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from oprah's couch to my bed: redefining success {6/5/15}

Kelley Clink

When my galley copies arrived a few months ago, friends and family asked me: “What’s it like to hold your book?” I got the feeling they imagined it was a transformative moment, something akin to holding your child for the first time. I’m a terrible liar, so I told them the truth. Meh. Shrug. “It’s okay.”

I was as surprised by my lack of reaction as they were. Hadn’t I been working for this moment for nearly ten years? I had, and there was a time during that decade when holding my book would have been as big of a deal as people expected. For the first six years that I worked on it, my book was my life. Unlike many writers I knew, I didn’t come home from a long, soul-sucking day in an office and try to squeeze in a few words before bed. My time was not siphoned by the chaos of family. There were no children to feed or clean up after, no soccer games or PTA meetings. I was married, but my husband worked. So all day, every day, it was just me, my grief, and my laptop. 

Because I’d quit working to write, I funneled all of my self worth into my manuscript. When it sucked, I sucked. When it was a mess, I was a mess. If it failed, I would be a failure. At the time publication was my validation, and because I was a masochist, and Oprah was still on the air, her couch was my benchmark. Anything less than Oprah’s couch, anything less than a New York Times Bestseller, would be worthless.

In some respects, my expectations were lowered organically. By which I mean I had no other choice. Offers of representation from agents did not come pouring in. I was not miraculously plucked from the slush pile. Oprah did her last show, and no one even told me what happened to her couch.

At the same time, I made a concerted effort to redefine success. I’d finished my second draft around the six-year mark, and my grief had resolved. In that pause before the editing process started again, I took a deep breath and looked, really looked, at where I was and what I was doing to myself. My expectations had made me miserable. My life felt tight and small. There was no room for anything, or anyone, else. I needed to loosen my grip.

That grip-loosening happened organically too, in the form of a life-threatening illness, an injury that required surgery, and several years of infertility treatments (another book, anyone?). As shitty as it was (and it was really, really shitty), it was bigger than the book. It was my health, my body, my son. The book was important, but it wasn’t my life anymore—and I didn’t need it to be. My life was my life, and it would be even if my book never made off my hard drive and into the world. I’d written the book, and that was huge. The book had shepherded me through my grief, and that was huger. The hugest thing of all was learning that my worth didn’t lie in my work. I have value even if no one reads a word I write. Moreover, I have value even if I never write another word.

This is big talk from someone who has been hiding under her covers for the last week. You know that dream where you’re naked in public? Turns out publishing a memoir is exactly like that dream. Only it’s real, and you have to walk around emotionally naked for the rest of your life. Guess I’m not as detached from my book as I thought I was. The good news is that whether it becomes a New York Times Bestseller or a basement bargain, whether Oprah resurrects her couch just for me or my only rave review comes from my mother, I know I’ll be okay.

As I write this, there is a copy of my book on the chair next to me. Maybe I was holding it back, just to be sure. To cushion my heart in case it wasn’t real. But it is. It’s real. I can pick it up and hold it in my hand. I’m finally starting to feel the glow, you guys.

I did it. I wrote it. It’s done.

If anyone needs me, I’ll be under the covers.

whirlwind {5/31/15}

Kelley Clink

As May is Mental Health Awareness Month, I'd planned on posting a lot more often. That didn't happen--but it wasn't because I wasn't busy spreading the gospel of mental health. I just happened to be spreading it elsewhere. First off, I wrote an article for Woman's Day. The response from the article sparked a panel discussion on HuffPost Live, which lead to a Huffington Post Blog. In the midst of all that, Amazon started shipping my book. Also: my kid started crawling.


Needless to say, I'm pretty exhausted. I've taken the last few days of May to tend to my own mental health, which means slowing down, getting enough sleep, and binge-watching Bloodline in my pajamas. (Why didn't they wrap it all up and make it a one season show??? There's nowhere to go but down.) The book is important, of course. The advocacy work is important, too. But I've learned over the years that the most important thing is my health. It's easy to work and obsess until we fall apart. It's a lot harder to put ourselves back together. 

So, here's to a quiet week before the whirlwind picks up again this weekend at the Printer's Row Lit Fest. Tables 327 and 329. Come say hi! 

a room of our own {5/4/15}

Kelley Clink

Back in March, Slate published an article on artist James Leadbitter's newest workMadlove: A Designer Asylum. According to the article, Leadbitter, a British artist and activist, has "endured stays in many public hospital psychiatric wards during his long struggle with mental illness." The bland, uncomfortable surroundings felt more like punishment than treatment to Leadbitter. He wondered what the ward would look like if it were designed by patients, and the inspiration for Madlove was born. 

