Stress, Health, and Self-Monitoring

Being a writer is somewhat stressful. Whether it’s word count, editing, contracts, publicity, sales numbers, or reviews, we have so many ways to stress ourselves out. And this is often in addition to the other stressors we have in our lives, such as family, day jobs, and whatever day-to-day maintenance we have to do to keep our lives in order, like feeding the cat and keeping tea in stock.

Considering we all typically have very busy lives, sometimes it’s hard to recognize when we’re stressed, or what stress looks like. We easily fall in the trap of “Once [thing] is done, then I can relax,” often ignoring that once [thing] is done, [another thing] is just going to drop right into our laps, demanding our immediate attention. And so we go from project to project, never taking a breath and checking in with ourselves.

It may seem like a no-brainer to some, but stress has a huge impact on your health. But even those of us who are aware of this fact may not know what the symptoms are, or how to identify them. Difficulty sleeping is obvious, but what else? There are many common symptoms of chronic stress (and elevated cortisol levels, a result of chronic stress) such as lowered immune function and wounds becoming slow to heal.

In my case last year, it was “gastric distress,” which resulted in my eating a primarily-vegan diet. At first I thought it might be H Pylori, or some genetic issue, or age, or any other myriad of reasons for a strange and sudden illness. It wasn’t until recently, when my fourth doctor suggested I examine the stress in my life, that I am even able to eat meat/dairy without sudden and disruptive illness. (Note the use of “sudden” and “disruptive” — I still can’t eat meat or dairy, but at least I won’t lose half a day to migraines if someone sauteed my onions in butter instead of olive oil.) Looking back now, symptoms had been piling up, but I was too distracted to notice.

Stress triggers an adrenal response, that famous “fight or flight mode” we talk about. When you are stressed, your body slows or stops anything it considers non-essential. The problem is, the things we deem essential are not what our body considers essential, not when its overall survival is felt to be at risk. Proper digestion stops, healing stops, various maintenance functions stop, fighting off disease stops. And sure, if we’re being chased by a bear, fighting off a virus seems like small potatoes. But unfortunately your body can’t tell the difference between the stress of a bear chasing you and the stress of being called into your boss’s office to discuss your performance.

We as writers live in our heads a lot, and I suspect many of us also have day jobs that require us to live in our heads as well. As a result of this, we may not notice the signs of building stress until it impacts our health so much that it gets in the way of our daily tasks. So I would encourage all of you to look at the stress in your life, and to research the ill-effects of chronic stress. Stressors, stress symptoms, and stress management vary from person to person, so I don’t really feel comfortable suggesting resources other than “research” and “a trusted physician.”

However, you should periodically step back and do a self-evaluation. Think about your body, your nutrition, your sleep patterns. Are you having difficulty focusing? Do you drop things more than you used to? Are you sore a lot? Mysterious weight gain even though your diet has remained the same? You might be dealing with chronic stress. Your mental and physical health should be a priority. Making this deadline matters, but what matters more is being healthy enough to make the next one as well.

Giving Back

The holidays often seem like an endless stream of ‘gimme gimme’, but there’s been an excellent trend, lately, of giving back. Some of the obvious ways are to donate to a local foodbank, shelter, or community outreach program, or, for animal lovers, your local rescue. Religious or not, some churches do have programs that are community-focused and beneficial.

But, if you don’t have a favorite local charity, there are some great, lesser-known charities that can use a little extra holiday cheer. The money you give them goes straight to their cause, not their bureaucracy. Some of them are ones I have personal experience with, others were recommended by BooklifeNow staff and Twitter users.

Veterans and Military Families

My personal ones skew a little toward the side of veteran-support, between working on War Stories, and my personal life. Our veterans come back from war to a life that expects them to immediately transform back to civilians, and many of them find that a difficult transition. The organizations below do some extra-special work for our returning soldiers.

