This article was originally published in October of 2013.
Allie Brosh compares her 19-month-long bout with severe depression to the moment your childhood starts receding into the past, when you outgrow your toys.
“Most fun activities just left me existentially confused or frustrated with my inability to enjoy them. Months oozed by, and I gradually came to accept that maybe enjoyment was not a thing I got to feel anymore,” she recalled.
Brosh is the cartoonist and writer behind Hyberbole and a Half, a Web comic that now attracts five-million unique visitors a month. For four years, the 28-year-old has combined her rudimentary Paintbrush drawings with beyond-candid essays that draw from her childhood and from her current domestic life.
But it was a 2011 post titled “Adventures in Depression” that rocketed Brosh to serious virality, landing her a book deal. That post was hailed by critics and psychologists as one of the most insightful depictions of the disease to date. It also galvanized thousands of fans suffering from the illness; they’ve described Brosh’s pieces as the most relatable portrayal they’d ever seen of their own experiences.
Shortly after the depression post and subsequent book deal, Brosh vanished from her popular blog. Fans feared for her well-being until she re-emerged in 2012 to take their questions on Reddit, only to disappear again until the following spring, when she published more searingly precise essays.
Published this week, Brosh’s first book, Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, compiles fan favourites from the blog with new material. Brosh brings levity to many trademarks of depression, from emotional numbness to suicidal thoughts to paralysis around simple life tasks such as returning a DVD.
Through her crude cartoons, Brosh has become an unlikely poster girl for depression, a mantle she’s happy to take on. Today, her Facebook fan page counts nearly 400,000 likes, and her Twitter account boasts more than 100,000 followers. Unlike some diseases, depression doesn’t have celebrity spokespeople lining up – actress Catherine Zeta-Jones and Olympic cyclist and speed skater Clara Hughes are among a handful who stand up for the cause. As Saanich, B.C.’s Kevin Breel, 19, put it in his notable TED Talk “Confessions of a Depressed Comic” this fall, “We are so, so, so accepting of any body part breaking down, other than our brains. … That ignorance has created a world that doesn’t understand depression, that doesn’t understand mental health.”
Brosh, who studied human biology at the University of Montana, draws with a purposeful roughness using simple paint software for Mac; she often does more than 10 drafts of her panels, spending hours on facial expressions or body positions. The protagonist in her stories is a wide-grinning, googly-eyed stick figure topped by a blond ponytail, or “sharkfin” as Brosh calls it. She wears a pink dress under a filthy grey hoodie – her depression suit.
Speaking ahead of an American book tour from Bend, Oregon, where she lives with her husband and their two dogs and seven pet rats, Brosh said her connection to legions of other depression sufferers has turned out to be a mutually beneficial feedback loop. “Depression is such an isolating experience, and there’s a tendency to feel like you’re the only one experiencing that depth or that exact brand of misery. And so it was surprising to hear how much it resonated with people,” she said. Just as importantly, people who’ve never experienced the condition write to her and say, “Oh wow, I understand it now.”
Some experts, including Jonathan Rottenberg, associate professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, have lauded Hyperbole and a Half as one of the best contemporary portraits of the condition. “I know of no better depiction of the guts of what it’s like to be severely depressed: Clutching your blanket, you are born into the baffling, boring, disorienting state that is depression – radically out of phase with the rest of humanity, unable to understand the concerns of other people, nor able to communicate yours to them,” he wrote of Brosh in Psychology Today.
“It makes plain to people who haven’t had depression what it’s like,” Rottenberg says in an interview. The author of the forthcoming book The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, adds: “It spans an incredibly wide set of important issues – what it’s like to be depressed, to interact with a depressed person, how a depressed person starts to rejoin humanity and make contact with the life that they had before.”
Ros Johnson, a Pawtucket, Rhode Island-based clinical social worker and author of the comic novel Minding Therapy, says Brosh taps into feelings many sufferers have trouble relaying. “What she accesses and presents to other people is so clear and well-articulated, which is why it resonates,” Johnson says. “And first off, she’s willing to do it – to put it out there.”
Brosh says the worst part of her depression was “catastrophising” it all, the question “how long is this going to happen to me?” rolling constantly through her brain. She paints an exacting picture of the family and friends of depressed people, who, though well meaning, will often become impatient with a patient’s progress and offer patronizing recommendations like yoga and volunteering, or a better diet. Brosh calls this the “hope-centric” approach. Her advice? Don’t push people to feel better before they’re able to.
“It’s a traumatic experience for someone who loves you to see this happening to you. They want reassurance that everything’s going to be okay, but you might not be able to tell them that with any authority,” she said. “The thing that is most helpful is being willing to sit with the depressed person, not treating them as someone who’s sick or suffering, just being willing to interact and be there and not make everything about the depression.”
Today, Brosh is feeling better, but says she is operating at “about 40 per cent capacity.”
Her two canines, “simple dog” and “helper dog,” have acted as a soothing balm; they get much air time both in the book and the blog. During the worst of her depression, Brosh and her husband would walk their dogs for hours late at night, out of sight of other bubbly dog people. “Dogs don’t expect anything of you and they don’t judge you,” said Brosh. “They might know that you’re depressed and that something’s not right but there’s no pressure to feel better when you can’t feel better. It is relieving to be around another creature that isn’t pushing you in any direction.”
Other coping mechanisms like swimming and running have helped take the edge off, even though Brosh admits “it is monumentally difficult to do those things, so it is not an easy solution.”
She is open about crediting part of her recovery to Wellbutrin, an antidepressant and smoking cessation aid that also helps her cope with her ADHD. “I take things as they come more easily,” she says, adding: “I’m okay with how okay I am.”
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