Despite being an absolutely hysterical stand-up comedian, Jacqueline Novak is a—as she puts it—depresso. She has suffered from depression since childhood, developing social anxiety on the playground, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol in college and finally, settling into being a full-on depressed grown-up. In her darkly funny memoir, How to Weep in Public: Feeble Offerings on Depression from One Who Knows, Novak provides a brother-in-arms guide for other depression sufferers—not something that says “hey, here’s how to cheer up!” but rather one that provides comfort and company, all told in a reassuring “Hey, I have been there” voice.
The chapters range from the practical (Chapter 16: Home is Where You Cry the Loudest) to the philosophical (Chapter 22: Bad-Weather Friends), with Novak’s own story as the through-line, linking her advice to her own experiences. It’s a no-pressure, safe-zone for the reader to take to bed and curl up with, and return to on particularly dark days.
Read it Forward’s editor Abbe Wright sat down with Novak to talk about her ongoing battle with depression, the novels that depict it well, why scary movies can help and her friend Lena Dunham’s support. And despite the dark topic, they laugh a lot. Maybe humor really is the best medicine.
Read It Forward: Why was it important for you to write this book?
Jaqueline Novak: I was very aware of how comforting I found self-help books. Even when I wasn’t planning on putting them into practice, I still found it comforting to take them into the bed. If I knew I was giving up and heading to bed during the day or something, really feeling a strong, depressed kind of impulse, I’d quickly look at my shelf and grab a few that seemed like they might be what I needed to help me emerge, or make the time in my bed useful, if I wasn’t sleeping. That was a real comfort to me because when you are reading, you are tethering your mind to a little locomotive that just chugs along as long as you keep going. It draws you in. I thought, what if this were more tailored to this experience? What if the person writing the book knew that I was in bed depressed while reading it?
Self-help books often assume that your life is in a certain state, and it can be a little alienating. For example, if the self-help book assumes you hate your job and you’re like, I don’t have a job…
RIF: Yeah. [laughter] Not helpful.
JN: So, I really thought about what it would be like if the author was fully aware and made it okay for me to be in my bed right now during the daytime.
RIF: And you totally own that. In the beginning, you write “you might not have the energy to read this. You might read one page, pull it out like a tarot card.”
JN: Right, right, yeah.
RIF: “…But it might help you anyway because I’ve been there.”
JN: It’s so hard to engage with the depressed mind because it’s a mix. In some ways, all depressions are the same. There are certain recurrent themes, but there are also the peculiarities of how it expresses itself to people. So, there is a risk.
I’ve wondered truly how anyone will receive this book. Is it just tailored to what I would want to hear? How much it will resonate is a real question for me in this book and a leap of faith. Because really, there is nothing that is safe from the negativity or twisting of a depressed mind. Now that the book is out, there is a tentativeness, wondering what the range of responses will be. It feels kind of dangerous putting this thing out there. It’s very odd.
RIF: Not too many people talk candidly about depression.
JN: It’s been a really interesting experience working on this book, with my depressive instincts literally getting in the way of writing it. Throughout the editing process, which is hard enough, I really struggled with questions of self-worth. I had to say, okay, what of this is just the hell of the artistic process and getting feedback and working on a project, and what are my deep-seated long-term issues?
RIF: What’s me and what’s the process?
JN: Yes, yes. Luckily a lot of it is the process, according to my friends who are authors. For my second draft, my editor asked me to dig deeper and go further. I actually wasn’t sure if I could go do it, but if I didn’t, I felt like it wouldn’t be as satisfying. I knew I was going to have to dig deeper.
And another thing I found while writing this is realizing that by the end of the process and towards later drafts, some of the stuff that I wrote in the beginning had become boring or not funny to me anymore. I’m like, this all has to go, and my editor said, no actually, bring it back.
There’s a big issue of getting bored with your own thing and not seeing it as valuable anymore. When you multiply that by all or nothing depressive thinking, which is black or white, you end up thinking “this is total shit.”
RIF: I feel like some self-help books lift you up and leave you feeling good. There is the feeling of possibility for a minute but then they end up leaving you emptier. What I loved about your book is how much of it is a memoir. You are so open about feeling depression first as a child, and on the playground, and that social anxiety.
RIF: And then, hey, college is not the best time in everyone’s life. It’s very relateable.
JN: Right, right, right, yeah.
RIF: Was it hard to be really open about your own story?
JN: Sharing details is where I like to be. I’m pretty comfortable doing that and have been for a while. Because of standup, and the impulse to get into doing standup in the first place, and the kinds of personal essays I would write in college, I have always gotten great pleasure from being confessional. I get a little bit of a thrill out of that risk of revealing something about the self, kind of tossing it out there. There is a risk of someone being disgusted or horrified, or sad for you, or anything. But there is a potential gain of someone going, “Oh my God, me too.” Of really understanding it or feeling freed by you being able to openly admit it.
It’s such a great pleasure and a little high that I’m always seeking. The way that I do that is through revealing things about myself. My friend said I trade in vulnerability.
