This is one of the harder days, even when it’s actually a good day. It’s a good day because it’s a weekend, it’s warming up outside, our family went out for a brunch at my favorite breakfast place, and my older son got to play with several of his friends, including one who has moved out of state but was visiting. It’s a bad day because of the cloudiness – in my head.

These images were taken just outside Las Vegas in February 2008. I thought of them because, in many ways, they visually represent the way my brain feels during these times.

These images were taken just outside Las Vegas in February 2008. I thought of them because, in many ways, they visually represent the way my brain feels during these times. (You can click to embiggen them.)

My husband asks me what’s wrong and I just start crying because my brain is so clouded and scattered that I actually don’t even know how to explain what’s wrong. What’s wrong is that I have all these little tasks I need to do, little organizing things that actually shouldn’t be that difficult but which require holding information in my head at one time, an ongoing kind of multi-tasking. And that makes the scatteredness even more scattered. And then I try to start one task, but in order to do it, I need to have already done another task. And so I back up to do that one, and that one is connected to another. And I try to explain what I need, but I can’t come up with the words. I need a card reader. So I can upload the photos from our trip. So I can empty the cards. But I have to back them up before I empty them in case my computer crashes. But backing them up means choosing one of the dozen hard drives to put it on. Which requires knowing which one has what because they’re all mixed up because of my old computer going dow and getting the new one and trying to make sure everything is backed up in at least two places because I’m paranoid about losing data, and with good reason. But I can’t think of the word “card reader.” So I can’t even explain that I’m looking for a card reader to my sympathetic husband trying to help while my brain is already five thoughts ahead on that hard drive thing, and I’m still trying to think of the word “card reader.” And then my husband picks it out of the pocket from the organizer hanging on the back of the door that I’ve been staring at for five minutes. Except it doesn’t have a cord. And I try to explain the cord was supposed to be on that thing. That thing behind him. THAT. That… that… the thing that holds those things. Books. The thing that holds books. The bookshelf. The cord. The cord was supposed to be on the bookshelf with the card reader that he just found. He goes and gets a similar cord that will work in his office. And the frustration I experience from not being able to come up with the words “card reader” and “bookshelf” then cause greater cloudiness. And I tell my husband it’s what I imagine having Alzheimer’s might be like, where you slip in and out of being able to think straight and clearly. You can’t remember basic words, and then your frustration overwhelms you, which of course only makes it worse. And then I’m trying to think. What do I do next? Do I start to upload the photos with the card reader with the cord I now have? Do I check on the other computer’s back-up to a hard drive that I started? Have I eaten recently? Am I hungry? Which hard drive will I back up the photos on? When will I ever get to assess what’s on which hard drives so that I can make sense of where everything is and feel secure that it’s all backed up? Do I need anything to drink? And then there is a stack of mail next to me to look through. And I have to tally up expenses from taxes. And I have to organize some books. And the baby needs to go to bed soon. And my 4-year-old keeps asking questions. And the last question is, “Mommy, why are you upset?” because I’m now crying because my brain is like a shattered mirror. I look into it to see what I need in my brain, but a couple shards have fallen away, and it’s incomplete, and some of it is distorted, and some tiny, tiny slivers so small I don’t notice them are gone, or I don’t notice until I need the word “bookshelf” and it’s not there.

Ironically, I nearly lost all of these images. I thought they had been uploaded, but they weren't. The card was erased, and I had to recover as many as I could with a recovery software I bought. I was able to recover the majority of them, in part due to having shot in RAW + JPG — for the first time in my life.

Ironically, I nearly lost all of these images. I thought they had been uploaded, but they weren’t. The card was erased, and I had to recover as many as I could with a recovery software I bought. I was able to recover the majority of them, in part due to having shot in RAW + JPG — for the first time in my life.

This is what it means to have my mental illness. It’s one part of what it means. There are other parts, and I suppose I may try to write about them when they happen or I think of them. This particular part is about the scatteredness, like piece of my thoughts are strewn across the floor in a cloudy room, and I can see bits and pieces and can’t fully make them out. It’s the downside of the mania. When the mania allows me to stay up writing for five hours, it’s great. But then there’s this part, where it splits my concentration into 15 pieces — just big enough to taunt me with thinking I can see the full picture, but just enough that I can’t keep them all in my head at once. It’s like my brain’s RAM is overextended. The hard drive works just fine, but the RAM is full and so I can’t actually access anything in the hard drive at all. And sometimes I can’t access the simple memory in RAM like “bookshelf.” Except, unlike a computer, I have the emotions to contend with as well, and they interfere with the memory issues because the emotions and overwhelmedness and frustration and anger at my brain and all the rest of that steals some of my cognitive energy as well.

