“Roger—at Cornell University, they have an incredible piece of scientific equipment known as the Tunneling Electron Microscope. Now, this microscope is so powerful, that by firing electrons, you can actually see images of the atom, the infinitesimally minute building block of our universe. Roger, if I were using that microscope right now, I still wouldn’t be able to locate my interest in your problem.”
Frasier, Season 1, Episode 9, “Selling Out.”
Therapy and mental health became known to me how most of the foundational aspects of life became known to me as a child in the 90s—from television. Specifically, from watching late-night reruns of Frasier. Enthralled with the witty sarcasm and sitcom hijinks, I reveled in the hoity-toity world of Jung and Freud, and the brotherly battle between a “radio shrink” and a private practice psychiatrist. While Frasier doled out sage advice to the hoi polloi over the radio, Niles combed through the mental health struggles of whatever kind of upper-class person could afford to see a shrink in the middle of the workday. (My lower-middle-class self could not relate. I related more to Martin’s beloved, ratty armchair than either Crane brother.)
Problematic class dynamics aside, Frasier added to my repertoire of what I would come to understand later in life as “art as therapy.” Absorbing media was the principal way I sought to understand myself. Daria Morgendorffer (Daria) and Kat Stratford (10 Things I Hate About You) provided the sarcastic, disaffected, feminist armor I wore as a teenager against the encroaching misogyny of womanhood. I collected an arsenal of quips and quirks from the dialogue of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A slapdash collage of pop culture references made up my personality, because it was safer than reaching out in real life. When I struggled with my mental health growing up, these characters were there to support me without judgment. None of them would scold me for being a moody teenager, critique my developing interests, or cross my boundaries. And, most importantly, this pantheon of fictional characters would never judge me for being queer, which was a part of me that I understood needed to be hidden. Of course, media didn’t let me down here, either. Blockbuster, in all its pre-Netflix glory, allowed me to rent queer films without attracting any attention. Blessedly, the film’s covers, content, and queerness were cleverly disguised in generic, blue-and-white cases. But I’m A Cheerleader! could’ve been about anything, but I knew what it was about, and Graham and Megan knew, and that was enough.
Of course, the biggest watershed moment of pubescence for any media-obsessed millennial was the introduction of the internet. After enduring long, agonizing minutes of modem shrilling, the internet opened up before me. Suddenly, the longing glances of “heterosexual” female characters in television or film could be explored in depth on fanfiction.net, the early oasis for those stranded in the deserts of straight, cis-gender mainstream media. Queer and queer-coded characters, so long sidelined and maligned, flourished online. As such, queer people like me flourished in these spaces, too. I discovered myself in these safe, anonymous places, in these margins of society where misfits blossomed like flowers through the cracks in concrete. It was here, boldly typing away on our lone family computer in the middle of our living room, that I began my journey as a writer. Creating stories in which my favorite female characters fell in love, over and over, without pesky comp-het or the general interference of men. Art as therapy shot out of the tips of my fingers like magic, though I didn’t know it.
When asked, “Which of your characters do you relate to the most?” the answer for me, quite simply, is all of them and none of them. Each of my characters is a portrait in stained glass, shimmering with colorful shards of their own experiences. A few of those shards were, unbeknownst to me, lovingly scored from my soul and soldered into their story. It wasn’t until these stories were finished, glimmering in the sunlight and out for all to see, that I realized I had placed little bits of myself, my mental health struggles, my journey (both positive and negative), into them. It was not something I did consciously, but looking back on how much of my life has been defined and shaped by pop culture, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the ink with which my stories were written is made up of the parts of me I don’t fully understand.
In Beyond the Blue, I explored grief and loneliness in ways I had not experienced firsthand, and yet, I had experienced them all the same. The characters could not be further from me, but were so deeply entwined with the synapse pathways of my brain. To Be With You let me gently prod the wounded teenager hiding inside my heart with her Walkman on, struggling to understand who she is. In giving my main protagonist, Leah, confidence and supportive parents, I gave Teenage Me confidence and support, too. The other protagonist, Tori, to whom I ungenerously gave my anxiety and coming out struggles, found her courage and had her problems soothed by an incredible love. In turn, the love I wrote for Leah and Tori healed my heart a little bit, too. Even The Order, set in a dystopia with life-or-death situations popping up at every turn, is a journey through the complicated dynamics of family. While my life is decidedly more normal than Lucy and Taylor’s—and, thank goodness, because my arsenal of sarcastic comebacks and encyclopedic pop culture knowledge is not going to get me through an apocalypse—I share their struggle to figure out what family means and how to come to terms with your parent-child relationship, both as a child and as a parent.
As I continue writing my silly little love stories, I’m continually surprised at what about me is revealed in prose. It’s affirming and validating, but discovering trauma through fiction is a confusing experience, too. That said, of course, while the Nick At Nite lineup of 2001 might have raised me, I realize fiction is not a substitute for actual therapy. However, bidden by our past selves and screaming subconscious, creating art has the special ability to open up tiny doors inside our hearts and minds. Doors so minute that we probably didn’t even know they existed until the words came spilling out of them onto the page in front of us.
Doors so infinitesimal, in fact, you may only be able to find them through storytelling. Or, perhaps, through a Tunneling Electron Microscope.
TJ O'Shea is a New Jerseyian by birth and a New Yorker by proxy. When not working in the video game industry or writing sapphic romances, she enjoys playing video games (this time for fun), shouting at Jeopardy! reruns, amateurishly baking, spending time with her wife and daughter, and singing to their cat.