How can you write if you’re experiencing chronic pain?
Chronic pain is terrible if you’re a writer because it can prevent you from producing your word count for the day.
I know because I’ve experienced migraines on and off over the years. They usually occur when I’m stressed, dehydrated, or tired. When I experience a migraine, I find it exceptionally difficult to look at a computer screen or a phone.
I tried to push through the pain at one point, but this didn’t work for me. So now, when I experience a migraine, I immediately go for a rest, even if that means calling it a day. I have to accept that I need to deal with the migraine and not try and push through it because it’ll just make things worse.
That got me thinking, how can I still move a creative project forward if I’m experiencing chronic pain? My answer is somewhat similar to the solution that this week’s guest found.
His name is Oliver Mol, and he has a truly impactful story about writing with chronic pain, what it did for his creative process, and how he overcame it.
In this episode, we discuss:
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Oliver: It is a book to add to all those other stories that, for me, at least, I found so important to read that says you can get better, there are ways out, there are ways to heal. I think a key message for me when I was writing it as well as stories and the stories we tell ourselves have the power to heal. I believe that. I believe literature can save us. I believe absolutely in the power of story.
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: How can you write if you’re experiencing chronic pain? Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast. Chronic pain is terrible if you’re a writer because it can really prevent you from sitting down at your desk or opening up your word processor and producing your word count for the day. I know because I’ve experienced migraines on and off over the years. They usually occur when I’m stressed, dehydrated, or tired, and when I experience a migraine, I find it exceptionally difficult to look at computer screen or a phone and, often, I’ll feel nauseous, drained, and exhausted no matter how much sleep I’ve had. At one point, I just tried to push through these types of migraines and take some painkillers and keep on truckin’, but I found that this didn’t really work for me so now when I experience a migraine, I just immediately go for a rest and, even if that means calling it a day, I have to accept that I need to deal with the migraine and not try and push through it because it’ll just make things worse.
Prior to experiencing migraines, I also had a bout of sciatica which made it difficult to sit at my desk for extended periods. I experienced sciatica when I was working as a copywriter for a British software company. Basically, I was spending hours sitting at a desk slouched badly over a keyboard and then trying to write in the mornings before and in the evenings after work, and a physiotherapist said that spending 12 hours sitting down is equivalent to smoking, so that encouraged or prompted me to take up long distance running and later weightlifting, both of which helped alleviate my sciatica symptoms.
I also spent hundreds of dollars on buying various types of computer equipment, such as ergonomic mice and keyboards, and I’ve even written articles about those types of equipment at the Become a Writer Today website.
The key takeaway here is that if you’re experiencing chronic pain, it’s okay if it prevents you writing. I found that I can write best when I’m rested, when I’m not in pain, and when I’m energized, and also perhaps when I’ve consumed something which can inspire the creative process, like a good book or a good film. On the other hand, if I’m lacking in any of those things, I just need to accept that the writing session for the day isn’t going to go as well. So that got me thinking, how can I still move a creative project forward if I’m experiencing chronic pain? My answer is somewhat similar to the answer that this week’s interviewee found. That is, using fractional or atomic writing, whereby you write a little bit rather than trying to write large amounts. This week’s guest, his name is Oliver Mol, and he has a much more impactful story about writing with chronic pain, what it did for his creative process, and how he overcame it. In fact, Oliver experienced chronic pain for months, and in this week’s interview, he explains what he did and how he eventually found his way back to writing. He also describes what his creative writing process looks like today and how he turned his experiences with chronic pain into a piece of personal narrative nonfiction.
So I hope you enjoy this week’s interview with Australian author, Oliver Mol. If you do, please consider leaving a short review on iTunes or sharing the show with another writer or another friend who is interested in the creative writing process. Now, let’s go over to this week’s interview with Oliver Mol.
Bryan: Welcome to the show, Oliver.
Oliver: Thank you very much. How are you?
Bryan: I’m very well, I’m very well. I’m just back from a long haul trip to Mexico and I got caught up in some travel chaos so I’m glad to be back at home in Ireland recording interviews like this. So, I always start by asking our writers and interviewees about their writing journey so what does your writing journey look like and how did you end up in Georgia?