JN: That’s how I connect with people. It’s very natural to me to share that kind of stuff. That’s just what writing is, to me. What’s the point otherwise? What’s the point of writing down words that are just shoring up the status quo? If I’m going to put something on a page or say it, it should be a risk in some way or I can’t get excited about it.
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RIF: How has humor been a tonic for you in your own life?
JN: I think choosing to be able to laugh at things could be a behavior that is modeled and you can learn. I find that really interesting. As a child, I remember different people in my life who would laugh at something that maybe would have bummed me out. Or in a moment of horror, they would laugh hysterically. It invited me to do the same. There was such a pleasure in that. I remember learning that it could really change your experience of things.
Laughter, or humor, or experiencing things as funny is an ever-widening lens. Having a sense of humor about something, or looking at something that way, is sort of reveling in the way something is. I love to revel in something horrifying, or awkward, or sad. To really just be able to hold something up and see it exactly as it is. To me, that is funny. Doing standup, I like to say that I have to let go of needing laughs. I’m like, do what you will with this. I’m calling it comedy, so it’s comedy.
That kind of perspective allows you to see something as absurd and then laugh, versus just thinking it is embarrassing. When I’m with friends and one of us is depressed, and we’re kind of locked into our minds, if we can talk about it with each other and fess up to the kind of thoughts that we’re having, we always end up laughing about it. When you pull those thoughts out and say them out loud to someone else, they are always ridiculous.
JN: They are so extreme. But when they are in your head they feel real. It’s a really weird phenomenon. I’ve found that saying it to someone else allows you to laugh, and that’s something that’s definitely been helpful.
RIF: Totally. One of the parts I laughed at the most was when you’re back at your parents’ house, and you were like, I need to look at a catalog for geriatric people because those are the people whose energy level matches mine.
RIF: And I’m like yes, who hasn’t had thought about installing a grab bar on every surface?
JN: It really made me laugh when I started looking at those websites for inspiration. Looking at medical supplies and that sort of aid of all kinds.
Thinking of it in that context, the absurdity of really looking at those sites and imagining myself choosing those products is so funny to me ‘cause we’re so not allowed to do that. It’s a weird thing because we allow all sorts of other indulgences. We allow ourselves to drink, and smoke, and eat to oblivion, and binge on television, or whatever, but—
RIF: Right, but we can’t have a shower chair.
JN: There’s this puritanism that comes with it, too. If I insisted on using a wheelchair all the time despite having full working legs, that would be completely offensive behavior. And yet, it’s a free country. I’m allowed to lay on my floor all day and not move. I’m allowed to not use my legs.
RIF: Right [laughter].
JN: But to utilize the products that are made, that’s where the depressed behavior gets confused with a moral failing.
RIF: Totally. Okay, so if people were choosing a book based on its cover, how does the cover image on your book belie the contents inside?
JN: Interesting, well, I, of course, obsessed over the cover image. I got very literal. I sent many annoying emails asking questions about the meaning of the metaphor of the crinkly balloon. Like, okay, if it’s a smiley balloon, but it’s crinkled and deflated, does that mean that this book is about a happy person whose air has been let out by depression? But if the book is about embracing that, or doing it in public, then maybe it should be a frowny-face balloon that’s flying high or something?
I would send five paragraph emails asking all these questions. Ultimately there is something really sweet about the crinkly, deflated smiley. I like the way his smile, or her smile—the genderless smile—is wrinkled. There is something very comforting about that balloon character. That is how I want the reader to experience me. A fully blown-up smiley face balloon is very aggressive.
RIF: You try to be fully blown up when you’re out in public and facing other people and then you feel free to crinkle when you get home.
JN: I’ve come to have a real fondness for that crinkly guy. He’s exactly the kind of friend that you wouldn’t mind letting into your house when you are depressed, and be like yeah, that guy is cool.
RIF: Jack Antonoff is your cousin, and Lena Dunham shared an excerpt of this book on Lenny.
JN: Yeah, it was really exciting.
RIF: She’s been so vocal about her own anxiety. Is that something that you guys have shared and talked about?
JN: It’s great having her support and vote of confidence. I think Lena also lives in that space of share at all costs.
RIF: Full frontal honesty.
JN: Yeah, what’s the point otherwise? I definitely get that from her work. This is something I have talked about with her a little bit, but the crazy reactions that she gets on Twitter from people responding to certain things in her book, it really made me think. It surprised me how negatively some people react to honesty, how threatening it is. It kind of made me think, oh man, if I’m not stirring up conservative haters then I’m obviously not speaking loudly enough. If you’re not angering these people, you are not—
RIF: Pushing hard enough.
RIF: One of the chapters that I loved is the Cozy Up at Rock Bottom with a Good Book chapter. Are there any fictional depictions of depression that you think do a really good job?
