Embracing Adversity: AJ Somers’ Journey Through Learning Disabilities, Mental Health, and Creative Triumphs

In this insightful interview, AJ Somers opens up about her personal journey grappling with learning disabilities, mental health challenges, and how these experiences have influenced her creative pursuits. From her early struggles with disorientation and disassociation to finding solace and expression through writing and art, Amanda shares candidly about her path to self-discovery and overcoming fears to pursue her passion for storytelling. Join us as we delve into her debut novel, “Valor Amidst Decay,” and explore the themes that have shaped her writing journey.

Can you share more about your personal journey with learning disabilities and mental health struggles, and how they have influenced your creative pursuits?

Although my childhood can be said to have been pretty chaotic, I had been fortunate that my mom recognized that learning disabilities were very present in all our lives. My grandmother didn’t finish middle school, and my mom also dropped out of school at some point. Learning disabilities weren’t as known of back then, but my mom thankfully had my brother tested when he was young. At the time, my family was able to afford a school for children with learning disabilities so that’s where they took him. By the time I was at a school age, I had also been tested. My siblings and I were all tested for Dyslexia, Attention deficit disorder, and Auditory processing disorder, etc. We each had been diagnosed with each to some degree and I eventually started attending the same school. 

I was lucky, and still to this day, am thankful and very aware that it was an incredible privilege to get to attend that school. I was able to recognize at a young age why I was different. I think that helped to some degree. Just knowing that there was a reason for some of the things I would later experience. 

Although I was fortunate to get to attend the school, eventually our financial situation deteriorated. I was going to be pulled from school until donations, which I later found out were from another student’s family, allowed me to attend until the 8th grade. 

Now, during all this, when our financial situation starting to plummet, my mother’s mental health also started to decline. This is where things started to take a turn. 

I’m also thankful for this school because it became the only stable thing I had in my life. For a long time, the concept of having these disabilities became null in comparison to what else started to occur. 

My brother moved in with my grandparents, my sister started living with friends, and well, I ended up staying with my mom. Unfortunately, I think I became kind of a crutch for her. I don’t blame her. Her situation was pretty awful and what life delt her, she did what she had to do. The hard part of it was that I had to follow. Meaning we were living on and off at family-friend’s homes, sometimes I was staying with friends for long periods of time. 

As an adult, I look back to how my friend’s parents so openly took me in and it kind of amazes me at how incredible people can be. Two friends in particular were my constants. I was basically an adopted daughter to these families. Anyway, this is when my own mental health started to take a turn and I didn’t really understand at that point. 

Bouncing from couch to couch, home to home, I started to get depressed. I started to disassociate, and eventually that caused me to start just forgetting things all together. I would detach. As I grew older, I started to notice that I can’t remember a lot from my childhood because my trauma response literally blacked it out. Even when I remembered, it was like I kind of just blocked out the emotion all together.

I had a teacher who started encouraging me to write, complimenting my stories we would turn in for class. I hope I’m spelling it right, but her name was Mrs. Bollard. 

She really inspired me and at the time I loved music, so I started to write song lyrics and poetry. I used that as a way to try to express the feelings I was starting to suppress. I loved writing so much that when it came to high school, I applied for an art school which I was accepted in for writing. 

A few months though before I was to start school, my mom’s husband, my step-father, enlisted in the military. (Real life age-gap haha) 

From what I remember it was so we could have some form of financial stability.

Anyway, his duty-station was overseas so instead of starting at the art school, I started high school temporarily at another. Right before we moved, I was assaulted. Now by this time my life was already a whirlwind of chaos, it really didn’t faze me. I suppressed the emotions like I did everything else. 

Fast forward, bypassing the witnessing of domestic abuse, being medicated, my mom’s mental health declining to the point of psychiatric interventions, my own suicidal ideations and attempt, all the way until I’m basically living in the same situation but on my own. I eventually had a complete break-down.

My own mental health led me to a point where I was partying too much, facing the fact I had been assaulted years prior, not really grasping what happened or even why. I broke. Completely broke. Years worth of depression and suppressing emotions and trauma led me to make some poor choices and hurt a lot of people on the way. Well, at least in my head I feel like I did because I wasn’t thinking about much else other than myself. 

I hate admitting that but as a 17 and 18 year old, I was so caught up in trying to benumb that pain. The only thing that kept me relatively okay was my art. It was still a way for me to express something I couldn’t otherwise get out. I took to self-portraiture in film photography and continued to draw. I stopped writing because it was becoming too hard to find the words to my emotions.

