What I Carry ~ A Guest Post by Tamsen Parker

Hello everyone! Please welcome the return of our friend Tamsen Parker for another thoughtful guest post.

A few weeks ago I read Heidi Cullinan’s CARRY THE OCEAN. If you haven’t heard about this book, it’s a m/m New Adult romance that features one hero who has autism and one who has severe depression and anxiety. If you know anything about my reading habits, you know kink and mental illness make my one-click finger twitch. No kink here, but the blurb and the awesome cover totally sold me.

carry the ocean bigger

As I was reading, I found myself alternately thrilled and devastated. Not just because that’s what well-written romance does—makes us feel things deeply—but because representation is powerful.

In Jeremey, the hero with depression and anxiety, I saw myself:

“Though this is pretty much me in a nutshell. I worry about all the rules, and then panic because there’s no definitive answer to anything.” (Loc 413)

“”It makes it difficult for me to be with people, but if I’m not with people, I feel more lonely.’” (Loc 505)

“Why was everyone acting like I was sick? Like I had a heart condition, not a stupid habit of being upset in public and easily overwhelmed by life? ‘I’m fine,’ I told her again. And again.” (Loc 845)

I’m upset because you’re upset. […] This is my best and my best isn’t good enough for you. […] I don’t know how to fix this, and I’m afraid there’s no fix” (Loc 920)

For much of my life, I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety. But because of the way they manifest for me, no one realized it. It wasn’t until after I graduated college that I started seeing a therapist. I didn’t try medication until I was in graduate school.

I don’t have the type of depression that means I can’t get out of bed in the morning or makes me suicidal. I don’t have the kind of anxiety that results in panic attacks. My symptoms bleed into my shyness and introversion and even my kinks, things I believe it’s really important not to pathologize. Which makes it difficult to tell what’s okay and what’s not okay. And because the edges are so blurry, for the most part, anxiety and depression are low level unpleasant hums that make life more difficult for me but that I manage.

Until I don’t.

This has been a hard year. A really exciting one in a lot of ways, but not without difficulty. And the past month has been brutal. Mr. Parker and I have both been travelling a lot, our beloved dog passed away, we’ve been dealing with unanticipated car and home repairs, throw in some illness for good measure, and some interpersonal conflict (which, as you can imagine, I’m super with) and the stress has been through the roof. And stress exacerbates what are annoying but livable symptoms.

If you’ve received an email from me, I can pretty much guarantee I’ve read it at least half a dozen times before I pressed send. More if I don’t know you very well or if it was of particular import. And I’m still terrified I said something wrong.

I usually do well when interacting with people one-on-one, and my old job required that I regularly talk in front of large groups of people. I was good at that and I enjoyed it. Small groups are where I flounder. I get paralyzed. Because I can’t read all the cues, I can’t tailor my humor or my opinions to everyone. I don’t have the protection of being an authority, and I’m certain I’ll say something wrong or stupid. These thoughts frequently result in me saying nothing at all.

Changes in plan or routine are difficult for me. Sometimes not just difficult but completely overwhelming. Having a spouse who travels frequently and a child, period, mean that consistency is a fantasy of mine.

I’m self-aware enough to realize that sometimes my feelings are my anxiety and/or depression messing with me, but that doesn’t mean I can always sort them. Sometimes I have to check with other people—Would this make you angry? Is it rational to cry about this?—because my own feelings can’t be trusted.

I worry that I am difficult to love. Or like for that matter. Even if you’ve been nothing but kind to me, I fear that will stop. Which is why I’m often cagey with my affections. Especially with the people who mean the most to me.

I frequently want to ask for help but I don’t because it’s not that bad. And people have better things to do. Or I don’t rate that level of time or effort. When I finally told my husband that I’m afraid because I think my depression and anxiety are getting worse and he offered to help, I felt like I had failed.  I’m an intelligent, educated, capable woman. Why the hell can I not handle the very basic act of existing? But as Jeremey says, “sometimes being alive is v hard” (Loc 1236).

The point of me writing this is not for people to feel bad for me. I am blessed in so many ways and my illness is manageable. I also have the resources to call in the cavalry should I need it, and—possibly more importantly—be able to admit that I need it.

