A Night to Believe 2012, Part One

I am so excited to announce that I will be reading an excerpt from my novel, Lights All Around, at “A Night to Believe” next month, culminating OCD Awareness Week!  I emailed today with Michael from the International OCD Foundation, and they are purchasing my flight to Boston and two nights in the Sheraton.  I am beyond thrilled to attend and SO excited to share part of my story with the OCD community.

Thank you to everyone who voted for my submission!  I will update again after the event … which I am nervous about (a little) … reading the excerpt will be an exposure in and of itself.  Nothing like ERPT right in front of a crowd, eh?  🙂  I think I am up to it.

Is anyone else from the blogosphere going to be at this event?  I’d love to meet you, if so!

books books books

Oh man, I have been reading like a maniac lately … some delicious books.  I love stories so FREAKIN’ much that I find myself sending out these random text messages to people declaring my love for words as if I had a wounded heart.

Just finished …

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan | Even though John Green is one of my heroes, I avoided this book for a long time because of its LGBT themes.  (Now, don’t freak out on me– some of my friends are gay.  I love gay people.  But I didn’t think I’d care to read a book centering on those issues.)  But I decided to bite the bullet and buy the book.  Started reading it that night and finished it the next day.  Brilliant.  So good.  The book is about two boys who share the name Will Grayson.  Green and Levithan each write from one Will’s perspective.  I am always a sucker for a book that has two storylines that end up melding into one at the end.  I actually think I may have liked this book more than Looking for Alaska, which is Green’s first novel, a Pritz winner.  Let’s just say this book includes one straight Will Grayson, one homosexual Will Grayson, and this huge tank of a boy named Tiny who is writing and directing an epic musical.  Love.

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta | Another one of those two storylines telling one cohesive story.  This book (which I have read before) just flabbergasts me.  It is so fascinating and so different than most other books.  It’s about Taylor Markham, a young lady who is the leader of her school during the annual territory wars between the boarders (at her boarding school), the townies (from Jellicoe), and the cadets (a visiting military academy).  This book is brilliantly written, completely beautiful, heartbreaking, and lovely.  I cannot tell you how smitten I am with this story.  A must-read.

City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare | This is book #4 in the Mortal Instruments series, and I have to be honest: at this point, I’m only in it for Jace.  But I will say that I am very in it for Jace.  The sexuality is ratcheted up in book four; Clare is incredible at building tension.  But the books are also exciting and sweet, not … pornographic.  And now, with four books down, I am pretty stoked for book #5.  “I am Jonathan, but everyone calls me Sebastian, and I am going to burn down the world.”  Eeeep!  Terrifying!

Currently reading …

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare
Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley
The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

Up next …

Everyday by David Levitha
Divergent by Veronica Roth*
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine*

*(I know I have been claiming these two are up next for a while … I just keep finding things I am more eager to read!)

So stinkin’ excited for …

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (out this month!!!!)
Quintana of Charyn by Melina Marchetta (out this month in Australia but not in the US till March– never you worry, I believe I will somehow track down an affordable Aussie copy earlier than that!  Anyone have ideas?  Fishpond doesn’t have the Aussie supplier!!!)

11 years ago … my memories of 9/11

My second year of college, I lived in a suite with seven other girls whom I laughed with and fought with and loved.  That Tuesday morning, one of my quadmates Tracy and I had a class together, and I was getting annoyed because she was dawdling because she didn’t feel well and was probably going to make me late.

Another quadmate Megan, pre-med, had an early lab that morning and returned to our place, breathless as she reached for the remote.  She clicked on the news, saying, “A plane crashed into the World Trade Center!”

My first image was of some podunk, rogue new pilot who had accidentally somehow managed to bump into the building.

But the people on the news seemed serious, and Tracy sat down on the couch next to Megs to watch.  “We need to go,” I told her.

She waved me off, still watching the screen.  “I’m not going to go.  You can leave.”

