Finding the Funny – and Embracing the Pain – of Depression

Talking about Self-Awareness and Anxiety (with Hello Monday’s Jessi Hempel)


MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele, and this is The Anxious Achiever. We look at stories from business leaders who’ve dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges. How they fell down, how they picked themselves up and how they hope workplaces can change for the better. Today, we’re going to talk about depression, not anxiety, but as my guest, John Moe says, depression and anxiety, well, they’re like Hall & Oates. You rarely see one without the other, and neither managed to have a successful solo career.

Sorry for the 80s pop music reference. The 80s are very in now though, at least according to my kids. Depression can have really distinct characteristics from anxiety and can have a much different effect on our work lives. For me, depression is very de-motivating and my work tends to suffer. Whereas when I’m anxious, I’m a wreck, but I’m also often sort of hyper-functional. Depression and anxiety definitely share at least two characteristics that we’ll talk about today. Both of which can really mess with your head and your career.

Magical thinking and unreliable narrators. You know them, John Moe calls magical thinking the if onlys. If only I could achieve X, have Y, do this, then I’d be happy. Then there are the tapes of negative self-talk that can run on repeat in your head. I’m a failure and I don’t deserve anything. We’ll talk about managing disruptive and uncomfortable change when you struggle with these kinds of mental health issues, because John Moe hosted one of the most popular and well-loved public radio podcasts, The Hilarious World of Depression. He wrote a book called that too.

Moe has had a long and storied career in public radio, and yet, even with his reach and his fame and his celebrity guests and a growing community of people worldwide who care about mental health and talk about it, his show was canceled, and he was laid off. We’ll hear about how he approached that change and others, with humor and openness. First of all, you’re the only other person I’ve ever interviewed, who has a podcast on mental health and who seems to love to dwell in the ridiculousness and gallows humor of it all. I’ve admired you for a really long time.

JOHN MOE: Yes.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It’s just really good to talk to you.

JOHN MOE: Well, thank you. Yeah. That’s always been the language I spoke, so I just translated that to the show as well.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Did people give you an attitude when you decided to make this very serious topic funny and poke fun at it?

JOHN MOE: I got a lot of skepticism from people, especially when the name came out of The Hilarious World of Depression, which was originally an exercise in thinking of the worst possible name for a podcast that I could to test my boss, to see if he really wanted to go through with making a pilot of this thing. Yeah. I got some pushback right away from people saying the obvious retort, like the logical retort is, there’s nothing funny about depression. It was, the idea of the show, the idea later of the book and the idea of this whole proposition I’m setting forward, is meant to be audacious. It’s meant to be brazened.

To me, the humor is just a different way of understanding something. It’s a way of seeing the same thing from a new angle and a new perspective, and that’s what I’ve always done, so that made a lot of sense to me.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, I’m an anxiety person. I definitely have had bouts of clinical depression and it visits, but anxiety is my traveling companion, which-

JOHN MOE: Okay.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want to hear about your relationship with anxiety. It’s not something you talk about. Are you lucky enough that you have both clinical depression and clinical anxiety disorders or is anxiety not really your thing?

JOHN MOE: I often say that they’re the Hall & Oates of mental illness, because you can rarely find one without the other. They don’t have very famous solo careers. Yeah. I’ve had anxiety, different levels of anxiety that have proven to be obstacles, but not really rising to the level of disorder, but yeah, it’s absolutely there. One of the guests I had on said that depression is your fear of the past and anxiety is your fear of the future. Then you just have to try to shorten those and get into the moment as much as you possibly can.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I was also reflecting because this is a business show and anxiety is great sometimes when you’re an overachiever, because although it may shorten your lifespan and ruin your cortisol and your relationships, aside from that-

JOHN MOE: Aside from that.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: … it can really make you hyper-effective at work. I will say that my hypervigilance is really the key to my success because I’m just constantly making sure everything is happening all the time. Depression is different. Depression is like a stoppage when it comes to the drive. Can you talk about that?

