Feb 09

“Solutions and Other Problems” by Allie Brosh

Solutions and Other Problems includes humorous stories from Allie Brosh’s childhood; the adventures of her very bad animals; merciless dissection of her own character flaws; incisive essays on grief, loneliness, and powerlessness; as well as reflections on the absurdity of modern life. Publisher of Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

A frequent point being made about comic artist Allie Brosh‘s follow-up to her last best-selling book, Hyperbole and a Half (see previous post) is that it took seven years—for her fans, seven agonizingly long years during which she’d unexplainedly withdrawn from the internet. As it happens, Brosh was going through some things, including a major health scare, her divorce, and the suicide of her younger sister.

Solutions and Other Problems (2020) is described as “a new collection of comedic, autobiographical, and illustrated essays.” As Publishers Weekly states, “Brosh’s spidery and demented digital portraits, a visual expression of fun-house mirror anxiety, fits her material perfectly.”

Selected quotes are representative of her style and attitude:

For the sake of trust building, the third chapter will follow the second. But then we will jump directly to chapter five, do you understand? No chapter four. Why? Because sometimes things don’t go like they should.

When you can explain things to people who are willing to listen to you explain them, it is extremely difficult to resist fully and brutally explaining them. It feels good to explain them—like maybe you’re getting somewhere. Like maybe, if you can just…really explain them, the experiences will realize you’re catching on and stop bothering you.

I don’t believe in karma, but I believe there are things that can happen that very specifically force you to understand what an asshole you were.

The title? She tells Susanna Schrobsdorff, Time, “So, you know that thing where you have a problem, and in trying to solve the problem you generate a brand new type of problem? It’s sort of about that. How the solutions themselves become the next generation of problems. Because no solution is perfect.”

Additional quotes from her Time interview:

I think self-improvement itself is a good thing, but sometimes the message gets a little muddled. Like, it sort of feels like self-help books are designed more to sell books than to offer practical help. There’s not a lot of realism in there. A realistic self-help book wouldnt sound like “Easily banish your anxiety with these simple tricks!” It would sound like “Moderately improve your anxiety over a span of many years by continuously choosing to do the hard thing instead of the easy thing, and there’s no real end point—you have to keep going indefinitely if you want to keep improving.” And I think that really holds self-help back—the promise of easy results.

Sometimes I feel scared to be vulnerable, but I don’t think I’ve ever regretted it. I think it’s good to be vulnerable; it shows people that it’s safe to be vulnerable too. And, for the most part, I think people appreciate that. Actually, one of the comments I have saved in my special folder is somebody who said, “Thank you for going first.” I’ve probably read that one a hundred times. It helps me remember that I don’t need to feel scared.

As always, there’s the caveat that different people experience depression slightly differently, and what works for one person might not work for the next, but for me what has been most helpful is when somebody shows a willingness to understand, and also a willingness to just quietly be there if that’s what I need. Sometimes it feels good to talk about it; sometimes it’s too overwhelming, and it feels helpful when somebody lets me know that it’s O.K. to not feel O.K. right away.

Feb 03

“Wintering” by Katherine May: Selected Quotes

A recent book that’s perfect for today’s world is Katherine Mays Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. Although we’re currently in the actual season known as winter, wintering in May’s book is not necessarily what you readily imagine it to be.

Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider. Perhaps it results from an illness or a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humiliation or failure. Perhaps you’re in a period of transition and have temporarily fallen between two worlds. Some wintering creep upon us more slowly, accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of caring responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence. Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you worked for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone new. However, it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful.

Selected Quotes from Wintering

Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of our human experience, and wisdom resides in those who have wintered.

Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.

If happiness is a skill, then sadness is, too. Perhaps through all those years at school, or perhaps through other terrors, we are taught to ignore sadness, to stuff it down into our satchels and pretend it isn’t there. As adults, we often have to learn to hear the clarity of its call. That is wintering. It is the active acceptance of sadness. It is the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need. It is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and to commit to healing them the best we can. Wintering is a moment of intuition, our true needs felt keenly as a knife.

We seem to be living in an age when we’re bombarded with entreaties to be happy, but we’re suffering from an avalanche of depression. We’re urged to stop sweating the small stuff, yet we’re chronically anxious. I often wonder if these are just normal feelings that become monstrous when they’re denied. A great deal of life will always suck. There will be moments when we’re riding high and moments when we can’t bear to get out of bed. Both are normal. Both in fact require a little perspective.

