When It Hurts to Breathe

The stress got bad, friends. Really, really bad.

My chest was so tight. It hurt to breathe. I would wake up panicking.

I went back to my therapist. I made another appointment with my psychiatrist. But when I felt like an elephant was standing on my chest, I went into the doctor.

They don’t play around with this stuff, especially when one’s father has had triple bypass surgery. I had an immediate chest x-ray and an EKG. I just tried not to cry.

But things are fine. I mean, mostly. My x-ray was fine; my EKG was … fine-ish. My doctor felt satisfied with it, but she still wants to run it by a cardiologist.

It’s just stress. Damn. Isn’t it wild what stress can do to our bodies??

She and my therapist both said: focus on breathing.

My doctor also said: laughIt will open up your chest.

Breathe and laugh. I can do that. Right?

Even my editor told me to rest a little.

That part seems easy enough. All I want to do is sleep. I think I might have some depression issues going on or else maybe this how I get every winter. -40 degrees does little to contribute to breathing or laughing or being joyful.

anatomyBut– a bright spot– I am reading this tremendous book, The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. I’m only two chapters in and it’s sort of changing my life. It’s such a beautiful, deep, thorough way to look at writing a story. It helps that I’ve been thinking of my story and these characters for about a year and a half. It would maybe be overwhelming to use this book to drum something up from scratch, but this way, it feels really productive and thoughtful. I’m loving it and highly recommend it so far.

I really wish that I could just take a month off of work to take care of myself. But that’s not an option, so I have to work self-care into the nooks and crannies of life. I need to breath, laugh, and rest. Love that prescription!


2016 Poetry Campaign: A Mouthful of Forevers by Clementine Von Radics

I have 8 creative goals this year, and behind door 7 is reading a book of poetry every month. Want to join me? You can see what book I’ll be reading each month here. January’s book was A Mouthful of Forevers by Clementine Von Radics. Join me in February reading It Becomes You by Dobby Gibson, which will be a re-read for me, one I’m excited about.

mouthful of foreversA Mouthful of Forevers was young, fresh, edgy, sexy. I read it in one sitting, to be honest, and thoroughly enjoyed it. If I had to summarize it, I might say something like “Looking for love in a time of modern scars.”

Here were some of my favorite parts:

What no one ever talks about
is how dangerous hope can be.
Call it forgiveness
with teeth.

I also loved the imagery here:

Your voice is right here
coloring my voice. Nothing is helping me
forget your hands, how they shook
like apologizing mountains
hollowed in suffering.

She had a really interesting poem about, of all things, Salome and Kim Kardashian, which– I’m not kidding– gave me a fresh look at KK. I loved these lines so much:

moves like a dream
Salome dances
like a siren song.
All the men ache to see
the hot sugar
of her hip bones

Verdict? I really enjoyed the collection and am hoping it helps me push the envelope. Join me next month with It Becomes You by Dobby Gibson. You won’t regret it!

A Guide to ARC Etiquette


I’ll admit, these thoughts are just my own. I’m happy for other writers to chime in and share their thoughts too. At first I wasn’t sure I wanted to write this post because it might seem like I’m only interested in money, but then I thought, No. I’m just a worker who wants to get paid for her work. There is nothing the matter with that. That’s what everyone else expects … until it comes to artists.

arc etiquetteSo, an ARC is an advance review copy. It’s an early, uncorrected version of a book about to be published meant for reviewers so that they can drum up interest in a book before it is released.

First, note: advance. This is important. If the book has already come out, you should not be asking for an ARC. On the one hand, it’s not the polished, final version; two, it’s rude. If the book is already published, you should either purchase a copy or, if you don’t want to buy a copy, check it out from your local library. If your library doesn’t have a copy, tell them you want it. I’m not kidding, they will almost always respond to requests like this, and then it’s a win-win: I sell a copy of my book and you get to read it for free.

