When I first had the idea that would become Silverskin, I was bundled up in a sleeping bag in a shed at a family friend’s commericial fishing camp outside Soldotna, Alaska. It was nighttime. In August. Which meant it had to be somewhere around two in the morning, since that was one of the only times it was reliably dark.
But I couldn’t sleep.
Maybe it had something to do with the kennel full of Iditarod-winning dogs down the road that were all barking their heads off at something in the woods. Or maybe it had something to do with the other Iditarod-winning sled team on the opposite side of the road, who took up the torch as soon as Team 1 had finally calmed down. (At that point, I’m sure whatever they were barking at was making a mental note to never come that way again.)
It could’ve also had something to do with the ghost story I’d heard while playing cards earlier that evening. A story about a little town called Portlock and a hairy, scary, stinky beastie that bore a strong resemblence to Sasquatch.
(This was my shed.)
Now, my family are Bigfoot enthusiasts. We believe. I have a sticker on my water bottle and everything. As people who habitually frequent the deep Wyoming backwoods, lots of us have seen things that… well, they have us convinced that something is up there, at least. And sure, the stories get embellished around the campfire but the core truth remains: there are just some things that can’t be explained or reasoned away.
And add to that the other, half-whispered story of a ghostly lady in black who emerged from the cliffs to haunt the poor souls who lived in that doomed little town? And then you stick me in a shed in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness all by myself at night?!
My brain couldn’t help itself. It was the perfect storm.
While I wouldn’t label myself a true insomniac, I do have bouts every now and then. They’re miserable, yes, but they’re also often when I get some really great ideas. It was during that Alaska trip, barely sleeping, chilling with family and friends, fishing on a boat called the Redemption, running into bears so stuffed with salmon that they were basically delirious, that the seeds of what would become Silverskin was born.
(Here’s my family and I on the real Redemption. It was the inspiration for the Poor Buoy, though both the P.B. and the Redemption in Silverskin are quite a bit bigger.)
Back then, Silverskin was a completely different story than what it would eventually become.
I had just graduated high school. I didn’t have much life experience. I’d had my troubles, sure, but overall I’d lived an easy, sheltered life. It’s not like I was a bad kid; I’d worked hard, held down jobs, taken upper-level classes, yada yada.
I was just… so very seventeen.
And I also had the attention span of a seventeen-year-old, which meant that as soon as I started college, “The Book” (which was its working title back then. For crying out loud, it was just a hobby. I didn’t think I’d ever actually publish the thing) fell by the wayside. I was busy figuring out how to live on my own, keep up with my 18 credits of pre-vet coursework, hold down a part-time job, volunteer at my church, ride horses as often as I could, and try to have an actual social life.
The next four years sort of blurred into one amalgamation of awesome experiences, terrible experiences, personal growth, and world-shaping realizations. Such is college. Realizing that I had a deep and abiding interest in human beings generally – and the human mind in particular – I switched my major to psychology. That laid the foundation that would eventually mold Silverskin into something much more psychological, much more clinically accurate, and, I hope, much more deeply human than anything I could have written before.
But it wasn’t just classroom learning that shaped Silverskin. That was only the beginning.
A few months after I turned ninenteen, I embarked on a church mission to the exotic, wild, foreign lands of Oklahoma (I’m not actually joking. You have no idea.)
(PSA: if you run into Mormon missionaries, be kind to them. Don’t make their stress-eating problem any worse than it already is.)
For eighteen months, I lived with people who were so similar to me (we had the same beliefs and ideologies) and yet so bafflingly, wildly different (often, none of us could agree on how to actually apply those same beliefs and ideologies to the very messy, very real world in which we live.) I talked with every kind of person you could imagine. I taught on the streets, in libraries, in homes so rich and beautiful they blew my mind, in college apartments, and in run-down government housing. I taught in the rain, during floods, in tornado shelters, and in tornadic storms with no shelter anywhere in sight. I taught dead-eyed, exhausted soldiers going through Basic Training and their drill sergeants, too. Then, when they graduated, I prayed they would all be okay. I also prayed for their mothers.
I taught members of street gangs. Several times, my companion and I found ourselves surrounded by gang members… as well as their families. I didn’t know at the time the danger we could have been in; looking back, I see how much of an idiot I was (that’s the thing about faith – it makes you do ostensibly stupid things that turn out not to be stupid after all.)
