Writing, Depression and Learning How to Handle Attention: A Conversation with Allie Brosh
Hyperbole and a Half blogger Allie Brosh, who pairs her true-life stories with evocative drawings to inspire laughter and tears and sometimes both, has a book out. In it, she shares hilarious stories from childhood, recounts her recent struggle with depression, explores the search for meaningful identity, and contemplates the psyches of her two dogs. Like her blog, her book is titled Hyperbole and a Half, and like her blog, it is great. I spoke to Allie about what it’s been like to find herself a role model for others suffering depression, how she feels about the internet, and what she really hopes people will notice in her book.
Jen: How are you, and how’s your tour going? You’re everywhere!
Allie: I’m good. It’s been constant! Book signings have lasted up to 7 hours, sometimes.
You’re a writer with a tremendous internet following. What do you think about the internet as a place of support?
One problem with the internet is it sort of takes away your empathy; you can have less of a connection with people online. But with my readers, I’m talking about things that are more personal, and I started out with this small group of tightly knit readers. There’s more empathy and more respect. So, I feel pretty good about the internet. Every once in a while you get weirdos, but you get those people in real life, too.
When did your site really take off?
I started in July 2009, and the blog took off in late March of 2010. I had been working away in obscurity for 8 or 10 months, and someone submitted one of my posts to Reddit. It just blew up from there. My stat counter went from 700 page views — and I’d built that for months and months — to 300,000. It’s been a nice, organic thing. My fans helped me get there.
Do you remember which post that was?
And now you have a book out. Not to sound like a creepy newscaster, but how does it all feel?
It’s so relieving. I could have ended up in a job I didn’t like. This is fulfilling for me, and I’m really happy. I’m glad that it turned out this way. There were some growing pains, like having to adjust to criticism, and learning how to handle attention.
It’s really weird. Clearly I want attention, but you’re not supposed to want attention. I wasn’t comfortable with this; it felt narcissistic for a long time. But also, if I write about myself, I can insult myself [and not other people]; it’s one thing you can know that’s true and correct. I also have more insight into my own psychology. But it has this unfortunate side effect of making me feel narcissistic, and my identity doesn’t like that, it says I shouldn’t want attention.
Reconciling that took a long time. The last two chapters in the book are really tied in with my identity and the discomfort that comes with coming face-to-face with your deep-down desires.
It’s like the question of whether you can truly be altruistic without also being self-interested.
There’s no such thing as a selfless act, right? My self-image is so ambitious, I want to feel good about myself, and I want to generally be good, and thought of that way. I don’t know if I’ve ever come to terms with it. That part that is selfish and weird and greedy is part of me, and that’s always going to be a part of me, no matter how much I try to cover it up. It’s like watching my dogs misbehave, it’s like, “Oh you, you’re doing that again.” I live with these parts of myself and I don’t think I can change them, but I can find loopholes to try to circumvent them. When you’re aware of those things, you can more consciously control them, and make sure you’re not being shitty all the time.
How does this play into how you’ve become, really, a role model for a lot of people in writing about your own depression?
I sometimes think about that to try to comfort myself for the narcissistic feelings; I’m like, I’ve done these things! But that’s still the shitty part of me saying that. I don’t know if I can fairly enjoy it without the shitty part reeling its head.
For the most part, my intentions were to make people laugh. I can’t take too much credit for helping. That’s a byproduct. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. I try to be responsible; I don’t want to say anything that’s going to harm anyone, and I try to be conscious and conscientious about the things I’ve seen.
It’s funny, I feel like writers who don’t write about themselves rarely have to defend themselves against narcissism in this way because they’re “making art.” But you’re making art, too! Do you think of it as art?
I suppose you can define it that way. I get a hard time from people who say, “Your drawings are so simplistic, a 5-year-old could do that.” But I put a lot of time into it. The tiniest change in a pupil size can make a huge difference. I spend a lot of time capturing these weird intangible things I have a sense of, but don’t really know until I see them.
How long did the book take?
It took more than two years.
What about something like — I love the birthday cake story — how long did that take?
That didn’t take quite as long. I hadn’t figured out how to perfect the facial expressions for the first one, and I redid the art for the book. I was working off material I’d already created, but it took days of working 14 hours, straight through. That’s how the last two months of writing that book were. Shut up in my room, for two months. I would wake up, make myself coffee, write all day until I was too tired, and sometimes I’d go for a walk or run with my husband, but we’d be talking about the book. Deep down I had a whole lot of doubts that I’d be able to finish. I’ve had ADHD my whole life, and I get really enthusiastic about something, and then it trails off. I was so scared I’d squander this opportunity, especially since the depression hit in the middle of trying to write that book.
How did you cope when that happened?
I was fortunate to have a really a supportive editor and agent. This was during the worst part of my depression, and I was feeling suicidal. I said, “I think we need to put this on hold,” and they understood. I was afraid they’d say, “We can’t do this project.” But they gave me time to work through it. The book was put off for at least a year, and it was really important I had that time.
Was the depression you faced then your first major bout with it?
I haven’t always had depression. I talked to a few of my friends who knew me when I was in high school, and it was sort of this tragic/hilarious thing to explain to them. They were like, “But you were so happy,” and I’d be like, “That person’s dead, I’m sorry.”
