John Moe's Humble Mission To Find The Hilarity In Depression
Sarah LaDuke: May is Mental Health Awareness Month - and it seems like the topic of mental health and mental health treatment is surging to the forefront of many conversations as we face ... I don't think I really need to restate what we, as a planet, are facing.
What follows is an honest discussion about depression and suicide.
My younger sister, Jen, has been living with severe depression for years, possibly for her entire life. She's had some counseling, tried medication, and leaned hard on primarily our mother. Before I continue, I did ask her if I could talk about her in the context of this interview on the radio - and she said, "Sure, I struggle with this every day. Tell some people."
Right before we all started staying home as the global COVID-19 pandemic revved up in the United States, my sister left her husband. It was the right choice and one I'd hoped would come for ages. Now she calls me several times a day to check in visit and often rant vent and or cry. Sometimes she puts my niece on a video call with me so I can remote babysit while she goes and takes a breath. I'm talking to my sister all the time. I'm listening. I'm asking questions. I'm offering suggestions I'm drawing on my own experience in therapy, but we've both felt pretty helpless in the face of her depression. And I admit I've been frustrated sometimes because I don't understand how it feels. The spiral that spins her as a person with severe depression is not the same as the spiral that spins me.
John Moe is a critically and popularly acclaimed public radio personality and the creator and host of the podcast “The Hilarious World of Depression.” His new memoir takes the same name as the podcast, and then he shares what he's learned from doing interviews with comedians, actors, musicians and others about their depression and from living with recognizing and treating his own mental illness. John Moe is a broadcaster, a writer and a great Twitter follow. In the book, he puts into words what depression does to those who experience it.
As I read, every few pages, I found myself highlighting large swaths of text to remind myself to revisit them to check in with them when I forgot how desperate my sister feels. I'm not sure how much I can help her, but I'll never give up. And with John's help, and what's in his book, I have a better idea of how the illness blocks out her vision and tries to keep her underwater.
I love her, she knows how much - but almost every day, almost every minute her depression tells her that no one loves her. It's a nightmare. But just like when you were a kid, and you went to your parents’ room after a nightmare woke you up. People with depression and other mental health issues often do have somewhere to go, someone to turn to.
I'll post links to assistance sites/hotlines at the end of this post - and I'll recommend John Moe's book to everyone. You might be depressed and could read the book and see you're not alone. You definitely know someone who lives with mental illness and like me, this book may help you understand them better. Once again, the name of john Moe's book is “The Hilarious World of Depression”. It's published by St. Martin’s Press.
John Moe, welcome to The Roundtable.
John Moe: Thank you so much.
I'm very excited to speak with you. We have been co-followers of each other on Twitter for years and years and years. But this is the first time we've ever spoken, which is what happens with Twitter.
Well, in the old days, when I did radio shows, before the spaceships came, I had these national shows. So I thought, well, I better just follow every regional person I can think of. And so I followed just all these people. And then I realized, oh, this won't mean my show gets picked up anywhere in particular. And so many of these people are dreary. So you're one of the few that I held on to after the great purge of reassessing my life because, you know, we became pals by then.
Yeah, definitely. So your book and your podcast, “The Hilarious World of Depression”. Come Of course, from a story that now you've been telling for years and years and years and years and a lot in the last few weeks, of course, but could you give us the sort of Cliff Notes summary for our jumping off point today.
Yeah, so I've been hosting a show for a while, since 2016. Talking to professional creative people, a lot of comedians, some musicians and writers and actors, you know, an entrepreneur or two, just creative thinkers who have dealt with depression personally, and I get the story from them of what it's like to live with it, but also what it is, because depression is so hard to define. I've never seen a to me satisfactory, like textbook definition of it. So that's why so much of what we do in the show is through analogy, through metaphor, simile. And so yeah, I've been I've been doing that for a few years and what we thought was going to be a charming and very obscure little series of interviews about this thing turned into kind of a phenomenon. It became very popular, and now it's a book so after dozens and dozens of interviews of me asking about other people's stories, this one is mostly about my story, and how I came to know depression and then deal with it for many years then learn what it was, was had a name and was called depression and sort of the beginning of my advocacy around that topic. A lot of it came about because of Twitter. Years ago, my brother died by suicide after an undiagnosed and untreated depression. And on Twitter, I had a platform, I made a bunch of jokes, you know, had some radio shows people knew who I was, so I would occasionally break the format of dad jokes and get into real sincere messages about mental health, about depression about suicide, the rate were at a 30 year high in suicides and encouraged people to take it seriously and get it treated. And it just caught on like wildfire. And that's what led to the podcast. Because, I mean, I think I can write a good tweet. I think I can string some sentences together but I think there was just a real hunger in society right at that moment to talk about it more openly.
