Columns > Published on July 26th, 2023

Storyville: Depression as Catharsis in Your Fiction

Today we are going to talk about depression and how writing and filtering those emotions into your fiction can be cathartic.

But before we get into this, obviously, if you are in a crisis state, and are suicidal, or are hurting yourself, please get help. I do not want you taking on your depression in your fiction if it’s going to backfire or trigger you.

Let's continue.

I’ve gone through periods of depression. I’ve been sober for 19 years now, and have done plenty of stupid things involving drugs, my actions, self-abuse, and dangerous as well as addictive behaviors. So how can your fiction be cathartic? Let’s look at that.

Setting

If you have paid attention to my short stories (and novels) over the years, you may have noticed that quite a few of my tales take place in an apartment on Milwaukee Avenue, here in Chicago. Disintegration is set there, as are parts of “Misty,” “Hiraeth,” “Open Waters,” “Ripples in a Pond,” and others. When I lived in this apartment, I was going through some rough stuff—my girlfriend of three years had just dumped me, I was a raging alcoholic who kept doing drugs as I continued to hurt myself, unable to work. So why in the hell would I revisit this place? There are a few reasons.

Control

One of the things I can do in my fiction is control the action. So where I might not have been taking care of myself, doing laundry, eating right, and going to work in the real world, in my stories and novels, I am able to find control. The bed, the kitchen, the tables, the turquoise stove and fridge—so much of it remained the same. But in my novel, Disintegration, I was able to change the events, to manipulate that life, and in some ways, improve the situation, or find a lesson where I could learn from bad behavior.

Scared of spiders? Hold a tarantula. Afraid of heights? Go to the top of the Sears Tower. Don’t like the dark? Turn off the lights.

Vengeance

In many situations, I got screwed over by somebody—whether it was somebody stealing from me, using me emotionally, physically accosting me, or something else—and in my fiction, I am able to change that situation into a more satisfying outcome. In the real world, I don’t really want to hurt somebody, but in a fictional story, the thief gets punished, the betrayer gets betrayed, and vengeance is dispensed. I can live out the fantasy of finding the guy that was smacking around his girlfriend in the real world, and dispense justice tenfold to that jerk. Even if he got his in the real world, maybe the fiction can take things farther. The guy who used to cut me off in traffic when I worked that crappy delivery job? He got run on off the highway, no real road rage dispensed, just the fantasy of it.

Aversion Therapy

Scared of spiders? Hold a tarantula. Afraid of heights? Go to the top of the Sears Tower. Don’t like the dark? Turn off the lights. A lot of what I work out in my stories is me dealing with my own shit, right? I punish bad men in my stories, and sometimes, those bad men are aspects of my own past—promises I didn’t keep, failures due to inaction, betrayal of a relationship, selfishness played out. So when I look back on my own shortcomings, I can try to work my way through those things. Did I destroy a relationship before they could do that to me? What might I have done differently, how can I be vulnerable, how can I learn to trust? I have worked out my fears in so many stories, been honest with myself, and then found a way to right the wrongs, and balance the scales. I have had to face my demons head on, look at them, honor them, claim them, and be totally honest before being able to move on.

That Catharsis

Depression takes many forms—anxiety, sadness, retreat, isolation, hatred, frustration, self-abuse, you name it. By being totally honest with myself, and then seeing how these things might have played out differently in my fiction—in a few “choose-your-own-path” stories quite literally, trying out different fates, different choices—I can work towards that catharsis, the purging. Sure, some of the fantasies are not very nice—wishing I had the courage to stand up to somebody, to fight back, to dole out violence, to exact revenge. But they remain fantasies, not real actions. Other moments helped me to forgive myself, to see the progress I have made over the years, to understand I had some deeply rooted issues going back to my childhood, my own actions over the years, taking responsibility, and learning to let go of the regrets, the long lists of “Why did I do that?” or “How can I forgive myself?”

In Conclusion

If you’re still reading this, I’m guessing you may have some of your own pain to work through. Or maybe you’re doing that right now. I’m not going to tell you how to find your catharsis, but I’m sure you have a few ideas. In Disintegration, there is a scene where the unnamed protagonist looks down at his abusive father and fantasizes about kicking out the jack, and letting the car crush the violent man to death. Did I have that same fantasy? Sadly, I did. Did my father actually abuse me? He did, the trauma was real. Did I truly want him dead? No, I did not. But it helped me to go through that, to think about the power he held over me, and then to take it back. It helped me to forgive the man for doing things in a time where lots of fathers did the same things, trying to control their children, to toughen them up, and remove that toxicity from myself. I’m a pacifist by nature, I don’t like anxiety, drama, and physical violence. But in these moments, in my dark fiction, my horror stories, I’m able to exorcise my demons, to find a way to forgive myself, and let it all go, and that catharsis is very satisfying.

Hopefully it will be for you as well.

About the author

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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