The Hand, Mind and Written Muscle:
How PTSD & TBI Helps Inspire A Writer Part I
By: Whitney Hill
Editor: Phyllis Hamilton
Posted: June 22, 2013
“A wise mentor once told me that we are born with a family. We have no control of who or what they are. When we get older, a hallmark of our maturity is to understand that we get to choose who or what we call our family. “
SPORK! recently had the pleasure to interview Baer Charlton, author of the children’s book the Very Littlest Dragon. Main character Tink, the lonely dragon in a bear world, finds a way to cope with his unique differences while discovering the power of family and friends along the way. A thought provoking parallel, that highlights the feelings of being ostracized for a difference – a disability - that can’t be helped.
Baer’s personal experience on living with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)/ TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and how he proactively uses his writings as a therapeutic outlet, all helps bring his characters to life.
Can you describe the events that led to your PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury)?
Back in the early 1970s, I was a young tough on a motorcycle. I was just big enough, just crazy enough, and my motorcycle was just out of the box enough, that I got into many situations that could be exciting and fun, or turn very horribly and wrong to downright deadly. With the groups I was allowed to associate with, a fun Friday night could end with the snap of a switchblade or the break of a longneck, turn into a raging bar fight.
Hollywood likes to depict biker bar fights with the girls all of a sudden disappearing and the guys going full tilt. The only woman I ever saw disappear out of a seat was the wife of a magician named, The Great Tomsonni. The women in the bars usually had a long-neck in one hand and something in the other.
Thankfully, I don’t remember many or much of the fights. In fact, there are a many years that I have little to no memories.
More than a few concussions and fairly scary circumstances have left a few scars on [my] face, that are mirrored inside my skull as well.
Regarding my TBI, for about eleven years, I took pleasure on Saturdays, stuffing myself into about 160 lbs of steel tin can, grabbing a big stick and going to war with some other guys who were trying to hit me hard enough for me to lie down and “die”.
The group is called, The Society for Creative Anachronisms. (An anachronism is something out of time or place - - like knights in shining armor in the United States in the Twentieth Century.)
I kind of remember fighting. I even remember several people. I remember going places and being dressed up. I even have a few snippets of memory fighting. Few; too few.
Recently I was told that I usually didn’t miss a weekend, and that I wasn’t a good fighter, I was very good. I wish I could really remember that. It might help with those days of self-doubt…
The biggest single event concerning both TBI and PTSD would have to be my being hit by a truck while standing on the side of the road. This was a huge shock to me, as up until that time, I was proof-positive that I was almost bullet proof, or at least invincible. Double digits of surgeries later, I can tell you that I wasn’t. Well, not quite.
One of the few things I can remember was clawing my way back up to look over the guard rail to the tiny ants below on their own road.
When I realized that I was looking at cars about 1,800 feet below, I went into shock. That vision, and the extrapolation of being thrown over that cliff, robbed me, and eventually my new wife, of a good night’s sleep for many years. The fact that the screaming didn’t scare her to leaving me, was beyond me.
When we talk about the brain, we also have to talk about the memory box. This is a very important concept: You don’t know what it is, that you don’t remember, until you remember. This is my biggest problem. And I didn’t know that I didn’t remember anything. I thought that my memory box was whole, complete and in great shape.
One day I was going through several boxes of old “stuff”. There were slides of Africa - - “Oh wait, that’s right . . . I went . . . “ But what about this picture of me kissing a kangaroo? Or me at the bottom of the world in a place called Invacargo, New Zealand? I had no memory of going to those places, until someone reached out years later. As that relation of emails slowly progressed, bits and pieces, names and places fell back into place. I’d like to say that everything came back; but that would be a little too Hollywood.
How have you found the transition from your diagnosis to now?
Unlike a lot of people who have an “event” that they can point to; such as a car crash, mine is more long-term insidious events. I do have a couple of larger events like being hit by a truck, but most were little things that built up over time.
Learning to deal with where I place myself is probably the most helpful. I know that being in crowded situations with no obvious exit route is one of my biggest triggers. So things like Christmas shopping is out, but dealing with a football stadium is a tricky dance that we have come to master. Getting seats next to an exit tunnel is the main concern. It’s all a dance, and you just hope that your footwork keeps the universe off your toes.
