Dragon Myself Back to Writing

I haven’t been blogging lately, partly because I have nothing to say or rather nothing I want to say —I have been too depressed to want to share what I’ve been feeling, though depression does go with the territory of being housebound — and also because it’s too hard to type one-handed. (I fell and destroyed my left wrist and elbow a couple of months ago.) Yesterday I installed Dragon speech recognition software on my computer, so now I can blog without typing. I’m not sure if it will change my “voice” or if dragonI will even be able to think while talking, but at least it gives me something new to play with and something new always offsets depression.

It’s funny that the depression didn’t come from the injury so much as being alone in a room for days on end. It’s my room not a hospital room, but still fate has brought me to the thing I’ve dreaded all these years — stagnating alone in a solitary room. I’ve been desperately wanting to go home, but it always comes down to the same thing — I have no home except this temporary one. But maybe that’s the truth with all of us, that whatever home we have is temporary because life itself is temporary.

It seems strange that even though only the arm is injured I am housebound, but there is a whole lot I can’t do. I can’t go walking unless the day is warm and the street dry because another fall at this time would be disastrous, and I have to use a trekking pole to help keep my balance since the broken arm is in a sling. I can’t drive so I am dependent on willing or mostly willing friends to take me wherever I need to go. Mostly I’ve been reading, playing solitaire, checking Facebook for interesting articles, and trying to take care of myself.

Caring for myself is hard. I can’t cook except for simple things, so I mostly eat prepared salads and frozen dinners. Can’t even take a shower by myself. Luckily, an occupational therapist comes once or twice a week to help. I will probably have the external fixator on my arm for another three weeks, and the fixator makes doing anything even more difficult. When the fixator finally comes off, of course, it will be months before I will gain some use of my arm. I really hated the thought of not being able to write during all that time, especially since I got such a good start on my latest book before the accident, but hopefully Dragon will drag me kicking and screaming all the way to the end of the story.

I am writing this blog with Dragon, though I am not sure that technically it can be called writing if one is speaking. I suppose I should say I am composing this blog, but what the heck — it all looks the same at the end no matter what tool one uses to get there.

For the most part, I’ve been accepting of my injury. There’ve only been a few times when I panicked at the thought of not gaining full usage of my wrist and elbow, but mostly I’ve been taking things as they come. Now that the swelling is down, I can see that the doctor is right — there is considerable deformity. Depending upon the mobility I regain, or don’t regain, I might need another surgery in a year, which might also fix some of the deformity. Once the fixator is off, I will do whatever I need to do to get as much mobility as possible, and then wait and see what happens.

Meantime, there is Dragon. The program is actually easy to use. The main problem I have as a temporarily one-handed person is putting on the headphone so I can use the microphone, but so far I have managed. If nothing else I can wear the headphone around my neck.

It’s been good talking to you. I hope you’re having a good year so far.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”) Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Finding the Wildness

Look what the goddess does when she is sad:
she takes up a tambourine, made of taut skin
and rimmed with castanets of brass,
and she begins to dance. The sound of flutes
blares out wildly, reaching even to the depths
of the underworld, so loud, so clamorous is it.
Look what the goddess does when she is sad:
she finds the wildness in herself, and as she does
she finds that there is joy there too.
~ Greek dramatist Euripides

A reader left this lovely poem as a response to my post In the Presence of Death…, and Euripides’s words are so very apropos. Although I am far from being a goddess, I am hoping to find the wildness within. And I am dancing.

I don’t dance wildly — the classes I take are all classical dances with practiced steps and choreographed movements, but dance does speak to something wild deep inside of me. For someone who’s life has always been about words — both reading and writing — dance is a way of reaching the wordless depths, of finding the woman beneath the trappings of civilization and expectations and other people’s stories. I sense it’s also a way of awakening more of the wildness within, bringing with it the strength and courage to live fully and gracefully.

I once read an article that talked about stream-of-consciousness being the brain’s default mode. The journalist reported that in depression, the default mode network appears to be overactive, that a depressive brain shows a pattern of balky transitions from introspective thought to work that requires conscious effort, and it frequently slips into the default mode during cognitive tasks. A depressive brain also shows especially weak links between the default mode network and a region of the brain involved in motivation and reward-seeking behavior.

This could be the reason why blogging is so easy for me and writing fiction so hard. Blogging for me is stream-of-consciousness writing and brings immediate rewards, while writing fiction is more cognitive and takes more conscious effort than I am sometimes willing to spent. (A fellow writer once described writing as a mental prison, and while most authors seem to find freedom in fiction, I find it restrictive, especially since the rewards of a finished project are delayed for sometimes years.)

