Having just finished the second draft of The Secrets that Kill Us, I thought I'd take some time to talk about how significant this project is to me.
It started when I was twelve. I had a younger foster sister who was removed from my home very abruptly, and I needed an outlet for all the frustration I felt at the time. She had been in my home for a year, and I'd come to love her as though she'd been there my whole life. I can't imagine what an impact this made on her, as I wasn't allowed to keep contact.
So I turned to character creation, and telling their stories. The stories of kids that don't get a voice, don't get a choice in where they go or what they do. This is how Theo was born. Theo was a kid that wasn't given a fair shot in life, and had given up on proving that they deserved better. Thing is, they shouldn't have to prove that. The system should just do better, be better. But it doesn't. Its an imperfect system where more often than not kids end up suffering in silence. They learn not to let their guard down, because the minute they do they're either hurt or ripped away from everything they'd come to know.
So that's where Theo got their beginning, I wrote about how they'd been through so many homes that they lost track, how some were cruel while a few offered a reprieve from the agonizing uncertainty, but weren't permanent. The story warped and changed as I fleshed it out in my twelve-year-old mind, until it had taken on a life of its own. I applied my own experiences and my characters were how I began to navigate social situations.
When it started, I never thought I'd write a book. I wrote on pet pages on Neopets, notepad files on my computer, and on random pages of loose leaf paper that would end up hidden in the back of my closet. I never told anyone the real story of where Theo came from. At the time, Theo was "Lizzie", a girl who had supposed "attitude problems" and wanted to be a pro skateboarder. As I grew up things became more nuanced, I understood the implications of trauma and how that effects how people may behave in certain situations. I stopped describing them as a "loner with authority issues" and dove into what really made them who they were. Things grew until I started telling my friends about the stories of situations I'd put Theo in and even roleplayed with a few. I started wanting to tell this story.
Theo was the way that I experimented with new things - especially about my relationship with the LGBTQ community. I grew up in a house that didn't spew hatred, but instead had many subtle negative comments towards members of the community, so I still didn't feel safe asking my questions at home. I remember the first time "What if I'm gay?" popped into my head when I was 10 in the shower, and feeling such an internal panic that I pushed it out of my head as quickly as I'd come.
Theo wasn't gay, and neither was I. Theo got a boyfriend, and I pretended to have crushes on boys in school to make everything seem fine. Until I developed feelings for my best friend. Then, Theo didn't have a boyfriend anymore, they had a girlfriend. A girlfriend that reminded me of my best friend who I'd never tell and still haven't to this day. I tested the waters using Theo's story and thought of scenarios all day long.
It was at this time that I was the worst in my dissociation from the world. I'd go through entire days playing with these stories in my mind and run on autopilot in the outside world. The real world was too much, so I escaped into a world where I was in control of everything, if I decided something wasn't going to happen, it wouldn't. These characters became my best friends when my real-world friends started pulling away after I came out as gay. They were there for me when it felt like no one else was. For that reason, they're precious to me. They got me through an incredibly hard time where I lived through their experiences instead of my own. They made mistakes so I didn't have to. I was just the quiet kid in the corner that stared into space all day. Theo was out getting into trouble, making poor choices having been given far less opportunities than I was fortunate to have in my life.
I navigated the world like that, not really here but still seemingly functioning on the outside. As you can imagine, this means that there were hundreds of scenarios that Theo was in that will never be written, nor do I care to write. Some were just plain awful that I imagined when I was angry, and some were just to see "what if". It got to the point where I'd have a moment of clarity outside of this dissociation, and I'd get genuinely scared. I was afraid to be in a world where I didn't control everything. Where what I dictated wasn't exactly what would happen. Eventually, I ended up in therapy. I never told therapists about Theo despite what a huge part of my life they were - I was afraid they'd "really" see how messed up I was. Theo was my secret, one that only my closest friends knew about, and even they didn't know to what extent they were engrained in my everyday life.
I finally found my people when I was in college, and started feeling safe enough to be myself. I remember a distinct thought I once had, "I don't need you anymore, Liz. But thank you for everything."
I was wrong. I still needed them. Halfway through college and being introduced to many new LGBTQ concepts, I started questioning my gender. This was a whole new realm that I'd never thought about. My first exposure to this was on a talk show where they were raving about "The first pregnant man", and I was glued to the TV. Until my mom changed the channel after she realized it. That one action told me "Nope, not in my house" and I didn't think about it much for a long time. (For the record, my mom has learned a lot throughout my transition and has tried her best to be supportive after some initial pushback) So in college, I met a few trans kids, and that's when Liz became Theo. Again, I experimented using their experiences instead of my own, until I felt secure enough to step out on my own.
Now I'm in a place where I'm not constantly stuck in my head, I live my own experiences, but I will never forget how valuable having that safety net was. I finally decided to start writing Theo's experiences to get them out of my head, and that's when a friend of mine told me "Hey, this is a story that people need to hear." And I knew he was right. Theo has an incredible story of heartache and growth, that I think may reach some people that might be struggling in ways that I struggled. They helped me so much, I owe it to them to tell their story.
So it is with great pride that I'm announcing that Theo's story - The Secrets that Kill Us - has been picked up by Cinnabar Moth Publishing, and will be released in November of 2022. Their story will be told, and I hope it helps some people the way it helped me.