Raised in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania and now based in Los Angeles, poet and writer Melissa Broder has suffered from depression and anxiety all her life, starting with obsessive thoughts about dying from the age of 12. After a particularly harrowing series of panic attacks in 2012 while working as a publicity manager for Penguin USA, she started tweeting short, funny insights into her condition from the anonymous account @sosadtoday (“it’s not my fault i was born: the musical”, “ruin something for someone you love today”). The account quickly attracted hundreds of thousands of followers, including celebrity fans such as Sky Ferreira, Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry. In May 2015 Broder went public as the author of the tweets in an interview with Rolling Stone. Her book, So Sad Today, including essays on her former addiction to drugs and alcohol, her eating disorders, unrequited love affairs, and her relationship with therapy and antidepressants, is published in the UK next week.
When I’m having panic attacks and I feel I’m never going to come out of this cycle, writing is a way to make meaning
Your book came out two months ago in the US – how has the reception been?
I’ve published other books of poetry so I know that when there’s a media whirlwind you get addicted to the adrenaline, but then of course life goes on and the media cycle dies down. But the nicest part is I get a lot of emails every day from people telling me it helped them. I’ve had some therapists email me and say I helped their patients open up – that’s really cool.
Are people writing in to tell you their life stories?
Yeah. I think it’s because I’m so open about my own problems. When somebody takes off their mask and is real about their issues, even if your problems are different, there’s a fundamental commonality among human emotion. Also I’m a very non-judgmental person – I’m always too busy judging myself to judge anyone else – and I think people can sense that. Sometimes I get four-page stories of what’s going on in people’s lives.
What kind of stories?
Everything. I mean everything. My favourite is when somebody emails me and they’re in a hard spot – I’ve had a couple of people write in who were suicidal – and a few months later they tell me they’re in a better place. I’m not a professional, so I always direct them to hotlines and other places. But I can lend an ear and affirm there’s nothing sick or wrong with them. With anxiety I can say: everything’s cyclical, everything I’ve ever thought was not going to end, outside or internally, has always ended. We can get through stuff. My favourite is when I get to have camaraderie with teen girls, because being a sensitive person, navigating those peer cruelties can be especially tough and I don’t think I’ve really got over that. So rather than harbouring bitterness, I can use it for laughter and we can commiserate – it’s not going to be like this for ever, you will be an adult and away from these people.
Do you think public perception and discourse around mental health have been changing over the past few years?
It’s hard for me to tell – all I have is a Twitter’s eye view and my own personal feelings. And I also wonder, where are these dialogues being held? They often seem to be happening on the same couple of websites or people fighting in the comment sections. And people can still in their own lives feel just as alone or weird. I don’t know how much further we’ve come. To tell you the truth, I made the publisher redact my author name for as long as they could. It was scary to come out.
Considering how much personal information there is in the book, are you glad you went public?
I am. Maybe I’m foolish, maybe I am fucking up my life by making all this stuff public on Twitter. I always say that my dream job is to work at [cosmetics store] Sephora, and I had a dream the other day that I tried to get a job there and they Googled me and went, “Um, no, this person cannot be trusted to be putting makeup on someone.” So I was really scared leading up to it, but once I did it I felt strangely protected, and that might just be because of the outpouring of positivity.
When the mental health system failed me, online communities became my coping mechanisms | Hannah Giorgis
What effect has going public had on your life?
Not a huge amount, oddly. I’ve asked my parents not to read the book. There are some things a parent shouldn’t have to read about their child. So there’s been some tension there, and also reconciling different identities. So Sad Today on Twitter wasn’t a character so much, it was me focusing on a part of me that I felt I was never able to let show, which is why maybe it could seem homogeneous. But we all wear different masks in different situations; I don’t know that anyone is ever solely one thing.
You often write about a fear of other people hating you – has success changed how you feel you’re perceived by others?
No outside validation can ever be the thing that fixes you. In my experience it’s always short lived. But at the same time you get to a point where there’s all this positivity people are reflecting back to you, and how do you reconcile thinking “I’m a piece of shit” with such a nice outpouring? You get to a point in your own self-hatred where it just doesn’t make sense, like, “Maybe I’m not that bad.” Maybe it’s because I’ve been working on it in therapy all these years, or it could just be time and age. I’m still largely consumed in every area of my life with a kind of perfectionism, but over time there’s a little voice that comes in and goes, “Wait, I think you’re doing it again.”
Since you’ve started tweeting, have you become more aware of your states of mind?
I’ve always been self-reflective and able to verbalise my internal life. But in terms of actually feeling the feelings, I’m definitely no better. Writing for me is a healthy form of escapism, a way of synthesising all this stuff. And I think tweeting is a way of chemically altering myself by getting that hit of dopamine.
Do you need to be in a particular frame of mind when you write?
When I’m in a depression or in a state of anxiety, that’s when I need it the most. A lot of the time depression manifests for me – and, I feel, for others too – as “What’s the point?” The writing for me is the point, it’s a way of gaining control of a narrative. When I’ve been having panic attacks and I feel I’m never going to come out of this cycle, the writing is a way to make meaning. It’s funny – I feel more comfortable telling everyone everything in writing than I can sitting in front of my therapist.
