Ep 156: The Funny Thing About Depression…

Episode Summary

John Moe, author of The Hilarious World of Depression, joins us for a candid and surprisingly fun look at living with depression and how to talk to teens about it.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Dealing with depression is tough–whether you’re battling it yourself or trying to help a teen who’s struggling. Depression can distance us from friends and loved ones, cause us to stop eating and sleeping and make things we once enjoyed seem pointless. If left untreated, depression can even be life-threatening. 

As more and more people–especially teens– find themselves struggling with depression in the midst of the pandemic, it’s more tempting than ever to search for remedies to this complicated condition. What can we do to make life with depression more livable?

For some of us, the answer may lie in laughter. You read that right. Laughter. Sometimes, in order to process our emotions and make light of the things that plague us, the answers lie in comedy! Joking about depression might not always be the most conventional coping mechanism, but it can do wonders for making such a terrifying, overwhelming illness more manageable on the daily.

Our guest this week, John Moe, is no stranger to laughing his way through tough times. He’s the author of The Hilarious World of Depression and the host of the podcast Depresh Mode, where he engages in interesting and introspective discussions with guests about mental health and more!. As someone who’s lived with major depressive disorder since his early teens, John knows that helping a kid through depression is not easy. That’s why he’s here to answer questions, give advice…and make us laugh!

Want to talk to your teen about depression but don’t know where to start? We’re getting into having conversations about mental health in this week’s episode. We’re also covering how you can spot depression in a teen, and how a little humor can help you and your teen work through the difficulties of depression together.

Discussing Depression with Your Kids

Initiating a talk about mental health with teens can be a little daunting…especially when teens would usually much rather scroll through Instagram or watch Netflix than talk to us about literally anything. But if we don’t try to have these conversations with our kids, they might find themselves suffering from depression or anxiety without being able to put a name to those feelings. They may think they are alone, or that there’s something wrong with them, when all they really need is some professional help.

When sitting kids down for a chat, John suggests keeping things open and transparent. In the episode, he shares a touching anecdote from when he had a discussion about depression with his own daughter! One of the biggest tips he has for parents is to never dismiss the gravity of what teen’s are going through. It can be easy to say things like “you’ll feel better when you’re older” or “it’s not that big of a deal” when you’re trying to provide comfort, but these kinds of statements can backfire when teens feel invalidated.

Plus, mental illness isn’t just something one can ”think” their way out of, John reminds us. In our interview, we talk about a questionable sentiment that’s often applied to cancer–the idea that if someone is just positive and tough enough, they won’t suffer so much. But cancer is certainly not cured just by having a good attitude, John reminds us, and neither is depression. It takes a professional to help treat an illness! This is important to remember when breaking down depression for your teens.

Preparing kids for the possibility of depression is a great way to keep them from feeling confused or isolated before they find themselves struggling–but what about a teen who’s already dealing with depression?

Is My Child Depressed?

Although depression affects everyone differently, there are some signs we can look out for when watching for depression in our teens. In the episode, John shares the story of his own personal battle with depression, and how his wife noticed the signs before he did. Even though he was isolating himself from friends, constantly going through intense mood swings and losing sleep, he didn’t think of himself as someone with depression.

His determination to avoid diagnosis stemmed from his misconceptions about depression, he explains. Before becoming the educated man he is today, John thought that depressed folks just moped around all the time acting sad–and that didn’t sound like him. Only after being diagnosed did he release that there is a whole spectrum of symptoms that people with depression experience!

When looking for signs of depression in a teen, John recommends keeping an eye out for a sudden drop in grades or attendance. It’s also wise to pay attention to their social patterns–are they suddenly losing friends or staying home on the weekends when they used to go out? If you’re noticing some of these signifiers, it might be time to do some research or reach out for professional help.

Finding a therapist, going on medication, or getting another form of professional treatment is essential to helping teens get better, but living with depression can still make daily life harder. When you’re going through a dark time, John suggests finding the light in laughter.

How Comedy Helps Us Cope

For John, and many of us, comedy is something we’ve indulged in our whole lives. Growing up, we may have watched cartoons that made us laugh or maybe, like John, tuned into SNL and Monty Python for comedic relief. As John explains in the episode, comedy helped ease his immigrant family’s transition to American life. Humor helps us see the odd and contradictory parts of our existence and gives us a chance to discuss contradictory and confusing topics we might often sweep under the rug.

