Stigma Busting? Yes Please!

AmyPoehlerI’ve watched Amy Poehler do bits with Tina Fey and wished I could be their friends. When reading Yes Please you get a peek into Amy’s life and feel like you’re one step closer to buying her a drink and making her laugh. Cracking the pages of this hardbound beauty, I expected to really like Amy. I did not expect her to quietly bust mental health stigma.

Yes, you read that right. Yes Please brings up issues of depression, eating disorders and anxiety just as casually as Amy talks about learning to do improv, her blue collar upbringing or her love of The Wire. This book wasn’t written to raise awareness about postpartum depression, or panic attacks. It’s a funny book written by a funny lady who somehow maintains a level of self-awareness I think would help most of us navigate our lives just a little bit better. The “mental health stuff” is not treated as heavier than the rest of her experiences, it just is.

“What do we do when the voice in our head is yelling that WE ARE NEVER GONNA MAKE IT?” Amy describes the negative voice in her head as a demon, “This demon is some Stephen King from-the-sewer devil-level shit.” Her use of “we” is pretty skillful here, she’s a smart lady that knows most people have a little bit of self-doubt and many of us have pretty intense negative intrusive thoughts. And she also knows this: having imperfect self-esteem is more normal than you think. It’s about how you deal with those negative intrusive thoughts that’s most important – not that you have them in the first place. Amy calls it “learning how to live with your demon.”

Amy doesn’t delve into a lot of gritty details about postpartum depression. She has her mother write a note about her birth, her mother says she likely suffered from this. Amy mentions that she struggled with it but she doesn’t describe it in gory detail. There’s nothing wrong with writing in great detail about how someone experiences depression. I think Amy just didn’t feel like that was the point of the book. She describes it the way she describes almost everything in the book: in snapshots. It happened. Now she’s moving forward.

I wish I'd received this as a gift. Look at that spread! Instead, I checked out Yes Please from the library.
I wish I’d received this as a gift. Look at that spread! Instead, I checked out Yes Please from the library.

We need a lot of reminders of what mental health issues look like, most often people are not well informed about depression. Many people try to help in ways that are not helpful because they don’t understand. At one point Amy was told to put on a nice dress and go to a Broadway show while struggling through the bleak state of postpartum depression. Amy isn’t writing about what it looks like, what she is doing is giving us permission to talk about it. Just like we can talk about our favorite shows, waitressing when we were in college, we should be able to talk about mental health issues. By modeling that this is totally normal to talk about she gives a wink and a nod to every reader who has ever had to deal with these issues. She’s whispering “I know it’s terrible. And it gets better. You’ll do great.”

It helps that Amy has cultivated an awareness of herself and her situation that has allowed her to be grounded. A doctor on a trip to Haiti gave her a “most normal” award and it’s very fitting. She’s a very funny, well-adjusted lady. This is not incompatible with a history of depression or panic attacks. There are many portrayals of folks with mental health issues who are not well-adjusted: they might be cruel, self-absorbed or so disconnected from reality that they cannot live in it. They are often incorrectly portrayed as fundamentally damaged. If you have a history of feeling overwhelmed or so depressed you can’t get out of bed, that doesn’t mean you’ll always deal with that. You can come out the other side.

She has an entire chapter dedicated to making sincere apologies.

It is genuinely hard to admit that “sometimes we get defensive about what we feel guilty about” while applying that nugget of truth to a real incident in which you have really screwed up and should apologize but you’re too busy trying to sooth your own emotional wound. The observation that shame is both a “weapon and a signal” is pretty brilliant. Some people (myself included) try to separate guilt and shame, saying guilty is when you feel you’ve done something bad and shame is when you feel you are bad. In the book Amy felt both. And at some point a friend nudged her to do the right thing and make amends. She publicly publishes her apology note and even critiques it herself, saying she was “caught up in the facts,” i.e. rationalizing her actions, and wished she hadn’t done that.

It’s a pretty fantastic person who is willing to let you look at her blooper real so that you can learn from her mistakes. She talks about how she often has the urge to defend herself but how she also wants to make apologies from the heart. Her best advice is that “Apologies have nothing to do with you.” It’s true. They have everything to do with taking care of the other person.

I’m so glad Amy has given her readers permission to talk about the demon on their back that tells them they’re fat, or not smart enough. And I’m glad she wants us to love each other so well we apologize in a way that helps someone heal. These are only small parts of her hilarious book. I’m so excited for you to read it and laugh out loud in a coffee shop or waiting at the bus stop.