Humorist Lightens Depression’s Darkness By Talking (And Laughing) About It

Terry Gross,

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"If we can erase some of the stigma around [depression and suicide]," says podcast host John Moe, "that person can have at least a better shot at treatment and avoiding this kind of fate."

For much of his life, humorist John Moe has dealt with clinical depression that’s triggered by stress. Now, faced with the COVID-19 crisis, he says, “my depression wants to flare up.”

On his podcast, The Hilarious World of Depression, Moe interviews people who have depression — mostly comics. His new book, also called The Hilarious World of Depression, details his own experiences, his brother’s suicide and his family’s history of mental illness.

“A big thing I’ve been hearing [during the pandemic] is a fair number of depressed people doing miraculously OK through this, because we’ve been preparing for this for a long time,” he says. “This is the world that a lot of ‘saddies’ (as I call them in the book) have been living for a while.”

When it comes to his own mental health, Moe says, “When I feel my mind kind of going to some dark places and starting to distort reality, I fortunately now have the skills to spot that and blow the whistle on it and get to a better place.”

Among Moe’s skills are an ability to speak candidly about his mental health issues — and a willingness to seek help when needed. He notes he doesn’t “suffer from” depression — nor is it something he is “cured of.” Instead, he says, “it’s just a thing I have to manage.”

“The more I learn about myself, the more I learn about my traumas and triggers, the better I am at being proactive and heading it off before it can cause a lot of damage,” he says.


Interview Highlights

On what he’s hearing from other people with depression about how they’re doing during the pandemic

A big thing I’m hearing is about people forgetting to take their meds, because their routine is completely disrupted. So if they had been in a situation where you take your meds before you get in the car to go to work, and they’re never going to get in their car to go to work for the next while, then they might forget. … I’ve had a couple days where it’s just going to be a sweatpants day, so if you associate taking your meds with getting dressed in a professional way, then that can fall off. And I’ve paid the price for that.

On how his wife and kids are coping now that they’re sheltering in place

It’s kind of a company policy around here to be open and talk about what’s going on, and talk about if there is an issue that needs to be addressed with professional help — [or] if there’s an issue that we can address just through our own knowledge. My wife and I have tried to approach mental health in the same way we would an ear infection or a sprained ankle. Like, let’s let’s get this out. Let’s address it. …

If six months ago somebody had said, “Hey, you’re going to be pretty much locked up in the house together. You, your wife, the three kids — one of whom is home from his freshman year of college, that he was excited to get to, the other two are home from their school that they love — and you’re going to be locked up for an indefinite period of time,” I would say, “Oh, so we’ll all be dead within five days, four days? Exactly how will they find us and in what positions?”

And so, by that standard, I think we’re doing great. … We’re trying to kind of recognize the reality — and when the breakdowns come, we try to say, “Yes, of course.”

We’re not trying to say, “No, cheer up! Be happy. At least here you’re healthy!” Because that’s just not really helpful. You can have perspective, but you have to recognize the pain that you’re in, because pain is pain and it’s relative to the circumstances of your own life.

On how his depression began

It started for me in junior high school and it was this kind of tidal wave that hit right around the time of puberty. So I’ve never really known how much one contributed to the other, because they’re both kind of mental upheaval moments. … I was crying uncontrollably, but [it was] not coming from a source of something that had directly made me sad.

It might have been a little something that set me off, but then I just couldn’t stop crying. It was like there was something wrong with my tear ducts and it matched a sort of deeper terror and sadness that I was feeling. I had no words for it. I just knew that something was wrong.

But then I could see my peers going about their day and teachers and society was continuing along. And I thought, “This is shameful. There’s something wrong with me. But it’s so strange, it’s so unknown that I’d better keep it to myself.”

And so it was this secret that I held — that I was disturbed, crazy, alien. Something like that. The only association I had of mental illness was from Bugs Bunny cartoons — which is that eventually you’ll be in a straitjacket in a padded room, thinking you’re Napoleon.

