Friday, September 24, 2010

First Your Brain Thunders. Then You Scream . . .

By Shane Gericke

It's no wonder poor Emily has PTSD. Wouldn't you?

From Blown Away, 2006:

Emily knew she was screaming because she felt it in her throat, that she was firing from the jerk-jerk-jerk in her fist. She couldn’t hear shots couldn’t hear anything but watched orange flames spurt from the Glock’s steel snout—one-two-three-nine—and bullet holes pock the van and the killer's cherry windbreaker. But he wasn’t falling, just sitting there, calm, turning the deadly bullet stream their way.

She crouched for the protection of the engine block then remembered Commander Branch wasn’t wearing his bulletproof vest and instead leapfrogged sideways, arms flailing, trying to stretch herself larger. A laser gunsight lit her midsection then a million sledgehammers slammed home, pounding breath from her lungs.

“Ahh,” she hissed, her joints melting. The Glock skittered across the parking stripes. Her head cracked off the blacktop, and, vision fuzzing, she splayed herself over Branch’s limp body. She absorbed most of the machinegun bullets but felt several thwock his hip. She begged her arms to grab the .45 from Branch’s unmoving hand but they refused—her muscles were frozen solid from shockwave. Helpless, she watched the serial killer throw her a sloppy kiss, then roar up the driveway to freedom . . .

Uhnnnnnnnh. She was shot to pieces, unable to move, unable to feel, dying like her parents and husband. Black fog shrouded her head, bagpipes chanted Amazing Grace. Then the music faded and the fog began lifting. “Why are you doing this?” she screamed at the lingering wisps of exhaust. “What do you want from me?” A strangled “Wuhhhhh” was all that emerged.

From Cut to the Bone, 2007: 

The electric chair spit as Emily's rescuers cut the last strap holding her down.

“Ahhhhhgh!” she howled as the lightning bolt lit her.

She flew off the chair as if backhanded, slammed the viewing window like a slapshot. Bounced sideways, hit the floor upside-down, skidded back toward the chair. Her head clanged. Her tongue tasted like burnt sirloin. Her brain became a fun mirror of faces, hands, feet, knives, and electric chair.

She passed out.

And from Torn Apart, 2010:

Lightning freeze-framed the woods into a series of still photos. Thunder shook the trees, churned the pond. The rain roared like end times. Emily's heart beat out of her chest. The panic dragon eating her out-screamed all of it. She ran for the closest photo, hoping to lose her pursuer.

The Uzi stuttered.

She heard the sewing-machine zip and dove into a pond. The bullets missed, but she felt their fire, they were so close. She rolled through the wormy mud, dead leaves and needles sticking to her nude flesh, then scrambled to her feet and resumed her pursuit of the ridge.

The Uzi stuttered again . . .

It's a real malady. It happens to real people

Emily Thompson isn't real, of course. She's a fictional character, the star of my crime series, as is Martin Benedetti, her co-star, boyfriend and fellow cop.

But the PTSD that affects her is all too real.

By the third book she's developed full-blown Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD for short. It's a genuine malady, and it's been in the news for years with all the wars we've been having. It's an emotional disorder caused when a serious traumatic injury happens to a person. If it is not treated promptly, the trauma so burns itself into the person's brain cells that he or she literally cannot forget it. The PTSD lingers, as if a live electric wire was threaded into the brain, one that shorts out from time to time. Each short-circuit causes flashbacks and nightmares and panic and other fun stuff. If the injury was severe enough, "time to time" becomes "all the time."

Cops get it. Firefighters get it. Soldiers, in particular, get it. No surprise, really; their work is full of violence and trauma and blood not infrequent death.

But it can strike anyone, any time. Men, women, boys, girls. All it takes is being involved in, or even witnessing, a violent, traumatic event--shooting, knifing, explosion, fatal car wreck. A violent attack on a loved one, or on yourself. Watching your child die. If the event is heavy and scary enough, particularly when you're young and not yet callused to the realities of life, the PTSD worm can lodge deep inside your head.