Oliver: Oh, man, yeah, it’s a long story but can be told short. I suppose I started writing when I was maybe 18 or 19 years old. At the time, I myself had come back from some travels in Southeast Asia and was about to go to South America I guess. So, at the time, I was reading, like a lot of young writers do, all the beat poets and the beat writers and I just kind of got obsessed with it. In the end, yeah, I applied to — I’d also been studying business, I’ve been studying journalism, I’ve been studying Spanish, and I dropped out of all that. I didn’t have a lot of life direction but I told myself I’m going to try and apply and get into university to study creative writing. And if I do that, then I’ll be a writer. So I did. And I got in. I moved to Melbourne, and over the course of those three years, I told myself that if I didn’t have a book done by the end of the time I’d finished university, then I would have failed, which is a fairly severe thing to say but, at the time, it made sense to me and so I set out writing 1,000 words a day every day for three years and, in the end, I produced my first book, Lion Attack!, which came out in 2015. But, yeah, shortly, perhaps a year before that book came out, I started having these headaches, these migraines that weren’t too severe, they’d last for an afternoon, occasionally, a couple of days. I remember one of my last assignments that I had to do and, basically, I couldn’t do it because my head was hurting so badly and I couldn’t look at the screen. The screen felt like a like a bomb or an axe or a knife and it just completely destroyed what felt like all the pain receptors in my head. I remember taking a bunch of painkillers and trying to close my eyes while looking at the screen, trying to write this final creative writing assignment. Eventually, I got it done and I didn’t think too much more about it and the book came out.
Bryan: This is your first book, Lion Attack!?
Oliver: Yeah, my first book, Lion Attack! So, again, 2015, I remember being at the airport in Sydney flying to Melbourne for my book launch and I thought I’d start working on some stories. And so I remember sitting in the airport and I started writing and, again, the same feeling started to happen and I walked to the bathroom and it was like all my head veins were sticking out and I was sweating and my eyes were red and it felt like I’d been smacked in the back of the head by a shovel. But, again, I just soldiered on. I took more painkillers and managed to do the launch more or less okay. I got pretty drunk. That helped too. And then a few months after that, I’d always thought that if you — I’d worked so hard for three years, I thought that if you got a book out, then the rest of the books would follow, the money would follow, everything would be peachy and rosy. And I remember I was applying for a grant that would take me overseas to write, I’m not sure what the next book would have been but it was something to get funding, yeah, and this same feeling started happening, this feeling, but I just kept pushing through and pushing through and pushing through, and then it was like something snapped or popped, like something in my head happened and I remember I fell over and I walked outside my house in Red Fern and I walked to this park and vomited and then I just lay on my back. And then the pain stayed for about 10 months and I’d say things went to hell.
Bryan: Ten months of migraine?
Oliver: Yeah, yeah.
Bryan: That’s pretty awful. I suffered from migraines before, and normally I’d lose a day, maybe two, but I couldn’t imagine living with one for 10 months.
Oliver: I mean, it’s relentless, and then you start telling yourself the next day will be better, the next day will be better and while the pain would sometimes dip, it was — the interesting thing was it was constant but it would exacerbate to extreme levels where I could do nothing else except lie in my bed in my room and that would always happen whenever initially I looked at screens, so laptops, phones, books, but then later, after pain became chronic, it was anything up close so shopping receipts, certain lights, or all lights, more or less, in shopping centers. Images going too quickly outside of trains. And, yeah, it was — the worst thing for me was, I mean, the pain was bad, of course, but the cutting off of yourself from civilization, the loneliness was I felt then almost impossible to describe because you couldn’t message anyone. I couldn’t even call anyone because that would involve looking at a phone and I knew if I looked at a phone then that would send me down the rabbit hole for another five, six hours and, in the end, it was sometimes better just to lie there or sometimes I’d go for runs or I’d go out and do like push-ups in the park trying to make the pain go away. But, yeah, it was a hell —
Bryan: And was the pain localized in one side of your head? I got migraines on the left side of my head quite badly.