Second, note: review. ARCs are given out with the expectation that they will be read and reviewed, whether on a blog or on sites like Goodreads, Amazon, BN, etc. It’s a great “thank you” for getting to read the book early and for free.

Third, from Maggie Stiefvater:

And finally, a note on ARCs. I don’t mind signing advanced review copies — a lot of bloggers come through the line with them, and I know they are a cool thing to have. But I didn’t get paid for them to be printed. And the publisher didn’t get paid for them. An ARC is a $6-10 promotional tool that is a privilege all of us industry people enjoy. It’s not a book. And it makes me sad if you love the book enough to have me sign your ARC*, but not a real copy. I won’t ever show my Deep Sadness to you while you’re in the signing line, but trust me, I’ll be weeping AngstBuckets on the inside. And while it merely makes me DeeplySad, for debut authors or authors with one or two books out, loving an ARC but not buying it can be the difference between a publisher signing them for another book or not.

All in all, please just remember that authors bust their asses to write these books for you. It means the world when you purchase even one copy. But when you ask for an ARC after my book is released, you’re basically saying, “I know I could buy this book somewhere, but I don’t want to. Not only that, I want you to pay shipping costs to send me a copy that you never made any money on.” You are literally asking an author to pay money to have you read their book. OUCH. At least have the courtesy to request it from the library.

Thanks for listening. I’ve been getting requests for ARCs lately when my book has been out for nearly five months, and just like Maggie, it makes me weep AngstBuckets on the inside.

Want me to keep writing? Please buy a book or have your library buy one. Thanks for your support!

HOCD Story: Meet Mae, Part 2

Yesterday on my blog, I introduced you to Mae. Today, her story continues with a detailed explanation of her experience with exposure therapy. (For more information about ERP, go to jackieleasommers.com/OCD).

mae erp

First of all, if you go to a therapist and they tell you that you are not gay or try to tell you that it’s just a fantasy, look for someone else. This person does not understand ERP and OCD. The goal of ERP is to EXPOSE you to your deepest fears. I know that sounds like the most terrifying thing, especially if  your obsessions are causing so much anxiety.

I will continue to reiterate this- ERP CHANGED MY LIFE. I don’t say this lightly AT ALL. I was extremely doubtful when it first began that any change would take place. I was ready to fight this OCD beast, but I was also scared of what exposures I would have to do.

Your therapist will personalize your therapy to YOU.

At our initial consultation, my therapist helped me rate my anxiety and we started with the things that made me the least anxious and worked up front here. By the end of ERP, the things that once made me the most anxious were not as bad…

For me it began with a few different recordings, or scripts that I listened to several times per day. It also consisted of not allowing myself to continually ask for reassurance from family members, or google anything having to do with OCD. Anyone with OCD knows that the Internet is a big, dark, deep hole that is nearly impossible to escape once you enter.

I began by listening to the scripts and trying my damn hardest to not neutralize thoughts (ex: not telling myself “this isn’t me” or “I’m not really a lesbian”). I was supposed to just simply (was it really that simple?!) listen to the scripts. The first one began with my therapist recording a script in his voice. I listened to this script as much as possible over the course of 2 weeks (5-10 times per day). Some moments it didn’t cause much anxiety at all; at other moments it was EXCRUCIATING. Sometimes the anxiety was just my mind racing, while other times it was a sinking feeling or my chest would get tight. Sometimes, I just cried.

The next script was one in my voice. This one was a little more convincing and harder to listen to… I listened to this one for about 2 weeks as well.

After four weeks of scripts, my therapist and I came up with some “real-time” exposures. For instance, I didn’t avoid any articles that I saw on the Internet regarding homosexuality. I was supposed to read them or at least acknowledge them. I honestly had never really had issues with homosexuality or gay people before this thought popped into my life. I also didn’t have my heart skip a beat or a queasy feeling in my stomach when I would see any kind of news story on homosexuality before this obsession wreaked havoc on my life.