How did you find your voice, which combines internet slang with existential despair (eg “brb, regretting major life decisions”, “found inner peace jk”)?
I don’t know, it just feels natural to me. I have anxiety about the void, so to speak – death, not knowing why we exist, those big questions – but then I can also have anxiety about my hair and the way I appear – ephemeral, superficial minutiae. In the times that I’ve really been consumed by fear, feeling nauseous and paralysed by it, I have longed to just obsess about some bullshit again. So that for me has always been very fertile soil for humour. I think the internet – how everything gets blown up to massive importance and then nobody cares the next day – mirrors the things we get so obsessed with that don’t matter.
Your writing style is very raw and confessional – episodes include being caught eating snot at school, blackouts from drinking and regrettable sexual decisions. Do you ever feel you’ve shared too much?
Definitely. The essay on my vomit fetish [where fantasising about vomit helps achieve orgasm] – a couple of months before the book came out I realised, “Wait, this is actually going to be in the world…?” To this day, when my aunt says she has the book, I just want to rip that chapter out. Before the book came out I said to my agent, “I think we have to take this out, nobody has to know this much stuff.” They told me to think about it, so I showed it to a couple of writer friends, and they said “You have to keep this in.” I’ve had people refer to that essay recently as the centrepiece of the book. But still it would be so much easier for me if it was not in there.
What kind of writers are you influenced by?
I love Janet Frame – she was pretty bold with talking about mental illness, and was in and out of institutions for her whole life. I have so much respect for her and especially because I think public perception of mental illness has changed since then. Poetically, I think Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton – they weren’t afraid to bring emotion into poetry, and they showed the weave between darkness and light.
You write very movingly about your husband and his chronic illness, which doctors have not been able to diagnose or cure. How does he feel about the candid way you write about your personal life?
My husband is my best editor, although he didn’t want to read the parts about what I experienced in our open marriage. He has been amazingly cool. He believes in artistic integrity and is a huge reader. So however much discomfort it might cause him for me to be displaying my life everywhere, he says if it’s in the name of art then that’s cool. But I never tweet about him and there’s only one essay about him in the book, and I got his permission to do that.
Now you’ve got a public persona that centres on anxiety and depression, do you think that might make it harder to distance yourself from these feelings?
What I’ve come to realise is that just when I think everything is fine it comes back again, and just when I think I’m never going to come out of it I do. I don’t want to say you never get better, but with any chronic illness you can sleep well, take your medication, but sometimes you’re going to have a relapse. And So Sad Today is just one part of me. I mean, I smile a lot in real life. A lot of people in interviews were like, “I met her, and she was blond and pretty and smiling.” They were surprised, but people with depression look all kinds of ways and a lot of people don’t even know. Especially people with anxiety disorder can be really good at hiding it – part of the anxiety is that we seem OK on the surface. But I don’t feel particularly trapped by [So Sad Today], and it’s always nice to have a space to vent about that kind of stuff.
Do you think you would cope better somewhere where misanthropy and self‑deprecation are celebrated, like Britain?
That’s interesting, I do have a lot of British followers. I lived in London for five months when I was 20, and I loved the dark sense of humour. I think part of that is the weather. You need a dark sense of humour to survive that. But at the time I was in an active addiction, so I wouldn’t say it was great for my mental health. I feel it doesn’t matter where you are, it’s who you are. People ask me, “Since moving to LA do you feel happier?” No. Any time you attempt a fresh start by changing something on the outside, particularly geographically, you’re going to bring yourself with you.
In the book you write about addiction to drugs, alcohol, medication, relationships, calorie control, the internet… what have been the most and least effective coping techniques for you?
They’re all really effective until they’re not any more, and that’s the sad part about it. Drugs and alcohol were amazing for a lot of years, particularly weed, until it started giving me panic attacks. Alcohol was great until I had to be either drunk or on pills or I’d be shaking. With romantic obsession it’s not even about the person – I kept ending up in the same place every time. When I would put something into that void it would give me things to look forward to, but then on the other side it’s empty again. I haven’t had to give up the internet yet – we’ll see. I think honestly the thing that worked the best for me is being a creative human being. Creating stuff is the one thing that has not tried to kill me, or left a bigger hole in my soul than before.
Extract from So Sad Today: Keep Your Friends Close But Your Anxiety Closer
Something weird happened. A person said that he was sorry to hear I’m still having panic attacks. He hopes I feel better soon.
It was weird to hear someone express sympathy for mental illness in the way that they might for physical illness. I know my panic disorder is an illness. I take medicine for it (an SSRI). I see doctors: a psychiatrist monthly and a therapist weekly. The symptoms are palpable. From the sensation of suffocating to dizziness and dissociation, my entire nervous system is involved – adrenal glands included. Scientifically, this shit is real.
But there is something about the classification of panic disorder as a mental condition, rather than a purely physical one, that prevents me from extending compassion to myself. If it were solely physical, I might be nicer to me. I might actually have some self-love.
