Tuesday Reviews Day: Never Let Me Sleep, Jennifer Brozek

I really wanted to enjoy this book. The blurb was amazing, and the guest post I read by the author on Chuck Wendig’s blog really pumped me up. It seemed like it was going to fling itself into my Top 10 YA books, which is hard to do (especially considering most of the list is filled with heavyweight trilogies).

This book was … disappointing. I do not enjoy writing bad reviews so I’ll keep this short and as painless as possible. I almost hope Brozek doesn’t read this.

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Melissa Allen, a teenager in a small town in South Dakota, goes to sleep. She wakes up the next morning to find that everyone in the state has mysteriously died in their sleep, her sister and brother-in-law included. On top of all this, Melissa is on house arrest, she’s supposed to be at the doctor soon, and her meds are almost gone …. is it possible she’s to blame for her family’s deaths, and the rest of it is just all in her head?

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Literally the only thing I liked about this book was the main character isn’t the picture of perfection; she’s on probation and suffers from mental and emotional disorders, but even that isn’t well-executed (not to mention, based on the cover art, she’s still a gorgeous blonde with perfect skin and a runway-ready body that I seriously doubt belongs to a 14-year-old). There’s a LOT of telling, not much showing, and I really hate that phrase so I’ll go into what I mean here. The main character (whose name I literally already forgot, she’s so flat) explains a couple times what happens to her during her episodes, which is interesting and seems well-researched. When she has to explain to someone else the need to go back for her lost meds, though, it seems like she’s reading from one of those old-school Pill Books that lists all the side effects and interactions of every pill. It felt like reading Wikipedia, not like listening to a 14-year-old explain something she finds obvious to someone who should know better.

The story never really touches on what caused her to develop these conditions, even though it’s implied that she wasn’t born with them. (Also, why the hell was she in juvie in the first place? Did I miss that part, or… ?) The one traumatic event in her life is explicitly stated to have exacerbated but not caused the problems. And the twist hinted at in the blurb (Is the apocalypse real? Or did she kill her guardians and hallucinate it all?) is only barely mentioned, certainly not mined to its full potential. It comes into play only in the last five pages or so, and is quickly hand-waved aside.

Finally, the horror reveal comes too early and is too obvious. By the time you ‘see’ the monster, you basically already know what it is, and honestly, it’s kind of stupid. It’s so implausible and what explanation we get is reaching and still comes up thin and unlikely.

I didn’t even bother purchasing the second two books.

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How I found it: Guest post on an author blog
Genre: Young adult; sci-fi; horror
Does it pass the Bechdel test? No
Is it a standalone? No
So what worked? You can tell there’s a tiny morsel of a good idea buried in here, and I wanted so badly for the author to reach in and grab it and run with it, but she never did. This story has massive potential, none of it realized.
What didn’t work? The utterly flat main character (for several reasons), the unconvincing monsters, the thin veneer of resolution, the pacing, etc. etc.

Overall: I haven’t been quite so disappointed in a book in awhile. It’s also the first trilogy I’ve utterly given up on. I can’t with this book. The author makes an effort at the quick pacing of many popular writers but it seems to get away from her. The main character is not well developed and it seems she was only given a mental illness in an effort to perform diversity, but it comes across as pandering and patronizing. This one is a definite skip.

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A panel from Chasing Shadows; art by Craig Phillips

Tuesday Reviews Day: Chasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi

I’m ahead of the game! This has never happened before but I’m trying to keep it up. This review is actually for a novel I started before Christmas, so I’m three books past this already! Whew.

This is one of the first graphic novels I’ve read in a long time, and it was so fun. I love the mixture of prose and images and what it says about the novel. More about that later just to avoid any possible spoilers.

Chasing Shadows also fits into my No-SWCM Reading Challenge, and it made me realize I’m probably not doing this challenge right. Yeah, I’ve cut out all the SWCM authors from my reading list, but I’m still reading predominantly white authors, even if they are female. Avasthi, of course, is not white, but I realize now that I need to broaden my horizons even more. I’ve gotten some really great recommendations for works by PoC, but if you have one you’re dying to tell me about, preach its gospel in the comments!

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Savitri, her boyfriend Corey, and his twin sister Holly are the closest friends can get. They do everything together. When they’re not in school, they’re cutting new paths along the rooftops of Chicago, taming the city and making it their own.

