Saturday, August 26, 2017

Finding Normal: PTSD in Romance Fiction

One of the many joys of writing fiction is that I am permitted to craft characters and plots that point to what I see as societal problems.

For example, I am a big supporter of veteran’s rights. When someone in the U.S. enlists in the military they enter into a formal contract. The soldier agrees to serve this country to the best of their ability and the government, in turn, promises them certain benefits. Though some may disagree, I believe our government has failed keep its end of the bargain. One needs to look no further than the troubled veteran’s health system.

War is hell, and those who engage in combat often do not escape unscathed—physically or mentally. For example, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a common problem, one that often goes untreated because returning soldiers are either undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, offered improper treatment, or denied access to treatment. As a result, there are significant incidents of suicide, substance abuse, domestic abuse, and criminal behavior. The U.S. Department for Veterans Affairs says the incidence of PTSD varies among “service era,” but offers the following statistics:

  • Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Between 11 and 20 out of every 100 veterans (11-20 percent) have PTSD in a given year.
  • The Gulf War (Desert Storm). Approximately 12 out of every 100 veterans or 12 percent have PTSD in a given year.
  • The Vietnam War. An estimated 15 out of every 100 veterans (15 percent) have been diagnosed with PTSD and 30 out of every 100 have had PTSD in their lifetime.

When a soldier returns to civilian life, he or she needs to find a new normal. I believe it is part of our contract to help them find it. This is America’s shame and way too many people want to bury it under a bushel.

That’s why I wrote, “Finding Normal,” the third chapter in Kinky Briefs, Thrice. In the story, U.S. Army veteran Alex Thomas struggles with finding his new normal after returning home from Afghanistan. He has faced the ravages of war and escaped the treacherous grip of death, yet he is scarred by what he has seen and experienced. Enter Judge Clarissa West, the owner of a Hippotherapy ranch and a St. Louis criminal court judge. She needs a ranch manager--“a cowboy with an M.B.A.”--to help her manage her legacy. As Clarissa helps Alex deal with his PTSD, he helps her save her ranch. Not surprisingly, what began as compassion leads to love.

By now, a few of you may be saying, “What a downer. You have no business putting that in romantic fiction.” I beg to disagree. Love is never perfect, and true love is about more than simple companionship and possibly, sexual heat. True love is about embracing each other’s differences, as well as faults and problems, and finding a constructive way to address or adjust to them. It begins with acceptance and it ends with commitment. And quite simply, trusting that someone else has your back.

In the end, I believe in the healing power of love. I believe that with love, most can find their new normal.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Are people with disabilities incapable of romance?

I write about lawyers in love, with a dash of kink, and in my next book, Kinky Briefs, Thrice, I feature a lawyer newly diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis—a disease I was diagnosed with in 2002.

Katia “Munk” Hrulata is a bright, spunky Chicago lawyer who suffered a severe MS attack (we call them exacerbations) three months prior.  The attack took out her legs and she was relegated to a wheelchair.  The story revolves around her need to adjust her life to a new reality.  Not only is she suddenly confronted with accessibility issues many MSers face on a daily basis, she also questions the impact MS will have on her relationships, in particular with the man she loves.

I am pretty proud of this story, primarily because it takes on some common stereotypes about people with MS:

That people with MS are incapable of leading productive lives.  Every disability is different and it impacts people in different ways.  That is particularly true of MS.  Some MSers may eventually become so disabled that they cannot work, some may not.  But that does not necessarily make those who cannot work any less productive.  It just switches their focus and their priorities. There is also a related assumption that when people are diagnosed with MS, their life is over.  They should just give up.  When I was diagnosed, I was appalled at how many family members suggested that I sell my home and start searching for a nursing home! (I fooled them all. I merely hired a contractor to make my home more accessible.) Admittedly, some MSers have made a conscious choice to give up, but for many others, MS provides the motivation to fight harder for what they want and need out of life.

That people with MS cannot work.  Here’s the thing—there are many people out there with MS who hide in the shadows, but have flourishing careers, as lawyers, doctors, teachers, corporate CEOs, politicians, and a myriad of other occupations. And they hide their disability for a reason. When I disclosed that I had MS, my clients and friends hastily abandoned ship.  MS is not only a cruel and fickle disease, it is one that frightens those who do not understand it.  But here’s the thing: Managing my MS has forced me to focus on what’s important, such as family and a lifelong desire to write books.  And I credit MS with my productivity:  This year alone, I have written five books—all due out by the end of 2017—and am working on another. I have also ghostwritten four books for professionals.  I needed to prove that I could write books, despite MS, and I have.  Many other MSers are accomplishing their own dreams as well. People make a lot of assumptions about what people with MS and other disabilities are capable of, and most of those assumptions are wrong.

That people with MS can’t have normal, loving relationships.  I must admit, the first time someone said this to me, it really burned my ass.  First of all, let’s get the word “normal” off the table. What’s normal to some is not necessarily normal to others.  There are many ways to engage in and experience love.  A disability may require some adjustment to the physical aspects of love, but to strip a person of their sexuality because of that disability is cruel and unconscionable.  Second of all, yes, people with disabilities have sex.  Again, adjustments may have to be made to accommodate “the act,” but it is certainly not impossible. Sure, neurological disorders—such as MS--and drugs used in their treatment may impact sexual desire and sensation, but that is on a case-by-case basis.  It is not a universal truth. Third, even people with MS actively seek partners/companions. We just handle it differently.  I tend to be upfront about my diagnosis simply because I don’t want to start falling in love and have someone bolt when I disclose that I have a chronic illness. And despite some very negative experiences, I have never considered giving up my search for “the one” or disclosing my MS.

That people with disabilities do not engage in kinky sex.  In researching my books, I have visited numerous discussion groups.  The first thing I discovered was that there are many subgroups devoted not only to people with MS, but people with other disabilities. There are also many articles about the subject on the Internet. If you are interested, take the time to check them out. Again, it appears engaging in kink is more about accommodating MS and other disabilities, rather than abandoning specific desires/needs.

While I wanted my story about Munk to fairly represent the MS experience, in the end, it is intended to be a love story. I have no doubt people with disabilities not only enjoy romance novels, they also embrace and enjoy romance!