There are times when everything seems easy, and times when it all seems impossibly hard. To make that manageable, we only have to remember that our present will one day become a past, and our future will be our present. We know that, because it’s happened before. The things we put behind us will often come around again. The things that trouble us now will one day be past history. Each time we endure the cycle, we ratchet up a notch. We learn from the last time around, and we do a few things better this time; we develop tricks of the mind to see us through. This is how progress is made. But one thing is certain: we will simply have different things to worry about. We will have to clench our teeth and carry on surviving again. In the meantime, we can only deal with what’s in front of us at this moment in time. We take the next necessary action, and the next. At some point along the line, that next action will feel joyful again.

Mar 28

“It’s Kind of a Funny Story”: Depression, In Fact

Sometimes I just think depression’s one way of coping with the world. Like, some people get drunk, some people do drugs, some people get depressed. Because there’s so much stuff out there that you have to do something to deal with it. Ned Vizzini, It’s Kind of a Funny Story

In 2013 author Ned Vizzini died by suicide. He was 32 when he jumped off his parents’ roof in Brooklyn. He left behind a wife and young child.

One of his books, the 2004 sci-fi Be More Chill, has now become a Broadway musical, which has put the deceased author back in the news.

Vizzini had also written the bestselling Young Adult novel, It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2006), based on his prior experience of checking himself into a psychiatric hospital after calling a suicide hotline. The catalyst: he’d had a dream about jumping from the Brooklyn Bridge.

Athough his real-life five-day inpatient stint was helpful, Vizzini publicly admitted he continually had to work to manage his depression. In other words, the various forms of therapy he received over the years were not curative as much as guiding and supportive. A realistic way, actually, of viewing depression recovery.

In 2010 a film based on the book was released in theaters.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story, The Book

Tanya Lee Stone, New York Times, at the time of publication: “Laughter is one way to cope with pressure, and that’s what Ned Vizzini’s insightful and utterly authentic new novel is all about — the insidious kind of pressure teenagers face in a success-oriented society that values product over process, scores over scholarship and extracurriculars over extra innings.”

It’s Kind of a Funny Story, The Film

The film It’s Kind of a Funny Story received so-so reviews from the critics. A.O. Scott, New York Times:The best I can say is that it’s kind of a good movie.” Viewers, on the other hand, have given it somewhat better marks overall.

From Scott’s synopsis:

Temperamentally disinclined to be melodramatic, Craig [Keir Gilchrist] is bothered by some of the usual stresses of modern adolescence. His selective public high school is a hothouse of academic pressure. He is obsessed with Nia (Zoë Kravitz), the girlfriend of his best pal, Aaron (Thomas Mann). And Craig’s well-meaning parents (Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan, with Dana De Vestern in tow as a funny-cute little sister) are not quite able to give him the support and sympathy he needs.

16-year-old Craig gets checked in to Argeron, the hospital. “Now Craig realizes,” notes “cinema therapist” Birgit Wolz, “that this is not as simple as chilling out for a while. He believes that he made a mistake when he discovers that checking in is much easier than checking out. To make matters worse, the youth psychiatric ward is undergoing renovations, and he is forced to stay in the adult unit with patients who are more seriously disturbed.”

Available now on DVD and elsewhere, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is previewed in the following trailer. Note that Zach Galifianakis was cast as a fellow inpatient. “As Bobby, the psych ward’s resident depressive-philosopher, Galifianakis works his character’s insights and neuroses like worry beads — effortlessly, unceasingly and to marvelous effect” (Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times).

Additionally, there’s the bonus of Viola Davis as Dr. Minerva, a caring psychiatrist.

Nov 30

“Suicidal”: Jesse Bering Analyzes Why

Just yesterday there were multiple variations seen of this headline: “U.S. Life Expectancy Continues To Fall As Overdose And Suicide Rates Soar” (HuffPost). Such news highlights the importance of New Zealand psychologist Jesse Bering‘s timely book Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves, which, according to various reviewers, has been written in a uniquely approachable way.

Notably a survivor himself of an ongoing battle with suicidal ideation, Bering “knows that sometimes the most effective response to our darkest moments is a gentle humor, one that, while not denying the seriousness of suffering, at the same time acknowledges our complicated, flawed, and yet precious existence” (publisher’s blurb).

Bering’s earlier articles, e.g., his 2010 “What It Feels Like to Want to Kill Yourself” and “Why Do More Men Than Women Kill Themselves” (both in Scientific American), also shed light on the topic, including his personal struggles.

His own background, as summarized by Michael Shermer, Scientific American, involved having been “a closeted teenager,” for one, and later unemployment as an academic, for another:

Yet most oppressed gays and fallen academics don’t want to kill themselves. ‘In the vast majority of cases, people kill themselves because of other people,’ Bering adduces. ‘Social problems—especially a hypervigilant concern with what others think or will think of us if only they knew what we perceive to be some unpalatable truth—stoke a deadly fire.’