My husband asks if I’ve taken my medication. I snap back that I have, but he says it’s a reasonable question, and it is. But it doesn’t always fix everything. And no, sleep or meditation or “taking a break” or whatever else doesn’t always fix it either. Sometimes you just have to wait it out. And I wonder as I write this, knowing that I’m going to put it on a blog and then put it on social media, whether explaining this sort of thing will hurt me professionally when I consider that editors may see it. But then I remember that I’ve already proven myself and my reliability to them, and it’s important for other people to know that it feels like this. And that a person can be motivated and hard-working and intelligent and successful and still have these things to reckon with. And the mental illness doesn’t make me more creative or more prolific. It hinders me. But I have figured out how to plan for the fact that these incidents happen even when I don’t know when they’ll happen. And that’s built into my workweek just like anything else is so that I can meet deadlines and do my work. (Except not to come up with ideas. Because that’s a faucet that never friggin’ turns off and part of my problem is too many ideas, all the time, floating around my head constantly, taunting me with all the things I could do and say and write if there were three or five or ten of me and if I could stand to be around those other me’s without all of us going truly crazy.) And I figure out what I can still do when it happens. I can’t remember the word “bookshelf” or the word “card reader,” and I can’t talk to my son, and I can’t tally up my expenses or know if I’m hungry or make the should-be-simple decision of what hard drive to put a backup of my photos on until I can organize them later. But I can write. And so I write.

Seven years later, this is still one of my favorite photo excursions. Funny enough, I nearly missed it. I had been on the wrong plane on the way there and ended up in LA instead.

Seven years later, this is still one of my favorite photo excursions. Funny enough, I nearly missed it. I had been on the wrong plane on the way there and ended up in LA instead.

And people wonder why I work so much. I’m a workaholic, no doubt, but working is sometimes all I can do. It’s one way to stay sane. If you’re an athlete and you haven’t worked out, and you feel that itch, that NEED to move and do what you do, and you HAVE to do it or you’ll go crazy, kind of like having a fix, then you know what I mean. That is what mania is sometimes like. Other times it’s something completely different, and it’s impossible to work. But often it’s a crowding in the head of 15 different tasks to be done, and 20 other thoughts, and you’re trying to ignore the ideas coming into your head, and the other things you can do or want to do or need to do, and you’re trying to remember things like it’s 20 minutes past your son’s bedtime and he needs a bath and are you hungry and do you need to eat? And if you’re tired reading this, or you’re backing up and trying to figure out the last thing I just said or you’re counting run-ons or clauses or conjunctions, then welcome to my head. This is 1,500 words, and I wrote it in 30 or something minutes. This is how the brain cells do things around here. Sometimes. Or a lot of times. Or it depends.

One of the beats I’ve written on for years within health and within pediatrics in particular is sleep. I’m not as well known for reporting on evidence about children’s sleep as I am for vaccines or other issues, but it has always been one of the more fascinating areas I’ve focused on, and it’s always been a favorite just behind vaccines. Over the past five years or so, I’ve probably read at least four or five dozen studies related to children, teens, and sleep, and I’ve written stories specifically about probably half of those. And for the vast majority of those stories, I’ve relied upon my favorite source for all things sleep as at least one of the voices in each story – William C. Kohler, a sleep medicine physician in Spring Hill, Florida who specialized in pediatric sleep.

Generally, it’s not a great idea to rely on one source too extensively for reporting. It’s important to seek a diversity of sources, both to represent the diversity of individuals out there with expertise in the area, and to represent the diversity of professional perspectives on a particular research question. There were certainly stories I wrote where I didn’t call on Dr. Kohler, but it was hard not to ask him for his perspective on so many of them. He had been practicing sleep medicine for decades, had authored studies, and was writing a book on sleep over last year, and many of the stories I was writing were short summaries of the research rather than extensively researched and reported in-depth pieces.