I would love to just stand up at a work meeting and be like, 'Hi, I’m sorry, I can’t do this'
Instead I buy into some antiquated notions around mental illness that it is “all in my head” or that I am “imagining it”.
Well, so what if it were all in my head? I’d still be suffering. Would I not deserve compassion and self-love? Intellectually I’m like, Yeah. But emotionally I’m like, No fucking way. Buck up, gurl.
Even writing the word self-love makes me feel stupid. Is anything more bullshit, kale-eating, juice-fasting contemporary American than the notion of self-love? “Be gentle with yourself, you deserve it.” Do I really?
My feelings of shame around the condition create a drive in me to overcompensate, overachieve, and never appear vulnerable. These then serve as a catalyst for the condition. I put pressure on myself to perform like a completely healthy person, lest people find out that I am “not OK”. I don’t take sick days. I fear my condition and its implications for my life.
Right now I’m scared that I’m not being funny in this essay. I’m not wearing my funny mask, the one that lets you know that shit is fucked up yet also under control. The mask says: You don’t have to worry about me. I’ve still got it together enough to get outside the anxiety and be funny. I’m safe.
What if you found out I am really not OK? What if you knew that I am suffering a lot right now and really scared? Would you flee? I don’t want to find out. So I deflect my vulnerability into humour or “wise platitudes”.
That’s what I did when the person extended his kind words. I was like, Oh, well, our curses are our blessings. If I didn’t have a panic disorder there would be no So Sad Today.
That’s sort of true. So Sad Today wouldn’t exist if I never experienced emotional and psychic pain that felt like it was going to kill me. And I like that So Sad Today exists. But it’s also sad that I am afraid to just say thank you, human to human, when someone extends sympathy. Like, to receive compassion means I am weak. And I am terrified of being weak.
I’m also terrified of other people’s narratives. I don’t want to be perceived as falling apart. It’s fine that I’m frightened of me. But if you are frightened of me, then the problem is more real. I don’t really know how much I am allowed to fall apart. I don’t think I want to find out.
At the same time, I kind of do want to find out. After all these years of preserving my facade in daily life, I’m fucking tired. It would probably be a real relief to just crumble. I wish I could trust that the universe has me and that I could just let go. I think my biggest fear and deepest wish is to surrender.
I would love to just stand up at a work meeting and be like, “Hi, I’m sorry, I can’t do this. I may be talking about ‘our brand’ but I’m definitely dying. You are too. We all are.”
I would love to tell a creative collaborator, “Hey, I know that you want to talk about narrative arc. But I’m actually not inside my body any more, because you’ve trapped me inside this Starbucks.”
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I’d like to tell a friend, “I have more panic attacks around you than anyone else. I think we should just text for the rest of the friendship. Thanks.”
I’d like to tell a lover, “The pressure to feel close to you, while I am having a panic attack, makes me feel totally and completely alone.”
It’s probably good that I don’t say these things to people. It’s probably good that I keep pushing myself to leave the house and maintain my social masks of competence, engagement, and comfort. But what if I did tell people exactly what was going on? What if I valued my own peace of mind more than what other people think of me? Would I end up jobless, friendless, and loveless? Would I vanish entirely?
One time I saw an interview with a female musician whom I greatly admire, someone who is known to suffer from mental illness. She is brilliantly talented and has exhibited some eccentric behaviour over the years, including a few rather public breakdowns. She contains both madness and talent.
The interviewer asked her about her typical day: “Do you wake up and make breakfast? Do you make some eggs?” She looked at him coldly and responded, “I don’t eat eggs.”
At that moment I realised that the one question I would want to ask her would be “Is it worth being so talented if you also have to suffer from a profound sensitivity that is intrinsically connected to your gifts?”
But I don’t know if she could even answer. What if she wants to possess her talent and also to be free of torment. What if she doesn’t want to have to choose. I think it’s OK to not be grateful for your curses. I think it’s OK to just want your blessings to be blessings.
So Sad Today by Melissa Broder is published on 12 May by Scribe Publications, £12.99. Click here to buy it for £10.39
"These essays are sad and uncomfortable and their own kind of gorgeous. They reveal so much about what it is to live in this world, right now." --Roxane Gay, New York Times bestselling author of Bad Feminist
From acclaimed poet and creator of the popular Twitter account @sosadtoday comes a darkly funny and brutally honest collection of essays.
Melissa Broder always struggled with anxiety. In the fall of 2012, she went through a harrowing cycle of panic attacks and dread that wouldn't abate for months. So she began @sosadtoday, an anonymous Twitter feed that allowed her to express her darkest feelings, and which quickly gained a dedicated following. In SO SAD TODAY, Broder delves deeper into the existential themes she explores on Twitter, grappling with sex, death, love low self-esteem, addiction, and the drama of waiting for the universe to text you back. With insights as sharp as her humor, Broder explores--in prose that is both ballsy and beautiful, aggressively colloquial and achingly poetic--questions most of us are afraid to even acknowledge, let alone answer, in order to discover what it really means to be a person in this modern world.