For those who don't know, which is probably most of you, psychiatric wards are usually pretty grim. I was in one in the fall of 1995. There were grates on the dirty windows. Fluorescent lights buzzed. The book shelves held nothing but battered board games. We ate on plastic tables. We sat on pleather couches. Nurses watched us from a glass cube in the corner of the room.

And this was the children's ward. 

At a time when we were thoroughly broken and frightened, recovering from or on the verge of suicide attempts, when life was hard and sharp and everything hurt, we were locked in a place devoid of softness. 

Leadbitter is right: punishment is the perfect word. I spent a week feeling that by being depressed, by attempting suicide, I had committed a crime. I went home thinking that if I couldn't get rid of my depression I had better at least pretend I had, otherwise I'd end up in the hospital again. And I never, ever, wanted to go back.

What would the experience have been like if my fellow patients and I had designed the ward? What if there had been beanbag chairs and strings of colored lights? What if there had been concert posters on the walls and a bottomless bucket of art supplies? What if we'd each had our own room with a large window overlooking a forest, or a mountain, or a beach? What if there had been a small park for us to walk in? (Did I mention we weren't allowed outside?) What if there had been overstuffed armchairs and books by Kurt Vonnegut? 

Maybe we would have felt less hopeless. Maybe we would have felt less ashamed. Maybe we would have known that what we were experiencing was okay, and that if it happened again there was a place for us to go that was safe and comforting.  

Madlove is an abstract rendering of the feedback from hundreds of people: patients as well as architects, designers, and mental health professionals. The beta version looks like a cross between a kindergarten classroom and a Dr. Seuss illustration. It isn't practical, but I guess that's not the idea. The idea is to get people thinking, and talking, about how to change the way we care for those with mental illness. 

In the words of Leadbitter, "It ain't no bad thing to need a safe place to go mad." What would your safe place look like?



ten things, eleven years {5/1/15}

Kelley Clink

Yesterday was the eleventh anniversary of my brother's death. It's hard to believe so many years have passed. It's even harder to believe that he has a nephew he will never meet. I want my son to know my brother. I want him to know about the childhood we shared, the way Matt made me laugh like no one else. I want him to know about my brother's political passions and love of music. I also want him to know about Matt's bipolar disorder. The years he struggled to find the right treatment. The years he suffered and hid his pain. The thoughts and feelings that lead him to die by suicide. 

I can't control my son's thoughts and feelings any more than I could control my brother's. I don't want to. But I do want him to be aware of the ways he can take care of himself. I want him to know that there are many avenues for help if he has suicidal thoughts. Really, the things I want him to know are too vast to list, but in an article I wrote for Woman's Day, I gave it a shot. Click here and let me know what you think

april love {4/1/15}

Kelley Clink

I'm sitting outside in the sunshine--without a coat--and I'm finding it impossible to concentrate. The trees are budding. The crocuses have bloomed. The birds are chirping their tiny, feathered heads off. I look up. A sparrow is building a nest in my gutter. SPRING-SPRING! she peeps, at the top of her pipes. 


To celebrate the thaw, I'm joining Susannah Conway's April Love. There are daily photo prompts and daily emails. The emails are focused on self love and self care; topics I consider particularly important, especially from a mental health standpoint. Far too many of us show far too little compassion for ourselves. When you are depressed or anxious, it's easy to slide into self loathing. Hell, even those who don't have mood disorders struggle with this. 

I've been trying to be mindful of my attitude toward myself over the past couple of months. Motherhood can really screw with your confidence. I've beat myself up over my son's inability to take long naps. I've chastised myself for my inability to get more done. I've excoriated the work I have produced, giving it, and me, about as much love as a dead mackerel. 

This does no one any good. Time to ease up.

My goal for this month is to practice imperfection. To give myself big, metaphorical bear hugs. To take naps. To slow down. Listen. And breathe. 

Hope you show yourself some love this month, too.

