Personal Life · Writing

On Rest

I fucked up. That’s due to the belated realization that I didn’t listen to my body when I really needed to rest.

If you read last week’s blog post, you may have noticed the section on writing where I mentioned I struggled and was a bit fried. Historically, November is a bad month for me. It’s a yearly clusterfuck where lots of grading and keeping track of all the things my classes have due intersects with the time change and the days getting shorter, which also intersects with seeing giant NaNoWriMo word counts (this is a morale sapper since I write small-ish daily word counts). I logically know that November is a bad mental month for me as I tend to use up more brainpower between work and Christmas prep and have less spoons in general. And yet, my dumb ass continues to do what it has been doing at a pace it is not capable of without consequences.

I feel like I dragged my tired corpse through November while chanting the refrain of “You did it in October and September, and you can do it again.” Am I more organized and driven than I’ve been in previous years? Yes. Does November still kick my ass despite all that? Apparently so.

Since the end of last year, I’ve been using the HB90 method for goal setting, project planning, etc., and it has been very helpful. The problem is that I blissfully forgot or willfully ignored that November kicks my butt. Somehow, I thought, I have my shit together this year and am doing well. Surely this won’t happen this year.

Sadly, I felt it coming before I was aware of what was happening and still ignored it. I struggled at the end of October to get through my word count goals. I chocked that up to my book launching and not really having my head fully in the game due to launch anxiety, which was a reasonable assessment. The problem was that the feeling persisted into November and only got worse. By the middle of November, I was drained. I had edited a bunch of research papers (longest and most thorough paper my students write, which means it takes the most brain power to give feedback on), I was struggling to read books with any consistency (a major red flag for me), and my writing was only happening in fits and starts. I would fall behind, then pound out a thousand words, then not write again for several days in an endless cycle of misery and disappointment. The biggest, most obvious indication should have been the all-consuming yearning to play Stardew Valley. Yes, my friends, my desire to play that video game usually means my brain is shot and needs serotonin. I can mindless do tasks, play for hours, and feel accomplished as my crops grow and I romance Shane, my favorite hot mess. It’s something I know is basically my check engine light coming on, but I ignored it anyway because I was already behind on my writing and I couldn’t fall more behind playing video games.

Well, guess what, I never caught up. At some point, I hit 8,000 of the 10,000 words and said, we’re good. I admitted defeat after blowing a tire on my car in a near accident. I’m now starting to wonder if the brain drain contributed to that as well, but it was the wake up call I needed to stop for a bit and try to refill my creative well. Since the very end of November, I’ve been reading more, just sort of vegging while watching shows I like, and playing a bit of Stardew Valley before bed. It has helped a lot. I’m starting to feel like I can think straight again, though I know some of that is because the semester is also about to end.

If there’s one thing I need to get better at, it’s listening to my body when it comes to productivity and writing. It gave me so many warning signs that I need to pause for a day or two, but I ignored them to avoid “falling behind” on arbitrary deadlines I set for myself. Now, instead of taking a day or two off to reset, I’ve had to take a full week off. It certainly isn’t the worst outcome, but I’m annoyed at myself for making things needlessly worse. In my bullet journal for 2023, I’m going to make a signs of burnout page to remind myself that sometimes I need to just rest and decompress, that the work will be there tomorrow, and the only one putting pressure on me is me.

If you’re like me and starting to feel the chafe of burnout, please, take a step back, do something that brings you joy, and just exist for a bit. Don’t do or try to force, just rest. Whatever resting looks like to you, take this as the universe’s way of telling you to go rest. You deserve it, you don’t need to earn it, just give the well a chance to refill.

Personal Life

On Autistic (Un)masking

Something I have been trying to do these past few months is mask less. Masking in this case is not trying to act neurotypical. Most autistic and neurodivergent people fake it til we make it. We know there is a social protocol that we should follow, whether it makes any logical sense to us or not. If you aren’t sure what I mean, here’s an example: When someone says, “How are you?” they really aren’t asking how you are. Unless they are a very good friend or your partner or someone on that level, they don’t care. It’s an empty small talk question, and the only acceptable answer is good, okay, or to complain about something you both don’t like (like work or a sports team losing). If you say, “Ugh, my IBS was acting up over the weekend and I’m exhausted,” they will look at you like you have lost your mind or stop asking you how you are. Or my absolute favorite, they will ask and keep walking. Tell me you don’t care without telling me you don’t care.

Anyway, masking is somehow equal parts passive and purposeful. There are times when the mask just automatically appears, like someone catches you off-guard or you say your automatic responses to things. For people who may not realize they’re autistic or can’t unmask, it will be far more automatic but still completely exhausting. Most of the time, masking is something we feel keenly, especially if we’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s the mental equivalent of unzipping a tight pair of pants when you get home or tossing off your bra after work. When I’m masking, I’m constantly doing mental calculations. Am I holding eye contact long enough? Am I doing it too long? Do people think I’m being shifty? Am I talking about something inappropriate? Have I said something by accident that will make my friend hate me? Masking makes any prolonged social interaction something I need days to recover from. Being “normal” is exhausting, and even masking, I don’t do a terribly good job.

