Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Couldn't Stop Author Laura Hillenbrand From Writing 'Unbroken' Novel

Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken
An author overcomes debilitating disorder to write her second successful novel. Photo courtesy of Flickr, Paige Worthy

At 47 years old, Laura Hillenbrand has already written two of the most acclaimed nonfiction books in the last two decades, both of which have turned into movies. Seabiscuit was a heavily researched masterpiece about a jockey who overcame the odds with his race horse. This Christmas, Unbroken will premiere in theatres and visually translate the story of an Olympic track athlete turned prisoner of war, to viewers across the nation.

Many don’t know the struggles Hillenbrand had to overcome to write the nonfiction book bestsellers. Since 1987, the author has been living with myalgic encephalomyelitis, more commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s a debilitating and complex disorder that causes severe fatigue that is worsened buy physical or mental activity and not improved by bed rest. The symptomatic weakness, muscle pain, insomnia, and impaired memory and mental concentration, have made Hillenbrand a prisoner to her own home. It is impossible for her to travel, and she's been confined to newspaper research in order to stay focused on her writing because microfilm viewers in libraries give her vertigo.

There is neither a known cause or treatment for her disorder, nor is there a way to officially diagnose the condition in the first place. However, the disabling condition may have given her the ability to create in-depth works of carefully constructed details and motifs. While researching for Seabiscuit, she needed to purchase newspapers from the 1930s and have them sent to her house for her private examination, according to The New York Times. One day, after combing through the pages at her leisure, she happened upon a small story about a track star named Louie Zamperini. She wrote his name down into her notebook, and years later would revisit the details that tell the story of Unbroken.

Hillenbrand had the freedom to analyze the ins and outs of the antique newspaper articles in ways many other people never would because they didn’t have to. She was forced to find alternative approaches to research in order to overcome the hurdles of her disorder. She may have also had an edge. Although, she isn’t sleep deprived, her disorder mimics many of the same effects. Sleep deprivation causes performance deficits and a variety of cognitive impairments, specifically in the prefrontal cortex (PFC).

Losing function in the PFC results in the absence of control. Picture your PFC as a filtering system, making you rethink decisions based on the cause and effect of a certain action. When the PFC isn’t working at 100 percent, it allows thoughts to seep through the filter and make their way to paper, verbal communication, and action. Maybe Hillenbrand’s creative juices were able to ebb and flow with greater ease than the rest of us because of her disorder. She has no other choice than to be patient and dissect the minute details that will ultimately produce her stories, and with it may also come a heightened ability to write engagingly for audiences all over.

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