After his depression diagnosis, John turned to comedy to help him process his feelings. One of the hardest parts of adjusting to the diagnosis was feeling like he couldn’t communicate just how difficult things were–but he felt that within comedy and writing, there was a chance for people like him to talk about things through art! In fact, even if it isn’t comedy, he suggests teens who are dealing with depression find some kind of hobby that allows for self expression, like joining a band or picking up painting!

Using humor to talk about depression can also chip away at the stigmas that still stand around mental illness. Even if we’re just joking around, we’re still encouraging discussion–and reminding people that it’s ok not to be ok. As John explains in the episode, the worst thing we can do is ignore the reality of depression and anxiety, and allow people who may be suffering to continue feeling like they have no solution or that they’re going at it alone.

In the episode….

My interview with John was hilarious, yet helpful! Not only do we share plenty of laughs this week, we also get to the heart of handling serious mental health concerns. On top of the subjects discussed above, we talk about…

  • Why teens can’t “achieve” their way out of depression
  • How we can get teens to be less dramatic
  • Why kids should think critically about depression in the media
  • How finding a therapist is like dating

I really enjoyed talking to John this week. We hope you enjoy listening! Don’t forget to subscribe, and we’ll see you next week.

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. When your teen asks what would happen if they had depression: 

“Well, we will look for the signs together. If we’re concerned, we’ll go to the doctor together and we’ll get the doctor’s opinion. There would be some tests. And if that is the case, then we would look at a bunch of options on how to treat it. We’d find some that we want to try if those work great. If they don’t, we’ll try something else and we’ll keep going until we find something that does work.”

John Moe

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: This is two thing that I never really thought would go together. The hilarious world of depression. Talk to me about this a little bit. Where did this come from? How did it submerge and why did those things get put in the same sentence?

John: Well, I’ve traced that in a variety of ways, but I think it comes down to just being a lifetime comedy nerd. My whole family is my parents immigrated from Norway. And as often happens with immigrant families, first-generation families, they found the best way to learn about American culture was through Laugh-In and the Carol Burnett show and some of these other comedies. So I was always hooked on comedy as I was a comedy nerd. I liked how it offered a different perspective on daily life. It found what was ridiculous and interesting and contradictory and funny about daily life. And so I soaked up Steve Martin and Saturday Night Live and Monte Python and David Letterman, all these things from a very early age. And I also developed a major depressive disorder at a very early age, probably around puberty around junior high school.

John: I didn’t know what was happening. I thought I was going crazy and would be sent away. Or I thought that nobody else who was going through this weird feeling like I was. I heard about depression being a thing, but I thought it just meant being sad, which is a thing that it can mean, but it doesn’t always. And so when I grew up and I finally got diagnosed in my thirties and, and became really interested in what that did to a brain at the same time, I have worked a lot in comedy. I knew a lot of comedians and I noticed that a lot of them would talk about depression either on stage or in conversations off stage. And so I started looking for the connection what my kind of reporter instinct kicked in. Okay, what’s going on here?

John: There’s a story here. And it’s sort of unknowable, like people say, well, are there more why are there so many comedians with depression? And I don’t know if there are, or if it’s just a thing that they’re allowed to talk about as part of their job. If a dentist was talking about suicidal ideation you would probably go to a different dentist.

Andy: Oh…wait a minute. Right.

John: But if you’re a comedian talking about it, it’s okay. And what I found really though, was it’s such a hard experience to talk about. It’s such a, words don’t really do this disorder justice, but you can talk about what it’s like to live with it. And that’s something that comedians, songwriters, fiction authors kind of have the advantage of art to describe things. And I think it really illuminates a lot. So that’s, that’s how those came together.

Andy: You mentioned that it kind of emerged in junior high school and you have this list of things on page 76 here, just you’re talking about this. What you call the, if I could just mentality and some of things in here that if I could just land the lead in the high school play, if I could just be accepted into a good college, if I could just land the lead in the college play, if I could just be accepted into graduate school, this never ending cycle of thinking that the next thing is kind of going to make us happy or something, is that what kind of led into your depression or how-?

John: Well it’s a fallacy. It’s one of the many fallacies about depression that you can achieve your way out of it. And since I started talking about this and making podcasts and writing about this, I’ve met so many people who share this opinion, that they’re always one success away from never having to worry about depression again. And of course, depression doesn’t care what kind of success you have. It’s not like that. It’s not based on achievement. It’s not based on your resume or your income. It’s a mental disorder. All it does is it just wants to kill you.