What I’ve tried doing is essentially “coming out” as autistic to my students. Quite a few of them are neurodivergent, which helps. I don’t lead with it day one, but I make it clear that I accept self-diagnoses and self-made accommodations for people who are neurodivergent. Once I start talking, I’m sure some have an inkling. Eventually this semester, I came out to both classes sort of by accident, and it was a MASSIVE relief. I still watch my words and make sure I don’t accidentally hurt someone’s feelings, but not having to worry about eye contact or modulating my speech patterns makes teaching so much less exhausting. Personally, I think I’m more engaging when I loosen up and allow myself to be weird in class (especially knowing the laughs I receive are not mocking). The hope is that it will also make my students more comfortable, and for some, meeting a neurodivergent professor and/or writer may also be affirming.

The problem is that because I’m masking less, when I feel like I need to mask due to the situation (doctor’s office, grocery store, extended family, etc.), it is exhausting. It is so much worse than it usually is because I’m not accustomed to doing it as much. It’s like not exercising and being told to run a mile. I just want to collapse in a heap of social exhaustion after masking now. I used to be able to sort of hold it off until I totally fried myself, which is not great, and it sucks because I want to mask less. I need to. It’s better for my mental health to not be “on” constantly, especially when being “on,” is being akin to being a different person. But I can’t not mask all the time because it isn’t safe to, and the social repercussions of being unmasked around people who don’t understand are not worth the backlash. I absolutely dread the times I need to socially mask now, and I hate how much I’m not looking forward to holiday gatherings because of it. You would think family would be the people you could be yourself with, but when they think of autism as only non-verbal people who have high needs, they don’t believe you, even if you meet the criteria in spades and they think you’re weird.

I’m already still semi in the closet with being queer and nonbinary around my family, so compounding it with not outing myself as autistic, creates a day full of exhaustion and stifling un-Kara-ness. The stiff smiling, awkward(er) version of me feels so pale in comparison to the vibrant weirdo I know I can be when I’m with my students or my friends/partner. I just wish I felt comfortable letting that version of me out more often.

Personal Life

On Classroom Accommodations

A post online the other day brought up something that hits on two major intersections in my life: teaching and being neurodivergent. The post talked about how professors/teachers need to stop treating students’ accommodations as charity they allow them to have and something that allows a marginalized person to participate more fully in the class/discussion/college community.

If you don’t know what accommodations are, they’re often things like giving a student with ADHD more time in class for tests or allowing a diabetic student to eat in class if their blood sugar is low. In order for students to receive accommodations in class, there are often a lot of hoops they have to jump through, such as having a diagnosis, getting a doctor to write up the accommodation, having the school approve it, having it passed out to the professors and signed off on, AND the professor still can sort of shrug it off. The student can always complain to academic affairs or whatever office deals with IEPs/accommodations, but that requires energy and cooperation from the office with no promise that the professor will ultimately cooperate or not hold it against the student for pushing back.

Something I instituted in my class this semester is a self-diagnosis policy. Often students who are autistic or have ADHD struggle to get a diagnosis as an adult or find getting a diagnosis could actually work against them (I have avoided an official autism diagnosis because you can be denied organ transplants among other things. Look it up; it’s an awful, ableist policy centered around “quality of life”). Since my classes are writing-focused, there aren’t tests, which makes allowing for extra time or other accommodations easier (no dealing with the Academic Support Center, etc.), but I have had students with anxiety, migraines, stomach issues, etc. who end up missing class more than the average student. My policy is now that as long as you keep up with your work and give me a heads-up, we’re good.

There’s some professor out there who is going, “But if I let one do that, they’ll all do that!” Shockingly, they don’t. They really, really don’t. I have had students reach out to me due to extenuating circumstances or medical issues, and so far, they always keep up with their work. The rest of the class continues on as is. Those who need it, use it. Those who don’t, don’t. If you’re not sure why this matters for quality of life, let me tell you the story of why I stopped going to a professional to get my hair cut.

As a little background, I have eczema crop up all over my body. In the past, before I started taking a biologic, it was severe, and it’s aggravated by chemicals, fragrances, etc. to the point that I only use one kind of shampoo. I also have sensory problems where things most people take for granted REALLY bother me. People touching my head or face is not a fun experience. The hair dryer is hell as it is hot, loud, but the stop and start of it just frays my nerves after while. Even a hairbrush running across my scalp bothers me if I’m stressed enough.

My aunt was going to one hairdresser who was younger and very nice. I asked my aunt to ask her if I could come to the salon with a wet head, so she didn’t have to wash my hair (aka avoid the shampoo and copious head touching). She agreed, and I went. Everything went great. My hair looked nice, and she even asked if I wanted my hair dried or left damp the second time I visited her, and from then on, we just left it damp to dry naturally. I have straight hair that dries quickly, so it looks fine after. Avoiding having my hair washed and dried made getting a haircut far less stressful. I actually didn’t hate it, though the talking throughout was less than ideal but doable.

The problem came up with my preferred hairdresser switched days and salons, and I couldn’t see her. I was desperate for a haircut before the semester started that year, so I booked an appointment with someone my other aunt used in the same salon. Big mistake. She ran roughshod over my needs. I came with a wet head, and she made me get my hair washed. I protested, and she just ushered me over the shampoo girl anyway. It caught me by such surprise that I just sort of blanked instead of fighting it further. Everything went downhill from there. My head already was itching. I told her what I wanted and showed her pictures, and she went rogue because a different length would “look better with my face.” I asked if she could not blow dry my hair, and she ignored me again. By the time I left, I was ready to cry. I was angry and frustrated that she ignored things she could have easily accommodated and completely overstimulated me. It’s been several years, and I haven’t gone back to get my hair professionally cut for fear that any accommodation I ask for will be treated like I’m being dramatic.