I also had to sit with different thought patterns I had. If I was with a same sex friend that I found attractive, I was supposed to just let my mind wander and let the thoughts be there. I wasn’t supposed to neutralize them or reassure myself.

I went to the gym a lot and if I thought a woman’s butt was hot, I was supposed to  just appreciate her beauty and not doing anything else with the thought. The gym was probably the hardest exposure for me because there were so many different variables. I wouldn’t know who would be there on any given day. For awhile I even avoided a class taught by someone who is openly gay. I thought going to her class would make me suddenly “become a lesbian” or she would know I was having these thoughts…

It wasn’t until about my tenth or eleventh session that I actually noticed my thoughts shifting. I went to 14 ERP sessions. It all depends, but my therapist said ERP can be anywhere from 10-20 sessions.

I am going to list a few things I that have improved in my life since ERP:

2. Being present with friends and family (I felt like I was in a continual fog for quite a few months).
3. An enjoyment of begin at the gym, work, stores with out feeling like I am constantly checking between people.
4. The ability to read a book or watch a show without thoughts/obsessions/compulsions taking over.
5. Weight- I honestly kind of appreciated losing weight at first, but then it became real sucky to not enjoy food at all.
6. A renewed faith in God. I was very, very angry at God for quite some time. Mental illness is no joke. People don’t talk about it and its a very real thing to so many. My brother has struggled with a wide variety of OCD themes since he was 11. This journey has actually made us a lot closer.
7. I have become more “selectively vulnerable.” If I notice someone seems to be struggling, I gently ask some questions. If anxiety, depression, etc. come up I tell them a piece of my journey. I KNOW that my story has been used to impact others. Also, Jackie Lea’s vulnerability helped me to get help. We are all part of this OCD/ERP puzzle.
8. Work- I enjoy my job so much, but during this struggle it was really difficult for me to focus. I actually feel like I have improved at my job since ERP.
9. I’ve embraced the fact that each day is new. You might still experience setback, frustrations, fear, doubt… Yet, each moment and each day are new.
10. People with OCD have been said to be some of the most intelligent and creative people. I will own that. 😉 For real though, I’ve started doing more creative art projects to really hone in on that gift that I’ve been given. I’ve also looked at my “steel trap” memory as an asset instead of a curse. During my darkest days of OCD, I would get so incredibly frustrated by my ability to recall the most random, detailed memories in my life. Now, I use this skill to make people feel valued and honored by acknowledging important details about them.
11. Sex is something I look forward to now. For a period of time, I was going through the motions in every area of life. I actually feared sex with my husband  because I was worried that the thought would pop in during something that was supposed to be enjoyable.

12. Our family went on a big trip this past year and I was honestly dreading it all year. I thought it would be awful. The trip was actually planned right around the time OCD kicked in. I thought, “There is no way I will be doing better in a year.”

With the trip, I was worried about being away from home, I was concerned that OCD would creep back in with its ugly tactics, I thought that OCD would rob me of experiences on a trip that was intended to be lovely. Guess what?! I had a great time on the trip. It was lovely. I enjoyed it so much, which I consider a huge victory.

I want to once again clarify something. OCD will not completely disappear for many people by doing ERP. What it will do is rewire your brain. I would say my symptoms have improved by 85-90%, which is HUGE. The times that OCD likes to sneak back in are when I am stressed, tired, or duing my menstrual cycle. During these times, I remember to do lots of self care. I make sure I set healthy boundaries, take walks, baths, whatever feels best at that time to make sure I am ok.

Note from Jackie: Thank you for sharing, Mae! I would love to interview someone with HOCD who is homosexual, as HOCD effects both straight and gay people. Both of the people I’ve interviewed so far on this blog have been straight. If you are gay and have struggled with HOCD (in which you doubted your homosexuality and feared you might be straight) and have underwent exposure therapy, contact me! I’d love to feature your story on my blog– anonymously, if you prefer!