John: And when I was making appearances, when the book first came out, I did an event, a virtual event in Washington, DC. And I was joined by Sean Doolittle, who’s a pitcher for the Reds now was a pitcher for the Washington Nationals when they won the World Series. And he said, okay, this is what it’s like because, I was always like a play or a job away. And he’s like, let me show you what it’s like. And for, for Sean, it was, if I could make the major leagues, then this will all go away. And so he somehow makes a major league roster. Okay. If I can make an all-star team-

Andy: Yeah. Right. But now I got to be the best guy on the team.

John: Yeah. Nobody who’s an all-star would have this kind of thing makes the all-star team. Well, maybe that was a fluke. So I need to make a second, all star team makes a second all-star team and he’s like maybe it’s post-season success. If I could just get to the postseason, goes to the postseason. And he played a huge role in winning the world series for the Washington Nationals. And he said that after that reading my book around the same time thought, ha maybe it’s not, maybe it has nothing to do with achievement. Maybe I need to fix what’s inside. And that will lead to some success. And thankfully for him, it has.

Andy: I love how you phrase this in your book, you say on page 85, “You can’t achieve your way to happiness. You can’t win your way out of depression. This does not prevent smart people from thinking that way.” It’s just such an easy trap to fall into. And especially in our culture, I think it, we just put so much emphasis on achievement as of means to happiness or a means fulfillment status. And so I wonder, I think for teenagers, how can we buffer them against that? Or what can parents do to kind of notice that sort of thinking?

John: I mean, currently I have two teenagers. I have a 20 year old and a 13 year old. So I’m kind of on the brackets of the teenage dumb. And then I have an 18 year old as well. I think that the biggest mistake that people make is dismissing the psychic weight of what somebody of that age is going through. To say, oh, well, you’ll forget all about this when you grow up, it’s, totally none of this matters and of course.

Andy: Trivialize their experience.

John: Yeah. And then all you’re doing then is creating well, possibly an enemy because you’re being a jerk, but you’re also creating this dissonance of well then how, what can I trust? What experiences am I having? Because this feels huge to me. Because it is huge.

John: So I think that’s thing one. And then I try to talk to my kids about why messages are in different forms of our culture, not just in media, but in schools and all these things. Okay, if someone keeps saying you need to work incredibly hard, work your butt off to go get a great job, what are they trying to get from you? Are they trying to get obedience from you to make their day easier? Are they trying to get you to knock yourself out because it will reflect well on them? Are they trying to get you to buy into a capitalist culture where you’re defined by how much money you make for other people? What’s the motivation of the person doing the talking? Is there money involved? Is there control involved? And I think the more you can get at that, the more that a young person can start thinking, okay, well, what message do I want to listen to? What works well for me? What’s to my advantage how can I lead the kind of life I want to lead? And so they develop more agency in those situations.

Andy: I like that. Yeah. And pointing it, talking about specific messages that they’re receiving and breaking it down. Who’s saying that? Where’s that coming from? Where’s the funding coming from for this entire publication. And who’s paying for that?

John: Yeah. I look at the, at the education system and my daughter was born with dwarfism. She’s a little person and she lives in a world that wasn’t designed for people of her proportions. And so she has to adapt to that world all the time. My son is on the autism spectrum and he’s always had to deal with an educational system that wants you to adhere to the norms. And if you don’t do that, then you’re bad. And then you’re, then you get a bad grade and it’s not always the way his brain works, but there’s, it’s enforced to be sort of neuro-typical because that makes the day easier for the teacher. It makes the test scores and the testing process smoother. So that is a ticket to the school getting funding, like, I’d tell him there’s times you’re really going to have to conform and it sucks, but let’s take a look at what’s motivating those efforts on those people’s part, because then you could get as much of an advantage as you can.

Andy: That’s interesting. What do you mean by that?

John: Well that if you don’t fit the mold in say a public high school. Your neurodivergent, your outside of the norm with your sexual identity, your gender identity. The different things that make you, you that sometimes in the course of the academic side, the social side, the kind of role in that, or sense community that you have to navigate, okay. Here’s where I need to blend. Here’s where I need to assert myself. Here’s where I need to carve a different path. And it’s easy to forget if you are from an advantaged group, that for a lot of these people, that’s conscious effort all the time.

John: Similarly, to, if you happen to have the disorder of major depression, or if you have the disorder of a OCD or generalized anxiety, it’s an extra burden that you have to navigate because you’re outside the mainstream. If you’re a teenager, you have to do this because you’re treated like an adult. When you’re walking down the street, you can be arrested like an adult when you’re walking down the street, but you don’t have the same experiences and you don’t have the same abilities that other people do. So it becomes a matter of like consciously navigating which can be a lot of work.

