I had the great pleasure of meeting Steve at Convolution 2014, where we were on a panel at which we had to answer questions pulled out of a hat at random. It was a hilarious experience and I certainly hope to repeat it at future cons!
Steve has a pretty amazing story behind his novel, Goodbye From The Edge of Never, and I’m so happy that he’s agreed to talk about his experiences here. Steve experienced a traumatic brain injury in the military as well as PTSD. His comments about PTSD in particular are intense but ones that I think we all need to here. I’m very grateful to Steve for sharing such personal and powerful information.
Tell us the origin story of your novel, Goodbye From The Edge of Never!
I had nine concussions in the army (on record) and after my last one a bunch of weird things occurred. My eyes spasmed and shook in bright light. They thought it might be a seizure sign. It still happens, and I can’t drive a car now because of it. The strangest thing was I couldn’t stop thinking about zombie pop culture. I did feel like a zombie at that point so maybe it influenced it a bit. I would later find out that some people with traumatic brain injuries can get obsessions with things. Everything from playing piano music to collecting coins. My obsession just happened to be dark and fun. About a year after the army that obsession bled into my dreams, and I had these visceral nightmares about zombie attacks. I always woke up with a mixture of fear and excitement. They were fun! I had been carrying around a notebook everywhere and wrote everything down to balance out the short term memory issues. It just made sense to try and write a novel. If everything was written down, my memory and cognitive issues weren’t a huge deal. I could always look back through my notes and step things through my confusion. So that’s how Goodbye from the Edge of Never came to be.
How did reading help you when you were overseas, and how has it helped with your recovery?
Reading was a good distraction overseas. Fiction takes you away and keeps your mind off the war. Nonfiction reminds you to be diligent in your duties because better soldiers than you have done greater things. Celebrity magazines remind you of home. Sad, but true. I think the number one thing you find in guard towers overseas is celebrity magazines.
After my head injury, reading has just helped to keep my brain, less foggy. You can tune out and do most things in life. Watching movies, cleaning around your house, making coffee, but the second you pick up a book you have to soak in imagination.
Are there any books that you feel do a good job of depicting the effects of a head injury? Do you think that it is important that authors depict the kind of injury accurately? Why?
There is a book called, My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. She suffered a stroke and wrote a book about it. It captures the frustration of a TBI pretty well. It describes a lot of the little things. I remember hearing people say things to me and knowing I understood the definitions of their words, but I couldn’t sort out what they were trying to get across to me. Or I would reach for a word, and it was just gone. That still happens. It feels like it is there, but I just can’t reach it. I also remember feeling like I smothered in some kind of static from an old television channel. Whether I was talking or thinking or even breathing, I was just drowning in static. I think Jill Taylor’s book explained some of that well. Also the book/movie The Vow, gets the emotional side right. I would get angry or find myself fighting back tears and not understand why. I don’t know if a doctor had explained to me that I might find myself uncontrollably emotional. It was pretty confusing and frustrating to my family. I felt like I was just torturing my loved ones flying off the handle, for no reason. Then I saw Kim Carpenter’s account of it in the movie The Vow (sorry; I saw the movie first!) That was where I went, “Oh my god, that happens to me! Exactly like that!” For the record, my wife made me go to that movie. She swears we’ve lived a reverse version of that story, although I think she just wishes I was built like Channing Tatum. Hell, I wish that too.
For me, it was important to find these other examples because I felt like I was a lunatic. I thought that no one could relate with my experiences. I just felt confused and awkward. It was a relief to find out I wasn’t the only person having these these things happen to them. As it turns out, some of my issues were pretty common.
As someone who has lived with a traumatic brain injury and with PTSD, what do you wish people knew about these conditions? How can people support veterans?
With a traumatic brain injury, I don’t know what to tell people. I was pretty lucky that I could learn ways to work around some of my issues. Just keep waking up and hoping the next day you’ll feel less foggy. Get a good support network filled with a neurologist, a cognitive therapist and family that care about you. Read other’s accounts of it, so you don’t feel so alone. Hell, even write me, and I’ll be glad to talk to you about what you’re going through.
We haven’t discussed much PTSD/Survivor’s guilt up to this point, but that one is hitting home for me right now. I lost my Sgt Major on November 21st, 2006 and my friend Chris Mason on November 28th, 2006. I named both my son and a character from my novel after Mason. I’ve already got some emotional issues from my head injury. I’m sure you can imagine how hard things can get when I edge near these anniversaries. I usually confide in my good friend who was my roommate in the army.
Except, Kevin killed himself this past June.
I had sat up most of the night talking to him before it happened. I even got him laughing. I was pretty certain he was calm and in good spirits.
Now survivor’s guilt is eating me alive because I feel like I should have known better and somehow reached out further. Maybe I could have somehow known and hopped on a bus or a train to drag him away from that fate.
We took different paths though. I gave up drinking. He drank more. My wife fought to keep me sane. His wife divorced him and took his kids from him. I decided to write and use creativity to crawl away from my monsters. He gave up drawing and pretty much embraced his demons.
His dad and the rest of his family loved him, but I’m sure he just pushed them away.
There’s no easy answer for any of this. You need to talk to other people who have been through these things, so you don’t feel alone. Everyone needs family and friends who they can lean on when this stuff feels too heavy, so you DON’T FEEL ALONE! If you don’t have this kind of a support group or you aren’t getting the help you need, reach out.
Don’t keep drinking. Don’t beat yourself up over things you can’t change. Don’t let go of your creativity. Do reach out if you need help. The rest of us are out here fumbling through this stuff, and we don’t want to be alone either.