An excerpt from the novel, SUMMER SESSION

Guest post by Merry Jones
A few months ago, Michele Rosenthal interviewed me about writing about PTSD.  Finally, the book we discussed, SUMMER SESSION, has been released in the UK…

Guest post by Merry Jones

A few months ago, Michele Rosenthal interviewed me about writing about PTSD.  Finally, the book we discussed, SUMMER SESSION, has been released in the UK and the US. PTSD, Professional Perspective

Summer Session is a suspense novel whose main character, Harper Jennings, is an Iraqi war veteran with PTSD.  She lives with it fairly successfully.  She has a good marriage, has gone back to school to earn a PhD, is teaching a college level section of Introduction to Archeology.

Even so, she feels uncomfortable with most “civilians.”  And she suffers occasional flashbacks.  As the events of the mystery progress and Harper witnesses and experiences unexpected violence, her flashbacks increase in number and intensity, disorienting and frustrating her.  She visits Leslie, a therapist, to discuss them.

Summer Session is not about PTSD; rather, it’s a mystery involving an individual who lives with it.  It doesn’t seek to define or portray the parameters of the condition, but in the process of presenting a mystery, it might raise awareness of the condition.

Below is an excerpt from the book.

*****

“Did you have your lemon with you?  Did you bite it?”

Leslie’s red hair glowed in the lamplight, and her brown eyes held steady, as if nothing in the world were as important as what Harper had to say.  In Leslie’s comfy office, together on a pillow-laden green sofa, they sipped tea with honey, and Harper talked about her day.  She started with an explanation of her wounds and an assurance that she was really okay, ended with a description of the flashbacks.  It was the flashbacks that Leslie wanted to discuss first.

“No lemon.  But I had a pencil, and I pressed the point into my hand until I just about impaled it.”

“But pain didn’t help.”

No.  “Leslie, this wasn’t an ordinary flashback.  It was like—“ Good Lord, what had it been like?  “–like channel surfing in my head.  One show changing to another every few seconds.  Only they weren’t shows.  They were real events–”  Harper held her head.

Leslie reached out, gently touched Harper’s arm.

In the few months Harper had been off-and-on seeing her, she had come to trust Leslie, thought of her as not just a therapist, but also a friend.  The friendship, she knew, existed only within the walls of Leslie’s candle-scented, plant-filled office.  Even so, Harper relied on it.  In some ways, she’d been more open with Leslie than with anyone ever, including her husband.

Leslie’s voice was soft, validating.  “So, with the channels abruptly changing, you must have become disoriented.  You couldn’t possibly anticipate what would come next.”

“Well, yes, except—“

“Except that you knew how each episode would end?”

“Exactly.”

Leslie leaned close, watching Harper’s eyes.  “So tell me how you felt.”

“How I felt?”  What?  Were there even words to describe it?  “I don’t know–Frantic?  Powerless?  I couldn’t change what I knew was coming.  Couldn’t help anyone.”  But those words didn’t even touch how she’d felt.  Didn’t address the urgency or the danger.  Didn’t include the tangibility—the sounds, the smells.

“It sounds terrifying.”  Leslie released Harper’s arm, sat back.

Terrifying?  Yes, Harper supposed it had been.  But that word didn’t touch it either.  “So what do I do, Leslie?  Is this how I’m going to be?  Is this my new normal?”

“You know I don’t use that word, Harper.”  A big, generous grin reminded Harper that they both knew there was no such thing as “normal” in a complex, ever-changing world.  “But that type of multi-tiered flashback hasn’t been typical for you.  So, for you, no, I wouldn’t consider it ‘normal.’”

Leslie let Harper absorb the comment before continuing.

“Let’s think about what set it off.  The suicide of your student.  An unthinkably violent and unexpected event.  Completely out of nowhere.  Maybe your reaction to something so atypical was similarly atypical?”

Harper smiled.  Of course.  Leave it to Leslie to make sense of what had happened: Her mind had responded to sudden violence with its own sudden violence.  It seemed obvious now; the morning’s flashbacks were an aberration, a one-time deal.  Her shoulders released some tension.  “So I’m not necessarily getting worse?”

Leslie shook her head, no.  But she shifted positions, sitting face to face with Harper.  “I don’t like ‘better’ or ‘worse’ any more than I like ‘normal.’”

“I know, but–“

“Because PTSD isn’t about good or bad or sick or well.”

“I know.”  Harper had heard this speech before.  Many times.  She continued it for Leslie, hoping to shorten it.  “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not a disease to be cured; it’s a condition to be managed.  And I’ll probably have to live with it forever.”

Leslie nodded.  “Sadly, that’s true.  For now, the best we can do is manage it.  Has the Effexor helped you?”

Harper shrugged. “I haven’t been taking them lately.”  In fact, she’d stopped taking the pills weeks ago when her flashbacks had seemed to ease.