And you always start those threads by saying, this is what I'm about to do, like, buckle up, we’re gonna get real about this.
Yeah. Well, I try, I mean, in everything I try to, I guess in radio, we call it forward promote. But also give a warning, like, you know, I'm gonna lay this down, this is gonna take a little while, in the same way that you know, I was on Fresh Air recently, and I made sure when I, when I posted that on various social media to say, trigger warning here, there's some very frank discussion about suicide in this conversation. And I think that helps people get in the right mindset to kind of open up about it.
In “The Hilarious World of Depression” your book, you write about many, many encounters and brush ups with trying to treat depression that you've had. I would say, I mean you get the benefit of hindsight in laying it out in the book at this point in your life but it took you getting you know closer and closer to feeling better and better but as we know mental illness now isn't curable but it's you know, treatable you can sort of get better at handling it for yourself. It seems like every time you took a step toward it, toward treating it, toward diagnosis, towards sticking with a therapist, toward medication, you would slip back but then what has made you work harder on it if that's the appropriate phrasing, which it might not be?
Yeah, I think it's fine phrasing. I think a few things kind of helped me really get to a better place. One of them was the show and just doing all these interviews, learning about how depression manifests in other people and really the similar pathology. You know, like it’s a scatter graph but you can trace the trend lines, right. And so I was learning about what I dealt with was pretty similar to what a lot of other people dealt with. And so knowing your opponent is the best way to fight the opponent. So that helped a lot. And that helped me kind of boil down the truth of what I was really up against. I had sort of taken an approach for many years of, well, I've stopped it from getting worse, and I'm not in any danger, and I feel steady. And that was good enough, through like two full seasons of doing a show about depression. But I got this book deal to write this memoir, and I said, well, if I'm gonna write a book about something, I better know my topic. And that pushed me to get into some therapy and also just being as coming up on 50 and I thought, well, if I'm going to get better, I better do it soon. Cause you know, I'm getting older, and I wanted to get better, and I figured out a way to get better through picking a therapy that sounded like it was right for me. I always say nothing's right for everybody, you got to find your own way. This seemed like a good way for me. I hit it off with the therapist, we were on the same page. And it just really worked out. And, and so that story is kind of in the book too, so the book is almost a character in the book. But it's funny, I found this therapist and scheduled an appointment and then I emailed her before our first appointment, I said, you should know I have this program, this podcast, where I talk about depression and if it is helpful to you, here's a link. She wrote back and said, yeah, I know who you are. I'm familiar with the show. Sort of like, yeah, you're in the Twin Cities and you do psychology, you know who John is.
You mentioned a few moments ago that you help describe what depression feels like for you and what you've you know, gleaned what it feels like for other people from speaking with them through a lot of analogies. And in one paragraph I found I you know, highlighted it immediately and I asked you before we started recording if he would read it, could you read me the normies and saddies are different paragraphs.
I wrote this pretty early and I had a long series of doubts about keeping this because I stretched the metaphor pretty far. But, but this is one that a lot of people seem to find helpful. And yeah, we call people who don't deal with depression normies, just in around the office when we're planning the show, and then people with depression, sadness, and there's way more to depression than sadness, but it's shorthand like it's production shorthand. We're like, oh, I'm gonna get see if I can get Paul F. Tompkins on the show. Is he a saddie? I thought he was a normie. Nope. Total saddie.
Total saddie, I adore him. I'm so glad you talked to him do much.