Dr. William C. Kohler was a well-respected researcher in sleep medicine and neurology.

Dr. William C. Kohler was a well-respected researcher in sleep medicine and neurology.

But those aren’t the real reasons I called Dr. Kohler so much. I have three phone numbers for him in my phone even though I always reached out to him first by email. That’s because he always, always, always, without fail, called me within 24 hours after an email. I saved each number he called me from – they were his home, cell, and office numbers – mainly so I would know when he was calling. Sometimes I was in the middle of something and couldn’t answer, and if I knew it was him, I knew I was fine – he always left very detailed messages with his comments on a study, and then I could follow up as needed. Some of my voicemails from him are several minutes long, and I’d replay them as I typed out what he said and then determined if I had more questions. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people for my stories, dozens and dozens of researchers, and I’ve sometimes relied on some more frequently than others, particularly for areas I would report on repeatedly. Not one person I’ve ever interviewed was as reliable as Dr. Kohler.

But that’s not the only reason I liked Dr. Kohler. I actually just liked him. He was a grandfatherly and kind, and we sometimes got off topic and talked about tangential things. He knew of my struggles with my son’s sleep, and he knew my own struggles to get to sleep at a reasonable hour. We would joke about when he would call in the morning because he knew I wouldn’t pick up – I was still in bed. He told me about his grandchildren. Sometimes he was returning from a family event or on his way to meet them at church. It was evident through our conversations over the years – despite their professional purpose – that he was devoted to his family and heavily involved in his church. When a hurricane was on its way, we discussed the weather, and I told him to be safe. When snow was headed my way, he told me the same. It was idle chit chat between questions about this or that research findign, but it built a rapport over the years. He told me stories about other researchers in the field, such as his famous colleague Ferber, and gave me historical context about research questions. We were working on our books at the same time and discussed that work briefly. He was incredibly well-read in his field and spoke eloquently. And he was kind. I would ask him the same questions over and over sometimes – “Can you explain the simplest way to describe hypopnea to an eighth grade-level layperson audience again?” I might ask – and he always obliged. Sometimes he would point out inaccuracies in published pieces that I quickly corrected, but again, he always did it very kindly.

You’ve surely noticed by now I’m using the past tense. I was given a sleep study assignment about kids and napping last Friday. I was excited when I got the study because it was relevant to my own life as a parent, but it also gave me an opportunity to reconnect with Dr. Kohler. I had not spoken with him since last September because I’ve been so deeply immersed in my book work and haven’t written about sleep studies in the interim. I immediately sent off an email and gave him some times when I knew I’d be available because I wanted to be sure I actually got to pick up the phone and speak to him instead of just getting a voicemail. I wanted to tell him I’d finished the book, to find out if he had finished his, and to tell him my second son is a much better sleeper than the first. More »

I’m sitting in Starbucks with a lengthy to-do list on New Year’s Day. I was going to make resolutions, but I don’t have time for that at the moment. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be back home in Illinois preparing for the year and some big changes. My husband is already there while I remain in Texas at my parents with my son and my two dogs, one of whom is the reason I’m still here and the reason I’m writing this. See, I can’t work. I came here intending to, but instead I’m trying unsuccessfully to distract myself until I just started crying and crying and realized I have to write this first, even though this is unlikely to help either. I’m kinda a wreck, just pretending not to be so I can get through each day.

Casper is on the left, Ghost on the right.

Casper is on the left, Ghost on the right.

See, 2013 started out as a pretty good year. In fact, it’s been a hell of a year. We settled into our new home in Illinois. We bought our first house. I started teaching as a university adjunct professor, as I’d wanted to do for many years. I made a lot of new friends and a lot of new business contacts. I got published in some of the publications I’ve been wanting to write for for quite a while, and my journalism career is starting to take off. My mom/science/health blog has seen great success, including a viral post that broke the site for a while but also put me on a lot of people’s radar. I signed a book deal for a parenting book I’m both excited and nervous to be writing. Meanwhile, our family took our first vacation abroad in a number of years, my son’s first out of the country. I used to travel abroad every year, so skipping it for four years was tough until our nice week in Costa Rica. Shortly after that, I found out I was pregnant, which was planned and a source of stress until it happened. All pretty good stuff, and some significant life milestones.

