Tuesday, September 20, 2011

When Life Gives You Lemons

You often hear that writers should borrow from their personal lives (and sometimes the lives of others) to fuel their writing with a sense of reality. After all, truth is stranger than fiction. I've heard a lot of stories from people over the years, partially because I ask the right questions, and partially because most of the time people find me easy to talk to, so they are confessing things to me they say they've never told anyone before. 

I know this shared knowledge of pain, joy, anxiety, hunger, and ecstasy helps my writing. It helps me shape characters with realistic emotions and believable problems. But for me, the best occasions that I mine for emotional dept are my own experiences.

Saturday night I went to bed having some chest pain. I figured I was just sore from work, and went to sleep. When I woke up, the chest pain was still there. Worse, even. It started underneath my left breast and cut diagonally up to my left shoulder. It felt like someone was stabbing me with a knife, and I couldn't inhale deeply, cough, sneeze, or laugh without making the stabbing pain infinitely worse.

Since I am a writer, I went immediately to the worst case scenario. "I am having a heart attack. Pain in my left arm, classic heart attack. Or it's an ectopic pregnancy." (you're thinking, how can you have a normal pregnancy (where the egg is fertilized in the uterus) AND and ectopic pregnancy five months later? But my panicked brain was convinced I'd had twins and one got stuck in my fallopian tubes. It had now ruptured, and I was bleeding internally. This makes no sense, I realize that. But when you're having weird pain, your mind wanders. And in my case, sometimes knowledge just fuels the fire.).

But on the other side of the panic, was me thinking it was nothing. Pregnancy does really, really weird things to your body, and I know that. I didn't want to be one of those woman who freaks out when she has a slight twinge in her stomach. My body is doing it's werewolf impression: ligaments and muscles are stretching. I've gained weight, and I am a tiny person to begin with. So I also thought it was nothing. 

After talking to a friend of mine, I called my midwife's office. The midwife says to take some Pepsid AC and tums. Sometimes heartburn can manifest as chest pain. Heavens knows I've had some wicked heartburn lately; sometimes it feels like I've swallowed a volcano. She says wait two hours. If the chest pain hasn't gone away, then I need to go to the ER to get checked out.

See folks, chest pain is sort of a big deal in the medical community. There are plenty of normal reasons why someone might have chest pain, but there are also lots of immediately life threatening causes behind chest pain, a blood clot being at the top of the list. Especially in pregnant women, blood clots can be an issue because you literally have more blood in your system. You can increase your blood volume up to 50% of what you had prior to becoming a baby incubator.

Two hours later, it still feels like a knife has magically found it's way into my ribs. My best friend (who also happens to be a nurse, lucky me) takes me to the ER to get poked and prodded. The only upside to going to the ER is "pregnant" and "chest pain" gets you back pretty quickly. They take a bunch of blood, do a chest X ray, and then I get to sit and wait for the results. 

While we're waiting, the ER doctor comes back to tell me this blood test they've done to check the likelihood of a blood clot is almost always high in a pregnant woman, blood clot or not (it's back to that increased blood volume). In the event this test comes back positive, they will recommend a CAT scan. She then says that plenty of pregnant women who have had CAT scans give birth to healthy babies.

My brain completely stops at this point. I felt like I needed to press pause or something. Wait, what? She explains there's minimal risk to the baby, and even says she's pregnant herself. The risk of having a blood clot that will rupture and kill me is bigger than the risk of all that radiation and the dye they inject into my blood stream to see the blood vessels to the baby.

The doctor leaves and I proceed to cry. I was terrified. I was between a bottomless pit opening up to swallow me, and going numb. Suddenly I had this major decision to make. I hate making quick decisions like this, especially based on fear. How much of a risk is "minimal"? The same risk caffeine poses? Or the same risk, as say, crack cocaine? Crack addicts also give birth to perfectly healthy babies, as people like to tell me when I worry about something affecting the baby. But people, I am shooting a little higher than "baby born not addicted to crack".

