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Making Peace With Ghosts 

 

Years ago, too many to count but few enough to leave details lingering, I loved a woman who battled her demons every single day. She hid it well enough while we got to know each other, occasionally holding me at a frustrating arm’s length before we tumbled into an intense relationship. Those first few weeks, all I saw were stars sparkling in her eyes. She said all the right things and to this day, I still choose to believe her words were true. 

The first time she tried to end her life, I didn’t even realize that’s what had happened; that’s how practiced she had become. Days after it happened, she slowly cracked her binding, letting me brush through the pages that she had tried to keep hidden from me. I read sentences, got glimpses of paragraphs, skimmed chapters. The whole story was one I would never—could never—know. 

Over the two and a half years we spent in a relationship, she tried to end her life somewhere in the range of eight times. Sometimes I was present, sometimes I was on the other end of the phone, sometimes I was six hours away and clueless. I loved her through it all, trying like hell to be the steady, consistent thing in her life. Inevitably, my heart began a slow break as I came to terms with the truth: I could love her endlessly, wholly and purely, but I could never save her from herself. 

It’s a wild, unimaginable, sticky thing: loving someone with your whole heart, believing they love you with their whole heart, but also knowing that none of that love will ever be enough. 

My breaking point came when something (I still don’t know the truth here) happened involving her driving her mom’s car and suddenly she was in the psych unit. I think I was able to “let go” (yes, reader, we got back together a couple months later, but only lasted for another few months) because I trusted she was finally somewhere she would be taken care of and helped. I didn’t have to carry that weight any longer. And considering we were long distance for our entire relationship, the pressure I put on myself from 350 miles away was… well, it was a lot. I wanted to save her, to fix her, to guide her toward the woman I knew she could be. 

But I couldn’t. And for both of our sakes, I had to walk away. 

 

Years and years later, we had a conversation over text that went on for two hours. We’d messaged and even spoken a couple times over the years prior to that, so the communication wasn’t terribly unusual, except for the fact that this time, she opened the conversation with, “Hey.” I can’t explain why, but I immediately knew this wasn’t just a random “how are you” kind of check in. 

And it wasn’t. It was an open, honest, hard-emotion conversation that we both needed at that time, for very different reasons. She told me she was getting divorced. I empathized with her decision, and tried to be encouraging, or at least supportive, when she explained her new relationship status. I expressed my doubts about my situationship, and she reframed it in a way that made perfect sense. She repeated things she’d already said to me years before, closure-type things that I’d already made peace with. We talked about, well, just life. We ended the conversation by reminding each other that we’d always be here for each other, a truth that felt real and genuine. 

Exactly eleven months later, she killed herself. 

I pride myself on having a pretty expansive vocabulary, yet I am certain there is no singular word to describe how I felt—how I feel. Because it’s an odd sensation, an indescribable emotion, when you have to come to terms with the fact that someone you loved (and will always love, as we do) finally succeeded in the one terrible, heartbreaking thing they never stopped trying to do. 

 

*deep breath* 

 

When I set out to write Golden Hour, I had her in my mind. Lina, the main character in the book, first appeared in Across the Hall. I likely subconsciously connected the character to the person, but Lina didn’t fully blossom into her real-life inspiration until she began running the pages of her own book. 

My purpose with Golden Hour was to spotlight a character who was dealing with PTSD. That’s it, honestly. Yes, I wanted to give her a happily ever after (and, spoiler, she gets it), but I also wanted to freely dig into the complexities of her character, the challenges she’d faced along her path that created such intense emotional struggles within her. I wanted Lina’s journey to be as realistic as possible. I wasn’t about to shy away from anything she faced while navigating the road bumps in her life. 

Yes, Lina has a therapist in the book. But there are things her therapist can’t make disappear. Lina has flashbacks. She has nightmares. She experiences a bit of a fugue state and some dissociation. She has one moment of suicidal ideation. And the root of all of this comes from her experiences in the Army and serving overseas, something that was a catalyst for my ex-girlfriend’s complicated mental health. 

The act of writing Lina into existence wasn’t the hard part. No, that came when I had to constantly put a genuinely kind, big-hearted character through the emotional ringer over and over again. Often I wasn’t sure who was being hurt more: this fictional character, or the writer who was insistent upon continuing down this heartbreaking path. 

While I was in the middle of writing Golden Hour, my ex-girlfriend’s family held a celebration of life in her hometown. And so, despite the fact that I hadn’t seen any of them in twelve years, I booked myself a place in the mountains for a few days and headed north. It was a journey that was hard to explain to some people (okay, one person) in my life, but it was something I had to do for myself. 

In Vermont, I retraced paths I hadn’t set foot on in over a decade. I ran in a rainstorm on a muddy trail under a canopy of trees, I wrote chapters of Golden Hour while burnt orange leaves slapped wetly against the windows. I reconnected with an old friend and spent hours reminiscing about the woman we’d both known and loved, though in very different ways. I drove around, trying to find the pizza place we used to order from every weekend when I visited. I sat alone at a bar in a restaurant on Church Street and did a crossword (in gel pen) while drinking a local IPA. 

Upon returning home, I felt even more strongly about bringing Lina’s story to life. I wasn’t going to let her PTSD hold her back, but I wasn’t going to dilute it for the sake of attracting readers who just wanted a low-stakes romance. Was that a risk? Absolutely. But what’s the point of writing if I can’t be true to myself as a writer? 

Mental health remains at the forefront of literally everything I do (and that’s a long story, one I can’t unravel here). While Golden Hour is the first of my books that deals with mental health, it certainly won’t be the last*. At my core, I’m a writer of real-life sapphic fiction that has a romantic subplot. And where there’s real life, there’s mental health: struggles, victories, challenges, concerns, and healings.  

I’m here for it all, and I hope you will be, too. 

 

*Spoiler: my October 2023 release, In Bloom, deals heavily with grief. 

Kat Jackson writes "real life" sapphic fiction that often has a romantic subplot... or main plot, if she's feeling the love. When she's not writing, she's reading or running or doing deadlifts, which she swears is the key to maintaining her mental health. Kat dreams of being a full-time writer but currently spends her days tending to the behavioral and mental health concerns of kiddos---and she also swears this is better than the fifteen years she spent teaching high school English. She also swears a lot in general. Kat publishes with Bella Books and her sixth book, In Bloom, releases on October 12.

 

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