The Perfect Choice for Our Editor

I have been a journal writer, as I have said, for most of my life.  What I found when Robin and I began to write our book was that I was not at all used to writing for an audience.  One of the modules on the on-line course we were taking was on “storytelling,” and gave some tips and suggestions about how to do this better.  In my experience as a writer at that time, I had almost never even written dialogue!  I never found a need to write about people talking to each other when I was recording my own thoughts in my journal.  And, I had no real practice in terms of writing descriptively.  I’d certainly read enough books to know I needed to do these things, but I had never really practiced the art of actually trying them.

My first attempts at storytelling, I have to say, were less than successful and brought less than enthusiastic feedback from my classmates in the course.  I was given helpful tips and suggestions, and made another attempt.  As we began the blog, my friends and family were all supportive and the feedback was generally positive.  But, one voice stood out.

I do not have children, by choice.  I spent my twenties in school, and my thirties immersed in my new career as a psychologist.  It actually never occurred to me that having children would be a good idea for me.  I was too busy devoting myself to my marriage and career.  Thankfully my husband agreed, as this would have been one issue that would not have allowed for compromise.  And, I am equally grateful that my older brother and his wife decided having children would be an integral part of their life.  I love being an aunt!

I was blogging away, enthusiastically telling the story in Chapter One on the blog, when I suddenly got an email from my oldest nephew, Daniel.  He, at that time, was in his senior year of college and was getting a minor in creative writing.  Ironically, he had no idea I had been learning about storytelling in an on-line course on how to write a book.  His feedback to me was so honest and so direct, and completely true:

You are very good at giving us the information we need from the story, but amid this I think we lose a bit of your voice. The way you are writing now is very straightforward. You relay the information almost like a clinical report. I don’t know if this is how you want to come across or not. But having heard you tell many stories before, I think the way you are writing this story is not how you would tell it. I think you can find a good balance between relaying the information and inserting a bit of yourself into the story. I know your writing is mostly about Robin, and that she will be writing too. But I think as a reader, I don’t just want to hear a psychologist’s perspective of what happened, I want to hear a specific psychologist’s perspective and reaction to this, aka you!  I want to hear a bit more about your emotions and reactions. If you were telling me this story in person I would have heard you say, “And I’m thinking to myself at this point, ‘OH MY GOD.’” at least a few times by now! (It’s one of your standard phrases, haha) Well, those are my thoughts so far. It’s just a few thoughts from a 21 year old student, so don’t give it too much weight!  Excited to keep reading your posts and find out more about the story!

It is hard to describe the myriad of emotions I felt when I received this feedback from Daniel.  This is the kid who was born two months before I graduated with my Ph.D.  I changed his diapers.  I was always the fun aunt who would have him come to my house as a child and let him do whatever he wanted, as long as it was safe.  We went to Disney World together when he was about twelve.  How did he get to be such a smart adult?  And, how completely cool it was that he felt comfortable giving me his honest thoughts about the writing I was putting out to the world!  I was so grateful, and so touched.  And, I immediately began to work harder at storytelling.

Daniel is now out of college and we have hired him to edit our book.  He was the perfect choice for our editor, as far as I was concerned, as he had already proven to be so able to be honest and direct and his writing skills were highly recognized by his college professors.  Daniel is working hard, and we are almost done with the editing process.  He is also an artist and is working to design the cover.  Two days ago he sent his first preliminary idea about how the cover might look.  Wow!  It is coming together.  Robin and I are so excited!

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A Blog? I Never Would Have Imagined!

In February 2014, Robin and I were suddenly immersed in an on-line course on how to write a book.  We got through the first few assignments which were all about getting the concept for the book focused.  We had a title, back cover copy, and had clarified the audience for the book and a promise to the readers.  The next step of the on-line course was to create a detailed outline for the book.  We were able to do that relatively easily.  I am a huge fan of Bill O’Hanlon’s course, as I am quite sure Robin and I would have floundered for many months trying to get as focused and clear as we were able to be in about two weeks as a result of doing the course assignments.  After that, a surprise turn of events took place.

