Well hello! I’m so glad you’re here. We have an interview with the fierce and funny author and artist, Allie Brosh, plus advice on recognizing if someone you love is struggling with depression even if they’re not physically near you, and dogs, lots of dogs.
ALLIE BROSH AND THE TROUBLE WITH SOLUTIONS
This week, instead of an essay I wanted to share the art and words of Allie Brosh, author of the brilliant graphic memoirs, Hyperbole and a Half, and her most recent bestseller, Solutions and Other Problems.
We’re entering a particularly isolating and daunting winter for those already struggling with mental health issues, so I thought it would be soul-edifying to hear from Allie, who’s been so open and wise about all the hard stuff—depression, anxiety, and loneliness. For those who don’t know her comedic stories, Allie draws herself as a little creature with froggy eyes and a flying yellow ponytail. And she describes the tone of Solutions and Other Problems, as:
A wildlife documentary about one really weird animal, which was written and directed by the animal.
Hyperbole and a Half, Allie’s first book, came out seven years ago and inspired a million memes. Between then and now, she basically disappeared from the Internet, leaving her fans worried and longing for her return. In that time, she navigated the loss of her younger sister Kaiti to suicide, the end of a marriage, and serious medical issues.
It’s all in Solutions and Other Problems, along with goofy tales of childhood and hilarious takes on modern inanities including tyrannical and invasive smart devices like a car stereo that “will not stop until it is certain that I am adequately interacted with and all my needs have been met, forcibly if necessary.”
In a section called “The Serious Part,” Allie writes about her family after her sister died. And because I’m also someone who lost a sibling to suicide, I can say that Allie’s words about how complex this kind of grief can be are as real and true as any I’ve read.
She writes of her sister: We’d always had a strange relationship and I wasn’t prepared for it to be over. I don’t think either of us understood how much I loved her. It seemed like there’d be enough time to sort it out. But we’ll never get to sort it out. And I’ll never get to say sorry. And I’ll never know why.”
Hyperbole and a Half is Allie Brosh’s first book. In it, as on her blog, she draws herself with a tube body and a yellow, triangle ponytail.
Photo by Sarah Henderson
🌺 THE INTERVIEW
Here’s Allie’s take on everything from self-help culture to things about severe depression that might surprise you if you haven’t experienced it, and why solutions are often the start of problems.
Susanna Schrobsdorff: Solutions and Other Problems is a genius title—what does it mean to you?
Allie Brosh: So, you know that thing where you have a problem, and in trying to solve the problem you generate a brand new type of problem? It’s sort of about that. How the solutions themselves become the next generation of problems. Because no solution is perfect.
You had a chapter about trying to practice loving-kindness, joking that you’d always thought you’d be one of the greats at that. It was so funny, but it was deeper than that too.
Among other things, that chapter was secretly about intentions. You can have good intentions, and end up causing weird things to happen, but you’ve still got to try, you know?
It was also about the one-way grocery-store friendships I have. Grocery-store people are my people. There have been years where going to the grocery store was my main form of socialization. It felt comforting to go to the grocery store. Because that’s where my friends were. They didn’t know they were my friends, but I like it that way. There’s no pressure. I see them, they see me, and that’s enough.
What do you think about our self-improvement culture generally?
I think self-improvement itself is a good thing, but sometimes the message gets a little muddled. Like, it sort of feels like self-help books are designed more to sell books than to offer practical help. There’s not a lot of realism in there. A realistic self-help book wouldn’t sound like “Easily banish your anxiety with these simple tricks!” It would sound like “Moderately improve your anxiety over a span of many years by continuously choosing to do the hard thing instead of the easy thing, and there’s no real end point—you have to keep going indefinitely if you want to keep improving.” And I think that really holds self-help back—the promise of easy results.
If I’ve ever managed to improve myself, it took a very long time, and it definitely wasn’t easy. And going in expecting the type of dramatic results being promised was actually pretty confusing.
