Saturday, March 3, 2012

Toby Neal: "Blood Orchids" and PTSD

I've been doing a lot of research lately on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for my current work in progress And They Call Me Crazy. While most people associate it with combat, PTSD has many forms and can manifest itself in several ways, from symptoms that are barely recognizable to those that are totally disabling.  In Toby Neal's recently released Blood Orchids, her heroine,  Hawaii policewoman Lei Texeira, is also a victim of PTSD, and knowing that Neal works as a Mental Health Therapist, I was curious as to the development of this complex and interesting character.  I wanted to share Toby's story of 'finding' this character through personal experience with tragedy as well as her frank discussion of PTSD. 

                                                     Toby Neal: 
Blood Orchids is really all about overcoming Post-Traumatic Stress and my own experience with PTS inspired me to write it.  Blood Orchids was sparked as an idea by a tragedy that happened in my community—two teen girls were drowned. I was a grief counselor in the crisis team that went to the high school to work with the students in the aftermath. At first we were told they were victims of foul play, though later it turned out to have been accidental. The staff and students were hysterical and traumatized. For months after, perhaps because it was so intense to hear they’d been murdered and to work with their grief-sticken friends, I thought about it, and wondered what it would be like to try and solve such a crime in a small Hawaii community. You could say I was haunted by the drownings, just as Lei is in the book.

I’d tried to write novels before and always lost interest, but this time I started a story about a policewoman who’d been sexually and physically abused as a child… a woman with scars and flaws, but whose passion drove her to rectify things for others. I put it on my blog. Then I added chapters. And lo and behold, about 60 pages in, I realized I had a character I wanted to see grow and develop, a budding love story, and some great psychopaths to spice it all up. I was going to finish the book. I’ll never forget the excitement I felt, realizing I’d found a character I could write about forever.

You’ll notice I said “found” a character. In Jungian psychology, there’s an explanation of these discoveries as existing in the “collective unconscious” of humanity—a deep sea where universal themes, symbols, heroines and villains appear across every culture. To me Lei is a representation of one of these universal characters—the wounded hero(ine) who fights for justice.

In Orchids, Lei goes through therapy for her PTS symptoms, which for her take the form of intrusive negative thoughts, blocked memories that create anxiety and a sense of constantly wondering if she’s going crazy, compounded by “blackouts” where she can’t remember what she does (usually is sitting in a trancelike state for a few minutes.) She has hypervigilance about safety, bad dreams, and fear of intimacy along with bouts of self-injurious behavior when she cuts herself in order to express her pain.

Full-blown, untreated PTSD, whether from abuse, combat, traumatic exposure or a natural disaster, is very debilitating. Therapy combined with anti-anxiety meds can be very effective and are getting better all the time as we learn about the way brains store memory and process emotion.

About Blood Orchids (released December 2011):

Hawaii is palm trees, black sand and blue water—but for policewoman Lei Texeira, there’s a dark side to paradise.

Lei has overcome a scarred past to make a life for herself as a cop in the sleepy Big Island town of Hilo. On a routine patrol she finds two murdered teenagers—one of whom she’d recently busted. With its echoes of her own past, the murdered girl’s harsh life and tragic death affect Lei deeply. She becomes obsessed—even as the killer is drawn to Lei's intensity, feeding off her vulnerabilities and toying with her sanity.

Despite her obsession with the case and fear that she's being stalked, Lei finds herself falling in love for the first time. Steaming volcanoes, black sand beaches and shrouded fern forests are the backdrop to Lei's quest for answers—and the stalker is closer than she can imagine, as threads of the past tangle in her future. Lei is determined to find the killer—but he knows where to find her first.

Blood Orchids can be purchased at Amazon, and is the Kindle download is FREE March 3, 4 and 5th!  

About Toby Neal:

Toby Neal was raised on Kauai in Hawaii. She wrote and illustrated her first story at age 5 and has been published in magazines and won several writing contests. After initially majoring in Journalism, she eventually settled on mental health as a career and loves her work, saying, “I’m endlessly fascinated with people’s stories.”

She enjoys many outdoor sports including bodyboarding, scuba diving, beach walking, gardening and hiking. She lives in Hawaii with her family and dogs.

Toby credits her counseling background in adding depth to her characters–from the villains to Lei Texeira, the courageous and vulnerable heroine in the Lei Crime Series.

Learn more about Toby and Blood Orchids at her website.


Raine Thomas, Author of the Estilorian Novels said...

Thanks for shedding some light on a topic that many people don't understand, Toby. I worked for many years with children and adolescents diagnosed with PTSD, and they exhibited a number of the symptoms that you describe for Lei. It's a hard-hitting diagnosis that surely makes for an empathetic and strong protagonist. Great post.

Beth said...

As a combat veteran and the victim of childhood sexual abuse as well as verbal and mental abuse, I have some symptoms of PTSD. I love Ms. Neal's frankness about that and the discussion of the development of her character. I definitely want to read this book. Great post!

Toby Neal said...

Raine, you and I have to talk some more sometime! And Beth, thanks so much for commenting and sharing, I hope you'll get a free download of the book and let me know what you think!

Glenn Starkey, Author of "Solomon's Men" said...

I enjoyed this article and downloaded your book. As a Vietnam veteran and former police officer, I've seen the effects of PTSD on people although years ago it wasn't formally recognized and identified as such. PTSD is a heavy weight for people to carry. Thanks for the information.

Wodke Hawkinson said...

It's fascinating to learn how your character developed and grew. PTSD can cause a lot of suffering and it's good when a story can entertain as well as educate!

Stephen T. Harper said...

Fascinating post, Toby. I'm working on novel at this moment with a lead character with similar issues. Your detective sounds nuanced and very interesting. I'll be checking out Blood Orchid for sure.

Great guest, Kelly, thank for featuring her

Erica Lucke Dean said...

I've seen the effects of PTSD on many people in my life, and I often wonder if other somewhat less tramatic events can cause it to some degree. I look forward to digging into Toby's characters further...both on and off the page :)

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

Thanks, Stephen. I thought this was/is such an interesting subject. Glad others are enjoying it as well.

Amberr Meadows said...

Very awesome inerview. I can only imagine how awful it was for everyone when those your girls died. I downloaded my copy of Blood Orchids yesterday, and I can't wait to read it.

Suzanne Shumaker said...

What a great topic to tackle. I have experienced people with PTSD, an it is very difficult for outsiders to dissociate the person with their symptoms. I also love Hawaii, so I really look forward to reading your book Toby.

Angela said...

I really want to read this book! What a great topic to talk about because so many people just ignore it because they don't want to bring it up. I suffer from PTSD and it is helpful to read about other experiences because it makes me feel like I am not going through it alone. I wanted to share a great PTSD website,, that I though would be helpful for those still struggling with PTSD. I hope you continue to keep up with your writing Toby!