I stomped off to Nazareth Hall, upset and annoyed that I would be late now without a partner in crime.  When I got to the fourth floor, someone in my class had turned on the TV in the room, and now the news was reporting on the crash at the Pentagon.  Everyone was transfixed.  I clearly remember thinking, Is this the end of the world?

Our teacher made us turn off the TV.  I don’t think anyone quite realized yet that this would be one of our nation’s biggest tragedies.  We talked in class about leadership.  I don’t remember anything specific about it.

At Northwestern College, we had chapel every morning at 10:30 am (CST).  As the student body was making its way to Maranatha Auditorium from all areas of campus, everyone was buzzing about the news.  I was in the Totino stairwell talking animatedly about the towers being hit when John, a friend from freshman year, said, “I think the bigger deal is that it has collapsed.”

Wait, what?

I remember being in complete shock– how could a small plane collapse a skyscraper?  It wasn’t until a week or so later when I saw in a magazine an illustrated cross-section of the tower with an overlaid plane, as if seen from above.  Then it made more sense.

In chapel, they had a live news feed playing over the giant screen above the stage.  The student body watched, cried, prayed.  They let the feed play all day, and students came in and out to watch and pray.

I was shell-shocked, since my sister Kristin and my dad had been in New York City only two weeks earlier.  They had pictures of themselves from the roof of the WTC.  Even though I knew they were safe and in Minnesota, I kept picturing them on top of that building, knowing that someone else’s sister and dad had to be in the building that day, my heart breaking for them and so relieved that my family had escaped tragedy by fewer than 14 days.

Everyone at my (rather Calvinistic) school kept saying, “This did not surprise God; this did not surprise God,” and I knew that Northwestern was the very best place for me to sort through the tragedy.  It was incredible to grieve with a community that both loved and trusted God’s sovereignty in spite of the destruction and sadness.

What a day.  Sometimes it is hard to believe that it has been over a decade since then.  Sometimes it feels like it’s been even longer.  My dad says he always remembers what he was doing when he found out JFK was shot.  I suppose this is my generation’s event.  It makes me sad even to write about it today, all these years later.

One thing I know: September 11, 2001, did not surprise my good and perfect God.  I continue to trust Him.

a poem I wrote

I wrote this back in college, but I was thinking of it recently when I was up north at my summer camp.  The poem is about a boy with whom I shared one wonderful week– and after that, things fell apart.  In college, this was my assessment of the situation (which, for the record, took like three years to heal from.  One week, then three years.  Boys.)


It appears to be about the temperature,
the way your body reacts to the sun,
how you kissed my hand and left.

You sang raw songs aloud, white flags
you spited for the sake of the sun,
a clumsy surrender to the afternoons,

later blaming the northern countryside for
the way it slows your blood,
allowing more time to warm.

And so you dressed your hurts in city shade,
where haste is the liquor to rinse your mind
of that summer and the way your hands were soft.

I left St. Paul and welcomed the day’s damage
because of the lessons that leak into open sores.
I make the most of my summer wounds.

But I want you to know—I would have helped you adjust:
dark faces shadowed by a background of pines,
only the moon with no warmth of its own.

Remember, dear, the northern nights are cold.

back to summer camp

So, I know that on June 1st I said I would not be returning to my beloved camp this summer, but plans changed.  A few weeks ago, my friend Aaron sent me a text asking if I would be willing to serve as a counselor for Last Chance camp over Labor Day weekend.  Since my heart had felt the absence of time up there, it was pretty easy to twist my arm.  My roommate Desiree and friend Ashley went up too, as well as my brother and a TON of great friends.  It was fun to look around at the other counselors and see so many wonderful camp friends– there is just something special about the people you’ve spent time with under the pines in northern Minnesota.  If you don’t know what I mean by that, I’m sorry for you. 🙂

Anyway, it was a wonderful weekend, even though I forgot all my OCD meds.  Stupid, stupid, stupid!  I took Benadryl at night so that I could sleep without my Risperdal, but in the afternoons (when there were no planned activities), I could feel my spirits sag.  But I survived.  And laughed a LOT, so much that I lost my voice for a day.  Kinda love that.