It wasn’t until I met my husband, and we started dating did I start to kind of wake up from what felt like a never-ending manic episode. I stopped drinking for a while, and eventually started to read more. I had stopped nurturing my creative parts of myself until once I had my daughter, that I realized how much I missed it. After having my daughter, my depression started to rear its head again, severe post-partum anxiety, and a little bit of an identity crisis. Reading is what kept me sane. Well, and thinking about my daughter too. 

Anyway, reading re-introduced me to my passion for the written word. My imagination took off, filling my phone with book ideas. 

Now, regarding the learning disabilities. I can’t say it was something that I really noticed until high school, but I managed somehow. It really wasn’t until I started college, that it started to become more apparent to me. It hindered me in a lot of things and not even just because I had them, but because of the fear. Quite frankly, I feared I would look stupid. There were a number of things I had really wanted to do that I never did because it involved testing of some kind or sometimes it would require conversations that I may have needed to ask questions. It was a paralyzing fear because while some people make mistakes, there were things I could never grasp the concepts for. Math was nearly impossible for me to learn. I would read equations incorrectly, or I would mix numbers. The actual concepts my brain wouldn’t latch and hold on to. 

After completing all the courses I needed for the type of degree I wanted, I stopped going to school because I was struggling with the general ed classes. I was too scared to ask for help or take the offers for tutoring. That was because of my anxiety and irrational fears. My mental health was still in tatters, and it was terrifying to think of asking for help. Again, I didn’t want to look stupid. I still feel like that a lot and sometimes I even struggle because I have to ask what I would call a “silly” question because I don’t understand. As I got older, I started to really recognize things. Such as the APD. I had talked to my mom about it because I was getting so frustrated. (She’s doing really well right now too by the way. Medication for the win!)

Sometimes people will think that I’m ignoring them, or I’m just ignoring something specific they mentioned but sometimes my brain just doesn’t process it. Or it takes time for my brain to comprehend it. There are so many moments where someone will ask me something and I ask, “What,” before my brain understands what it heard. 

I also struggle comprehending things when there are too many sounds. Like right now, my daughter is running around scream playing, the TV feels too loud, and I’m trying to write. To say I am a little overwhelmed is an understatement. (haha) It makes me laugh because I have mastered splitting my attention and multitasking but as soon as too many sounds enter the picture, it’s like I can’t hear and process anything that’s being said or read. I never really acknowledged this until recently though. I hadn’t even truly understood what it was. Once I started to learn and accept it, I started to give myself grace. 

I won’t lie, once I started giving myself grace, I started to see how much my little quirks actually hindered me growing up, but I just ignored it because everything else was going to crap. I still fear that my learning disabilities may cause me to fail in my writing journey but at the same time, the way it continues to heal the continued depression that has been on and off showing itself, or thwarting the anxiety, I continue to just give myself that grace. 

I wish I could say there was some magical cure for mental health disorders, and I won’t lie, I plan on seeing a psychiatrist soon since my mom had been diagnosed with a few more intense disorders and I want to be sure that it isn’t something I need to worry about. But regardless, since I have started to nurture my writing and took this leap, it really has centered me. It doesn’t cure me by any means but allows me to feel the suppressed emotions that still lay dormant. It’s an output for those emotions. My own life experiences inspire my work and I genuinely believe that the learning disabilities don’t hinder me anymore but allow me to have a different view of the world. It gives me an advantage in my creative thinking. 

While I am sure I could have probably handled my situations better as I started to recognize my own issues with mental health, and it’s a little embarrassing to talk about, but I hope that maybe it’ll show people that they aren’t alone. 

Not all these disorders or disabilities fit neatly in checked boxes. The brain is complex meaning all our own situations are. Everyone experiences and handles them very differently but that doesn’t mean you’re alone. Sometimes life can feel really crappy and even feels pointless at times. You’d be surprised at how many people think that but it’s about finding that beauty in the world to lighten the darkness that tries to thwart us. My little beauty is the art world and the stories I hope others will enjoy (and my wild, free-spirited daughter of course haha). But even if no one does enjoy my stories, I at least know it saves me a little each day just by writing them. 

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What specific experiences or moments inspired the storyline and themes of your debut novel, “Valor Amidst Decay”?

It’s funny because a few other book ideas or WIP I have, I have very specific things that inspired them. This one was more of a feeling I had. I had been wanting to start writing again and I had always loved anything zombies, but I also loved the idea of finding your humanity amid total devastation. Blooming amongst stone or a barren environment. It reminded me of me and how despite my less savory experiences, I continue to grow every day. A few other people in my life I have witnessed the same and it kind of had me latching onto this idea of finding love amongst death. Finding life and room to bloom amongst desolation.

How did you overcome your fears and doubts to pursue writing and ultimately finish your novel?

