Writing About Disoriented Characters
Sometimes the characters we write about get disoriented for one reason or another. You can read about that sort of thing, but if it hasn’t happened to you it’s hard to understand. Without understanding what it feels like, it’s a bit harder to portray it with any accuracy. Now, don’t go out and hit yourself in the face with a brick. There’s a safer way.
But first, a story.
It was three in the morning. Perhaps it was two. Bear with me, the facts are light on this story. Our newborn daughter awoke, triggering my methodical approach to parenting.
Step 1: Pick the child up and prepare said child for a diaper change.
My brain took action as best it could. It carried out the pre-programmed checklist with the skill of a short-circuiting robot
Step 1, check!
Step 2: Change the diaper.
I struggled for a good thirty seconds. That felt like no less than six hours. Her pajamas had been sealed to her body by some force that remained unknown to me. I searched for snaps or a zipper with no luck at all. They were footie pajamas, too. She was encased in her synthetic-and-cotton-blend of a bubble. I was almost at the point of panicking, but then, I rationalized it as every hero would.
“She’ll be fine,” I told myself. I picked her up and started the epic journey to get her food.
No, this was wrong. It was all wrong.
I made a quick turn and placed her back on the changing table. I was determined with the morale I could muster at three in the morning. (Or was it two?) I had to change the diaper.
I leaned against the table and took some deep breaths.
Over the next fifteen or thirty seconds I felt around her pajamas for anything I could use to my advantage.
“Perfect! A seam!” I said with renewed hope. “I can rip this seam and remove the pajamas. But wait, which pajamas are these? Are they good pajamas? The ones with the little bear on them? I’ll upset my wife if I shred those. Think, David, think. But isn’t the life of my daughter at stake?”
“Wait, this isn’t just any seam, it’s a zipper!”
I traced the zipper back to the source. Her neck and head were there, too. They hadn’t yet been engulfed by fabric.
“Good, these pajamas do have an end. Oh, and here’s the little flap that covers the top of the zipper!”
* Snap \*
Once the zipper cover was unsnapped, the process of changing her diaper went as well as any other. I may not remember any other diaper I’ve ever changed, but I will probably not forget that one.
As a story-teller, this gave me some insight into the minds of people who struggle with sanity. Thankfully I could return from the disorientation with little permanent damage to my ego.
Delusion and Mental Illness
Some people are stuck there, for one reason or another. Their world is a complicated web of reality and disillusion. Most of us won’t understand it until we have a Twilight-Zone-esque moment. Or, like me, go without sleep for too long.
Years ago I read of the sleep deprivation training the Navy SEALS go through. On one account a man was paddling a boat when his brain processed that the paddle was a snake. He threw the paddle into the water as a result. If you ever wondered what self-sabotage looks like, I would suggest that’s a great example of it.
We could easily point to other ways in which our brains do unexpected things. For example, most of us know or have known someone with a form of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. If you’ve remained one of the most enviable people on Earth and haven not, skip these next bits. If you didn’t take that warning, I’ll explain. Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease are sicknesses where your brain deteriorates. It often returns you to a simpler time in life. But it’s not a pleasant thing to watch. People with forms of dementia start turning into shells of themselves. To see dementia in a loved-one is to know the worst kind of heartbreak.
My great-grandmother once recounted a story to me about her father. He had lived in the same house for most of his life, but one day he was upset. He kept wondering why someone had moved the bathroom to the other end of the hallway.
There’s no way to understand how a person with that kind of condition arrives at anything. It’s as if their brain rewired itself over a few years time into something foreign to us. There are similar conditions and mental illness that I’m not qualified to explain.
But our brains try to sort the chaos into manageable patterns and systems. We process everything, giving it our best go. Sometimes we win, and sometimes we get stuck in pits from which nobody can lift us out. Other than by divine intervention.
The Trick To Empathizing With The Disoriented
I never understood any kind of mental disorder or disease until that night with the pajamas. It was so vivid, and yet I somehow felt the distortion all the while. I knew it was wrong, but my brain kept at it, trying to find the way to the goal of changing a diaper.
If you ever write about a character with leanings toward the delusional, try this. For a week or two, set alarms for random times during the night. When they go off, get and try to do ordinary (non-dangerous) things. Emulate the schedule of a parent with a fussy newborn baby. By the end of the first week, maybe the second, you’ll have everything you need to write with empathy.
But don’t try this experiment if you’re an Uber driver, surgeon, or work in law enforcement. Or anything else that might put you or someone at risk. No good will come of it.