Once we had our book structured and outlined, the next assignments revolved around how to stay motivated while actually writing the book.  Much discussion took place about how people tend to get bogged down in the writing process and lose motivation.  There were lots of class participants posting comments on the course website about their own barriers, strategies, and suggestions.  For Robin and I, motivation was not an issue.  We had both felt clear for a long time that the book needed to be written.  We were very anxious to get started.  But, we completed the course assignments as dutiful students.

I was a little baffled by one of the suggestions, which was to use a blog to write the book.  Wait a minute!  What?  Why would someone put their book out to the world and then try to get it published?  It didn’t make sense to me.  I think I even brought up that question on one of the weekly conference calls with Bill O’Hanlon that happened as part of the course.  Other students were also concerned about putting their work out there, and having others steal their ideas.  Bill gave clear arguments about why he thought blogging one’s book was a good strategy.  He convinced us to give it a try.

I never in a million years imagined I would join the blog world.  It had never even been on my radar!  I had never read a blog post before, other than the ones that show up on the internet when I am surfing.  The whole concept was foreign to me.  It was a complete leap of faith that caused Robin I to decide to take Bill’s suggestion and create a blog in order to start the process of writing our book.

The biggest issue, not surprisingly, was that we had to decide we were ready to go public with the fact that we were writing about Robin’s treatment and our work together.  Those who have read Robin’s story on the blog so far, know that in 2003 she was not even comfortable letting her parents know she was in the hospital.  For her to put the intimate details of her mental illness out to the world in a blog was a huge step which required an enormous amount of courage.  I was astonished and touched by Robin’s clarity.  There was very little hesitation on her part.  She felt strongly that she was ready to tell her story.

I think I agonized a bit more than Robin.  As I explained in “A Note About Boundaries,” my biggest fear was that I would be judged negatively by my peers for writing a book with a former client.  But, I was actually motivated and reassured by Robin’s steadfast determination to move forward.  If she was ready to blast her story to the world, I felt clear that I needed to support her in doing so.  It actually never occurred to us to write the blog anonymously.  After all, the end goal was always a book.  If we were writing a book, we needed to say who we were.

So “Despair to Deliverance,” the blog version, was created and the telling of the story began in February 2014.  Once we made the decision to go forward, we became excited and told our family and friends what we were doing.  Robin surprised me further by making the decision to put a post on her Facebook page, letting all her people know about the blog.  It was overwhelming to her the response she got.  People came out of the woodwork to support her.  Family, friends, and people she did not expect to hear from applauded her courage in putting herself out there.  I have to say, any doubts I had about the whole idea of going public and using a blog to tell the story disappeared.  At that point, anything that could ever come from the writing of the book didn’t matter.  Robin had completely “outed” herself about her mental illness.  This was the same person who, in 2003, had never been open with anyone about her symptoms, including the therapist who had seen her for ten years (me)!  Not only had she been willing to make herself completely vulnerable, but she had gotten nothing but positive, supportive responses from her people.  I knew, at that moment, that we were doing exactly the right thing.

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The Book Writing Process Begins

When Robin and I decided we were finally ready to start working on our book in January 2014, I had put together a rough outline.  The next step was for me to go back to my journals so I could remind myself about the details of 2003.  I was beginning to work on that process, when something miraculous happened.  In hindsight, anyway, it now feels miraculous.

I was sitting in my living room, with my laptop computer on my lap where it sits much of the time when I am home.  I have become a pro at multi-tasking…often watching television with my husband while working on paperwork from my job, journaling, (now, blogging) emailing my friends, etc.  One afternoon, I was working on paperwork and checked my email.  There was an email with the title “Have You Ever Thought About Writing a Book?”

It was not in my spam folder, because it came from a company I know and trust.  It was a company that provides educational workshops for mental health professionals.  I had gone to many of their workshops and always had good experiences.  This is not always the case…as anyone who has to get continuing education units for their profession knows, there are many crappy workshops out there.  But that is another story.  On that afternoon, I felt compelled to open this email since I ­­was thinking about writing a book.  I was curious to see what it said.  That one email changed the entire course of the book writing process.

The email was announcing a six week on-line course offered by Bill O’Hanlon.  For those who are not in the mental health field, Bill O’Hanlon is quite famous.  I had known about him since my graduate school days in the late 1980s, when I attended a workshop he was doing on “Solution Focused Therapy.”  This type of therapy was new back then, and Bill O’Hanlon was one of the gurus.  I enjoyed learning from him.  His workshop was definitely not one of the crappy ones.  Twenty-five years later, when I opened that email I immediately remembered him.  In the meantime, he had had a very successful career and had written and published many books with various topics related to mental health.

