Humorist Lightens Depression's Darkness By Talking (And Laughing) About It | Connecticut Public Radio
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Humorist Lightens Depression's Darkness By Talking (And Laughing) About It

May 5, 2020
Originally published on May 5, 2020 3:53 pm

For much of his life, humorist John Moe has dealt with clinical depression that's triggered by stress. Now, faced with the COVID-19 crisis, he says, "my depression wants to flare up."

On his podcast, The Hilarious World of Depression, Moe interviews people who have depression — mostly comics. His new book, also called The Hilarious World of Depression, details his own experiences, his brother's suicide and his family's history of mental illness.

"A big thing I've been hearing [during the pandemic] is a fair number of depressed people doing miraculously OK through this, because we've been preparing for this for a long time," he says. "This is the world that a lot of 'saddies' (as I call them in the book) have been living for a while."

When it comes to his own mental health, Moe says, "When I feel my mind kind of going to some dark places and starting to distort reality, I fortunately now have the skills to spot that and blow the whistle on it and get to a better place."

Among Moe's skills are an ability to speak candidly about his mental health issues — and a willingness to seek help when needed. He notes he doesn't "suffer from" depression — nor is it something he is "cured of." Instead, he says, "it's just a thing I have to manage."

"The more I learn about myself, the more I learn about my traumas and triggers, the better I am at being proactive and heading it off before it can cause a lot of damage," he says.


Interview Highlights

On what he's hearing from other people with depression about how they're doing during the pandemic

A big thing I'm hearing is about people forgetting to take their meds, because their routine is completely disrupted. So if they had been in a situation where you take your meds before you get in the car to go to work, and they're never going to get in their car to go to work for the next while, then they might forget. ... I've had a couple days where it's just going to be a sweatpants day, so if you associate taking your meds with getting dressed in a professional way, then that can fall off. And I've paid the price for that.

On how his wife and kids are coping now that they're sheltering in place

It's kind of a company policy around here to be open and talk about what's going on, and talk about if there is an issue that needs to be addressed with professional help — [or] if there's an issue that we can address just through our own knowledge. My wife and I have tried to approach mental health in the same way we would an ear infection or a sprained ankle. Like, let's let's get this out. Let's address it. ...

If six months ago somebody had said, "Hey, you're going to be pretty much locked up in the house together. You, your wife, the three kids — one of whom is home from his freshman year of college, that he was excited to get to, the other two are home from their school that they love — and you're going to be locked up for an indefinite period of time," I would say, "Oh, so we'll all be dead within five days, four days? Exactly how will they find us and in what positions?"

And so, by that standard, I think we're doing great. ... We're trying to kind of recognize the reality — and when the breakdowns come, we try to say, "Yes, of course."

We're not trying to say, "No, cheer up! Be happy. At least here you're healthy!" Because that's just not really helpful. You can have perspective, but you have to recognize the pain that you're in, because pain is pain and it's relative to the circumstances of your own life.

On how his depression began

You can have perspective, but you have to recognize the pain that you're in, because pain is pain and it's relative to the circumstances of your own life. - John Moe

It started for me in junior high school and it was this kind of tidal wave that hit right around the time of puberty. So I've never really known how much one contributed to the other, because they're both kind of mental upheaval moments. ... I was crying uncontrollably, but [it was] not coming from a source of something that had directly made me sad.

It might have been a little something that set me off, but then I just couldn't stop crying. It was like there was something wrong with my tear ducts and it matched a sort of deeper terror and sadness that I was feeling. I had no words for it. I just knew that something was wrong.

But then I could see my peers going about their day and teachers and society was continuing along. And I thought, "This is shameful. There's something wrong with me. But it's so strange, it's so unknown that I'd better keep it to myself."

And so it was this secret that I held — that I was disturbed, crazy, alien. Something like that. The only association I had of mental illness was from Bugs Bunny cartoons — which is that eventually you'll be in a straitjacket in a padded room, thinking you're Napoleon.

Humorist John Moe hosts the podcast, The Hilarious World of Depression.
St. Martins Press

I didn't want to be taken away from my family. I didn't want to get in trouble. I didn't want to be institutionalized. So I thought, I better keep it a secret. But it was just this unsourced terror that I had. ... It led to a lot of kind of hyper-achieving mentality. I joined every activity at school. I was elected to class offices of vice president and president of my class. I tried to be the friendliest, most outgoing kid I could — thinking that that could be medicinal and counteract it.

[Depression is] not about something, it's not about something that made you sad. It just is. It's an illogical condition — so applying logic to it is just as farcical.