One of the various reasons people consider or commit suicide is depression, of course, but “most people suffering from depression do not kill themselves (only about 5 percent Bering says), and not all suicide victims were depressed.” Genetics and environmental factors can also play a large part in one’s desire to stop living.

Kirkus Reviews:Bering concedes that having dark impulses is more commonplace than people would like to believe, and he highlights theories held by neuropsychiatrists and suicidologists who have isolated a specific neuron possibly responsible for suicidal intent.”

A major focus of Bering’s Suicidal, adds Publishers Weekly, is the work of social psychologist Roy Baumeister, “who identifies a typical six-stage mental process, starting with feeling of having fallen short of expectations, and culminating with disinhibition. Bering’s deep reading of an extraordinary diary written by a teen in the four months before her suicide in the context of Baumeister’s framework is disturbing but highly enlightening.”

In addition, Bering’s Suicidal “details with concern modern factors in suicides, such as highly reported celebrity deaths, internet suicide pacts, and glamorized media depictions as in the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why.”

If you find yourself contemplating taking your own life, please consider contacting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.

Oct 30

“Maniac”: Not-Real Drugs to Cure Mental Illness

If you like quirky fantastical stories that happen to involve the possibility of curing mental illness, Netflix’s Maniac might be for you. As summarized by Matthew Gilbert, Boston Globe:

Directed and co-written by the visionary Cary Joji Fukunaga (‘True Detective,’ the next Bond movie), it follows two troubled people, played by Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, who take part in a pharmaceutical drug trial led by Justin Theroux’s cutting-edge doctor. She’s a depressed, lonely soul, and he’s the son of wealthy New Yorkers whose vivid hallucinations leave even us, the viewers, unsure of what is real. Is the drug trial actually occurring, or is it just another one of his delusions?

Watch the trailer here:

The Pharmaceutical Experiment

Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com: It “attempts to do what therapy so often cannot—pull apart the issues that define and confine them. And they have some issues.”

Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter, says “the end goal is to erase things like mental illness and unhappy memories, and rewire patients’ brains with three pills (labeled ‘A,’ ‘B’ and ‘C’).”

Willa Paskin, Slate: “It’s therapy in ingestible form, with each pill resulting in a vivid genre-based delusion. Annie and Owen find themselves inexplicably linked as they make their way through personalized drug trips that resemble an ’80s action movie.”

Further Plot and Characterization

Episodes of this 10-part mini-series eventually, says Tallerico, “explore the issues at the core of Annie and Owen’s psychological problems with different characters, settings, and tones.”

In one episode, Owen and Annie are an ‘80s Long Island couple trying to steal a lemur with a storytelling style reminiscent of the Coen brothers. In the next, they’re attending a séance in the ‘40s, replicating the playful dialogue and character beats of a classic mystery film. And yet each of these ‘short films within a show’ reflect themes of the real Owen and Annie, whether they be family problems, low self-worth, distrust, or a growing sense that maybe these two were meant for each other for some reason. Even Sally Field appears as, well, you’ll have to wait and see.

Well, you don’t really have to wait at all if you want a little spoiler: she plays Dr. Manterlay’s mom, a pop psychologist/author. And those two have issues too.

Prominent Themes

Troy Patterson, New Yorker: “At once a self-help drama about personal faith and a wry metaphysical mind-bender, ‘Maniac’ is about world-building—about giving an inner life a semblance of coherent narrative, about the stories we tell ourselves in order to get by.”

Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter: “There are core existential themes…mental illness, unhappiness, loneliness, the constraints of family and the notion of the pursuit of happiness as an illusion — that, depending on your response, are either adequately and entertainingly mined or get a little lost under the impressive visual mayhem on the surface.”

Willa Paskin, Slate: “…ultimately about how the only real cure for endemic loneliness, alienation, and sadness is time, effort, and—above all—friendship. For better and worse, it’s like a psychedelic Hallmark card: gorgeous, clever, weird, but maybe you’ve heard the sentiment before.”

Selected Reviews

Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter: “Your results may vary depending on how important it is to you to have mental illness, grief, unhappiness and other important Big Ideas fully explored via characters you come to love.”

Allison Keene, Collider: “When Maniac is good, it’s funny, affecting, and fascinating; when it’s not good, it’s like having a conversation with a student in a Psych 101 class who wants to tell you about a dream they had last night and what it might mean.”

James Poniewozic, New York Times: “In an age of desiccated puzzle-stories, ‘Maniac’ puts emotion first, even at the risk of sentimentality. It’s a heart-shaped Rubik’s Cube, a funny, consistently surprising fable of broken machines trying to reassemble themselves.”