After an afternoon freerunning session, the twins become the target of a hooded gunman, who kills Corey and leaves Holly in a coma.

Savitri and Holly are left to pick up the pieces and deal with their loss—and their survivor’s guilt—in their own ways. But when Holly wakes from her coma, she’s not the same person, and she’s eager to get revenge on the gunman. Sav struggles with the loss of her boyfriend, the slow fade of her best friend, and whether it’s possible to hold on too tight—and for too long.

A panel from Chasing Shadows; art by Craig Phillips

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How I found it: Book Riot YA box #03
Genre: Young adult; contemporary realism; graphic novel
Does it pass the Bechdel test? Yes
Is it a standalone? Yes
So what worked? I like the complexity of the girls’ friendship. It isn’t just the tragedy that comes between them; the difference between their cultures cause issues that Holly seems to be blind to. I like the implications that has for their relationship, the subtle addressing of white privilege and how that can affect interracial friendships in sometimes surprising ways.

I loved the graphic portions of the novel and, as I mentioned before, their symbolism. The appearance of images coincides with and really signals Holly’s descent into madness as she struggles to parse this new reality without her twin.

And of course, I also like the pull-no-punches way the novel deals with violence and how it ripples out and affects so many people. It treats the grieving process and mental illness carefully but truthfully; people grieve in different ways and on different timelines, and none of them are wrong. And mental illness can manifest in startling and unexpected ways, but it’s important to try to recognize the signs in your loved ones and be sure they’re taking care of themselves. Sav thinks she’s helping by withdrawing when Holly pushes her away, when the reality is that Sav should have done anything but. Of course, every situation is not the same, every response is not the right one, and the novel does a great job of showing that.
What didn’t work? It seemed strange at times that the parents of any of the children were not more visible, more involved. Josh’s mom in particular seems either willfully or woefully ignorant of what’s going on with her son. Granted, the teens are all seniors in high school who can obviously drive themselves and (generally speaking) conduct themselves responsibly, and granted, this does touch on the book’s theme of dealing with grief. Many people, I’m sure, do withdraw from their families and their other children when facing the loss of a child. But all the parents were strangely absent for the majority of the story, and that struck me as slightly odd, especially for Savitri, who seems to have a strong relationship with her mom that really wasn’t displayed.

Overall: It’s a very emotionally dense read, so it took me longer to get through this than I anticipated. I occasionally had to take a step back from it, but that’s not a critique in the slightest. I loved the way it drew me in and then tore me apart. I got so invested in the characters I found myself taking things personally, even after I started disliking some of them and the way they handled things. I liked that it wasn’t some happy-go-lucky BS that wraps up with rainbows and flowers as if nothing bad ever happened. And of course, I’m a sucker for symbolism, especially when extended through a whole work like this, so the graphic element and what it meant for the story really amped up my enjoyment of it. Very, very effective.

This book is heavy. I’d assign it trigger warnings for violence and mental illness at the very least, because I want you to go into this book fully aware of what you’re getting into. But I want you to read this, because what this book has to say about life, love, and loss is utterly critical.

Stages of Grief, or Stages of Writing?

This morning I read this post by Chuck Wendig. Of course it made me laugh, but it also made me realize something about my own writing process: I think I may be stuck in the “Depression” phase. And that makes sense, sort of, in the grand scheme of the things that are my life and personality.

I’m prone to depression. Notice I didn’t say I “have” depression. I think that may be because a large part of my family still harbors some of society’s stigmas toward depression. I’m not sure why that is, but I know it’s affected me and the way I talk about myself and my emotional and mental struggles.

I get depressed over the strangest things. You may have noticed, for example, that my posts fell completely off with no warning and no reasoning. I made a very brief attempt at weekly review posts rather than biweekly ones, and it proved more stressful than I thought. I like reading at a slow pace and giving myself time to process what I’m reading; otherwise I find myself reading just to be reading, and I don’t retain anything at all. Months later I may even entirely forget I’ve read a book if I read it that way.