But dance . . . ah, that transcends both stream-of-consciousness and cognitive thinking. It’s a matter of concentration and memory, of training the body to do your will (or rather, your teacher’s will). And where there is neither stream-of-consciousness nor cognition, there is no depression, no sadness. Or so it seems.

Although I still have upsurges of sadness when I am alone, I am seldom sad in class and never depressed. I don’t always find dancing joyful. It’s often hard for me and frustrating at times when my body simply will not do what I will it to do, or when I cannot get what seems to be a simple step. But dancing is always compelling, even when it is difficult — especially when it is difficult. The discipline of stretching just a bit further or reaching a new understanding of a movement, helps dig beneath what I know of myself, helps find the wildness in me. There is joy in that, and joy is its own reward.

There is also joy, of course, in dancing in unison with other not-so-young women who are also dedicated to the art, and there is vast joy in having learned a new dance, particularly for someone such as I who never in her life conceived of such a possibility.

During class, after we warm up, before we work on the current dance, we practice the dances we already know. And each time we dance one of those numbers, there comes a point in the dance where I can feel a huge smile on my face as I realize that oh! I am dancing! And for that moment, I feel like a goddess.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, andDaughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

I Am Not Grieving Inappropriately

I recently received a message from a woman who is concerned that I’m still counting sad Saturdays — she’s worried that my grief for my dead mate is going on too long and keeping me from living. I appreciate her concern and her continued prayers (just as I appreciate the concern and prayers from all of you), but the truth is, except for readers of this blog, no one knows I still have my sad times. I don’t hide myself away from life, I’m not missing from life, and I’m not missing life. I miss him, of course, and I hate that he is missing from this life, but that particular sorrow is something I accept as part of my life.

There is nothing wrong with sad times, and there is no reason to fear sadness. Depression is dangerous, but not all sadness is depression, nor does all sadness lead to depression. Sometimes sadness is melancholic or nostalgic — a seasoning of life rather than a banishment of life, a reminder not to take life for granted. For several months now I’ve been hesitant to continue posting about grief since such posts show me (perhaps) in a pathetic or needy light, but there are too many misconceptions about grief that we accept as truth, and I want people who have lost the most significant person in their life to know that they do not need to put aside their sorrow simply to placate others. It is their grief and they need to feel the sorrow, not ignore it. Experiencing grief and processing it are how we learn to be whole again (or as whole as is possible).

The first year after such a traumatic loss, one struggles to survive the psychic shock. The second year one deals with the effects of the ongoing loss and begins to look ahead more often than one looks behind. Since I am still in my second year, I don’t know what the third and fourth year bring — perhaps occasional upsurges of grief or a continual (though diminishing) struggle to comprehend life and death and loss. People who have been on this journey and come out of it mostly intact, tell me that it takes four years before one completely gets back the joy of living. So I am still within the normal bounds of grief.

For some people, grief is a time of shutting themselves away, of forgetting that they have other people in their life who need them, and if this goes on too long, they might need to seek professional help, especially if there are children involved. For me, though, and for others who are grieving appropriately, this is a time of opening up, of showing our vulnerability, of admitting that life is not always happy or fun. And in doing so, we make connections to help us rebuild our lives.

If I had hidden my sadness, if I had followed my natural inclination to bear my pain in silence, my life would have been much diminished. You and all the people I met since I began this journey nineteen months ago have added so much to my life that it tells me what I already know: I am not grieving inappropriately.

In Grief, There Will Not Be Closure

In our society, for whatever reason — perhaps because of the manic need to be positive, because of a short attention span, because of ignorance of what grief entails — after four to six months, most people seem to lose patience with outward shows of grief from the bereft. No wonder depression peaks six months after the death of a loved one — grievers are left alone to suffer in silence when they most need comfort.

I am still a long way from that six-month period, but already I sense impatience from others whenever my grief bleeds over into my real life, though my grief doesn’t often show. I can carry on a conversation, smile and laugh at appropriate times, concede that yes, I am finding closure.

I don’t know who wrote this, but it reinforces what we grievers have come to understand:

At some point we begin to find the road to life again and begin to retain a productive life. This is not closure. Closure is a term that was invented to make other people feel better. We will not experience closure and shouldn’t. We will miss our loved one and will never forget. As time goes by it gets easier and we learn to cope with the necessary changes, but there will not be closure.

Sometimes there is closure, especially if the deceased did not play a major role in our lives, but after any significant loss, we muddle along as best as we can with a big hole in our heart. It might scab over. We might learn to love again. But there will not be closure.