HOCD Story: Meet Mae, Part 1

I “met” Mae online about a year ago, when she reached out to me after finding my website. What began as some advice-giving developed into a friendship, and it’s been incredible to watch Mae blossom over the last year as she underwent the difficult, incredible choice of exposure therapy to treat her OCD.

She used to read the “Interviews with a Former HOCD Sufferer” (Interview #1Interview #2Interview #3, Interview #4), and this weekend I asked her if she would be willing to tell her own HOCD story on my blog. She graciously agreed.

Today she’ll share more about her experience with HOCD, and tomorrow she’ll share about her experience with exposure therapy. Mae is terrifically detailed and vulnerable in her story, and I know that will benefit so many of my blog readers.


mae hocd

Where do I even begin…

I’ve always been a bit of an “internally anxious person.” When I look back on my life, i had different unwanted thoughts, but it was much easier to dismiss them.

One night after a particularly stressful week at school, my husband and I were having sex (which is normally quite enjoyable!) and the thought “what if I’m a lesbian?” popped into my brain OUT OF NOWHERE.

I could not sleep. Eating was extremely difficult. I lost 20 pounds. I felt like I was in a continual fog. From the moment I woke up to the moment that I attempted to fall asleep, I had continual thoughts surrounding this theme. Sometimes my brain would get bored with the “what ifs” and it would twist and turn things to different things like “you don’t really love your husband” or “hey, check out that co-worker’s butt.” I would walk through a store and continually ask myself, “Is that woman attractive or do I find that man more attractive?”

Every piece of my identity that I had ever known seemed to be crashing before me.

Sometimes I didn’t feel physical anxiety, it was more of a mind game. My head was CONSTANTLY racing with so many competing thoughts. It was extremely exhausting.

Every little thing became an obsession. “Did I like my best friend, she has great boobs and she is smart.” “My instructor at the gym is a lesbian, does she know I’m having these thoughts?” “I’ve always liked boys, I even remember my first crush in elementary school.” “Do I dress feminine enough?” Every.little.thing. consumed me.

OCD likes to latch onto something that is central to our identity or a theme that is close to us. This thought was all consuming for 3-5 months. I tried EVERYTHING. I did mindfulness exercises, I prayed, I tried to eat “whole foods,” I did acupuncture, I worked out SO much, I tried essential oils, I tried natural supplements. I was desperate, but SO SCARED to go on meds and SO SCARED to try ERP. [Jackie interjects: ERP = exposure and response prevention therapy. This is the frontline treatment for OCD.]

I went to three different counselors before I found one that truly did ERP. Do not be dismayed if that freaks you out. I didn’t really understand what ERP was until the tail end of my therapy search. I thought CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and ERP were the exact same thing. They are not. ERP is the BEST possible thing you could do for yourself.  I cannot say that I am “cured” or that I waved a magic wand and my obsessive thoughts went away. What I can say is this, for 13 months I felt like I was in hell on Earth in so many ways. I can now say the only time the obsessive thoughts bother me is during my menstrual cycle. Sometimes I will still get a bothersome though outside of my cycle, but now I’m able to let the thought float on by. Whereas 13 months ago these thoughts consumed SO many hours of my day. These were hours that I could have been enjoying time with family, friends, my husband, and I could have been enjoying delicious food too! I had ZERO appetite for quite some time. It sucked.

I can now say that 90% of my life is great thanks to ERP and medication. I understand and honor any individual’s choice on medication. I was very, very skeptical of going on meds. I finally had to acknowledge that a combination of ERP therapy and medication helped SO much.

I’ve accepted and acknowledged that its perfectly normal and ok to enjoy someone else’s appearance (same sex or opposite). We are sexual beings created to admire beauty. I still fully love my husband and find him incredibly attractive. Do I still admire some women’s butts or their outfits? YES! And, instead of that thought and admiration cycling out of control into n endless number of questions I  let the thought be there.

