All the Feels

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.





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11 comments on “All the Feels

  1. I had postpartum depression after both of my children were born, but I didn’t realize it at first. After my first child, I felt numb for months. I was just going through the motions of daily life. But, one day, my husband asked where I wanted to go for dinner and I completely broke down. I cried for hours. The poor man was utterly dumbfounded. When I was finally able to speak calmly, I figured out that it had been so long since I had thought about what I wanted, rather than what would please others, that I couldn’t even remember what I liked. I had become “Mom,” as opposed to Hilary. I started therapy 2 days later. One of the hardest parts of therapy was figuring out the warning signs of an impending emotional crisis. I felt like I barely had the time and energy to make it through the day–now I also had to make time to take emotional inventory?!?! But, it turned out that this was a critical part of managing my emotions. I’m definitely not perfect at it, but I am now better able to identify emotions early on and vocalize when I need help. And, trust me, that vocalization is sometimes the hardest part.

  2. I have made an effort to watch my carbs and sugars for about 2 years. Have lost some weight but, not enough. I prep my meals on Sunday for the first few days of the week and by the end of the week, I am out of ideas and at the line in the cafe for a sandwich.

    In February, a friend invited me to walk during my lunch hour. He said that everyone needs to get out of the office and some sunshine,We’ve been walking 3 -4 times a week as the weather has been mild. And I feel better…I weigh the same but that will come in time….I hope!

    I realized that since I started my full time job…I don’t excercise as much. A quick walk with the dogs in the morning does not replace our 1 mile walks. So, this works!

    Have a great week…loved the Elias excerpt !

  3. So heartbreaking. It was single parenting for me in my mid 20’s. Seeing to the needs of the 5 children I had at that point was so overwhelming on top of financial problems and life in general had me like a robot. There wasn’t time for myself, I wasn’t sleeping and I just blocked everything except my children’s needs and getting through the day. Was also getting terrible headaches and lost a lot of weight. My Mom was the one who taught me to take a breathe, relax and pay attention to the signs leading up to headaches and insomnia. I think I was afraid if I slowed down and relaxed I’d never have enough time in my day to get it all done.

  4. Dealing with the welfare of children, whether your own or those you have a responsibility towards, can bring both joys and heartaches. Keeping in your best condition, physically and mentally, can often take second place to getting things done. We all need to take the time to take care of ourselves in order to have the strength to take care of others. I know I have to consciously remind myself to drink enough water and to take my vitamins – and I always have intentions to walk more – it’s a work in progress!

  5. This last Easter Sunday, I had possibly the worst headache of my life. It started, if I was honest, on Good Friday. Tension, crazy home repair issues (it started in February with needing to get new kitchen windows because of a leak—and ended with evicting a raccoon and having to get a new window treatment because the old one doesn’t fit on the new windows), health care issues with my In-Law parents and very LOUD complaints from my sisters-in-law about being put upon….you get the picture. 🙂 I’m sure all of those things contributed to my pain.

    I felt miserable on that Friday and Saturday I wanted drugs. Did I mention I was hosting Easter for 8 people? And was doing the required cooking? On that Saturday, I accidentally brushed my hand against my left temple and WOWS-ER it hurt!

    I am not a person who has headaches regularly but this was a Mother of a Headache. Hubby, a physician, compared my two temples and noticed the left was a bit swollen. I could feel it move when I chewed. We figured I was gritting my teeth or clenching my jaw.

    Soooooo, warm compresses and sleep were prescribed on Saturday and Easter, while my head still did feel like it was going to fall off, it was less painful. I did the cooking and after our guests left, Hubby and the kids cleaned up so I could do more warmth and sleep.

    I am trying to relax more and not let things get to me. The kitchen windows are in, the repairs are done and all that is left is the new blinds to be installed. My In-Laws can leave me out of their drama and have promised Hubby I will let it roll off from now on.

    I do feel better now but I’m sure I will backslide. I know what it feels like when it is going to start so hopefully, I’ll get that memo!

  6. I do believe your journey was/is very similar to mine. I did not discover until the birth of my 2nd daughter (I was 38) that if I paid attention to what was going on inside, I could nip almost any chronic pain issue in the bud. It isn’t a cure all, but it always ALWAYS decreases intensity and duration. Having been raised with the family belief that the only time medication wasn’t a cop out was in the face of bacterial infection or intense (e.g. post surgical) pain – and then only until the “discomfort” could be tolerated without it.

    I have spared myself quite a bit since then – depending on the circumstances I use positioning, exercise, and the occasional ibuprofen.

  7. I lose my vision with my type of migraine. If I take off my eye mask too soon and do too much, I will get the headache, complete with nausea and a rebound of the screwed up vision.

    My purse contains an arsenal of “just in case.”

    I hit the wall emotionally at the end of college. My faculty advisor and one of my roommates got me to counselling provided by the school. It was not necessarily a bad experience to have young, if only because if I quit sleeping, I step back. I also recognized a bad place when our son found himself there and I could better advocate for him.

    I don’t always know why it hurts or why some things hurt more than others. I don’t know why situations that put some people into bad places, physically and/or emotionally, others skate right through or appear to do so. The hard thing for me is making good choices when it doesn’t seem like there are any.

  8. I too suffer from migraines that can be headed off IF I recognize the signs that the current headache is going to be more than just an average headache. The last time I ‘didn’t get the memo’ was only about a month ago. I was super busy at work, trying to get things taken care of (long distance) for my father and his wife after dad’s oldest brother died, and getting ready for a 2 week vacation with my husband for a late 25th anniversary present to ourselves. My day off to finish running errands ended up being a day spent in bed willing to do almost anything to make the pain end.

  9. I started having migraines in my 30’s. I didn’t realize I had a family history of migraines on my mother’s side. It took me a while to respect migraines and know that I must slow down. I am happy to say in my 50’s I no longer have them.

  10. When I was younger I suffered from panic attacks. The panic attacks usually started when I was in a situation I couldn’t control such as a car, a boat or an airplane being operated by someone else.
    The idea that I couldn’t leave the situation by myself caused me to miss out on several outings and activities with my children.
    A dear friend pointed out to me one day that I was missing opportunities to make memories with them.
    I started working on overcoming my fears! It took some time and commitment but I did it!

  11. Have you ever seen those anti-depressant commercials that posit that one of the symptoms of depression is that you physically hurt? I’m convinced, after over a year of interacting with my teenaged boy, that the same may be true of hormonal adolescents. My fourteen year old hates to be touched, particularly when he is feeling out of sorts. Whereas a hug from mom used to be a balm, it now generates the opposite effect. During the loooong acclimation to living with this new, autonomous version of him, I inadvertently discovered a new way to connect with him, by smiling. He is frequently surly, churlish, dripping in sarcasm (though in that last bit, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree), but sometimes I’m able to disarm him by simply giving him a sincere smile as he walks in the room. It’s a basic human response, I think, to smile back when someone smiles first, and yet, when I get a return smile that makes it the all the way to his eyes, it feels like such a win. Tuning in to what he needs at this stage in his life has been a struggle, and I still mess up all the time. But that one observation, smiling more, has given me a baseline from which to try again, when we both get carried away by how we are feeling.

    I love how you’ve described your process for uncovering characters’ essential internal struggles. It’s like you have to reverse-engineer the final outcome before the writing of the hero and heroine’s journey ever begins. Makes a lot of sense, and, for me, sheds light on why your characters seem so authentic in their motivations and interactions.

    Happy Mother’s Day!