When I’m coming up with a plot for a new book, the first question I ask myself is, “What is the hero/heroine’s defining trauma?” Then I ask myself, “Where did I put the Green and Black’s dark chocolate?”
From the character’s major, unhealed wound comes a world of coping mechanisms, defense strategies, choices made for the wrong reasons, and even strengths. From that one unhappy piece of backstory comes the road map for what joy looks like for that character, and what obstacles will require the most courage to overcome.
All of that comes from answering the question: Where does it hurt and why?
But there are characters enduring a different kind of suffering, and I first met them in foster care. Early, early in my courtroom career, I came across kids who couldn’t distinguish hungry from full, and who would either go for days without eating–yes, days–or gorge for no apparent reason. Other children had trouble with incontinence, still others couldn’t recognize when they were tired or thirsty.
These kids had been born into domestic war zones, more or less, and had spent all of their attention on staying out of harm’s way. They broke my heart and baffled me. How sad, to be that out of touch with your personal reality, that your survival needs never hit your own radar.
At the same time as I was getting up to speed as a child welfare lawyer, I was dealing with frequent migraine headaches. Nothing helped–not drugs, not other drugs, not acupuncture, not exercise, not nothing, not no how, except sometimes–maybe every tenth headache–if I could feel that sucker coming on, I could smack it down with caffeine, which I reserved for that one purpose.
BUT for that approach to have a prayer of working, I had to notice when the headache was first trying to creep up out of my back and into my neck. If it reached my temple, I was doomed. I began to Pay Attention. I noticed that fatigue, hunger, thirst, exercise, heat, allergies, stress, stress, and stress could all trigger a migraine.
I noticed how in the course of a day, I was usually tired, hungry, thirsty, stressed, overheated (much of the year), and stressed some more. Single parenting, running my own business, trying to make ends meet, dealing with the child welfare system, forcing myself to exercise… it was all a big, um, headache.
I couldn’t change much about my circumstances, but I could do better. I could prioritize sleep, I could ease up on exercise when it was too stinkin’ hot, I could keep a bottle of water handy. It helped, but first, I had to start paying attention to where it hurt.
Was there a time when you were the last one to get the memo? When your body had to whack you upside the head to get your attention, or a friend or family member had to point out the obvious to you about your own situation? To one commenter, I’ll send a print copy of Tartan Two-Step.