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Today’s guest is science fiction and fantasy author Leah Petersen! Her trilogy, The Physics of Falling, is a completed series comprised of the following: Fighting Gravity, Cascade Effect, and Impact Velocity. She also has published short stories in the anthologies When the Villain Comes Home and When the Hero Comes Home 2.

Fighting Gravity by Leah Petersen Cascade Effect by Leah Petersen Impact Velocity by Leah Petersen

Finding the Fantastic through Depression

Women don’t have a monopoly on mental illness or depression, but statistically, women report depression at higher rates than men. We have risk factors that men won’t face, such as hormonal imbalances or pregnancy and childbirth. I’d suffered through depression most of my life, but it was postpartum depression that almost ended me.

I’ve seen several well known fantasy authors come out lately to openly talk about depression. Perhaps it’s become no more than a stereotype as fantasy and scifi go mainstream, but for a lot of us growing up, just identifying as a fan was a pretty good indicator that we already felt alienated or othered by society, even if it was only in the privacy of our heads. Maybe I’m wrong in thinking this disease afflicts our genre more than others. I’m torn between the scifi writer in me that says “data or it didn’t happen” and the fantasy writer who says everything’s possible, and perception is everything.

Either way, for every one of us who talks about mental illness, there are a dozen more who suffer in silence. Admitting you’re having a hard time is hard. And the worse it gets, the more difficult, paralyzing it becomes. For so many of us, depression is what brought us together as genre readers. When we share those experiences in the writing, we’re talking to each other about something many of us know and most endure in silence.

Depression can affect your ability to do anything at all, but maybe some things, creative endeavors, like writing, take a bigger hit. What for one person is cathartic would be devastating for another. I chose this topic for my post because I’m dealing with what many call writer’s block but for me is more properly named “depression.” There have been times I’ve felt that my depression was what drove my writing, and that not-depressed writing wasn’t my best. There have been other times I’ve been numbed, hollowed out by depression. If the words are there, they don’t make it from my head to the page. Then I wonder if the inability to write through depression is the cause or the effect. Both?

Well life’s complicated like that. You can’t plug in 1+1 and expect anything at all. It might be 2 or -2 or 2000. I think that’s why fantasy is such a draw for the mentally ill among us. You can rewrite the equations for a universe that works differently than yours. You can lose yourself in worlds where someone else imagined you—just as you are—as the hero you don’t feel like.

Which is why I love seeing authors write mental illness or disability into fantasy. The project I’m not working on right now, as I find my way through this phase of depression, has a character who is bipolar. It’s a secondary world fantasy in a Bronze Age civilization, so naturally, their idea of mania and depression is more “demon possession” and less “mental illness.” But I find it striking how the ways my character approaches and lives with her “demons” is so similar to my own. Hiding it all, self-medicating, trying to use the Need. To. Move. of a mania to offset the periods of I’ll-never-get-out-of-bed-again depression. Finding ways of surviving a mania without getting killed, and the strange contrast when you return to a suicidal depression.

The methods may vary, the experience is universal. Speculative, fantastical, futuristic fiction is a way we can talk about things that terrify us from a safe distance. A way we can share and connect even if the connection is one made months or years later when the reader picks up a story and finds herself and her suffering in it. It’s so tempting to take fantasy and scifi and scrub them of the things that hurt us personally, because the world is ours to shape. But find and support those authors who make genre fiction a place where they can share this with others. It can be very lonely, on both sides of the page, but we’re in this together.

Next time you write your pain, or read yourself in a story, maybe stop a moment to put your fingers to the page or the screen and send a silent message of support to the person on the other side. She’s in this with you.

Leah PetersenLeah Petersen lives in North Carolina manipulating numbers by day and the universe by night. She prides herself on being able to hold a book with her feet so she can knit while reading. She’s still working on knitting while writing.

Leah is the author of the Physics of Falling trilogy: Fighting Gravity, Cascade Effect, and Impact Velocity.