Oliver: At the beginning, it was mainly around the back of my head and then it was all around the front and then it was around the eyes and then it was — depending on the severity but a constant throbbing, a constant mix, again, between what I would describe as a reverberation between someone hitting you in the back of the head and a shovel and that, if you could imagine like a cartoon, that kind of vibration but behind the eyes especially was the absolute worst. At the worst of it, I couldn’t even look at anyone I — I could only look at people at eye level. Anyone who is too short or too tall, I’d have to tell them to either move or I’d have to move which was — I couldn’t figure it out, and I couldn’t really look up anything to help and none of the doctors knew — well, the doctors didn’t really believe me and so, yeah, when you’re cut off from help and you’re cut off the world and you are in a constant state of pain, you start to lose the plot a bit and I did.
Bryan: So what happened next?
Oliver: Well, at a certain point, I started seeing a girl in Sydney. For a time, it seemed okay because we had this joke where she would say, “I’m your eyes,” and even though I couldn’t do much, I still had — I was working at the Sydney Opera House as an usher, which was funny in hindsight because the sole role of your job is to be able to look at tickets. I’d close my eyes and I would pretend to look at them and I just let a lot of people through. So anyone who came to the Opera House between 2015 and about 2017, good on you because he probably got a free show. But, yeah, so she would help me so I was supporting us and she was sort of the one that would help me see. She’d check my train diagram, she’d check my work roster. It was a pretty miserable situation. And that went from bad to worse. I don’t want to say a lot about that, I say a lot about it in my book, but I would say that we were both not in — I would say it was a codependent relationship. It was a toxic relationship. It was a relationship that also had a lot of love, looking back on it, if I’m really honest with it, but it was a hard relationship and, in the end, we both did things to one another that, yeah, it isn’t how I would want a relationship now. And with no one to help me and with no other options, one afternoon, I walked to the train to Central in Sydney, Central Train Station, and I nearly threw myself in front of the train. It wasn’t that I wanted to die. I didn’t want to die. I just needed, I wanted and needed the pain to end. I suppose at that point. I just felt like I’ve been left with no other options. I mean, how much of the book do you want me to give away?
Bryan: Well, we’ll keep something for our listeners but that’s an awful experience. But, I mean, from listening to you talk, you obviously got to a place where you were able to look at the screen and write a book so what helped you get to that point?
Oliver: So after that didn’t happen and after I had I would say hit rock bottom, more or less completely, not a lot left to live. I moved back to Brisbane to be with my family and I stayed with them for three months. And on that first day, I saw someone I called the healer. This healer, he basically — my mum looked him up and he claimed he could cure migraines and headaches and chronic pain and I went in and I saw him and he pressed down on the joints in my neck, C4 and C5, and he said all these words like muscles and knots and pressure and build up in pain and that’s what he did and he pressed down and the pain fired off in my head and I thought I was seeing heaven, it was that excruciating, and then, slowly but surely, the pain started to go away.
Bryan: Have you experienced migraine since?
Oliver: Well, that’s not what fixed it in the end. That was a Band-Aid solution. That was a temporary sort of muscular hack, I would call it, but it did buy me some time. So, over that three-month period, me and my mum would sit in front of the computer trying to look at the screen again, trying to relearn, I had to relearn how to sit in chairs and how to look at screens and how to look at books and phones and we’d sit there and she’d almost hold my hand and she’d say all over, “We’re gonna look at this screen for two to three minutes at a time.” Well, initially, we started at 10 seconds but we worked our way up to two to three minutes. And that went on for about three months and while the pain, by that stage, I was able to sort of like manipulate my neck, it spread to other parts of my body, but the main thing was it was out of my head. But I needed a job. I needed a job. So I moved back to Sydney. I felt like I was just treading water. I wasn’t doing anything. Even if my head was still — I still couldn’t look at, for any meaningful amount of time. I could never work like a real office job. I didn’t know what I was going to do so I moved back to Sydney and one afternoon, I took these painkillers and I Googled “No experience full time Sydney” and a job on the railway came up and this job on the railway was for a train guide and so what happened next was I speed typed an application, I don’t really remember what it said, and, in the end, there were about 40,000 applicants, I think there are about 20 jobs, and through some miracle, because I didn’t have any experience, maybe the Opera House helped but I’m not too sure. I put it down to a miracle. Got through the first round interview, I got through the second, the third. These interviews went for about three months. It was