The Story Behind Solitary Confinement

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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:

Solitary Confinement

If you don’t want to know everything about what inspired this story, stop reading after this point!

* * *

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.

– – –

Call it writer’s curiosity, but what was your interpretation of the story?

– – –

c.b. 2012

41 thoughts on “The Story Behind Solitary Confinement

  1. magicinthewoods

    My initial reaction in reading this story was a reminder of my own desperate helplessness in episodes of sleep paralysis, or night terrors as they are sometimes called. Like you, I am also bothered when people label them “nightmares”. They are as far away from nightmares as a migraine is from a bad headache, as you wrote. I truly believed I was fully awake, and that there was a fire in the kitchen and I could not move a single muscle in my body. I was screaming but making no sound. I’ve had about 1 every 5 years, but one year I had 5 and I thought I was going out of my mind.
    Did you ever see the 60’s movie Johnny Got His Gun?

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    • I can certainly see how you were able to relate to the character’s situation. That feeling of helplessness is quite universal for those who have experienced it one way or another.

      I’m sorry you have to deal with something so difficult. 😦

      Nope, never seen that one.

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  2. I got the pain of the migraine, but didn’t realize that hallucinations were a part of it. I thought perhaps her boyfriend/husband had recently left/divorced her and she was hoping he’d come back. Thanks for describing the migraine experience. I hope it will help people better understand what you go through when they strike. I get debilitating back pain that runs from hips to head, and I know how hard it can be to describe it anyone. May your migraines be few and far between. 🙂

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    • Its been almost a year since I’ve had a severe migraine and I am thankful for each day that goes by without one. 🙂

      The hidden hallucination is one of those little secrets I put into the story. There’s at least one little thing I know and readers don’t in every story I write. It was fun to share it this time, but I love it that it had the effect I was hoping for. I wanted readers to think he was real because he is to her. Plus, it leaves an extra portal for readers to decide what happened.

      My husband has back pain just like yours so I know how horrible that can be. I hope it’ll be a long, long time before you feel anything like it again.

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  3. I’m so glad you explained it! The story totally works without the explanation, too. I like the ambiguity and room for interpretation. Your migraines sound terrifying!

    I haven’t had migraines for a long time, since leaving a stressful job (thank God). If yours were a 10, mine were a 3 or 4. Mine were always above my left eye, and at times yanking my eyeball out and stomping on it seemed like a rational solution to relieve the pain. I saw an illustration in a migraine article – a hand jamming a screwdriver into an eye and twisting it while a vise squeezed the skull. Perfect. Awful.

    I’m hoping your struggle with migraines is past tense… or at least under control? 😦

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    • Good description of a migraine – That’s how mine started out before they progressed into a more severe level. I’m beyond thankful that its been a while since I’ve had to deal with one. They are under control at the moment thanks to learning my triggers and making some changes to my diet and exercise. So far, so good. 🙂

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  4. I’m going to have to go back and read the story itself, but as a mother to a nine year-old who gets REAL migraines, I have to say I’m glad you’ve brought the depth of pain to the forefront. Real migraines are completely debilitating, although I’ve never heard of people getting hallucinations. I’ll have to read up on that.

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    • I can’t imagine being 9 years old and dealing with something as painful as a migraine. My heart goes out to her.

      Not everyone gets hallucinations with migraines. They are rare and can manifest themselves in different ways. Mine were mostly shadows and sounds, but this is probably because my all of my senses are always super-sensitive during a migraine. The degree to which my character hallucinated is quite extreme and has never happened to me.

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  5. very powerful story! I thought of several interpretations when I first read it. One: a nightmare written out in story form “I want to scream, but a clenched throat chokes my voice”. That happened to me once. The other interpretation was one of depression: the “he” was a doctor, the person in story had feelings of helplessness and there may have been self-mutalation (the ants represented cuts drawing blood). The pills for the depression, didn’t seem to help.
    Definitely a painful story, a metaphor for whatever causes that deep emotional pain in someone’s life.
    I’ve heard migraines are incredibly painful, and your story captures that.

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    • Its so interesting to read so many different interpretations. The beauty of it is there is truth in every single one at the core. Fear, pain, and helplessness are inherently human and are something we can all understand with a unified, albeit unique point of view. I am fascinated by your take on the story and the meaning you’ve applied.

      Like

  6. Interesting! I’ve seen what real migraine can do to people, but am thankful to say that I’ve never experienced anything even close to it.