“Are you sleeping?”

Harper never slept through the night.  Hadn’t in years, not since Iraq.  “Same as usual.”

Leslie sipped tea, pressed her lips together, thinking.  “Okay.  Let’s go back to this morning.  You pressed on a pencil point to cause pain.  But that didn’t ground you.”

“Right.”

“Did you use any other techniques?”

Harper knew what Leslie was asking.  The theory was that PTSD symptoms might be minimized or interrupted if, at the start of a flashback, sufferers grounded themselves in the present moment.  Which meant sharply stimulating their senses.  Leslie had recommended biting into a lemon, smelling intense scents like mint or cloves, clutching an ice cube (or, in a pinch, the point of a pencil), listening to music, or even counting the number of chairs in a room or trees in a park.  So far, Harper hadn’t tried many of these techniques.

Leslie waited.  “You said you didn’t have a lemon with you.  How about your scents?”

“No.  I carry drops in my bag, but it was up in the classroom, and I was outside.”

“So they were no good.”

“Leslie, if I’d eaten an entire lemon, it wouldn’t have helped.  This was powerful.  I was in no condition to concentrate on smelling salts or counting by threes.”

“I get it.”

They were both silent.  Leslie frowned.

“It wasn’t your fault, you know.”

“What wasn’t?”

“Any of it.  The war.  The suicide—“

Sudden tears blurred Harper’s vision.  “Leslie, I was holding his arms—He fell out of my–“

“It’s not your fault.  Nor is what happened in Iraq.  Nor is your parents’ divorce or your husband’s accident.  None of it’s your fault.  None of it.”

Now Harper was angry.  “So?  If none of it’s my fault, why bring it all up?”  She tensed, almost got to her feet.  “What’s your point, Leslie?  That things keep happening to me?  That I’m some kind of perpetual helpless victim?”

“Yes, in a way—“

“What?” Harper stood, her face red, eyes bulging. “Seriously?  Me? A victim?”

“Yes.  A victim.”  Leslie remained unperturbed.  “But no more than anyone else.  Harper, none of us, no matter how many pushups we can do or how accurately we fire a rifle–none of us can control everyone and everything all the time.  Once in a while, everyone, even the toughest of us becomes a victim.  Nobody can protect everyone—“

“And I don’t expect to.  But today—It was my job to run that seminar.  Which implies to protect the students.  And, since you brought it up, I was in charge of the patrol in Iraq, too.  It was my job to secure that area—“

“Harper, you could not foresee what happened to the patrol.”

Harper didn’t answer.  She remained rigid, hands on hips.  Leslie was trying to soothe her, and that was infuriating.

“You weren’t there.  You don’t know.”

“I think I do, Harper, because I know you.  If anything could have been done, you’d have done it.  You weren’t at fault.  Not then.  Not now.”

“No?  Well, that’s good news.  I guess everything’s just fine then.”

Leslie scowled.  “Do you want it to be your fault, Harper?  Is feeling guilty preferable to feeling powerless?”

Harper fumed.  She pushed a hand through her hair, sat again.  Drank more tea.  Didn’t look at Leslie.  How had the conversation turned to fault, anyhow?  She’d never meant to discuss blame.  People were gone. And her father.  And her student.  Even her husband seemed gone, in a way.  What did it matter whose fault it was?  Fault wasn’t the issue, was it?

“Harper.  Do you still feel you’re in danger?”

In danger?  Of another flashback?  “Not really.”

Leslie put her mug on the coffee table.  She met Harper’s eyes. Harper checked her watch.  The hour was up.  She gulped the last of her tea, set the mug down, stood to go.

“Hang on a second.”  Leslie went to the tiny refrigerator in the corner. “I can’t help you prevent suicides, but at least I can give you this.  Keep it handy?”  She pressed a plump lemon into Harper’s hand.  “You start to feel detached or fuzzy, chomp away.”

“Yum.”  Harper stuck the lemon in her bag and gave Leslie a hug.  “This was good, Leslie.  Thank you.”

“Be careful, Harper.”

Harper stepped into the hall, looked both ways, then paused to look back through the window of Leslie’s office.   Leslie was still standing there, brown eyes fixed on her as she walked away.

Merry Jones’ latest suspense series begins with SUMMER SESSION, was released in the US in August, 2011.  Set in Ithaca, NY.

Her Philadelphia-based Zoe Hayes mysteries include THE NANNY MURDERS, THE RIVER KILLINGS, THE DEADLY NEIGHBORS and THE BORROWED AND BLUE MURDERS.

Jones’ other works range from humor (best-selling I LOVE HIM, BUT…) to serious non-fiction (BIRTHMOTHERS: women who relinquished babies for adoption tell their stories), to magazine articles (Glamour), to blogs (Liarsclubphilly.com).

Visit her at her website, MerryJones.com.

 
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