I taught people who were abused, and sometimes I taught their abusers – grudgingly. It was difficult at best for me to have much empathy for them, but Jesus put up with ’em so I thought I probably should, too. Occasionally, I learned their backstories.
Then, suddenly, the empathy got real.
I taught addicts. Old, young, black, white, rich, poor, gay, straight, trans, cis, it didn’t matter. I found myself loving them. I found myself aching for them, sharing their pain. We all have so much in common, if only because we all hurt.
(I thought the damage was done once the tornado had passed. I was naive. And we all dealt with it together; in those moments, it didn’t matter where we came from, what we looked like, or what our identities were.)
And I realized how lucky I’d been to have the upbringing that I did. To have the parents I have. The opportunities and the safety I’ve enjoyed. Many of those people I met on my mission will never leave me. I don’t know where they are or how to get in touch with them. I don’t know where that adorable little nine-year-old boy I taught in the gang house is now. I can’t find that young mom who had just had twins. I can’t even remember her name. I just remember her eyes. Those two female soldiers who were training to be medics and had such a great sense of humor even though they were so stinkin’ tired because Basic wrecks people? I don’t know. I just don’t know.
To top it all off, I was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma toward the end of my mission. It’s the least scary form of cancer out there, but it’s still cancer. I didn’t have time to research it, and nobody told me that it wasn’t going to kill me, so I developed deep, bone-gnawing anxiety about it. I became afraid of the sun, which is a royal pain when you’re someone who pretty much lives to be outdoors. It took me a years to overcome that anxiety. To this day, I still have to fight it off every time I go to a doctor’s appointment.
In short, I came home very much changed. I’d seen miracles, watched people metamorphose in stunning ways, and learned by action that love is a verb, not some floofy concept with a square jaw and shredded abs.
And speaking of that, two nights after getting home, I met the man that would become my husband.
I was dressed in OU pajama pants and an OSU tee shirt (sue me – I did time on both campuses. Choosing one or the other would be like trying to pick which arm to keep and which to chop off.) No makeup. Messy hair. Typical Caitee. Dallin was dressed in jeans and a solid colored polo. Typical Dallin. He was my height, maybe an inch taller. Slender. Red-headed. Looked a little like Toby Maguire.
I wasn’t impressed. And neither was he.
But that night, we still ended up bonding over our shared love of chocolate chip cookies. Three weeks later, he saved me from getting scammed. Then he asked me on a date. And I wouldn’t exactly call it a success.
I was, as he so eloquently put it, “mad awkward.” And he wasn’t much better, given that he told me he was basically a lizard (he has Reynaud’s Syndrome, which, among other things, makes his hands sticky. (Parenthesis within a parenthesis: I found out later that it wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounds. Wink wink.)) I went home that night thinking he was a nut, but that he’d probably make a really great friend. But as the semester progressed, things changed between us. It was a classic friends-to-lovers. I fell hard for him.
Apparently, the feeling was mutual, because six months later, he asked me to marry him. I said something like “bleshclemelformelfow” because I’m very articulate, but he got the gist. Together, we finished college, started a little marketing agency, bought a fixer-upper house in a little Wyoming town called Riverton, and grew said agency into something we were proud of. A few years into our married life, we found out we were having a baby. We were stable, happy, thriving. Life was going great!
And then we had a global pandemic.
And then I had a baby. During a global pandemic.
It was a rough delivery. I had preeclampsia – a rare but serious form of high blood pressure exclusive to pregnancy. After Evan was born, I hemorrhaged. Once I stabilized and we were finally able to go home (did I mention we also moved in the middle of all of this? Into another fixer-upper with even bigger problems?), we learned very quickly that Evan was colicky and only wanted to be held, and by me specifically. I had lost enough blood that I tired very easily. But this baby wouldn’t go to anyone else; I had to be the one to hold him. He only slept when I was holding him, and oh boy was he an erratic sleeper. I had other friends who had had babies around the same time, and the pictures that I saw of them on Facebook were all so… peaceful. Sure, they looked tired, but they all looked happy, too.
A week in, I started wondering why I didn’t feel the same way.
Two weeks in, I started wondering why I couldn’t make this baby happy, why he wasn’t “adjusting,” or “calming down” the way the pediatricians said he would. I had tried everything. I never put him down. I changed his diaper at the first sign of wetness. I held him through all his naps, did everything one-handed, staggered up the street with him in a carrier while Dallin looked on helplessly because the baby wouldn’t go to him.
