Can the hero of a story save you in real life?
I didn’t realise it when I first wrote Kiddo into existence. That I was going to be writing out a piece of my own self.
Kiddo’s life is so unlike mine. He and his gang are social warriors, saving at risk youths from those who seek to capitalise on the vulnerable. His life is full of physical and emotional battles I could never dream of. His family is a self-made one, pulled together out of a need to survive and out of mutual trauma in the face of poverty … and the people snatchers. My childhood was made golden by the fact that I was protected and nurtured by loved ones from the very start. I work with youths in schools who, no matter how dire their situation, I am sure I can help and protect them in at least some way with the school’s resources. Then I get to come home from work to my husband and our dog. I get to feel safe.
I did have an awareness that in many ways Kiddo was my tool. He had to face dangers associated with marginalisation and exploitation, because he had to be my way of voicing my disillusionment with how our class system works. He had to see defensive leaders in government squabbling over who hasn’t done enough to fix social problems, rather than putting energy into actually fixing them, because that’s what I see and hate seeing. He had to be open in his sexuality, to be surrounded in men doing their best to express themselves, to be surrounded in very different kinds of women being what they want to be, and he had to have an incredibly diverse family – in terms of race, gender, religion, age, experiences and reactions to said experiences … because I want all of these things to be normalised and celebrated or understood.
Yet I did not immediately realise that I was also going to be making Kiddo into a type of cathartic hero for my own self. It started out with me just wanting Kid to have ‘normal’ and relatable problems to deal with. So I gave him a number of my own eccentricities. He can’t sleep, he phases out from reality by overthinking reality, he either struggles to sit still and just relax – or he gets too absorbed in what he’s doing and hours go by. He has learning difficulties, he gets so frazzled with every day tasks that time just slips away. He might achieve a million things in one day, or get so overwhelmed and in such a tizz that he can hardly do one. He is so afraid of being disorganised and forgetful, as he often has been in the past, that he lives by to-do lists and cleans compulsively – always forgetting that damn beeping dryer, trying to tell him that the load finished ages ago.
Kiddo’s behaviours – mine – started to take shape in a way that I couldn’t keep embedding in the story, or the whole plot would have just become a description of my day-to-day tripping over myself to try to get by. And it’s not like my whole life, or Kiddo’s whole life, revolves solely around these behaviours, because they are what we know as our own version of normal anyway. So it was easier to research a name for this type of thing, to give him a label, so he could begin to forgive himself, understand himself, and be recognisable to readers. ADHD fit the bill, and I talked to some friends who live with ADHD to make sure I was not doing anyone a disservice. The best advice I was given was to make sure I never made it sound like Kiddo had to have himself totally in order, because someone with ADHD has to work hard to be that way, and it shouldn’t be made to seem like it was so easy that anyone who hasn’t got there yet should be discouraged. Heck, we are all an eternal work in progress!
I started to wish I could have the same sense of sympathy for myself that I was slowly giving to Kiddo. He had all of my problems, and some different symptoms to me too (everyone is different, of course), but he had a name for them. He still gets frustrated with himself, yet he is also able to be aware of himself, and why he is as he is. I desperately wanted to feel vindicated and to be forgiving of myself on those impossibly frazzled or fixated days, too. So I reached out for help.
It took over a year of talking and diagnosing. It is very hard to diagnose adults with ADHD, as you have to think right back to childhood to offer proof and examples, and because adults have often developed other things as a result of feeling so frazzled and time poor (depression and anxiety), or other things that help mask the shortcomings we feel we are dealing with (masking with OCD type behaviours, compulsive behaviours, to make sure we are as on top of everything as possible).
