Monthly Archives: April 2017

The phenomenon of the one-book author

Image of single orange flower, half open; Text: If you only have ONE STORY, is it worth writing? Alicia Butcher EhrhardtTHIS IS A QUESTION FOR FICTION WRITERS

I have been, since last November, in a position I had not been in in years, and which I neither like nor have coped with particularly well: not being able to write due to major illness and health problems.

Which is kind of ironic, since I’ve been out of commission as a scientist, my true and original career (though I planned to write in retirement, and DAMN! here I am at retirement age and technically retired from a job I was forced to abandon in 1989) for almost THIRTY years. A real shame after all those years in grad school battling to get a degree in a man’s field, Nuclear Engineering, and thirteen good years at major US science labs. But Life does things like that to you, and you roll with the punches, or don’t make it.

So, not to belabor the point, I’ve been out of commission for half a year almost; and now, due to the medications prescribed by my doctors, am facing the very real possibility that my brain will not come back to me, that the cognitive dysfunction which has been a result of the FIVE medications recommended for me to take (and which I’m fighting), and the still head-shaking INCREASE in exhaustion which I didn’t think could get worse.

Yes, I know we all get old and eventually die, and some don’t get to become old first, and there is dementia lurking on the horizon, but at my age, I felt I still had a number of usable years left – until now. Now, I hope I have years left, but I’m starting to get seriously worried about what has happened to my brain to make it even LESS usable.

Ten Early Warning Signs for losing your mind to dementia

This one particularly scares me because I store it years ago, AND I CAN’T REMEMBER – OR FIND VIA GOOGLE – WHERE I GOT IT.

The signs are the same in many places, so I am apologizing in advance to the person whose particular phrasing of them I’m going to show you (please let me know if you are that person, and what you want me to do):

  • Memory loss for recent or new information – repeats self frequently
  • Difficulty doing familiar, but difficult tasks – managing money, medications, driving
  • Problems with word finding, mis-naming, or mis-understanding
  • Getting confused about time or place – getting lost while driving, missing several appointments
  • Worsening judgment – not thinking thing through like before
  • Difficulty problem solving or reasoning
  • Misplacing things – putting them in ‘odd places’
  • Changes in mood or behavior
  • Changes in typical personality
  • Loss of initiation – withdraws from normal patterns of activities and interests

It doesn’t say in this list, or the one a an Alzheimer’s site, that the person’s AWARENESS of their own increasing problems is or isn’t a risk factor; my personal experience was the ability to hope that my people who had this problem were NOT scared and living in a hell of knowing their minds were going, when it was obvious to all of us – probably including THEM.

Since being put on cardiac drugs starting in February of this year, I have had EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THESE EARLY SIGNS HAPPEN TO ME. REPEATEDLY. Sometimes I’m very aware of it, and other times have had to have it pointed out to me that I was not thinking clearly.

I am aware of NOT being myself

It’s pretty obvious.

And when I haven’t been able to write fiction, the one thing I do which exercises my creative brain for a few hours on a good day (assuming all the incantations and spells have been laid, and the careful management of the physical body with rest, food, fasting, pain meds from before, and caffeine), and this started to go on and on and on, I’ve gotten pretty scared.

It’s subtle – NOT being yourself. It includes so many little things you can try to ignore, such as having literal trouble forming a word before you speak it…

So now, rather than bore you with my mental decline…

I would like to examine the title phenomenon: the one-book author.

Where is the place in the pantheon of writers for the person who chooses to or is forced to write but one book during their lifetime?

We have a bunch of famous ones, such as Margaret Mitchell and Anne Frank and Harper Lee (yes, in spite of the abomination of GSAW, which I refuse to blame her for).

In many of these cases, the process took a very long time. The reason for those is that the writer had to learn how to write, and if you have ever tried this little exercise, you know that the first thing you have to overcome is the sparkling story in your brain, compared with what you are able to set in permanent form when you try, especially the first time.

