Jenny Lawson: Furiously Happy (Flatiron Books, 2015)

Furiously HappyI bought this book because the cover was ridiculous.1 But I’m really glad I did, because I think it’s a really important addition to the cultural discourse on mental illness, and it definitely made me feel better about my own struggles with mental illness. This is going to be a pretty personal post for that reason.

Have you ever read something that described you so accurately that it scared you a little bit? This is a paragraph from Lawson’s first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, which I actually read after I finished this one. (I had to sit on this post for a while before I felt good about sharing it.)

But deep down I knew there was a better word for what I was. Doomed.

[…]

Doomed because I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that something horrible and nameless was going to happen and that I was helpless to stop it. And not just the normal terrible things that small children worry about, like your father waking you up with a bloody hand puppet.2 Things like nuclear holocaust. Or carbon monoxide poisoning. Or having to leave the house and interact with people who weren’t my mother.3

I’ve struggled with anxiety for almost as long as I can remember. I don’t know how I got this way; I don’t think any kind of psychic trauma triggered it. I always felt like I was plagued by worry over stuff that other kids didn’t think about. Part of it probably stems from the fact that I was a little too smart for my own good as a kid. I’m not bragging; in cases like these, ignorance really is bliss. I was about eight when JonBenet Ramsey was murdered, and if you were alive to remember that you’ll remember the news cycle was 24/7 horror. I remember we were at a family friend’s house and she had a copy of the National Enquirer or some other garbage tabloid with a cover photo of JonBenet on the coffee table, which of course I picked up and started to read because I was a voracious reader who had no sense of what was appropriate for a child to read. And I just remember feeling so sick and nervous about that happening to me that it preoccupied me for the next several weeks.

These periods of intense anxiety would come and go. I remember in kindergarten one day I randomly started crying at lunch because I saw my bologna sandwich and I missed my mom so much that it made me a little hysterical and they had to take me to the nurse’s office. In third grade I cried pretty much every day at school because I missed my mom4 and I was so nervous and sick that I could barely eat lunch and I used to throw away my peanut butter sandwiches and then feel guilty for wasting perfectly good food.5

I also worried constantly about being kidnapped; one incident sticks out really clearly in my mind. When I was maybe eight or nine, my father left me in the car in the Home Depot parking lot by myself while he went inside to pick something up quickly. Whenever one of my parents would leave us in the car for a few minutes6, I always got down on the floor and hid because I was afraid someone would bash the windows in and try to take me away. So on this particular occasion, I lay down on the back seat of the pickup and peered out the window occasionally to see if my dad was on his way back. There were some guys in another car a few rows away and I could see them laughing at me every time I stuck my head up like a little gopher. In hindsight they were probably like, “What the hell is this kid doing?” but at the time I felt it was much more sinister and I thought that any moment they would get out of their car and come shoot the windows in and kidnap me. Even when I drive at night as an adult I think someone is hiding in the back seat of my car and is going to slit my throat like that one urban legend. It sounds crazy. I feel crazy sometimes.7

In May 2005, when I was 16, I started having panic attacks; the last month of tenth grade was really hard. I would get up in the morning filled with dread and begged my mother a couple of times to let me stay home from school because something just wasn’t right. Pretty much the only thing that made me feel even remotely okay in the mornings was watching Coldplay’s “Speed of Sound” music video on VH1 before school. I spent most of the summer lying in bed paralyzed with fear and unable to do much of anything but cry and overthink things. My mom tried to do everything to make me feel better—she got me these self-help tapes8 and took me to see doctors and a grief counselor9. I was nauseated all the time and I started having intrusive thoughts which were really upsetting to me. My GP didn’t really want to put me on meds because I was still a teenager, but after almost a year of trying to stave off the panic the old-fashioned way, he finally prescribed me some Lexapro and things started to get better. I also started seeing a therapist my senior year of college, and the techniques I learned from her for dealing with my anxiety have been really helpful. I still have these moments where I’m so anxious I feel like I’ll die10, and when I get stressed about school or work I will occasionally lose my shit,11, and sometimes I find big social interactions to be taxing on my psyche, but things are a lot better than they used to be. I felt ashamed for a long time, though, like if my extended family or acquaintances knew I was on medication that they would think I was crazy, or that there was something critically wrong with me, or worse, that my mom’s parenting had something to do with it.12 All I have ever wanted is to just feel normal for once in my goddamn life.