Team Rubicon is a veteran owned-and-run relief organization. Volunteers use their skills and knowledge to provide disaster-relief. Due to the history of their volunteers, those areas include war-torn regions not always accessible to relief. They are 14,000 volunteers strong, and have deployed those volunteers on over 50 missions over the course of barely four years. They have provided relief in the wake of Sandy, Haiyan, this year’s Midwestern tornadoes, and the massive flooding in Pakistan. They have also deployed teams to Thailand/Burma, Haiti, Chili, and multiple African countries.

Besides all of that relief, they offer veterans a sense of purpose and community, saving lives and future. This is, without a doubt, one of my favorite groups.

Ways to help: Team Rubicon’s Box of Awesome is available on Amazon, in sizes from small to super-duper huge. It’s tax-deductible, and your money goes straight to helping them do more good. You can also donate money directly, or, if you’re a veteran, consider volunteering directly for them.

Fisher House

A few months ago, the special operations community reeled under the news of a mass-casualty event in the Middle East. A unit of Army Rangers and their support personnel suffered heavy casualties on a routine operation. Usually, when this happens, the government aids the families in getting to the appropriate place to claim the bodies, handle funeral expenses, and more. But the government was in shut-down, and decided that they weren’t going to pay out, leaving the grieving families hanging.

While powerful voices in the veteran community immediately put pressure on the government to change their stance, another group stepped in to make an immediate difference. Fisher House, a charity devoted to making sure that military families have somewhere to stay while soldiers are undergoing medical treatment and care, donated the $500,000 the government wouldn’t, to make sure that the families could attend to their fallen loved ones.

And while the government held an emergency session to get the money out, Fisher House was there and ready to support the people who needed it.

At-Risk People

Child’s Play Charity -Recommendation and writing by BooklifeNow writer Geardrops.

The focus of Child’s Play Charity is to deliver toys and games to children in need. When it was founded in 2003, the charity’s efforts were focused on Seattle Children’s Hospital. In the following years, it would expand to cover hospitals around the world. Now they are expanding their focus to include bringing games to homes for battered women and children, and have ten pilot locations they are hoping to deliver gaming stations to this year. Child’s Play has one of the lowest overheads of any major charity, and as a result the bulk of the money that is donated to Child’s Play does reach those in need. Only a tiny percentage is required to keep the charity itself running; the rest goes directly to children in need.

People already familiar with Child’s Play might also be familiar with some of the drama concerning former founding members who are better-known as the creators of webcomic empire Penny Arcade. Since they are very publicly affiliated with Child’s Play, many assume they directly profit from it, and considering the problematic things they have said this year and in the past, this has caused some people to feel dissuaded from donating. If you are one of those people, worry not: Penny Arcade and Child’s Play are two separate entities, and they do not profit from it (note: Child’s Play is a non-profit organization). When it was founded, they took care to ensure it was its own independent organization. I recall one of the creators saying this was a deliberate move, that if something should happen to Penny Arcade, it should not impact Child’s Play.

It’s really an incredible charity and well worth your notice and, if possible, donation.

Liberty in North Korea -Recommended by Twitter user @scourger.

“Our work begins by rescuing North Korean refugees hiding in China, who are vulnerable to abuse and capture. It takes $2,500 to fund an individual’s rescue through a 3,000 mile underground railroad through China and Southeast Asia.

Every year, thousands of North Koreans risk their lives to escape political persecution and economic hardship. If caught trying to escape or caught in China and sent back, they are at risk of extremely harsh punishments, including brutal beatings, forced labor, forced abortions, torture, and internment in a political prison camp. To make matters worse, while hiding in China their illegal status forces them to work in invisible industries and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers and sex traffickers, as they have no recourse to any authorities. Although many refugees try to escape, many do not have the resources or connections to get themselves out of China. That’s where we come in.”

