Fans of Jenny Lawson’s blog, The Bloggess, and first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, know to expect an offbeat and raucous view of the world from anything Lawson writes. Furiously Happy: A Funny Book about Horrible Things, which addresses Lawson’s lifelong struggle with depression, doesn’t disappoint.
The book takes its title from Lawson’s determination to make the most of her life during the times when she is not in the grip of depression. Just one example: she travels to Australia to have her picture made with a koala while wearing a koala suit herself. She doesn’t get to actually hold the koala but is comforted by an alternate suggestion: “If you really want to hold a koala but can’t, just get a furry pillowcase and fill it with lightly used cat litter.”
Unusual things happen closer to home as well. When Lawson (famously a collector of taxidermied animals and other oddities) receives a facsimile of a vagina, handmade of felt, it soon disappears: “I was instantly reminded of a story I heard when I was little, about a severed hand that came to life,” she writes. “I always thought there could be nothing more creepy than a severed hand running around the neighborhood… until I was faced with the notion that a lone voodoo vagina was skittering around my house.” The episode leads to a valuable lesson: never leave a felted vagina where the cat can find it.
But the most valuable lessons in Furiously Happy come from Lawson’s frank discussion of depression. She points out the self-defeating thoughts that depression engenders and then undercuts them at the same time: “Clearly I wasn’t as sick as I said I was if the medication didn’t work for me,” she writes in one example. “And that sort of makes sense, because when you have cancer the doctor gives you the best medicine and if it doesn’t shrink the tumor immediately then it’s a pretty clear sign you were just faking it for attention.”
Lawson recently answered questions from Chapter 16 via email:
Chapter 16: You write, “I can’t think of another type of illness where the sufferer is made to feel guilty and question their self-care when their medications need to changed.” Why is it so hard to educate others and ourselves about the reality of mental illness?
Jenny Lawson: I think part of the problem is that the stigma of having mental illness keeps many who suffer from becoming proponents or activists. Additionally, it’s not easy work and not something that has a quick solution. It’s easy to feel discouraged when we lose so many to suicide, and I think that’s why it’s so important to celebrate the victories and also focus on how many people—including myself—are still here and are successfully fighting each day with the help of so many others.
Chapter 16: Your idea of the piñata stupid-stick for airports is brilliant. But do we have to limit it to airports and airplanes?
Lawson: Absolutely not. I think it would be nice to have them to smack the shins of people who stop short in front of you on the street for no reason whatsoever, or on people who talk loudly in movie theaters.
Chapter 16: You note that “every mental illness is different because every person is different.” Is there any one-size-fits-all advice that might help when your mind and body are telling you there’s no hope and no light at the end of the tunnel?
Lawson: Remembering the phrase “Depression lies” is always helpful because it’s during deep depressions that we fall prey to all the self-doubts ruminating in our mind. It’s always helpful to remind yourself that depression isn’t to be trusted and that you will be OK again, even if you can’t imagine it at the time.
Chapter 16: One of the great things about this book (besides the fact that it’s hilarious) is this sentence: “Everyone is different so the best thing you can do is to ask the person you’re dealing with what they need.” People seem so afraid of discussing depression with a friend who’s depressed; it’s almost as if we think she might not remember she’s depressed if no one brings it up. How can we get the conversation going?
Lawson: I think the most important thing is to let the person know that you’re there for them no matter what. For some of us, depression or anxiety causes us to go into hiding, and when we return we feel like we’ll be judged for disappearing. Communication is important for the person with mental illness and the person who loves the person with mental illness. The best thing you can do as someone who wants to help is to ask what they specifically need from you and try to give them that. Most people just want someone to sit with them or to know that it’s OK if they aren’t themselves for a while. It’s hard for everyone involved, but I can’t say enough about the importance of having someone who has your back even when you don’t have your own.
Chapter 16: You pretty much destroyed all my illusions about koalas when you pointed out that they carry chlamydia. (You were cute in your koala costume, however.) Please tell me one good thing about koalas.
Lawson: Koalas keep their chlamydia to themselves. Unless you’re another koala. Then you probably need to see a doctor.
Chapter 16: I am still a little freaked out by the felted vaginas. Was it really a voodoo vagina?
Lawson: If it was, it was very ineffective because everyone’s vagina seems fine. It was an educational tool to show children how babies are born. It also makes a good coin purse.
Chapter 16: Your plan is to live a furiously happy life “despite your brain being a real bastard.” Do you have a favorite story from someone else who’s furiously happy?
Lawson: When I was on tour with my last book, I had tons of people show up who said that they never went to events because their anxiety or depression kept them away but they’d decided to brave the crowds to attend a reading. Inevitably by the time they made it to the signing table they’d made friends with other similar people in line and would end the night laughing hysterically and making real friends. These were the same people who’d come and give me live kittens and jars with brains in them and enormous giant boars on wheels. They’d wear red ball gowns and carry giant metal chickens, and they always left me with such joy.
Chapter 16: Will Rory the stuffed raccoon be accompanying you to Nashville?
Lawson: It depends if I can have him classified as a service animal. He doesn’t travel well in a suitcase.
Faye Jones, dean of learning resources at Nashville State Community College, writes the Jolly Librarian blog for the college’s Mayfield Library. She earned her doctorate in nineteenth-century literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.