Andy: So there’s a scene in your book where your wife confronts you about just your moods. And she says, “I’m worried about you. You seem to be doing worse and worse. I don’t think it needs to be this way. I think you might be depressed. And I think you should go to the doctor”. How did that go?

John: Well, it went as written. I have a depression that is in control after a lot of trial and error to find a way of managing it. But at the time I didn’t realize that I had a depression that is closely linked to stress so that when stress ramps up my instinct isn’t to bear down and blast through it or anything like that. It’s to just withdraw and get drained of my energy and drained of my emotional life and often become really peevish and curt. My kids were young at the time and I would just have, there was no violence, but I was not even all that much yelling, but I was just nasty. And so it was getting worse and worse. It was a situation where I had we owned a home, we had multiple kids.

John: I had a job that I needed to take seriously. And so suddenly all of this, everything in my life was a source of stress. And I began withdrawing from friends. They would say, “Hey, let’s go out and get lunch.” And I would think, well, no, I’m a terrible person. They’re not going to want to have lunch with me. I’m going to save them the effort of that terrible experience. I’m just going to cut myself off and yeah, come to find out later they were reaching out to me because they were concerned. But, yeah it was building to a head. And when she said that, “Hey, go to a doctor.” I said, “Well, I don’t want to waste the doctor’s time.” Even though that’s the reason why doctors exist. I don’t want to pay a copay, which at the time was a $10 copay. I wasn’t worth a Hamilton to myself. And I said, but, and also I’m not sad. So it couldn’t be depression. And I didn’t really understand that the condition and I went and got diagnosed pretty quickly and felt an incredible amount of relief because this thing had a name and there were treatment options available.

Andy: And you, weren’t the only one feeling this, like you had felt when you were younger, there are other people with the same experience.

John: We often say, you’re not so special.

Andy: Exactly. Right.

John: You’re part of a huge percentage of people.

Andy: It didn’t like immediately ring true to you when she said, I think you’re depressed that, oh, that’s what it is. It took, I mean, did she have to kind of cajole you to get you to go to the appointment or what?

John: Well, I mean, I had confused the mood of depression with the disorder of depression, which is a very common thing. A lot of people do it. If your team loses the Super Bowl and you’re really bummed out about it, that’s not depression. That means you’re healthy. Something very disappointing happened to you and you’re feeling it. That means there’s your parts work. If you used to love football and just stared at blankly, now that might be a sign. But yeah, no, I resisted it. And she said, “Well, okay, so you don’t care enough about yourself to go do this. Do you care about me and the kids?” I said, Yeah, I love you and the kids, of course. She said, “Okay, great. Do it for us then.” And that was enough for me to get me in the door. Little did I know it would become my profession. I would go pro. I was so good at being depressed. I would turn pro. And but yeah, I mean, the idea of doing it for somebody else worked for me.

Andy: So I just foresee something like that, possibly with parents too. That could be a difficult conversation. If you think that your teenager is experiencing depression, having that talk, I guess you have a little bit more control as a parent to say, we’re going to the doctor.

John: You’re setting the tone, I think on how to approach it. But I think with, you I host a show called Depression Mode with John Moe and on the show that show was recently on, it was all about having difficult conversations. In particular difficult conversations with a loved one that you’re concerned about. And I think approaching somebody and saying, especially in a family where if someone is experiencing depression, there’s probably some relative in the, not too recent past or the not too distant past who has gone through the same thing or at least a friend or somebody around. And just say, you right now with COVID and the trauma that COVID was and climbing out of it, people are reporting depression in huge numbers you could say. And this is me as the helpful parent.

John: Who’s a little, a little shy saying this. I was surprised to find out it’s not what I thought it was. It’s not moping around all the time. It can be an inability to focus. It can be a short temper, it can be a loss of sleep. It can mean relationships changing. It can mean so many things, but what’s cool is there’s all these ways to treat it. And you people with it eventually find one that works. And I think that opens that up a little bit to a lot of people, the idea that you can be feeling better than you do now. And there are options available to you.

Andy: You’re talking about your brother who committed suicide, Rick. And one thing that happens after his death is that you are tasked with writing his obituary. And what I thought was really interesting about this whole scenario was that you, well, though your first draft was very different than the draft that eventually got published. Why was that?

John: Well, I, in the first draft I wrote, I told the whole truth. I had said that he had struggled with drugs from an early age and that he died by suicide because I felt like telling the truth. I felt like being blunt about it. And as a writer, sometimes you need to upset people. And I wanted people to be upset. And it’s because it was unjust to me that this had happened. That he had struggled with this illness that he had received, not enough treatment, not good enough treatment. And he died as a result. And I wanted people to know that this is what can happen with an untreated mental illness. This is what can happen with addiction. And that he had part of the reason he died was that he thought that he had really failed. That he had been too weak or not brave enough.