a government job, a good job, a good paying job. And then, yeah, I got accepted, which meant two things. It meant I no longer had to worry about being a writer. I wasn’t writing. I didn’t think I’d ever write again. It didn’t seem possible, but it also meant, suddenly, I’d joined the ranks of people who had a lot of money because, for me, as a writer making close to 20 grand a year for seven or eight or nine years of my life, this job, which was, suddenly, without any of the awards, you went on to about 80 grand. And then, with a bit of overtime and with the awards, it ended up being about 105 grand. So it was incredible. And I went to train school for five months. By then, I was able to, yeah, sit through those classes. As long as I was doing — I had these absurd routines every morning that I would twist my neck 50 times one way and 50 times another and I’d do these stretches and I knew if I did that, then I might be pain free ’til midday or one in the afternoon. And then if I went to the bathroom and I manipulated my neck again and did those pushing down on the muscles in my neck like the healer did, I knew I could buy some time to the afternoon. And if that didn’t work, I had a last resort of painkillers. And so I went through all of train school because I didn’t tell this to anyone. It wasn’t for them to know. I didn’t want to be fired, to be honest. And I got a job on the trains and it was brilliant because the other thing was, I remember my good friend, best friend, Sam said, he’s like, “Mate, it’s pretty much like you’re in state-sponsored rehab,” which was great for me, because I was — I don’t know if you’d call it a party boy but I definitely had a lot of fun in my 20s and this meant that you got drug tested, you got alcohol tested. You worked sometimes 6, 7, 8, 9 days in a row depending on your roster. You traveled all around the network, often shift work, often at night starting 10 p.m., 1 a.m., 3 a.m. You had to learn to adapt to this new routine but it was very much the sort of U-turn I think I needed in my life then.
Bryan: At what point did you start writing again?
Oliver: Yeah, so that was really interesting. When you’re working as a train guide, your main responsibilities are, of course, checking that the train safely comes into the station, opening and closing the doors, making sure people are safely on the train, watching out for fights, watching out for spitters, watching out for aggressive behavior, but mainly what you’re doing as well is you’re there to talk to the people. You do announcements. So I knew if you’re doing an all-stop service that you’d basically have two to three minutes between stations. So I’d close my doors, I’d do my announcement, and then I’d sit down and I had this little notebook that I bought, this plain, very boring little notebook and I called it Stories for Migraine and I’d sit there and so I’d have about — could probably write for about 10 seconds and then I’d take a breath, look up, tell myself, “You’re okay, you’re okay,” write for another 10 seconds, and what ended up happening was that I would create these little paragraphs, these segments, these fragments, and, in the end, those fragments started growing. And that’s more or less what led to the form of the book. The form of the book took its structure directly from the railway. It was a very organic thing. It wasn’t intentional. It was just this was how I was able to synthesize and translate information from my head to the page in the shortest amount of time and so it became episodic. As the book wears on, it becomes longer because I’m healing the more I go, but, initially, I really found that fascinating.
Bryan: So your story, Oliver, is a difficult one and a painful one. Did you have any reservations about turning it into a piece of narrative nonfiction with sharing that story with readers?
Oliver: Absolutely, but that was completely trumped by the fact that I felt completely and utterly that if I did not tell this story, if I did not, for lack of a better word, birth this story, if I did not get this story out of me, if I did not at least try to become a writer again, then it would rot inside me and I would maybe not die but spiritually die. It felt as important — it felt more important than anything I’d ever done in my life. There’s an urgency I see now in the writing, which I don’t recognize at the time, but whatever reservations I had about writing about that experience, I felt like when I was writing it too that I knew I had made it out of that experience, but in writing it, in writing these stories from memory, I was translating from my head to the page a world in which I was putting another Oliver, a smaller Oliver, an Oliver a lot like me but not exactly me, and I knew that now that Oliver was in pain, that little Oliver, and then if I didn’t have the courage to continue writing, if I didn’t have the bravery to keep painting his world and guiding his hand through that world, then he would get stuck there and so the story would continue rotting inside me and that, for me, was the most important thing of all.
Bryan: So, for somebody listening to this who is experiencing writer’s block or perhaps experiencing some sort of pain, hopefully not as intense as what you went through, but is experiencing some sort of pain that’s preventing them from writing or following or engaging in creative work, what would you say to them?
Oliver: Get a job on the railway. No, but it’s not a bad option, like —
Bryan: People watching.