I talked to doctors about how I just couldn’t make myself focus at the start of primary school. I simply could not read or get my mind around numbers. I was a daydreamer. I vividly remember my prep teacher having to move the wheelie whiteboard so that I was staring at it instead of the clouds through the window behind her. I remember her having to go out searching for me because I had gone off playing, instead of to the toilets – just because I’d seen something that had distracted me, rather than because I was being naughty. I would spend time colouring in the frog character at the top of each task sheet, while all the other students finished the actual activity and left to sit back on the carpet. One year before our Christmas school break-up, I spent hours decorating Christmas cards for my friends. Then I couldn’t find them. I never found them. (So many things disappear when I put them down! The sense of panic is incredible, especially if it is something to do with work, or another person's belonging. Which is why I MUST have everything in its set place). I did not even notice my whole grade getting up to stand at the front of the school to sing the Christmas carol we had rehearsed for so long – because I was rolling a tiny stone around instead of listening. I blinked around at myself, in shock to find I was the only one still sitting, and had to quickly run to stand at the front of the school while people chuckled. Even to this day, I cannot for the life of me get my brain to sit still and remember directions when driving – even if the directions were said to me a moment before. I cannot remember the name of someone who has just introduced themselves (I have to memorise names), I cannot remember the step I just read on a recipe, I have to read slowly and re-read to process the content, I will put off reading instructions for new gadgets, and have never overcome my issues with numbers. It has developed into a phobia, and even if I get things right immediately in my head, I am so obstinately against the idea of me having any kind of numeracy skill, that I must triple check the result.
When I became literate, a whole new world opened up to me. But also a whole new level of awareness and stress. By powering up an intellect level, I suddenly had more of an idea of myself compared to others, and of how much better I should be trying to be. I probably became overly sensitive and too aware of others, as I took greater notice of the real world, rather than my own daydreams and self for once. I developed ways of coping, to make myself as perfect as I could be. I went overboard with wanting perfection, and even re-wrote entire exercise books of notes so that they looked and were ordered just right. I became so much more organised with my to-do lists, but also a slave to them; getting to nervous breakdown levels with work, and sometimes rashly running about and even spending money thoughtlessly to get things off my list as quickly as possible (thank goodness a few terrible impulse purchases made me wise-up to a need to be more careful in that regard).
I either have to do things on my to-do list immediately to get them off my shoulders, or I put them off and avoid them with guilt, being weighed down by them for weeks (Eg, something so small as opening a letter. I always realise that ‘that wasn’t so hard, was it?’ When I finally do the thing). I can stare at my screen for stretches of time, visualising what’s to come and just literally scratching at my head over and over until the claw marks on my scalp hurt, instead of getting anything done. I can only cope with one task at a time, but I start a million jobs within that one task and get scrambled. It gets tiring, being so frazzled that I’m a whirlwind machine getting things done for hours and hours at a time (denying myself breaks because I hate swapping what I’m doing – I need to finish first!), or so frazzled that I become useless and take way too long to do whatever it is I was trying to do. I sometimes freeze or pick things up and put them down and pick something else up as my brain tries to work out what to do first, what order makes most sense. I move things around repetitively so that I can see them and won’t forget them, and even my footsteps can be effected as my panicked brain tries to work out which way I should be going to do which job first.
I want peace. I want so badly to have ‘nothing on’, but I simply must achieve every single tiny thing on my list every single day. Whether it is refilling the teabag jar, closing that curtain, making sure I have a hairtie on my wrist or down my bra 'just in case', marking at school, working on my novels, or even watching a series that I’ve become absorbed into – I need to do it all at once. It’s like some invisible being is physically pulling me to go and deal with each thing I see, and it’s both addictive and exhausting to do it. I can only half hear you if you’re talking to me and I’m in the middle of an urge to dust away the crumbs I just saw on the bench behind you. I can only half listen to a conversation if I’ve thought of something I need to say that is relevant to the topic, because saying it to you has suddenly jumped onto my list of things to do, and I need it done. (I probably use up my best listening energy with my students. Poor hubby has to deal with what's left and be the decision maker at the end of the day). I feel claustrophobic if there is ‘mess’/clutter, because all I can see are things I’ll have to deal with. If I have just vacuumed or am putting clean sheets on the bed and see one hair, I feel like it’s back on my to-do list because I can already see mess coming back.
