Everyone I know is getting a copy of Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson this holiday season. When I first saw the hardcover sitting on the bookstore shelf, I thought what I was seeing enthusiastically beaming back at me was a cartoonish fox grinning like a fool through a shower of sparkling glitter. Being a fan of both foxes and glitter, it was enough to pique my interest.
What I discovered upon further reading was that the fox was actually a taxidermy road-kill raccoon named Rory, which has come to represent Lawson’s dedication (no matter the crippling circumstances) towards being furiously happy in the face of all odds. In the weeks since I’ve finished her second collection of personal essays, I’ve used the perpetuating mantra to validate Starbucks purchases, my refusal to be coerced by toxic individuals, and an impromptu trip to NYC. Most importantly, her book has given me hope, as it has to many others, that in life’s darkest moments we can choose to fight for our own sanity through seizing moments where joy can be created out of overwhelming despondency.
Women on mental illness is sort of my genre. There are classics like The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. New releases such as Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham and other third-wave feminists has opened up healthy discourse about how prevalent this topic has become among young women and has given modern perspective to understanding how commonly depression, anxiety, and OCD is diagnosed. Jenny Lawson is fearless, proud, and a standout writer. Her quick wit makes her immediately beloved by readers. Before even reaching the title page there is advance praise from deceased authors Ernest Hemingway and Jane Austen who have supposedly heaped on praise such as, “There are few people who I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well, but only one whose face I want to peel off and wear around my parlor. Lock thy door, Mrs. Lawson.” I sat in public trying not to openly react with disgust or laughter at the absurdity of such a sentence. No thought or tangent that pops into Mrs. Lawson’s head is pushed aside, which takes her personal essays on trips around a brain that is as frazzled as it is astute.
Lawson’s bestselling debut novel, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened marked her journey from childhood to becoming an adult, and the embarrassing milestones that come with life. Raised in rural Texas, her father found humour in bringing home a host of animals (ranging from the slightly dangerous to the downright lethal) and in high school she stuck her arm in a cow’s vagina (there’s a whole essay devoted to the incident). If you’ve ever sat wondering whether your personal brand of crazy, a word I use as lovingly and wear as proudly as the author herself, will ever be reciprocated romantically, Lawson and her husband Victor are prepared to give you an all new level of relationship goals. Their domestic disputes over the zombie apocalypse, cat-yawning, and who is more crazy according to their therapist makes you feel infinite gratitude that there are millions of people on this planet who are just as eccentric as you are. There are people out there who can relate. And it’s this universal truth that has made Lawson’s personal anecdotes so successful.
Sure, she might be roll-on-the-floor hilarious and offer a refreshing take on how to make the struggle of life work in your favor, but Furiously Happy focuses too on how Lawson’s mental illness has become a base for both her talent and her ability to make others recognize that they are not alone. She recounts about how her habit of self-harm disappoints her husband and how hard it is to explain her reasoning or the relief she gets from such acts to someone who would find cutting himself impossible. How her thoughts of suicide can be so overwhelming that it requires days of re-building her strength mentally and physically to even slightly engage with the outside world,
“It’s hard to understand anyone’s being depressed or anxious when they’ve been given a gift it seems anyone would kill for. At best it seems ungrateful. At worst it seems disgraceful. But still, it happens. Some of the moments that (from a normal person’s perspective) seem like they should’ve been the greatest moments of my life were actually sometimes the worst moments. No one ever tells you that. Probably because it sounds crazy. But that doesn’t make it any less true. I wish someone had told me this simple but confusing truth: Even when everything’s going your way you can still be sad. Or anxious. Or uncomfortably numb. Because you can’t always control your brain or your emotions when things are perfect.”
There are a thousand reasons it’s important to discuss mental illness frankly. Not only does it save lives, but it allows for communion of a common and horribly stigmatized ailment to be accessible to the public. Whether you are the person internally suffering, or a friend who is helping someone else make it through the darkness, there are times when there is nothing to say that will make anything better and times when speaking out makes a world of difference. Lawson speaks not only from her mind, but from her heart—claiming that going public about her mental health might not have made life any easier, but it certainly has made it better:
“When I look at my life I see high-water marks of happiness and I see the lower places where I had to convince myself that suicide wasn’t an answer. And in between I see my life, I see that the sadness and tragedy in my life made the euphoria and delicious ecstasy that much more sweet. I see that stretching out my soul to feel every inch of horrific depression gave me more room to grow and enjoy the beauty of life that others might not ever appreciate.”
The author has a folder of 24 people who had planned out their suicides with careful consideration before finding solace through message boards and blogs linked to Lawson’s “The Bloggess” account. In the epilogue for Furiously Happy she is amazed by how many individuals at appearances and book signings come forwards and whisper that they are number 25 or that they too have survived their depression in part because of her writing. That is both a testament to her ability to transfix an audience with the incredible story of how she continues to live and the healing nature of a shared mind that can only be found in the written word. I keep a copy of Furiously Happy on my shelf in case I ever need the all-knowing friend/guru her life advice has become and prescribe a copy for you too.