I keep this trip to the salon in mind when students tell me they’re struggling with something or need something to help them succeed. It isn’t “special” treatment, it’s creating equity in the classroom by leveling the playing field and removing barriers that would hinder a students’ ability to function. By ignoring an accommodation, at best, you’re making things harder than they have to be. At worst, you are actively harming your student. The hairdryer made me more overstimulated, making it harder to get through the haircut experience. The shampoo full of fragrances I didn’t want them to use actively harmed my skin, and I got an eczema flare on my scalp and neck the next day.

Something other teachers might want to consider when a students asks for an official or unofficial accommodation is that not every disability or illness is visible or consistent. I have IBS. Luckily it’s IBS-C, which doesn’t interfere too much with my life. Imagine having IBS-D and telling your professor you can’t come to a workshop class because you’re in the middle of a flare (aka frequent bathroom trips) but you will send in your feedback to your groupmates in hopes of getting credit. And your professor fires back, you look fine most of the time and to get credit, you have to be present bodily. Should your student have to disclose that they are worried about shitting themselves in class in order for you to let them do their work remotely? On the neurodivergent side of things, I don’t tell everyone I’m neurodivergent because people have some weird assumptions they will apply to you. If you say you’re autistic, people will treat you differently if they don’t know you and what you’re capable of. Students shouldn’t have to make themselves vulnerable and open to potential ridicule or ableism by disclosing specifics.

As we head into the middle of the semester, I want you to think about what your reaction to reading this was. My fear is always that someone says, “If they can’t handle it, they shouldn’t be here.” Why shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t an autistic student or a chronically ill student be at school? What about their condition precludes them from accessing a good education? What makes their education less worthy than that of their neurotypical or non-chronically ill peer? The bootstrap attitude is ableist bullshit, and if you’re reaction was to question the student’s value or fitness, I hope you will seek out chronically ill or neurodivergent authors to work on yourself because you really don’t belong in a classroom if you’re going to actively hinder your students. To those who want to better support their students, I hope you will allow for unofficial accommodations in your future classrooms.

Personal Life

Quiet, Useful Objects

Something I’ve been longing to do but haven’t due to the pandemic is go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum looms largely in my mind because it’s one of the places I feel most peaceful, which is odd because the journey to and from the museum stresses me out and takes at least a day to recover from, but the museum itself is one of the few places where my head doesn’t feel like it’s constantly buzzing.

Photo by Charles Parker on Pexels.com

Part of that peace is that I’ve been there more than I’ve probably been to any location that isn’t a local store. For years, I made yearly birthday pilgrimages to the Met to visit my favorite pieces of art or walk along its stone halls and balconies hoping to see that one exhibit that always seems to be under renovation. When talking to friends, I’ve realized that my ideal trip to the Met is a little different than most.

When you first enter the Met, you can choose to go left to Rome and Greece or right to Egypt or straight ahead to the Byzantine/early Medieval galleries (this one being the least chosen path or only used as a way to reach the massive knee-breaking steps to the European painting galleries upstairs). I like to arrive early in the morning to avoid the crush of children and visitors in the summer, but even at the opening, Egypt is mobbed, and the galleries off the main room are a labyrinth. Instead, I make a break through the center galleries and head straight for the European Decorative Arts galleries. There’s the thrill of the chase to escape the bustle of the more popular exhibits, and the drop of blood pressure when the ceilings rise to reveal the two facades of the museum in the sculpture court, a gap where you can see that the museum was added onto in the early 1900s.

This is where I visit old friends. Winter by Houdon being the first sculpture I acknowledge upon arrival. Marble and bronze sculptures line the walls and break up the long courtyard, which ends in a glass wall where you can see Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park. Standing in that gallery feels like standing in the intersection of time. Each wall is a different style, the art is a mix of classical and modern (for their time), and an Ancient Egyptian obelisk presides over it all while I stand watch in jeans and a t-shirt.

Surrounding this gallery are rooms that are filled with personal objects and antiques. These are far more modern than other parts of the museum, think 1600s and newer, but they are my favorite. My face is glued to cabinets full of miniature portraits of people whose names have no context but were loved enough to kept close. Desks inlaid with mother of pearl stars and stained with errant ink or painted fans carried to operas or balls steal my attention. I love detail. The pieces in the European Decorative Arts galleries are most certainly objects of the well-to-do, but they spark my imagination. There are few things that fascinate me more than a clever object that was as useful as it was beautiful. I try to imagine the world the object resided in before it came to the museum. What did it see sitting on a shelf in the parlor or at the edge of a desk? Best of all are the period rooms where the walls and furniture from a real place continents away have been installed in the museum. My back straightens and the world quiets as I stand in these rooms, the parquet floor whining under my soft steps. Who lived here and how did it feel long ago?

On the other side of the last few galleries is the American Wing, which is typically my last stop before lunch. One cannot journey back in time on an empty stomach. These galleries are much the same with lots of Federalist furniture pieces, window dressings on your historical drama. I try to picture Austen-like tales set against the backdrop of bright American wallpapers and sculpted pewter cups. There’s a strange section in this gallery that appears almost like an antique store. It’s row upon row upon row of glass cases filled with bedraggled furniture. A labyrinth to dead objects. All at once, I find it unsettling and comforting after seeing so much beauty. Chair legs chewed by a dog, seats that need restringing, a bed set stacked up without its mattress. The museum’s attic on full display.