On being told to "cheer up" or "snap out of it"

It's well-meaning idiocy by people who have never had to deal with an actual mental disorder to think that it can be repaired by something like that. I always say, "you wouldn't tell someone with leukemia, 'Just go for a walk and I bet they'll clear the leukemia right up' [or] 'If you smiled more, you wouldn't have such a broken leg.' " I try to see it as well-intentioned, but it's hard not to see it as careless ignorance at the same time.

On losing his brother Rick to suicide

It's a delusion when you're suicidal to think that people are going to be relieved that you're gone. For all the trouble that my brother had, and for all the difficulty he had, and sometimes the difficulty we had dealing with him because he was a drug addict (later in recovery), his addiction created a lot of problems — but his death [is] what I measure my life by. Before he shot himself and after he shot himself — because those are different lives. The pain of what he did, I compare it to a bullet that continues to ricochet, like he shot the gun.

He chose to do that, and it went into his head, and then it just kept ricocheting off of everybody else in his life. And it still is. And so it's a horror of his absence and his voluntarily choosing that, that's created so much pain. My youngest hadn't been born when he died, but my other kids were about 6 and 4 years old and they met him once. And then we had to explain, "You'll never see him again. He's gone forever." And then, later on, we had to explain to them how he had died. And the pain — the searing pain — is something that we've all had to carry forever. I think the pain gets transferred to the people left behind, and the confusion and the guilt.

On deciding he wanted to talk about depression and suicide openly, in part because of his family's silence about the subject

I had this realization at [my brother's] service that, OK, if we don't talk about this stuff, then there's every likelihood that it gets worse, that it becomes more of a secret, that it becomes more shameful, that it becomes more hidden. And when it becomes more hidden and not discussed, it just metastasizes. It just grows. But if we do talk about it, there's a better chance that someone can get help. If we can erase some of the stigma around it, that person can have at least a better shot at treatment and avoiding this kind of fate. I mean, in essence, it's no decision at all. Of course, we talk about it. It's stupid not to. Why in the world are we choosing not to talk about it?

On managing depression long-term

Andy Richter was on our show and he's compared his depression to a bad back. Like, you know, that it's a thing that you have, and sometimes you're feeling great, and then when it starts to flare up, then you need to take a hard look at it. You need to go back to your therapies and your treatments. You need to look at what's the best way to address this flare up: Is that medication? Is it physical therapy (if it's a bad back) or mental therapy (if it's your mind)? So, things might go wrong, but you have a toolkit for dealing with it.

On how humor can change your perspective and make depression feel less isolating

I think humor allows you to see the same world everybody sees, but in a new way and in a new perspective, and I think that's part of the grand intelligence of comedy. ... It can bust me out of seeing things in a depressive way, which might be my tendency in that moment. So if I can make a joke about it, it becomes, in fact, a new world — and I have this superpower to go world-to-world, perspective-to-perspective. That's emboldening, and that gives me strength. So that's a strength that indirectly comes from the depression.

I want to say, I think a big reason for the success of our podcast is because we have comedians, in large part, and lyricists talking about what depression is ... and they can put words to the thing. ...

And when that connection happens — with that economy of words and that intelligence of words that a good comedian has — then suddenly the audience member is not alone in that weird alien space, but they're part of a club with this funny person on stage and the other people laughing. And suddenly there's safety in numbers.

And I think the laugh that then follows from that audience member is a laugh of relief. I think ... the exhalation of breath that forms a laugh is almost a form of a relieved sigh.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Deborah Franklin adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. For people prone to depression, especially if the depression is triggered by stress, this is probably a really difficult period. That's one of the things I'm going to talk about with my guest John Moe, who you might know from his public radio podcast "The Hilarious World Of Depression," which is also the name of his new book. He's a humorist who's dealt with clinical depression much of his life. On his podcast, he interviews people - mostly comics - who have depression. In his book, he writes about his own depression and the history of mental illness in his family. His older brother died by suicide. Throughout the book, Moe quotes relevant passages of his interviews with comics. In the preface, he writes that the book is about how he's been tortured by depression but also found the absurd humor in it.

John Moe, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JOHN MOE: Thank you.

GROSS: Your depression is triggered by stress. That's what you write in your book. So is the pandemic triggering your depression?

MOE: My depression wants to flare up because of the pandemic, and it's a matter of taking what I've learned over the years of how to manage it and diverting it. And it takes more conscious effort than normal, but I'm able to keep it pretty well at bay. So when I see - so when I feel my mind kind of going to some dark places and starting to distort reality, I fortunately now have the skills to spot that and blow the whistle on it and get to a better place.