The point is not that I’m unique. I’m far from the only writer afflicted. I’m not exceptional. My story is no more interesting or valuable than anyone else’s. But every time I see someone talking about their depression, anxiety, or other mental health issue publicly, I think to myself Thank You. Thank you for saying something. Thank you for not being ashamed or secretive. Thank you for helping me feel like I’m not alone. And thank you to Heidi for giving these two heroes a happy ending without magically “fixing” things that can’t be fixed.

The point is that I want to return the favor. To say to all of you who suffer out loud or in silence that you’re not the only one.  You’re not alone. Because seeing yourself is important. Even though I use a pen name, I feel like the romance community is the place where I am the truest version of myself. So here I am—having read this post twenty times and still scared I’ve made a mistake, agonizing over revealing something that up until now I’ve kept very private—saying me, too. Because it’s important. Because sometimes knowing you’re not alone makes it less hard to be alive.

About Tamsen

Tamsen Parker is a stay-at-home mom by day, erotic romance writer by naptime. She lives with her family outside of Boston, where she tweets too much, sleeps too little and is always in the middle of a book. Aside from good food, sweet Rieslings and gin cocktails, she has a fondness for monograms and subway maps. She should really start drinking coffee. You can find out more about her and her books at tamsenparker.com.

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18 Responses to What I Carry ~ A Guest Post by Tamsen Parker

  1. Thank you for this post. I come from a family where a lot of us have anxiety issues. Mine are relatively low-key, but my dad and other immediate family members have had excruciating anxiety and panic disorders. The kind where you’re in the ER because you’re in so much pain from the heart attack that is killing you, only it’s your panic again. But we rarely talked about these things. As soon as I started noticing signs of anxiety issues in my son, though, I completely revamped my approach. (We’ll do for our kids things we would never think to do for ourselves, right?) We talk about it constantly, and with/in front of everyone and anyone. We discuss upcoming situations that might be stressful, coping techniques, the brain/body chemistry that kicks in and how to recognize it, what the aftermath feels like. You know I’m a big believer in more information = more better! I have high hopes that the more we all talk about these things with each other and in public, whenever we feel strong enough, the better things will be. Imagine a world where family/friends/total strangers could all recognize these signs in one another and offer support and understanding. That’d be pretty great. <3

    • Yes to all the things, particularly about children. I watch kidlet and all I can think is, “In so many ways you are my child. I hope you get mostly the good stuff.”

      One of the things that sucks about anxiety is that you can do everything right and it’s still not going to turn out okay. But talking about it is good. Normalizing it is good. Finding work-arounds and coping mechanisms is good.

      I think the writing world is a pretty great place to start, especially in romance since we’re like empathetic for a living and so many of us *are* living with these things.

      And so much <3 for you! Always.

  2. Julia Broadbooks says:

    Thanks for such an amazingly honest post. There is such a feeling of shame associated with struggles with anxiety or depression and such openness is the only way to squash that.

    • Thank you! Writing it–and even more so, posting it– were, um, unpleasant (that’s the polite way to say vomit-inducing, yes?). But I totally agree. The more people talk about these things, the more we say “me, too,” the less afraid people will be to say that they need help and the better resources will be available. And the more people who aren’t affected will be able to look around and say “I don’t totally understand this, but we can talk about it. Let me know how I can help.” All good stuff.

  3. A wonderfully brave post.

    And gods, do I understand having trouble talking about it because “it’s not that bad.” I have a lot of trouble talking about my own bouts of depression, partly because I feel so foolish when I look at my life and see objectively that it’s pretty great and partly because I have friends who deal with far more life-affecting mental and physical illnesses than fairly mild depression.

    (Is it a competion? Are you not allowed to say, “I feel kind of ill today” if you don’t have Ebola or something?)

    • Yeah, objectively I can feel like a total jerk for complaining/asking for help because my life is downright cushy. And guilt and self-consciousness don’t help with depression and anxiety any. I do try to remind myself that it’s not a competition, and even if it were (for the uh, possibly the tidgiest bit competitive among us), the playing field isn’t level. But it’s so, so hard sometimes. Having friends who understand or even just listen helps so much <3

  4. Lili says:

    Thank YOU for this post. <3

  5. Shelley Ann Clark says:

    This year, and the last, have been hard for me, too. I tend to stop communicating altogether when things get bad, because I assume no one wants to hear about my problems. My depression IS the kind that causes me to stop functioning– can’t get out of bed, can’t answer the phone, can’t do the things that a normal person can do, and wrestling it into submission every day is HARD.