When my depression or anxiety was still there months later, it felt like failing, instead of what should be expected with persistent psychological issues like anxiety and depression.
If you’re expecting it to be easy, you’re probably going to feel disappointed. You won’t even notice the improvements, probably. Because they’re very small. In my experience, it’s far more helpful to go in expecting to work hard to make gradual, realistic improvements on your overall strategy. It’s definitely possible to improve, but I don’t trust anything that promises to make it easy.
Do you feel the book has particular resonance during this pandemic when so many people are feeling alone?
As far as the resonance it has for this time, I didn’t know quarantine was going to happen when I wrote the material, but I do hope that the last chapter in particular—the one about being your own friend—could be helpful for people feeling a similar type of loneliness to what I was feeling when I wrote it. It was a deep, new kind of loneliness that I’d never felt before, and I really empathize with anybody going through something like that, whether because of quarantine, or something else, or both. Loneliness is hard, and sometimes there aren’t very many external things you can do to change it. At the very least, I hoped that talking about loneliness openly would help make it less scary.
How have people responded to your writing about hard stuff: depression, loneliness and anxiety?
The response has been very warm and supportive. People will reach out to me, saying those sections helped them feel less alone in their struggles, and then they ask how I’m doing, and if I’m O.K. It’s beautiful.
Sometimes I feel scared to be vulnerable, but I don’t think I’ve ever regretted it. I think it’s good to be vulnerable; it shows people that it’s safe to be vulnerable too. And, for the most part, I think people appreciate that. Actually, one of the comments I have saved in my special folder is somebody who said, “Thank you for going first.” I’ve probably read that one a hundred times. It helps me remember that I don’t need to feel scared.
You write for the first time about losing your younger sister Kaitlin, who died by suicide in 2013. Can you talk a little bit about her and what it meant to bring her into your book?
As children, Kaiti and I didn’t really know what to make of each other. In some ways, we were close; in others, we were rivals.
We shared a bedroom until I was 17, and we were both introverts, and we were both kind of weird and sensitive, and some days it was tense. But there were also days where we’d go to the lake to look for snakes. She’s the only person I’ve ever known who felt as enthusiastic about finding snakes as me. There aren’t a lot of little girls who like to do that, but she did. She was my snake-finding buddy.
There’s a type of understanding between siblings that you don’t get anywhere else. You grew up together. You were raised by the same people. There are quirks you share that nobody else has. It can be hard to see them, but they’re there.
When I was finishing the book, it was very painful to relive the happy memories, but also cathartic. In a way, drawing those memories for the book allowed me to feel connected to her again. Because when you’re drawing, it feels like interacting with the subject. And I was surprised by how therapeutic that was.
What advice would you give to a person who loves someone who is depressed?
As always, there’s the caveat that different people experience depression slightly differently, and what works for one person might not work for the next, but for me what has been most helpful is when somebody shows a willingness to understand, and also a willingness to just quietly be there if that’s what I need. Sometimes it feels good to talk about it; sometimes it’s too overwhelming, and it feels helpful when somebody lets me know that it’s O.K. to not feel O.K. right away. Because it isn’t always possible to feel O.K. right away—sometimes I don’t feel O.K. for a very long time—and it takes a lot of the extra stress out of the experience to know the other person understands that.
In general, understanding is good.
There are a lot of weird aspects [of depression] that are difficult to explain—like the fact that even a deeply depressed person doesn’t SEEM depressed all the time.
A couple years ago, I noticed that I was kind of restraining myself during those fleeting moments of levity, because I was self-conscious about how confusing it would be. And that’s just silly! I mean, how rare and valuable are those happy little moments, when you’re depressed? And I was trying to suppress them!
I don’t really know what somebody could say or do to help with that, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to understand that it’s a part of the experience for some folks. 💌
✨ Check out Allie’s books and her blog here.