JN: Ooh, that’s an interesting question. Let me think about that. I think Girl, Interrupted is pretty good. And I am speaking of the movie because that’s how I was introduced to Susanna Kaysen’s work. Even though it’s not exactly depression, I always thought that the conversation Winona Ryder’s character had with the doctor about her confusion about whether or not she was broken really captured something for me when I was a teenager.
RIF: You write about going to scary movies to transport you and make you feel alive.
JN: I found that my taste became less sophisticated in my depression. I found myself sometimes finding really slick network shows where everyone’s clothes look brand new. There is no real texture there. Even if they try to create a messy apartment, it’s still such a fake mess. It still looks charming, like set design. Sometimes I would find that oddly comforting, and it almost didn’t matter if the story was no good.
RIF: Right. Like, “I’m already awake and breathing. Don’t make me work too hard.”
JN: I would eat up any horror or torture movies, like Saw or those kinds of movies. It’s like ridiculous. They are so absorbing in the moment, the fear and the tension, it’s like an adrenaline boost that cuts through the depression feeling. So, those serve a great purpose for me. I would notice certain things that when you are in one state you enjoy, but if you’re in a depressed state, you just can’t.
They annoy you, or you resent them. Particularly if you’re trying to be a writer, and you’re reading like a brilliant piece of work, that can be very—
RIF: Right, it does nothing to break the cycle of terrible thoughts about yourself [laughter].
JN: Yeah, there is no joy. The second that you feel a slight bit of joy from the work, you’re realizing, oh, I could probably never create anything of any worth that would create joy for anyone. I actually thought about it in the book, and I think I mention it, but I didn’t want my book to bum anyone out. Because if I had read my book back when I was in that state, if someone else had come up with this book, I would be devastated.
I would be like, oh my god, this is the book I am meant to have written and now I can’t. So, I specifically wanted the reader, if they were depressed and a writer, to feel free to not be bummed out that I had already written a depression book.
RIF: Tell me about the title. Why is it okay to cry in public? What are you hoping readers take away from this?
JN: I think of the book as me weeping in public. It’s a metaphor for being open about your experiences that are tough, or unattractive. In a way, I’m showing you how you weep in public. Regardless of whether I have done something of value that anyone will find comforting, or enjoy, or whether I have totally missed the boat and will deeply regret this work, or my ideas about my own mental state change, at the very least, I can stand behind the fact that I attempted to at least speak about it. I am drawing attention to the openness and transparency.
I’m pretty into lowering the bar vis-a-vis the title as is evidenced by the subtitle. [Laughter] When I suggested the language of “Feeble Offerings” for the subtitle, I was really hoping that my editors would go for it. I wanted to be like that balloon guy. I really wanted to gently be like, here is something, no promises.
And about the crying in public, I mean, I just am someone who cries in public because I am a crier. And I feel really comfortable in restaurants. I often end up crying in restaurants with family, or whoever, because I just love eating.
I feel really comfortable when I’m eating. In a restaurant, I’m just so happy that even negative emotions flow more freely. I have no sense of privacy in a restaurant. I would have any conversation with family, friends, whatever. So, I just happen to be someone who has cried in public a lot. Things spontaneously get to me in my own world. If I’m walking around and someone texts me something, I am more in my head than I am in my surroundings. So, it’s no less likely that I’ll cry on the street than in my home.
RIF: [Laughter] That’s okay.
JN: I am probably more comfortable with it than other people, and I’m okay with that. Crying in public doesn’t embarrass me too much. Which is weird, because I’m really attuned to embarrassment. Yet to me there are a million potential reasons for crying, and they are not all bad.
To me, tears rolling is like someone coughing. You don’t know whether they have a cold, or just inhaled some dust or something. You don’t know the reason but there is a reason. It’s another way of me pushing people to share your experience, to bring it into the light.
I think it is also kind of a surprising title that gets your attention. Who would be advocating that, and what does that mean?
In the book, I am telling you how to do the things that maybe you are trying not to do. I’m showing you the ropes around behavior that you are avoiding. Most people think, how not to weep in public is the thing that they would read. How not to weep at all, and certainly not do it in public. It’s sort of like a teaser. It gives you a sense of the ideas that are going to be thrown at you and telling you that it’s okay. If you’re telling someone how to weep in public, and how to do it well, then you’re legitimizing it.
RIF: Yeah, owning it. I always like to cry on the subway, because I figure I’m never going to see these people again. And that’s what sunglasses are for.
JN: Totally, totally.
RIF: Yeah, it’s nice. You’re letting open the hatch, and letting some stuff escape so that you can just keep living.
JN: Absolutely. If you are going to be in the world, if you are going to rejoin the world or stay in it while struggling with things, you’re probably going to end up crying in public. But who cares, because you are living your life. Don’t be afraid to go back out there because you are afraid that you have to return perfect and whole. Make room to cry in public. You don’t have to bow out of life because you’re not bringing the rest of the world down. You’re not slowing the class down with your tears.
RIF: Right, you don’t have to be cry-proof.
JN: Yes. You can be struggling and still in the game if you choose to reenter. I’m giving you permission to reenter.