When I realized that weekly posts were probably going to be too strenuous, it hit me hard. Harder than it probably should have. Instead of telling myself, “that’s fine, just adjust the schedule again. People will understand,” I told myself I was a failure, a horrible writer, and no one followed my blog anyway so what difference did it make. Of course, these are horrible things to tell yourself, and I know that, logically. But that doesn’t stop Scumbag Brain from being a scumbag.

So of course the conclusion Scumbag Brain reached was to just. Stop. Blogging. And somehow, I was mostly okay with this. I would get a twinge of guilt here or there, or really miss writing, or have a great idea, and yet somehow I’d dismiss it all with some lame excuse or self-deprecation.

But then I read Chuck’s post. And I get that it wasn’t specifically talking about my situation, but it seemed so relevant. It really struck me that this is what I’ve been doing with my writing for years; I get started, somehow get discouraged, and I get out. I put it down and never go back to it.

I’ve decided in recent days that I want to change all that and let myself be the person I want to be. I need to get out of my own way, basically. So I signed up for Habitica — which is already making a difference in the way I think about my free time and my priorities. I did some research on online graduate schools and got some input from some of my career mentors. And most terrifying of all: I signed up for NaNoWriMo. I’ve signed up for it before, but this time, I mean it. I work at my alma mater, so I enlisted the English department chair to help keep me accountable, and I added daily writing to my Habitica tasks. Plus, last fall I was able to attend an excellent character-writing workshop with Mary Robinette Kowal, and I’ll be drawing heavily from what I learned there, not to mention using the completed excerpt I ended up with as a basis for my concept.

I’m really excited about what’s in store. I’m just hoping that I can hold on to this momentum, because life isn’t always a stroll down a sunny lane. Recently, husband and I moved into a brand new home and, while of course it’s exciting and wonderful, it’s also very stressful and a little scary. Part of me wants to stay home all day in my pajamas and enjoy it to the fullest, and part of me wants to be ten years old again so I can stay at the home I grew up in in my pajamas and not have anything to worry about, apart from which flavor of Ramen I’ll eat for lunch and whether I can sneak a second soda.

Chibird's penguin encouragement :)

Chibird’s penguin encouragement 🙂

But that won’t do either. It’s time for the Acceptance phase.

I can do this.

So now I’m going to go do it.

©Jessica Hoffman

A Much Needed Break

So, recently I told you that my World Book Day post had to be backdated because of other things I’d tell you about later. Wow, that sounded ominous, didn’t it? It wasn’t anything bad; quite the opposite, really.

Kris and I celebrated our fifth anniversary this year, and thanks to all the time and money we’ve been pouring into the house, we weren’t able to do anything huge. But we decided not to swap gifts and instead take a whirlwind, twenty-four-hour trip to a city we haven’t been to in at least a decade, and never together: Savannah, Georgia. If you’ve never been to Savannah, start making plans now. Well, after you read my post. And maybe also share it. I don’t know. Let’s not talk about all the time I spent completely panicking because I thought we weren’t going to be able to find any available rooms and have to stay home for our first milestone anniversary.

I crawled the city’s CVB site looking for cute places to stay and found this utterly adorable B&B in Savannah’s historic Old Town called Zeigler House Inn. The owner is a positively delightful woman named Jackie, who greeted us with a map of the city and proceeded to plot out dinner recommendations, sightseeing points, and weekend activities.

©Jessica Hoffman

Zeigler House Inn

She explained that we could use the house’s parlor, porches, and library at our leisure, and we should help ourselves to the cream sherry and fresh-baked cookies, fudge, and cupcakes in the dining room. There were movies to borrow and books to read, umbrellas in case it rained, and a single-cup coffee maker. In our room a closet had been converted to a small kitchen complete with mini-fridge and a full set of silverware and china. Jackie had baked giant muffins (they were to die for), strawberry turnovers, and ham-and-cheese turnovers for breakfast. The bathroom was amazing, the bed was ultra squishy, and the whole room was just so relaxing and plush and perfect.

©Jessica Hoffman

Our cute room!

We tossed our bags down and headed to a restaurant really close by called Crystal Beer Parlor. We got nachos topped with pulled pork and jalapenos and sampled some of their beers. Kris had a bison burger that he loved, with sweet potato fries, while I stuck to local shrimp (they were enormous!) and tried-and-true hand-cut french fries. We didn’t do anything else that night; we’d driven there after working all day, so it was pretty late once we left the restaurant.