The upper stories of the American Wing are lovely but unfortunately trigger my fear of heights. I creep away from the railing or cling to my partner in what I hope looks like casual affection but is bone-deep terror of crashing headfirst to the stone floor below. But I’ll do it to see intricate glass and metalwork done by artisans now nameless and faceless, skilled hands lost to time like the builders of pyramids. A sampler done by a child catches my eye, though I don’t know if she survived to adulthood. Embroideries, quilts, gloves covered in tiny stitches, women’s work taken for granted. That’s truly what catches my eye, the details taken for granted. The things we eat off and drink from, the decoration that sits on our desk for years, the handsome legs of a chair never noticed until put in isolation.

Quiet objects.

Perhaps that’s why I’m no longer called to Egypt or Rome or even the galleries of paintings. There is no quiet. Their grandiosity smothers me, and it’s too much. I’d rather spend my day studying the curves of a teapot than a tempest tossed sea or a ruler slaying the conquered in stone. Even in Egypt and Rome, I find myself gravitating to the broken pots, chunks of fabric, and unstrung jewelry. Disappointment washes over me when I read the tiny placard and know no more of how it was accomplished, how hands long ago weaved or carved or glazed to make a quiet, useful thing, a thing taken for granted for its normality. Still taken for granted today.

Personal Life · The Reanimator's Heart · Writing

The Fear of Success

This isn’t actually the post I had planned to put up this week, so bear with me if this seems off the cuff because it is.

Since the end of last year, I’ve been trying to get my shit together, especially in regard to my writing life. I ended up taking both of Sarra Canon’s classes, HB90 (a planning/goal setting system) and Publish and Thrive (a course on indie publishing), because I felt like I was spaghetti flinging hoping what I was doing would work. I’ve been sort of methodically moving forward trying to set and hit goals in order to move toward what I want. That goal is having more time for creative pursuits, leaning more into my writing, and only teaching at the university that gives me better opportunities and is better for my mental health but pays less. I have a chunk of savings as a cushion and have been trying to strategize how I can go about doing this in a way that doesn’t totally kick my butt and doesn’t depend on my partner landing a much better job as we cannot control that.

The Reanimator’s Heart has sort of been step one in that goal. It’s the project I’ve been working on since I started trying to get my shit together, and things have been going well. I do well with structure and goals, so I have surprised myself by actually getting a lot done. After taking Publish and Thrive, I was also able to brush up on what is working in indie publishing right now, and from watching various indie authors on Youtube, I’ve been working on my publishing strategy for this book. In the past, I’ve sort of just haphazardly launched things. I would let them rip as soon as I finished or not send them to any bloggers/ARC readers. I’ve certainly done things to tank my own success because I was more excited about people reading my work than doing a good job with the launch. This time, I’ve purposely slowed myself down, made lists, made a half-formed plan for releasing this book.

The problem is that I’m scared because it’s working.

Yes, I raised my eyebrow at myself too at the realization, but as reviews have been rolling in and people are enjoying the book, I’m panicking more. The cover is beautiful (thank you, Crowglass Design), the characters are lovable messes, and the pacing and such is solid. Between this book and Kinship and Kindness, I think my skills leveled up in certain areas, and that sort of rise and recognition of that rise is scaring me.

What if this is the best book I ever put out? What if everything after this is a disappointment?

Thus far, I haven’t gotten too far into my own head, but the panicked thoughts are seeping through more and more. The pitiful thing is that this isn’t like super viral panic-worthy success. This is “I’m doing better than my previous launch” success.

After everything that’s happened these past two years and my own issues with confidence as a creative person, I am always waiting for the shoe to drop and things to go wrong. It is an absolutely shitty way to look at life, but part of me feels like I should be bracing for impact instead of celebrating that things are going well. It’s possible to do both; I wildly vacillate between “Omg, look at my preorder numbers” and nail-biting panic.

Part of this, I think, has to do with also reaching outside my comfort zone with this launch. I set up my book with a review service, and I’ve reached out to a few authors I love and respect for potential blurbs, which I’ve never been brave enough to do. Pointing eyes to my work is something that could pan out for me, but also could potentially magnify the imperfections. Logically, I know not everyone will like my book. Certain people will absolutely hate Oliver and Felipe, which is fine. It really isn’t bad reviews that are bothering me (trust me, I’ve seen enough homophobia on The Gentleman Devil‘s reviews to cure me worrying about them). It’s a fear of success.

What if this book does really well? What if more people start reading my books? What if they’re disappointed when they go through my backlist and the rest of my books aren’t as good? What if nothing I write after this is as good as The Reanimator’s Heart? Or what if someone outside my usual circle sees it and sends the 1 star mob after me due to homophobia or whatever other assholery they can come up with?

Living in the age of the internet means constantly worrying about the wrong kind of attention for your creative projects, especially if you’re a queer author writing queer characters or in this case, a neurodivergent author writing neurodivergent characters. Will someone flag Oliver as “the wrong kind” of autistic and rip me and him to shreds? I could come up with a myriad of what-ifs at this point, all of which get more illogical and self-destructive.

On the flip side, I’m constantly trying to remind myself that people preordering and/or enjoying The Reanimator’s Heart is a good thing. It means I’ve done a decent job planning this launch, and that its success might move me a step closer to my goal of having more of an income from writing. This success isn’t random is something I have to remind myself. It means that I took the things I learned and applied them in a way that worked. Like I said earlier, this isn’t a runaway, gone viral, wtf happened kind of success. This is a building upon past success with previous books to make this launch even better. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I put in the work, and by doing so, things feel less out of my control.