GROSS: Can you give us an example of a distortion that you've prevented from getting out of control and how you did it?

MOE: Sure. So cognitive distortions kind of go with a lot of depression. And it's a warping of reality. So if I see the figures of how many people have contracted COVID-19, how many people have died, my brain wants to say, you're next. My brain wants to say, this means everybody will get it. My brain is telling me that it's never going to get any better. And so I can spot that and I can say, wait a minute. There's data. There's modeling. And there are scientists on the ground looking into this, and this is what they say. And so I can counteract the extrapolation that always kind of catapults me forward to the worst-possible future place, and I can counteract that with facts and with science.

GROSS: How are you dealing with, like, phobia about germs? You know, phobia - like, I don't know if you're going out or if your teenage children are going out or your wife. But, you know, what a lot of people are dealing with is that then you come in, maybe you've brought some groceries. Do you have to, like, sterilize them first? Do you have to, like, wipe your keys with alcohol? Do you have to, like, wash your hands incessantly? I don't know if those kinds of - that kind of thing can easily kind of go into, like, OCD kind of behavior. So if you're prone to OCD, like, this is a really rough time. So are you dealing with that, too?

MOE: I've never had much of a germ phobia, so that's been a bit of a blessing in all of this. I do sort of commonsense kinds of things. I wear a mask. I don't go out a lot. We'll go for a walk with the dogs. But if other people are coming too close, we hike the masks up. And so that's actually going OK. I mean, the part where I do get a little unnerved is if I do go to a grocery store to get something or, you know, stock up and I see other people not playing by the rules as much, it just - it starts to make me very nervous. And it starts to make me nervous in a grocery store, too, when other people seem to be acting like this isn't a big deal because I'm pretty well set in my view on how big a deal I want this to be, and when I see some dissonance to that, it gets a little woogety (ph) on my end.

GROSS: How much attention are you paying to the news, to either, like, newspapers or, you know, news channels on TV, listening to NPR, all of the options here? And do you find paying attention to the news, like, reassuring because it's giving you facts - as well as some distortions - or do you try to keep a distance from it so that you're not, like, swimming in bad news?

MOE: Yeah, I try to be selective about where I'm getting the news. And so I'll reach for the reliable sources, as they say. I don't need much interpretation from cable news, for instance. I'm not getting any of that. I have a few sites that I go to for as many facts as I can find - so the University of Washington health data site, the CDC. So I'm gathering that. The actual, like, storylines and the narratives of the news I kind of soak up by osmosis from Twitter for the most part.

GROSS: Are you concerned about how your depression or being prone to depression is affecting your wife or your teenage children while you're all kind of stuck in the house together?

MOE: We talk about it a lot in our family, all things about mental health. It's kind of company policy around here, is to be open and talk about what's going on and talk about if there's an issue that needs to be addressed with professional help, if there's an issue that we can address just through our own knowledge. I mean, we've - my wife and I have tried to approach mental health in the same way we would an ear infection or a sprained ankle. Like, let's get this out. Let's address it. Let's figure out what we can do about it, what we need to do about it.

And so yeah, I mean, it's - I was saying the other day that if six months ago, somebody had said, hey, you're going to be pretty much locked up in the house together - you know, you, your wife, the three kids, one of whom is home from his freshman year of college that he was excited to get to, the other two are home from their school that they love - and you're going to be locked up for an indefinite period of time, I would say, oh, so we'll all be dead within five days, four days?

(LAUGHTER)

MOE: You know, exactly how will they find us and in what positions? And so by that standard, I think we're doing great. And so we're trying to kind of recognize the reality and the - when the breakdowns come, we try to say, yeah, of course. You know, we're not trying to say, no, cheer up. Be happy. You know, be happy. At least you're healthy - because that's just not really helpful. You can have perspective, but you have to recognize the pain that you're in because pain is pain, and it doesn't - it's relative to the circumstances of your own life.

GROSS: When you're in pain or depressed, how does that affect how you deal with other people, like, in this instance, with your family? Do you get more short-tempered? Do you get angry or sullen?

MOE: I can. Again, it's the kind of thing I need to keep in check. And so a big part of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is the therapy that I've been working with for a while now and having a lot of success, is the recognition that your thoughts and your behavior are two different things. Like, just because you feel something doesn't mean you have to behave in a certain way. You are not in control of the emotions that come to you, but you're in control of how you choose to act with those emotions in your system. So I might feel like, you know, throwing a lamp against a wall, but I recognize that it's my choice whether to throw that lamp or not. And so that's been helping a lot. But, you know, it's not a perfect system. I still get short-tempered. I try to say, OK, I'm getting very short-tempered now. I think I'm going to go for a walk around the block. You know, it doesn't stop me from feeling those things. I just try to control the actions that result.