Very few people manage to live their entire life without a major loss, but still grief makes people uncomfortable. Almost no one knows what to say to the bereft, which adds an interesting bit of irony to grief. It is the bereft who must be sensitive to the needs of would-be comforters, to be understanding when confronted with insensitivity, to bring comfort to the uncomfortable. We’ve all encountered insensitive remarks (like “how could he have allowed himself to get cancer?”) yet we take the comments in the spirit we hope they were given.

Even though I have to let others feel better by thinking I’m finding closure, it’s nice to be able to tell the truth here in this blog: I am still grieving. And there will not be closure.

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One Woman’s Grief

The American Psychiatric Association has labeled grief that lasts more than a few weeks a mental disorder. I wrote about this in my last blog post, “Grief Is Not a Medical Disorder,” but I can’t stop thinking about it. The problem with grief is not the pain, though sometimes the agony is so unbearable it takes one’s breath away, but the reason for the pain: a very dear person, a part of your life, is gone and will never return. When one is depressed for no reason, then perhaps the misery can be classified as a mental disorder. But if there is a reason for the pain, if there is a direct cause for the depression, then it is not a disorder. It is life.

Grief varies, of course. Everyone grieves in a different way, and everyone feels each subsequent death in a different way. The loss of an aged aunt you barely knew is different from the loss of a beloved mate. In the first case, prolonged grief could be a sign of depression, but in the second case, prolonged grief is a way of coping.

When I lost my mate, I was in such pain I thought my heart would burst. I couldn’t breath, couldn’t focus, couldn’t see how I could ever get through the day let alone the rest of my life. I was also still in shock from witnessing his horrific death.

I did get through those first days, though how I don’t know — the pain escalated by the minute. Then I found out about a local bereavement support group. I am a private person, one who keeps her emotions to herself, but I went to the group meeting anyway hoping someone could tell me how to deal with the pain. No one could, of course, but I did meet people who had survived a similar loss, and that taught me survival was possible. One of the problems with grief is how it isolates you, and the group made me feel less isolated. And that was a comfort.

I had no intention of writing much about grief on this blog. I posted a few articles mentioning my pain, and found that not only did the articles help me, they gave comfort and support to others who were going through the same thing. So I continue to write about grief. Perhaps someday the private me will look around and be aghast at all I have made public, but for now it’s my way of coping.

The point of this bloggery is that the pain of grief made me reach out and let others into my world. If I had been treated for depression during this time, I wouldn’t have connected with others. I would have remained isolated, and the effects of intense grief would have last much longer than they did. Everyone has the right to grieve the way they want, of course, but feeling the pain was the only way I could do it, both for me and for my mate. He deserved to have someone grieve that he died, to have someone feel the imbalance of the world without him in it. And that is not a mental disorder.

Grief is Not a Medical Disorder

According to the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders released by the American Psychiatric Association, grief is considered a medical disorder, and should be treated as major depression. There used to be a bereavement exclusion in the description of major depression, but they have taken that away, and now more than a few days of pain is considered a crisis. There can be “a few days of acute upset and then a much longer period of the longing, the tearfulness. But typically sleep, appetite, energy, concentration come back to normal more quickly than that.”

In whose world is grieving a medical condition that needs to be treated? Not my world. In my world, grief is one of the bookends of a relationship. Love. Grief. If grief is a medical condition, then watch out. One day love is going to be considered a treatable disease.

Perhaps emotional pain is not necessary. Perhaps people can survive quite nicely without going through the pain of grief — perhaps avoiding grief won’t cause the future problems people say it will — but the truth is, grief is a life experience, an incredibly deep and painful and raw experience that changes the way you think about yourself and the world. Grief helps you process the amputation of having a child or a mate torn from your life, let’s you experience the loss in a visceral way, makes it real. In past eras, grief was acceptable, in fact, was even encouraged. In today’s world, grief needs to be hidden so that it doesn’t offend people’s sensibilities, so that it doesn’t bring the spector of bad luck into people’s lives. Drugs can hide your grief, of course, but that’s all it can do.

I didn’t grieve excessively when my mother or my brother died, but when my mate died? I was devastated. (Still am, but at the moment I am going through a hiatus, a time of peace.) It wasn’t only the death of him. It was the death of our future, our dreams, our hopes, our lifestyle, our shared life, our private jokes. It was the death of my companion, my love, my friend, my confidante, my fellow traveler on life’s journey. No drug is going to make any of those deaths acceptable.