I’m sure I’ll still have several absolute oh-shit panic moments between now and October 25th, but I’ll just reread this post and stare at all my past to-do lists to remind myself that months of work went into this launch and I should be proud of what I’ve done instead of scared.

If you’d like to help out while simultaneously adding to my panic, you can preorder The Reanimator’s Heart here. Paperbacks will be available closer to release day.

Personal Life

How Being Nonbinary Helped My Dysphoria

For most of my life, I have had a complicated relationship with my body.

The first thing to keep in mind is that I had severe eczema over most of my body until about 2 years ago when I started taking a biologic and the eczema was beaten back to nearly nothing. I mention the eczema in a post about being nonbinary because I want to be clear that a lot of my covering up with hoodies and long pants was because people are weird about rashes. They will give you dirty looks, stare at open sores, and generally be rude. On top of that, eczema burns like a bitch when it’s exposed to the air or the skin touches other skin, so covering the folds of my arms and legs helped to mitigate that constant pain. Due to the eczema, I covered up most of my body, and people often took that for being uncomfortable with my body. I was but not in the way they thought.

My build is what some people would call sturdy. I have muscle on my calves and straight, strong shoulders. Neither fat nor thin, just in the middle but sturdy enough and tall enough (though still average) that I am certainly not petite or slight. My chest is disproportionately large, but I’m not really curvy either. Before I realized I was nonbinary, I didn’t always like my body. A lot of this has to do with growing up in the late 90s and early 00s when the in look for women was thin, almost prepubescent in terms of build, and wearing 85 layers of tight clothing. The alternative was big boobed bimbo. No shade to the bimbos of the world, I love Dolly and Elvira, but the thought of people seeing me that way because my genes decided to grace me with a disproportionate amount of fat on my chest was alarming to say the least.

At that age, I couldn’t articulate how I felt, but the fact that I couldn’t control how people perceived me terrified me. I hate that people saw me as a woman and sexualized me the moment I wore feminine clothing. I already didn’t like feminine clothing. That had been an ongoing war with my mother since I was in late elementary school. I hated dresses, hated skirts, and only wore them when my mom insisted I had to dress up. Around 10, I discovered anime tshirts and cargo shorts in the boys section of Target and let out a sigh of relief. There were other options than the booty shorts or feminine capris the girls section had to offer. T-shirts and cargo shorts hid the things that made me uncomfortable. Puberty had been a special sort of hell as a neurodivergent person and as someone who, unbeknownst to them, was experiencing dysphoria.

By the time I got to high school, the thought of putting on feminine clothing filled me with a special kind of dread. Every time I had to wear something feminine for a school event or a holiday, it felt like I was wearing an incredibly ugly costume. You know the scene in Beauty and the Beast when Beast is in the tub and they give him that ridiculous haircut and he just deadpan says that he looks stupid? That’s how I felt. This was compounded upon by the ease of my cousins’ transition into adolescence where they (seemed) to happily wear makeup, feminine clothing, played with their hair. I constantly felt like I was doing a really bad job pretending to be a woman. The label chafed and sagged, like I filled out all the wrong places. At some point, I stopped caring. I was bad at womanhood, so be it. I kept my hair pulled back, wore t-shirts, jeans, and hoodies/pullovers while giving zero shits, but the fact that people still perceived me as a woman nagged at me.

It wasn’t until I was in graduate school (so around 24-ish?), I stumbled upon the term nonbinary, and it was like everything clicked. In the past, I had debated if I was a trans man. I saw Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars when I was in college, and while I felt not-feminine, I didn’t think I felt that masculine. I was caught in a weird middle ground between masculine and feminine, none of which particularly appealed to me. When I finally understood what nonbinary people were and that they existed, it was like oh, so there’s a word for all these feelings I’ve had for years. All those moments of panic and revulsion made sense. They were dysphoria. It also helped explain why some things that were seen as feminine by others didn’t bother me.

I didn’t hate my body, per se. I hate how others perceived my body. That it was simultaneously seen as feminine yet not feminine enough because I wasn’t petite, because I had strong shoulders and legs, because I didn’t like to wear makeup or wear dresses. None of these things are inherently masculine or feminine, but society arbitrarily ascribes gender to them (aka don’t @ me for this, you know what I mean). Suddenly, my body felt less wrong. I was never a woman. I have always been nonbinary but didn’t have the word for the feelings. My strong body mixed with my long hair, chest, and generally, neutral clothing felt right.

This mix of hard and soft feels right to me and has settled the war between my body and mind substantially. I still panic at the thought of clothing that is too gendered in either direction (or what my brain deems gendered), but my dysphoria has subsided. The freedom to buy clothes I want and to say, “F it, I’m buying from the men’s department,” without caring about other people’s judgment feels right. The more I branch out, the happier I am, and it’s been nice to see my partner exploring more feminine options (often my cast-offs) and loving how he looks.

Personal Life

On Supportive Partners

Be forewarned that this will probably be a little gushy. Today is my 17th anniversary with my partner, so the thing that is first and foremost in my mind today is how much I love him and how much he supports me on a daily basis.

First off, let me introduce my partner a little. He is a programmer who also does cosplay and art, though his creativity really lies in 3D mediums (like cosplay armor). He is incredibly handy, a loving dog parent, and my goblin wrangler (I am the goblin in the relationship, every good relationship has one of each or that’s my theory). The Morticia to my Gomez, blah blah blah. I love him immensely and will happily gush about his many positive attributes, but I will spare you all for now.

