Jenny Lawson found Internet fame in small-town Texas. The day “The Bloggess,” was born, people felt they had a safe and relatable place to go on the Internet. Her quirky stories vary from hilarious parenting mishaps to chronicling life with her over-the-top collection of taxidermy animals. Lawson’s entertaining charisma made her an online fan favorite. What her readers didn’t expect was that this jovial, self-effacing writer was also mentally ill. Lawson is diagnosed as a high-functioning depressive with OCD, ADD, and an anxiety disorder. Her bravery in sharing her struggles with her readers helped build an online community where people who were also suffering suddenly felt they had a voice. They were no longer alone.
In her latest memoir, Lawson takes us on a journey of her day-to-day strides towards sanity and her determination to feel good inside. Her writing never veers towards self-indulgence. Even in the darkest moments she manages to put a smile to her prose. As you journey with her through her sadness she manages to make you laugh the whole way. Funny moments aside, Lawson’s raw truth and vulnerability are much needed in America, a place where our society and healthcare system aren’t so kind to the chemically imbalanced. Lawson teaches us that there’s no shame involved with mental illness. It’s a disease like any other, just misunderstood.
In bringing a charming face to the mentally ill, Lawson makes a point of being humble, letting her readers know that without the support of her family and access to healthcare, she wouldn’t be such a shining example of what it’s like to be unstable. Furiously Happy isn’t just a book about being sick in the head. It’s a courageously selfless lesson encouraging all of us to start embracing our flaws. It teaches us how to recognize that we are all connected though various struggles. And that what we dislike about ourselves is what makes us lovable to others.
The Rumpus: You wrote about your own mental illness. Almost impossible and so courageous.
Jenny Lawson: I’m actually a little surprised this book got done. At one point I thought, this thing is not going to happen. I’ m going to have to come up with something else. Writing about my illness put me into places. It was very triggering. I had to completely remove myself and practice self-care. I learned to be patient. My first book [Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, a memoir] took me ten years to write and this one took only three. I guess I’m getting better at it.
Rumpus: What did mental illness make your childhood like?
Lawson: The problems I had weren’t understood. I didn’t join in on the ski trips or go to church. I hid. My sister was beautiful, bright, and bubbly. The actress. The clown. Whenever I was around people, I needed to recharge. She recharged by being around people.
Rumpus: How did that inform your psyche?
Lawson: I had very low self-esteem. Books saved me. I found friends in stories like The Chronicles of Narnia and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. During lunch hour at school I’d avoid social interactions by sitting on the bathroom sink and reading. My mother worked in my school cafeteria. When my anxiety got really bad, I’d put a coat on, grab my book and a flashlight, and hide in the freezer with the mac and cheese.
Rumpus: What! Did your mother know?
Lawson: Sure. The freezer became my oasis. I loved it. The comforting noise of the plastic and the smell of Freon. I thought to myself, “This is so lovely. “
Rumpus: What did your peers think of that?
Lawson: They had no idea how bad my anxiety was. They thought I just really liked to read. People rode tractors to school. And I wore all black. Small town anxiety is bigger. I really, really stood out. There was me and there was everyone else.
Rumpus: Despite your standing out so much, you didn’t seem to get bullied.
Lawson: No. In fact almost everyone in my yearbook wrote the same thing to me: “To weird girl, you’re nice.” I didn’t think it was bad. When I showed my mother she said, “Everyone is different.” Being weird became my tool. I’m weird; that’s who I am. It was my coping badge.
Rumpus: Speaking of, how do you deal with your diagnosis?
Lawson: There’s so much shame involved in not being like everyone else. But I learned that the things that made me unique were good. Dealing with problems can be awful. But in the end I got positive results. I don’t think I would have been a writer if I didn’t have anxiety.
Rumpus: One of my favorite parts in the book is when your therapist tells you that if you were really insane you wouldn’t be asking her if you were crazy.
Lawson: Yes! When you’re really crazy you don’t question it. Being aware of my behaviors stops them. Sure, a lot of people pick their cuticles, but how many people cut big parts of their skin off? It’s unfair because I have been judged.
Rumpus: Which is ironic because we’re all crazy to varying degrees.
Lawson: Exactly. To them I say, “You’re crazy too. You’re not doing the work to get your diagnosis.” But I have so many more people say to me, “Thank you for putting a name to this.” Even family members of mine after reading something I wrote will tell me, “I realize my child has this. And now I understand what it is.”
Rumpus: How did you view the people around you?
Lawson: I was always shy. Writing was my only outlet. Because I always hid in a room, I spent a lot of time watching people. When I was a small child I could detect hidden body language in others only I could see. People’s emotions rub off on me. When I told this to my therapist she said, “Well, you’re an empath.” I thought, “No way. Like Star Trek?” And she clarified: because I am so socially uncomfortable, I have compassion for others who I recognize are also struggling. People with anxiety are acutely aware.
Rumpus: How did the success and validation you received on the Internet soothe your mind?
Lawson: Like books, the Internet has saved my life. It helped me recognize that so many people I adore suffer from the same things I do.
Rumpus: But there’s the dark side, the trolls. How do you deal with that?
Lawson: Some people we define as trolls are just critics. Sometimes they have a point. And I hear them. But for the ones who comment “I want to kill you in your sleep,” I respond to them too.
Rumpus: What do you say?
Lawson: When someone writes something hateful and threatening I respond with something like, “I want to be so much like you; I want to wear your skin.” By messing with them in that way you change what they’re selling. They won’t share it. And it halts the conversation. Or I’ll change it to “Jenny, you’re like a rose bush that grew a watermelon.” They come back pissed off and write, “I didn’t say that!”
Rumpus: What was the impetus to recognizing Furiously Happy was a story that needed to be told?
Lawson: I wanted to write about my disorders for people like my husband or mother who don’t suffer but have saved people. Mentally ill people don’t have a choice in who they are. But those that stand by the mentally ill make an enormous difference. Even when I’m healthy enough to take care of myself I face constant battles, especially with insurance companies.
Rumpus: What is that like?
Lawson: I have trouble getting approvals from my heath insurance company for basic antidepressants. And I have the best plan my agency has. I can’t get high off this stuff! I’m not going to sell it! Getting my medication is critical. It’s me saying, “I just want to live.” And their response seems to be, “We agree that it’s a matter of life and death; that’s why we’re declining it.” Every time I get a cold, I have Tylenol with codeine coming out the wazoo. But the medication I need to live? Nah.
Rumpus: What’s your advice to people who are battling their health insurance for basic needs?
Lawson: Continue to fight. You always get a disapproval the first time. Find someone to help you if you can’t advocate for yourself. One of the most important things I learned is forging a rapport with someone at your insurance company. Know their names. You’ll eventually get someone who will tell you, “This is how you do an appeal. This is what you need to say in your letter. “ You can also always go to the ER to get whatever you need to tide you over for a few days.
Rumpus: There’s no paperwork with coke dealers.
Lawson: (Laughs) Imagine if a coke dealer made you go through three levels of approvals. Then turned around and said, “Have you tried generic brand cocaine? Wait, you know what? Have you just tried sniffing baby powder?”
Author photo © Maile Wilson.