I have written my ERP therapist since finishing session with him. I continually have told him how grateful I am for the work and transformation that took place in my life. Therapy sessions are over, but ERP is a continual practice. It gives you tools in your toolbox to live a healthy life, one that isn’t consumed by doubt, questioning, and anxiety.

The biggest thing I want each of you suffering with HOCD to know is: You are brave. You can do hard things. ERP is scary, but if you are willing to put in the hard work and effort the flip side is incredibly worth it.

Non-Earth-Shattering Thoughts on Singleness

Like how I prepare you right in the title that this blog post won’t change your life? All about monitoring expectations. Ha!

Singleness is amazing sometimes. Sometimes it blows.

single taken empireSometimes being single lets you accomplish things you couldn’t do otherwise– say, write a book. Sometimes maybe you couldn’t accomplish something without the encouragement of a significant other. How do we know? I suppose we don’t. Faith.

One way I can tell I’m maturing is when I find myself thrilled for my friends in new relationships … instead of envious.

I get pissed if anyone even insinuates that I am “lesser than” because I’m single. I should probably give people the benefit of the doubt … instead I give them a lesson. #sorrynotsorry (Dating and married people, please take note of all the tiny things you do that say or insinuate this. It happens more often than you’d guess. I could give you four examples just off the top of my head.)

People who found their partner when they were young need to be especially careful about the feelings of someone who is, oh, let’s just say 34. People who got married at 20 have zero idea what it’s like to be 34 and single. It’s better just to acknowledge that than to pretend.

Being 34 and single is totally different for me than being 30 and single was.

Writing love stories is weird sometimes. But still fun.

Intimacy with friends is so important.

Intimacy with God is even more important.

Sometimes I think how Jesus was single his whole life. Sometimes I think how Paul said singleness is preferable to marriage.

I’ve observed enough friends to confidently say that it’s better to be lonely and/or discontented outside a marriage than lonely and/or discontented within one.

I’ve observed enough college students rushing to the altar to confidently say, Slow down. Your brain isn’t even fully developed until age 25. Heck, I didn’t even settle into my identity until I was about 28. I’ve seen many marriages dissolve when couples married very young. I also admit that, as a single 34-year-old, I’m not an expert on marriage.

Singleness allowed me to mentor many young people and really invest in their lives. Singleness allowed me to write a book. I try to be grateful for singleness’s gifts.

[Interlude in which I have a long online conversation with my bestie about all these things … and now it’s my bedtime and I decide to end this post with a conclusion that I call an interlude.]

Please know that all of my thoughts are shared with humility, and that some of them probably lean into stereotypes.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, just please don’t be mean.








Writing & Anxiety

I wanted to write a little post about writing with an anxiety disorder. I understand that what I’m about to say might sound ungrateful, especially to writers who would give anything to have a book contract. I hope you can take it for what it is: my honest thoughts. I love my editor to pieces. And I love HarperCollins. This post is not about them. It’s about anxiety as a writer, which exists regardless of editor or publishing house. I repeat: this is not about my publishing house. This is about my anxiety disorder.

I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, an anxiety disorder that has been well-managed since 2008 when I underwent intense exposure therapy. In the first year and a half after exposure therapy, my obsessions and compulsions dwindled down to zero. Nothing. Nada. It was this rush of freedom that I hadn’t experienced since I was a child (no really– my OCD kicked in around age seven). In the years after that, it picked up a little bit, but nothing like it used to be.

It was probably a little foolish to think that anxiety was behind me.

In 2012, I started writing the novel that would become my debut, Truest. I had a blast writing this novel– there was no pressure, no deadline. I loved (and still love) the characters and the themes I dove into, and there was no timeline for the book to take shape. If it took four years or five or ten, it was all good because I had a full-time job and was writing for pleasure and passion and calling.

It ended up taking about a year and a half, at which point, I queried literary agents. I was lucky enough to be offered representation within a month or so, a tremendous blessing as querying can sometimes be long and torturous. (And actually, it still felt long and torturous.) My agent is incredible, and he found a home for Truest with HarperCollins only a couple months later, a two-book deal. I was over the moon for this opportunity and still am.

