College is supposed to be the best four (or five, possibly six, but no more than seven) years in a person’s life. Life doesn’t always go according to idiom.
In her hilarious new memoir-meets-guide-to-life, How to Weep in Public: Feeble Offerings on Depression from One Who Knows, comedian Jacqueline Novak reveals depression’s hidden pleasures, advises readers on how to make most of a cat hair-covered life, and helps them summon the strength to shed that bathrobe and face the world. Novak’s books centers around her time in college and how when everyone else was out living it up at bars and in bed with strangers, Novack found herself mostly alone and battling severe depression and anxiety.
“But what do you do when you still feel completely alienated from your newly exuberant, free-minded peers?” she asks in an early chapter. “I suggest taking up a cigarette habit and finding a friend who’s as fucked up as you.”
Only one thing got her through those days — her sense of humor. Oh and drugs. Many different kinds of drugs, both legal and illegal. So I suppose that’s two things.
“I partook in occasional tokes and that one massive bong hit of marijuana that caused me to lose track of my limbs,” Novack remembers of her self-medicating college career. “Usually, it just made me want to go to sleep, which is what I already wanted to do.”
You didn’t exactly have the best college experience. You battled depression beforehand. How did you envision college turning out?
Jacqueline Novak: I looked forward to meal hall life and that paid off. I love meal halls. I pictured a lot of strolling the campus in J Crew sweaters, but I didn’t predict the alienation I felt there. I went to Georgetown, and I recall I had this panic that summer before that I should have decided to go to NYU…where I’d applied and gotten in and there was more of an arty scene, New York. I thought — why am I going to this preppy university!
I was drawn to that prep, the romance of the stone buildings, the old campus, the fact that it was highly competitive to get into. I wanted to go somewhere that would impress the national merit scholar dudes who ‘thought they were smarter than me’ in high school. To be fair, in the book, I focus on my depressed experiences there, and leave out the good stuff which I guess ran like a thick vein of oil through that — stimulating classes, interesting people, reading poetry in the library.
You were able to find one friend in school that made life tolerable. Was it easy to maintain that relationship?
Jacqueline Novak: Finding a friend who was also struggling with depression was a huge benefit, and actually, it’s incredibly easy to maintain that kind of friendship in school, because you can just do everything together. I think we met in the school counseling office, which isn’t a bad move for a lonely depresso.
Contrary to popular belief, college just might not be the best four years of a person’s life. How should people temper their expectations?
Jacqueline Novak: For a lot of people, I imagine, college is a huge upgrade in a number of ways — the freedom to do as you please is huge, especially if you came from a strict household. I think ‘best years of your life’ isn’t even something to aim for — do you really want it to go downhill from there, and then just live in the past for the rest of your life. I think it’s better to hope that life gets better and better. And just to let your ‘college experience’ be whatever it is. People used to go from college right into marriages and jobs they stayed with for life, and I bet that’s why college felt like the best years, because of all the stimulating variety — but these days, adult life is much more flexible — you can change it up ‘every semester’ if you like!
What would you change? What would you do all over again?
Jacqueline Novak: Hmm. I try not to think about changing the past, even hypothetically! I prefer to be like ‘that was my experience, how can I milk that now’ — like, how can i make all that i experienced have been exactly what I needed. It might seem like I’d say, I shoulda gone somewhere more tailored to my arty vibe, but I also think that being in that preppy context allowed me to kind of define myself in relation to it ultimately. Forged in the fire, ha.
We receive a ton of emails from college kids, and I’ve got to be honest, college today sounds absolutely frightening. What the hell do you think is going on?
Jacqueline Novak: Hmm. I don’t know. It does sound frightening. I suppose one must anchor oneself to the professors who might have some perspective. They can be a comfort. Different people react to this life change, going to college, in different ways and I guess it helps to remember that. A college can feel like its own planet, but it’s not — you still live on earth.
“People used to go from college right into marriages
and jobs they stayed with for life, and I bet
that’s why college felt like the best years”
All of our inner struggles make us who we are. Are you ever afraid of finding a treatment to help your depression only to realize “oh shit, I’m not funny anymore!”
Jacqueline Novak: Nah. Not at all. I did get on ‘the right meds’ and all that, and I’m doing way better than when I started this book. It wasn’t until I was way better that I could finish the book, or have the confidence to try to get it published. Life struggles and pain only feed art if you are healthy enough to make the art! Absolutely unknot those two things and work on healing/self-care however you can. Even in optimum health, there’s plenty of darkness to pull from for art. More than enough.
Jacqueline Novak is a writer and comedian based in New York City. Her new book, How to Weep in Public: Feeble Offerings on Depression from One Who Knows, is available now. For more information on upcoming performances and projects, visit JokesNovak.com.