The votes have been cast in To Know or Not to Know and the win goes to full disclosure of the ailment afflicting the character and the inspiration behind Solitary Confinement. Thanks to everyone who took the time to read something a little different and vote in both polls regarding this piece.
To catch up or reread the short story discussed below, please visit this link:
If you don’t want to know everything about what inspired this story, stop reading after this point!
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It’s often said that every piece of fiction has a grain of truth nestled somewhere deep within the story and characters. In the case of Solitary Confinement, I took something I knew rather well and turned it into a metaphor that explores the strength of the human spirit when pushed to extremes.
For a number of years, I struggled with the pain of migraine headaches. It always bothers me when someone arbitrarily uses the word “migraine” to describe a really bad headache. Migraines are an entirely different kind of pain that effects every part of the body. In my case, the pain was debilitating and quite terrifying. The descriptions of pain that I used in the story, (i.e. ants armed with lightening rods, the ice pick, the sledgehammer, a thousand baseball bats, muscle seizures, etc.) all came from my migraine journal that I kept for my doctor. These descriptions gave me the starting point I needed to expand the emotional sense of what its like to experience overwhelming pain.
The emotional element of this story is based solely on the premise of feeling helpless. This is where fiction comes in as a way to exaggerate the loss of control that comes from being unable to stop the pain. I put the character on a hardwood floor to remove any possibility of comfort and to emphasize the paralysis created by the migraine. It was important to establish this right from the start, especially for readers who have never experienced an affliction of this magnitude.
The scattered pills just out of reach are a mechanism to show desperation. On a personal level, this has a lot of meaning to me because it reflects my own experience of never finding a magic fix to stop the migraines. By putting them out of her reach, my intention was to create an illusion of help that doesn’t exist.
Hallucinations are one of the more frightening elements of severe migraines. The more intense the pain, the more pronounced they become. The references to shadows that aren’t there and voices whispering are also derived from my journal. Extreme pain does funny things to your senses and messes with your perception of reality. To showcase the fear this creates, I opted to elevate this phenomenon by creating a less obvious hallucination that even the reader believes is real.
The main character makes several internal cries for a nameless man:
He said I could call . . .
I need him. I need help.
Her desperation for his presence escalates as the pain intensifies. I purposely increased her internal dialogue to show her ever-increasing helplessness and give the impression that this man exists. In truth, he is not real. The man she calls for represents a cry for help that can’t be heard. Physical pain may be paralyzing her, but she is also trapped by emotional turmoil and anxiety brought on by fear. She is entirely alone in this situation, which creates a strong need for someone to help her. In effect, she needs him to be real in order to cope with the pain. This concept is furthered by the character’s belief that she’s done something wrong and the pain is her punishment. His forgiveness would make the pain stop, but just like the pills he remains out of reach.
I never fully reveal this hallucination in the story because I want the reader to see him the way she does. In this sense, the reader falls into the same view of reality that she experiences.
Overall, the character’s heightened level of pain is meant to reflect a state of helplessness when something is out of our control. No matter how much we hope, need, or crave, there are moments when those things are irrelevant. To that end, the only thing we have left is the ability to hold on with all our strength.
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Call it writer’s curiosity, but what was your interpretation of the story?
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