The authors may simply have not wished to do that process again. Or found more interesting and exciting things to do. Or ran up against the world and critics and the nether regions of fame, and decided strongly never to do that again.

Some of them were no longer with us when their one book was available for purchase. John Kennedy Toole (I believe he only has A Confederacy of Dunces out, with a Pulitzer in fiction to his memory) committed suicide; his mother stubbornly kept nagging editors until one published his novel.

How does this affect the READING PUBLIC?

That’s the part in curious about, and it may have changed in these days of self-publishing AND self-promoting.

Single novels written by indies MAY SINK WITHOUT A TRACE.

The continuation of the writing career, a pickup in merchandising, readers discovering the writer and reading their backlog – all of these things are necessary for all but the VERY LUCKY INDIE who catches the eye of someone in just the right position with just the right book.

Many of our successful overnight indie wonders are no more overnight than persistent: they have been writing – and publishing – longer than I have been writing, but fame just found them. A couple go viral each year: in one year it was Darcie Chan and The Mill River Recluse – which she sold 600k of at 0.99. I don’t know what she wrote before that (it was advertised as a debut novel); after that, she was picked up by a publisher, her prices were raised, and I don’t think the following two books did anything like the first in sales. I like her success (though would not want to be picked up by a traditional publisher without having the terms very carefully vetted); the books aren’t my style (they have, like WAY too many books nowadays, a REALLY NASTY SECRET in the past).

But aside from Chan, I haven’t seen a book sell two million copies like The Goldfinch, which was hyped and marketed by big pub (also, not a debut novel, IIRC).

There is a very good reason sometimes

When the first book is not as good as it could be.

Indies fictioneers don’t usually have the means to push that first book; reasonable indies expect their career to pay for itself, more or less, as they go. There’s no point to pushing a first one, if the writer can’t repeat the process in a reasonable period (write, publish, promote the hell out of).

And the most important reason is usually lack of knowledge. An indie, like myself, who spent 15 years writing a book, trying more to finish it properly than market before it’s finished, may have READ about marketing techniques, but has not MARKETED a real book yet, and there’s a huge conceptual and executional chasm between the cliffs.

So, what does that mean for indies like me?

If my career ended with To Be Continued at the end of Pride’s Children PURGATORY, because MY brain never returns capable of writing fiction, what happens to that book? What happens to the story, the ONLY one I want to write until it is finished.

I have been sitting at my desk for upwards of five hours daily since April 8 – with the result of a few notes.

The sad part: I had learned what parts of my ‘process’ could be sped up, and was actually doing quite well writing the second book, NETHERWORLD. Well started, completely planned, and in possession of a ratty old first draft and knowledge of my changed. My plan was to take less than a year to do the next book, another year for the third.

Want to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans.

I’m a good Christian, and a realist: God know exactly what will happen to me, what I will choose in the future, when I will go Home to Him. I can’t change an iota of all that.

Sometimes in the past two months and a half, I would have been perfectly happy for Him to say, “Okay, pack your bags – you’re coming home!” It has been that bad. Many times.

Not my choice, but a realist says, “Yes, Lord,” and brings very little in those bags.

That would leave me with nothing else published, and an unfinished story – which I’m assuming would do the proverbial sinking, sitting on the Kindles of the few people who discovered it since late 2015 for a while – and mostly abandoned.

It hasn’t done that well since it came out – I have a hard time with various of the components.

Price is one – few people want to pay $8.99 for an indie ebook of 167K tightly woven words, regardless of the fact that it’s cheaper than two 80K $4.99 books, or three 55K $2.99 books, and they can get an eARC for free by just asking.

Cover is another – if I had $10 for each ‘change your cover’ suggestion, I’d have a nice little advertising budget.

People who expected a Romance are cutting that it is too long or too slow.

And most readers (mine do better than average) simply don’t review OR tell their friends OR gift a book they like. Sometimes I wonder if they’re feeling guilty that they got pulled in to such a thing about a disabled woman.

And, of course, the ads – have NOT hit my stride there.