COPING KIT ⛱️
⛑️ What To Do If You’re Worried About a Loved One’s Mental Health This important piece from the Washington Post has advice on how to spot signs that someone’s struggling even if you can’t see them in person, as well as how to help.
‘You mean so much to me,’ or, ‘I love you.’ Those are lifesaving words that only loved ones can say that are incredibly connecting and powerful for people who are feeling desperate and alone.
–John Draper, executive director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
🎙You and Me Both With Hillary Clinton: A Conversation About Mental Health In a recent episode of her podcast, Clinton talks with three people who have spoken openly about their mental health struggles: Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald, veterans advocate Jason Kander, and author Allie Brosh.
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A Million ❤️s Connected
This Sunday, December 13, you’ll get to meet some of our inspiring friends at Pandemic of Love when CNN features this grassroots volunteer-run aid organization in their 2020 CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute broadcast at 8pm ET. The timing is perfect. POL founder Shelly Tygielski (pictured above) reports that as of this week, the group has matched one million people–givers and those in need–since March 14.
It all started with Shelly’s belief that if you could find a way to match good-hearted donors directly with individuals, people would step up. And hundreds of thousands have.
And for more evidence of human kindness, check out this CBS video report about Beth Eiglarsh, a mom from Hollywood, Florida (and Pandemic of Love) patron who was paired with Sean Noriega, a former New York City school teacher who left work after being diagnosed with throat cancer. Beth helped Sean with food, finances, and more. Sean describes what her outreach meant like this:
When I use the word angel (to describe Beth), I don’t use it lightly. I really do mean that word literally because this lady saved my life.
Guardians of the Year
Check out TIME’s Guardians of the Year cover story which includes Dr. Anthony Fauci and the frontline healthcare workers who’ve been battling this pandemic for almost a year.
Many of you sent me notes nominating healthcare workers, some of you named persons of the year that you know personally: a nursing home aide who has become your essential connection to a parent, a “porch angel” who dropped off groceries and meals for weeks when your whole family was sick, the person who sent you care packages when you were isolated. So to all of those persons of the year, we send our collective gratitude: You are what’s holding the country together.
MESSAGE OF THE MOMENT 🦋
The social messages brands promote are both a reflection of the zeitgeist and a driver of the culture. So it’s worth noting that several are launching overt calls for kindness this year. We sure hope that we can find empathy in our hearts without an external prompt in this time of need, but it sure can’t hurt to spread the word.
🌈 Kind Little Monsters
Lady Gaga and Oreo have partnered to promote musical messages of kindness and connection with a special line of pink and green cookies inspired by her 2020 album “Chromatica.” Starting December 15th, fans can record a personal message for a loved one on the “Sing It With Oreo” website which transforms the recording into a song to share on social.
The cookie maker is also pledging to donate to Born This Way Foundation, which Lady Gaga founded with her mom, Cynthia Germanotta, in 2012 to support youth mental health programs and promote kindness.
📗 And if you want to support Born This Way Foundation directly and support gorgeous stories of empathy and connection this holiday, gift a copy of Channel Kindness, a book of stories about creating safe spaces for LBBTQ+ youth, embracing kindness and “helping others without the expectation of anything in return.”
💐 Kindness In the Aerie
Aerie has set up a kindness hotline through Christmas that allows callers to choose different messages: kindness for yourself, for others, for the world, and online. Influential voices delivering those words of comfort include Aly Raisman, Storm Reid, and Iskra Lawrence. Iskra, an #AerieREAL Role Model, says she got involved because this turbulent year “has impacted the mental and physical health of so many people. So, being understanding of what others are going through is vital.”
👉To call the #AerieREAL Kind hotline dial: 1-844-KIND-365
COMFORT DOGS 🐕🐕
Our weekly acknowledgment of the creatures that help us make it through the storm.
🌟More ‘curious and about to get into mischief’, than ‘comfort’ dogs, but sweet all the same. Meet Otis & Beatrice, shared by Jeannie in Brooklyn, NY