I didn’t want to be taken away from my family. I didn’t want to get in trouble. I didn’t want to be institutionalized. So I thought, I better keep it a secret. But it was just this unsourced terror that I had. … It led to a lot of kind of hyper-achieving mentality. I joined every activity at school. I was elected to class offices of vice president and president of my class. I tried to be the friendliest, most outgoing kid I could — thinking that that could be medicinal and counteract it.

[Depression is] not about something, it’s not about something that made you sad. It just is. It’s an illogical condition — so applying logic to it is just as farcical.

On being told to “cheer up” or “snap out of it”

It’s well-meaning idiocy by people who have never had to deal with an actual mental disorder to think that it can be repaired by something like that. I always say, “you wouldn’t tell someone with leukemia, ‘Just go for a walk and I bet they’ll clear the leukemia right up’ [or] ‘If you smiled more, you wouldn’t have such a broken leg.’ ” I try to see it as well-intentioned, but it’s hard not to see it as careless ignorance at the same time.

On losing his brother Rick to suicide

It’s a delusion when you’re suicidal to think that people are going to be relieved that you’re gone. For all the trouble that my brother had, and for all the difficulty he had, and sometimes the difficulty we had dealing with him because he was a drug addict (later in recovery), his addiction created a lot of problems — but his death [is] what I measure my life by. Before he shot himself and after he shot himself — because those are different lives. The pain of what he did, I compare it to a bullet that continues to ricochet, like he shot the gun.

He chose to do that, and it went into his head, and then it just kept ricocheting off of everybody else in his life. And it still is. And so it’s a horror of his absence and his voluntarily choosing that, that’s created so much pain. My youngest hadn’t been born when he died, but my other kids were about 6 and 4 years old and they met him once. And then we had to explain, “You’ll never see him again. He’s gone forever.” And then, later on, we had to explain to them how he had died. And the pain — the searing pain — is something that we’ve all had to carry forever. I think the pain gets transferred to the people left behind, and the confusion and the guilt.

On deciding he wanted to talk about depression and suicide openly, in part because of his family’s silence about the subject

I had this realization at [my brother’s] service that, OK, if we don’t talk about this stuff, then there’s every likelihood that it gets worse, that it becomes more of a secret, that it becomes more shameful, that it becomes more hidden. And when it becomes more hidden and not discussed, it just metastasizes. It just grows. But if we do talk about it, there’s a better chance that someone can get help. If we can erase some of the stigma around it, that person can have at least a better shot at treatment and avoiding this kind of fate. I mean, in essence, it’s no decision at all. Of course, we talk about it. It’s stupid not to. Why in the world are we choosing not to talk about it?

On managing depression long-term

Andy Richter was on our show and he’s compared his depression to a bad back. Like, you know, that it’s a thing that you have, and sometimes you’re feeling great, and then when it starts to flare up, then you need to take a hard look at it. You need to go back to your therapies and your treatments. You need to look at what’s the best way to address this flare up: Is that medication? Is it physical therapy (if it’s a bad back) or mental therapy (if it’s your mind)? So, things might go wrong, but you have a toolkit for dealing with it.

On how humor can change your perspective and make depression feel less isolating

I think humor allows you to see the same world everybody sees, but in a new way and in a new perspective, and I think that’s part of the grand intelligence of comedy. … It can bust me out of seeing things in a depressive way, which might be my tendency in that moment. So if I can make a joke about it, it becomes, in fact, a new world — and I have this superpower to go world-to-world, perspective-to-perspective. That’s emboldening, and that gives me strength. So that’s a strength that indirectly comes from the depression.

I want to say, I think a big reason for the success of our podcast is because we have comedians, in large part, and lyricists talking about what depression is … and they can put words to the thing. …

And when that connection happens — with that economy of words and that intelligence of words that a good comedian has — then suddenly the audience member is not alone in that weird alien space, but they’re part of a club with this funny person on stage and the other people laughing. And suddenly there’s safety in numbers.

And I think the laugh that then follows from that audience member is a laugh of relief. I think … the exhalation of breath that forms a laugh is almost a form of a relieved sigh.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Deborah Franklin adapted it for the Web.

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