Please welcome Barrett to the Cafe. Although this month our theme is “The Things They Don’t Tell You (Advice for Writers),” I asked Barrett to talk about how she handles characters with PTSD. It’s something I’ve tried and failed to do well. Thank you, Barrett, for sharing with us!
“PTSD is a tawdry, insidious, undiscerning little bitch.
She doesn’t care who you are or how finely tuned your sense of logic or emotional balance is. It doesn’t matter to her if you’ve survived a war zone, walked away from a car crash, been physically or sexually assaulted, faced a devastating illness, said goodbye to a lover, friend, child, or parent, or even if you tried like hell to keep someone else’s business from going up in flames.
She’s a trickster for sure. She knows how to find your secret backdoor, piggybacks her way into your internal control room, then resets all your psychological, rational, and coping DIP switches until up is down, right is wrong, and haywire is your new steady state.
You can’t sleep, but you’re exhausted. You’re angry about things that have never bothered you before. Your heart races, your head throbs, your hands shake, and your left eye twitches wildly with any sudden noise. Parts of your body suddenly start hurting, and nothing makes them feel better. You isolate yourself from family and friends, and it takes all day to screw up the courage to dial a phone or write an email. Maybe even, you’re afraid to drive over a patched pothole on your street, or you order your groceries over the Internet because the dairy section is too much commitment for any given Sunday. Some days are definitely better than others. Then again, some days are worse, much worse.
Yeah, she’s a sadistic bitch – the stronger you are, the harder you fall. Just the way she likes it.”
— From the review by The Rainbow Reader. October 2011
While it’s not exactly a ‘sexy’ topic, Samantha asked if I would discuss PTSD, since that was the running theme of my first series. (However, one of the unusual symptoms demonstrated was a hyper-sexuality used to compensate for the inability to express feelings. It also helped provide a connection and sense of being “present.”)
My intention was to tell a story about a damaged FBI agent visiting New Mexico for a little R & R. As often happens, my research took me much deeper, and the storyline began to mirror my character with increasingly frustrating symptoms. The horrific case she worked undercover in Chicago (involving serial murders with decapitated victims) primed her with the nightmares, headaches, and anxiety. A closed head injury compounded her symptoms and mandated some time off. The character moved to a strange city with no connections, and enough cognitive impairment to create more opportunity for accident and injuries. And the character suffered more head trauma
“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is brought on by witnessing a terrifying, usually life-threatening, event. Severe anxiety, flashbacks, uncontrollable thoughts, and nightmares are common symptoms of the illness. These symptoms can worsen and last for years, so it is best to seek treatment for PTSD as soon as possible.” –Elements Behavioral Health
The constellation of symptoms, which included: anxiety, sleeplessness, impaired cognition, flashbacks, poor appetite, headaches, and depression, was carefully concealed from friends and coworkers at a great cost. Each of her interpersonal relationships revealed only one facet of her true self. Because of her experience and skill, she never appeared impaired.
In the fourth book, Deliver Us From Evil, a panic attack sparks a confrontation, and the serene affect is blown. She elects treatment through an equine-based therapy program. The delay in finding help, however, threatens her job, her relationship, and her safety. Of course, it’s a romance, so we know eventually it will end with a “happily ever after.”
In the initial appearance of the protagonist, she appeared as a smart, capable woman working in a male-dominated profession during the mid 90s. She followed a strict, self-imposed set of standards. Not unlike military standards, which created a convenient comparison. However, the deeper I delved into the character and the subject, the more difficult it became. I began to feel as if I was the one impaired. Any scenes in which I featured other characters were much easier to write, especially the dialogue.
Throughout the process of writing these four books, I found this particular character difficult to write because of her compartmentalized personality.
After I rewrote the first two books (for a new publisher), I needed to take a break and write something different. I just couldn’t be in her head any more.
However, what I learned from writing about this difficult topic has helped me grow as a writer. The more completely I put myself into the shoes of my character, the more authentic my words will be. Seeing the world through the eyes of someone as damaged as my character was, at times, exhausting. I also gained tremendous empathy for her and the other characters that dealt with her.
The enlightenment was a gift, a tool to unlock the depth and breadth of fictional characters. Additionally, it’s provided me insight into the difficulties faced by many of our public servants including police, fire, rescue, medical, safety, military, and security personnel. Every day these individuals leave home not knowing whether they will return or be seriously injured. That alone can create symptoms of PTSD.
For jumping in the deep end with my character, I’ve been rewarded with wonderful notes and comments from readers, thanking me for discussing post-traumatic stress disorder. Its victims are often invisible, because they lack visual evidence of their trauma. The experience has encouraged me and obliged me to provide stories to readers with as much authenticity as possible, for enjoyment and for insight.
Many thanks for inviting me to your blog event.
I write under the name Barrett, and have published The Damaged series–four romantic intrigue novels—Damaged in Service, Defying Gravity, Dispatched With Cause, Deliver us From Evil (Summer 2015), Balefire, two novellas–Windy City Mistletoe and Flights of Fancy (now available as an audiobook). I was also fortunate to co-write June McGee, R.N. Festival Nurse with Best-selling authors Ann McMan and Salem West.