When Suicide Is off the Table: A Funny Memoir of Depression

We talked to author/comedian Jacqueline Novak about Tony Robbins, mindfulness, and why choosing whether or not to commit suicide is the essential premise of everyone's life.

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Feb 29 2016, 12:05am

Jacqueline Novak opens her 2014 comedy album "Quality Notions" with a routine about being on stage. In it, she describes her own stage presence and vocal patterns, including her unwillingness to backtrack when she mispronounces a word. It's a self-aware self-awareness.

This same meta-awareness permeates her new book, How to Weep in Public: Feeble Offerings on Depression From One Who Knows. The book is both a depression memoir and a satire of the self-help genre. The self-help format is really a framing device for Novak to talk about her own life. Too often, the discourse around depression is around "battling" the illness, then getting better. But Novak explains that the key to coping with depression—for her, anyway—is learning to live with it as a chronic but manageable condition.

Broadly: In the book, you mention that you have been reading self-help books since the second grade. Tell me about some of your favorites.
Jacqueline Novak: It began, really, with audio programs of Tony Robbins' Personal Power, which a friend of my father had given him because he was starting his own business. We would listen to those a lot in the car. I wonder if the fact the he was doing that kind of thinking, maybe that's where it seeped in, where I got a first taste.

Tony—I remember a few key lessons. I remember this one exercise, it was like, "Look for everything that's brown." And then you do that, and he's like, "Close your eyes. Tell me what was green." And you can't remember anything, and it's a lesson about how what you focus on appears to you. Those sort of sentiments—these "you create your own reality," "how you feel is the result of how you're thinking," a real sense of personal responsibility in regards to happiness—it made a strong impression on me.

Then I actually read Tony Robbins' book, the hard copy of Awaken the Giant Within.

Did you awaken the giant within?
I think I did, at the time.

What was relevant for me in that story of my later depression was the fact that as a youngster, I had a really strong belief that you are responsible for your own feelings and experiences. I found it very effective in terms of managing anxieties. When I first was really struggling with depression, I was very upset with myself because I felt that I was thinking wrong, or somehow failing on all the stuff I knew. I awoke the giant and created a larger height for a greater fall.

A big part of "How to Weep in Public" is about learning to be "better at being depressed." What do you mean by that?
The ultimate joke (but also what I intended as the real value of the book) is that I'm letting the depressed reader off the hook from trying to cure themselves or feel better. Someone like me—obsessed with healing, obsessed with trying to feel better—sometimes, that can lead to a cycle of feeling bad that you're feeling bad, feeling like you're failing for feeling depressed.

When I say "getting better at being depressed," am I saying that depression is cool or that you should live with it? I'm not. What I'm saying is, what do you when you're in it and you're unable to get out of it? What do you do when you are sitting there feeling like you can't tolerate the next second? I'm trying to come into that little space, and say, what do you do when you're in here?

You're a comedian and a writer, which means that there's no guaranteed path to success or even stability. How do you ride the ups and downs of your career while maintaining your mental health?
At one point, when I was in bed at my parents' house staring at a wall, I remember thinking, "All right, you're not going to kill yourself, right?" I just knew I was not going to kill myself. Knowing that, what are you going to do? Assuming suicide is off the table. As dark as it sounds, it's actually the essential premise of everyone's life. It's a helpful idea to think about what am I going to do? It kind of made me think I might as well go for it and do exactly what would be the most interesting life I could go for.

If I'm going to survive life, if I'm going to deal with these things, if I'm going to have ups and downs, I'd like for the ups to at least be the most fulfilling they can be. People are like, "Does it freak you out that you don't know where your next check is coming from?" I was more freaked out when I did know where my next check was coming from.

How do you want to change the way people talk about depression?
People in the know about depression have been saying for a long time, this is an illness, this is a real health issue. If you have a broken arm, you get a cast, that's the thing you always hear. Because that's the metaphor that's always used to try to make people understand that depression is real, people therefore see it as a simple cure.

There's just so many factors, and it's possible that the kind of 'depression is a real thing and there's stuff you can take to cure it, and these people were depressed and now they're not', that narrative might, right now, while being an oversimplified narrative, might be the narrative that's needed to convince a large portion of the population that depression exists.

I think there are so many different experiences of depression that "cured versus ill" don't cover.

What are your favorite depression coping strategies that actually work?
You know those Chinese handcuff toys that you put your finger in? If you pull you can't get your fingers out, and you have to press in instead. It's kind of like that. If you find yourself in the Chinese handcuffs of depression and you panic and start pulling, [it could] make it worse.

I go, "Have I gotten any sunlight? Have I had any water? When was the last time I exercised? Did something happen that I'm not allowing myself to feel?" Trusting that possibly it might lift within a few hours a few days, which I personally do credit the meds for. Once you know that these things lift a little sooner, it's a lot easier to tolerate them. The first thing is being at peace with it instead of panicking. Don't exhaust yourself fighting it.