©Jessica Hoffman

Delicious dinner!

 

Friday morning — our 5th anniversary, yay! — we got up late, lounged around and chit-chatted with Jackie before paying for the room (an excellently affordable price, all things considered) and heading out to face the day. We had talked about doing a trolley tour, but we ended up finding a parking garage and spending literally the entire day walking around and getting lost. It was amazing.

We found art galleries by the dozens, with pieces by local artists that were stunning. There were so many adorable and amazing places, and we soon ended up in touristville, a.k.a. River Street. We watched an employee at Savannah’s Candy Kitchen make saltwater taffy on a 100-year-old taffy puller; bought pralines at another shop; and ate a delicious lunch at Fiddler’s Crab House overlooking the water. We also found Savannah Bee Company, where I nearly had a heart attack because one of their employees sounded exactly like one of my college best friends, whom I haven’t seen in several months. I spent far too much money there. Honey is delicious.

©Jessica Hoffman

Making saltwater taffy

Also on River Street was a craft fair, which was pleasantly empty thanks to unusually cold and wet weather. We met a wonderful couple of musicians named Glen and Joyce who create jewelry from used guitar strings. Proceeds go toward their nonprofit they founded to help mental illness survivors and their families. We turned out to have a lot in common, and we talked for a long time about oddly personal things. It was a beautiful and healing experience that I think I’ll hold on to for a long time. I got their card and bought a beautiful ring Joyce had made moments before I walked in their tent.

©Jessica Hoffman

River Street

We walked around more, and found hilarious little stores, quirky — and occasionally creepy — bars and live music venues, ran into a St. Patrick’s Day themed 5k, and found the most fantastic interior design store called 24e. Kris wanted to go in but I didn’t; their window display alone was intimidating. But Kris is fascinated by art and design and I have a serious love for interior design, so in we went. Yes, it was pricey. But almost everything in the store is one-off, and a lot of it is reclaimed or created by local artisans. They even had a table made from a bowling alley lane, so of course Kris wanted one. We’d have to take out a small loan to pay for it, but hey, who knows; our next house may very well have one. I’d love to make that happen for him — he does so much for me. ❤

©Jessica Hoffman

It actually made a beautiful table, surprisingly

We got a grand tour of the store by one of the designers and took his card home. Even if we don’t get that insane(ly awesome) table, we’ll certainly be picking up a few things from them.

We wandered a while longer, not quite sure where to stop and not really wanting to anyway. But we were starting to get hungry so we made our way back to food, stopping to take pictures of an historic African-American church and a beautiful monument to African-American soldiers in the Revolutionary War.

©Jessica Hoffman

The story of the drummer boy was my favorite.

After that, we finally found our way to Jazz’d, an underground tapas and jazz bar, I guess? There’s a delicious tapas restaurant in our home turf so we were looking forward to it, but this was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. We ordered their Tapas for Two, which got us two appetizers, two tapas each, and two desserts. It was a ton. of. food. And every bite of it was amazing. She-crab soup, orange-glazed pulled pork with red cabbage, seared tuna tacos, barbecue shrimp-and-grits, lamb lollipops, creme brulee and a chocolate torte so good we just had to bring home the leftovers. Service was so fast we could hardly keep up, and the atmosphere was a comfortable mix of after-work and nightlife crowds; not too dressy, not too casual.

We went straight home after dinner and ate that torte for breakfast.

All in all, I have to admit – it was probably one of my favorite vacations so far, and I can’t wait for our next anniversary. It’s really great being married to your best friend.

©Jessica Hoffman

But first, lemme take a selfie

A New Chapter

Today is an exciting day for us. We’re moving!

It’s also a terrifying day. We’re moving!

Ha. But seriously, this is only my second time putting my life in literal boxes and it’s almost as nerve-wracking as the first time. I lived at home ’til we got married and now we’re moving back into my (grand)parents’ home. We’ll be helping pay for utilities and groceries of course, but they’re gracious enough not to charge us rent (though, can I say that makes me uncomfortable? I know they don’t mind but I don’t like feeling like a moocher.). I’m nervous about the move not because we don’t all get along (we do), but because things are different now. Sure, it’s still their house and their rules, and I respect that, but Kris and I have built our own home with our own rules and routines, and it’s going to be strange getting used to sharing those things with someone else.