    Reaching out makes it better but at my worst that’s the last thing I want to do. I feel like I’ve disappointed a LOT of people this year, writing wise, while I’ve gotten my act together in other parts of my life. I dropped one pack while I scaled a mountain. Now I’ve somehow got to go back and pick it up again.

    • You can do eeet! And we’re here to help. Like some kind of, idk, sherpa perhaps? ; )

      I totally feel you on the inability to communicate, which is why my social media presence can be spotty. Like I only have enough energy to devote to being social and sometimes even internet-ing is just too much.

      It IS hard to wrestle into submission. And that’s a good way to describe it. Managing anxiety and depression on any given day is like that turkish oil wrestling, except not at all sexy.

      All we can do is our best and as hard as it is, sometimes asking for help or just telling people what’s going on makes things better. Even if it feels like the worst, most disappointing thing in the world. It’s not to anyone else, promise!


  6. I think you already know how hard I feel you on this one. Thank you for this, because representation really does matter. Even when, perhaps especially when, it’s hard.

    • *solidarity hugs* I truly am grateful for everyone who is candid about these issues. It’s hard to put yourself out there, but knowing there’s a crowd you’re walking into instead of just an No-I-Don’t-Know-Anything-About-That abyss makes it easier. Here’s to making it easier still!

  7. Keller Anne Knight says:

    Of course, I have written and edited this a zillion times. As the old chick, I can tell you it gets easier as you get older in the sense of recognizing the ups and downs. My husband of 20 years is even better at it than I am. You get to where you don’t take it as personally, if that makes sense. It’s almost like having a cold. All the yucky symptoms are there, but you don’t blame yourself for catching a germ. You just struggle through knowing a cold will end as long as you take care of your health.
    Yea you for asking for help. That is a skill I doubt I will ever master. Thanks to my extroverted family and my job, I can fake being confident in most situations. And I have to credit my gynecologist for helping me to find some chemical and natural help for my anxiety.
    Thank you so much for this. You are def not alone! And it does get better!

    • Thanks Keller Anne! I hope I can get to a place where it really does feel more like a physical illness and not some inherent flaw. Logically, I know that’s true, but it’s hard to convince myself of that.

      I’m glad that you have people around you who can help, even if it’s really hard to ask for. <3

  8. Thanks for writing this post. There are so many points I relate to, I lost count half way through! I’m off to check out that book…

    • Tamsen says:

      Thanks for saying so, Rebecca. And do check it out! Although I’m never really sure if I should give trigger warnings or push it on everyone I know who has depression and anxiety issues. Maybe both? I hope you enjoy it : )

  9. Misha Horne says:

    Thanks for writing this. You’re awesome. I’ve had huge anxiety issues since birth, I think. I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t a major part of my life. Since I come from a family that’s very much “shake it off,” the only way I could manage it growing up was by avoiding people as much as possible.

    While I force myself into social situations as an adult (sometimes) it’s still painful and exhausting, even when I enjoy it. I’m so envious of people who can just walk down the street or stand in line at the store without obsessing over how everyone is staring at them and judging them.

    The internet makes it so much easier to interact with people in a voice that actually sounds like the one in my head– even though I do the same thing and rework emails and posts endlessly before I hit send. I’ve also been lucky enough to connect with people who totally get it are willing to talk about it. Like you. Thanks again. :)

    • Tamsen says:

      Thanks, Misha! I totally understand being surrounded by a Shake It Off mentality. It kind of reinforces that voice in your head that’s like “What’s WRONG with you?” which isn’t helpful at all!

      And yes to everything you said about social situations. I’m at RT this week, which I am *thrilled* about, because I love seeing my friends and meeting people I’ve only met online, etc, but it’s completely exhausting. I feel like sometimes people who don’t understand social anxiety don’t get that interacting with other people can be wonderful and horrible at the same time. And it makes me feel bad when the result is them thinking I don’t want to spend time with them. I totally do! It’s just going to cost me, which is a price I’m completely willing to pay. But, yeah.

      And double yes to loving the internet. It’s so much easier to meter socialization on here and to take the time to read over your post/tweet/email a million times before sending instead of saying something out loud At That Very Second that you might regret. And if you’re tapped out, you don’t have to make awkward excuses! It’s very much on our own terms.

      Thank you again for commenting, it’s been great to see all the responses <3