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The Depresso Whisperer

Jacqueline Novak wants people who are depressed to know it’s OK to roll out of bed, even if it’s right onto the floor.

At the height of her own depression, after losing a job in New York City (“inexplicably…after I stopped showing up”) and moving back home with her parents, Jacqueline Novak was lying in bed reading piles of self-help books when she started to notice that “they were all by people who were either ‘completely cured’ or nonsufferers.” It was a Eureka moment: She realized that “depressos,” as she calls people who live with depression, would appreciate a book that let them “take a break from being lectured at to relax in the company of somebody who gets it.” That book, How to Weep in Public, is an engaging, brutally honest, and often hilarious answer to self-help: It offers unconditional acceptance but no probing questions, healing exercises, or “false promises of a life free of depression.” A rising stand-up comedian who recently made her first late-night appearance ( The Late Late Show With James Corden ), Novak warns readers that if her book makes them feel better, “I will not be held liable.”

JACQUELINE NOVAK PROFESSION: Stand-up comedian.CLAIM TO FAME: Author of "How to Weep in Public," a “cigarette in the trenches” for fellow “depressos.” Photo by Alex John Beck

What made you feel that you could be people’s depression companion?

Luckily, despite my depression issues, I’m still a proper narcissist, and I have an overblown sense of my own value. I once read that a depressed person is really a disappointed idealist—not someone with a naturally negative outlook but someone with an extremely, unsustainably idealistic worldview who becomes disappointed and can’t handle it. But even in that state I still feel confident that one thing I can do is talk openly about my experience and connect with other people by being willing to divulge. I’ve always felt that.

You argue that people with depression should go ahead and sit inside it, live it, and be it.

It’s a way of not arguing with the devil, because the devil always wins. That’s one way I think about depression: When you try to argue through it in your mind, any new information you gain about handling it the depressed brain is also getting at the same time. The depressed perspective in you is just getting more ammunition to say, in a more intelligent way, the same old negative things—except now it uses the vocabulary of cognitive behavioral therapy against you. There’s no tricking it, there’s no arguing your way through, so I think my twisted version of mindfulness is to just stop and say to people, “This is where it’s at at this moment; be OK with it.”

You tell depressos that they need to decide which friends to let in and which to keep out. How do you do that?

When people pressure you to “snap out of it,” you shut down and become more resistant than you would have been otherwise. If picking up the phone for you, friend, means that you’re going to pressure me to go outside, then I’m never going to pick up the phone for you again. In the book, I try to make myself a total non-threat and just say to readers that it’s possible for you to experience someone’s company who understands what you’re going through as real.

Your tips include rolling out of bed—literally, onto the floor—and putting your pants on one leg at a time, with a half-hour break in between. That’s not what we usually find in a self-help book.

Thinking of all the things that I have done and suggesting them to people, even though they’re sort of funny and ridiculous, is my way of saying, “I’ve done this and look how cool I am. I wrote a book. Other people agreed to publish it, and even though it might be a joke to them, you know I’m serious: If you can’t move, roll out of bed.” By naming as many details of that experience as I can, I hope I make people feel less horrified by their own behavior: “Oh, well she did that and spoke of it honestly, and I do this weird thing, so maybe we all just do weird things.” It’s kind of an antishame campaign.

There’s a stereotype that most comedians are depressed. Is it true?

Not all comedians are depressed, but it does seem as if a lot have early trauma. It’s almost a joke: How far into the conversation with a comedian do you have to go before you find out about, literally, a sibling’s early death? It’s like, “OK, there it is.” You’re waiting for it. Some comedians have so ingrained the expectation that if they perceive you as not messed up they’re suspicious: “I don’t understand. Your parents loved you, you had a good childhood, so where is it? Give me the thing. What the hell is wrong with you?”

There are a lot of great, semi-hostile details in the book, like when you write that friends once dragged you to a “shadeless” amusement park.

I love amusement parks, but I offer that as an example because I think someone trying to force you into a good time in a traditional way—and the pressure to think things are good and fun that are supposed to be good and fun—is the worst feeling. I think when a comedian calls attention to something that’s unpleasant about something that was previously thought of as positive, it’s a relief to people. It’s a tiny bit of unrepressing.

Do you do a lot of depression material in your stand-up?

I have some, but it’s not the bulk of my stuff at all. It’s tricky: If I’m making a joke about pizza, everyone knows and accepts the same reality about pizza. The problem with jokes about depression is that it’s challenging to stand up to do that in a way that you’re truly communicating with the entire audience. If I want to do the depression material, but I’m trying to make it relatable to everyone, then I’m really tapping into human misery in general, and the concern for me is that I’m muddying the definition of depression and not giving it its due as a pathological brain state. So I tend to not do that: Keep it separate.

How are you feeling now?

I pretty much consider myself about 90 percent these days, versus where I was when I started the book. Right after I sold the book to the publisher, I was really happy and I was like, God, what if it wasn’t depression the whole time, it was just that I was unpublished?

Top Nine Things To Love About The Floor*

  1. It’s the king-size bed…that never ends. It feels good down there, right? No, nothing feels good, I know. Sorry.
  2. But at least you can’t fall any farther. That’s the good thing about the floor. Unlike the figurative Rock Bottom, which can always get lower, the actual floor tends to stay in place.
  3. When walking feels like swimming through a viscous ocean, and standing feels like treading water, the floor isn’t just a floor: It’s a life raft. It’s extremely sturdy. You can stretch out. You will not drown.
  4. In case of fire, you are less likely to die of smoke inhalation than your neighbors who are up and about. You won’t even have to stop, drop, and roll. Just roll.
  5. Because it’s less comfortable than the bed, you can pat yourself on the back for roughing it. Lying in bed might be pure laziness; camping out on the floor is virtually an action adventure. Try mumbling something like, “This op goes sideways in Tangiers, the boys at Langley will have me up to my tits in paperwork for the next two years.”
  6. Plenty of healthy people purposely lie on the floor. There are yoga studios full of people who pay to do it. Some yogis say Corpse pose is the most important one to master. So “breathe into it.”
  7. Take it a step further and really pretend to be a corpse. You’re 90 percent there as it is.
  8. Consider this: When you do become a corpse, popular opinion says you’re not there to experience it, so this is really your only chance. For fun, think of something that really bothers you, then try “rolling over in your grave.”
  9. So if you’re at home on the floor, you should feel legitimate in just staying there.

*Reprinted from How to Weep in Public: Feeble Offerings on Depression From One Who Knows. Copyright ©2016 by Jacqueline Novak. Published by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.