GROSS: You are so immersed in thinking about and writing about and talking to people about depression. What are you hearing from other people who are living through the pandemic and are prone to depression?

MOE: A big thing I'm hearing is about people forgetting to take their meds because their routine is completely disrupted. So if they had been in a situation where you take your meds before you get in the car to go to work and they're never going to get in their car to go to work for the next while, then they might forget to take their meds. I've had a couple days where it's just going to be a sweatpants day. So if you associate taking your meds with getting dressed in a professional way, then that can fall off. And I've paid the price for that.

But a big thing I've been hearing is that - is a fair number of depressed people doing miraculously OK through this because we've been preparing for this for a long time. This is the world that a lot of saddies (ph), as I call them in the book, have been living for a while, this idea that there is doom around the corner. And it's going to get you. And it's going to be terrible. And everything is just going to end in ruin. That's been our thinking all along.

And so in this case, it has a name. It has a spiky molecule that looks like a Christmas tree ornament. And it's being recognized by everybody. So in some ways, everybody is now seeing the monster under the bed that we've been seeing all along that everybody has been telling us isn't real. So I've talked to a fair number of people who were like, yeah, this was the drill all along. (Laughter) I saw a tweet yesterday that said, all you need to do is admit that depressed people were right all along and thank us for our service.

GROSS: (Laughter) It's interesting. So you're not a survivalist in the sense that you've been stacking, like, canned goods in the basement and things like that.

MOE: (Laughter).

GROSS: But you've been preparing, you know, mentally for catastrophe and seeing catastrophe around the corner all your life.

MOE: I've always assumed things are going to end badly. And, no. We're not survivalists. My wife and I have talked about it. Like, if the zombie apocalypse comes, we're going to be those people taken out in the first five minutes of that movie. There's - you know, we're...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOE: ...Like, we're the extras in that particular film. But, no. I mean, we aren't all that surprised by it because - I mean, we as people with depression - because - yeah. Like, I've had this almost subconscious assumption that, eventually, my kids will stop speaking to me. My wife will be exasperated. And I'll be living in a Walmart parking lot.

And I don't consciously believe that. Like, I have ample evidence to suggest that it isn't so. And with good treatment that I've had, I can laugh about it now. But there is still a part of my brain that says, yeah. You're heading for the Walmart parking lot, though, you know? You're going to be in an old Celica, sleeping in the back seat. And that voice is still there. It's properly restrained. It's properly consigned to the ridiculous. But it can't really be eradicated.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is John Moe. And he's the author of the new book "The Hilarious World Of Depression," which is also the name of his podcast. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIM BEARD'S "HOLODECK WALTZ")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is humorist John Moe, who has dealt with depression most of his life. His new book is called "The Hilarious World Of Depression." It's also the name of his podcast in which he interviews comics about their depression. His new book is about his depression. And through the book, he quotes from interviews he's done with comics.

You know, for you, comedy and depression go together in many of - most, really, of your guests are comics. You're a humorist. And you write, even in your darkest moments, you've found depression funny. Why do you think they're linked? I mean, so many comics deal with depression. You're an example.

MOE: Yeah.

GROSS: You know, I think a lot of people have thought about this. So what are your thoughts about why they're linked?

MOE: I think there's something inherently absurd about them. We had - one of my favorite comedians and a friend of mine, Paul F. Tompkins, was on the show in our first season. And he said, you know, there's something in your brain that makes you feel sad for no evolutionary reason whatsoever. That's funny. I've been comparing it lately to Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers movie. Like, Margaret Dumont wants to just have a nice, elegant steak dinner.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOE: It's an important function of diplomacy. She wants good food. She wants the good silverware. She wants people to dress nice. It's going to be a lovely evening. Like, this is all set up to be magnificent.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOE: And then Groucho shows up with his idiot friends and is just ruining everything. He's just running around. He's making fun of her. He's just destroying the whole elegant evening. And it's sad. And it's rude. And it's invasive. But it is hilarious (laughter) that something could be disrupted all along, that it could be disrupted in such a grand, destructive way is inescapably funny.

GROSS: So in retrospect, looking back on your life so far, what do you think were the first signs of depression?

MOE: It started, for me, in junior high school. And it was this kind of tidal wave that hit right around the time of puberty. So I've never really known how much one contributed to the other because they're both kind of mental upheaval moments. But it took the form of a sort of fear that had no source to it. I just knew something was wrong. I mean, I was crying uncontrollably, but not coming from a source of something that had directly made me sad. It might've been a little something that set me off. But then I just couldn't stop crying. It was like there was something wrong with my tear ducts. And it matched a sort of deeper terror and sadness that I was feeling.