Oliver: Well, beyond the people watching, like you can’t underestimate what forced sobriety and a normal wage does to you. It’s really, really important for mental health. And another tick, though, I would say that — and I’ve experienced this in the time since I’ve finished writing my last book and I’ve experienced writer’s block immensely, because, for me, it was like I translated as best I could, as much as I could, these stories that I was trying to communicate. I knew as well, before I get to that second part of your question, I knew that I would never — no one would ever be able to know what that migraine experience felt like so I needed to develop ways in which I could sort of have someone get as close to that as possible and I imagined that experience very much like a sun, that migraine was a sun, and all the stories I was creating around it were planets and it was almost like they were sort of, on their exterior, there was something like smashed glass and I knew if I could get those planets all focusing inwards enough that they might not reflect 100 completely and absolutely but they would reflect a sort of distorted or at least as close to the truth as I could get it and I think that’s why I used a multitude of different styles in the book. I use fiction, I use nonfiction, I tell the reader a story that they thought was true is not true but then I relate that back to a larger truth about what is truth and then, more ultimately, how can we ever know the experience of another. I digress.
Bryan: Who would you say is the ideal reader for your book?
Oliver: I think the ideal reader for my book, this whole interview sounds very intense and it is intense, but what’s most important to me as well as this is a book of hope. This is — despite what you might call trauma, this book is absolutely one that looks for hope. And I think the ideal reader who I would say needs to read this book is anyone who is in pain, is in chronic pain. I’m not saying that this book will cure your pain but I am saying that it is a book to add to all those other stories that, for me, at least, I found so important to read that says you can get better, there are ways out, there are ways to heal. I think a key message for me when I was writing it as well is stories and the stories we tell ourselves have the power to heal. I believe that. I believe literature can save us. I believe absolutely in the power of story.
Bryan: I liked what you described a few moments ago about using fragments or different planets to shape your book. I’ve heard other terms for that, including the term “atomic writing.” So what does your writing routine look like today? Is it still something similar whereby you write a little bit and stop and then write a little bit more or have you changed?
Oliver: It’s funny. When I — basically, the way this book was also born, I — well, it was a stage show first so I would always generally write to music. So there’d be something playing. And when my — about halfway a year into the trains, when I was able to look at screens for a lot longer, I would have these songs I’d play over and over and over. I’d invite people up to my room on Abercrombie Street in Sydney and I’d say, “Hey, I’ve got like this story, I might read it to you over this music,” and it was a very intimate space and these were my first readers and I knew that I was getting somewhere because these were the kind of people that don’t — they don’t bullshit you, I felt comfortable showing them and that grew larger and so I started performing with these stories with music in front of audiences and then I ended up memorizing the stories and I ended up doing a show at Adelaide Fringe which lost a lot of money but what I did get — basically because no one knew me and it’s very hard to do these things, you got to pay for your come and hire your theater, but I did win a best theater award and I’d never done theater and that was really reassuring. And then I took that to Sydney Fringe and I won that, I sold out that season. And then I said to myself I’m going to quit the railway because I felt like, again, I probably had about a quarter of the book done by this point and so I took all the money I’d ever earned, it was $25,000, and I felt like Australian literature forgot about me, no one wanted to be my agent. I was never going to get a grant. And it felt very important to me that a lot of people would spend this money on buying a house deposit back in the day or a car or something like that, and I said I’m going to bet $25,000 on me. I’m going to move to Europe, and I moved to Spain for three months, and I wrote every day and then my visa ran out and so I moved to Georgia, Tbilisi, and I lived there for five months and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, and by the time I left, probably had about half the book done. And then COVID hit and I returned home and my writing routine then changed. It became very wholesome. And every morning I’d wake up and me and my mother would do Wim Hof, I don’t know if you know Wim Hof.
Bryan: I do. He has a breathing technique which is helpful for pain management and meditation.
Oliver: Absolutely, yeah, and we’d do Wim Hof breathing every morning together. We’d go and, obviously, yeah, we’d each have cold showers, we’d meet again, and then I’d write from 12 ’til 4, 12 ’til four, listening to the same songs over and over and over. And then I’d go for a run. And this beautiful thing would happen every time I went for a run. It was like my brain had tangled, all of these stories had tangled and I wouldn’t know the structure or the form or what came next or how it went but when I ran, it was almost like I felt like all the loose ends of the stories or everything like a knot kind of came into all their separate strings and then I’d return home — no, I’d have a swim at the beach because we were living on the Gold Coast at the time, return home, make a few little notes, cook dinner, have a beer, and go to bed. And I did this every day for three months and I finished my book.
