Four months after my debut novel, Kat Greene Comes Clean, was published, my father went missing. It was late December, bitterly cold, and he left without a coat. And his cane. At 95, my dad was extremely frail, and he suffered from dementia. I called 911 in a panic.
Within minutes, NYPD detectives flooded my parents’ Manhattan apartment, asking questions and taking notes. They issued a Silver Alert, and promised to find my dad. “The old guys never get far,” the lead detective assured me. “Don’t worry.”
My mom wasn’t worried because, like my dad, she has dementia and had no idea what was going on. But I was a nervous wreck. New York is a big place, and my dad was probably confused, hungry, and cold. I feared the worst.
Afternoon turned into evening, and then into night. Finally, my father was located at the Empire Hotel, two blocks from Lincoln Center. He had taken a cab, the fare paid in coins from a velvet Alexander McQueen makeup bag. If I found this detail confounding, imagine my surprise when the hotel manager informed me that my dad had checked himself into a room, raided the minibar, and owed $685 plus tax. I would have paid anything, of course. My dad was safe.
But then, four months and three health-care aides later, my dad went missing… again. This time, he was found wandering the streets of SoHo, with a broken finger and lacerations on his face. He was rushed to the hospital, where I met him in the ER. He wasn’t as lucky this time. He developed a severe kidney infection and, after half a year in hospice care, passed away at home. He was 96 years old.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: This story is depressing! You write funny stuff. BE FUNNY!
I wish I could. But at the time, there was no room in my life for humor—or for writing. I tried, but I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to succeed. I was always on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it did. Again, and again, and again.
I’m still dealing with my fair share of stress (my mom now has advanced dementia), but I’ve found a way to balance life-related responsibilities with my writing. Here’s how you can, too:
Adjust your expectations. If you’re going through tough times—and, like me, juggling a zillion things at once—there’s no way you can be as productive, or as focused, as you were before. Think about it: Your brain has to work overtime just to keep up! Plus, stress has a sneaky way of sapping your emotional and physical energy. So, if you can, cut yourself some slack. Set realistic, manageable writing goals. If you’re used to writing 2,000 words a day, write a thousand. Or five hundred, or 250. Or whatever number your schedule, and emotional energy, allows. If you don’t hit a specific target, that’s okay too. Just write every day, even if it’s for 15 minutes. You’ll feel good for having done it.
Try journaling. Expressing your thoughts and feelings in written form is an excellent stress-management tool. It’s also been shown to be highly therapeutic. So, if you don’t keep a journal already, now would be a good time to start. You don’t have to write pages and pages; just a few lines a day. Or one line, if that’s all you’ve got in you. Just get your thoughts (and more often, your frustrations) down on paper, and see where it leads. There are many ways to journal, but if you find that journaling is not for you, give yourself permission to stop. You can always try again later. Or don’t. Make (or break) the rules as you see fit. This is something you’re doing for you.
Limit social media. It’s tempting to mindlessly scroll through social media—or binge-watch Netflix, or spend hours searching YouTube for cute-kitty videos—when you’re stressed and in need of distraction. (When my dad was sick, I played Wordscapes until my vision was blurry.) But the hours you engage in unproductive phone activities are hours you can’t get back. Plus, screen time wreaks havoc on your concentration. Removing apps from your phone is the obvious solution, but it’s unlikely you will do this (I still have Wordscapes on mine). Instead, think of screen time as a reward for writing time. Five hundred words = fifteen minutes of Wordscapes; one thousand words = an episode of 90 Day Fiancé (or pick your poison). The point is, you’re allowed to zone out when the time is right—but don’t make a habit of it. Your time is too valuable to waste. (For advice on how to walk away from social media completely, check out this post from Salon.)
You do YOU. Writers often compare themselves to others. That’s what we do. But as Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” He was right. Knowing that your friend’s debut MG novel sold eight billion copies and has been optioned for a movie starring Kylie Jenner (or Kendall Jenner, if you prefer) while yours is languishing in a bargain bin at Costco is a fact of life—but don’t dwell on it. You have enough on your plate to worry about! By all means celebrate your friends’ achievements, but don’t let their success(es) overshadow your own. Sometimes getting out bed in the morning is enough.
Practice self-care. This should be a given, but if you’re busy looking out for others’ needs, you tend to ignore your own—or put them last. This is understandable (I’m guilty of this, too), but try to put yourself first once in a while. Squeeze in a run, or have coffee with a friend. Get a massage, if that’s your thing, or sneak out to a museum or art gallery. Catch up on your sleep; eat Frito’s Corn Chips. Dance. Whatever it takes to bring you to your happy place, do it!
Expect setbacks. It’s important to remember that most things in life are out of your control, like when a parent develops dementia–and dies. When a child is sick or disabled and needs constant care. Unemployment; bankruptcy; a house fire; divorce… You can only do so much to keep afloat emotionally. Sometimes, it will feel like an impossible struggle. You’ll miss deadlines. Bills will go unpaid; birthday cards unsent. For every step forward, you can expect two—or fifty—steps back.
Grieving isn’t linear, and I miss my dad every day. Still, he would have wanted me to keep writing, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I hope you will, too.