I left a message with my midwife so I could find out more information, but the meantime was hell. I didn't want to hurt my baby. I also didn't want to be stupid and refuse some test that might find a blood clot. I also wondered what the chances that I actually had a blood clot versus the risk to the baby was. I would feel awful if it turned out I didn't have a blood clot, and I put the baby at risk for nothing.

It was awful to realize absolutely everything that happens to me happens to my little boy. I knew that already. It's why I am taking prenatal vitamins every though the fish oil makes my burbs taste way nasty. It's why I am avoiding tuna fish, sushi, and sweet tea. 

But those were all things I could personally control. I couldn't control these chest pains, they were just there.

Added to the confusion was my prior ER experiences. I've had great ER doctors. I also have TMJD and a few years ago when I yawned, my jaw dislocated itself (yes, that can happen. Fun thought!). I went to the ER where the doctor was CONVINCED it was a muscle spasm. No amount of me telling him I literally cannot close my jaw, and I know what a muscle spams feels like, made him believe me. He said wait three days and then see an Ears, Nose, and Throat doctor. He gave me some muscle relaxers (which did NOTHING) and some heavy narcotics for the pain (which made me hallucinate) in the meantime. So for three days, my jaw stays locked open. I go see the ENT guy who wants to know why the hell the doctor didn't send me right away, or to better yet, an oral surgeon who's job is to deal with TMJ.

So I also have this scenario playing out in my head as I weigh the risks and benefits of having a CAT scan while 5 months pregnant (for those of you wondering, the ENT doctor manually put my jaw back into place, which hurt like nothing I've ever felt before. I imagine labor will be worse, but until then...). 

The happy ending to this story is the blood test came back normal, despite my current state of baby incubating. So I didn't have to have a CAT scan. They figured I must have pulled something at work and told me to take it easy for a few days. 

It was awful to experience that sort of indecision, fear, and worry, but let me tell you, it makes great writing. You take experiences like I just had, and you give them to your character. She doesn't have to pregnant with a possible blood clot for it to work. I've never felt that mixture of protectiveness over my baby, anxiety, indecision, and fear before, but that doesn't mean a character wouldn't feel the same way when faced with a tough decision regarding her child, sister, mother, or best friend.

Likewise, you can go through your life. Did you ever make a really big, dumb mistake? How did you feel? How did you try to fix or cover that mistake? Have you gotten married? What did it feel like the exact moment you stood at the altar? Have you ever feel deeply in love with someone who didn't even like you? How did you deal with the joy of love and pain of loneliness at the same time? These are experiences that we've all felt in one way or another. You don't have to copy the exact event in your life to apply it to your character, because emotions are universal. Maybe your mistake played out okay in your life, but in the character's life it's just made everything worse.

Red Smith once said, "Writing is easy. You just sit down at the typewriter, open up a vein, and bleed it out drop by drop."

I feel like that's what he meant. You take your life, your happiest moments, your deepest sorrow, your greatest pain, and you put that in words on the page. If you do it well enough, your reader bleeds along with you.


  1. It started underneath my left breast and cut diagonally up to my left shoulder. It felt like someone was stabbing me with a knife

    I get those from time to time and have had since I was young. Best advice a doctor gave me was: "Is it a sharp pain? Yes? Then you're fine. Worry when it's a dull pain."

  2. First off, Oh, girl, as a woman who has been pregnant twice yet has produced no babies, as a woman who slides into a panic attack every time there is the slightest twinge in my body, let me say, I *understand* - and you're right. We do pull those experiences, those feelings into our books, even if it's not exactly what happened to us, loss is loss. Fear is fear. And if your character is feeling it, you can use those experiences.

    Secondly, I *love* that quote.

    And thirdly, life handed me a Lemmon. I married him.


  3. Joe: thanks for that information. I have never ever had chest pain of any kind so I was thrown for a loop.

    Jessica: Oh dear, I am so sorry. I teeter between not thinking about what could go wrong to thinking it's all going wrong. It's hard sometimes to be aware of yourself, because you KNOW those twinges aren't normal. And you're right: fear is fear. Joy is joy. It's what connects us human beings together.

    Clever about the Lemmon. I see what you did there. :D

  4. This sounds SO like my life!