In other news, I have continued to apply for writing contests and stuff, and I found out that I won a week-long writing retreat in December.  I’ll get to spend a week in this arts retreat house, focusing strictly on my novel, and I can’t wait!

More news: I discovered the band Mew last week.  They are from Denmark.  I like them a lot.  I have been reading a bunch and buying books faster than I can consume them (but what else is new?).

Life feels really good right now.  I feel like God is unleashing blessings on me, and I am praying that I will praise Him regardless of any of it.  My primary goal in life remains to stay connected to my Savior at all costs.  I am so glad that He is a pursuing God.

Okay, off to write some more!  Some book reviews coming up soon!

What about you?  What have you been up to lately??

CBT advocacy

I am a huge, huge, HUGE proponent of cognitive-behavioral therapy (also known more specifically as exposure and response prevention therapy), which gave me back my life.

I wrote a story called Lights All Around— fiction that sings the praises of CBT.  Even though I had already experienced CBT, it wasn’t until I fictionalized my experiences that I felt like I really understood what exactly went on during therapy, the reprogramming of my brain.  The scenes that I am hoping to share during OCD Awareness Week detail the moments when CBT and its premise finally clicked.

If you haven’t voted for my entry “Tipping Point” yet, will you take 3 seconds to do so right now?  Just go to http://www.ocfoundation.org/awarenessweek!  I appreciate you!!  (Which 2-3 friends could you ask to vote for me today?  I’d be so grateful!)

“Tipping Point,” my entry

If you like what you read below, then please mosey over to http://www.ocfoundation.org/awarenessweek to vote for my entry!  Voting closes on September 7th, so please don’t wait!!

That Saturday, I went to cognitive-behavioral therapy like a disgruntled cobra, noticeably agitated, ready to strike.  I shifted uncomfortably with each of Dr. Foster’s normal questions and answered in short, sharp responses like a fence made of spikes.  “Is there something wrong?” Dr. Foster asked, setting down his legal pad on the coffee table between us.  He folded his hands in his lap, and I despised him.

“Yes,” I said, my face on fire.  “I can see where this is going, and I don’t think I can do it.  And if I can’t do it, if I’m going to fail anyway, then I want to stop now.”  I crossed my arms across my chest; then, realizing it probably made me look childish, clasped my hands in my lap instead.

He leaned back in his seat.  “Where do you think this is going?”

“You’re going to ask me to swear at the Holy Spirit.”  I could not meet his eye.  My mind raced as it recited its usual mantra—Father God, I love You; Father God, I love You—my talisman against blasphemy.

“Maybe,” he said.  “But not this week.  Can we focus on this week first and cross other bridges when we come to them?”

I snorted out a shock of air.  My right leg began to shake, which thoroughly annoyed me.  “What’s the point if, in the end, I can’t finish the job?”

“You don’t know that,” said Dr. Foster quietly.

“I know that,” I countered as my voice climbed higher.  “I’ve considered it, and there is no way I can do that.”

“I think you should just focus on your current assignment.”

“I can’t,” I said.  Didn’t he understand that there was no point to torture if the end result was not healing?  “All I can think about is that this is the next step.”

“Well,” said Dr. Foster, leaning forward, “I’m not actually sure we’ll need to get to that point.”  I looked at him, sideways, warily.  “I’m not.  I’m seeing how things go.”  I swallowed.  Outside his window, the sunlight battled hard behind the cloudy sky but couldn’t break through.  “For now, when you have your intrusive thoughts, I’m asking you to try to embrace them.”

I can’t,” I repeated.  “I can’t think—that—toward the Holy Spirit.  I really can’t … and I think that might be the community standard in my church.”  I was using his own terminology as a spear, frantically poking holes.  What had I been thinking, attempting CBT in the first place, which was shaping up to be the equivalent of toying with an afterlife toggle?

“Then,” he said, “what I want you to try is this.  When you have an intrusive thought, I want you to think, ‘My OCD is making me think’—he held out his hands—“‘this’—whatever it is.  And name it.  Say it in your head.  It’s a step removed from what I’d like you to be doing, but it might work for you to approach it that way.”

