IN JANUARY 2010, Therese Borchard came out with a terrific memoir of depression, "Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression and Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes," that had me rolling in the aisles. That's right, a book about depression that is funny. Sample:
I have a magnet on my refrigerator that reads, "Jesus loves you, but everyone else thinks you're an asshole."
I decided to confront Therese on this ...
John: Listen, Therese. William Styron's memoir of depression was bleak. Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar was heart-breaking. Yet, here you are, agony with a thousand punch lines. This has to be sacrilegious.
Therese: Funny you should ask the question that way. Gus Lloyd, who has a radio show on Sirius Satellite, confronted me with the same thing this morning. But he asked me, "How do you know when you are using humor and comedy to heal, and when it is perceived as offensive?" I responded, "I don't. I guess that's why a lot of people stay away from humor." I typically offend 5 to 10 percent of my readers when I use sarcasm and wit in a post. So should I skip the attitude satire? Absolutely not. I hate to say this – it sounds cold and heartless – but I'd rather offend five listeners to allow 95 listeners a moment of healing laughter, than to stay boring and safe. It's sort of the opposite philosophy of Jesus and the lost sheep. I'd rather lose one sheep in order to help out the 99 that are desperate for a laugh. Sorry, Jesus.
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John: Uh, uh. I'm not letting you get away with that. By your own admission, you're a self-confessed manic-depressive, alcoholic, stage-four people pleaser; ritual performing weirdo, hormonally imbalanced female, and Catholic. What could possibly be funny about that? Honey, you got some 'splainin' to do.
Therese: Here's the deal, John. It goes back to the Seinfeld rule on humor. You remember that episode? When Jerry is telling dentist jokes and his dentist calls him an anti-dentite. And the dentist converts to Judaism so he can tell Jewish jokes safely? If someone came up to me and said, "Therese, you are one manic-depressive, alcoholic, people-pleasing, ritual-performing weirdo!" I would be offended if they A) were wearing ugly clothes, B) could not laugh at themselves too, C) could not check off anything in the DSM-IV, and D) had no sense of humor. I have earned the right to call myself all those things with levity because … for crying out loud … I've wanted to die for big chunks my life. Cut me some fricking slack! Now if a former co-worker of mine emails another co-worker and accidentally copies me on the email in which she says I'm looney (true story, actually), then yes, I have a right to be pissed. But can I call myself looney? ABSOLUTELY. I say let's err on the side of recklessness.
John: Right, that's your story and you're sticking to it. Okay, let's shift gears a bit. Some of our darkest thinkers in history also doubled as our greatest humorists. I'm thinking of Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and George Carlin. You can also throw in Shakespeare and Swift. What accounts for this? Were they as twisted as you are?
Therese: I believe in the theory of the rubber band. Your brain (sanity) is stretched, and stretched, and stretched, and stretched to where it … ZAP! … just snaps one day, and from that day on, everything in life is somewhat hysterical because you can't believe how messed up the world is. You see everyone around you trying to walk straight while juggling five heavy suitcases of baggage … and for some reason, it's funny, and you know you can't take life so seriously. As G.K. Chesterston once said, "angels can fly because they take themselves lightly."
Stephen Colbert was interviewed in Parade magazine a while back, and he explained the night where he burst out of his shell of pretension and was able to fully be himself on stage. He said, "Something burst that night, and I finally let go of the pretension of not wanting to be a fool." I don't know, John, something burst in the psych ward, where I sat eating rubber chicken with women wearing granny underwear for everyone to see and painting birdhouses with a teenage boy who wanted to hook up with me at the mall after we were discharged. Some people probably wouldn't find the humor in it. But man, they do make great social hour stories (and especially since I don't drink or use any illegal drugs).
John: Are you trying to tell me that had you been born "normal," you'd be some shallow humorless stuck in the mud?
Therese: Yes. Absolutely. Haven't you noticed that pattern? Those who've had rather uneventful lives don't have as much to say at cocktail parties as the ones who have been cleaning up feces for a few decades. As much as I curse depression and bipolar disorder (and most of the DSM-IV that I'm diagnosed with … let's be honest), it has brought me the blessings of humor, perspective, compassion, humility. Plus I write better! Because I no longer have to make stuff up anymore. There actually WAS a guy in my inpatient unit that tried killing himself by chugging down a gallon of Tide laundry detergent. And there WAS a psychotic woman who attacked an innocent 97 year old man one night because she said her spouse slept with the old man's wife! Let me tell you, that group therapy session was interesting!
John: In all seriousness, Therese, you are a gift to humanity. Any concluding words?
Therese: Thank you, John. As I've said to you before, I have no idea how I am going to repay all your kindness and generosity. I think you should rename your blog as "Beyond Blue Promotion Site." I suppose I must quote Kay Redfield Jamison here, because she gets credit for my philosophy on humor, and I live by her words every day. She says, "Tumultuousness, if coupled to discipline and a cool mind, is not such a bad sort of thing. That unless one wants to live a stunningly boring life, one ought to be on good terms with one's darker side and one's darker energies." I guess I ran from my darker side for so many years. And that just made me more afraid. So now I try to look the beast in the eyes and ask him what he's got for me, and, whenever possible, to "break his face" as Jerry Seinfeld says, to make him laugh.
First published as a blog, Jan 2011, republished as an article May 17, 2011, reviewed Dec 5, 2016
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