I had no words for it. I just knew that something was wrong. But then I could see my peers going about their day. And teachers and, you know, society was continuing along. And I thought this is shameful. There's something wrong with me. But it's so strange, it's so unknown that I had better keep it to myself. And so it was this secret that I held that I was disturbed, crazy, alien, something like that. The only association I had of mental illness was from Bugs Bunny cartoons, which is that, eventually, you'll be in a straightjacket in a padded room thinking you're Napoleon.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOE: And I didn't want to be taken away from my family. I didn't want to...

GROSS: Yeah.

MOE: ...Get in trouble. I didn't want to, you know, be institutionalized. So I thought I better keep it a secret. But it was just this unsourced terror that I had.

GROSS: That's a real burden, having this terror that you can't talk about because then you think you'll be institutionalized.

MOE: Yeah. It was a secret. And I felt a need to keep that secret. And it led to a lot of kind of hyper-achieving mentality. So I was trying to - I joined every activity at school. I was elected to class offices of vice president and president of my class. I was - I tried to be the friendliest, most outgoing kid I could, thinking that that could be medicinal and counteract it.

GROSS: But the depression didn't care?

MOE: No. Depression doesn't care. Depression doesn't - it's not about something. It's not about something that made you sad. It just is. And so it's an illogical condition. So applying logic to it is just - is farcical.

GROSS: You know, in your book, you describe having suicidal thoughts, you know, at a pretty young age, and that you kept thinking about nothingness, longing for the void. I was wondering if you could describe what that feeling is and how you've now learned to control it.

MOE: They say this is pretty common with a lot of people who attempt suicide is it's not so much that they want to stop living. It's just that they're so exhausted from, I guess, the noise that their minds are making, the agitation, the constant kind of banging around. And that's how it felt for me is I just wanted it to stop. I wanted to not have to manage the world in the way I was anymore because it was too much. And I talked with Maria Bamford, the comedian. And when she was suicidal, she said, you know that if you do this, if you do die, there won't be relief from all this agitation. You won't feel peaceful. You just won't feel. And that's been echoed a lot from guests.

GROSS: So this is probably a good time to pause and give a couple of ways to get in touch with someone for help if you're having thoughts of suicide. So there's a phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. And that's 800-273-TALK or 800-273-8255. And then there's also a way you can text. And that's the crisis text line. And you would text home - the word home - to 741741. So again, you would text home to 741741.

Let's take a short break here, John. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is John Moe. He's a humorist whose new book is called "The Hilarious World Of Depression," which is also the name of the podcast in which he interviews comics, writers and musicians about their depression. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "THE BALANCE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with humorist John Moe. His new book "The Hilarious World Of Depression" is about how his own depression has morphed and evolved over the years. Throughout the book, he includes relevant quotes from his interviews from his podcast "The Hilarious World Of Depression," which is interviews with comics, writers and musicians about their depression.

So you actually, like, drove to a bridge once and considered jumping. And you had been thinking that your family would be better off without you, but then you realized how painful and hurtful it would be for your wife to find out from a stranger that you'd died from suicide. And so, you know, you did not die by suicide. I think it's so good and it's so good to hear that when you were weighing this all, the thought about how your death would hurt your wife outweighed the fear that you - that living was hurting the people who you loved.

And I think that's so important to think about. And you really know the truth of that now because your brother died by suicide, and that left incredible wounds in the family. Do you think it's helpful for people to hear about how painful it is for the other people in your life to hear - you know, to hear that if you do follow through on suicide, instead of that being a good thing for the people in your life because you're no longer there, it's really going to be horrible for them?

MOE: It's a delusion, when you're suicidal, to think that people are going to be relieved that you're gone. For all the trouble that my brother had and for all the difficulty he had and sometimes the difficulty we had dealing with him because he had - he was an addict. He was a drug addict, later in recovery. But he created a lot of problems. His addiction created a lot of problems. But his death - I measure my life by before he shot himself and after he shot himself because those are different lives. The pain of what he did, I compare it to a bullet that continues to ricochet. Like, he shot the gun. He chose to do that. And it went into his head, and then it just kept ricocheting off of everybody else in his life. And it still is.

And so it's a horror of his absence and his voluntarily choosing that that's created so much pain. My kids - my youngest hadn't been born when he died, but my other kids were about 6 and 4 years old. And they met him once ever, and then we had to explain, you'll never see him again. He's gone forever. And then later on, we had to explain to them how he had died. And the pain, the searing pain is something that we've all had to carry forever. I think the pain gets transferred to the people left behind and the confusion and the guilt. And, you know, I was convinced that I had caused his death.