He's great. All right, here we go. “normies and Saudis are different. You see, let's say there's a long bridge going over a high canyon, and there are two cars on it. One for the normies and one for the saddies. The normies are in a big land yacht of a Buick, weighs a ton, low to the ground. When a stiff wind blows, the normies feel a mild push, but continued driving, perhaps casually noting that it's getting windy out there. Then they go back to listening to I don't know, Foo Fighters. The saddies are piled into a Model T with a sail on top of it for some reason. They see the wind coming. And it's all they can do to keep from being blown off the road and plunging into the canyon. The normies see the Saudis struggle and wonder what the problem is, because to them, the wind doesn't seem that bad. ‘Try being more positive!’ the normies shout as the saddies’ Model T goes tumbling off the side. And the saddies deploy the parachutes they've gotten used to wearing.”
So I asked my sister if I could talk about her in this interview. My sister has severe depression and we are getting increasingly close, because she recently left her husband so she and my niece and they're in Saranac Lake, New York, which is upstate from here in Albany. I'm working from home, I'm more available than usual because I'm working, but I'm not at the office, and she's going through this huge thing during the global pandemic. And so, I'm not obviously a qualified therapist, but I'm a little bit filling that role in her life, as well as just a, you know, family support structure. And your book just opened my eyes, I would say almost on every page, to have a better understanding of what she is up against and what she's coping with. And that was one of the things so I was like, I'm not full normie. But there's insight into the depression, that is it was so helpful. I just, I mean, I guess this is an early thanks for writing it that I maybe should have saved for the end, but I just I can't believe you're such a wonderful writer, you're so good with words, and then you're so open. And so the exploration is just, I mean, I just can't imagine how much the book must be must be helping people, if it's just in my house helping just me.
Well, it sounds like it, you know, if, if it helps you to help your sister. And I would say to that you're modeling something that, that I've always tried to get across, which is, you know, the fundamental epiphany for me came at my brother's memorial service where all these friends of my parents were coming up to talk to me. And of course, Rick, my brother, should have been at their funerals one day, so it was a world out of balance. And they would talk about how, how great Rick was when he was a kid and how their memories of him on camping trips where we go with other families and these pranks that he would play and his sense of humor. And at this service, I said, well, yeah, that that's all true, but that ends like when Rick was like, 13 or 14. After that, he struggled with ADHD and dyslexia, which, of course, weren't diagnoses at the time. They just thought he was a bad kid. And he fell into drugs. And, you know, like pot turned into coke turned into methamphetamine. And he was homeless. And then he got himself straightened out. And he was helping people. And then he had this mental illness that nobody knew was this bad. At this point, the friends of the family are starting to graduate to talk to more agreeable family members.
Right? We just wanted to say what a good kid.
Right. This is what we do it at services. And I just thought, it's not what we should do. Because, I mean, I come from a news background. And so you want to get the facts of what's going on in the story. You don't want to just cover up the unpleasant bits. It's you're trying to serve the truth to help people and I thought, well, we're at a crossroads. We can not talk about these things. If you're experiencing them. You can keep quiet about it. You cannot get any help and it's probably gonna get worse, or you can talk, you know, a lot of people think that means you have to go to a psychiatrist or a therapist, but not everybody has insurance. Not everybody can afford it. Talk just means talk to someone. And if it's a therapist, great if it's your sister, great. If it's clergy, if it's your parents, if it's your book club, whoever it is, that you feel best about opening up to. If we do that, it has every chance in the world of getting better. And so at that service, I'm like, fine, I'll be the loud mouth. I'll be you know, I'm the loud mouth anyway, somehow I was born in a Norwegian family, it makes no sense because I just share everything. And that's really where that came from. So I think, you know, it sounds like in a lot of ways, your sister is very much on the right track.
She had had therapy before. And so sometimes she tells me, that was good, she learned some tools, but they don't, they just don't work. And I'm like, no, we're not done. Like you didn't go to their therapy a time and now you have all the tools.
Yeah, I mean, we've done a whole show about this. There's no such thing as therapy as a monolithic thing. It's all individual relationships. It's like collaborating with someone on an artistic thing. Like some people you'll collaborate with well, some people you won't, some people, it seems like you would, but there's no chemistry. And then there's all the different techniques and modalities that you can use. So, you know, therapy, I believe works. It's just that it sometimes takes an infuriatingly long time to make a connection.
