Hello all and welcome to my new blog series Mental Health in Fiction! If you have been following me for a while, you might remember a similar series that I had going for several months last year called Neurodivergence in Fiction. I had a ton of fun and was honored to share tons of fantastic articles from some really great authors. If you didn’t catch any of those at that time, they can all be found here.
I’ve really been missing the series and wanted to come back to it, but I wanted to make it a little broader and have it cover all of mental health and not just what is labelled as ND, so Mental Health in Fiction was born. Every Wednesday for the foreseeable future, I’ll be sharing an article written by a guest author. I’m happy to have you along for the ride.
For our inaugural post, I am so thrilled to be sharing this article from A.C. Cross where he reflects on the depression and grief and the role it has played both in his life, as well as in the creation of his latest release Zoo.
Writing Through the Pain
Sometimes when writing, you find yourself lost in the world you’re creating. The characters, the plot, the story. All of those become what you think about and, for a few hours, you’re living there. When you’re done for the day, though, you step out of it and back into the world around you. Sure, you may have thoughts or ideas crop up here and there. Sure, you may sort of fall in love with one of your characters which is totally normal and not weird at all. Sure, you may even have dreams about where the story is going next. Still, at the end of all of it, you step in and out of the story at your leisure.
What happens, though, when the story you’re writing is your own? When the twists and turns that come up in the tale are those that occurred in your actual life? How do you step out of that story when it’s time to sleep? Do you?
These aren’t questions writers tend to consider, by and large. Hell, I hadn’t ever considered them myself. The books I write are big, swooping tales of characters and mysteries. I write funny and ridiculous or dark and brooding. I write long books with twists and turns. I step away from my books when all is said and done.
That changes with Zoo. It’s a short piece, not even seventy pages, but there is more emotion and raw me in those pages than in the thousand-plus pages I’ve written outside of it. In the book, you get a literal tour through what makes me me, including the things that keep me from being the best version of myself. I tear myself open and you get to see my depression and anxiety. You get to see my regrets and frustrations. You get to see my grief and the things that I hold deep inside.
I won’t lie. Leaving myself so exposed, so honest…it’s scary. I’m excited and worried. What if those who read the book see me in a negative light? There are things I’m certainly not proud of that are in the book because they have to be. The story demands them and I’m not about to be anything less than open.
Why, though? What makes this book different? That’s a complicated set of questions with no one good answer. At the very base of it, though, is the fact that I needed to get the story out of me. I have dealt with (read: ignored) my mental health for decades now and only fairly recently (within the last few years) have come to the realization that, hey, maybe I don’t have to simply endure feeling like a failure every time I did something less than perfect. Maybe I don’t have to actually say things like ‘I don’t know why anyone likes spending time with me – I don’t like spending time with me’. Maybe I don’t have to simply choke down every bit of self-loathing as I push myself to achieve more and more things in an attempt to feel something even slightly positive about myself. With anxiety, depression, and all of the regrets, though, I had gotten quite good at simply banishing those thoughts to the sideline or riding them out. Healthy? Hell no. But it was tolerable.
And then, in March of 2022, my father died.
On February 28th, my brother and I came home around noon after buying groceries to find him in a state of distress. He thought it was a panic attack that had been going for a half hour. We thought otherwise and I brought him to UrgentCare. He was admitted immediately and, after being reassured that he was in good hands, I told him I loved him and left to go pick up my mom at home. That was the last time I saw him truly alive. Over the next ten days, we went through hoping he would come through it to the realization that, no, he was not going to get any better. We talked and cried and decided to let him go. We went to the hospital on the morning of the 10th, had them turn off the oxygen, and then he was gone and a hole had been torn out of my heart that will never heal.
Grief does something to you. It alters you in a way that cannot be adequately explained through words. It changes you in a way that only those who have gone through it can understand. And what I did in response to that was (and is) to do what I always did: choke it down and go about my life as best as I could.
It was only after reading Luke Tarzian’s novella A Cup of Tea at the Mouth of Hell where he reflected on his grief that I felt something unearth inside me. A need to get the grief out of me, at least in some small way. I sat down and started to write and, for the next week, that was all I could write. Typically, I bounce around among projects based on my whims and the weather or whatever else catches my fancy. For the week it took me to write Zoo, though, that was it. I literally could not write a word in any of my other books. Only when this one was out of my heart and brain and on the page did I feel a sense of release that allowed me to create again.
Zoo is a short book, but it is not an ‘easy’ book. It is the culmination of grief and a simple need to address my own personal mental health. If/when you read it, you will learn things about me that may surprise you or make you sad. You may cry. That’s okay.
And you know what? Sometimes okay is the best we can be and there is not a damn thing wrong with that.
Note from the Editor: Zoo is OUT NOW and available to purchase here!
About the Author
A.C. Cross is a doctor, but not the kind that you want treating you for kidney stones or pneumonia or anything. That’d likely make your situation much worse.
He (currently) lives in the Great White North of the United States as a bearded, single man.
He’s a lover of words, many of which you have just read in this very book.
He’s an admitted scotch whisky and beer snob and his liver would not argue with him.
He has written four books now, including this one, but the other three (in the Roboverse) are funny and not nearly as sweary or violent.
You can find more about him as well as some neat little free stories at www.aaronccross.com