GROSS: You were left with a lot of feelings of guilt because your brother shot himself in the head at a gun range, and you feared that you had actually planted that idea in his head because of something you had written. What did you write?

MOE: I wrote in a book about the experience of going to a gun range and being told by the people there that I either had to be a registered member or I had to bring a friend because they have a problem with people just walking in, signing up, going out and shooting themselves in the head. Somehow bringing a friend obviates that in some way, mitigates it. And it was - the book came out. Rick had read the book. And then about a few months after he had read it, he joined a gun range, became a member, and then a couple months after that, returned, went out to the range and shot himself. And so I felt like I was responsible for his death because I had described to him the exact path you need to follow in order to shoot yourself at a gun range, and he had carried it out in a deliberate, planned way.

I knew, intellectually, that he had done that himself, that he had made his own decision to shoot himself. But I also had a strong feeling that he got the idea from me, that I had inspired it, that I was culpable. And that's something that I've lived with ever since. I have good therapy. I've gone to specific treatments to specifically address this issue. And so I know that he shot himself, that he chose that action himself. There is still a belief in my mind that I have to grapple with, that I have to manage, that I am responsible for his death. I still feel, to some extent, that I killed him.

GROSS: You wrote his obituary, and the draft you wrote said that he'd found sobriety after a long battle with the disease of drug addiction and with mental illness, both of which contributed to his suicide. Your mother read the draft. She didn't want to include the acknowledgment of addiction or mental health issues. So it ended up reading that he was a loving family member and a caring friend and had a passionate interest in nature with a deep love for the outdoors and all living creatures. And you write hiding the truth is a tacit admission of guilt. Would you explain what you mean?

MOE: I think there is a tendency in writing about suicide, especially in obituaries, to cover up something unpleasant, to say that the person died suddenly at home, you know, or something opaque along those lines. And I think it comes from a sense of shame that the person did something wrong that needs to not be discussed, whereas if it was cancer, you can name it. If it's a car accident, you name it. And to me, the reticence to name suicide, to point to it as the problem that it is, that - you know, we're at a 30-year high in suicide rates - is to indicate that there was something wrong with the person, that the person made a mistake and, even then, that the family failed in some way to detect it. And, you know, I had been in journalism for a while by that point, and I thought, if this is the story, we should tell the story. And if people know that depression and drug addiction can lead to suicide, then maybe if they're seeing those tendencies in themselves or others, that treatment can follow sooner, and this path can be avoided. So it was a bit of missionary zeal on my part. But it's not the way it's normally done, and it's - and it is unpleasant, and it is horrifying that it happened. And I think my mother just didn't want that extra bit of horror to the horror she was already feeling.

GROSS: And it's interesting that you've taken the opposite direction in talking very openly about your own depression, earlier suicidal thinking. You know, you've written about it in your new book, in essays. You talk about other people's depression very openly in your podcast. Do you think in part you're reacting to the lack of acknowledgement in your family in wanting...

MOE: Absolutely. It was a conscious decision that I arrived at at Rick's service. We had a lot of family friends coming along and expressing their sympathy. And they were very kind, and they would say, well, I remember Rick when he was 10 on these camping trips, and he would play these elaborate pranks, and nobody got hurt, and it was so funny. Or, you know, I remember Rick, you know, this joke that he said that was so funny that - you know, that had everybody laughing. And I would say to these people, yeah, no, that was Rick when he was younger. Of course, later, he was an addict and had a lot of problems with mental health. We didn't know how bad those problems were, and now it's too late. And at that point, those very kind of family friends would move on to console a different family member (laughter).

And I had this realization at that service that, OK, if we don't talk about this stuff, then there's every likelihood that it gets worse, that it becomes more of a secret, that it becomes more shameful, that it becomes more hidden. And when it becomes more hidden and not discussed, it just metastasizes. It just grows. But if we do talk about it, there's a better chance that someone can get help, if we can erase some of the the stigma around it, that a person can have at least a better shot at treatment and avoiding this kind of fate. I mean, in essence, like, it's no decision at all. Of course we talk about it. It's stupid not to. Like, why in the world are we choosing not to talk about it?

GROSS: So I'm just going to end this chapter of our interview by giving some help lines for anyone who is listening now who might be having, like, really dark, suicidal thoughts. So there's the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and that's at 800-273-TALK. That's 800-273-8255. And then if you'd prefer to text, there's the Crisis Text Line, and you would text HOME, the word HOME, to 741-741. So again, you would text HOME to 741-741. Let's take a short break here, John, and then we'll talk some more.

