Zombie Writing, or How Much 2013 Sucked

BrainDrainNew Year’s Eve is traditionally a time to take stock of the past year and make resolutions for how to be a better person, make better choices, make a better new year.

My 2013 sucked. Even if I’d followed through on my 2012 resolutions: lost weight, exercised more, been kinder to people, given more to charity, volunteered more, the end result would still have been a shitty year.

There were good times: meeting up with my brother in New York, visiting my best friend in St. Louis, having my sister come stay with us for a week, hosting various visits from American and European friends through the summer, backpacking in the mountains, going to several writing retreats and conferences, staying on a houseboat on Lake Powell. I remember enjoying these activities, but the details are fuzzy and vague. I have to look at my calendar to recall what time of year it was when they happened. That’s because one major change dominated all of 2013. It has to do with an issue many of my generation are facing: aging parents.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew it would eventually happen to me. I just didn’t know how it would take over my life and obliterate my creativity. I’d never experienced mental stress to the point that even when I wanted to write and had the time to write, my brain just couldn’t cope. Sentences were impossible to create.

Both of my parents are in their early seventies. Until the end of 2012, they were self-reliant and took pride in how active they are. Despite my mother’s slow, yet stubborn, breast cancer spreading to bone cancer a few years back, and her rheumatoid arthritis, my parents used to go for daily long walks, volunteer for various organizations, and keep up with a social calendar that I found exhausting. My mom is also a prolific textile artist and always working on a quilt, wall hanging, or decoration special ordered by impatient customers.

And then my dad started mixing up some words. He became confused about time spans. Tomorrow, yesterday, fifty years ago didn’t have any meaning anymore. His body stopped obeying easy commands. Sitting, standing, backing up, and turning was impossible. His limbs stiffened and become unyielding. People only he could see, strangers, insisted on sitting next to him, or across the room, silently staring, judging. Sometimes, he no longer recognized his wife.

After months of testing, he was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia. The disease includes cognitive and physical symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and is often misdiagnosed. The dementia has a fast onset, as does the physical problems. In early January of this year, Mom and dad sold their house and move into a ground-level smaller apartment. Thirty eight years of possessions and memories were sorted, given away, and thrown out over the span of a month. Moving made dad more confused, but at least he can now navigate his home without anyone worrying about a tumble down stairs.

My brother and I tried to explain to my mom that nobody can care for another person 24/7, even when they are physically healthy. Mom disagreed. So did dad. There were arguments, tears, guilt, and shame.

And then the next blow. Mom’s cancer lashed out. A tumor in her armpit aggressively grew and threatened her lymphatic system. The doctors wanted to operate immediately. Her arm would need a long recovery time and she would not be allowed to use it for several weeks. The year had still barely begun, it was only February.

I jumped on a plane and flew home to help with dad. I’d seen both of my parents five months earlier. The change in dad shocked me. My funny quick-witted dad was now slow moving and slightly confused. He still had moments of clarity, but he could no longer read an article in the newspaper, or follow a long conversation. Questions about when or where something happened where impossible to process. He’d aged physically several years. I learned how to help him up from a chair, how to bathe him, how to help him to the toilet and how to wipe him after.

I made more trips home to Sweden over the year. Eventually mom recovered from her surgery and my parents settled into a routine where dad lives two weeks with mom and then two weeks at a full time care facility. When he’s at home, a caretaker helps during weekday mornings. The rest of the time mom cares for him. This is a compromise between mom and my brother and I. There are still moments of arguments, tears, and guilt, but not as often.

I had several writing projects lined up this year. I wanted to complete one book, edit another, and write a few short pieces. I also needed to write a National Science Foundation grant application. During the first few months of the year, I barely kept it together enough to deliver coherent lessons for my teaching job. I struggled to remember students’ names. Luckily, I’m a control freak when it comes to planning and could rely on detailed lesson plans from years past. My job didn’t suffer (too much), but the effort to make sure it didn’t was huge.

I didn’t’t notice being preoccupied. My brain wasn’t filled with thoughts of mom and dad when I needed to think about work. I just couldn’t focus. Couldn’t figure out what needed to be done next in a list of tasks. Couldn’t remember related events or details. Couldn’t think at all.

Forget writing. Character names escaped me. Plot lines fluttered away, going nowhere.

At first I thought maybe only new content was too much of an effort. I turned to editing previous work. After turning a page, I couldn’t remember what had been on the previous. I stressed. I panicked. I freaked out.

A writer friend sat me down and we had a long talk. She gave me permission to not be productive. She told me it was okay to write just for the sake of writing and throw it away when it was no good. She told me it was okay not to write.  I still resisted.