Then, not too far into the second half of the year, it was as though the universe started making up for all the good stuff. Fortunately, the pregnancy has continued to progress healthily, so I am grateful for that. I have to say that first because I do recognize my fortune in the midst of the list I’m about to run through. Our new home required very expensive but absolutely necessary foundation work that nearly cleared out our emergency savings. I went through some crap at a job that isn’t appropriate (or worthwhile) to go into here but which was traumatic and deeply disheartening. I also experienced some serious prenatal depression and ongoing morning sickness that coincided with those events. The events also led me to set an ambitious and exhausting travel agenda in the fall with four conferences in six weeks. These were tough enough, but on the way home from the fourth, I received news that a close uncle had unexpectedly died following a car accident. Another weekend of travel was tacked on for a difficult event.

Not long after returning from that, just as I was hoping to return to some semblance of “normal,” my son became ill with a fever for several days. Not long after, I became ill. I’ve lost track of the number of times each of us became ill then – fevers, vomiting, pink eye for me and other fun times – but it was sort of a back-and-forth trade off. Then in early December after dropping off my son at daycare, barely a week after I thought I had recovered from what was supposed to be pink eye, I was driving down the highway when my eyes involuntarily closed and stung with pain. I immediately pulled off to the shoulder, but those were the first symptoms of what was diagnosed a day or so later at keratoconjunctivitis. It required several days of sitting in the dark without an ability to work, see light, drive or use any screen-based technology. I couldn’t even read. I couldn’t drive for more than two weeks, and during the second week much of what I saw was distorted by blurriness as my eyes slowly recovered. (I still must rely on outdated glasses instead of my contacts.)

That experience led right up until we headed to Texas for the holidays. The holidays have been nice for the most part, especially the gluttonous gastronomic holiday my husband and I have taken after being deprived of good food while living in Peoria the past year. And that brings us up to now. The past few months have been a blur of travel, illness, tragedy, depression and frustration, and I was so looking forward to the new year, as though the arbitrary change of days from one year to the year might actually hold some significance. Regardless, the universe had another trick up its sleeve.

I’ll just copy and paste this part from my Facebook feed since it’s difficult to write about anyway, and this post is a pathetic attempt at catharsis so I might be able to get some work done. Along with the photo here, I posted the following:

My son holds Casper while Ghost is beside him at the vet.

My son holds Casper with Ghost beside him at the vet.

“At this point (yesterday afternoon), we didn’t know how things would turn out. The vet literally said (twice) it would take a miracle for Ghost to pull through. Our 6.5 lb dog had eaten a full ounce bar of rat poison he’d found, and it was bromethalin, which attacks the central nervous system and kills with brain swelling; there’s no antidote or treatment. It was too late for stomach pumping: he’d eaten it at night without our realizing it and by morning, when we rushed him to the vet, he had unrelenting tremors and couldn’t walk. All we could do was transfer him to the 24 hr hospital for round-the-clock observation and regular doses of a med to help drain the liquid in his brain. Yesterday was really rough for all of us, including Casper, his littermate and companion since birth, who D’s holding. Today we found out Ghost lived through the night and was able to eat a small amount of food. He can’t walk at all or move much, but the worst appears to be over. The brain swelling is on its way down, and the vet is optimistic about his recovery. After he’s released from doggie ICU, we’ll have to syringe-feed him and inject liquids subcutaneously. So I’ll be in Texas a little longer than we planned.” More »

Just about every phase of my has involved a tradeoff somewhere, which is probably true for most people. When I moved to Peoria, I gave up the heat of Texas summers (thank God!) for the cold of Midwest winters (so far I’m fine with that). I also gained the opportunity to really focus on my writing – but at the expense, for various reasons, of my photography. snowflake Tara Haelle Midwest

For now, I’m mostly okay with that too, but I still need my photo fix, including a bit of creativity and exploration. Therefore, when I read on a colleague’s blog post about her attempts to photograph snowflakes using a macro lens on her iPhone, I was intrigued. The photos were pretty cool, and the Easy-Macro lens Karyn mentioned as her favorite was only $15. I figured I’d try it.