The gist of the course was that Bill would be putting new material on-line each week, with assignments for students to complete.  He would provide feedback on the work you did as a student, and an on-line forum for other students to give feedback to each other.  And, during the class there would be six conference calls with Bill in which students could talk to him directly and ask questions.  The idea of taking a course with Bill O’Hanlon was exciting to me.

I was sitting in my living room, reading about the description of the course.  I had to make a very quick decision, as the deadline for signing up was that day!  The course was getting ready to start that weekend.  I remember feeling clear at the time, without question, that I needed to do it.  The cost was not cheap, but also not unreasonable.  I called Robin and we discussed it.  I told her I was planning to take the course, and we could do the assignments together.  I knew it would be a great way for us to get focused on our book project.  Robin, of course, was happy to be involved.

So, Robin and I sat down together in January 2014 and began the on-line course.  Bill O’Hanlon’s course, for anyone who has ever thought about writing a book, is helpful.  The beginning assignments forced us to get very clear about the focus of the book, the audience, the concept, the title and an outline.  The other students in the class were instrumental in terms of giving us feedback.

Coming up with the title was quite a process.  When we started thinking about the title, the word “Despair” was obvious.  But, from despair, to what?  What were we trying to communicate in terms of what happened for Robin?  Despair to Stability….no, true but doesn’t sound good.  Despair to Acceptance….also true, but not strong enough a word to relay the magnitude of the shift Robin experienced.  Despair to….what?  This is where the other students came in.  They joined us in the hunt for the perfect word.  I will always be grateful to a man named Matt from Arizona for throwing out the word “Deliverance.”  It was perfect.  All the other students thought so too.  It was the clear winner.

Then I googled it.  I wanted to make sure this title had not been used before.  I was happy to find that there was no sign of any books with this title.  Despair to Deliverance it was.  But, it also needed a subtitle.

It is important to know that Bill O’Hanlon is an expert self-help book writer and has helped many people write and publish self-help books.  The problem was, our book idea was really more of a memoir.  The assignments from the course wanted us to outline what the reader would gain by reading our book, and how specifically our book would cause them to get to that point.  In other words, we were asked to complete assignments for our book as a self-help book.

I went to school for most of my twenties…four years of college and six years of graduate school.  I am nothing if not a compliant student.  When I am given an assignment in a course, I try to complete it to the best of my ability.  So, it was with the need for a promise to the reader that they would get a prescription for how to improve their lives, that the subtitle for our book was created.  Suddenly, the book Robin and I were writing together became “Despair to Deliverance:  A True Story of Triumph Over Severe Mental Illness and How You Can Triumph Too.”

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“Robin, I’m No Longer Going to be Working Here.”

In 2008, when Robin first brought up the idea of writing a book about her life I had to decide whether to tell her I had the same thought.  During the five years following her meltdown year, I had given her some information about the positive changes that had occurred for me as a result of being so closely involved with her throughout the crisis.   I wanted her to know that what still felt to her like a terrible experience, ultimately had a positive impact.  I wanted her to know she had actually helped me by letting me in.

I decided I also wanted her to know I had thought about writing a book about it.  At that time, I wasn’t yet ready to tell her I could envision a time when I would not be a therapist any more.  I wanted to support her in writing her own book.   But, I think I jokingly said something without thinking first, about the idea of us writing a book together “someday.”  Robin jumped right on it, and we talked about what a unique idea it was to have the story told by both the therapist and the client.  Neither of us could remember reading a similar kind of book…probably for the same reason we could not have written the book at that time.  I was still Robin’s therapist.  Boundary issues and all, it wasn’t appropriate.

So we went on, and at times would joke with each other every once in a while about “that book we will write someday.”  Robin, I think, actually did spend some time writing her version of it but ended up abandoning the idea eventually.  She was not a natural writer.

Meanwhile, my job was starting to get very stressful.  I was in a top leadership position within the large mental health agency where I had worked throughout my entire career.  In 2008, after a large sum of money had been borrowed in the form of a bond issue to build several new buildings on campus…and shortly afterward the state government had made cuts to funding for mental health services, it all caught up and the agency lost a lot of money in a year.