I didn’t bear the brunt of carrying for my dad, my mom did. I didn’t carry as much of the burden of support as my brother did. He lives five minutes from my parent’s new home. I live close to five thousand miles away. Why was I stressed out? What right did I have to fall apart? I should be able to cope with normal life. Having a sick parent is not unique. People deal with terminal diseases of loved ones all the time. People deal with their own terminal diseases all the time. And they still manage to complete what needs to be done. Why couldn’t I? Who did I think I was? Why was I being a drama queen?

The one project I managed to finish was the grant proposal. Researching facts and numbers and stringing them together into a narrative was hard, but not impossible as long as I allowed thrice the time it would normally take me. I turned in the application in the middle of October.  Afterward I felt drained and completely empty. For the next months, I wrote only when I had to because of work or a blog commitment. I thought maybe writing was something I would have to give up. Creativity had abandoned me.

I researched mental exhaustion. I learned about burnout and how it can reduce productivity, remove creativity. I realized that grief comes in many shapes and is not always associated with death. I forgave my brain for needing time to process overwhelming changes. I forgave myself.

One of my early December writing deadlines included to write a short story about a moo cow creamer to fit with the theme on a group blog. I procrastinated to the last possible minute. The first few attempts were impossible. And then I switched to third person, made up a character not myself. The prose didn’t flow, but trickled. For the first time in almost twelve months, my brain engaged in words, in a story, in something creative. It was painful, but not impossible anymore. I finished a story.

By the time the winter break started, I had finished edits on a book. I started editing a friend’s book. I took an online writing class. I wrote on the book that was supposed to be finished before the summer. I’m was still tired and burnt out. I still struggled, but no longer thought I’d have to give up writing.

Since this is a New Year’s blog, I feel like there should be a moral to the story here at the end. I’m not sure I have one.  My resolutions for 2014?

Spend time with my family. Maybe do some writing. Survive another year.

12 Comments

  • Judith Laik says:

    My sympathies. I’m that 70s parent (along with my husband), and, luckily we’re still chugging along, but seeing signs of slowing. Not wanting to be a burden to our kids but knowing inevitably, someday, we will be. I really feel the emotional storm you went through. All I can say is, be easy on yourself. Don’t expect so much while you are going through this time. It will get better.

    • Asa Maria says:

      Judith, one good thing that came out of my family’s crisis is how much closer we are. All the little petty things we’ve held on to through the years don’t matter anymore. My parents have in no way been a burden to my brother and I. We’re lucky in terms of how much the Swedish health care system cover. Honesty and straight talking between my sibling and I, and between the two of us and my parents has definitely helped.

      Thanks for giving me permission to go easy on myself, it always helps when it comes from someone else. :-)

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    To have writer’s guilt or desperation or whatever it is on top of everything else you’ve been going through just sucks. I love the idea of getting permission not to be productive — that seems critical. Strong post. I hope 2014 is better in every way…

  • Amaris says:

    Asa, I hope that you get to spend a ton of time with family this year.

  • Asa, thank you for writing this. My mother is failing and I’m having some of the same symptoms. I thought I was handling things pretty well, but couldn’t seem to get anything done. Permission to not write is huge. I hope 2014 is better for both of us.

    • Asa Maria says:

      Steph, I hereby grant you permission to not blame yourself for not writing. I also allow you to not write for as long as you need to. (Ps. Writing in my journal sometimes helped me.)

      Happy 2014! May it be our best year ever. :-)

  • Ruth Andrew says:

    Asa ~ dear sweet Asa. I had no idea you were struggling with these issues. Please give yourself grace, and know how proud your parents are of you. You are fortunate to have siblings who also care. I have one sibling who did not even send my mom a Christmas card this year, yet I deal with her dementia and the guilt of having her in a nursing home nearby. it’s amazing how many people struggle in such ways. What I hope you know is that we all solve these issues in different ways. But when the creativity takes a hit, our whole self-esteem system takes a hit. When I had my stroke, hubby lost his job 10 days later and within 6 weeks of our personal struggles, my mom slipped into dementia with psychosis. I doubt I’ve recovered yet from my own shitty year. I hear you loud and clear, and having both of your parents enter their ‘Long Goodbyes’ at the same time could not help but be overwhelming for you. Grace. Grace for yourself. That’s the only thing I know to tell you, and to know, deep down, what a talented writer you are. It will all come to pass in good time. And just so you know, all of this will linger on a back burner in your mind, probably forever, but hopefully it won’t flatten you as it has this past year. Once your parents turn that corner, so do you, on some level. It isn’t that you go ‘back’ ~ but I believe you do carry this with you, if nothing else as a sense of compassion for yourself and others who will face something similar. Your family has experienced a significant change this year. And sadly that only goes forward.

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