The TBI, and how it manifests has actually allowed me to raise awareness with every class I teach or group I talk to. The most obvious characteristics are in my speech. I have a hitch in my giddy-up, as they say. The lower the blood sugar, or tired I am, the more it stands out.
Breaking It Down
As I talk, there is a constant white-board in my brain that has my script on it. Every once in a while, a little evil gremlin jumps out and erases the next word. It’s not a tough word; it’s the kind that I have said a million times before. The phase could be “To go pet the cat…. ,” Except the word cat is just a blank of white.
The other problem sounds like [very] short-term memory loss. You say something, I shake my head and think, “so what did I hear…or did I not hear?” It just literally goes in one ear and out the other. I heard noise, but not actual words. Not all of the time, thankfully.
There is also what I call “Rail-roading”. This is when I’m in a situation where multiple people are talking and the brain doesn’t clear what was said, and soon it just starts bouncing around - - so that I hear it again and again. Meanwhile, someone else starts talking, then music, and and and….
So it sounds like a train going by on the tracks.
In my early years, I found bodybuilding and got . . . umm, huge. Well, the muscles did. The tendons on the other hand… didn’t change. Now, add 160 lbs of armor, and a 3lb stick….. and the shock absorbers were the tendons. They lasted for about 30 years, almost.
You might say it was a self-induced connective tissue dysfunction. The right arm was “put back together” (twice), and we’re hoping with the brace on the left as well, to avoid any further surgeries.”
Why yes, I do have stock in Bayer Aspirin. How did you guess.
What are some of your thoughts on the medical community and the treatments for TBI & PTSD?
The mainstream information for TBI and PTSD, are what sells papers - sensationalism, not an informed progression of what they are and who suffers. I hate to say this, because I have always admired Bob Woodward’s reporting.
But then, there is also a large part of the problem about [basic] information.
When we say TBI, the general public sees helmets - battles and football. But I did neither. Mine comes from some accidents, and a lot of getting smacked in the head with a big stick many times over the eleven years. I did medieval broadsword fighting.
Now, buckle your seat belt . . . one of the biggest killers in America is auto accidents. So, as cars become safer…excuse me, become more accident survivable, what happens to the other people in the accidents? I’m talking about the ones who rattled around in the car, but didn’t die. And if you think you can go through a massive car crash, and not walk away with nightmares? I have a horse of a different color I want to sell you. Car crash equals PTSD.
Are we civilians dealing with it? No. The gate keeper insurance companies take a stand that they reset the bones, heal the wounds and everything else is not their problem.
As for treatment, there are many modalities that help and work. Unfortunately the AMA (American Medical Association) protects its fiefdom, and the insurances won’t pay.
Baer’s Therapeutic Tips:
• Hypnotherapy, regression, and desensitizing - long used for phobias and great for PTSD
• Horse riding, art, music therapies, all great for both PTSD and TBI
• Sport enhancement trains the muscles to act and react better. Great for severe TBI that affects the motor skills
• Group problem solving, a form of group therapy (not recognized by the AMA or the APA (American Psychiatric Association)
• Sport therapy and engagement, gets people out, and doing what they thought they could no longer do, or couldn’t do before. Opens people to the possibility of “can”
And your therapeutic outlet is…
Whether a story I write is read by someone other than me or not, there is something that gets eased just by the writing. As a writer, I get to play god. Not God, but just a small demi god; lower case. If I think there is an injustice in the world, I can write a story that rights that wrong.
I get to wave my fingers and the nerd stumbles into the arms of a guy who she has longed to talk to since the fifth grade.
As he lifts her up, he notices the little scar at the corner of her mouth, and smiles.
Pointing to his scar at the corner of his mouth, he says,
“I have the same scar.”
And the rest is history
…or until they find out it is the scar left by the aliens who planted their seed in the lips of millions of people.
But seriously, I have had to overcome a childhood of being the fat kid. The one with his jaw wired shut for so long that my breath could knock a horse out at five feet. The one with terminal shyness. The stutter, which by the way, my sister fortunately can’t remember (which makes me happy because she also tormented me about it).
