A quick warning: this essay discusses mental health and suicidal ideation, and may be upsetting to some readers.
I know what to expect from myself. I just don’t know when
. Allow me to explain: for as long as I can remember, my life has been marked by cycles of depression and anxiety that swap in and out seemingly at random. They are as familiar to me as my heartbeat at this point, and yet they still find new ways to annihilate months of my life at a time, leaving me scrambling to meet my deadlines and handle the basic responsibilities of adulthood. Even on my good days, they’re not gone, just more distant, a dull roar in the back of my mind waiting for the next opportunity to get louder.
There is a myth — a prevalent, dangerous, beautiful myth — that success, however you define it, will be the thing that fixes all your problems. For the vast majority of my life, “success” was defined by one simple thing: a book deal. You can see where this is going, can’t you? After years of scrapped manuscripts and false starts, I signed with a wonderful agent, and she sold my debut novel — and a sequel. To a publishing house I loved, to editors who really understood it. And this goal, the thing I had shaped my entire being around for as long as I could physically remember, was met.
For a little while I was so happy that it made me feel ill, like I’d eaten too much dessert. Full, but queasy.
So when the happiness faded, my first emotion was relief. My sadness was unpleasant, but it was familiar, and familiarity can be comforting even when it’s miserable. And then my sadness deepened, and deepened, until I finally realized it wasn’t sadness at all, I was depressed again, and when I could feel anything at all, I mostly just felt betrayed.
I wasn’t supposed to be successful and completely unable to function. That was not the plan. It wasn’t fair — but it was happening anyway.
When I started writing my debut novel, I didn’t set out to talk about my struggles with mental illness. But although the words “depression” and “anxiety” never appear in the book, it’s become increasingly clear to me that I did.
In The Devouring Gray
, five teenagers are forced to confront the titular Gray: an alternate dimension of their small town that serves as a prison for a monster. It’s a grayscale world, lifeless and dangerous, impossible for humans to survive in for too long. My main characters aren’t supposed to go there, but they’re inevitably drawn in anyway, by trauma, by chance, by choice. Handling this is their responsibility and their burden, and although they all have magical powers that are supposed to make it easier, they still struggle.
I can’t tell a story until I know how it’s going to end.
Back when my debut novel sold, and my mental health dipped for the first time since I’d achieved my dream, I ignored it for as long as I possibly could. I was ashamed of struggling when I felt I had no reason to. I was drowning but didn’t know how to admit it, because I was supposed to be happy.
So I sank instead. And another thought crept in, strengthened by my isolation. That if this book deal wasn’t going to make me happy, there was no point in existing at all.
At the time, I couldn’t think of an argument strong enough to refute this thought. Instead I mulled it over, gave it weight and body. I knew that I was a potential danger to myself, but I also felt that the simple act of knowing that meant I had it under control. Which made it far more difficult to gauge when my ideations had grown beyond a small, lingering voice in the back of my mind to something that filled my every waking moment.
In the Gray, my characters are taunted by a hollowed-out mirror image of their home and twisted visions of people they love. There is a bleakness to this alternate dimension that felt, as I wrote it, like honesty. It was tempting for me to succumb to that vision of reality as a harsh, soulless place, and it was tempting for my characters, too.
But my characters don’t succumb to it. They’re able to leave the Gray behind. Not forever, but for now, and they have more tools and knowledge they can use to escape it in their next battle. And when I chose to give them a hopeful ending instead of a tragic one, I understood that I wanted to give myself that hope, too.
I needed to know there was a way out, even if I couldn’t see it yet.
My recovery was not neat, or simple. There was no a watershed moment where I consciously chose to live — instead, I found myself gradually and painstakingly making a small series of choices to continue existing. Medical professionals helped. So did being honest with both myself and others about the work I needed to do to readjust my expectations about my professional achievements and my personal worth. It’s been over two years since the crux of my post-sale depression, and I’m still working on letting go of success as a panacea. Instead, I’m making slow strides toward something bigger.
I wrote The Devouring Gray
while grieving, while exhausted, while trying to take care of myself. While clawing my way to the external validation I thought would change everything, only to realize that nobody would ever be able to give me something I couldn’t give myself. Reading it now feels like having a conversation with my past self that is long overdue, one where I am honest about the ways my mental health wreaked havoc on my adolescence and young adulthood. But instead of punishing myself for lost time or feeling guilty about my mental illness, I am learning to be kind. To be proud of myself for what I’ve accomplished instead of getting mired in an endless sea of what-ifs. It’s a new definition of success — one that feels far less likely to send me spiraling in the future.
Over the years, friends and acquaintances alike have commented on my tendency to discuss trauma only in the aftermath. “I didn’t know you were going through that,” they’ll say, and I find myself unable to explain that I can’t tell a story until I know how it’s going to end. Which is why, lately, I’ve been making more of an effort to talk honestly about my mental health. Because my anxiety and depression aren’t the kinds of things that end — they ebb and flow. And because I know I’m far from the only one out there struggling with the weight of all this.
But I also know this: writing my debut novel taught me to embrace the cyclical nature of my existence. To believe that even when the bad days stretch onward with no sign of stopping, there will be a good day again. All my life, I have worried that my mental illnesses will engulf me until there is nothing left.
The Devouring Gray
showed me how to face that fear head-on — then keep going.
÷ ÷ ÷
Christine Lynn Herman
writes books about magic, monsters, and growing up. She is the author of The Devouring Gray
, an Indies Introduce and Kids’ Indie Next pick, and a sequel (2020). You can find her in the nearest forest, trying to figure out how to become a tree, or on Twitter and Instagram @christineexists.