I doubt it.  I pressed my lips together, still sitting rigidly.

“Can you try that this week, Neely?  Creeping toward it?”

“I don’t know.”  My voice was like ice shards.

He pointed to one of his wooden coasters, which was sitting on the coffee table between us.  Just like the others, it also had a quotation etched into the wood, this one from from Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “What saves a man is to take a step.  Then another step.”

“What saves a man is grace,” I spat.

For the briefest moment, the corners of Dr. Jonathan Foster’s mouth hinted at a slight grin, but a second later, I thought I must have imagined it.  Except for his eyes.  His eyes looked at me as if he had a secret, as if I’d said something funny.

I hated him in that moment.  My face burned with anger as I stood up to leave.  “I’m not listening to that thing again,” I said.  “CBT has been the biggest mistake of my life.”

“Neely,” he said to my back, “I hope you’ll come back next week.  I’ll leave you on the schedule.”  I did not turn around, and Dr. Foster did not get up from his chair.  I felt only the tiniest pinprick of pleasure knowing that I’d staged a coup.  Resentment piled like an avalanche behind me as I closed the door sharply on a room of awkward, advancing silence.


I stopped at my best friend Charlotte’s studio apartment to explain why Dr. Foster was the worst person alive and the exact wrong person for his job.  “I mean, how is someone supposed to confront her biggest battles, her deepest fears, if Dr. Foster cannot even be sympathetic for one minute?  I just want my talk therapist again!  I want her to tut-tut and to pray for me and tell me stories about her babchi and to tell me what’s true and what’s not.”

I seethed about the quote on the coaster and about my rebuttal that men are saved by grace.  “And then,” I said, “he didn’t smile, but he almost looked like he wanted to!  And I just about had a meltdown!  It was like he wanted to laugh at me.”

Charlotte offered her own knowing smile.  “Neely,” she said, “he probably did want to!  He had a lot more self-restraint than I would have.  My gosh.”

“What—what do you mean?”

“You argued with him that we are saved by grace—you!  When your OCD has blinded you to grace!  It was like an atheist saying, ‘Let’s pray’!  Honey, come on, give the man a break.  It was a completely ironic thing for you to say in that moment.  Can you see that?”

I wanted to argue, but I was just so worn out.  I exhaled deeply.  “I still don’t like him.”

“That’s fine,” she said.  “And as your best friend, I will dislike him on principle.”

“Thank you.”

“But,” she said, “if this heals you, I will officially revoke all dislike and fall at his feet in gratitude.”

I couldn’t even crack a smile.  “Char, it can’t.  I’ve already failed.  I’m not even doing it right.”  I put my head in my hands, frustrated.  “I’m supposed to be approaching my blasphemous thoughts head-on, and I refuse.  I’m wasting my time, going through torture for no reason, and I’m just done.”

“Well, hold on now,” she said.  “You say ‘head-on,’ but Dr. Doom said you could side-step, right?  What’s that look like?”

I sighed again.  “It’s where I say—or think, I guess—‘My OCD is making me think blah.’  Fill in the blah with whatever bad thought it is.  Probably cursing at the Spirit.”  Father God, I love You.  Father God, I love You.  Father God, I love You.

            “So why not do it?” she said, glancing at her textbooks.

I ogled at her.  “What?”

“Why not do it?” she repeated, this time looking at me.

“Because it’s blasphemous; because it’s sinful; because it’s unforgivable.  It will condemn me to hell.”  I half expected her to blink her eyes as if coming out of a trance.

“You’re not actually saying those things, though,” she pointed out.  “It’s like, well, let me think … it’s like if I were to say to you, ‘I heard a woman at the mall say, “God is not good.”’  I didn’t actually say God is not good.  I was telling you that a woman at the mall said it.  But at the same time, I was able to say it out loud.”  I continued to stare at her.  “You know?  It wasn’t my personal opinion or even a statement to God, just an observation.”