So, through my writing, I get to break barriers. Throw me in a room with 300 other people that I don’t know, I’m gone in 60 seconds. Throw me in a room with 100 people out of those 300 who have read my articles and know who I am, I’ll stick around as long as I don’t have to introduce myself.”
What drives you the most when you write?
I can have lunch, or look up at six in the evening and realize I skipped it. There are a lot of things, like a shower this morning that I can ignore and forgo. But, there is a hot coal that never goes out… just cools down from time to time, that is the burning force.
Those of us writers who have it, know that it can’t be called a desire. You don’t have a choice. It starts to burn, and the mind starts to race as it assembles the information, and the characters start talking then they get loud. Then, that red hot coal, turns white hot. Maybe your alarm is going to go off in five hours . . . but you don’t have a choice. You are going to lose an hour or three until that fire is banked and tamped down.
For a couple of years, it was this noise that woke me up at night. The flapping of leathery wings circling outside the bedroom can do a number on you. I didn’t realize how bad it had become until one night in the silent dark, my wife poked me and told me to take my flipping dragons back down to the basement office where they belonged.
What drew you to the concept in the Very Littlest Dragon of representing bears and dragons in exchange for those who see themselves as “normal” and different?
Let us take three Joe’s. One is white, one black and one Asian.
What do we know about them? Just their name and their possible ethnic background. Yet, most people have a visceral response that can and will color the glasses we use to view that character. Stereotyping? Sure, but it is how we sort the world.
If I start the joke, three guys walk into a bar - - it’s somewhat neutral. But if I change the wording to,
“A Jew, an Englishman, and a Japanese walk into a bar”
then we have a racial joke.
But now if we change it to,
“A rabbi, a priest and a Buddhist monk walk into a bar”,
we have a religious joke.
It is all racial and stereotypical profiling. But what if we change it to,
“A dragon, a bear and a gnome walk into a Starbucks”?
We have no stereotypes for any of those three in how they deal with the situation, so everything starts in neutral.
What initially sparked the idea of the main character, Tink the dragon?
Laura Reynolds started it! Oh, okay . . . that sounds too much like a couple of children fighting . . . but it’s true.
We spent the first four years of our relationship by email. Actually, it is our relationship; I’m in Oregon and she is in Kentucky. So, we are in our basements working separately together.
Early in, I saw a picture she had painted . . . and I wrote a flash story of about 1,800 words and sent it to her. She was blown away, and sent another image, and the next day, I sent her the flash story back.
This [eventually] lead to the blog site and what we call “Shortwrites”; or “60 seconds of a great movie you haven’t seen, yet”.
Eventually, she sent me the line drawing of a little dragon in a coffee mug. I sent her back an outline explaining how he was different, and worked in a picture frame shop and he angst over being so small, the wrong color and no scales and and and……
Laura wrote back, “And what is the rest of the story?”
Three years, over a hundred drawings and tens of thousands of emails later, we finally met in Las Vegas at the release of the book.
How did you find working with the illustrator, Laura Reynolds?
She was a pain in the backside!
The tough part is, I would write a passage that barely describes a certain dragon…. And send it to her. About an hour later, a new line drawing would pop into the Dropbox folder marked, “Dragon Drop.”
The picture would be untitled, but I knew who it was. She had read my mind or channeled the slush in my head that I call a brain. She just knew.
I was searching for a couple of archetypes as a mentor and some sub-mentors. I hadn’t said a word about my idea to Laura. It had been one of those weeks that I had to be on the road, and I had not taken my laptop. So she just dumped three new dragons in the box and ran. It was a dragon gang drive-by/fly-by.
That Sunday I got home and met [the characters] Twill, Pu and Chang; and the minute I saw each image, I knew their stories and where they fit in the picture frame shop, and the book. “
Unfortunately, once you meet the other half of your brain - - it’s a mating for life.
Read the Hand, Mind and Written Muscle: How PTSD & TBI Helps Inspire A Writer Part II June 26, 2013.
You can visit Baer Charlton’s website here
Buy The Littlest Dragon at Amazon
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