Day 6·Q&A

John Moe uses humour to make the conversation about depression more accessible

John Moe has had depression for years — and he's now making a career out of talking about it. His latest book, The Hilarious World of Depression, is based on his podcast where he uses humour to make the conversation about depression more accessible.

'Stand up to the darkness a little bit and smile and laugh,' says author and podcast host

John Moe's memoir is titled The Hilarious World of Depression. He hosts a podcast of the same name. (American Public Media)

John Moe finds depression funny.

Obviously, not all of the experiences that come with clinical depression are funny. But Moe looks for the moments of levity to help make conversations about mental illness accessible to more people.

Over the past four years he has interviewed comedians, musicians and writers about their experiences with depression and mental illness on his podcast The Hilarious World of Depression.

Now he's telling his own story in his new memoir of the same name. Moe says the book's launch felt like "a mixture of pride and terror."

Moe, right, on stage with comedian Jim Gaffigan during a recording of the former American Public Media program Wits, which was hosted by Moe. (American Public Media)

He talked about The Hilarious World of Depression with Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

How does it feel now to tell your own story with this book? 

The book's been out now for a little over a week and I'm hearing from a lot of people already who said, "Oh, this has helped me understand what's going on with me." Somebody said, "Oh, I finally understand what my brother is going through." So that was sort of the aim of it.

But it's also ... there's stuff in the book that maybe three people knew before the book came out. And now it's ... being discussed around the world. So it's a little unsettling, but I was very careful and considered about what I would leave in and what's behind the boundary. 

For many people, talking about depression is still taboo. But in your book and in the podcast, you refer to people with depression as "saddies" and other people, the normal people, as "normies."

Do you think the normies will ever understand the saddies? Is that possible? 

Well, there's a theory out there that there's no such thing as normies — that everybody has something going on with them. But my goal in terms of people who've never dealt with clinical depression, never dealt with a major depressive disorder, is to at least disabuse them of the idea that ... it's the same as the mood of depression. Like if your favourite hockey team loses, you might be depressed about their loss, but you don't have depression. 

So I want to get that out there and maybe discourage the use of the solutions that the normies sometimes present, [like saying] "well, just smile more and you'll feel better. Just go for a walk." Because it's first of all, if that works, do you think we haven't thought of that? 

It's not that much different from saying, you know, smile more and you wouldn't have such diabetes. Go go for a walk and your leukemia will clear up. No, of course it won't. It's not like that.

One of the things that you're passionate about, and you write about it beautifully, is owning dogs. You even thank your dogs in the acknowledgements at the back of this book. How do dogs make your life more livable?

Well, dogs are kind of heroes to me because for someone with depression or anxiety — and those two often go together; they're the Hall and Oates of mental illness — you're always living in the past or the future. You're depressed about things that have happened in the past and your ability to overcome that which has already occurred. It's sort of an existential dread.

And if you have a dog, you'll notice that they're completely in the present. They're experiencing the moment. They can't look at screens and know what's going on. So they're not their phone, they're not watching TV. They are looking at you. They're engaged with their world.

I've done some mindfulness-based stress reduction form of meditation, that's all about finding all these ways to get you into living in the now and being fully present in the self. 

And so, yeah, they're perfectly present. And that's what I find most heroic about them.

Hannah Gadsby in her 2018 hit Netflix special Nanette. (Netflix)

We just had Marc Maron on the show. I was thinking about Hannah Gadsby and her Netflix special, Nanette, which was a huge hit. And they're both very dark people. They both talk about the trauma in their lives. They're also super funny.

What is it about dark places that leads to this kind of humour? Why does it work as comedy? 

I think part of it ... to me, is an act of defiance. You met with these circumstances and it's a way of reclaiming some power.

When my brother died by suicide, we took his ashes out to scatter on Puget Sound. And when my sister was getting the box of cremains [cremated remains] out of the van to take town to the boat, I said to Lisbet, my other sister: "Something about the word cremains just seems a little too cute for the circumstance." And she said, "Yeah, it's a little like Craisins."

And my sister Mettteline was carrying the box and my mom said, "Well, is that box heavy?" And I don't know why she asked that, but my sister … had to say, "Well, he ain't heavy. He's my brother."

And we all felt just as horrible as we always had, and always will. But it was sort of our way of saying we're still thinking for ourselves and we're still finding joy and connection in our family, as shattered as it is.

And to me, it's sort of the same thing that I'm trying to do with the book, and I try to do with the podcast: stand up to the darkness a little bit and smile and laugh. And then you reclaim some of that power.

Interview produced and written by Laurie Allan. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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