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  7. it’s fascinating to read the background of the story. When i read I didn’t try to figure out what was going on but only to feel what was happening and you did an excellent job of allowing us to experience that.

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    • Thanks!

      The emotional element was the part I tried to emphasize the most. Even if we don’t know what she’s suffering from, we can “feel” her emotions and for me that’s a powerful thing in any story.

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  8. Thank you so much for the explanation! I have really bad bouts of headaches (just happened yesterday) and nothing seems to fix it – leaves me in frustration and helplessness too. I guess migraines are a million times worse. Hope you’ll get better from your migraines!

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    • I’m happy to say its been a while since I’ve had to pull out my migraine journal. They could come back at any time, but until then I’ll remain optimistic. 🙂

      I hope you’ll never have to experience one! To help your bad headache, try putting a cold compress on your forehead and a heating pad on your neck at the base of your skull. that always seemed to work for me when it was just a headache.

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  9. Interesting. I too get migraine attacks, and they are intensely painful – thankfully I have some medication on hand that nips it in the bud as soon as the first visual disturbance occurs; nevertheless the attack will be fairly debilitating and I will need to take things very carefully for two or three days. The strangest bout I had was when I couldn’t see the left half of anyone’s face (or so it seemed) either on TV or in the flesh.

    Expressing your experience through fiction was an interesting project. Appreciated.

    M

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    • That’s an interesting effect from your migraines. It must have something to do with the part of the brain they effect. I have a theory that I get mild hallucinations because my migraines tend to effect the part of the brain associated with creativity. It seems my imagination goes into overdrive!

      Thanks so much for reading both the story and inspiration. If anything, I hope this piece sheds a little light on migraines and what its like to go through one.

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    • Sorry to hear you have them as well! 😦 For a long time, I thought sinuses were to blame, too. It wasn’t until I did some research on headaches in general that I understood what was happening to me.

      They say the best stories come from writing what you know. The story may have been totally fiction, but the experience is real. 🙂

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  10. I initially thought that the narrator was suffering from clinical depression, but the true affliction is even better. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone write about migraines, though I have watched my mom endure them when I was a kid. I’ll never forget the day that she sat on the floor in her dark bedroom, forehead just barely touching the edge of the bed, and told me that I had to call my dad to come home from work early to take her to the doctor. Since she has an awful time with allergies, I think it was a usual migraines mixed with a sinus infection. I always wanted to help her (especially that day), but the only thing I could do was keep my little brother quiet and preoccupied. It’s a beautifully written insight into what it’s like to be on the other side of the situation.

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    • You did the best thing possible for your mom. Noise and distraction are the biggest enemies during a migraine attack. I’m sure she’s never forgotten what you did for her.

      Its hard to describe what migraines feel like which is probably why they aren’t fictionalized that often (I’ve never really seen anything, either). It took me a long time to figure out what to write in my journal. The moment I let the writer in me take over, the adjectives started flying out. The journal was very cathartic and useful as I worked towards a better understanding of how migraines impacted me.

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  11. I thought when reading the story that it was a migraine. You wrote her longing and desparation for “him” so convincingly that I expected the male character to be an actual part of her story, not in her imagination. The story is very gripping and a wonderful example of the maxim “write what you know”.

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    • I love hearing the “he” seemed so real. That’s what I was trying to do and for some readers “he” is real and will remain so. That ambiguity in interpretation is always something I strive to do in short pieces. 🙂

      I’m sure this was not an easy piece to read, so its wonderful to know it was a gripping story. Thanks for reading!

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  12. This is a very well-written (and accurate) description of a migraine. I’ve suffered from chronic migraines (with aura) since I was seven years old so when I read Solitary Confinement I immediately thought of migraine pain. I wrote about my own experiences in a creative writing class once and I used very similar descriptions to yours – ice pick, bugs under the skin, shadows. A couple of students thought I used too much ‘exaggeration of the pain’ and I think this has a lot to do with the fact that so many people think a migraine is just a ‘bad headache’. I hope one day they actually come up with a cure for migraines or at least a decent painkiller because during my more severe migraines I can’t function at all and not many people seem to understand that.

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    • I don’t think there are enough adjectives to describe the experience. Just as it bothers me when people use the word “migraine” arbitrarily, it also bugs me when they think I’m exaggerating whether it be in writing or in conversation. At the same time, I understand how it would be hard to grasp just how debilitating migraines can be unless you’ve had one.

      I tried different medications for a while, but decided the side-effects weren’t worth it. It’s tough for them to come up with something that would work, because migraines are so individual. No two are alike, triggers are different, and symptoms differ from person to person. I gave up on a magic fix. Instead, I try to focus on avoiding my triggers. So far, its gone pretty well.