This is something that is hard for me to explain. My whole life I have had things that were possible to obtain but I had always had paralyzing fears stop me. I’ve come to understand it was all mental health and my fears of looking unintelligent. For instance, I wanted to go into law enforcement or even follow some family members footsteps into the military but the testing as stupid as it sounds, terrified me. I tested HORRIBLY on the practice exams and that made me turn my back on a lot of things in my life. That fear could have easily been overcome by having patience and just recognizing my own strengths. It’s embarrassing admitting this honestly, but it’s the truth. There were other factors to hinder my progress, but I only blame myself. I had always wanted to do something with art or my writing and finally, looking at my daughter I realized what type of example am I showing her? This book idea latched onto me like a leach and I hyper focused. 

It was actually weird for me because finally, I found something I wanted bad enough that I would keep going. And I have kept going. Despite my irrational fears, I keep writing. Oh, I have so many fears about this book. What if I didn’t get my research right? What if someone finds a horrible plot hole I didn’t notice? What if they can see the ADD and Dyslexia in the words? 

But despite those concerns, I keep writing, researching, and doing what I can. I want to be an example for my daughter and for my younger self. Had I had someone to just tell me that it was okay to be scared and fear itself can be healthy if we take it and allow it to fuel us, I may have pulled up my big kid pants and chased what I wanted.

Can you talk about a particularly challenging moment during the writing process and how you pushed through it?

I thrive off feedback. Whether it be positive of constructive. As long as it’s given appropriately of course. But it was hard and downright terrifying to write something and have NO idea if other people would even like. Not having a clue as to what other people would like or dislike has been scary. But my biggest reminder to myself was that I am writing for myself. All the matters is that I love it. And that helped a lot. It also pushed me a little to start asking for help amongst the book community. Finding a handful of wonderful humans willing to read my wild zombie romance has been a life saver.

What lessons have you learned from writing your novel, both in terms of the craft of writing and personal growth?

The biggest thing is honestly the technical stuff! I haven’t taken an English class in over a decade. More than that maybe. I may have an okay grasp on it but being dyslexic really does interfere sometimes. In this process and even just speaking with editors and alpha readers etc. I have started to relearn the more fundamental aspects of writing. The things I may have either never grasped before, forgot, or just never learned. 

Another lesson I have learned is that we don’t get where we want to be in life without challenge and without allowing ourselves to step out of our comfort zone. It’s not supposed to be comfortable. That lesson has been important to me because It’s just reminding me that I am achieving something I never thought possible, and it won’t be easy but that’s okay. The fact I am not giving up, not quitting is what is important, and I should be proud of that.

How has writing this book helped you step out of your comfort zone, and what positive changes have you experienced as a result?

Oh man, besides this interview? Because really this was actually a huge a step for me! But another would be socializing and meeting new people. I am awkward sometimes. Even with my own damn husband or close friends, I struggle at figuring out what to talk about. If I want to be more extroverted, I need a few drinks, otherwise I can be awkward. I also get severe anxiety trying to talk and make friends. Irrational fear rears its head. BUT with this process, I learned quick that you need a village. Socializing and meeting other readers and writers has been the most beneficial thing for me. I have not only made wonderful friends, but I have learned a lot from these people. About writing and even the other processes of publishing a book we don’t usually think about.

What advice would you give to others who may be struggling with similar challenges but have creative ambitions they want to pursue?

Stop making excuses as to why you aren’t doing it yet. Stop making excuses to hold off and do it later or excuses for why you can’t do it at all. Believe me, I made excuses for myself a lot and for a very long time. You will never know what you are capable of until you take the plunge and jump. A quote that I love from an old TV show can apply here, “Pull down your pants and slide on the ice.” – Dr. Sidney Freedman, M*A*S*H

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How do you balance managing your business, writing projects, and taking care of your mental health?

I won’t lie, this is something I am still trying to find a balance with. It’s hard. I am a mom, a wife, a granddaughter (helping out with my grandmother), and I work full time at home. I have always had a backward internal clock and I am not sure if it is related to mental health or what, but I am a natural night person so even though I still need to be up early for the kid and work, I have been using my nights as my time for reading and writing. As for my mental health, I have been actively doing things for myself and giving myself grace. When I feel like I am starting to go into a funk as I call it, I allow myself a break. I am open and honest with a few close people in my life. One of my childhood friends has been amazing in talking to because she gets it.

What are your future plans or aspirations in terms of writing and creative projects?

Oh man I have so many. The number of notes I have and even a few I started already, is bananas. (haha) My current project of course is my debut and the second book to follow, but I started a second project inspired lightly on Medusa. Although it will be a dark romance, I want to use this as an opportunity to give realistic representation for SA survivors. Using a small detail from my own, and my (past) experience of being a certified SA advocate, I want others to be seen. To see there is NO shame, they are not at fault, and they deserve a happy ending despite everything. Although my debut will touch a little on that (not nearly as much) and mental health, this next WIP will be heavier with the subject. It will be set in a parallel urban fantasy universe. Other projects I have planned will be more Fantasy.