John: And he had an illness and it’s a little like saying, well, something I hate is this idea that if you have cancer and you’re brave enough and tough enough, the cancer will go away. That’s not how cancer works. And that’s not how, I mean, you can be aggressive in your treatment, and that might lead to some good things, but it’s not a matter of how much you care, how tough you are. And mental illness is the same way. It’s it doesn’t care about any of that. It’s a thing that happened. It’s like saying if you were just braver than you wouldn’t have a broken leg. Once you go for a walk and smile more, and then you won’t have a broken leg. Right. Yeah, of course I will.

Andy: So you can’t positive think your way out of depression, nor can you achieve your way out of depression?

John: No. It’s not a thing that you make decision. It’s a thing that you make decisions on how to respond to, but nobody would choose depression or OCD or an eating disorder or a broken leg, but it happens. And then it’s a matter of how you’re going to respond.

Andy: But then I think that the, I guess your family kind of edited the obituary a little bit before it got published and just center sort of removed some of those sentences.

John: My mom wanted didn’t want that part in there and I didn’t have much fight in me at that point. So I just said, okay, but instead, I’ll just keep talking about it.

Andy: Write an entire book and publicized the entire incident to the world.

John: Here’s that first draft. It’s coming out through St. Martin’s Press.

Andy: But I think that it goes to kind of the heart of this issue, that depression is such a thing that there’s such a taboo around it, that it feels like we can’t talk about it. And that even when it happens, we want to hide it from the world. And that is part of the cycle that makes people feel like nobody else’s is, nobody else has felt this way. Like you felt when you were younger. And I think it’s a disservice to all of us, but I don’t know how to break the cycle.

John: Well, I mean, there’s, it’s funny that the word that people often use this stigma. That there’s a stigma around the issue. And I have a friend who said, “Why don’t we just call it discrimination?” Because that’s what it is or prejudice, because it’s making a decision about a person based on something that is beyond their control. And we have words for that in English language, and we don’t need a special one for mental illness. It’s unfair, it’s bias, stigma, it’s prejudice, it’s discrimination. So, yeah, it’s, and, and the more that happens, it’s not just a matter of effectively using words or having a sentence mean what you say it means. It’s a matter of life and death. I think if people learn that a person died by suicide, and there’s nothing about suicide in their obituary, if there’s nothing about mental illness in the obituary, then that person says, oh, okay, those are bad things that have to be covered up.

John: Those are shameful. There’s nothing shameful about it. And that’s what really bugs me. And so the more it gets covered up, and the more that discrimination occurs, the more that person suffers. Diseases love to fester. And it just makes things worse. It was a real simple moment for me at the memorial service we had for Rick, where I just thought, okay, if we don’t talk about these things, then people will die. And Rick died in part because there was no one honest and helpful to talk to.

John: Either because he didn’t seek them out, or because he was in the worst possible position to seek them out. But if we do talk about them, if he had talked to better doctors, better therapists, more doctors, more therapists, more friends, more family, he could have been alive. He could have got through that day and then maybe there’d be other days and he’d turn the corner. So talking about it is bad. Talking about it is potentially very helpful. Not talking about it is potentially very harmful. This is an easy decision to make society. Why in the world are we making the dumb choice in this conundrum?

Andy: Yeah. As you say, here in your book, “We freely elect not to talk about it. It’s like we could administer the Polio vaccine by saying the words, Polio vaccine, but elected not to do that, I guess, to respect polio’s privacy.”

John: I forgot. I wrote that. That’s good.

Andy: That’s pretty good.

About John Moe

John Moe is the author of The Hilarious World of Depression; Dear Luke, We Need to Talk, Darth; and two political comedies, The Deleted Emails of Hillary Clinton and Conservatize Me. He is the host and creator of the podcasts the Depresh Mode and the award-winning, The Hilarious World of Depression. John has hosted nationally distributed public radio programs such as Wits, Weekend America, and Marketplace Tech and his radio work has been featured on numerous national radio programs. 

His writing has appeared in numerous humor anthologies as well as The New York Times Magazine, McSweeney’s, The Seattle Times, and many more publications, and he’s written plays that have been performed on three continents. He’s a longtime contributor and columnist for McSweeney’s.

He lives in St Paul.

Want More John?

Find him on his website, Twitter, and LinkedIn.