Monday, 17 February 2014

A post from Batty

I know vampires aren't exactly a new thing in books, especially in the last few years (even though my favourite literary bloodsuckers will always be the classics: Carmilla and Dracula - I can't help myself!). But I've been a fan of these creatures for a long time, and I love seeing all the different interpretations that come through books and movies. It never actually occurred to me that I might give it a shot myself, until I was diagnosed with light sensitivity.

I've always been pretty open about that, but I wanted to write about it today. When I was 16, I found out I had two separate medical conditions, which are both very mild, but I need to be considerate of them. The first is an eye condition called photophobia: my pupils don't react as fast or as efficiently to changes in light as they should. The second is a skin condition called PLE (polymorphous light eruptions), which means my skin reacts to UV light as though it's an allergy. Both of them can affect up to 2 in 10 people.

I know what I have is not 'vampirism', and in truth there are other photosensitive conditions which can be a lot nastier. I'm lucky in that only certain types of light affect me. Even my 'sun-rash' (as I call it) only strikes my hands and arms. Generally speaking, the main year-round precaution I take is to make sure I always have a pair of sunglasses within reach, in case the light changes and I need to protect my eyes. And, living with England's crazy weather, that's usually a given everyday!

When I started sixth form, I noticed I was having trouble reading in certain lights, and especially when stuff was put up on a projector at school. So I went to have my eyes tested, thinking I was going to need glasses. I was really shocked when the optician told me that my vision was fine, but my pupils were abnormally large even in the bright lights. I got two pairs of sunglasses: a darker pair for outside and really harsh light; and an orange-tinted pair for under fluorescents. I actually needed to carry a note around with me which gave me permission to wear them in class!

That same summer, the PLE manifested. I'd had it on and off for a few years beforehand, but the attacks got worse and were more easily triggered. I had to be very careful about what kind of sun levels I could expose myself to. The rash was ugly, painful, and would usually take at least two days to completely disappear. Plus the constant bombardment of light meant I always had some degree of a headache.

Needless to say, I became quite wary of light. I soon learned that the worst conditions for me were direct summer sunlight; sun after it's rained and it's bouncing off every single wet surface; and any kind of light that is more blue than orange. Around that time, I got the nickname "Batty". I remember going into school the morning after my photophobia diagnosis, dressed in my usual black t-shirt/jeans combo, and one of my friends jokingly declaring, "I knew it! You are a freaking vampire!"

I took it in my stride and made a joke out of it. Little bats started appearing in my birthday cards; I'd doodle them in my diary. I even embroidered one on the strap of my guitar! And I didn't mind because I liked bats anyway. But when it came down to the actual photosensitivity, there was always a deep undercurrent of frustration. I'd always loved the sun: playing outside during the summer, all day, every day. So to suddenly feel these restrictions really annoyed me, and I (stupidly) tried to stand up to them in some way. I used to deliberately go out on a bright day without my glasses; I'd use a lower factor sun cream than I needed. It never worked - I always ended up blacking out my room and then having to lie there for hours with cold cloths on my face and hands. I suppose if I ever had a rebellious stage as a teenager, that was it!

So it was shortly after my diagnosis that I started designing my own vampires. I did it partially as an outlet for my frustration, and also to help me come to terms with the conditions. I wanted to approach the subject of vampirism as though it was photosensitivity similar to mine gone wild. I know you can't really have a vampire story that doesn't address the light issue in some way, so it goes without saying that I wasn't doing anything out of the ordinary. But the difference for me, on a personal level, was that I knew about dealing with it first-hand - albeit on a very basic level! So even though I threw in blood-drinking and bat wings, a huge amount of my take on vampires comes directly from my own day-to-day experiences.

A few years later, I was re-doing a story that I first wrote when I was 11, and decided to put in a darker twist than I originally had. I dug out my old vampire notes, and the result was Tragic Silence.

I do believe that basically everything that a writer goes through is regurgitated in some way in their works. But when I was younger, I never would have thought I could use something so literal in my stories. Like my characters, I can hold my hand up and say that I do know what it is like to be 'allergic to the sun', or to be completely snowblinded by light.

It's been six years now since it all started, and I've learned how to keep everything under control (for the most part!). I do still find it frustrating sometimes, especially in summer, or when we go on holiday to somewhere with stronger sun. But I don't let it get in the way anymore, and I try to embrace it for what it is. And I have to admit, Tragic Silence sometimes turned into a bit of deja vu: the parts of learning to live with photosensitivity really made me chuckle to be writing about!

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