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Can you share a sneak peek or teaser about what readers can expect from “Valor Amidst Decay” and any upcoming projects you’re working on?

Of course! Although I am in the process of developmental edits and still need final proofreading edits, I can give a little sneak peek of “Valor Amidst Decay”

Sneak peek of VAD by AJ Somers.

As soon as the sound breaks the silence, I curse myself. The shot hit true, and the zombie jolted back forcefully with the blow but as soon as I turn to run, multiple screeches announce our newest visitors. All close.

Blocking my path are already two zombies sprinting straight at me. I hear more in the distance from down the street and possibly from inside the other buildings.

“Oh my god.” I turn back towards the car and before I can think of how stupid and possibly pointless, I jump up on the hood and struggle onto the roof of the midsize car, the backpack’s weight hindering me.

Once I’m up top, I reload and begin firing at the closest zombie, praying I have enough shells. In all the chaos I almost forget the holstered weapon at my hip too. I hope I have enough rounds but as more zombies come into view, it begins to feel hopeless.

 My first shot takes the head of one but before I can shoot the next one in front, a loud bang and shaking of the car has my head whipping around and my arms flailing out to regain my balance. Another is reaching for me now. Almost close enough to grab my feet. The car itself isn’t large but gives me a hair’s width of space from the hands around me. I try to shuffle forward before firing at it.

In the background of my rising panic, I hear more gunfire. I don’t even risk to look, too afraid to take my eyes off the closest hands within arm’s reach, some managing to touch me now. I keep firing until I run out of shells.

Cursing, I pull out the pistol and try my best to even out my breathing. The shotgun at close distance wasn’t an issue this time. I managed to make the shots but with this I can easily miss with my anxiety clutching me so tightly.

“Dahlia!” Someone yells at me, but I don’t spare a glance instead, I continue to breathe before pulling the trigger at the next closest zombie. Hands are beginning to grab at my feet, thankfully none tall enough to reach high enough but knowing how screwed I am regardless doesn’t allow that fact to be comforting.

“Dahlia!” The voice is closer now, and more gunfire finally draws my head up. My breath catches at the sight of Ren, Matt, and Juan all getting closer, seemingly calm as they shoot and fight the growing number of dead with eerie precision. From what I can see, there are no other sprinting zombies on the road. Instead, they are all surrounding my perch, and the others in the street are all still far enough away to not be a threat. Yet.

Ren’s focus is entirely on me though, not on the side of the street. He continues to shoot flawlessly as they near, the others covering him and making sure no others get close. “I need you to jump down and run. Run!” He yells.

I can’t help my reluctance. My gaze falls to the zombies still encompassing the car. So many now. More spilling out from the buildings behind me. I know I need to move now before I just get them killed but how can I make it out of this alive with so many beginning to pile on top of each other. I look down in front of my feet and shoot another one that’s stretching its arm out towards my boot.

“Dahl.” It was said quieter this time, but I heard it. A desperate, choked out plea.

My eyes fly up to meet his. Right then I recognize what he’s trying to tell me.

To trust him. That he won’t let me die.

That maybe, he doesn’t want me to die.

I take a deep breath, release, shoot the zombie in front of me and jump through the small gap they gifted me. I try to leap as far as I can, landing on my feet before falling forward onto one knee.

I can feel hands on my feet only spurring me to act. I jump up and start running as fast as I can towards Ren, keeping my sole focus on him. He continues to cover me as I run. His expression is not giving anything away except his focus on the task in front of him but as I get closer, I can make out the clenched jaw and the darkening of his eyes. My only way of describing them would be a look of murder in his gaze. The expression of someone ready to burn the world to ash.

As he reloads his weapon, his muscles tighten and coil with the action. Clinging to the distraction, I allow myself to stare; anything to keep the threat at my back from creeping into my mind like the poison that it is. My eyes are locked onto him as I take that final step. He reaches for my hand, intertwining our fingers as he turns and runs alongside me. His grip is like iron as he pulls me to safety.

Without Ren as my central focus, I notice a few of the others in our main group by the gate, all helping provide cover. Juan and Matt now beside us, all shooting any that gets close from the side, trusting the others to take the ones out from behind us. The way they work in complete synchronization only solidifies their history fighting together.

My instinct is to look back, but I know that would risk me falling or slowing us down, so I tighten my grip on his hand and run. Trusting them to lead me to safety. Trusting him.

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by Harness Editor

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