And yet I put off writing this for two months, despite the fact that I thought about doing it every single day. I’ve wanted to put all this down for so long, as myself, rather than hiding behind Kiddo. But found it so hard to get started. Even doing it now, I got up early to write it, and I’ve ended up rolling around on the carpet tackling my dog more times than I’ve sat in my writer’s chair, and now it’s past lunch time, heading to dinner time, and I’m hungry. Oops, now bedtime.
With all that said, I realised that Kiddo deserved my gifts too. Seeing as he helped me to get my own very recent diagnosis for ADHD, and seeing as he was kind of me in some ways. Without him, I wouldn’t have very started to deal with all of these things, and to feel proud of myself for having got this far without a rational reason as to why it was all so hard.
For example, I am functional. I can go about life and do always get everything done, whether I have rushed impulsively and with high anxiety into it to get it off my shoulders, or have dreaded it for a while. And in the meantime, I will have wandered off to notice a billion lovely or fascinating things in the world while doing so many jobs! I'm proud to say that people trust me to be an accomplished do-er because of all this, even though I feel like I'm a mess. Kiddo is in turn a highly capable and creative person, despite his doubts. He can get people to listen to him, and is strong enough to make himself be heard. He sees and appreciates other people deeply. (Unlike me, I also let him be clever with numbers and recipes, if he focuses. Lucky guy).
Oddly, I hate the spotlight, but I always somehow put myself in it and am surprised when people care enough to look into that light. I put an almost hyper level of fun energy into my classes, and into many social situations, but I am actually a big introvert and shy away from committing to things. I have verbal diarrhea, but also want to make sure I really am listening to everyone and including them, while not getting distracted by other noises or sights or things to do, which can mean I burn out at the end of each gathering. However, I’m very fortunate to have friends and family that understand both sides of who I am. So I let Kiddo be reserved, and sometimes temperamental, and let him be accepted and loved for that by his peers. Just like I count on my family and friends to sort out my sometimes very muddled brain and moods, I gave Kiddo Sparks – the savvy mechanic-ess who grounds him. Just like I count on my husband to bring me out of my own head or obsession of the day, getting me to laugh and go on adventures, I gave Kiddo Dom – the extrovert to his introvert.
Just like I had teachers and a family who helped me through the awful blocks I had in learning, I gave Kiddo a gang who empowered him with skills. (Mum slogged through reading programs with me, rather than teaching me to knife fight, thankfully). I also gave Kiddo an adopted father – Hato, who is so much like my own dad. My dad is big and tough and stoic. He has never been a big reader or big on expressing himself. The ultimate, masculine type of guy. Yet he would play Barbies with my sister and I when we begged him to join in with us as kids, just as happily as he would tip us on the trampoline to make a giant bouncy slide. And he would read us silly little story books in bed, or tell us funny stories off the top of his head, between working two jobs for our family. Like my dad, Hato is unshakable in his dedication to his family. He gave Kiddo an education, stability, and a place to be safe. Instead of Barbies, trampoline slides and stories, Hato gave Kid a library, to keep his head in the books while Hato dealt with the really hard things in life until Kid was ready for them.
So Kiddo has got a whole lot of my issues, and my gifts. The good, the bad, the ugly. He has been a gift to me, because while I have developed an incredibly efficient façade (so efficient as to sometimes become inefficient), I can now say I know more about myself. I am proud of how I am coping, rather than annoyed at myself, or even downright depressed because I can’t understand why I’m making tiny tasks into big ones (and why there is never any time left! Where did it go?!).
I love Kiddo. And that means I love me – even though it’s such an effort to be me sometimes.
In 'Bits and Blogs', author Shelley Cass talks writing process, being the kid who couldn't read, writer life with a frazzled brain, and muses on her Muses.
Shelley Cass is an Australian author. She is the author of the LGBTQ+ romance action series, Raze Warfare. She is the mother of the epic fantasy trilogy, 'A Fairy's Tale', and has penned eroticas, dystopian futures ... and Sleep Sweet children's books. For information on her novels, visit BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS!