Present Tense: Allie Brosh, Donald Glover, And Hurting Right Now
There is much to praise about Allie Brosh's wonderful blog Hyperbole And A Half, perhaps the greatest gift the crude, blocky graphics of MS Paint have ever given us. Brosh's posts are hugely evocative, gut-bustingly funny, and startlingly inventive in using simple drawings in ways that allow for pauses and comic timing, not to mention things like blur effects that represent ... well, sugar-fueled madness. Brosh draws both giddiness and anger more effectively than perhaps anyone since Bill Watterson.
But the release of her first book also follows a long period in which she wrote less frequently than she had before, but wrote some of her most admired and shared posts, particularly two that dealt with her experiences with depression. In the first, she draws her pink-dressed, triangle-ponytailed self — a self readers had seen for years — stretched out on the couch, standing in corners, and huddled in a ball. She describes what her self-loathing inner voice sounds like in a way that is undoubtedly familiar to many: "I followed myself around like a bully, narrating my thoughts and actions with a constant stream of abuse." In the second, she describes the moment she realized that, as she puts it, she wished nothing loved her — "so I wouldn't feel obligated to keep existing."
And yet, that second strip still a piece that has some very funny panels in it, including the one where she contrasts her desire to give up with her biological ancestors desperately trying to evolve to land — "I AM NOT FOR EATING," one protests before defiantly developing legs.
In the conversations surrounding her book, Brosh has made it clear that she is not looking at depression in the rearview mirror in some sort of "let me tell you about this thing that happened to me once" kind of way. She's in it, and she lives with it, and sometimes it's better, and sometimes it's worse. It means you don't see her for a while, because she's a real person and it's a real thing.
Changes in the immediacy of showing your work, and the development of personal spaces for artists in places like blogs and Twitter and Instagram, have made this kind of thing somewhat more common, both with people who describe themselves as in very deep, the way Brosh does, and with people who are just talking about complicated feelings.
Take, for instance, the recent Instagram posts from actor/comedian/rapper Donald Glover, where he took photos of handwritten notes on a Residence Inn memo pad. He listed all kinds of fears and anxieties, beginning with the general — "I'm afraid of the future," "I'm scared I'll never reach my potential" — and eventually went into more detail: "I've been sick this year. I've seen a bunch of people die this year. This is the first time I've felt helpless ... I got really lost last year. But I can't be lonely tho. Cause we're all here. We're all stuck here. I wanted to make something that says, no matter how bad you f--- up, or mistakes you've made during the year, your life, your eternity. You're always allowed to be better. You're always allowed to grow up. If you want."
Much of this was perfectly ordinary anxiety, honestly. It might be uncommon to take pictures of it, or to write it on hotel stationery, but fear of not reaching your potential? Fear of your parents' mortality? Fear that people dislike or judge you? Those things are easily recognizable to lots and lots of people. And frankly, the sign-off paragraphs aren't all that different. I have had a rough time recently, they say, in short, but I'm trying.
The Glover notes were characterized in the press as "troubling," "worrisome," "disturbing," "bizarre," and a "rant."
Were they really? He's a writer. Writers write a lot. Some are more personal and confessional than others. Maybe he's depressed, maybe he's anxious, maybe he just had a bad night, or a bad month, or a bad year. You've had bad years, right? Certainly, it's all "worrisome" in that if you were his pal, you'd see whether he's doing all right. But is it "disturbing" in a let's-all-panic kind of way? Is anything necessarily wrong, besides the fact that life (1) contains ups and downs and (2) is often anxiety-producing? Is anything surprising here except that he's famous and he talked about it now instead of ten years from now, in a confessional interview in which he says how much he worried as a young guy about where things would end up?
We're more accustomed as readers to the memoir model, where depression — or addiction, or even ordinary anxiety — appears as a monster from the past, one against which you still have to bolt the door every day, but one that's not there right now, not interfering with your writing about it, not writing about it with you.
But there's something to be said for the currency of Brosh's vivid, sometimes nervous-making chronicles, or of Glover's scribbled notes. It's very sterile and very misleading to hear about battles only from people who either have already won or at least have already experienced the stability of intermediate victories. It presents a false sense of how hard those battles are. It understates the perilous sense of being in the middle of them. It understates how scary they are. Compare the feeling of listening to a 911 call from inside someone's house while they're afraid a burglar is inside to the feeling of hearing them tell you a week later what it was like that one time they were afraid there was a burglar in the house. The second will give you their reflective version of what happened; the first will give you their out-of-breath panic.
There is a developing candor about depression, addiction, and ordinary day-to-day struggles that can feel uncomfortably intimate to people who either are very private themselves or prefer other people to be very private. There are absolutely times when you read something and feel that you're encountering details you shouldn't be seeing, perhaps offered from a person not in the right frame of mind to be deciding how much to give away.
But consider the brief but indelible post about depression that comedian Rob Delaney wrote in February 2010, which makes the rounds on social media periodically, simply because writing it was an act of service. It begins, "I deal with suicidal, unipolar depression and I take medication daily to treat it." It goes on to discuss things that people who've never been depressed might find hard to imagine: "My mind played one thought over and over, which was 'Kill yourself.'" At the time Delaney wrote the post, he was only a year and a half past his second major episode of depressive symptoms, and the immediacy of not waiting until he felt entirely safe is part of what gives the post power, and part of why people who are depressed know that he's not lying when he says he knows what they're feeling.
First-person cultural narratives about major battles are often written through the distorting haze of a long memory — that's what David Carr was trying to counter when he investigated his own past for his memoir Night Of The Gun. But there's no substitute, really, for the necessary honesty that comes with currency. Allie Brosh is Allie Brosh right now. You can wish her well, but she'll tell you she's not sure how it's going. That's part of why people with depression believe her. It's part of why they trust her so much. She told The Telegraph about depression: "It's sort of like a thing that is maybe a tunnel, but also maybe a giant tube that just keeps going in a circle. And you can't tell which one it is while you're in it. There might be light, but there might just be more tube."
If you want to know how hard it is, she's telling you that's how hard it is. Not was, is. And as uncomfortable as that might be, it's a perspective worth offering.