What Jenny Lawson’s Book Furiously Happy Taught Me About Writing About Mental Illness

Posted by Jenn Shenouda January  08, 2016

 

If you’ve ever experienced anxiety and depression so intensely that you’ve hid in bed all day, trying to block out the sun filtering through your window with your duvet cover or have known and loved someone who suffers from mental illness or are simply a sentient human being, It’s hard not to consider author Jenny Lawson’s latest best-selling book, Furiously Happy, a sort of guided tour through the rollercoaster ride that is living with mental illness. 

Except, this tour also happens to have a laugh track. Whether Lawson is running away from killer swans, dressing up in an adult kangaroo suit to tour the outback or trying to get her cats to ride a stuffed raccoon named Rory, her book highlights the fact that sometimes laughter is not only the ‘best remedy’ for dealing with mental health issues, but also the necessary one. 

“By opening up so candidly in her book and talking about her struggles, she taught me that I shouldn’t be ashamed of attaching my own name to my illness.”

 

As a long-time sufferer of depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder myself, I found it hard not to laugh out loud at her stories of turning the silver linings of an illness into gold.  Who would have thought that a book about debilitating anxiety and depression could be so darn, well, funny? And yet, as I continued reading, it became more and more apparent to me that I wasn’t on a tour with her at the helm, but rather a group excursion, one that included both those who suffer from mental health issues and society at large.

Lawson’s book seems to state something that should be obvious but isn’t, that having chronic mental health issues, while sometimes awful, can also be a hoot. She doesn’t do this to minimize her disorder(s), but rather to open up a dialogue about mental health to a larger audience.  Gone are the ‘bell jar’ days, where it was often necessary to hide your mental afflictions in order to survive. What Lawson has done is no small feat; she’s rallied a community together, one that includes both the sufferers and the non-sufferers in hopes of de-stigmatizing mental illness.

By opening up so candidly in her book and talking about her struggles, she taught me that I shouldn’t be ashamed of attaching my own name to my illness. That it’s no longer necessary to write about your struggles with mental health under a thinly-veiled pseudonym. One of my favourite lines in Lawson’s book comes early on, as a sort of testament to why she goes out of her way to find things that make her smile in the midst of her suffering: 

“I am furiously happy. It’s not a cure for mental illness…It’s a weapon, designed to counter it.”

If parts of her book seem slightly absurd, it’s by design. It seems that Lawson’s book isn’t so much meant to analyze the nuts and bolts of mental illness, but to exorcise it, in precise, moments of hilarity.  Spreading mirth as an antidote to what ails her.

I was lucky enough to meet her in person recently, and there were a thousand of things I could have said to her but didn’t.  Instead, I talked to her about Leonardo DiCaprio and the cookies I never got around to baking her because I didn’t want to risk upsetting her stomach. I didn’t get the chance to thank her for making it possible for young writers like myself to feel more comfortable putting it all out there on the page.

So thank you, Jenny, for being ‘furiously honest’ about your own life, and in doing so, liberating a little laughter in us all.

Jenn Shenouda is a writer whose work has been featured in Canadian Living, Best Health Magazine and Toronto Star. She is also a receptionist and facilities coordinator for Rakuten Kobo Inc.

Watch our Kobo in Conversation with Jenny Lawson here.

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