An observation.  I let the idea roll over my brain.  “It sounds risky.”

“Which is the point, right?”


Charlotte had taken most of the venom out of me.  I kept thinking of her summation—how the side-stepping of CBT wasn’t stating a personal opinion or even a statement to God, how it was nothing more than making an observation—and of Dr. Foster, his hands held out, palms up, as if in offering.  “My OCD is making me think this,” he’d said.  “Name it.  Say it in your head.”

But the concept still unnerved me.

Mr. and Mrs. Cook, the newlyweds, invited me over for dinner on Sunday evening.  Stella—her curls somehow managed into a Swiss braid—attacked me with a bear hug that made it seem more like her honeymoon had been two months and not just two weeks.  “Gosh, I’ve missed you!” she wailed.

While we ate dinner, my mind kept flitting back to what Charlotte had said—what Dr. Foster had said as well, only Charlotte so much better.  It’s just an observation.  I ran the idea by the Cooks.  “Okay, this is random.  Help me to think of this right,” I said to them while AJ passed around a plate of baked potatoes.  “If Person A says to you, ‘Person B said you’re an idiot,’ which one do you get mad at?”

“How did Person A say it?” asked Stella, thoughtfully twirling a green bean on her fork, not at all thrown off guard by the arbitrary inquiry.

“Softly, pained, regretfully.”

“Then I get mad at Person B,” she elected.

“You don’t shoot the messenger,” added AJ, looking a little confused.

“Neely has OCD,” Stella said, as if those three words explained everything.

            I am the messenger.  OCD is the one with the message.  The statement—the blasphemy—it’s not mine.  It’s not my opinion.  I am only making an observation about what OCD thinks.  The separation sounded spectacular.

“So—the wedding.  How do you think it went?” I asked, changing subjects.

“Ah, I think this is the part where you two go to the couch to talk, and I stay here to do dishes alone,” said AJ.

“Isn’t he the best?” said Stella, getting up from her seat, then leaning over and giving him a kiss on the cheek.

“The best,” I said, and Stella put her arm through mine and dragged me out of the kitchen into the living room.  It looked like a whole new house since AJ had moved in.  His furniture had replaced hers.  The bookshelves that had been full of Jolie Brightman and Edna St. Vincent Millay were now overcrowded with graphic design books on typography and design theory.  A new large abstract painting hung above the fireplace mantel—a chaotic mix of what looked like various colored bulls-eyes.  The most noticeable difference came when we sat down and a cat the color of ashes jumped up onto Stella’s lap, as if he’d been waiting for her.

“Henry,” explained Stella.  “AJ’s brother took care of him while we were up north and brought him over here last night.  We thought it would take him a while to adjust to living in a new place, but, well …”  She nodded toward her lap, where Henry sat purring as Stella stroked him.  She nodded toward the painting above the mantel.  “What do you think?” she asked.  “My feminist club girls from college got it for us.  It was purchased from an artist who mixes her own colors, applies paint to her breast, and strokes the canvas with it.”

“You’re joking,” I said.

Stella’s eyes were merry like Santa’s.  “I’m not.”  We both laughed.

“You’re married,” I said, a little in awe.  “You’re roommates with a boy.”

“Yucky,” she said, wrinkling her nose, which pushed the bridge of her pink glasses up.  Then she laughed and hit me lightly on the shoulder.  She reached up into her hair and started pulling out bobby pins, letting her curls fall to her shoulders.  Henry looked affronted that the petting had stopped.  “Oh relax, will you?” she said to him.

I sighed.  “I can’t believe you’ve only been gone two weeks.  Behavior therapy has been awful,” I said surprised at my composure.  It shocked me every time that life could return to normalcy.

I explained to her my fear that CBT was a waste if I couldn’t finish it.  “So, Dr. Foster wants me to side-step,” I said.  “That’s why I was asking tonight about shooting the messenger.”

She nodded.  “That makes sense.  So, you’re supposed to say what?”

“That OCD is making me think … whatever.”

“Totally.  Yes.  And this will heal you?”