I feel like today’s post is a no-brainer, but one of the best things that has happened to me is finding a partner who supports me and my creative endeavors. I should probably also define support in this case. I don’t think your partner needs to share all your interests. My partner and I certainly don’t. I don’t cosplay, he doesn’t write stories, but we’re both artists. We both respect the creative activities that we’re interested in. Earlier in my life, I thought my partner had to like the same things as me. I tried to get him to read my work or read books, and my poor ADHD-brained partner just couldn’t do it. At first, I was mad. How could my partner who loves me dearly not be actively involved in my projects? Was that not what support is?

Well, not really. Just as I am not hot gluing helmets made of foam, my partner doesn’t need to read my work in order to help. For one, he is the person I bounce ideas off of the most. Often, he’s just a sounding board because talking an issue out tends to speed up the process of figuring out where I’m going. He’s been helping with The Reanimator’s Heart and my other projects so much that he asked me to draw out a relationship diagram in order to keep everyone straight when we talk about them. While he isn’t likely to sit down with my book and read it cover-to-cover, he is the person who helps me the most on a daily basis, and I’m kind of glad he doesn’t because there are spicy scenes and part of me would be mortified if he read them. Don’t question the logic of it; it’s just embarrassing.

This past year or so, I’ve struggled a lot with self-worth and whether or not I can get my writing career back on track and try to rely more on that income. My partner has been the one to constantly remind me not to get down on myself and that I can eventually get to the place I want to be. It just might take some time. Whenever I mention wanting to learn some new craft or potentially trying to get back into more traditional types of art, he always agrees that I should. Trust me when I say my partner is not a yes-man. He will happily bring me back to earth when I start to spin off, but when it comes to my art or trying different things, he’s the first to tell me I should if it’s calling to me. I think part of it has to do with us both being artistic people who are also neurodivergent. We understand the siren call of a new skill or craft.

I posted this on Twitter the other day, but I think it’s very apropos for this post:

I found someone who appreciates me and all the weird shit that comes with loving me. He listens when I gush on and on about Our Flag Means Death and looks at the thousandth piece of cool pottery I’ve found on Instagram. I’ve been remodeling my office, and he’s gone along with every idea I’ve had in order to make it the perfect gothy oasis I’ve dreamed of. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when my partner acted like what I loved was cringe-worthy or weird or juvenile. I’ve seen a lot of people’s partner’s say things or roll their eyes when the other person starts gushing about their special interest or a new hobby. Or they’ve fully bought into the capitalist notion that every hobby should be profitable, and if they aren’t, they should be abandoned for more serious pursuits. Whatever those are.

It made me immensely sad to think about people who are in relationship where their partner doesn’t love them for all their weirdness and silly hobbies or their special interests. They don’t have to love that thing too, but they have to love and respect you enough to understand that you love them and that it is all a part of you as a person. While my partner doesn’t crochet or write or like arcade carpet, he would never dissuade me from my pursuit of those things. He knows the weirdness is what comes part and parcel with the things he loves, and trust me, he’s a fan of the weirdness too.

Happy anniversary, Peaches! I hope he knows how much I love and appreciate him and how he’s been the tent pole that props up my dreams when I struggle under their weight.

Personal Life

When You Don’t Recognize Your Face

Today’s post is probably going to be a little on the odd side as this is, I think, a niche experience. I hope it’s a niche experience because it wasn’t a very pleasant one.

If you’ve followed me for any length of time on social media, you may have seen me post about how my eczema used to be really bad until I started taking Dupixent in 2020, and it finally was brought under control. When most people think of eczema, they think of a crusty, red patch on someone’s arm or the back of their leg, but I had severe eczema. What qualifies as severe eczema? Treatment resistant, over a significant portion of your body, impairs quality of life, and flares last a long time. I had all of that.

As soon as I hit puberty around 11, the eczema patches that were on my arms and legs basically took over my entire body. I had angry, red skin that weeped over most of my body, and at the time, the doctors prescribed cream, which helped but wasn’t enough to bring down the internal inflammation. Steroid pills helped while I took them, but within days of stopping a course of steroids, the eczema came back worse. Nothing I did worked, no amount of avoiding triggers was enough. My body was raging from the inside out, and I was consumed by pain and fatigue.

It feels so dramatic to say that, but until I felt better, I didn’t realize how awful I felt at the time. My skin cracked and burned constantly. The inflammation made me exhausted (like having HORRIBLE allergies or a cold 24/7 for weeks or months on end). And my self-confidence plummeted because I looked and felt ugly. I didn’t bother to try to cover up the open wounds on my face because makeup made it more irritated. Between not having enough spoons to care and fighting a loosing battle with my skin, I gave up on giving a shit about how my face looked and stopped looking in the mirror beyond checking specific body parts (teeth, eyes, nose, etc.).

Even the clothing I wore required me to work around my eczema. I wasn’t hiding it so much as covering it in fabric that could act as a wick for sweat. In summer, I ended up wearing long-sleeve t-shirts or light hoodies and long pants because when the open wounds were exposed to the air or sweat on a hot day, they burned and got more inflamed. I was never someone who enjoyed showing skin, but what I wanted to wear and what I could wear didn’t always align. The open wounds also liked to bleed at random, so I ruined many a t-shirt that way.