Today's prompt: My Morning View

the pit {3/12/15}

Kelley Clink

My wonderful and talented friend Gillian Marchenko is working on a book about depression. The other day she posted this on Facebook:

“Oh dear, this weekend I did all sorts of 'real people' things; friends threw me a surprise birthday outing, I helped with a baby shower, I traveled with my older girls to visit family... Now, I'm home. I'm exhausted. And I have to work on the revisions of my depression book due Friday. You know when you are standing on the edge of the pit, looking in? For some of us with depression, we get to that point in our journey when we know we are close, and we need to handle ourselves with care and drink hot drinks, take baths, breathe, and pray, and ask God for help. Well, I'm there today. And I really want to focus and write. If you are the praying type, will you pray for me? I also want to thank God... b/c I know not all of us are there yet when we see the pit and can take a couple steps back. If that's you, let us know. We'll pray for you too.”

Sometimes, even though I have been living with depression for 20 years, I fall right into the pit and I don’t even notice until I land on my face.

I don’t have bipolar disorder, but my moods and energy have always cycled between high and low. I think this is normal for most people, but the fluctuation is a bit more frequent and intense for those of us with mood disorders. I don’t remember when I began to recognize my rhythm, but at some point I realized there were times when I felt more capable and productive. Knowing these episodes would be followed by a down cycle, I would ride those waves of energy until they fizzled, washing me up on hard ground in a heap. Even then I would drag myself a few more meters for good measure, until I was too tapped out to tackle even the smallest tasks. Say, going to the grocery store or washing the dishes. I would retreat and recover, sequestering myself for days, weeks, or even months, doing little more than watching daytime television.

There’s an addictive component to this crash and burn pattern. The wave is intoxicating. The wave builds on a myth of self-worth. We live in a society that values accomplishments—and has very specific ideas about what constitutes an accomplishment. Long hours, large paychecks, corporate titles, and advanced degrees? Yes. Hot drinks, warm baths, deep breaths, and prayers? Not so much.

I think the great fear of people with a mood disorder (well, my great fear anyway) is that if we aren’t accomplishing as much, as quickly, as the people around us, we are considered failures. I’m always sure I’m being judged. So I try to work more, work harder, work until I burn out, forgetting that my brightest and most helpful offerings come when I slow down.

I know now that self-care is a necessity, not a luxury, and that there is no greater achievement than taking good care of yourself. Because if you aren’t being kind and gentle with yourself, if you aren’t respecting your boundaries, you won’t be able to fully participate in this thing called life. Oh, and you will be completely miserable. This applies to anyone and everyone—whether or not you have a mood disorder.

I still fall victim to the siren call of the wave, sometimes. Sometimes I still fall into the pit. And I’m going to try not to feel guilty about doing what I have to do to climb out. Even if it doesn’t look like much to the rest of the world, I know those baths and warm drinks are a huge accomplishment. And that day, that day after I climb out of the pit and remember to take a deep breath in the sunshine? That, my friends, is a major award. 

out loud {2/27/15}

Kelley Clink

What with having a four-month-old and all, I go to bed every night at 8:30. Needless to say, I didn’t watch the Oscars. I have since, however, watched Graham Moore’s acceptance speech, and eagerly read many of the articles that praise his honesty and support his message. I’ve also watched Dana Perry’s speech, dedicating her award to her son Evan, who died by suicide. “We should talk about suicide,” she said. “Out loud.”

Neil Patrick Harris followed that up with what media outlets called “a poorly timed joke” about Perry’s dress.

Here’s the thing: I’m not surprised. I’m not upset, either. That moment after someone discloses a loss by suicide? That’s a scary-ass moment. It’s big and it’s heavy. Frankly, no one knows what to do with it, even when they aren’t on live TV. I know, because I’ve been there a hundred times.

When people hear that I’ve written a book, they inevitably ask me what it’s about. Once upon a time I answered directly: “it’s a memoir about my brother’s death by suicide.” Nine times out of ten people looked shocked, panicked, or disconcerted by my response, as though they had caused me pain by asking. It got to where I would preface my answer with a warning: “I’m totally okay now, so don’t feel bad for asking…” That turned out to be just as awkward. For a while I tried keeping it vague—“mental illness and suicide”—but that just led to more questions. The other day I actually started laughing when someone asked me. She was polite enough to laugh along with me, though I suspect she thought I was a little unhinged. I felt a little unhinged. It had finally occurred to me that even though I’ve written a book about it, I still feel uncomfortable talking about suicide out loud. Mostly because I feel uncomfortable making people feel uncomfortable.

And that’s on me. Not society. Not Neil Patrick Harris. I actually think it’s kind of great that he treated Perry like any other winner. Perry agreed. “Just because we take on a serious subject,” she tweeted, “doesn’t mean we can’t have fun once in a while.”