So what will happen to PC? PC 1-and-only?

If this is it for me, or my brain, which are roughly equal in importance for me.

But mostly because there would be no more.

I dunno.

I think the famous ones like GWTW had a lot of push in their day FIRST, and then it slowly became apparent the author was not going to write a sequel.

The reason for this post:

Suppose all of that were true: no more of the trilogy, no more books by me, no more writing to push what I already have to justify having spent my entire FREE time during the past 17 years doing nothing else.

Would I care? Yes.

Would I feel I should have spent my time otherwise?

NOT ON YOUR LIFE.

I hope it doesn’t sink like a stone, but I still have it available next to my bed in the nursing home for as long as I’m alive, whether I can read it or not.

And if God gives me life, and a brain to live it with, I will keep going forward.

Otherwise, I’ll try to remember to write out a quick outline of the rest of the story, as my daughter has advised, for anyone curious. They can post it on PridesChildren.com when I’m not here any more.

Assuming I have enough brain to write it.

If you are kind, please pray the dementia is reversible.

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PTSD from medical trauma is REAL

Silhouette of woman holding umbrella; Test: Patients need to be monitored for stress. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

I HAVE PTSD

And I shouldn’t have had to diagnose it myself.

I still find it unbelievable that, in all that has happened to me since the chest pains Feb. 4, 2017, not one medical person has 1) asked me how I was doing mentally, or 2) warned me that I was at risk for PTSD.

I even, at one point recently, called the cardiologists’ office, and asked if they had anyone on staff who handled, you know, the psychological side of things. Nope.

I do want to state first and foremost that I am grateful to be alive. Grateful that medical personnel eventually managed to figure out what was wrong with me – a 95% blocked artery that was causing the chest pain, I assume, since the pain went away when they finally put that third stent in on the third catheterization in two weeks. It would be churlish not to be grateful for being alive.

I am also lucky to not have been visibly damaged – no heart surgery scar, for example.

It doesn’t help.

‘Trauma’ includes medical trauma

There are a lot of websites out there dedicated to what I’ll have to call ‘classical’ PTSD: the reaction some soldiers have to being in combat, the reaction some people will have to being raped or mugged. The classical form, if I may, includes things like flashbacks and nightmares, and has been popularized on TV as almost an alternate reality, where the person with PTSD almost has an excuse for overreacting to loud noises by re-enacting the original trauma.

But medical procedures can be intensely stressful, and medical procedures done on an emergency basis even more so.

A couple of quotes might help:

From Medical Disorders as a Cause of Psychological Trauma and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder:

Research has increasingly targeted serious or life-threatening illnesses as traumatic events, and a growing literature on PTSD among medical patients has developed (e.g. cancer, myocardial infarct, HIV diagnosis).

and

From When Treatment Becomes Trauma: Defining, Preventing, and Transforming Medical Trauma

Trauma experienced as a result of medical procedures,
illnesses, and hospital stays can have lasting effects. Those who experience
medical trauma can develop clinically significant reactions such as PTSD,
anxiety, depression, complicated grief, and somatic complaints.

Women are more than twice as likely to develop PTSD

The numbers in general are 10% of women and 4% of men will develop PTSD during their lifetime (fuzzy numbers – not sure of the PTSD definition used), which probably reflects that women have more stressors such as problems associated with pregnancy (Caesareans, miscarriages, and even ‘normal’ birth can be quite traumatic) and rape, as well as being socialized to ‘not make a fuss.’

From Facts About Women and Trauma:

Although the majority of individuals will be able to absorb the trauma over time, many survivors will experience long-lasting problems.

Approximately 8% of survivors will develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Many survivors currently living with PTSD experience symptoms that are both chronic and severe. These include: nightmares, insomnia, somatic disturbances, difficulty with intimate relationships, fear, anxiety, anger, shame, aggression, suicidal behaviors, loss of trust, and isolation.

Psychological disorders may also occur in conjunction with posttraumatic stress including depression, anxiety, and alcohol/substance abuse problems.

