safe. I didn’t want to lose that. But it had also become a cage, a place I had become afraid of leaving because I didn’t trust in my own ability to navigate the world while sick. Here I could hide how bad I felt, or nurse myself back to health. It was refuge and prison cell after so many years sick within its walls.

The house had also become a metaphor for how I felt about my broken body. I knew its limitations as intimately as I knew my own and every time my husband would complain that the roofline was not particularly attractive, that the electricity was tricky, that the rooms were small or the spaces limited I would feel stung. I felt embarrassed and angry for the house that he could only see its shortcomings and not the wonderful things it already held. I felt defensive, like I was fighting for my own worth, fighting against being discarded myself. I fought for him to appreciate the love and care he had put into decorating it, the creativity it held, the memories the boys made there, the memories I made as a young mother that no one else will remember because they were too young. I fought for the yard and the view and the windows and the landscaping we planted together. I fought for it like I was fighting to keep myself important.

I realized over time that yes, the house was a good house that would serve another family well; that I wasn’t being replaced with something newer, fancier or less trouble; that I had let myself become confined by its walls and that there wasn’t anymore room for me to grow or breathe or become something bigger than I had been for the last few years. It was time to look for a new place.

A place with room for each of us to be more, for my husband who was feeling stifled by the lack of new projects to be creative with our home again, room for the boys to be independent and to move without bumping into walls with their bigger bodies, room for hobbies and interests and collections. Room and space to dance and cook and sing. Room to hold onto things that are important to us. Room to expand beyond where we were. Room to feel free instead of constrained.

I finally knew it was time, but still had to be dragged through the process of it all kicking and screaming, afraid of what I was losing, not really able to visualize what I would gain. When you go for years losing, voluntarily letting go of something that had been so important to you is incredibly hard. Well, it was for me, and I assume it is for other people.

Moving Boxes
Image Description: Moving boxes and miscellaneous stuff stacked high in a garage.

 

This time, for the first time in our lives, we had time to really look. We had time to decide. We looked at houses from the beginning of May all the way through August and decided we wouldn’t settle for something that was close enough, as we had had to before. We finally found a place, after looking at every listed house in town for an entire summer, just on the other side of the pond where we had been living. After fretting about the boys moving schools, it is looking like they won’t have to. After grieving over missing our neighbors, they are literally just a five minute walk away. We haven’t closed on the house yet, but I am cheered that we didn’t even lose the view I came to love so much-we’ll just be seeing it from a different angle.

But we will have more space to grow.

It pains me to say it, but my husband was right. The process was hard and painful in a lot of ways-our boys have never (really) lived anywhere else and were doubtful they would survive the move, I had to confront the ways I had let being sick limit me, we had to ask all our family to help move most of our things into storage since we were still looking for the right place as our place sold more quickly than we thought it would. But it has been necessary. And worth all the trouble.