5 Sep 2021

Jenny Lawson: Laughing in the face of mental illness

From Sunday Morning, 11:27 am on 5 September 2021

Jenny Lawson is possibly the best-read popular writer in the world on mental illness.

She's a New York Times bestselling author who writes from personal experience. Lawson has depression and anxiety and an autoimmune condition which gives her severe arthritis.

Her new book is called Broken (in the best possible way), the writing of which was a considerable struggle, she told Jim Mora.

Author Jenny Lawson

Author Jenny Lawson Photo: Supplied

"You sign that you're gonna write a book, and then within a year you deliver it and I'm always, always behind.

"And this one took me maybe five years because there was this really deep depression in there that just kept me from doing anything at all.

"And actually, in the middle of writing this book, I ended up going into treatment for my depression. And I thought, well, maybe this will help me. And it did. It was really helpful. But it's interesting, because it also became part of the book, sort of accidentally."

Lawson is currently in a depressive episode, she says.

"It's such a strange cognitive dissonance where it feels like, oh, I should be really happy, things are going well, my book is a best-seller, people are really kind to me, but in my head all I can think of is I'm a failure."

Such thoughts are a lie that depression tells her, she says.

"If anybody else said those things to you, you'd be like, what a jerk. I would never listen to that person.

"But if it's coming from your own head, you're like, oh, yeah, that seems legitimate."

Sometimes just getting through the day is an achievement worthy of recognition, she says.

"If all you did was hold on to the couch and keep breathing. That's something that should be celebrated."

Lawson has tried various treatments, she says, most of them ineffective.

A therapy called transcranial magnetic stimulation has been helpful, she says.

"It's a treatment for resistant depression, because I have gone through so many different types of medication, and none of them really work. So, once you've gotten to that point, you kind of go for a little more of the experimental.

"It just sounded like quackery to me, you're wearing basically this magnetic hat. And it feels exactly like there is a woodpecker tapping at your head, it is not comfortable."

The therapy had positive medium term effects, she says.

"They had told me about a third [of people who do this treatment] go into full remission, which I can't even imagine what that looks like, and a third have some improvement. And then a third, it doesn't work at all, and I fell in that middle third.

"So it really helped me, I did it on both sides of my brain. One side is for depression, one side is for anxiety - it really helped me with my anxiety. It helps me with my depression, to come out of a pretty deep depression."

The benefits lasted nine months, she says.

No caption

Photo: Macmillan

"I went back in again and did another six weeks' round. And it again, it helped and again lasted about nine months.

"But it does take a lot of time to kind of work and because I am right now in a really sort of dark spot, my psychiatrist has recommended checking out ketamine injections."

This constant search for treatment shows how little some people understand mental illness, she says.

"Whenever people say oh, depression isn't real, you know, you're just lazy, or you're just sad, or you're just tired or whatever, I'm always like, you know what? If depression wasn't real, I would not be paying crazy amounts of money to sit in a chair for six weeks while a magnet pounded in my head."

Humour brings her writing to an audience which might not have firsthand experience of mental health problems, she says.

"People who will say, hey I've been reading your books for years, and I read them because they were really funny, but I don't have mental illness.

"I didn't really relate to it, but you know, I just enjoyed your books."

She must ration her mental resources, she tells Jim Mora.

"When I have an interview that I have to do, for the whole first part of the day I do as little as I possibly can, I just read, just do some basic stuff. So I know I'm gonna have energy.

"And as soon as this is done, I will lay on the floor and just be like, okay, no one touch me, I just need to lay here and force myself to breathe for a good 45 minutes, and then I'll have the energy to stand up and move and get around."

This was a lesson that was hard earned, she says.

"When I first started writing, I had such a hard time because I didn't want to say no to people, like there were so many great opportunities, and there were so many things. And I had a nervous breakdown after my first book, because I pushed myself too hard."

Lawson is inspired by sharing of advice with fellow sufferers, she says.

"Often I will meet up with other people who have anxiety or depression, and I will be like, 'here's one of my tools'. And you know 75 percent of the time, they'll be like, oh, yeah, that doesn't work for me.

"But every once in a while, they're like, oh my God, that's gonna work for me. And then they'll share with me some of their tools."

She imagines sending bad thoughts off in a bubble, she says.

"If I'm having intrusive thoughts, I will picture the thought and put it in a bubble, like a soap bubble, and just push it away. And it's okay if it comes back, but I'll just re-bubble it and push it away.

"And that's one of those things that has been helpful for me for intrusive thoughts."

The phrase 'depression lies' has also been a comfort, Lawson says.

"Every time I'm in a depression, no matter how many times I go back and read my stuff, and I will read it, and I'm saying, it's going to get better, I promise you, it will get better, and it will be like coming out of the ocean after not breathing for a year and it will be amazing.

"And you will be like thank God I held on, but remembering that when you're in the depression, depression is lying to you."

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to Sunday Morning

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)