The bondholders were not happy with the turn the agency had taken financially and, in 2009 sent in a group of consultants to turn the business around.  I was in the wrong position at the time they arrived.  While I was one of the last of the executive management team to go, I knew my days were numbered.  I still had the same fifteen clients I was continuing to treat, Robin included, when I was asked to pack my office and resign.

I’ll never forget having to call Robin and the others to let them know I would no longer be working there.  I was devastated, and had to pace myself in terms of making the phone calls so as to not start crying on the phone.  I was traumatized to have lost my job, especially after working so hard to try to turn the agency around, and dedicating so many years of my life to the place.

In order to be able to transition things appropriately and not feel like I was just abandoning my long-term clients, I rented a “virtual office” in a downtown office building and was able to see people within a couple of weeks.  I did not ultimately stay in private practice, though, as that had never been my goal.  I was able to help people get connected with new therapists and psychiatrists (Dr. Greene also ended up leaving the agency along with several other psychiatrists), and then I ended up taking a new administrative job.  My days as a therapist were over.  And, after almost twenty years I was ready for them to be.

Robin was able to get connected with a good psychiatrist and therapist, although it was a difficult transition for her.  I stayed connected with her by phone for a period of time, and after I began my new job in middle management at another agency, we began to transition our relationship, gradually, to becoming friends.  I did not end up staying connected to many of my clients…just a handful who I especially liked, and who I felt were healthy enough to not need me as their therapist any longer.

It was 2011 and Robin was doing much, much better than ever before.  By then she had not needed to be hospitalized for several years, had a stable job, and was content with her life.  We began to spend time together here and there, and continued to joke about “writing that book” someday.

My new job lasted two years.  I was commuting an hour each way, while also caring for my then 89 year old mother-in-law who had moved in with my husband and I in 2003, right in the middle of Robin’s meltdown year.  Peaches, as my mother-in-law was called, was beginning to show signs of dementia and decreased mobility and balance.  My husband traveled for business and we were feeling uncomfortable leaving her alone for long periods of time.  I quit my stressful administrative job in 2012 and opened another office, this time to do disability evaluations in order to make some income flexibly while spending more of my time caring for Peaches.  Eventually I added working in nursing homes, primarily doing testing and evaluations.  It was all flexible, low stress work for me, allowing me to use my skills and experience without the stress of being in charge of anything.

Once I was settled into my low-stress job situation and Peaches was in a stable place, the winter of 2014 was the time when it made sense to finally write that book I had been feeling so compelled to write.  Robin was ready too, as she had even more time of stability under her belt.  We made a plan to get started.  We had no idea what a journey it would become.

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Robin Decides to Write a Book

It was 2008, and I had long ago given up on the idea of writing a book about the extraordinary year Robin and I experienced together in 2003, since I couldn’t figure out how to tell the story without violating her confidentiality.  A lot had happened for Robin during the five years after her meltdown, as she attempted to come to terms with the dramatic and devastating turn her life had taken.  A lot had happened for me as well.

In 2003, I was settled into my career as a psychologist.  It had been eleven years since I had started my first job following the completion of my Ph.D. and I was still working at that job.  I loved my work as a therapist.  It was very rewarding to help my clients.  I used to tell people my job was never boring, and that after spending my days immersed in the worst of people’s pain I would usually go home to my relatively calm life feeling grateful.  I had no regrets about my choice of careers.  The problem was, being a full-time therapist was exhausting.  I started to get to the point where something had to change, or I was going to completely burn out before I even reached the age of 40!

The administrators of the agency identified me as a leader and had tried several times through the years to promote me to various management positions.  But, as I said I was an anxious person by nature.  Although doing administrative work would allow me to do less therapy, it would add different stress.  Part of me was intrigued by what it would be like to take on more responsibility, but my fear of change and my desire to keep my life as stress free as possible won out.

As I said, 2003 changed me.  I became less stressed by lots of things.  My perspective about what to worry about shifted.  The other change that happened was that I became more confident in my ability to trust my own gut feelings.  Working with Robin through that terrible year, I had to extend the boundaries of our relationship in ways I had never done with a client before.  My gut kept telling me I needed to do so.

