Who Do We Become without the Things That Make Us Who We Are? A guest post by Bree Barton
When people ask how my depression started, my answer surprises them.
I was eleven. I know the year (1996), if not the exact date (sometime in January). But I can pinpoint where I was and what I was doing, in the way that people often remember their precise location during a traumatic event.
When people ask how my depression started, I say three little words.
The Lion King.
I was watching The Lion King on VHS, at my grandmother’s house, with my best friend J. And here’s the weirdest thing: it wasn’t even the first time I’d seen the film.
But for some reason, on that dreary day in January, the story landed differently than it had at the movie theater. The scene where Scar kills Mufasa struck me to my core. As Mufasa fell to his death with Simba watching, I started to cry.
Once I started, I couldn’t stop.
I’m sure J asked me what was wrong. But I was crying too hard to answer. And I could not find the words. These weren’t skinned-my-knee or someone-said-something-mean-at-school tears. They were existential, deeply terrifying, my-mom-is-going-to-die tears.
At some point, J switched off the VCR, long before Timon and Pumbaa sang Hakuna Matata. She ran down the hall to get my Mimi, who came quickly. My grandmother held me and whispered kind, soothing words into my ear. And still the tears would not stop flowing.
The memory elides into another memory, one that happened so many times I couldn’t tell you if it was January or February or March or April, though I suspect the answer is all of the above. My mom sits in our blue cloth rocking chair, holding me while I sob. I cling to her, scared she is going to die. Every time she drives away from this gloomy apartment, I am certain she’ll be in a car accident. The fear is primal. My mom and I survived unimaginable things; it’s always been her and me against the world. If she dies, I will be alone.
Looking back now, I see that even if The Lion King triggered my first major depression, the ingredients had been brewing for some time. My own history felt like a patchwork of gaps and missing memories, but I was also dealing with secondary trauma. A few months earlier, a family we were close to had lost four of their five children in a horrific car accident. Sitting in the parlor with that grieving mother, alongside my mother, is something I will never forget.
I was already writing my story, though I didn’t know it yet. The circumstances of my life were forging me, leaving indelible marks—trauma, depression, a deep sadness—but they were also quietly slipping tools into my survival toolkit. Laughter. Creativity. Wonder. And, of course, words.
As a teen, the depression oozed in and out. It would be gone for weeks or even months, then come flooding back. It still does. A depressive episode might be brought on by a particular life event or situation, or it might seize me suddenly, without warning.
Over the years, I’ve discovered other powerful modalities of healing and self-care. Therapy. Dance. Yoga. Medication. SoulCollage. Because words are powerful, I shift my language when and where I can. I think of mental illness as a kind of dance; sometimes it leads, sometimes I do. Instead of “my struggle” with depression, I try to say “my journey.”
Honestly, most of the time it still feels like a struggle. But amidst the worst of the darkness, I’ve gotten better at finding pockets of light.
It took me twenty years to turn those pockets into a book that’s both funny and honest, joyous and sad. To find the words to tell the story of a bright, curious eleven-year-old girl gripped by her first depression—a little girl who, incidentally, cannot find the words herself. She loves words, and excels at inventing new ones, but she doesn’t know how to talk about the Room of Shadows in her chest. So she comes up with her own name for that awful feeling. She calls it The Shadoom.
Zia is that girl, and her journey with the Shadoom is at the heart of ZIA ERASES THE WORLD. If you had the power to erase fear… to erase pain… would you do it? And if the answer is yes: what would be the cost?
This is, of course, a question I ask myself. It’s hard to not wonder what my life would have been like if I could erase what happened to me. Who is Bree Barton without the Shadoom?
There’s a scene toward the end of ZIA where Z must choose whether or not to erase sadness. No matter how many times I read that scene, it always makes me cry. And not how-many-times-will-I-have-to-revise-this-book tears. But existential, deeply knowing tears of what it means to live a life. Who do we become without the things that make us who we are?
I hope this story brings comfort to the kids—and frankly, the adults—who need it. Because despite being a book about depression, it’s actually not a heavy book! Zia is a glorious weirdling who is the dictionary definition of kilarious (adj: marked by or causing extreme hilarity, followed by an emotional sucker punch to the gut). Z knows better than anyone that the right words, at the right time, can make us feel less alone.
Does that mean no worries for the rest of your days? Probably not. (Sorry, Timon.) But with every story I tell, I will strive for that magic alchemy where you take your hardest struggles and, like Mufasa lifting his lion cub, you hoist them up high. You hold your breath. The sun rises. And your darkest fears, your deepest pain, your heaviest sadness dance into the light.
Meet the author
Bree Barton lives in mythical Ithaca with her partner and two waggish dogs. She 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 trilogy, a young adult fantasy series published in seven countries and four languages. Bree teaches dance and writing and loves connecting with readers of all ages. Zia Erases the World is her middle grade debut.
Author newsletter signup: http://eepurl.com/dek_Mz
Look for Bree’s new podcast, ERASING THE WORD, coming soon!
About Zia Erases the World
For fans of Crenshaw and When You Trap a Tiger comes the extraordinary tale of a headstrong girl and the magical dictionary she hopes will explain the complicated feelings she can’t find the right words for—or erase them altogether.
Zia remembers the exact night the Shadoom arrived. One moment she was laughing with her best friends, and the next a dark room of shadows had crept into her chest. Zia has always loved words, but she can’t find a real one for the fear growing inside her. How can you defeat something if you don’t know its name?
After Zia’s mom announces that her grouchy Greek yiayia is moving into their tiny apartment, the Shadoom seems here to stay. Until Zia discovers an old family heirloom: the C. Scuro Dictionary, 13th Edition.
This is no ordinary dictionary. Hidden within its magical pages is a mysterious blue eraser shaped like an evil eye. When Zia starts to erase words that remind her of the Shadoom, they disappear one by one from the world around her. She finally has the confidence to befriend Alice, the new girl in sixth grade, and to perform at the Story Jamboree. But things quickly dissolve into chaos, as the words she erases turn out to be more vital than Zia knew.
In this raw, funny, and at times heartbreaking middle grade debut, Bree Barton reveals how—with the right kind of help—our darkest moments can nudge us toward the light.
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 04/26/2022
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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