The lens arrived late last week, just in time for a snowstorm’s arrival here in Illinois. But the snow started falling too late in the day to have enough outside available light for the iPhone camera. Fortunately, it snowed again yesterday and today, so I had the chance to try out the Easy-Macro lens – basically a lens of about 1 cm in diameter embedded in a blue rubber band that wraps around your mobile device. Real high tech, right? Well, low tech doesn’t mean low quality, it turns out. More »

I took the bus to St. Jude’s Catholic School in first grade, but as happens sometimes, I missed the bus one day. No worries – my dad happened to be off work that day and was able to take me to school. The easiest mode of transportation? I rode in the sidecar of his motorcycle for the brief few miles to the school. This was no big deal to me. I’d ridden in the sidecar and on the back of the bike plenty of times with my little arms wrapped around my dad and my heavy helmet weighing on my head. I’d grown up around Dad’s motorcycle.

Dad and I danced, naturally, at my wedding. Photo by Matt Valentine.

But my classmates? Yea, I guess not too many 6-year-olds get dropped off at Catholic School in the sidecar of a motorcycle. For a week, I was the smallest celebrity in the school. The big, scary and popular EIGHTH-GRADERS were even talking to little first-grade me. The nuns gave me a funny sort of look. I was a good student, but I had, you know, arrived at school… on a MOTORCYCLE. I’m not sure they knew what to think. Other than basking in the sudden popularity that week, I didn’t think much of it. That was Dad.

When I was in Brownie Girl Scouts, our troop “cookie mom” was also Dad. During my elementary school years, Dad took us out on the boat, out fishing and to the deer lease, where he taught my sister and I how to drive a truck and how to shoot – and respect – guns.

As I entered adolescence, friends, school and my own activities took on a bigger role in my life, and I was probably always a little closer to my mom, but there were still activities that were very clearly opportunities for just Dad and me, such as the years he coached my softball team when no one else would step up to bat. Today, I continue to consult Dad on the stuff Dad knows – be it related to long-distance trips, home-buying or – believe it or not – sewing. We have had our clashes (let’s not get into politics), but the early experiences we shared forged an important bond.

Not surprisingly, my experiences are part of a common thread in the lives of young girls. A new qualitative study (pdf) asked 43 daughters and 43 fathers (though not related to one another) to write about the “turning points” in their father-daughter relationships. The authors, Elizabeth Barrett and Mark Morman at Baylor University, asked the study participants specifically to write about the turning points in closeness in their relationship with their father or daughter. More »

13. February 2013 · Comments Off on Welcome to Tara Incognita… where I’ll be rambling about whatever · Categories: Random Thoughts · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

So, it’s high time I got this blog rolling. I already blog about health and science news for parents and families over at Red Wine & Apple Sauce, but I am constantly finding there are other things I want to tell people about, whether it’s science-related, political, personal, or it’s just some thoughts or commentary related to the news of the day.

That’s me, in a past “terra incognita,” India. I backpacked there solo for five weeks in 2005, and this town of Bundi was among my favorite places there.

Therefore, welcome to Tara Incognita. The name, an obvious play on “terra incognita,” alludes to the fact that this blog will likely roam all over the place – it’s unknown ground. My greatest strength in life is also my greatest weakness: I’m interested in everything. I actually find it a relief when I stumble upon something about which I can sincerely say, “Meh. Not interested.” That’s a rare occurrence indeed. This curiosity and thirst for information is great as a journalist and a teacher – it’s no surprise that I’m both – but it also means my attention gets split and it’s difficult for me to immerse myself in one thing too deeply for too long. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between.

Along that vein, expect this blog to cover a range of topics, from albatrosses (literal and metaphorical) to zoo excursions with my toddler son. An incomplete list of the stuff I might cover on this blog…

  • Cool science stuff
  • Cool brain stuff
  • Intersections of politics and science or religion and science
  • Political ramblings (with some semblance of a point, though)
  • Children’s and young adult literature
  • Education news and learning theories news
  • Anything related to SHARKS
  • Parenting stories
  • Reviews of great (or crappy) books I read
  • Teaching stories
  • Photography news
  • Travel stories… and so on

It will take a while to build up an audience when I blog about such eclectic stuff, but hopefully people will chime in. It’s much more fun to discuss stuff with others than mumbling out loud to yourself in the corner.