Research indicates that women are twice as likely to develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), experience a longer duration of posttraumatic symptoms, and display more sensitivity to stimuli that remind them of the trauma.

And cardiac events in women can be extra stressful

From the HeartSisters blog (where you can find a large number of articles by searching for PTSD):

By the latest account, one in eight heart attack survivors experiences a reaction called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although PTSD is usually associated with extreme trauma such as war, rape or a natural disaster, heart attack survivors can experience the same key symptoms: flashbacks that occur as nightmares or intrusive thoughts. As a result, the survivor actively tries to avoid being reminded of the event and becomes hyper-vigilant worrying that it will happen again.

It’s a high price to pay for having your life spared.

In the three studies that reported clinical outcomes, heart attack survivors with PTSD had double the risk of dying or experiencing a second heart attack as those without PTSD. The work was published online in the journal, Public Library of Science One.

Identifying PTSD early is an important step to coping with it. The sooner treatment is started, the more likely it will be successful.

My own risk factors should have warned someone:

Since my energy runs so low from CFS, almost anything extra will overwhelm my already-limited coping skills. I cannot suddenly manufacture more energy to cope with a crisis.

For whatever reasons, I experienced a particularly clumsy set of medical procedures which took over two weeks, three cardiac catheterizations and a nuclear stress test, and nine days in two different admissions to two hospitals each time, before they found and stented the right arterial blockage. Instead of going in for chest pains, having the catheterization, and waking up with the proper place stented – which should have happened on the first two days, the procedure was prolonged beyond anything reasonable. I still have no satisfactory explanation for this.

And, because of the same CFS, and which I warned them about, I have had a constant and continuous string of side effects from the medicines prescribed – and eventually withdrawn. I told them I always overreact to meds, and usually can’t tolerate them, but I was required to prove that by doing so. Did I get smaller doses than they would have given someone else? I don’t know. What I do know is that my body has rejected every drug so far with violent side effects, physical AND mental, and I am still experiencing some which may be related to the last drug they really want me to take (we’ll see about that).

‘Opinionated, over-educated female suddenly experiences total loss of control’ – that would have warned even me! Loss of control, by the way, makes any of the ‘consent’ forms I signed under those conditions meaningless. As well as the fiction that you actually get to choose any of what happens; I found that fiction – unwillingness of the doctors to say what I should do as if they stood behind their ‘recommendations’ – added incredibly to the stress.

Introvert suddenly having to deal with literally hundreds of new people – duh!

And the unfortunate major side effect that the meds kept me from using my main coping mechanism for stress: 3-5 half-hour naps/rests daily during which I spend most of the time doing yoga-type breathing which slows my heart rate and removes stress and allows me to process away the mental debris. Add the meds causing an increased heart rate for a nice recipe for PTSD simply from sleep deprivation.

Oh, and the pain. I cope with a large amount of pain normally on a daily basis; the increase – and them not wanting me to take additional pain medications I normally use – made excessive pain a constant companion, to the point that it was difficult to separate the pain into parts I could cope with – and all the rest. At one point I realized that I was putting up with a whole host of side effects making me a non-functional zombie, simply because those side effects didn’t hurt!

None of this is prescriptive: how do I know I have PTSD?

Here we go back to some of the symptoms and assessments, of which there are many on the web, with the caution that many if not most are for the more classical form.

From Screening for PTSD:

  • I am troubled by having experienced a life-threatening event that caused intense fear and helplessness.
  • I reexperience the events by repeated, distressing memories; and I have intense physical and emotional distress when I am exposed to things that remind me of the event.
  • Reminders of the events affect me by avoiding activities and places or people who remind me of it; blanking on important parts of it; losing interest in significant activities of my life; sensing that my future has shrunk; and feeling my range of emotions is restricted.
  • And I am troubled by problems sleeping; irritability and outbursts of anger; problems concentrating; feeling ‘on guard’; and have an exaggerated startle response.