The Gathering Place -Recommended by Twitter user @ECthetwit

Every year, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative conducts a point-in-time study to determine the number of homeless individuals living in Denver. In January 2013, they counted 11,167 people. Of this number, 43.4% were women and 62% were adults living in households with children. Additionally, 25.4% of the individuals surveyed were newly homeless, meaning they have been homeless less than a year and this is their first time to experience homelessness.
As Denver’s only daytime drop-in center for women, their children, and transgender individuals experiencing homelessness and poverty, The Gathering Place provides a variety of programs and services those who enter our doors.

Girls, Inc -Recommended by Twitter user @rakdaddy.

Girls Inc.® of Orange County has been a respected member of the non-profit community for almost 60 years. The mission of Girls Inc. is to inspire all girls to be strong, smart, and bold. We put our mission into practice through the Girls Inc. experience that equips girls to navigate gender, economic, and social barriers and grow into healthy, educated and independent adults.

Girls Inc. of Orange County positively changes the lives of 4,500 girls, ages 4 1/2 to 18, each year, by providing year-round holistic, compensatory, and intentional programming focusing on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math), financial literacy, sound body image, healthy relationships, and college and career readiness.

Extra Life

“On an Autumn Saturday each year since 2008, tens of thousands of gamers have joined together to save the lives of local kids in a celebration of gaming culture that we call Extra Life.  From console games to tabletop RPG’s to even lawn sports, Extra Life gives people that love to play a chance to do what they love to save lives and make a difference.

Originally designed as a 24-hour marathon of gaming, Extra Life has evolved to mean different things to different people (though most of our participants still attempt the marathon).

To participate you need only sign up (free) and gather the support of your friends and family through tax-deductible donations to your local CMN Hospital.  Then on Saturday, November 2nd (or any day that works for you!) play any game(s) you want on any platform(s) that you want with anyone you want for as long as you want.
The proceeds from Extra Life stay where they’re raised to support children’s hospitals. Since 2008, our incredible players have raised more than 4 million dollars.”

Extra Life is a once-yearly event, so you can’t donate now (I don’t think), but I, and many other gamers, will be playing again next year, so mark your calendars!

American Red Cross

This one seems like an obvious choice, but I am including them for a different reason. The Red Cross offers a lot more hands-on opportunities than most places. CPR certification, blood donation, and community-outreach, there’s something for almost everyone.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg, culled from my personal experience and a few recommendations. So what’s your favorite place to give back?

NaNoWriMo and How It Worked Out for Me

You may recall I wrote previously about how NaNoWriMo could be a useful tool for pros, and wasn’t just something for amateurs. Well, I did it. As of November 23, I had written 50,000 words.

Apparently while Scrivener counts hyphenated words as two words, NaNoWriMo only counts them as one. That took the wind out of my sails!

Apparently while Scrivener counts hyphenated words as two words, NaNoWriMo only counts them as one. Sure took the wind out of my sails!

So here’s how it worked out for me.

I had been stagnant in writing, unable to get words out or finish a story. I was stuck, and it had nothing to do with writing itself and everything to do with my stupid head. Fear of writing poorly kept me from writing at all. But with NaNoWriMo, the point isn’t to write well. The point is to write and worry about ‘well’ tomorrow. Forcing myself to sit down and write 2,000 words every day (with an extra push on that last day, as you can see by the image, in order to beat NaNoWriMo so I could go to a party the next day) was the right way to go to fix this problem.

The first few days were easy. I had ideas of what I wanted to write, and where the book was going to go. The first 10K poured out naturally, barely any struggle. But, as expected, a few days in, somewhere around the 15K mark, things began to get difficult. It’s like any kind of training: easy at first, but once you burn the reserves of energy you have, the real work begins. Like lifting weights or working your way up to running some length of marathon.

However, as days went by, a sick realization crept up on me: this book wasn’t working. At 15K, things slowed down. At 20K the words finally left my mouth. “This isn’t working.” (A lot of swearing followed that phrase.) It was at 25K when I finally bit the bullet and said no, absolutely not, this scifi book simply wasn’t going to work. Not the way I’m writing it, not the way it’s going.

