Working through Mental Health in MAIN SQUEEZE


[This post includes discussion of suicide attempts, suicidal ideation, psychiatric care, psychiatric abuse, child abuse, emotional abuse, trauma, depression, and more. Please proceed with appropriate caution and take care of yourself. ]

The Flirting with the Zodiac series will have thirteen books. Right now, you’ve seen just three of them, and I’ve started work, in some capacity, on about eight of those books.

The cover for MAIN SQUEEZE, Book 3 in the Flirting with the Zodiac series.
How can a book about snake aliens be personal?

Yet Main Squeeze will likely have a special place for me as the author. It may not be my favorite narrative; I love all of them, but I’m particularly soft for a couple of them. But it will, I think, hold point of pride for a few reasons.

One of those reasons is that it’s actually the very first book that I started working on. I drafted the manuscript as a Camp NaNo project in July 2019, after encouragement from a friend to just write what I wanted. Since then, the series has changed and evolved so much. It was kind of fun to look back and see this as a starting point, as genesis.

More than that, though, Main Squeeze is special to me because of how deeply it deals with trauma—both Marty’s and, by extension, my own.

Issues of Mental Health and Power in MAIN SQUEEZE

Main Squeeze changed a lot between initial drafts and what’s actually in the published book. As I said, the series as a whole changed a lot between the time I initially drafted Main Squeeze and when I took it into the production process. I ended up rewriting just about half the book after editing. (Yeah, it was a bit of an uphill battle there.)

One of the things that remained largely the same was that Marty comes up against the high command of Earth’s space forces. Marty crashes on a foreign planet, maybe has head trauma, and talks to command about his “friends” who got “attacked” by a bunch of snake-people who think they’re “gods” and want to kill them.

Marty is also running around by himself at this point, in nothing more than a leaf skirt. He’s been stuck on this planet for a year and a half, possibly by himself.

Marty, of course, is sane. He’s been coping with his situation as best he can. He believes he’s “stuck” on this planet for the rest of his life. He starts building relationships and integrating himself into society.

Yet to the casual outsider, especially in the absence of any “snake-people” to back him up, Marty doesn’t appear particularly sane. His story sounds almost fabricated, fantastical.

The humans, naturally, want to take Marty in for observation. At the same time, high command deems him “insane.” In doing so, they effectively strip Marty of his rights. He becomes utterly powerless.

The Powerless Patient

The published version has a much happier outcome for Marty. The original draft included a scene where the crew examines Marty while he’s delirious. Marty realizes this is a trap set for him by high command to “prove” he’s insane. Declaring him insane allows them to exert their authority over him. They can strip him of his rights, hold him against his will, and take him back to Earth. He worries about his unborn children in this sequence, particularly because they’re part alien. If they deem him “insane,” his children are at the mercy of those who have authority over him.

This sequence was based largely on the events that unfolded after I attempted suicide five years ago. After overdosing on sleeping pills, I was admitted to the ER. I was administered fluids and deemed “unruly” by the nurses.

During this time, a psychiatrist evaluated me. Make note here: I was still high out of my mind. I was hallucinating. The psychiatrist, frustrated with my inability to pay attention, asked me what I was looking at. I told her—and then confirmed that I knew I was hallucinating and these were not actually present.

Again: I was still high.

The Fragility of Rights in the Face of (In)sanity

They used that evaluation of my mental state to recommend that I be held, against my will, for 72 hours. I was a “danger to myself or others.”

That’s an abuse of power, plain and simple. I told her that I was hallucinating and that I was aware that was happening after I had taken an overdose. I was high. There’s no doubt in my mind that I should have been re-evaluated, because I was most definitely not in a fit state for that interview–not because of my own mental health but because of the drugs acting in my system.

They told me that, based on an evaluation done while I was high, I had to endure the less than stellar treatment I’d received in ER for another three days.

I was already in a fragile mental state. I’d tried to commit suicide the night before. I was upset and felt particularly sore about how I’d been treated. I understand the nurses’ frustration with me, but they’d yelled and pinned me to the bed. And the powers that be had based their decision to hold me on an evaluation that was done while I was incompetent due to drug use.

Yet nothing I could say or do would change their minds. In fact, everything I did solidified the opinion that I wasn’t mentally competent.

Even in the published version of Main Squeeze, there are still echoes of this power struggle. Mental health is incredibly rife for abuse of power. If the doctor decides you’re insane, you’re insane. Anything you say is merely more evidence of your insanity.

The Terror of Mental Health

We can see why people don’t want to discuss their mental health. Doctors—psychiatrists in particular—have too much power. It becomes their word versus the patient’s. In the case of mental health, that’s particularly dangerous. All it takes is the expert saying, “This one’s nuts,” and everything the patient does becomes evidence of their insanity.

There is no way to prove you are sane, except to jump through (invisible) hoops to perform your sanity the way the doctor wants you to perform it. To be deemed “sane” again, I had to exhibit “good behavior.”

That included writing out a plan of what I was going to do. The doctor made me do this three or four times, because my initial “plan” wasn’t good enough. If, at the end of the three days, I didn’t satisfy these requirements, the doctor could have placed another hold order on me.

That’s not helpful in the fucking slightest. It doesn’t prove anyone is sane or insane; it merely proves they can manipulate their own behavior in order to please someone else.

Okay—maybe someone who is “insane” couldn’t manipulate their behavior. But how is doing that actually helping the root cause of my distress? The plan meant nothing to me at all. Sure, I wrote it down, revised it, because “this is what will let me go home.”

I had no intention of following the plan from the second I set pen to paper. The only reason I did it was because it was an action I could take to try to convince the doctor that I didn’t need to be held indefinitely.

I think we have to agree that situation is hardly conducive to recovery, to actually dealing with mental health issues.

It causes further stigma and trauma for the patient. If I have to worry about professionals assessing me as insane and stripping me of my rights, then I cannot freely discuss what I am experiencing.

And that means I cannot get to the root issues or the causes. I can’t actually treat what’s going on.

Recognizing My Own Trauma in MAIN SQUEEZE

Main Squeeze obviously already dealt with trauma and my own personal experiences around mental health. Yet there was an aspect of the story that I didn’t even recognize at the time I was writing it.

While I was working through the rewrites, I was also coming to terms with some issues that have followed me through almost my entire life. I used to think that I was “perfectly normal.” For that reason, some (or most) of my pathological behavior was “just natural.”

This is just who I am—anxiety, rage, and more.

Scrabble tiles spell out "anxiety," one of the most common mental health disorders.
Oh, you mean a big ball of nerves isn’t just who I am? Could’ve fooled me. (Suzy Hazelwood/Pexels.com)

In an enormous breakthrough, I realized that’s not the truth about me. I am and have been dealing with trauma for my entire adult life—and most of my childhood as well.

Being able to come to this realization has been both painful and enormously liberating. It’s given me the scaffolding to understand my behaviors and myself in new light. I don’t get angry because I’m fundamentally a “bad person,” just grumpy or irritable. I’m dealing with maladaptive coping behaviors that cause me to act out in ways I wish I didn’t.

Understanding that gives me new tools, new ways of both looking at behavior and ways of potentially mitigating it.

It also put a lot of my writing into context for me. Why am I so attracted to characters who are profoundly traumatized, so clearly hurt? Ty in Hook, Line & Sinker inherited my anxiety; Cad is working through PTSD.

I Write Profoundly Traumatized Characters

Marty, though—Marty perhaps has my traumas most clearly. He is afraid of abandonment, because a parental figure abandoned him before. My experience is not the same, but it runs parallel to this scenario.

And how Marty’s trauma comes through on the page is largely similar to how I deal. The unwillingness to talk until the problem is overwhelming. The irritability. The absolute insistence that he needs no one, while at the same time being terrified that everyone will leave him.

Reading through Main Squeeze again was profoundly painful, because I could suddenly see myself so clearly in Marty.

And yet I was also able, I hope, to clarify some of what Marty’s feeling, some of what he’s thinking—why he acts the way he does. And I was able to do that by digging into my own traumas, the new insights that I gained by realizing the root causes of so much of my behavior.

Without that insight, much of Marty’s behavior would be a mystery—much the way my own was a mystery to me. Marty refuses to talk about issues, even though he knows they’re problems. He’s willing to let people do as they please until he can’t stand it any longer. And he tries to be independent, gets angry when people try to help him, pushes them away because he’s scared to let them in.

Writing Myself, Even When I’m Not

Given all that, I think it’s important that we keep in mind issues of identity. I’ve written elsewhere about the political dimensions of a writer like me adopting a character like Marty as a POV character. Marty and I share relatively little in terms of identity.

At the same time, Marty does share some parts of my identity: as a traumatized human being, as a psychiatric survivor, as someone who was abused as a child in not-always-obvious ways.

We can argue that Marty’s other identity markers mean his experience of trauma and abuse would not mirror mine, that he might have profoundly different reactions. Yet we can argue that for any identity marker: the way I experience trauma, interpret it, cope with it, is not necessarily the same as another person. Nor is my experience of being white or female or bisexual the same as another person’s.

Part of the beauty of fiction, then, is to take a moment to imagine how someone else might feel. It’s a moment to step outside yourself.

And yet the writer will always put pieces of themselves into their characters, their narratives. Marty and I have relatively little in common, but there are places where I am writing my own lived experiences into this character. Perhaps I’m not writing something that really, truly matters—at least, not compared to the other “voices” that I’ve given Marty.

But, in a sense, Marty is still a way to reclaim that part of my identity, to try to make sense of myself.

Reclaiming My Emotions in MAIN SQUEEZE

One of the factors in my abuse was systemic denial of my emotional reactions. My feelings were delegitimized, time and again. To this day, I will deny my own reactions. Fiction has always represented a safe space to vent those emotions.

In that way, then, characters like Marty are my way of exploring my own trauma—and how I feel about that.

And that’s particularly pertinent for me right now, as I come to terms with all this. Five years ago, I attempted suicide. I did that because I felt I wasn’t entitled to my own feelings. I was majorly depressed, burned out, and anxious, but we hadn’t been able to get to the root cause of it.

And I had internalized my abuser’s mantra that there couldn’t be anything wrong with me. I had a good life and therefore could not have suffered trauma or abuse. From there, it was easy to deny that I was “allowed” to have feelings of depression and hopelessness like I did.

And, instead of “bothering” anyone about it, I decided I ought to put myself out of said misery then.

Writing as a Safe Space to Express Emotion

Looking back now, I can see a clearer path between all of these events and behaviors. My anxiety stems from a desire to please; that desire leads to a consistent need to perform at a certain level, which then loans itself to burn out. From there, depression is a natural step.

Here, it’s important to note that I’d also stopped writing around this time as well. One of the steps to healing was to get back to writing, to be able to put those feelings into words, to put them down on the page, and to explore them in a safe environment.

And it’s another reason Main Squeeze will always be an important book for me. I chose its release date with purpose. Today is the fifth anniversary of my suicide attempt. So, in many ways, for all its shortcomings and flaws, Main Squeeze is something of a triumph. It’s a reminder to myself of what I can and will accomplish.

It’s why I dedicated the book to myself. I agree that might be strange, given that I share so little with the main character. But what I do share with this character is so important to me. I’m both terrified and grateful to share this story.

Even if Main Squeeze deals with trauma, psychiatric abuse, and its other themes in a fantastical way, they’re still meaningful for me. And I hope that they can be meaningful for others as well.

About the author


By Cherry

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