When I started taking Dupixent back in 2020, I was hopeful but skeptical. My dermatologist was convinced it would help me, and I wasn’t opposed to trying an expensive medication if my insurance was willing to cover it since nothing else worked. Shockingly, it worked incredibly well. Within weeks of starting, there was marked improvement on several fronts. It turns out what I thought was a deviated septum making it hard to breathe was inflammation in my sinuses. The Dupixent calmed my whole body. My skin cleared up, my sinus passages deflated, and my asthma has all but cleared up. I no longer sound like Darth Vader when I breathe (thanks, family, for pointing that out repeatedly when I couldn’t control it). I had no idea how miserable I was since I had been suffering with such heavy inflammation for over 18 years, but now that it’s better, I can’t imagine going back to feeling that shitty. At this point, I’m paranoid about my insurance no longer covering my meds, but a post on the failings of the American healthcare system is for another day.

Now, here comes the weird dilemma: I didn’t know what my face really looked like.

I can hear some of you now. “Kara, you had a mirror, and no one swapped out your head when no one was looking.” Yes, but I have literally had eczema covering my whole face since I was 11 years old in 2002. I never really understood what my adult face looked like with clear skin and without heavy inflammation, which causes your face to look puffier than it is. My face shape has changed, my nose looks different, my skin (obviously) looks different, and now, when I stare at my face in the mirror, I have to remind myself to zoom out and see my face as a whole rather than parts. When I try to do a Tiktok or take a selfie, my brain still rebels at seeing my face. It’s simultaneously closer to the person I have in my head and incredibly jarring because I’m not used to seeing it like this. I’m not the person who is riddled with eczema and miserable. I still have inflammatory problems that like to pop up (stiff or achy joints, the occasional small eczema patch, IBS), but my quality of life is so much better that it’s painful to think of how many years I wasted feeling horrible. Not that, that could have been helped without access to Dupixent.

So, now, I’m thirty years old, and trying to figure out my face and get used to it. I’m happy that I have so many trans friends because I think they understand this feeling of suddenly not recognizing yourself but also being happy with the results. In their case, it’s hormones. In mine, it’s a lack of inflammation. I think it helps, too, that I’m nonbinary, and I don’t feel the need to cram my face into a feminine box because it certainly doesn’t fit. The other day, I made a goofy face, and my partner looked at me and was like, “You have a nice face. Your face looks very neutral, like not too girly or masculine.” Somehow, that made my day because, ultimately, I fall somewhere in the middle. Having my body cooperate with that feeling for once in its itchy, angry life still feels strange, but I’ll take the weird small victories.

Personal Life · Writing

When a Happy Ending is an Act of Defiance

I’ve been struggling to think of what to say this past week. Or really the past month or so, because most of my thoughts amount to “I have lots of feelings, none of them good.”

Living in the US, I have been constantly surrounded by headlines about overturning reproductive healthcare/abortion, attacks on queer relationships, and transphobic laws that seem to want to stamp out our existence. It’s so much all at once that it’s mind-numbing. I’m a nonbinary person with a uterus, and while my reproductive health is somewhat secure due to steps my partner and I have previously taken, this is all a lot. I think for anyone who gives a shit about other people, this past month has been a lot.

I’m tired, my brain feels pulled in a hundred directions, and I feel the negativity creeping through my veins because a very loud minority has decided I shouldn’t exist and many of my friends shouldn’t exist. Or if they do, it’s only on their terms.

And it has made it very hard to write lately. The weight of hatred and uncertainty looms over me constantly, but it reminds me why I started writing in the first place.

Back in 2014, we were still fighting to have same-sex marriage recognized. States were facing lawsuits after banning it even after it was legalized country-wide. Anti-queer sentiment was overt, loud, and just as painful as it is now. I remember staring at my books with their cast of queer characters and wondering if there was still a place in the world for me. Publishers were still pushing queer characters to the sidelines or cutting queer plotlines all together unless they were not on the page. I’ve written before about why I self-published, so I won’t stay on it too long, but the sidelining of queer characters/relationships was why I decided to self-publish. No publisher or company or anyone but me could make my characters straight.

Writing queer characters who eventually got their happily ever after was an act of defiance. In romance, marriage is the usual happily ever after because that’s what cis het M/F couples do. It’s recognizable, it’s legally binding, it’s overt. I wanted that for my characters even if that wasn’t legally possible in the 1890s. The next best thing was a faux wedding (as seen in Dead Magic‘s binding ceremony), but having queer characters find each other, love each other, live closely, and be recognized as a couple by their friends and family was still defiance.

When you write anything involving historical elements and queer characters, reviewers will toss back in your face that “being gay was illegal” back then. Well, so was prostitution, adultery, theft, and murder, yet all those happened as well and no one complains when they read about those things in historical romance. The double standard is eye-roll inducing, but each of those obnoxious reviews spurred me to write more queer characters and eventually more trans characters.

In the back of Kinship and Kindness, I even included a short further reading section about trans people in the 1800s. So many lived normal lives where they worked regular jobs, socialized, and even married. Often, the weren’t even outed as trans until after death, but people don’t want to take into account that people could blend in or that their communities protected them or at least looked the other way if they knew. We all know of famous supposedly straight historical figures who had a “roommate they were really close to” or “a dear friend” they often holidayed with in the South of France that people still refuse to believe were some flavor of queer.

When we write queer characters during times that feel fraught, it is an act of defiance. Writing their lives is a declaration of our existence, our struggles, our love for each other. The stories don’t have to be happy. Their lives don’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) perfect. But writing queer characters into existence as complex, real people is hammering home that we cannot be stamped out. We will not disappear.

