The Shame in Thinking You’re Simply Soft: On the Paradox of Other People in ‘Hyperbole and a Half’

By Dan Bjork


In many ways, our conventional understanding of mental affliction is still binary; either you’re out here functioning and you can fucking tough it out, or you can’t and your locked up somewhere.

This week was tough for me. My S.O.P. for these entries — extremely close readings and (attempts at) abstract subtext analysis — wasn’t really an option. Everything in Hyperbole and a Half is presented with a single-entendre straightness I admire. I’m truly digging its blog-roots (the word blog being used without any pejorative, seriously) — that this is simply some time we spend with Allie Brosh, accompanied by her depictions of what’s on her mind/what’s she’s chosen to share.

coverI’d like to focus on the only story in Hyperbole and a Half that we are told twice. Or rather, the two chapters that hinge upon a two-month section of Allie’s life when a video needed to be returned. The first chapter is titled “Motivation” and opens like this.

One of the most terrifying things that has ever happened to me was watching myself decide over and over again — thirty-five days in a row — to not return a movie I’d rented. Every day, I saw it sitting there on the arm of my couch. And every day I thought, I should really do something about that…and then I just didn’t.

After a week, I started to worry that it wasn’t going to happen, but I thought, surely I have more control over my life than this. Surely I wouldn’t allow myself to NEVER return a movie.

Over the course of this chapter, the word ‘shame’ or ‘ashamed’ appears 13 times. The word ‘depression,’ or ‘depressed’ does not appear once. I’m referencing this solely because later on in the collection, when a strikingly similar story is told, the chapter is titled “Depression, Part One.”

Talking about depression itself is hard. It’s like talking about what it’s like to feel a ghost — not see a ghost — but to be in a room with no other person and yet to know you are not alone. Try to describe what that feels like to another person in consensus reality who knows nothing of the feeling. Or is cocked and ready to take whatever you’re about to say as an overactive imagination’s take on large empty spaces. Or old creaky houses. That eerie feeling of being in a supermarket/super Target Greatland/Super Anything all by yourself — to them that is what you are talking about. Because (stay with me) consensus reality does melancholy. Because consensus reality does loss, does bereavement, both for other actual entities in this shared space and for pride/self-image/possessions/positions-in-life/statuses of interpersonal relationships, etc. This is how the populous digests a prolonged case of melancholy. A sadness that’s followed by the end of feeling anything whatsoever; this is the consensus definition of an experience that can’t be shaken off after a couple good nights of sleep.  And this attempt at sympathy — this attempt to help — causes so many problems.

Which is strange, or interesting I guess, because we don’t try to draw the same false equivalencies with someone suffering from, say, severe anger issues, by telling them about how that one time we coped with an awful old woman cutting to the front of the line at the grocery store. Or at least, we don’t with such shocking regularity. And wallowing is addictive, sure, and of course there is something to 50 telling Kanye he needed to get back to work as soon as possible after his mother passed. There’s a truth there. It’s just not the truth.

And this is where that buck-up, tough-it-out bullshit finds its way into a conversation about antecedentless suffering. Or, suffering of which the breadth and depth is completely out of proportion with its source in the outside world. And, I hope I’m not making too much of a leap here, logically connecting the complete inability to ‘buck-up’ or ‘tough-it-out’ with the shame that then follows. Because it looks like a cast-iron chain to me.

And in the “Motivation” chapter, the story is told in a voice that is very much still aspiring toward our ideal of normalcy. The voice is almost I’m so silly, look how long it took me to buck-up. But I’m still one of you. One of us. It ends — not with the movie being returned — but rather with this complex imploration (paraphrased by me, obvi): have you ever taken something while shopping, only to realize many aisles away that you do not want it? ME TOO! Now, take a look at the silly and ridiculous logic my mind runs through solely to make me return the item to where it belongs. See, I’m no more than one of the quirkier versions of us.

To be clear, I am not at all taking issue with this. I’m citing it solely as an indictment of us, not the author. Not anyone suffering. Really, I’m interested in this for the sort of mutants we create, where the shame is as much of a shadow to be dealt with as the affliction itself. How this gets ingrained in our logic and continues to clunk around inside of us. This is what is expected of anyone who wants to be considered “functional.” In many ways, our conventional understanding of mental affliction is still binary; either you’re out here functioning and you can fucking tough it out, or you can’t and your locked up somewhere. (And, honestly, I hope this is sort of an anachronism. I hope, you of the reading-for-pleasure class, are seeing this and thinking things aren’t like that anymore. That would be fucking dope. Then, we’d just need everywhere else to change.)