I’m at a good spot now. I’m still depressed, and it comes and goes, but I used to be very anxious, but now I’m not. Now, for me, 20% depressed is like perfect. I’m not anxious but I’m not mopey and numb, I’m just chilled out. I care just enough to be connected to life. I have to keep an eye out and notice the signs when things are taking a wrong turn. There’s not much I can do, but I can try to offset it. So far it hasn’t gotten back to that point.
Does writing help?
Oh, yeah. It always helps to understand what’s happening, and to be able to understand your enemy. It helps you cope and helps you panic less. Now that I know what depression looks like and I know what the general steps are, there’s also a progression I can look at and feel comforted by. I can feel horrible, but I know what’s happening, which takes the fear out of it. You also have that little bit of, “Well, this ended before, maybe it will also end this time.”
But being depressed is still one of the most terrifying things I can imagine. After I saw the movie The Matrix, it was terrifying to imagine waking up from reality and being in this blank room and having nothing to entertain me. That’s sort of what my depression was like, living my worst nightmare of being in this room alone, and complete boredom.
I saw you did a Reddit AMA and people were asking for advice to help depressed friends. Can you share your thoughts on that?
It’s tough because with depression, there’s no root cause. There’s nothing anyone can do that flips the switch and makes you better, but you don’t want to watch someone suffer, and it’s really hard to deal with that helplessness. You’re in this weird situation of trying to help someone who can’t be helped without time or medication; you can’t logic your way through it. The best thing is to be there for them. Let know it’s O.K. if they’re not enthusiastic about the story you’re telling. When I’m depressed, I become worried people think I’m bored or don’t like them. If I’m not reacting on that level, maybe that’s me being depressed.
And also, treat them normally. Don’t let the depression define the relationship. You can ask them if they want to talk about it. It’s helpful sometimes to let them explain, and just listen and try to meet them there. The way I explained depression to my husband was that it’s like being trapped in outer space, and no one knows you’re out there, you’re floating all by yourself. If you explain it to someone else, they can’t get you back from outer space, but at least someone knows you’re there. That little bit of comfort means a lot. I think the most important thing is to treat the depressed person sort of the same. Once people find out you’re depressed they feel reluctant to experience happiness around you, but for me, it was important to feel that life was progressing as usual.
Your husband, Duncan, shows up in your posts sometimes. How do you decide whether to include him, and what was happening with him as you wrote the book and dealt with your depression?
I chose not to include too many details about Duncan in the piece about depression. He was around but I chose to write it that way because of how isolating it felt. He was sort of depressed at the time, too, though not in the same way I was; we were both going through some rough stuff. We were quite the pair. That was when we invented “fat nachos,” potato chips with all the cheese we could scrounge up on them.
We’ve been together 9 years, and we’re really comfortable with each other. He wouldn’t judge me even if I was wearing the same sweatshirt for the 9th day in a row. And especially as I came out of the worst of it, it was helpful to have him there and have him laugh.
So many people feel they know you, because of your blog and now your book. What’s that like?
It’s funny now that I’ve made friends who knew about my blog before they knew me. This is the most pungent side effect: I’ll be telling a friend a story and they’ll be like, “I know.” I don’t have new stories to tell my friends if they’ve read my blog!
Do you feel like you owe anything to the internet community that got you started?
This has been the hardest thing. I hate getting gifts because I don’t like the feeling of owing people or not showing enough gratitude. I feel this moral responsibility to give as much as I get. But I don’t feel like I can do that with the people who comment on my posts; I can’t give them the level of interaction that they deserve, and that drives me nuts, not being able to listen as well as I can to all the people who want to interact. I don’t want anyone to feel I’m not respecting them as a person. But there is no way to respond to every comment. I hope they understand, I still love them. I try to sign books and draw pictures for everyone and take enough time when people come to signings.
Speaking of new stories, will there be another book?
I would like to write another book. I’ve started working on it already. I think it will be a similar format, more new material, similar stories. I also want to keep posting blog posts.
What do you read?
I don’t read other people’s stuff while I write because I’m afraid I’ll subconsciously start writing like them, so I’m excited to have a break so I can read again. I’m re-reading all the Douglas Adams Hitchhikers books, and then after that, David Foster Wallace, maybe Infinite Jest. I’ll probably be writing after that, so it will be a short reading break. I also read a lot of articles, mostly online through Reddit, especially TrueReddit. The content is really great.
What else do people need to know about your book?
There are a bunch of little things I included that I hope someone notices that would make me super-happy if they did notice. I can’t expose them all!
How about just one? A clue?
The character Eric, who is my psychological gate-keeper guy, I put a Livestrong bracelet on him. I used to wear those bracelets, and I felt really smug and good because I was helping to fight cancer. But all I did was pay $1.50, and got this thing to show my identity, to prove I helped.
If even one person notices those little details, I will feel so happy.
Do you have any favorite moments in the book?
My favorite image is the “Fuck the system” image in Identity Part One, when I’m running away after taking the popsicles. I think that image is entirely me, at my core. I very rarely will have a face in my head as I’m trying to draw and be able to get it exactly how I want it, and it’s so close. It’s my favorite image I’ve ever drawn.
There’s also a line I wrote in Motivation, and for a similar reason. Often I don’t feel I’m very close to the sense of what I’m trying to say, and this was what I was going for. I came up with this line when I was on a run and I had to keep repeating it to myself until I got home and could write it in my notebook, about how the future “is just this magical place where I can put my responsibilities so I don’t have to be scared while hurtling toward failure at 800 miles per hour.” That’s really how I treat the future. I store everything so I can continue living in the moment.
Jen Doll is a regular contributor to The Hairpin.