“That’s the goal.  I’m not convinced.”

“You’ve got to do it, Neels.  I know you can.  This is a great way ‘out’—I can totally see where you wouldn’t want to actually curse toward the Holy Spirit—but if your head is attempting to do that all the time anyway, then just reporting that inclination to God doesn’t seem like a stretch.”

Reporting … I liked her word choice.  It seemed so passive, so mild.  So opposite of blaspheming.  Confidence was building in me.  I couldn’t describe it exactly, but it felt a little like adding weights to the soles of my shoes, as if it would take more than a breeze to topple me.

I am the messenger.  OCD has the message.  I am only making an observation.  I am reporting an inclination. 

The statements kept repeating themselves in my mind, over and over.  And they were making sense.  It all seemed so logical, so black and white.  For the first time in years, I felt like a person with a disorder, a person oppressed, a victim instead of a monster.

After I was home from the Cook household, I went into my bedroom, lay down on my bed, put my earbuds in my ears to listen to the horrid audio track that Dr. Foster had recorded for my exposures.  My hands were shaking, and my face felt tight, as if I would never be able to wrench my jaw open again.  My shoulders were tense and felt thick as slabs of beef.

“Okay,” said Dr. Foster’s voice.  “You wake up and immediately you have a blasphemous

thought.  Something that relates to the Holy Spirit, and you’re thinking something horrible and disrespectful toward the Holy Spirit.  And you don’t do anything about it.”  A familiar cadence, a recognized tone by now.

My chest was as tight as a drum, my heart racing like an executioner’s drumroll.  It was that familiar feeling of alarm.  I stared at the ceiling, my heart thumping in my chest, and when the thought came, I altered it slightly.  Very slowly, as if I were watching each individual letter be typed on the ceiling, I thought, My OCD … is making me think … “fuck You” toward the Holy Spirit.  I swallowed hard.  Had it been wrong?  Was it unforgivable?  God, don’t shoot the messenger.

Dr. Foster’s voice droned on.  “You don’t say a prayer; you actually say, ‘I’m gonna take that risk.’  You say, ‘Fuck it.  I don’t care.’  And this stays with you the rest of the morning and sets the tone for your day.”  My OCD…  is making me think … “fuck You, Holy Spirit.”  The room was silent, still, the bed beneath me warm and soft.  The statement—thought as a message from OCD—was the very one that I’d been frantically trying to avoid for years and years.

The audio track continued, but it was in the background for me.  Was I going to hell?  I reminded myself that I didn’t really say it or think it, but that OCD was inspiring it in me.  I felt threatened; the panic remained.  I continued to stare at the ceiling until the track ended.  OCD has the message.  The blasphemy is not mine.

But I fell asleep a lot more easily than I’d have guessed—and my dreams were not troubling, not even memorable.

Seven Reasons to Vote for Me!

All you have to do is go to http://www.ocfoundation.org/awarenessweek, and vote for my submission “Tipping Point”!

1) You don’t have to register to vote, and it will only take you a couple seconds.

2) I worked really, really hard on the submission.

3) I live and breathe OCD awareness.

4) This contest combines two of my passions– writing and OCD awareness.

5) You love me.

6) If I win, they will fly me to Boston to read my submission!

7) I have poured my life into writing Lights All Around.

If you really, really love me, then you will send the link to your friends and ask them to vote for me as well!

Thank you to all!!!!


OCD Awareness Contest Finalist!!!

OH MY GOODNESS!  Friends, I just found out that I am a finalist in this year’s OCD Awareness Week contest!  Will you please vote for my entry “Tipping Point” at the following website so that I can win a trip to BOSTON to read it?!!!  I would DIE OF DELIGHT!  You can vote here: http://www.ocfoundation.org/awarenessweek/

Just click on the vote link, and make sure you vote for me– share this will your friends please!  I have been an OCD awareness advocate for years, and this would be a dream come true for me– to combine writing AND my advocacy in one event!  PLEASE VOTE AND ASK OTHERS TO VOTE TOO!