What will I do about dealing with PTSD in myself?

There are a number of ways of dealing with PTSD which have been developed for the classic forms (and which can be, I read, amazingly effective for those who will seek help). They include talk therapy, some interesting procedures, and medications.

I am brought right smack up against my limitations again: I wouldn’t try a drug for this if you paid me, not after all the problems I’ve had with drugs recently; leaving the house another time a week to talk to someone – for a therapy which would probably take many weeks – isn’t a real possibility unless nothing else works; and I’m not new age enough to try things like the eye movement thing.

I will do as much as I can to handle this myself, now that I have a name for what is going on.

From HeartSisters again:

* UPDATE, August 13, 2013:  U.S. Staff Sargent and military Medal of Honor recipient Ty Carter has launched a campaign to remove the D from PTSD: “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is really a formal diagnosis for natural stress that one experiences after a traumatic event. The formal title of PTSD sometimes gives a false impression that the ‘disorder’ is something associated with a disease or a chemical imbalance, when in reality it is simply a biological response.

Three steps are necessary to successfully treat the condition:
•    acknowledging one has symptoms
•    communicating with others about it
•    seeking treatment without fear of judgment

This post is the review of the first step – acknowledging my symptoms and what they mean.

The second step (yes, I told my husband, and I will tell the doctor this Thursday when I see her, trying very hard to not be judgmental) – I am communicating with anyone who reads this. And I’m hoping it will prevent distress in someone else when they realize how easily PTSD can happen, and how common it is. And that it isn’t just the classical war and rape form.

And I will, if I cannot handle it myself, seek professional help. Because those activities I used to enjoy, and my ability to write, are what was making life bearable for someone with a chronic illness and zero energy, and I’m not going to give them up without the fight of my life. For my life.

I don’t feel sorry for myself, and I’m trying hard not to feel too angry.

As always, comments are welcome. It isn’t really communicating unless it’s a two-way street.

Fragility and vulnerability after the stent

Woman looking up at tall grey wall; Text: I sed to be me. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

WHEN ISN’T IT WORTH IT BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT YOU?

The more things that happen to you, one after another, which you have no control over, the more stressed out you’re going to be.

Some people, with an invincible attitude, do well under stress – they aren’t going to let it bother them.

Others learn with yoga and breathing techniques, to manage the unmanageable somewhat, and have something they can do when they feel stressed – which makes the stress bearable.

I’m running scared.

I’m not going to claim PTSD – the disorder part in particular – but I can see a bit of how people get to that point.

And when the solutions don’t work, when the medications given to alleviate the ‘problems’ don’t work, and instead have side effects as bad as, or worse than, the problems themselves, one starts to feel fragile and vulnerable – and scared.

I can no longer count on myself

I drove myself to church Sunday, finally getting back to my little choir at the Princeton U. chapel I love singing with, and things were going about as normal as you could expect. I left home having both eaten something and had a nap, and was even on the road a bit early, a good start. The substitute choir leader was kind and gentle and treated us as professionals. I brought a few people quickly up to date as to why I hadn’t been there since Feb. 4, and the singing went well.

Even climbing the steps from the crypt – which had become a problem I didn’t realize is called ‘shortness of breath,’ and which I mistakenly assigned to CFS or to simply getting older – was more doable than it had been – I took it slow from caution, not necessity.

Afterward, I chatted a few minutes, hit the bathroom (halfway down to the crypt), and set out for home after peeling an Atkins bar so I wouldn’t be empty, and starting to munch it in the car.

Getting home was the problem

Mind you, I’ve been driving myself just fine for at LEAST four years, maybe longer. I drove myself home the night of Feb. 4, when I ended up in the hospital the first time for chest pain the next morning. This is something I do: I am – I was – an independent adult.

I was about halfway home, when I had an episode of feeling extremely sleepy, and then having the sensation of being scared, and a rapid heart rate, not a good situation when you’re driving.