In July 2003, I was summoned to a meeting with the President and CEO of the agency where I worked.  In the eleven years I had worked there, I had never had a conversation with him before.  I wasn’t even sure he knew who I was, since the agency had over a thousand employees.  I had no idea why he would want to talk to me!

To make a long story short, this conversation was the beginning of what would become my new career path.  I don’t know if I would have said yes if I had not already experienced some of the changes that happened as a result of helping Robin through her nightmare, but my gut told me that if the CEO of the agency suddenly asked to talk, it was important to listen.

I was asked to lead the professional staff organization, and was then promoted several times over the next few years to increasing levels of responsibility.  I fairly quickly became a member of the senior management team, and was involved in the decision making of running the agency.  In 2008, I was in the role of Senior Vice President of Clinical Services.  In this position I was the administrator over all clinical programming for the agency including three psychiatric hospitals, residential programs for all ages, and many outpatient and day treatment programs.  The agency was serving 18,000 clients per year.  Needless to say, this was a stressful role.  But, in the years following Robin’s meltdown my increased stress tolerance and ability to keep perspective continued.  I enjoyed being able to use my skills as a leader.

As I took on more management responsibility, I decreased my caseload of clients.  I went from an active caseload of over 100 when I was a full-time therapist, to a caseload of fifteen clients who I felt I either wanted to or needed to continue to see.  Robin was obviously one of those people.  She was aware I was seeing fewer clients and had become a big administrator.  I had reassured her I had no plan to stop our work together.  We had spread out our sessions and were not meeting as frequently.  I think we were probably meeting a couple times a month, but I honestly don’t remember.

Robin, in 2008, was still trying to come to terms with her new identity as a person with a severe mental illness, and was reading various memoirs of people with bipolar disorder or severe depression.  Given everything that had happened in terms of my career, writing a book was the last thing on my mind.

So, imagine my surprise when one day, Robin came into my office and said, “I was reading a book by someone who has bipolar disorder.  I think my story is as interesting as hers.  I’ve been thinking about writing a book about my life.”

Wait.  What?  I was shocked to hear these words come out of Robin’s mouth.  It is important to understand that in the fifteen years I had known Robin, I had probably suggested about a million times that she journal as a way to process her emotions.  She had, not once, made an attempt.  It had become a kind of inside joke between us.  I would say “Gee, journaling might help,” and she would say, “yeah, I’ll get right on that.”  And we would laugh.

So, I was well aware that Robin was not a writer.  But, she was serious about writing a book.  It didn’t make sense.  I asked her to explain her thinking….while inside I was already debating with myself about whether I should tell her I had also thought about writing a book.

“I have lots of time.  I need more to do.  I just thought it would be a good way for me to do something productive,” said Robin.  She said she had gotten a new computer, and thought writing a book would be a good way to use it.  I couldn’t believe she was serious.  Was this a test?  She had no idea how compelled I had felt to tell her story and how she impacted me, or that I had actually started trying to write about it.

There was something else Robin did not know.  As I was continuing to expand my management role at the agency, I was starting to imagine a time when I would stop being her therapist.  Not just her therapist, everyone’s therapist.  I was beginning to realize that many of the clients I was seeing, who were people I had worked with for a long time, were stable enough that they no longer needed me as their therapist.  There would be benefits for many of them to work with other therapists, and some probably did not need to be in therapy at all.  I was starting to imagine a point in time when I would end that role.  But Robin was not aware of any of this.

So, I was faced with the dilemma of whether to tell Robin that I had also thought about writing “the book.”  I trusted my gut.  I told her.

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Feeling Compelled to Write a Book

As I have said, the experiences I had as Robin’s therapist in 2003 changed my life.  I never expected Robin to have such a dramatic meltdown.  I certainly never expected it to take a year for her psychiatrist and I to get her back to being stabilized.   The blog we have written documents in detail the nightmare Robin and I both experienced.  Obviously her nightmare was MUCH worse than mine.  But it is difficult to verbalize how being a witness to her pain, and knowing I was the only person on the planet who she could be honest with about her experiences, affected me.