PTSD is characterized by flashbacks to the traumatic event. Than can occur months, or even years, after the event. Sometimes, the person will be fine and happy for decades--and then an unexpected triggering event will cause it to erupt as a psychological volcano. (The terror attack of September 11 triggered sleeping PTSD in a lot of Americans witnessing the horror that day.) The person will replay the old trauma, over and over and over, down to the last micro-detail, to figure it out, try to cope with the pain it inflicts. The person will get headaches. Nausea. Unexplained soul-curdling fears. Panic disorders. Panic attacks, which gives the person the true joy of feeling like he is literally dying, both physically and psychologically--slam-down-the-coffin-lid time. Rich and colorful nightmares occur, ones that seem so real the person bolts awake as if being stabbed. Sometimes the person will fuse the dread into an imaginary object, to keep some kind of control over it. Emily, for instance, sees her panic attacks as a fire-breathing dragon, come to roast her alive. She sees the beast as if it were in the bedroom, next to her triple dresser.

If the PTSD gets strong enough, the person can become emotionally crippled. Can lie in bed for hours in a fetal position, chewing his fist, afraid to leave the room. Turn to alcohol or drugs to kill the pain. Become riddled with OCD--Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder--to create unbreakable rituals to keep the fear away. (See: Monk.) Become paranoid that it's going to happen again, and this time it will kill you dead.

But fortunately, modern treatment can save the person from that dreadful fate. Emily isn't stuck with the 1950s version: Suck it up and forget all about it, you'll be fine. 

Cause that's just not possible.

Here's when Emily finds out her PTSD is more than just the occasional quick flashback. It's a nightmare that occurs right after she finds that, for the third time, a serial killer has targeted her for death. Again, from Torn Apart: 
Emily floated through the doorway, into the room.

She looked around, not quite sure where she was or what had brought her here.
The ceiling, floor, and walls were the unrelenting black of shark eyes. A bed with
corner posts of stacked body parts sat squarely in the center. An incandescent
bulb dangled from wires stripped to bare copper. Its meager glow died when it
reached the dark corners of the room.

She watched herself float to the center of the bed. She hovered a moment, then
descended, halting six inches from the mattress. Her arms raised, lowered,
raised, as if salaaming. Her clothes fell off her body and floated off into the
bathroom. They arranged themselves neatly on a claw-foot tub, their corners
perfectly squared.

None of this made sense. She tried to stop it.


She began to turn slowly, as if on a spit. Six revolutions and she was screwed
tight to the mattress, facing the doorway through which she’d been entered.

A puff of smoke wandered around the frame and into the room. She smelled its
cellar dankness. Felt its heat on breasts and belly. She didn’t flinch. She was
stronger than the heat.

Another puff floated through a closed window. She couldn’t see the puff or
window; she was faced the wrong way. But something was whispering it was
there. Something evil.

Shards of anxiety broke off her body and into the shadows, where they
shimmied like the mercury from a broken thermometer.

She tried to decipher the smoke puffs. They weren’t the speckled gray of a
house fire. They were red and yellow, blue and white. They doubled in size every
sixty seconds, folding in on themselves, milk condensing to cheese curds.
Marty floated through the entry door. He wore deer antlers and camouflage
pants. Otherwise, he was naked, and shorn of all hair but his moustache. His lips
and jaw moved. No words emerged. She urged him closer, so she could hear. He
joined her on the bed.

The puff-colors grew richer, as if infused with gold and platinum.

They tried talking with their eyes, but couldn’t decipher. The colors swirled in
the superheated air. Sweat gushed off their slickened bodies. Her stomach
morphed into a nest of squealing rats. They gnawed at her belly lining, trying to

Head pulsing with fear, she tried grabbing Marty and running for the door. She
couldn’t. She looked down to find out why. To her shock, she had no legs. They’d
been hack-sawn at the knees, leaving a pair of ragged stumps that somehow
didn’t bleed.

