The Story Behind the Book

Just Another Week in Suburbia: The Passive Casper

The best stories feature characters who take journeys.

And that doesn’t necessarily mean geographical journeys, but intellectual, emotional, and spiritual journeys.

The simplest example is Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. While he does take a physical journey, it’s all about how his adventure shapes him, and who he becomes: he goes from a meek Hobbit to a bold, courageous leader – a Hobbit who would dare banter with a dragon and betray a friend to broker peace.

I’d written other stories where characters took physical journeys, and their change is a byproduct of their experiences. But now I was interested primarily in focusing on the character’s growth.

Part of this was because of what I was going through at the time.

In 2009, I’d developed a chronic neck pain (from editing full-time hunched over a laptop). Then I had a spate of inner ear infections, a chest infection, and then terrible stomach pain. I couldn’t sit or lie still because the pain was always forcing me to move to try get comfortable.

Some nights, I’d lie awake, worried I had a twisted bowel, or that something was rupturing. My GP examined me regularly and I had various tests that showed nothing structural was wrong.

I then began suffering crippling light-headedness. My GP felt because I wasn’t eating well – I was afraid to, since anything I ate resulted in pain – I was suffering from low blood sugar. He gave me a blood sugar meter to check myself.

I grew obsessed with it, repeatedly taking my blood sugar – it became a form of OCD to assure myself I was okay. (I’ve had and have OCD in other forms, although I usually have a good handle on it.)

I started eating, but then suffered panic attacks and debilitating anxiety. Trying to take antidepressants for two days knocked out my sense of taste and smell, my equilibrium, and put me to sleep. So out they went. I’d had a previous experience with an antidepressant that was horrific, and swore to myself I’d never persevere with any type of medication that had detrimental side-effects.

I also ditched the blood sugar meter – well, until I came back from a walk and felt light-headed and uncoordinated. I decided to take my blood sugar one last time to prove to myself I was okay. The reading came back as 1.6. Blood sugar should generally sit between 3.3 – 8.9. Another time, I came back from a walk, drank some lemon-flavoured mineral water, and in the space of ten seconds felt as if I’d developed a horrible migraine – my head seized up, my heartbeat accelerated, and I grew disoriented.

I went through all this for months and months until, eventually, it was diagnosed I was suffering Fructose Intolerance, Lactose Intolerance, and Reactive Hypoglycemia.

In the case of the latter, if I ate anything with a high concentration of sugar, my blood sugar would spike, my body would produce too much insulin to compensate, and my blood sugar would drop too low, which resulted in anxiety symptoms and panic attacks as the brain was starved of nutrients.

Once I sorted out what I could eat and started eating properly, my mood stabilized. (If people tell me they suffer anxiety, I always ask about their diet – standard anxiety is indistinguishable from anxiety you experience when you have low blood sugar.)

But then I developed a frustrating lower back pain – like somebody had stabbed me just above the right buttock. After trying unsuccessfully to manage it for months, I went all out, cycling 20kms several times a week, swimming 40 laps several times a week, and taking long walks. My back responded and started to improve.

Then the car hit me.

After they finally performed the surgery (they couldn’t for ten days because the swelling was too bad – the surgeon warned me if he cut me open, he might not be able to close me back up), a physio came and saw me and laid out the timetable: it’d be about twelve weeks on crutches, and another twelve weeks to regain the strength in the leg.

However, apparently that was for a standard break. She didn’t factor in the complications – the severity of the break (which went right through the ankle joint), the nerve damage, and the Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.

My surgeon actually ordered that the plaster be taken off after nine days. Nine. That panicked me. I’d had a broken arm when I was 16. From memory, the plaster was on at least six weeks.

The surgeon told me I had to start getting movement into my ankle or it would fuse into place. Whenever I sought any assurance from him, he’d tell me gravely, “This is a really bad break. A really bad break.”

It’d been three years of one health issue after another, and – by the time I started writing Just Another Week in Suburbia – I was about six months into the two years of rehab I’d do through the Austin Hospital for my leg.

I’ve always believed that writing is a constant reinterpretation of self – of not only your experiences, but your thoughts and feelings and beliefs. It seeps into the story, and/or the plot, and/or the characters.

Casper very much reflected what I was feeling at that time: tentative, frightened, and unsure. He wanted to get somewhere better, but despite his best efforts to manage his way through it the shit kept piling up. Things couldn’t change until he had no choice but to take ownership of his life and make hard decisions.

If he was passive, he was passive because he was afraid of upsetting the status quo and inviting some new misfortune.

Of course, you don’t always get what you want.

Next Week: Methodology and the Other Characters in Just Another Week in Suburbia.