No. He preferred to scream at me. His mother.
His mother, who had grown up around babies and children. Who had tons of experience with them. Who had thought she could handle this. Who had expected hard, but apparently had no idea how hard hard really was. Who was being slowly killed by sleep deprivation because even when the baby slept, she couldn’t anymore. Who would forget to eat, or just didn’t want to eat.
A month in, I was lost.
I was drowning in inadequacy, confusion, and rage. I had begun to hate myself. I never hated my baby; how could I? He was perfect. He was precious. He had infinite potential.
Whereas I? I was a waste of space. Women had been having babies since the dawn of humankind. It was part of life, and one that I had looked forward to for as long as I could remember. But now that it was here, I couldn’t seem to get my crap together. I’d had such hope for my motherhood years; I was so ready to hold that baby in my arms, watch him grow up, nurture and love him. Instead, I’d created a monster. And the monster was me.
You’d think that having a degree in psychology would clue you in when things go wrong. But it sure didn’t for me. I was too busy waging absolute, scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners war on my own mind.
Postpartum depression stole the first six months of my son’s life from me. I don’t remember his first smile or his first laugh. I caught the first time he rolled over on camera. Sometimes I go watch that video. I smile at it now (yes, this story does have a happy ending), but there’s a small part of me that’s still sad that I can’t pull that memory out of my brain organically. It’s all gone; I would say it’s just a blank, white wall but it’s not even that. It doesn’t exist.
I struggled through the depression for seven months, with Dallin slogging right beside me the whole time. As COVID restrictions started to lift and everyone came out of isolation, I started seeing people again. Church happened. Playgroups started to happen. Library started up again. And some part of me finally realized… this wasn’t normal. This wasn’t good.
Around month eight, all three of us contracted COVID. It hit Dallin the hardest; he was laid out flat for almost ten days, and significantly affected by the virus for a month. I had a fever for seventy-two hours and felt sick for about a week. Evan kicked it completely in two days.
But those two days were hell on earth.
I slept in his crib with him because he wouldn’t sleep without me, but then I would cough and wake him up. He got so tired that he just screamed and whimpered for hours and hours. There was no end in sight. And I was beyond tired. I was ready to just lay down and die. I wanted to die. And that was when I had my first suicidal thought.
Dallin had mentioned going to therapy earlier in the week, and, luckily, that memory followed right on the heels of my half-formed visions of the gun cabinet. I stumbled out of Evan’s room with him clutched against me, and fell into Dallin’s arms. I told him yes, he could text our church’s Bishop, get me into therapy, do whatever it took to get these awful thoughts out of my head.
Things started to turn around after that. I became aware that I’d been fighting a real, legitimate, potentially life-threatening battle for the last eight months, after nearly dying in childbirth, during a pandemic, and enduring terrible isolation during a part of life in which everyone can pretty much agree that a woman needs support the most. I realized that having a colicky baby alone was a significant risk factor for depression – and it was one of many that I had. I went to my first therapy appointment and the first words out of my therapist’s mouth were “This isn’t your fault, Caitee.”
And I finally saw a glimmer of light. I finally had a moment of clarity. After months of self-loathing, I finally was able to show myself some mercy.
The next few months were transformative. I had been shattered and had to piece myself back together. I started painting again, and reading. I started to play my violin, and to my delight, Evan would listen. He seemed to enjoy it! I picked up a couple violin students and started a studio (that fizzled pretty quickly; I am NOT a good teacher.) I would look up at the Wind River Mountains and not feel like I needed to say goodbye to the wild part of me that just wanted to run to them. Maybe Wilderness Caitee and Mom Caitee could coexist. For the first time in a long time, I had hope.
Then, I learned I was pregnant again. You can imagine what that was like.
The craziest thing is, it wasn’t entirely unplanned. Both Dallin and I felt like we needed to have another baby (there’s that faith thing again. You don’t have to understand or agree; I only ask that you respect it.) We’d tentatively started trying. But nothing could have prepared me for seeing that positive pregnancy test.
In that instant it all came crashing back: the bed rest, the health anxiety, what it had been like to almost bleed to death. The sleepless nights, the struggle, and above it all hovered the specter of that horrible depression. What if it all happened again?