The dense smoke fractured into a kaleidoscope, melting and mending, shifting
and collapsing. Color shards flew down Emily’s throat, slicing her open from the
inside. Rats boiled out, flaying her with titanium claws. Her body bloated with
blood, tinged red and yellow, blue and white. She daren’t breathe for fear she’d
drown. Her anxiety smoldered to flash point, the colors becoming a fire hose,
blasting so hard that color slammed up her nose and down her throat. She
vomited. What came out were smoke tendrils, red and yellow, blue and white.
The expelled colors danced briefly at their freedom, then twisted themselves into
the snorting beast she hoped she’d never see again.

The panic dragon.

The last time she saw this monster, it was burning her and Marty to death
inside their exploding house. They managed to escape, and she thought it was
gone forever.

She was wrong.

The dragon roared its happiness at reuniting with its favorite victim, then
wrapped its tail around her scarred neck. Emily coughed and drooled, fighting
the choke. The dragon slapped her with its razor tail. Her cheeks separated from
their anchoring bones. Multicolored pus flooded her eyes and face. She blinked it
away only to see her leg stumps melt into the same hues as the dragon’s tail. Fire
roared through the room. High-pitched steam bounced off the walls, multiplying
the noise thousands-fold. Color, smoke, flames, keen, and panic became a
compressed ball of Crayola, ready to blow with the tiniest of reagent—

The window by the tree cracked from the heat. Cold, wet air roared inside.

The explosion lopped off Emily’s head. She watched herself bounce across the floor, settle upright on her shorn neck. Watched Marty fly backwards through the storm, and the dragon turn his way.

She tried to scream, distract the dragon from raining its fire. But her tongue
had liquefied into a bubbling milk, spilling down her chest in red and yellow, blue
and white. Marty mewled as his body crackled from the dragon’s hell breath, and Emily wept steam tears. He was doomed because she didn’t know how to beat the
dragon. The best thing that ever happened to her was burning alive because she
was so weak and pathetic and useless. . . .

The panic screamed with laughter.

Emily screamed fire.

Emily gets help, and is saved

The nightmare is so profound and so deep that Marty cannot wake her from it. He has to jump on her, screaming at her to wake up. He has to slap her, hard and more than once, to get the panic dragon to let go and let her back into the light.

Emily finally realizes she needs help, because this malady has taken over her life. With therapy, medications, time and understanding loved ones, she finally frees herself from PTSD's vile grip.

Not that I'd know anything about it, of course.


Whew, what a downer! But it's a great relief to know Emily is living large and completely free of the panic dragon, right? Right. For a far happier take on writing, see my guest post, "Love and Bullets," at the Romance Bandits blog, by clicking here.

And thanks, as always, for reading Fridays With Shane.

Shane Gericke is the  national bestselling author of TORN APART and other thrillers. He is a founding member of International Thriller Writers and past chairman of ThrillerFest. Please visit him at his website, 


Rebecca Cantrell said...

Poor Emily! And really, it's all YOUR fault, Shane! I'm glad to hear that the treatment is helping her, but I fear you'll just put her through something awful again next book.

Maybe you should write a book where she knits and bakes brownies. Mmm...brownies.

Great post, Shanester!

Gabi said...

You do make it so real. But I think it is a condition, and despite treatment, may return. Especially when you once again put her in harm's way which I suspect you will.

I wish Rebecca hadn't mentioned brownies. I feel bad for Emily and now I want to self medicate with the fudge kind.

Shane Gericke said...

Well, you're probably right, Gabi, that is may return. Hopefully, as Emily continues, the dragon will get weaker and she will cope better. That I will put her through some new ordeal, Rebecca ... well, you're right :-)

And Rebecca, and Gabi, brownies make everything SO much better!

Kelli Stanley said...

Shane, sweetheart, thanks for sharing your always-wonderful writing and for the important message about PTSD ... stoicism (the 50s way) is just so dumb.

Miranda has a touch of PTSD herself, brought about by what happened in Spain. Of course in 1940, bourbon was the primary course of treatment.
I'm glad Emily is getting help! :)