The best way I can explain it is that I went from being a somewhat anxious (it’s genetic) person who tended to be stressed easily by change or ambiguity, to being able to maintain a much more healthy perspective.  Before 2003 I used to worry about many issues related to my own security…finances, job security, my husband’s job security, issues related to our house whenever repairs were needed (because it added stress both financially and in terms of throwing me out of my routine), and other things like that.  I need to be clear…I was needlessly worried.  We were doing okay financially, and our jobs were not in jeopardy.  I was excessively and irrationally anxious and easily stressed, somewhat like Robin.  There is a reason I could relate to some of Robin’s issues.  Anxiety clearly runs in my family, going back at least several generations, and I got a healthy dose of it.

There was something significant for me about being so completely immersed in Robin’s reality for such a long period of time.  The stakes were high.  Her life was on the line.  I knew, deep in my gut, that I needed to be there for her.  When I try to explain how it changed me to be so involved with Robin’s care for almost a year, I can only say that I gained a completely new perspective about what was important for me to worry about.  Suddenly all the issues I had always previously worried about…finances, job security, my house being okay, etc., were not important.  My focus just automatically shifted.  I had much more important things to be anxious about, like whether Robin was going to survive.

I realized about halfway through the year that this shift seemed to be taking place.  I recognized that I was worrying much less about things I did not need to be worried about.  In fact, I wasn’t worrying much at all about these things.  What I didn’t realize or expect, was that this change would be permanent.  It never occurred to me that I would never again worry the way I had before.  The experience with Robin caused a shift within me that has changed my life.  I am a much more relaxed person.  I am not stressed by change or ambiguity like I used to be.  I am not nearly as worried about security issues.  If my current experience is not involving a life or death struggle, everything else still seems minor.  I am much more able to “go with the flow.”

I began to write in a journal when I was ten years old.  I remember reading a book in which the main character kept a journal (“Harriet the Spy”) and I thought it was a cool idea.  Journaling became a regular part of my life, and still is to this day.  It is more than a hobby.  It is a need.  I have to write, or I don’t feel okay.  I have over forty years of my life documented in detail.  I have joked with my nieces and nephews (I have never had children) that they will have interesting reading some day when I am gone.  There has been much laughing about me “highlighting the good parts.”

After 2003, as I began to realize how I had been transformed by the experience with Robin, I began to think it was significant enough that it warranted writing a book about it.  Of course, at that time I was still Robin’s therapist.  I was still very focused on helping her to recover from the devastation that had happened to her as a result of her meltdown.

But, being a writer, I kept feeling compelled to try to write a book about the significant experience Robin and I had gone through.  At some point, several years after things stabilized for Robin, I actually began to try to write the book on my own.  I wrote probably twenty pages, which are similar to the beginning of this blog.  But I was trying to disguise Robin’s identity and write the book from my own perspective without Robin being aware of it.  It wasn’t appropriate for me, as her therapist, to talk to her about writing a book about her.  At that time I was more focused on how the experience had impacted me, and I wanted to tell that story.

The problem was, it was mostly Robin’s story.  And, as I wrote I became completely clear that it would be impossible to tell the story in enough detail for people to truly understand what happened, without violating Robin’s confidentiality.  Her issues are very significant and very specific.  I couldn’t reconcile a way to tell the story and honor Robin’s privacy at the same time.  I quickly abandoned the whole idea of writing a book about it.

The last thing I expected, at that point, was for Robin to later bring up the idea of writing a book…..

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Preview of Things to Come

Our loyal readers who have followed our story know that Robin and I are working on finishing up our book, and will be self-publishing it as soon as possible.  It will tell the rest of the story of how Robin got from “Despair to Deliverance.”  We are grateful to those who have given us feedback that they are looking forward to reading the book.

An important part of the book writing and publishing process is editing.  I will have more to say about this, and about how our book is currently being edited.  But it is important to know that editing takes time.  While the editing process for the first five chapters is happening and Robin is working on writing the last part of our book, I have decided to tell a new story here on our blog for those who are interested….the behind the scenes story of writing our blog and our book.

Robin and I are newbie book writers, but I have to say it has been quite a process for us.  From the time we first talked about it until now, it has been many years.  I imagine anyone who has ever written a book understands that the entire process can take many twists and turns.  Ours certainly has.

So, loyal readers, stay tuned for more about Robin and I, and how we have gotten from an initial conversation years ago about the idea of telling her story in a book, to where we are now…getting close to actually finishing it!

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