So that’s where it starts: with poorly timed jokes about fashion. With us—survivors—speaking the truth. Being willing to walk into that big, heavy, scary-ass moment, over and over and over again. Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. And giving everyone the space to have whatever reaction they have.

I’m inspired by Moore and Perry, and grateful to them, too. My brother died by suicide. I tried to kill myself when I was 16, too. And from now on I’m going to take a deep breath and talk about it. Out loud.

a bit of news {1/28/15}

Kelley Clink

Hi all! Just a quick note to let you know that the latest issue of Redivider is available! The issue includes my prize-winning essay, "Inside Out." This is the first time I've ever won anything--except that one time I slayed Buffy trivia night and took home this sweet lunchbox:

It's a tough call, but I think the Beacon Street Prize is better. 


Kelley Clink

This past year has been the best of my life. I found a publisher for my book, I got nominated for a Pushcart, I had a baby for crying out loud! I'm tempted to call it an embarassment of riches, but I'm not embarassed. I'm flabbergasted, awestruck, gobsmacked, and flooded with gratitude. 

One of my favorite writers, Susannah Conway, suggests setting an intention for the new year with a word. This time last year I felt lost. I'd just gone through my third round of IVF and I was waiting to see if any of my embryos were viable. I was still mourning my dog. My search for a publisher was so stalled I wasn't even getting rejection letters anymore. 

When it came time to choose a word for the year, the first thing I thought of was a mantra I'd borrowed from Cesar Millan. Our new dog, Sam, was big, hairy, and more than a little unruly. I was still recovering from hip surgery, and his sixty pounds of puppy energy were a challenge on our walks. According to Cesar, a pack leader needed to be calm and assertive.

These are not two of the top ten words anyone would use to describe me.

They may not even be two of the top fifty.

But I repeated them to myself on each walk and felt how my shoulders relaxed and my back straightened.

At first I thought that maybe those were my words. Then I realized that there was a word that encompassed both: confidence. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there was a deeper meaning to confidence. One that I needed. One that I craved.

Having confidence in something or someone means that you believe in them. You have faith. There is an element of surrender to that. And in that time of uncertainty I needed calmness, assertiveness, faith, and surrender. I needed to believe in my strength and myself. I needed to believe in the universe. I needed to believe that I could handle whatever happened next, even if it wasn't what I wanted.

Throughout 2014, I repeated my word whenever I worried. I told myself that I had confidence in my work. My doctors. My body. My baby. It didn't always banish the rabid bats from my stomach, but it always gave me pause. It gave me a moment to let go. 

As this unbelieveable year wound to its close, I began thinking about what my word for 2015 would be. It was hard to choose one: there are so many qualities I'd like to develop, so many people I'd like to be. I decided that what I'd like most for 2015 is to slow down and give thanks. And then my word came to me: appreciate. For me, appreciation contains gratitude, mindfulness, and a dash of celebration. I'm hoping to make it a daily practice. We'll see how it goes.

Happy New Year.

inside looking out {12/11/14}

Kelley Clink

It turns out that spending years longing for, and trying to have, a child doesn't change the fact that taking care of a newborn is really, really hard.

Who knew?

Extreme exhaustion and new (nearly constant) demands strip away all your normal defenses and pulverize your ego. From a spiritual standpoint, this is supposed to be some kind of glorious gift. One of those learning/growing/surrendering opportunities. Unfortunately, like most of those opportunities, it royally sucks. (The exhaustion and crushed ego suck, that is, not the boy. He's pretty fantastic.) Add a history of depression to this mix and what you end up with feels…scary. Like walking a tightrope between two buildings without a net scary. 

Normally, when life flips upside-down on me, I eventually remember to slow down and breathe. The problem here is that it's hard to get enough time and space to gain perspective. Hell, it's hard to get enough time and space to take a shower. But today I realized that I don't necessarily need as much time and space as I think I do. I may not have 20 minute chunks lying around for meditation. I may not have hours for photo walks, or books, or quiet contemplation. But it only takes a moment to stop and breathe. It only takes a second to return to the present.

Today I made a list of simple ways to reconnect with the present--a walk around the block, a deep breath when the baby cries, noticing the smell of his head, the weight and warmth of him. But the easiest thing on the list to share was photography. 

One of my favorite ways out of the dark is to pick up the light, one piece at a time.

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