At some point, in the middle of all this madness, I picked up a copy of Veronica Roth’s Divergent. If you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil it, but I will say the ending is absolutely devastating. I was pregnant and hormonal and ugly-cried for thirty minutes after finishing the third one. Poor Dallin had no idea what to do with me except feed me a cookie and pat me on the head (which was the right answer.)
I went to bed that night stewing on many things. The Divergent trilogy was at the bottom of the list… but it was still on the list. I fell asleep thinking about how badly I wanted to read a good love story that doesn’t end in tragedy (disclaimer: there are tons of those out there and Divergent is good. I’m not trying to rag on it. Now that I’m not pregnant I’m slightly less mad about it. I just prefer happy endings, personally.)
During that time, I was also struggling with pregnancy insomnia. Remember how I said earlier that I get some of my best ideas when I can’t sleep?
I remember waking up that night in vivid detail because it was such a violent experience. Not because I’d had a nightmare, or because the house was on fire or a mouse was scampering over my face (yes, that actually happened once), but because that mostly-forgotten story I’d cooked up in Alaska hit me so hard that if I’d been standing up it would have knocked me over. I lay there, awestruck, and watched it coalesce. Suddenly I had a plot. I had characters. I had something that could be a real-live book, something that could seriously go somewhere, and most importantly, something that could help me get through the fight I knew was probably coming.
I got up the next morning and told Dallin I was going to write a novel. In true Dallin fashion, he shrugged and said “All right. I support it.”
So over the next year, Silverskin slowly came into being. During naptimes and after bed, I wrote. Day by day, pieces of the plot, of the world I was building right next to our own, of the characters’ lives, stories, and arcs, fell into place. I would play with Evan, go shopping, sit in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, work in my art studio, and all the while this thing was constantly churning in the back of my mind. It never stopped. I couldn’t stop.
Writing about the Lady and Ellie’s anxiety came so organically when I was experiencing something so similar in real life.
I gave birth to my second son, Levi, in February. Once again there were serious complications, but luckily no one came nearly as close to dying that time. Yes, the depression came back, but we were ready. We came in fighting. We weren’t in lockdown, so I was able to be social. I’d made friends, I had family who was watching my back, a church family who supported and encouraged me at every turn.
And now I also had this book.
Every terrible thought, every ounce of self-loathing, every bit of fear and anxiety and hopelessness I experienced was now fuel. My depression became a blade made of words. I was pissed. off. I was not going to let it steal anything else from me. I grabbed it with two hands and wrestled it into the story, into the lives of my characters, and suddenly it had a name.
Yes, the devil-in-training from C.S. Lewis’s classic book The Screwtape Letters. I’d read it before, but now when I picked it up, I saw it in a whole new light. (Note, the demons in Silverskin are not Lewisian; the name is really where the similarity ends. Instead of sitting at neat little desks with their typewriters, running Hell as if it’s a Fortune 100 company, the demons in Silverskin are much more… feral. In fact, at a very high level, they were inspired more by the creatures from the Upside Down in Stranger Things (the first two seasons, before it took a hard left into horror and I quit watching. And yep, this is a double parenthesis. I do what I want.) Combine the two and you get an intelligent, hungry, and highly individual form of life from a parallel dimension. I won’t say anymore here because I don’t want to spoil some of the revelations coming in book two. You get the point.)
Fast forward several months. I let Dallin read the first draft and incorporated his brilliant critiques. Then, I queried a couple agents. Within a week, I got really sick of that, and decided I didn’t want to wait around for the publishing industry to decide my strange little book that didn’t fit any sort of mold (and was WAY too long) might be worth a glance.
So, I decided to just publish it myself.
I sent it out to my alpha team, then found a few really good beta readers who were worth their weight in gold. I ran a Kickstarter. I used the proceeds to fund professional edits. Nine months and over eight rounds of revisions later, Silverskin was finally ready.
It’s still weird to me to think that if you’re reading this it’s probably because you’ve either read my book or are going to. But I’m thrilled. I don’t know if it’s going to go anywhere; the statistical odds of it being noticed by more than a tiny handful of people are minuscule. But if it can touch one life, if it can help one person, then it’s worth it.
So, I hope you enjoy it. I hope it uplifts you the way it did me. I hope you grow to love these characters and cheer for them, and that through them, you find a little more strength to face the demons in your own life. I know I certainly did.