Back in the day—back when I was still making videos on YouTube, and loving it—I made one called “10 Ways to Meet Your Deadline.”
The video was always meant to be tongue-in-cheek, a satire of my own inability to meet my deadline for the second book in my YA fantasy trilogy. It got a thousand views—more than most of my videos, which felt validating. If you’d like to take four minutes and 45 seconds to watch 10 Ways to Meet Your Deadline before you read the rest of this post, be my guest. Though I must warn you: there is one un-bleeped curse word, and a lot of me in my bathrobe.
That video, posted on March 1, 2018, was my last real YouTube video. By which I mean it was the last one I threw my whole self into, spending many hours envisioning and costuming and setting up shots, then even more hours filming, cutting, and editing.
Because I was horrifically, mind-numbingly, heartbreakingly depressed.
When I watch that video now, I have two primary reactions:
1. Sheepish embarrassment at how blatantly I trotted out so many tangible signs of my depression for all the world to see;
2. Compassion and deep empathy for my four-year-ago self, who was trying so hard to find the light amidst the dark.
Because I do believe, at my core, that there is laughter to be found, joy to be excavated, from even the darkest pit.
Is it any wonder that one of the synonyms for pit is depression?
Depression has played a recurring role in my story since I was eleven, when it was triggered, of all things, by a rewatch of The Lion King. My guess is that the seeds were planted long before that, during the early years of my childhood, when my mom and I fled an abusive situation. We had survived, but it came at a cost. Fear, pain, and sadness had stitched themselves together into a network of roots just beneath the surface, waiting to bloom. Then Scar threw Mufasa to his death, and my seeds became a garden.
For many years, I didn’t speak publicly about my depression. But in September 2018, six months after I posted 10 Ways to Meet Your Deadline—which might as well have been called 10 Ways My Depression Manifests—I did. I had just returned home from my debut book tour, and while organizing my closet, the despair walloped me so suddenly it felt like someone had punched the breath out of my lungs.
So on that bright day in September—because all days are bright in Los Angeles, no matter how emotionally inappropriate—and since I was still unable to meet my book deadline, I took my phone and wandered around my house, composing a series of Instagram Stories for World Mental Health Day. I told the story of my depression, the unabridged story, one I hadn’t told before.
The response was overwhelming.
The DMs poured in. Messages from others who struggled with depression. People who had battled mental illness. Survived suicide attempts. Supported friends and family through painful episodes. People whose neurodivergence had been stigmatized and shamed. As I connected with more and more people, I felt my spirit lift. It’s not like the depression vanished, but if one of the lies depression whispers into our ear is that we are alienated from ourselves and each other, that day proved I was not alone.
Perhaps, I thought, the answer is not to hide my depression in the shadows. Perhaps I can coax it into the light.
By then I was already working on ZIA ERASES THE WORLD, my middle grade debut about depression, and I returned to the draft reinvigorated. I would tell the story of a bright, curious, hurting 11-year-old girl who doesn’t have the words to describe what’s happening inside her. A story about depression, yes, but also a funny book, playful and inventive, even silly. It is my story, in so many ways, with one crucial exception: Zia has a magical dictionary that can erase whole feelings from the world.
What is a world without fear? Without pain? Without sadness?
Is that a world we would want?
I am not a painter, but I have always been interested in this idea of chiaroscuro. In art, chiaroscuro is the use of strong contrasts between light and dark. As a writer, I find myself drawn to the metaphor. You cannot appreciate the light without the darkness, and you cannot appreciate the darkness without the light. Neither can exist alone.
When I am in the thick of it, unable to face the light of day, dirty dishes piled high in the sink, it is difficult to embrace the chiaroscuro. But then I remember that living with this darkness—the Shadoom, as Zia names her Room of Shadows—has made me into who I am today. It has gifted me with an ability to write honestly about my experience. And as much as I don’t want to be launching a book about depression in the midst of a depression, it has forced me to be authentic. To say to kids, “I have been where you are. It is scary. It is painful. It is unbearably sad. But you can bear it. You can survive.”
How you survive is up to you. Maybe you do it by making videos, telling stories, writing a blog. Maybe you spend your whole life searching for 10 Ways to Coax your Shadoom into the Light. But somehow, one day, you own it as part of your story.
And then you wait, quiet, breathless, as others rise up to greet you in the dark.
Bree Barton wrote her first book as “a humble child of ten”—her exact words in the query letter she sent to editors. Those editors told her to keep writing, and luckily, she did. Bree was eleven when her journey with the Shadoom began, and stories offered a special kind of balm. A handful of years later, she is the author of the Heart of Thorns fantasy trilogy (KT/HarperCollins), published in seven countries and four languages, and Zia Erases the World (Viking/PRH), her magical middle grade debut. Bree loves dancing, cheese, and connecting with readers of all ages. She lives in mythical Ithaca with her partner and two waggish dogs.