If you're just joining us, my guest is John Moe. He's a humorist whose new book is called "The Hilarious World Of Depression," which is also the name of the podcast in which he interviews comics, writers and musicians about their depression. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is humorist John Moe, whose new book is about his depression, and it's called "The Hilarious World Of Depression." That's also the title of his podcast, a public radio podcast in which he interviews comics, writers and musicians about their depression.

I want to stop and ask you here - you know, we're going pretty dark (laughter).

MOE: Yeah (laughter).

GROSS: And, you know, we're talking about suicide, your thoughts about when you were younger, your brother's commitment to...

MOE: Hilarious, right?

GROSS: Yeah, absolutely hilarious. But I'm thinking, OK, people are just kind of, like, really mentally suffering now because, like, they're shut in. They're worried about getting sick.

MOE: Sure.

GROSS: And I'm thinking, like, OK, is this helping or hurting? And I know you must think about this a lot...

MOE: I don't know (laughter).

GROSS: Right. No, I know. Like, you have the answer. But I know you must think about it a lot because your podcast is all about depression. So can we just, like, think out loud in this broadcast about what it's like to talk - to go dark like this and to talk about this now, knowing that a lot of people really want to just be kind of distracted and cheered up and that some people can't be cheered up right now and that the depression is getting really bad for some people?

MOE: Yeah.

GROSS: So can we just talk about what it means to have a conversation like that in this moment?

MOE: I think it helps...

GROSS: Take it, John (laughter).

MOE: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MOE: I'm on the mic. Yeah. When I started doing the show, our very first guest was Peter Sagal from Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! And I realized...

GROSS: That was extraordinary. I couldn't believe it when I heard it. It was really great. It was - you know, it was upsetting, but it was just an amazing interview. Yeah, go ahead.

MOE: Thank you. Yeah. And, you know, Peter had never talked about his depression with anybody but a clinician before he got interviewed by me, and we kind of broke the story, so to speak. But when I sat down to edit that interview and after months and months of getting ready to do this show and making all these plans and I had all this tape of my friend Peter Sagal talking about the worst moments of his life and I'm, you know, making a show out of all this tape, and I had this thought of, oh, no, what have I done? (Laughter) Like, now I have to turn this into something, and I've chosen the - arguably, the worst title for a podcast that can ever be made? And I thought, well, how am I going to do this? How am I going to make this show? And also, how am I going to handle it? How am I going to put up with this myself? And I came to believe that these stories were comeback stories, that these stories were upticks in a person's health. And maybe they're a story of how that person got everything under control, or maybe they are a story where that person is still in really rough shape, but they are willing to share it with the world. They're willing to acknowledge what's going on. They're making some benevolent choices for society and some healthy choices for themselves to remedy this.

And that has always inspired me, that the conversation - even if it's really painful and really difficult - is inherently therapeutic by dint of its existence. And to me, that's what carries me through. Like, knowing more about what my brain wants to do is beneficial to me in managing it in a productive way. So I think depression can make - can portray a world that doesn't actually exist. Like, if you give into all your depressive tendencies about what depression tells you the world is, what the future is, what - you know, what life is going to be, it can do a really good job painting a very bleak picture, indeed. But if you can understand how that operates, you know, if you can understand the modus operandi of your depression, then you can see it as a distinct thing, then you can see it as something that you have but something that isn't what you are.

GROSS: And you're an example of what you were talking about, like showing the upticks, showing somebody who's kind of come through it, not claiming to be, you know, in a great mood all the time or anything (laughter), you know.

MOE: Yeah.

GROSS: But, like, you've gotten some ways of dealing with it. You're getting along. You're doing really great work. So I think it's an example of dealing with depression but having - you know, having some control and showing that you can still, you know, get by and be good and do good.

MOE: Andy Richter was on our show, and he's compared his depression to a bad back. Like, you know that it's a thing that you have, and sometimes you're feeling great, and then when it starts to flare up, then you need to take a hard look at it. You need to go back to your therapies and your treatments. You need to look at what's the best way to address this flare-up. Is it medication? Is it physical therapy if it's a bad back or mental therapy if it's your mind? And so things might go wrong, but you have a toolkit for dealing with it.