I’ve been trying to remind myself of this as I work on my writing. My projects matter even when the world feels like it’s pressing in. There’s always the hope that someone will see themselves in my characters and feel better for a time or lose themselves in whatever drama is playing out. The Reanimator’s Heart has a society of paranormals where people are more likely to be queer than not, and there’s also a lavender marriage where each participant has a partner of their own (one of which is a sapphic trans woman and the other is an autistic gay man). Even if it’s the mid 1890s, everyone manages to live a fulfilling life and eventually find happiness, and that matters.

If you’re writing queer books right now, no matter how bleak it feels, it still matters. Someone out there is clinging to your work in this storm.

Personal Life

Rediscovering Your Weird

Growing up, I was always a weird kid. If you’re neurodivergent, you won’t find this nearly as odd, but for those of you without autism or ADHD rewriting the brain script, you know the kids. I loved Ancient Egypt as a tiny child. I was obsessed and would pour over the pictures in my uncle’s books and prattle back the names of gods and pharaohs. Then the obsession switched to dinosaurs, and little Kara dreamed of being an archaeologist or a paleontologist. Since then, I’ve had many obsessions/passions, some weirder than others. For a while, I was very into Sherlock Holmes (the original books and the Basil Rathbone movies from the early 40s), anatomy and diseases (with a brief foray into poisons), Phantom of the Opera, Vincent Price, and I’m sure there have been many micro-obsessions along the way. When I get into something, I get into it hard.

At some point, adults assume you will grow out of the weird shit you like or you become a closeted weirdo. I’ve never exactly been good at hiding things or being subtle, so as much as I tried to hold the weirdness inside of me, it always trickled out. When you’re a weird person, it can be hard because you know you are one bout of public weirdness away from people thinking you’re a total pariah, so there’s a constant pressure to perform normalcy. As a queer, nonbinary person, normalcy is already a very flimsy word, but there is the eventual expectation that you will put away your black hoodie with skull print and don a blouse and slacks and let your weirdness die in an unmarked beige grave.

In graduate school when I was in my early to mid-twenties, I tried to be more normal. I wanted to be taken seriously, to be seen as professional, and on some level I was. At the same time, normal people still seemed to sense the underlying not and I was growing more miserable. By the time I graduated and started teaching, I was sailing into burnout. Trying to maintain my job, my writing, and my mask of normality was exhausting and something had to give. Writing caved first, but writing is how I maintain my sanity on a more regular basis. So I needed to get that back and employment is necessary, so I let normalcy finally slip from my fingers.

After roughly three years of letting that mask slip, I can safely say that I highly recommend it. In that time, I have embraced the fact that I am nonbinary and feel better about my body, my clothes, my persona, etc. I enjoy teaching more because I don’t feel the need to project something stiff and lofty. I can just be Professor Jorgensen who is a bit strange and quirky, but that’s what makes a good creative writing professor. I feel like a warmer person, a happier person, and a person who is, generally, more fun to be around because I’m not sitting there like a shaken soda bottle ready to explode. And the people who are put off by the real me are people I don’t particularly want to be around. If you see me referring to people are “normies” on Twitter, I mean people who are enforcers of normality who give you the wtf face for deviating at all. The normies can stuff it because I’m having a grand time and creatively, mentally, and emotionally profiting from my newfound enjoyment of life.

On top of all that, I feel like my creativity has flourished, especially once I started finding more Gothic/weird artists and authors on social media. It had been drilled into me that I would grow out of my love of black and bright colors, and that skulls and anatomical hearts are icky and to be ignored. But that’s what I love. At heart, I am a little autistic science Goth who loves learning about diseases and anatomy and how that all fits into the larger picture of humanity (those degrees in English and biology still come in handy). Now that I’ve started embracing my favorite things and consuming them in larger quantities, I can see a change in my art. I’m more excited about my stories, I connect better with my characters, and I know there’s an audience for it because I have found equally strange people online.

That’s probably the best part, finding others who seem to like me even more now that I’ve stopped hiding the strangeness. People who like my pics of bejeweled skeletons from German catacombs or are eagerly anticipating The Reanimator’s Heart because Oliver sounds adorable. People who like me for me is really all I’ve ever wanted, and in the past, I thought muting who I am would do that when instead it put me in the path of people who wanted to mute that side even more or would absolutely hate the real me. By showing who I really am online and in real life, it scares off the weak and lures in those who find my eccentricities charming. My partner always has, even if he doesn’t fully understand them, but it’s nice to have people who also like those things as I do.

The point of this really is, if you’ve been hiding your strangeness or a fondness for something out of the ordinary, this is your sign to let it out and enjoy it. Holding it in will hurt you in the end, and you might be cutting yourself off from some great friends or even art that can’t happen until you embrace who you are.

Weird has a second definition besides strange. Weird’s archaic definition is destiny or fate (wyrd in Old Saxon, Old German, etc.). I like to think of it as embracing my destiny. I am destined to be a strange person who likes strange things. I am destined to be a queer, nonbinary person. Some of us are fated to be weirdos, and that’s a good thing because we appreciate and see what others don’t.

If you’re someone out there who feels out of place or that you have always been a bit different from everyone else, embrace your weird. Embrace who you are and hold tight to it. Doing that gives you that special spark, that bit of green fire that will help you attract those who will love you for you and scare away those who would seek to change you. I, for one, plan to be hella weird from now on.