From there, I was left with a dilemma: do I push on with a not-working book to see if I could make it work? I did that for awhile, after all; that’s how I got from 20K to 25K. Or do I accept the book isn’t working, scrap it, and start over? Ultimately, I chose the latter, and it was for the best. And thankfully, due to the intense writing schedule I’d established, I hadn’t wasted months of effort on a book that wasn’t working. Just two weeks. In the grand scheme of things, I felt like I hadn’t wasted much to discover a book wasn’t working and to shift to a new project.

So now, it’s December. What am I left with?

I have 20K of a usable new manuscript (horror, apparently) that is working (at least for now) and another 5K in notes for where the book should go or where I misstepped in the draft and need to go back and rework it. I’m not writing at my breakneck 2K/day speed, because it’s December and the holidays make a stringent writing schedule challenging. But I’m still working at it, and still making notes about fixing what exists and what should be done in the book. And I don’t know that I’d be here without having done NaNoWriMo.

War Stories, People Stories

My family doesn’t share stories. When I sat down to write this piece, the opening line was. “I don’t come from a military family.”

Then I went and asked my grandparents, and, well, yes, I do. My great, great uncle Chuck was a Fire Control Officer on the USS Pennsylvania during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but was in the sick bay that day. Gordon and Bob, twins, were Army medics in Okinawa, Wayne and Dale were in the Philippines. Bob (different Bob!) and Harold enlisted in the Marines and were on Iwo Jima. My great-uncle Chuck (we’re also not very good at name diversity, apparently) was also in the Army during Vietnam, although no one seems to know where. His father, Charles W. Thomas, was a Rear Admiral in the Coast Guard. I found all of this out because I needed to write this piece about War Stories.

I was a teenager on September 11, 2001, old enough to know America before, and after. My favorite cousin joined the military, went to Ranger School, and then deployed. Although I didn’t know it then, the guy I’m dating now had just finished Ranger School, and deployed. Over a dozen of the kids I went to school with ended up in the military.

My first boyfriend was active-duty Army, my second boyfriend was an Army veteran with severe PTSD. Most of my close male friends were vets, too. I didn’t seek any of them out, they were just the people I got along with. The people I knew taught me about honor, responsibility, loyalty.

And as I got more involved in the SF community, I got to know people who are from war-torn countries, and my worldview shifted again.

The military and its history, culture, and legacy have been quietly around me my entire life. My perspective is that of someone half in, half out. People I love have been changed by war, thereby changing me, but I have not been directly subject to it myself.

My co-editor, Andrew Liptak, and I wanted their stories to be told. The history, the technology, the political and social triggers, all those elements of war are fascinating, and could fill endless books. But what does it look like from the ground? What are the stories from the front lines, the aftermath, the hospital? What does war do to the internal landscape of soldiers and civilians? How do we, as humans, survive, recover, move on, break, adapt to the unique and awful stress of conflict?

War Stories is a project that keeps surprising me. It’s brought me closer to my family, my boyfriend, my heritage, and my community. The stories we’ve seen so far are wonderfully diverse: a disabled veteran helping an A.I. deal with guilt; a little South African ghost girl protected by the downloaded consciousness of her rebel father; a commanding officer making an awful decision in defense of his troops; a field officer struggling to save one of her soldiers from suicidal penance; a soldier giving all to save civilians; a civilian contractor learning the cost of teaching machines to judge; a civilian activist, and more.

On-planet, off-planet. Near-future, far-future, alternate-future. Human, alien, robot, A.I.

These are the stories you find out when you ask your grandparents if anyone else in your family served in the military; that a soldier tells her wife when she can finally talk about what happened; that get told to boost courage before a first battle, or a twentieth.

These are stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

War Stories is an upcoming anthology of military science fiction from Apex Publications, edited by Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak. Come check us out on the War Stories Kickstarter.