We return to the story of the unreturned video in “Depression, Part One.” (Full disclosure: It is never directly said that this is the very same unreturned video incident. In fact, the closest thing we have to proof is in the very quote I provided earlier, when Allie writes, “One of the most terrifying things that has ever happened to me was watching myself decide over and over again — thirty-five days in a row — to not return a movie I’d rented.” But, it is possible that this happened again. She could be a serial avoider of returning videos. But the way she discusses her experience of this — whether it was one passage of time in her life or several — has so very many similarities, I don’t think it is matters all that much.) In this telling, variations of the word “depression” appear at about the same clip as “shame,” and much more so if you also count “sadness.” And it yet, it still hinges upon the shame.

When I couldn’t will myself not to be sad, I became frustrated and angry. In a final, desperate attempt to regain power over myself, I turned to shame as a sort of motivational tool…

But since I was still depressed, this tactic was less inspirational and more just a way to oppress myself with hatred…

The self-loathing and shame had ceased to be even slightly productive, but it was too late to go back at that point, so I just kept going. I followed myself around like a bully, narrating my thoughts and actions with a constant stream of abuse.

Now, is shame simply the easiest aspect of depression to describe? Is shame where the depression manifests itself? Or does the shame about how you feel make everything else that much worse? Is shame this separate, awful monster that sneaks in soon after depression? There’s no conclusive answer, but I think it’s extremely telling that this chapter does not end with the end of depression. No. It ends with the end of shame, told in climatic fashion.

Instead, my turning point hinged upon the fact that I had rented some movies and then I didn’t return them for too long.

The late fees had reached a point where the injustice of paying any more late fees than I already owed outweighed my apathy. I considered just keeping the movies and never going to the video store again, but then I remembered that I still wanted to rewatch Jumanji.

I put on my clothes, put the movies in my backpack, and biked to the video store. It was the slowest, most resentful bike ride ever.

And when I arrived, I found out that they didn’t even have Jumanji in.

Just as I was debating whether I should settle on a movie that wasn’t Jumanji or go home and stare in abject silence, I noticed a woman looking ta me weirdly from a couple rows over.

She was probably looking at me that way because I looked really, really depressed and I was dressed like an Eskimo vagrant.

Normally, I would have felt an instant, crushing sense of self-consciousness, but instead, I felt nothing.

I’ve always wanted to not give a fuck. While crying helplessly into my pillow for no good reason, I would often fantasize that maybe someday I could be one of those stoic badasses whose emotions are mostly comprised of rock music and not being afraid of things. And finally — finally — after a lifetime of feelings and anxiety and more feelings, I didn’t have any feelings left. I had spent my last feeling being disappointed that I couldn’t rent Jumanji.

I felt invincible.

What immediately follows in “Depression Part Two” are several attempts at human interaction. Told with a wonderful sense of humor — and here the strength of the accompanying illustrations really bares through — being there with Allie as she describes and illustrates what it’s like to attempt to fake her way through conversations she knows she supposed to have specific reactions to, reactions that she is incapable of, are some of the strongest sections of this book. And eventually, one of these human interactions leads to a friend imploring her to seek professional help.

The only other humans in “Depression Part One” were the objectifying-look woman and the man working the counter in Blockbuster.

And honestly, I don’t have some simple answer to rectify this. It seems to me, it goes something like: The very real shame, caused by Other People, and the most easily described aspect of this all, needs to be somehow overcome to then allow specific other people to help (which, of course, assumes these specific people are out there, somewhere). The shadow in the room, the place all this shit is manifesting itself, needs to be stared down until it disappears.

What a thing to ask of someone who is already suffering.

2 Comments on “The Shame in Thinking You’re Simply Soft: On the Paradox of Other People in ‘Hyperbole and a Half’”

  1. Pingback: Perfect to Each Other: On ‘How to Be Happy’ and My First Season of FBC | FOOTBALL BOOK CLUB

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