That’s why books like Jenny’s are so important.  Her books aren’t completely about mental illness; mental illness is a thing she struggles with and it’s made its marks on her life, but she writes about all of the other funny little things about life, too—her weird childhood, school, her husband and kid, and many other strange topics. But she has a platform to tell the world about it, and that is so critical to relieving the stigma of mental illness. Mental illness can be incredibly isolating because, for people who have never struggled with it, it’s difficult to understand how our brains work. For people who don’t have mental illness, little platitudes like “cheer up” or “just don’t think about it” can sometimes help you calm down. You can brush things off like it’s not a big deal. But my brain doesn’t work like that. “Don’t worry about it”? “Statistically speaking…”? Yeah, I know I’m not going to die in a plane crash; that almost never happens.13 But that knowledge stops in my cerebral cortex. My brain doesn’t tell my heart to stop racing, or my adrenal glands to stop pumping my bloodstream full of cortisol, or my small intestine to stop tying itself up in knots. My brain says, like my father before it, “Welp, put your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye!” Because my brain is broken. And that’s fine, but it makes it really hard to explain what the hell is wrong with you when you’re in relatively good physical health.

This book takes that internal terror and makes it funny. The number of times I laughed aloud on public transportation while reading this book was definitely more than I could count on two hands. It also kind of put things in perspective for me, because Jenny has rheumatoid arthritis on top of her mental health problems. Adding chronic pain to that is like the shittiest cherry on a crap sundae I can imagine, but she’s making something good out of it by publishing her work. (She also has a blog, and is known as The Bloggess.) If you like Allie Brosh, you will like this book. It has far fewer illustrations, but it also has taxidermied animals and pictures of Jenny in a kangaroo kigurumi crouched on the ground next to an actual kangaroo in Australia. It is mad and funny and heartwarming and sad and important. It made me want to talk about my problems in the hopes that maybe someone I know can relate and it will maybe make them feel less alone. This post wasn’t easy for me to write; I actually walked away from it for about a month because I was nervous about posting it, since it’s so personal. But I figure that if Jenny Lawson is brave enough to write two whole books about her life and her battle with mental illness, I can share my own story.

Notes

  1. I’m actually terrified of raccoons because I was chased down the street by one when I was in college. I lost a shoe in the process. People saw me and I had to explain that I wasn’t crazy, I was just being hunted by a raccoon that I had inexplicably angered—okay, I tried to take a crappy cell phone picture of it while holding a Pizza Hut box—and was afraid it was rabid since it was still light outside and you always hear that raccoons don’t come out in the daytime unless they have a whopping case of rabies. The raccoon on the cover is taxidermied, though. There’s a whole chapter about it in the book. Jenny has two of them!
  2. This is a reference to a story in which Lawson’s father uses a recently butchered, not yet taxidermied squirrel as a hand puppet. Yikes.
  3. LPTNH, pp. 43–44.
  4. Which is weird because I always thought I was a “daddy’s girl” (a term that I hate, incidentally) as a kid. But my mom is great and I still miss her now that I live 800 miles away, except now I don’t feel the need to cry at my desk about it.
  5. I wonder if my being raised Catholic had anything to do with the guilt aspect of this, haha.
  6. In the ’90s this was totally normal. Now, some nosy onlooker would see your kid in the car and call the cops and try to have CPS take your kids away. Jesus.
  7. Don’t even get me started on Y2K. Unlike most 11-year-olds, I stayed up until midnight not to watch the ball drop but to await our imminent demise as the traffic lights stopped working and the planes fell out of the sky and the computers rose up against us until we all died. I was also super freaked out by outer space. I watched Armageddon with my dad when I was maybe 10 and every time I heard low-flying aircraft after that, I threw myself behind the couch just knowing that a meteor had just entered Earth’s atmosphere and we’d all be dead in ten seconds. Never mind that it didn’t happen last time. THIS TIME WAS DEFINITELY IT.
  8. It was this program by Lucinda Bassett. I tried it but it didn’t really do much for me.
  9. My dad died when I was twelve and we thought maybe this was related to a latent expression of grief since I didn’t really have much of an emotional reaction to my father’s death. I mean, we knew he was going to die two months before he actually did because he had stage 4 cancer, so at that point I guess I was thinking, “Welp, what can you do?” Of course, that didn’t stop the counselors at my middle school from following me around from class to class the day he died, thinking I was going to have a hysterical meltdown. (I went to school because it was my first time ever having midterms and sitting around at home sure wasn’t going to make things any better!)
  10. The perks of being half an orphan. Also, I have a paralyzing fear of heights, which makes flying super fun. A couple of days before I flew home for Thanksgiving my senior year of college, I had a dream I was in a plane crash and it was so bad that I woke up in full-body pain.
  11. I had a full-on hysterical crying jag in the coat closet at my senior ball in college and I don’t even know how it started. It’s pretty scary when that happens; you feel totally out of control, and it’s hard to explain why it’s happening. This is what people need to understand about anxiety and depression: there is no rhyme or reason to the way we feel. Your brain is trying to trick you, and in some cases, trying to kill you. I am lucky in that I have never been suicidal, but this is why saying that suicide is selfish is so awful. When you are haunted by your own misery and your brain keeps saying terrible things to you, is it any wonder that some people can’t take it anymore?
  12. She is great and anyone who is mean to her deserves to be punched in the teeth.
  13. Unless you’re flying Malaysia Airlines, apparently.

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