      I hope it will be a long while before you struggle with another migraine.

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      • I understand what you’re saying about migraines being individual but I’m going to keep hoping for a magic fix. Unfortunately a lot of my triggers are environmental (although I’ve cut out a lot of migraine trigger foods too, just in case) so unless I lock myself up in ‘solitary confinement’ there’s not a lot I can do to avoid them. My last migraine was on Saturday but luckily it responded to strong painkillers so I was able to get rid of it by the end of the day. I haven’t had a completely debilitating one for a couple of months now so I’m hoping that means I’ll have a reprieve for a little while.
        I hope your strategy continues to work for you!

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      • I hope you get your magic fix. No one should have to suffer with migraines of this magnitude. May we both find the path that leads to a migraine free existence.

        Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and point of view. 🙂

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  13. I read a bunch of the comments and it has been very interesting. I thought of migraines although mine are the lower levels and thank goodness I’ve never experienced one like yours and pray you never have another one. I saw the man as real but perhaps somebody who had left her because of these types of episodes. So somebody that wouldn’t be coming but who had been there before.
    I love that you have shared the story behind this one. And the little glimpse into your inner writer.

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    • I hope you never have one as bad as mine, too. They are brutal, which is why I never really talked about them until now. After a year without one, the fear has subsided enough to open up about them. It was cathartic to take something that personal and create fiction.

      Interesting interpretation of the existence of “him.” I like it!

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  14. A migraine was not the first thing I equated it to, but I did wonder at the ending if she was really viewing true reality, or just her perception of it.

    I definitely got the impression that the character was a victim – I just couldn’t figure out if she was a victim of illness (from the pills) or a victim of foul play.

    I’m so glad I’ve never had a migraine as bad as yours, but they’ve come close at times. I’ve never had hallucinations from them, but definitely the whole-body pain, etc. I hope you never have one again!

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    • May we both be migraine free for a long, long time! 🙂

      Ooo, I’m intrigued by your interpretation of a victim. I think this could go many different ways. Perhaps, she is a victim in an of herself.

      Thanks for reading!

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  15. When I read Solitary Confinement the first time, I felt great sympathy for the narrator, but also had a nagging feeling that there was more going on than what I was being told. So, do I trust the narrator or try to interpret and decipher? In a way, it reminded of the story The Yellow Wallpaper (Charlotte Perkins Gilman).

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    • That hesitance to trust her was intentional. At the same time, I wanted her to be so vulnerable the reader would feel sympathy for her, despite questioning her credibility. I love creating ambiguity in that way because it gives the reader more room for interpretation. 🙂

      Thanks so much for reading!

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  16. I really liked the story, and now I know how it came to be. I understand the pain and helplessness, though I get cluster headaches and once had such pain that light hurt even more and I was nauseous, but I don’t think any of them were migraines. Thank you for sharing a bit of yourself as an author.

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    • Ooo, cluster headaches are brutal. I’m sorry you have to deal with those. 😦

      This was a story where I dug pretty deep to find and I’m at a point now where I’m able to talk about my struggle with migraines. For a long time, I kept quiet about them as its tough to find anyone who can totally understand (unless they’ve had them) the pain. This story was my way of playing with fiction as a means to tell the truth.

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      • I don’t know about you, but I find myself connecting to each of my characters-even the villains-in some way, as if there are parts of myself in each of them. I’ve had a psychic tell me that in a previous life I was Anne from my first book. My reader, though she loves my stories, said once that I would move from a “good” writer to a “great” writer if I removed myself from the story. I don’t know how to do that, or if it is possible. I kind of think that since I’m able to write, I can do stuff to get better, but I don’t know about messing with how the stories come to me; I believe that we as artists, and our experiences, color our art any way. You writing the same story would come out totally different. Not better or worse, just different.

        I know when I’m getting a headache, and I know that they won’t just “go away”. If I don’t act soon with lots of Advil (I always apologize to my kidneys), then the pain lingers. I can deal with sore muscles or bruises, but headaches are the worst.

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      • I’ve found the only way I can step back from a story is to let it sit for a while after I’m done writing. It becomes new again when I read through it and that seems to help create the distance I need to see the mistakes. However, like you, I have a hard time letting go enough to see with a totally clear mind.

        I know what you mean about headaches. I hate it when the symptoms of an oncoming migraine appear because I know it won’t be long until the pain strikes.

        Like

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