Plus, everything is more terrifying exciting when you have an anxiety disorder. Suddenly, you’re not just packing your dishes in a storage unit, you’re trusting your life’s treasures to a metal box that suddenly feels really far away and how are you supposed to know no one will get in there and these are your good dishes and what if they break despite the ten feet of foam paper and bubble wrap, and how are you just supposed to leave your books packed up for months? Your books! And what if we really need this thing we haven’t used in three years and it’s all the way in storage in this box in the back, and —

It’s exhausting. Not just for me, but for Kris, too. I’m sure he’s tired of hearing the same senseless worries. And granted, it’s probably not silly to worry someone might break into your storage unit. It probably is silly to think they’ll break in and steal only my boxes of books.

In the moments of clarity, I’m able to step back and acknowledge that there really isn’t much left to do. We still have another week before the house is officially on the market (a perk of being able to move out before listing) so we only need to pack and move our essentials for now. We have time to make a few last minute updates, stage the home, sort things for the Great Moving Sale of 2015, and do a deep-clean, which I can honestly say is probably going to be my least favorite part. I am a messy creature. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Outwardly I think I’m doing a good job of appearing to maintain my sanity. Inwardly, I feel like a hummingbird, zipping to and fro: but we have to clean this, we need to paint here, why isn’t the grass growing in this spot, why is it growing too fast in this spot, should we leave the herb garden or no, is anyone even going to like our house — which is, you may notice, an extension of “is anyone going to like me.” I’m struggling to detach myself from our home, thinking if someone doesn’t like something about the house, it’s a judgment of us and the quality or quantity of work we’ve done to it.

Of course that’s not true, but with anxiety disorders, lack of truth in a thought doesn’t stop you from thinking it.

So I’m excited about this. I’m trying to focus on the fun parts of it, like staging the house and showing it to potential buyers. (Yes, we’re selling it on our own.) And I’m trying to remember that our historic little haunted house isn’t perfect — but neither am I, and the right person found me and fell in love even with the ghosts and the cracks in the walls.

Finding my way back … to myself

People always talk about finding themselves and to be honest, it was something I thought I’d never experience. But you know how a few months ago, I just disappeared, and I told you I’d explain it later? Well, here we are.

I have never really been someone who stood out. I’ve just been myself, mostly quiet when surrounded by strangers yet annoyingly extroverted and shameless when I’m with friends. In high school I had my punk rock phase, my goth phase, my preppy phase, and then my “who really gives a crap about any of this” phase. (I fluctuated between all of these, but the last one was basically my default setting. It was always running in the background.) My best friends were mostly older than me, I hated everything (now I guess you’d have called my high school self a hipster), and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

I still don’t.

And the honest reason for that is I just generally do what people expect me to. I made good grades because my teachers expected me to based on (most of) my older siblings. I went to a local university because I thought I was supposed to. (I do freaking love my alma mater though. I am super proud of that school.) I took all the classes I was told to take, pursued a degree everyone told me I’d like (I did enjoy it, and in some alternate reality I probably did stick with that path). I look back sometimes and wonder what I’d have done differently if I had done all the things I’d really wanted to do. Some of those things were incredibly stupid ideas, and sometimes I think I’m glad I didn’t do them. But what if I had? What stories would I be able to tell my eventual kids?

Did I ever tell you about that time in high school, when I …

Did I ever tell you about when I was in college …

But I don’t have any crazy stories to tell my kids. I never really did anything bad or unexpected or scary. That’s not an exaggeration, not me pretending to be the perfect kid. I wasn’t. But probably the worst things I ever did were miss curfew by an hour or slam my door during a one-sided screaming match with my grandparents. Nothing extraordinary. Nothing awe-inspiring.

And now I realize I’ve carried that into adulthood, and it’s sadder now even than it was then. I don’t take risks, I don’t really do anything that scares me or excites me or inspires someone. I think too much about: well, what will people think? What will people say about me? What if they think I’m a failure or a fraud or just stupid?