Bryan: Nice. That sounds like a pretty attractive writing routine.
Oliver: It was beautiful. It was probably one of the most beautiful times of my life. There were no distractions. It was obviously important that I already had very much an idea and I was already chugging along with it. And it’s interesting and now, Tbilisi, because it gets, it’s like 36 degrees today, it’s extremely hot.
Bryan: That’s too hot.
Oliver: Yeah, it’s too hot, but every morning, my girlfriend and I, we wake up and we run up the mountain that’s behind our house and there’s a workout station at the top there and we do pull-ups and push-ups and sit-ups and then we come back home, have a shower and have a coffee and then I write from about 12 to 4 so I’ve reversed it and I think each text kind of requires a different routine, like whereas complex is the stories we hear and read and —
Bryan: This is the writing routine you’re using for your collection of fiction.
Oliver: Yeah, yeah, yeah, or at least I’m still very much exploring what those stories are. But, yeah, I’ve flipped it and that flip, it feels good, but that’s not to say that tomorrow, if that’s not working, I’m more than willing to change it up. I think every piece almost requires a different — for me, like the routine is as important as the music almost. I need to hear the tone in the music as what I’m writing, although interestingly, right now, I’m not writing to anything at all so maybe that’s bullshit too, I don’t know. I think the biggest thing is like we don’t know what works best and things change and you only have to read all of the Paris Review interviews to see that every writer has a different approach. I think it’s about finding what works for you and being malleable with that.
Bryan: I would agree with that. So you mentioned at the start of the interview you first started experiencing migraines around the time Lion Attack! was published. Have you experienced any migraines since you finished Train Lord?
Oliver: Yeah, I still have flare-ups of chronic pain, especially now, especially with the book coming out and you’re sort of reliving some past trauma, but I also know it’s okay and I’m not scared of it anymore. I know how to send it away. I’m not sure if you want me to go into the sort of ending of the book where, from a mental health —
Bryan: Save the ending for readers.
Oliver: Well, I’m not going to say the ending, Bryan, but, basically, what I’ve found very much is that all I need know that I need to do now is that I know that there’s pain that sometimes lives in my body, your body is always talking to you, always, and sometimes it doesn’t know how to do that, at least the most direct way, and these days, instead of being scared or frightened of it, I know how to listen, and when the pain comes, like even yesterday, when it came, I just sat down, I breathed, I closed my eyes and I tried to think about — I tried to go deep inside myself and almost sort of, first of all, hug the little boy inside me to reassure him that he’s okay and, secondly, then asked myself what might be bothering me? What am I not thinking about? I truly believe in the mind-body connection. For those readers out there that want to know more about what I’m talking about, it’s in the end of the book, but as a little — I would say look into the work of Dr. John Sarno. He profoundly changed my life.
Bryan: Where can listeners go if they want to buy Train Lord or read more of your writing, Oliver?
Oliver: You can go to Amazon, you can go to Waterstones, you can buy it from the Penguin website. One last thing I’d also like to say is that this book is funny. It sounds really intense and the writing process was intense, but the book, it uses humor. One of my favorite writers, Scott McClanahan from America, he said if you can make the reader laugh, you can go to like some of the most incredibly dark places after that. You’ve got people and, for me, I found the same. I knew I was never going to be able to communicate the story without humor and so, even replicating things I would do on the railway, like I’d say, “Attention, customers. Next stop is Eastwood, named after Clint Eastwood,” and then you’d watch people on their little cameras and they’d laugh or you’d say, “Next stop is Como,” and then I’d say it was named after the Holden Commodore and you can — I find with humor, you can bring people to — I mean, obviously, you can bring people together but, especially for me on the railway and in book, in literature and in life, humor was as, if not more important, than the stories themselves.
Bryan: Thanks for sharing your story, Oliver, and I’ll be sure to include the link in the show notes.
Oliver: Thank you so much, Bryan. Have a great day.
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