“He” died. “We” died. But “I” didn’t. Grief made me realize that. Surviving grief has taught me that I can survive anything. No drug could ever give me that.

I know a woman who mourned the loss of her mother for two years. Actually, she wasn’t mourning the loss of the mother so much as the loss of the emotional support and attachment the mother never gave her and now never would. She emerged from this period a strong, vital, wise woman. No drug could ever give her that.

In a strange way, grief is a gift. Easy? No. Painful? Yes. But . . . If you let yourself feel it, let it become a part of you, it will take you where you need to go. And no drug can ever give you that.

On Writing: Characters and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

When writing a novel, there are so many different elements to think about, that the only way I can get them in my head in order to concentrate on the story and not the underpinnings, is to write them down. My story problem today is whether Chip, my hero, goes through some sort of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He probably has to — everyone he knows has disappeared along with most of Colorado. That’s enough to give anyone stress. And, of course, I kept him in constant peril in order to force him to choose safety over freedom. Now that he is safe, he has time to relax and reflect. The horrors of what he endured would have to haunt him and torment him. Just because he’s safe, it doesn’t mean the poor guy gets an easy time of it.

I already established in On Writing: Characters and Grief that Chip will be going through a spot of depression, and depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder share many of the same traits. In both cases, people can feel helpless and hopeless, isolated and detached, fatigued and drained. They can lose interest in daily activities, and they can have trouble sleeping.

But Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is not simply depression under another name. A person who suffers PTSD can also experience flashbacks, terrible dreams, loss of memory around the specifics of the event, diminished feelings, impaired personal relationships. The company of others can be painful. They might become hypervigilant, always watchful and alert. In addition, sights, sounds, or smells can trigger reactions or jog a memory of the trauma.

Chip is already becoming vigilant, but he needs to become hypervigilant; not only is it one of the symptoms of PTSD, it will become a survival necessity.

Until now, Chip has responded to all his problems by sleeping; he seemed to sleep all time. Of course, part of that was because of me — whenever I couldn’t figure out a way for time to pass, I’d put the poor guy to sleep. But I do think that’s a realistic reaction — too much happened too fast, that it wore him out. So, to show the change in him, he should have trouble sleeping — I like the idea of his roaming around at night while others are asleep. And when he does sleep, he should have appalling dreams.

His feelings of isolation, his inability to connect to others and the pain of being around them, will all help me keep him and his love interest apart. They have to hate each other until they fall in love toward the end of the book, though they will be thrown together much of the time. (One purpose for their hatred is that she will need to choose his way over the crowd’s way, and to make it more forceful, she has to do it despite her dislike for him rather than because of love.)

Thank you for bearing with me. I think I have a better grasp of where Chip needs to go in the story, and I know where I need to go — to write it.

See you later.

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On Writing: Characters and Grief

For characters to be realistic, they need to experience the same emotional arcs that we experience in our lives. A grieving person, for example, undergoes several stages, including denial, guilt, anger, depression, and finally acceptance. Chip, the hero of my current work loses everything and everyone he loves in a single day of earthly upheaval, but so much was thrown at him so fast, he barely had time to comprehend it all, let alone go through protracted stages of grief.

Still, he did experience a period of denial; how could he not? What happened to him and the world was unbelievable. He also felt guilt, wondering why he survived when so many others didn’t, but again, he had little time to indulge in the feeling — he had to learn to live in a plastic world. (Plastic, in this case, meaning capable of being molded and re-formed.) He dealt with it all until the final insult — the loss of the candy that was his one indulgence — and then he gave in to a fit of anger.

These first three stages, as I mentioned, were brief. Now that he is in a place of safety, away from the upheavals of his world, he could revisit those stages, but I don’t think it’s necessary. No point in taxing a reader’s patience with repetition of effects. So that leaves me with the two final stages of grief.

At the end, Chip will come to accept what happened to him. He will also come to accept his new role in life, but until then he will need to go through a period of depression. Should this depression be as short as the other stages? Should it continue for a while to make his predicament seem more normal? I don’t think it’s necessary. A character in a constant state of depression is not a vibrant character by definition and, anyway, this story is supposed to be lighthearted, a whimsically ironic apocalyptic fantasy.

I’m thinking on the fly here, letting you see how I develop a character. That’s not strictly true. I’m doing it because I need to figure out my hero’s next stage of development, and I need to post some sort of bloggery. I end up getting so many people to guest, that I forget the main purpose of this blog: me. Well, me, my novels, and my characters.

But for now, I do know where I stand with Chip. He will be going through a period of depression, but also he will be dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Or will he? I’ll figure that one out tomorrow.

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