Saturday, October 8, 2011

How Tragedy Can Become Inspiration

We've all had moments of tragedy and loss in our lives. As writers we have the advantage over non-writers of being able to explore our painful moments and work through them. Or at the very least make them work for us.
In my own life I've had my ups and downs. They've all helped to make me a better writer. This includes being abused by my partner.
The most significant one for me began late on 2006. At the time I was working a three year contract for an off-shore law firm in Bermuda. Nothing very tragic there, right?
Except at the end of the year I wasn't feeling well. Mostly it was weakness in my legs. When I moved to Bermuda in 2005, I rented an apartment that was at the top of a steep road. The house, which my apartment was part of, was about two-thirds up one of the highest points on the islands.
When I got the place I thought great, I'll get plenty of exercise walking up and down this hill five or six days a week. On weekends, I might walk in other direction where I would pass the Fairmont Southhampton hotel, a sprawling five star hotel on the way to Horseshoe Bay, one of the nicest beaches on the island.
My plan didn't work. Despite all that walking I wasn't getting stronger, I was getting weaker. I saw a local doctor several times and she sent me for tests, but when nothing showed up she was going to send me to the States for more tests.
Before this could happen, I was forced to move to a less hilly place. Which turned out to be on the other end of the islands in a town called St Georges. It was a beautiful heritage town with no modern buildings , just the brilliant color concrete houses built to withstand the worst hurricanes. No steep hills so I thought that would be the end. And it seemed to be. I worked through the rest of winter into spring. Then in late April, early May, the weakness came back. For the last three weeks of May I got progressively got worse.
If I left early for work, I could catch a bus practically on my front doorstep and if I went grocery shopping at a store maybe half a mile away, I could get a free shuttle that went around St Georges (it also acted as a school bus)
But even with that it grew worse. I started missing days of work. I had ten sick days a year and I used them all up by May.
I plowed on, going to work as often as I could, which must have been enough since no ever said anything about my chronic sickness.
Around the 28th of May (things were getting hazy by then) I got ready for work, left the house, and got half way to the street, almost unable to walk up a small stone step, I realized I couldn't make. I turned around, got inside, did not lock the door and...
After that everything is hazy to the point of total loss of memory. From that point on until I became fully aware again over two months later I don’t know if my memories are real or hallucinations—which I had a lot of. Bizarre ones, most centered around the fact that I couldn’t move anything, and I would hear screaming in the hallway and loud parties. I also dreamed I was in a hospice of some kind and I knew my ex, my daughter’s father, was just in the next room, except he was dead. I remember asking people who would come by where I was. They were doctors and nurses and they always said I was in the hospital and I’d know they were wrong.
I used some of that in my second Geography book FOREST OF CORPSES when Spider hallucinates in the forest. Most of that are my memories—except for the rattlesnake.
When I finally became conscious of where I was, I wasn’t even in Bermuda anymore. I was in a hospital near Boston. My arms were bound in such a way that I couldn’t touch one arm with the other hand. Apparently, they had to intubate me to feed me and I kept tearing the tube out. They wouldn’t take that off for at least a week until I convinced them I was no longer demented.
The worst nightmare of waking up was finding it was true that I couldn’t move. I could move my head a bit, but nothing else. My family all came down after getting a phone call from the hospital that I might not make it. Once it was clear I would survive most of them left. My oldest sister and my daughter stayed. My daughter read to me because I couldn’t even hold a paperback up to read it. When I was sleeping, they wanted me to sleep on my side occasionally to avoid bed sores. But I couldn’t roll over on my own. Once I got the use of my arms back I could use the bed railing to pull me onto my side. But I needed a nurse to put a pillow under my back or I would just roll over.
Eventually I was flown back to Canada in one of those small medical planes. My daughter and sister were with me. I still remember the pain of that flight.
Once back in Canada there wasn’t a bed for me, so I stayed with my daughter for a few days. There was no elevator, so they had to carry me up. More agony. Finally I called an ambulance to get me and they had to carry me down. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such excruciating pain in my life.