I got into the right-hand lane, which helped some, and pulled off into a mall parking lot soon after that. I wanted to call home – but my cell had no service. I walked around a bit, photographed (maybe – don’t really know how to use the camera on the phone) some WILD TURKEYS – or escapees from the turkey farm.

Back on the road (it’s a total drive of 20-25 minutes, no biggie), the feelings persisted, and I pulled into a strip mall further down the road – to find that every store was closed (Sunday after 6PM), and there were no other people, and the cell STILL had no service. I couldn’t call home to tell my husband I would take a nap in the car and would be a while.

After a bit, a pickup truck pulled in. I asked the other driver if I could use his phone – and he said it was not charge. He asked if there was anything I needed. I told him I’d be fine – and headed for home again.

It was a very uncomfortable drive the rest of the way, because there are no places such as stores to stop at, and I didn’t think I was so far gone as to need emergency services, but I can tell you I took it really slow, stayed in the right lane, made the easiest choices for streets, and was prepared to pull over at any moment.

I considered stopping at a house, preferably one with a lot of cars, and I’m sure one of my neighbors would have listened – but I was closer and closer to home, and just didn’t want the fuss that would have to ensue.

I made it, obviously, but I really needed that outing to be one which took me back to the tiny bit of normal I have, and it ALMOST did, but didn’t.

Side effects, stress, post-trauma reactions, anxiety?

I don’t know whether to blame some of these things – which came out of the blue without warning – on the same drugs I’m taking which have confusion, dizziness, lightheadedness, palpitations, and other such listed as side effects.

That night, and every night since, I take those drugs again – and it’s become a Scylla and Charybdis: there is no certainty close to either side.

I don’t dare stop the calcium channel blocker (amlodipine) which I was told to take after the previous Sunday resulted in an ER visit in the middle of the night because of really high blood pressures, but I don’t know if that drug is CAUSING the problems with its side effects. This week has been getting off one drug (Effient) that sent me to the hospital that last Sunday, and getting on two others (clopidogrel – Plavix-clone plus the amlodipine which barely brought the high BP down from the Effient).

Side effects are common when getting on new drugs.

Side effects take a while to fade when you stop taking a drug.

Meanwhile, my system feels like a funhouse.

The whole week has been fraught – high blood pressure spikes (not high enough for the ER, but much higher than I’m used to) – with a host of minor symptoms – enough of a daily variation that it seriously worried me, but knowing that they would tell me to just keep taking the drugs).

I want somebody to KNOW, to fix things, to tell me it’s okay. I want to be able to get through a weekend without monitoring every time I feel shaky or the heart is racing. I’ll see the doctor – April 20th. That seems awfully far away.

It’s not any individual thing; it’s the accumulation, the unpredictability, and the fact that I have demonstrated paradoxical responses to everything they’ve given me so far.

I want to be stable. I don’t want to take ANY drugs that are not strictly necessary – I worry that they will accumulate like the Effient and cause problems simply because I’m not clearing them out properly.

And I worry about the stents, stent blockage, and the bleeding risks of taking drugs which keep you from clotting.

I do not believe in taking one drug to counteract the side effects of another. The principle is wrong. And I don’t react well to it anyway – plus it leaves me in a position of not knowing which to stop.

I guess I can say I’ve had every side effect in the book; well, about 50% of them – so far.

I am not happy.

And I’m scared.

And I keep remembering that I did NOT have a blood pressure problem even when one of my arteries was getting quite blocked! So I don’t understand why I have one now – it must be their drugs.

It’s getting worse by the day.

In a week, nothing has changed – except that I can’t write. No brain kicking on, not for even an hour to write with.

And I’m not myself.

And I can’t function this way.

I didn’t have much, but now it’s gone.

I have a sing tonight.

I will have to drive myself home around 11PM. My husband (who isn’t even awake at that time) has offered to drop me off and pick me up – the very last thing I want.

I’m already a significant burden, since there are so few things I can do for us.

I don’t know if I’m going.

If I have another reaction like last Sunday, this time at night…