People often say that finding the right therapist is like dating, which you also say in your book, but I really liked that idea of it being collaborating with somebody more than dating because then you know, it takes some of the personal and sex stuff out.
Right I had some lines in my in my book right said I had a brief fling with a dialectic therapist for a few days and in my editor was like, you need to change that because it sounds like you slept with your therapist. I'm like, okay, that's fair.
Um, would that be, that would be a bad idea?
That would be generally bad now, I mean, the dating analogy is sort of tenuous, because my wife and I have been together since 1991. But yeah, it's a collaboration. It's working with someone really, you're trying to solve a puzzle, you're trying to unlock something.
So you have by a lot of measures been very successful in your career. There have been you know, setbacks, but huge buoying events, and you felt just still like you were a complete failure a lot of the time. Could you explain that? I mean, it's the depression talking the depression taking over, but could you talk about that somewhat?
When you've been depressed for a long time, and as far as I know, mine goes back to at least seventh grade, if not earlier, and whether it comes from a genetic disposition because it goes way back in both sides of my family or comes from the trauma of my dad, being a person with alcoholism, it's been there a long time. So it's really foundational. And it appears as my own thoughts. It does a dead on impression of my brain. And so when I succeed at something, my fundamental belief is that I'm bound for failure. So any success is just a forestalling of the inevitable collapse. Like when I, when I succeed, I'm like, oh, this is gonna make it so much harder when I inevitably fail in the future. And when I'm discovered to be a fraud, and all this, and I can manage that now, I mean, that is a deception. It's a cognitive distortion that my brain is doing. Now I'm aware of that and I can say aha! That's not what's happening, you know, and I can manage around that. And unfortunately, the burden that I'm probably stuck with for life is like, my brain wants to go one way. I have to catch it, bring it back onto a different track. It gets to a point where this is my fourth book. I've had success I have people writing in and saying, this has genuinely helped me, and it's starting to really stick. It took a dumbly long time. But I also changed the goals in that time because in creative work, there's so much that's beyond your control. Like, I don't read Amazon reviews, I don't check my Amazon ranking. I don't even really check download numbers for the podcast because none of those things help me to do my job. But when I when I hear from people, this has helped me, I'm getting into a therapist, I'm understanding my mom better, whatever it is, like that's the reward now, so that's a much easier one to savor.
John Moe is the author of “The Hilarious World of Depression” and host of the podcast of the same name. You mentioned you started the podcast in 2016, an eventful year in world history. And now we are in the, I won't say middle, in in at some point during a global pandemic. So you're helping society in your way, discuss mental illness. Does it ever feel like a burden?
Being the one to carry that conversation?
No, it doesn't. I mean, it's, I I'm trying and this is gonna take a while to kind of wean myself off the word stigma, because I was talking to someone on the shows the therapists kind of specializes in the person first language model of saying, you know, I don't say my dad was an alcoholic. I say he was a person with alcoholism.
I noticed that you phrased it that way.
Yeah, because we aren't defined by one aspect of our lives, and we're a person before everything else. And so I've been trying to wean off the word stigma in favor of discrimination because that's what it is. You know, if you think that somebody with depression or an anxiety disorder is untrustworthy, you're discriminating against them. You’re discriminating against something that they have no control over any more than, you know, any other form of discrimination. But I know too, that there's just such a hunger for this stuff. I mean, I call up people to be on the show. And, you know, we get a lot of yeses. We get occasional, you know, there's some very well-known friends of mine who say, I want to do the show. I'm not ready yet. I’m like, great. I'll check back once a year. And I do and then you know, some people we're just working on, on getting them but we get so many yeses. Like I got a yes from Jeff Tweedy. We had Jeff Tweedy from Wilco on the show, which I could not believe, you know, and he said, well, I'm kind of busy. Can you just come down to the Wilco loft in Chicago and we could do it there? I'm like, yes, I can do I can go to Graceland, Elvis. You mean this the studio where you recorded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? Okay.