So in January I decided that this year, as my New Year’s Resolution, I was going to do something a little different. Instead of resolving to lose weight, hit the gym more often, cut back on sweets and soda, I was going to start living for myself. (And Kris of course. We’re a team, obviously.) I was going to stop bending to what I thought everyone wanted and expected for me, living the life and being the person that I perceived I should be. Because the reality is, no one was putting these weird pressures on me but myself. My family wouldn’t love me less and my friends might give me side-eye but they’d support me no matter what, and anyone who wouldn’t doesn’t deserve front-row seats to my life, anyway.

It was a good goal, I thought. One that would require real changes and serious effort on my part. Step 1: Do something scary that I’ve always wanted to do.

Ink by Matt Skin

Ink by Matt Skin

So I got a tattoo. I love tattoos. I only had one, and it’s relatively small and no one really notices it, even though it’s not hidden at all. But I’d wanted this design for a long time, I knew I would be happy with it, but I kept getting held back. It’s too big. I’ll get bored with it. Everyone will hate it. What if I don’t find the right artist, and it turns out poorly? I ran through every excuse in the book, even while I researched local artists and shops, settled on the perfect guy, and doodled hot air balloons on every page of every notebook I wrote in for over a year. Finally, just before Christmas of last year, I printed out the painting I liked, took it to Matt Skin and asked if he could do it. Obviously, he could.

It took awhile to do (of course) and after the first sitting I went into panic mode. I completely shut down and freaked out like I haven’t in a long time. After a few weeks I realized my freakout was normal, and reminded myself how long I’d wanted the tattoo. I got some predictable responses, but by the time they arrived I had discovered a part of myself that I thought was lost: the part that cared more about what I wanted and what I liked than about what other people wanted for me. So when I heard the first “but your legs were so beautiful” comment from a family member, I told her I hadn’t gotten in a car wreck, I’d just gotten one of them painted, and if she wanted to see a plain leg she could look at my left one instead. Not even a month before that happened, I’d have broken down crying and left.

In the months since I got the tattoo complete, I’ve been making strides toward my goal that are visible even to myself. I’m not there yet, but I think I’m doing well. So it was time for Step 2: Make big decisions based on what’s best for myself, not on what I tell myself is expected of me.

So I put in my two weeks at my job. I know some of my coworkers might read this, but that’s okay. I don’t really have much to say on this front, just that it became startlingly clear that it was time to move on, and work-related stress was wearing me thin and disrupting my relationships and my personal life. I do think that my anxiety disorder has worsened in recent months, but it’s a chicken-or-egg question at this point. It’s scary for me, because I don’t have any prospects. But I know that I’ve made the best decision for myself, and if it upsets someone’s apple cart, then that’s their responsibility, not mine.

I know for a lot of people, these things all sound like common sense. And for high-school-me and even college-me, it would have been common sense, too. But somewhere along the way I really lost myself in the sea of projected and perceived expectations, I stopped pursuing things that made me happy, and I became someone I wasn’t really proud to be.

But the old me—the one who didn’t care about being called a bitch as long as she was with people she liked, who wore clothes she thought were cool even if no one else agreed, and read manga tucked into her history book as if her teacher didn’t notice—the old me I think would be proud of this new me, this me that I always really wanted to be anyway.

Aside

Patience

I know it’s been an abnormally long time since I’ve posted, and I’m sorry about that. But I’m sure you’ve seen the hints and maybe outright omissions here and there that I struggle with anxiety disorder and probably depression. I’m not on anything for it, though that isn’t a mark of pride for me or an attempt to demonize people who are. I’ve been really struggling lately and have not felt at all like myself for at least a week, perhaps longer. The mere thought of writing left me drained and when I tried to anyway, nothing came together how I wanted and it all seemed pointless.

I am blessed with an amazing support system of family and friends, and while I’m sure some of both groups will see this and think, “But I had no idea,” or “Well, she didn’t tell me,” I hope they don’t also think that’s because I don’t trust or love them. I confide in as few people as possible during the difficult times because spreading a wide net does not help me. Maybe one day soon I’ll be able to write a longer post about my struggles recently, and I’m sure by then they’ll seem silly and we’ll all have a laugh over how overblown I made the whole thing. But right now I am healing and I am doing much better. Taking one day at a time. I hope you’ll understand and perhaps look forward to a blog post soon that I’ve been very excited to write … you might want to go rewatch the series finale of Breaking Bad. No more hints though.