I got my book deal on a Wednesday in November. Two days later, I talked to my (now beloved) editor for the very first time. That night, I had my first panic attack.

In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, And so it goes.


The anxiety that followed in 2014 was so intense and unexpected and alarming that I ended up back in therapy, although not for OCD-related anxiety but for … writing-related anxiety? Was that even a thing? Apparently, for me, it was. And is.

But I battled through it. I cried a lot. I experienced enough panic that I got a prescription for it. I was meeting with a therapist every single week. I prayed. A lot. I had hard conversations with my editor, who was receptive and brilliant through it all. In the end, I had a polished book: Truest, which came out in September 2015 on one of the proudest days of my life. I love Truest. It’s the book I was called to write, and I stand by the decisions I made. I’m so delighted that readers have enjoyed it and that it’s been thought-provoking, something that’s really important to me.

I thought, “Okay, I survived. Now I know what I’m up against. Now I know my editor is on my team. Now I’m armed with resources. I can write another book.”

It was probably foolish to think the anxiety was behind me.

It was on my heels. It is on my heels. It whispers to me that I’m worthless, that I don’t know how to write, that I’m not cut out for this life. And, to be strictly honest, I’m not at this exact moment sure whether I am or not. Not for writing. I love writing and will always write. But for the life of publication. I’m not sure if I’m built for that life.

Writing my sophomore novel has not been the same fun, carefree experience of writing Truest. There are deadlines– and even though they are sometimes flexible, there is a real horror in that flexibility too (What I mean is that there is this fear that you will never produce something of publishable quality again … and so the deadline is perpetually extended, and that obligation is perpetual … is that not its own form of hell?). There’s money that has exchanged hands, and so there is a figurative and literal debt hanging over you. There’s this overwhelming blank slate: my editor bought Truest after reading it, but she bought novel #2 sight unseen, so there’s not that same devotion to it, not that same buy-in, not that same feeling of I-love-this-particular-work-and-want-to-publish-it. It’s like trying desperately to create something that will capture the publishers in the way your first novel did … except that your second novel can’t be too similar to your first. So now you have this request to write something distinctly separate from the novel you know your editor liked … something distinctly separate but something your editor will like regardless. It can feel like living in a paradox. It can feel like you’re a performing monkey.

Sometimes it means that you spend fourteen months on a novel that, in the end, just isn’t cutting it. And you start over. And then, when you start over, a (huge) part of you thinks, “What if I work on this for fourteen months and have to start over?” And when you have an anxiety disorder sometimes you live in extremes and you start to think, “What if I do this over and over and over, and nothing is ever good enough to be published, and I live my whole life in this struggle to produce something quality and I just can’t hack it?”

And when the anxiety ratchets out of control, you might even find yourself resenting writing under contract … you know, that contract that you wanted all your life, the one that made you feel like you won the lottery, the one that you’re still so desperately grateful to have with a publishing house that’s a giant. A giant … and you feel so small, and your books feel so small, and your fear seems so huge. And you think, Oh my gosh, I’m in Honey I Shrunk the Writer: a world and career so much bigger than you feel you could ever be, and the shame and anxiety and pressure and stress just pile up more and more and more.

You wonder: am I the only one going through this? 

I asked around, found out that several of my writer-friends had some of the same experiences with their second books too. I don’t know if they also deal with anxiety because they seem to handle it a thousand times better than I do, but maybe that’s because I have a blog that straddles the line between vulnerability and TMI.

But the bottom line is this: I love to write. I am called to write. So I will write.

Will I always write as a career/for publication? Who knows. I’m learning and growing with every experience. Ativan helps. Therapy helps. Prayer helps. Hearing from readers who love Truest helps. Having an editor with a huge heart and a whip-smart mind helps. Having a team of best friends and encouragers helps. Experience helps.

And so it goes.