After ten novels or so, I imagine writers begin to worry about repetition. Did I use this plot device before? Have I named a minor character this before? I have always been careful not to repeat myself. Or so I thought. Last week I found out different. I was listening to the audio file of Love and Death in Blue Lake. The main character suffers from anxiety. Really? I was mad at myself. Anxiety is too close to PTSD, which is what my current main character in Lily White in Detroit is in recovery from. There’s only one book between these two novels. I should have remembered.
Looking back, anxiety wasn’t even relevant to Courtney’s character. The plot didn’t need it, there was so much else going on. I could have taken it right out of the book; my editor even mentioned that. Smart woman. My editor is extremely kind. So she probably said something like “Does Courtney need to be anxious? Where is this coming from? Maybe delete it or fill it out more so the reader understands.” So I dug in deeper, at least enough to please my editor, but now, looking back I realize I gave Courtney anxiety because I was going through a terrible phase of acute anxiety and having regular panic attacks during the time I wrote that book.
I had a good source for Courtney’s profession–she was a psychologist. Yes, a mental health expert with a mental health problem. But this happens in real life. The first time I knew I had panic disorder, my husband had about gotten fed up with my weird behavior in the car. Basically I freaked out every time the road wasn’t straight and dry. Curves, cliffs, bad weather (snow or rain or the dreaded black ice) even sharp turns all made me so fearful I’d beg him to slow down or stop the car or whatever. We hadn’t been married much more than a year and it had been clear to him for a while that I had this problem. I had no idea why I was so afraid sometimes when he was driving. Why sometimes I couldn’t drive.
He wasn’t super patient with me as it rattled his nerves to have a nervous passenger. One time he said “What do you think is going to happen? Do you think we’re going to crash and die?” And I said “Yes! I do!” He suggested I go to a psychiatrist, actually he said “You’re nuts. You need to see someone.” The psychiatrist knew right away what was wrong with me. I was having anxiety attacks, later upgraded to panic attacks, probably because I’d been in one too many very scary car accidents and then there was my family history in phobias and panic. Basically I inherited my illness and it was exacerbated by experience. Anyway, this psychiatrist put me on medication that gradually erased my symptoms. It was like a miracle.
No amount of talk therapy can cure what I have. But she had to see me once a month for an hour in order to dispense the drugs. We used to swap stories of driving while anxious. She admitted to me she was also afraid to drive in certain conditions. Her way of coping with snow was to turn on her emergency lights and drive very slowly despite people honking at her and passing her. She didn’t care. If driving 30 mph on the freeway would make her feel safe, that’s what she’d do. She seemed to enjoy telling me these stories, but they made me a little anxious. Then one day I was cured. We said our goodbyes and I went on my merry way.
What I didn’t know then was that I would probably never be cured. But at least I knew what I had and how to deal with it. I’ve had a lot of therapy but I am not willing to drive over the Ambassador Bridge several times a day every day or lock myself into a small space, so aversion therapy is not for me. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is of minimal help when anxiety mounts and turns into panic, but nothing stops panic in its tracks like my particular cocktail of prescription medications.
As it turns out the character of Courtney came from an experience with my real life therapist while also being a therapeutic tool for me at that time in my real life. Because writing (for me) is therapy and always has been. I’m not sure this is true for all writers, but for me, writing is a terrific coping mechanism. Still, note to self: no more fictional character who suffer from any type of anxiety disorder.