Now I’m in the London University Hospital. By now I can move most of my body, but I still can’t walk. I also had almost lost my ability to write. My writing’s never been the neatest, but now I couldn’t even stay on the lines and they words were unreadable. Then, as if that wasn't enough I got a MRSA, drug resistant pathogen and what they thought was tuberculosis. Into isolation I went. Not just regular isolation, but one of those reverse pressure ones where air inside the room would go out when a door was open. My family practically had to wear biohazard suits to visit me. Luckily, I didn’t have TB, and they got the MRSA under control and I was moved to a regular room.
I began physical therapy, which wasn’t really painful at that time, it was just terrifying. I would stand, with a walker, but even taking one step nearly parallelized me with fear. Eventually I could walk to the door of my room. And before I left the hospital to go to a rehab facility, I could walk maybe 50 feet down the hall.
This time therapy did hurt. And when I wasn’t in therapy, I was in a wheelchair. After a month of this I was moved to a hospice where I had basically an apartment to myself. I had the one at the very end of the hall from the dining/TV room. My first personal goal was to be able to walk that distance without effort (with my walker) When I could do that, I wanted to be able to walk outside. My youngest sister and her husband would come by occasionally and take me out for a car ride. After a month or so I moved into my sister’s place. By then I could climb stairs, as long as there was a rail to hang onto. I literally could not stand on one foot long enough to even step up a curb. I had to lean on someone.
But my strength was returning. I eventually could walk without the walker and I returned it to the medical supply house where we got it. I’ll always remember the man’s words when I brought it in to the store. “We don’t normally see these being returned.” It made me proud that I could do a simple thing like walk into his store and walk out on my own. Well, almost on my own. I still couldn’t step up a curb by myself.
Eventually, I overcame even that. But to this day I still cannot walk up or down stairs without a railing or person to hang on to.
I went to a local gym and for a year had a personal trainer and that helped a great deal. But the one thing he couldn't do was improve my balance enough to stand on one foot. I still can’t. In fact even standing in one place for more than a minute or so and I started swaying. I either have to keep moving or sit down. I also can’t walk up or down hills, which is a huge disappointment to me since I used to love going birdwatching.
But I’m back and completely independent. And oddly enough, since that illness, my writing has been pouring out of me. I’m not sure why, but it almost seems like right brain was enhanced over my left brain. I was a network engineer and there is no way I could do that now. I wouldn’t be able to constantly learn new technologies.
My social worker often tells me she’s amazed at how far I’ve come so fast. In 2009 I went to Hawaii for the Left Coast Crime, and the following year I went to Los Angeles for the same thing. I travel a lot now and I always walk a lot when I do. I can even manage a slow jog if I have to.
I look at what happened to me as fodder for my books. I’ve had other bad experiences in my past which I can also mine. I’ve also had good experiences I can use. The way I look at it, everything in our lives is transferable. Sometimes you have to give it some time as you put it in perspective, but it’s always there and is a large part of what makes us who we are. You can use it to make your characters who they are in deeper ways that make them seem more real to your readers.
For myself, I’ve learned to be proud of myself and I’ve learned persistence. That paid off in my recovery and in my writing, where I was able to write 12 published books and 4 so far unpublished ones. And I got an agent through my stubbornness and refusal to quit.


Tina Donahue said...

What a harrowing thing to have happened, Pat. I can't imagine what you went through.

I'm glad you've recovered to some degree and that your writing has returned.

P.A.Brown said...

I think it's my stubborn refusal to give up. I refuse to die, I refuse to stop writing no matter how many rejections I get.

I remember decades ago when I was maybe 11 or 12 a bunch of my friends ran into a neighborhood gang and somehow a fight started. All I remember is diving into the middle of it and the only reason I stopped was my older sister pulled me off them. I'm mule headed I guess. LOL

Fiona McGier said...

I think we all use our personal experiences as a part of our writing...of course, that being said, most of us haven't been through what you have! Kudos to you for having the strength to keep on going. And long may you write! FYI, sometimes I can't even read my own writing, and I have no physical excuse! Thankfully we have laptops!