Yeah, I'm happy to look at those rugs.
Yeah, yeah, that's just fine. But like, I always think, Well, I think I even asked him, maybe off mic. Like, why did you say yes, like what do you have to gain? I'm not gonna help sell out a Wilco show. They do that themselves. And, and he just said, well, I just thought it was cool. And I could help people. And that's what really it comes down to. And there's so many people like that, that when you get the more asinine assessment of what mental illness means, you can kind of gird yourself really well because you know, you've got a lot of people on your team.
I think it's in incredibly important to note how many very successful people are subject to this.
They get out there like Jeff Tweedy.
He tours the world. He runs a band, you know, has staff and a family like, yeah, write songs produces records. He has more than one band now. Yeah. And he can he can do it, a lot of the time he can.
Can spend enough time with his kids that he'll start entire bands with his kids. Yeah. That's, that's an amazing thing. No, I mean, and that's part of what we wanted to demonstrate to and that these are people who have dealt with this who are dealing with it who are still doing their thing and creating and, you know, we try to show to people who are who are in the middle of it and aren't doing so great. We we had Aparna Nancherla who's a wonderful comedian, and she said right now she’s not doing so well. This was way before COVID. She said you know the shows are taking a heavier toll on me than they used to. We try to show that to you know, it's all in the interest of yes, talking about it is a positive sign and positive modeling. But, you know, it can be a lot of things.
You make yourself very available for the interviews. They can be long. You don't go in with notes, which you said in the book. Does it take a toll on you? Or is, or what, does it take a toll on you? Question mark.
It's the worst man. It's, yeah, I mean, it really does. Because, as you said, I go in just to follow the course of the conversation. My first question is whatever question is in my head right then, and we're talking about some heavy stuff. It never seems weird to me to talk about the things we're talking about. You know, I've had a lot of people say, well, how can you just ask them those deep questions? And it's usually because I spend all my time working on a podcast about this stuff that I forget that those are deep questions, and I try to follow my own instinct of curiosity and that sometimes goes to those places. But yeah, I mean, I make myself available. I sometimes talk about myself in the interview, knowing I'm going to cut that part out later. But just to kind of prompt it. We had one interview, and I won't mention who but I was asking about her father. And I think she was finally a little taken aback. And she's like, well, how often do you talk to your father? And I said, well, not much since he's been dead 20 years, but the conversations aren't all that different than when he was alive. So, so yeah, I mean, I used to think I could just do a bunch of interviews back to back to back. But even when we go out to LA or New York to tape, I'm good for about two a day and then usually I have to take a really deep nap right after that, because it is. It is a lot of psychic weight.
Absolutely. And interviews are tiring. Because it's conversation plus plus. And if you're the host or the interviewee, we were like trading hats back and forth right now maybe, it's tiring.
It's hard because it's not a conversation, but it's dressed up to look like one. And so, you know, as we talk now, there's a certain sort of angle of insight along a particular vein that you're trying to get from me. And I'm trying to give you what you need to do your job well and to fully illustrate what I'm doing in the podcast and the book. And that's why I think so many people because there are so many podcasts right now, Sarah, there's no shortage.
Oh, are there?
Yeah. You know, and often in the format of three white guys in a room agreeing with each other. And, but a lot of people think they can do interviews by having conversations and those interviews fall flat because it is such a weird disguise of a conversation that the interview is dressed up in.
That's absolutely the case. John Moe is the author of “The Hilarious World of Depression”, published by St. Martin's Press. He's also the host of the podcast “The Hilarious World of Depression”, which you can find where you find your podcasts. If you don't find podcasts yet, good for you. But also try to find this one. It's enjoyable.
Find them, they will fill time. You’ve got time, maybe and they will fill it.
John, thank you again so much for the book, for your work, for being my Twitter friend, and for doing this interview. I really psyched to be connected. I very much appreciate your time.
I know I know. Now we can like listen to each other in more than 280 characters. It's very exciting.
Once again, John Moe is the author of the “The Hilarious World of Depression”, and host and creator of the podcast of the same name. The book is published by St. Martin's Press.
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration