The most accurate description of depression that I’ve read, as I’ve experienced it anyway, came from a story about the end of the world. Nothing from the likes of Aldous Huxley or Ray Bradbury — instead, I found it on Archive of Our Own, by author hobimo. “Like the way the days still turn even when you wish they wouldn’t,” they wrote. Then: “Like the way they won’t, even when you wish, so desperately, that they would.”
I had learned to live with those kinds of feelings in the years since I was diagnosed, but I’d never seen them so precisely put before. That was the thing: they always went hand in hand. And the writer wasn’t even talking about depression specifically.
What’s more, these words reached out to me on a website for stories that some people barely consider “real literature.”
I have no recollection of how I discovered fan fiction. I just know that I’ve been a reader since I was nine (fandom: Lizzie McGuire), I’ve been a writer since I was 11 (fandoms: Zoey 101, Hannah Montana, and the Jonas Brothers), and it’s been with me through all my obsessive phases, because it was another way for me to process them and experience more of them.
For the longest time I read and wrote fan fiction almost exclusively for characters I wanted to be together and who, for some reason or other, weren’t meant to be, such as Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor from Rogue One — with Bodhi Rook and Luke Skywalker as a side ship, because it’s the cutest hypothetical dynamic — and Ilse and Moritz from Spring Awakening. And while I adore Stucky, I was just more drawn to the idea of Peggy Carter and Steve Rogers. (So you can only imagine what it was like when I saw Avengers: Endgame.)
To me, fan fiction worked best as a fix-it, to see what could’ve been for my OTPs. I wasn’t interested in established relationships and the real thing in canon, I wanted second chances and alternate universes for my doomed ships.
It was around two years ago, when I was a full-time freelancer with too much time on my hands and bouts of insomnia, that I practically made a hobby out of cathartic crying. It was a whole deal: I’d sit at the kitchen counter in the middle of the night when everyone else had gone to bed, put on a playlist of slow songs, and cry. As far as coping mechanisms went, although it was pitiful and difficult to understand, it was still healthier and less self-destructive. And sometimes, I read some of the sadder stories on AO3 just to feel like I wasn’t too alone.
I was in my X-Files phase when I came across a fic where, after breaking up with Scully, Mulder tries to deal with his depression by practicing baking. I started crying around the part where it said: “They both knew that now wasn’t a great time. That he was worn out. That this would be one of the harder nights.”
It rang too true. So many things about mental health are vague and unfathomable, even as you go through them. I carried the story around with me for days, heavy in my chest, but it also made me feel a little lighter somehow.
The following year, on an overseas trip I had to write about for work, I kept coming back to this one story about a writer who travels to Scotland for work and falls in love, but he’d have days where it was difficult to get out of bed and think, This is the way I am sometimes. I’d crawl into bed at the hotel, all the lights shut off, and read it on my phone, screen brightness turned low. It showed me that I shouldn’t feel guilty about being morose in such a beautiful city, and also that I shouldn’t let this same gloominess stop me from enjoying myself however I can, that I can find ways to live with both and make it meaningful.
I’ve found that the way I engage with and consume fan fiction has changed. My mood and taste still depend on whatever I’m obsessed with at the moment. I still prefer non-endgame ships since I feel like canon couples are already plenty spoken for. I still enjoy exploring different tropes and AUs — most recently I got into clones and androids — because there’s no limit to the authors’ ideas and creativity, but I can also still appreciate a good fake relationship plot or classic romantic comedy.
But these days, the stories that end up affecting me most tend to be a little more character-driven and parallel to my state of mind. I would search the “depression” tag and find works that mirrored what was going on in my head, which means the world to people like me who have trouble explaining it to others and end up carrying it alone and keeping it all to themselves. The portrayal of mental illness is sensitive but straightforward, because most of the time, the author is actually going through the same thing.
This means that on the other side, fic has also proven to be a great outlet for writers to work out their own issues. I’d read their author’s notes about how a certain work was the result of a hard night or two, or how they haven’t been having an easy time and it was a relief to get some of it out with something they love. It must be difficult, making something coherent and hopeful (or tragic, because there are sad endings on AO3) out of your misery. But we’re all just trying our best here — or trying, period. And I respect and value that so much.
The resonance and solace I get from these stories is enough, especially when I’m feeling quite disconnected from humanity. But in reading them, I’m also able to understand myself and my needs better: the importance of company, how I hope the people in my life would treat me and how I myself can provide better support to friends who also suffer, how to be braver, what I need to overcome and how I can recover. Which is more than I can say for a lot of “real” books out there.
I know things aren’t as simple in the real world, and it’ll take a lot more work for me to get there. I might never get a tattoo on my wrist that lets me know who my soulmate is (if I even have a soulmate) or an enemies-to-lovers slow burn. But I know that certain things in fan fiction do happen and can be experienced: Getting coffee at your favorite coffee shop. Funny texts between friends. Difficult conversations that are long overdue, just with less cinematic dialogue. Character development.
Mulder makes burnt cheesecake and terrible bread to cope and slowly learns to get better in more ways than one. Scully, despite their breakup, eats the cheesecake anyway and stays the night because she cares about him. The writer returns home from Scotland and begins to answer honestly when a friend asks if he’s okay. The man he fell in love with makes him tea and holds his hand. The world ends and the days stop turning but humanity holds on and makes sure it matters until it no longer has any reason to.
As for me, I wake up, get out of bed, and face another day.
Header art by Thea Torres
In-line art by Zoë Rosal
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