My depression isn't something that I suffer from, but it's not something that I'm cured of. It's just a thing I have to manage. And so the more I learn about it, the more I learn about myself, the more I learn about my traumas and triggers, the better I am at being proactive and heading it off before it can, you know, cause a lot of damage.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is John Moe. His new book is called "The Hilarious World Of Depression," which is also the title of his podcast in which he interviews musicians, comics and writers about their depression. His book is about his depression, but it includes relevant quotes from interviews from his podcast. We're going to take a short break here, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION IN THE SKY'S "REMEMBER ME AS A TIME OF A DAY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is humorist John Moe. His new book "The Hilarious World Of Depression" is about how his own depression has morphed and evolved over the years. Throughout the book, he includes relevant quotes from his interviews with comics, musicians and writers about their depression, interviews from his podcast, which is also called "The Hilarious World Of Depression." It's a public radio podcast. Did people used to tell you to cheer up? And how would you deal with that?

MOE: (Laughter) I would try. I would think that that was a really good plan. My dad - and God bless them - I loved him, and he loved me, and we had a lot of wonderful times together. One of his lines was, snap out of it. And I really believe that that was something I could do, that if I just - like, I wasn't able to do it. But I thought, well, that was possible, if I could just cheer up and snap out of it. And it's really - it's well-meaning idiocy by people who've never had to deal with an actual mental disorder to think that it's - that it can be repaired by something like that.

You know, I always say it's like, you know, you wouldn't tell someone with leukemia to just, like, you know, just go for a walk, and I bet that'll clear the leukemia right up, you know. If you smiled more, you wouldn't have such a broken leg. It's - I try to see it as well-intentioned, but it's hard not to see it as careless ignorance at the same time.

GROSS: You've been - are you still on antidepressants? I know you were prescribed it after you were diagnosed with depression.

MOE: Yeah, I still am.

GROSS: Do you find them helpful? Like, how do you weigh the positive therapeutic impact of them with any possible side effects?

MOE: The side effects are nothing compared to what I would be without them. So I'm - I think it's very valuable to keep an eye on them, keep an eye on how they're working in your system because I have had the experience of something working really well for a long time and then suddenly not. It just falls apart, and then I've had to switch to something else. I've been on the same regimen now for many years, and it doesn't make me, like, giddy, happy, like, delirious at all; it just gets me to the same point where the normal people already are. You know, so it gets me to a point where I have the capacity for happiness and sadness and every other emotion. But it works - it just catches me up to how people who don't need this kind of thing can produce naturally. And so to me, it's no different than a diabetic with insulin or a heart patient with Lipitor. It just allows me to live a normal life.

GROSS: I find humor very helpful because comics - comics are always - like, the good comics are so smart and so perceptive, and they'll, like - they'll give words to something I'm feeling that I don't have the words for, and I'll go, oh, yeah, that's what it is, and somebody else feels that way, too, and that makes me feel good. So with your depression, writing about it and sometimes being funny about it, as you manage to do in many parts of your book, is it helpful to you to turn it into humor or is that just - that's just the way it is and it's not especially helpful - it just comes out that way?

MOE: I think humor allows you to see the same world everybody sees but in a new way and in a new perspective. And I think that's part of the grand intelligence of comedy. And so in doing that, it can bust me out of seeing things in a depressive way, which might be my tendency in that moment. So if I can make a joke about it, it becomes, in fact, a new world, and I have this superpower to go world to world, perspective to perspective. And that's emboldening, and that gives me strength. And so that's a strength that indirectly comes from the depression.

I want to say, I think a big reason for the success of our podcast is because we have comedians, in large part, and lyricists talking about what depression is. And like you say, they can put words to the thing - I mean, it's the old comedy cliche - they're saying what we're all thinking. And when that connection happens with that economy of words and that intelligence of words that a good comedian has, then suddenly the audience member is not alone in that weird alien space, but they're part of a club with this funny person on stage and the other people laughing, and suddenly there's safety in numbers. And I think the laugh that then follows from that audience member is a laugh of relief, and I think that's where the exhalation of breath that forms a laugh is almost a form of a relieved sigh.

GROSS: Well, John, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much. Appreciate your openness and thank you.

MOE: It is my pleasure and an honor, and I've dreamed of talking to you in this setting for much of my adult life.

GROSS: (Laughter) Thank you for saying that. I wish you good health, and I mean that physically and mentally. Stay well. And I wish you the best.

John Moe's new memoir is called "The Hilarious World Of Depression," which is also the name of his podcast. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be the author of the new book "Pelosi." Molly Ball is a political correspondent for Time. She'll tell us how Pelosi outmaneuvered and outhustled male rivals to climb the ladder in Congress, why Pelosi became the target of Republicans in congressional elections and how, according to Ball, Pelosi's gotten the best of President Trump in policy negotiations. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "JOHN BOY")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "JOHN BOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.