JOHN MOE: Well, I mean, I think if you’re vigilant and you credit your success to that, then I think you’re not really hypervigilant. I don’t think you have a problem at that point. I mean, I know people with anxiety issues who can’t leave the house and who find every day to be unbearable and they are racked with mortal fear at all times. That’s a distinction. I find myself talking about the disorder part of it a lot, because if things are working and you’re functioning, then maybe you’re okay.

It’s like during COVID people are saying, “Well, I’m depressed about what’s happening with COVID.” I said, “Well, really? What are you feeling?” “Well, I’m just down a lot. I’m really scared. I’m really worried something might happen.” I’ll say, “Well, of course you are because that’s the proper healthy response. You’re actually healthy. You’re going through terrible times, but you’re not deciding to move out to the ocean. I mean, there’s a lot of things you’re not doing that would indicate a disorder.”

In terms of depression in the workplace I’ve found that a creative place to work and a creative job to have is really a benefit because, I mean, honestly, there’s … Somebody asked me the other day, “Well, what if you had never had depression? What do you think it would be like now?” I said, “Well, I’m sure things would be easier, but I think I’d be very reluctant to give up the wisdom that I’ve earned from it and the ability to see things from multiple points of view, to be able to see the trouble in things, to see the warning signs that I think a lot of people miss.”

I feel wiser for having gone through it. I mean, my depression is mostly a dysthymic depression, which is a low-grade rumble that continues all the time. I’ve mostly been able to keep it under control. I found good therapy. I found good meds. I learned a lot. I got very curious and buried myself in research. I want to caution that I’m doing fine, but some people who can’t predict how they’re going to wake up the next day that’s going to be really complicated. If you have a nine o’clock meeting and you can’t get out of the house because of depression because of anxiety.

I didn’t see the movie Joker because I thought it would just make me sad, but I’m told there’s a line that Joaquin Phoenix says in that movie, which is, the worst part about having a mental illness is everybody wanting you to pretend that you don’t. You just have to go through the day like they do, but you just have to put on an act. I don’t really think of my depression as a disability. I see it as a thing in my life that I need to manage no different than someone with diabetes needs to keep an eye on their insulin.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: You say that, but in your writing in your book … And I think this is a very common experience for people who have that dysthymia chronic depression, is that you always feel like you’re a failure, a loser, you’re about to get kicked out of whatever good thing ever happens to you. You say that it makes you who you are, but how can you be a success when you always feel like a failure inside?

JOHN MOE: Well, if you’re looking to external factors to validate who you are as a person, you’re going to come up short. If you’re always looking for the promotion, the achievement, the new job, the new car, more money, whatever it is, higher salary, there are so many … I could fill several books with stories on people who’ve been led astray by that.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: You talk about the if only you’re the … Sort of like, “When I have X, Y, and Z.” It’s like this magical thinking of depression. You know?

JOHN MOE: Yeah.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That like, “When I get that promotion, I won’t feel this way anymore.”

JOHN MOE: Right. I think a big part of it though is spotting that as the distortion that it is and saying, “Okay. Here’s what I’m feeling and because I am who I am, I have to stop. I have to examine this. I have to see if this adds up with logic. Then I have to address that going forward.” It’s a much more conscious process than somebody without depression and so it’s checking back in and saying, “Okay. Performance and achievement doesn’t really match the path to happiness.” But becoming who I am as a person and saying, “Okay. I do have intrinsic value. I do deserve love and kindness and healthcare and everything else that a human is entitled to.”

Then that’s where you dig your way out of it. Not by trying to achieve yet more. Even since the book came out, I have a couple of friends who are athletes, professional athletes. I was talking to Sean Doolittle, who’s a pitcher for the Washington Nationals. He thought, “Well, if I could just make an all-star team, then clearly I’m a value as a person.” Then that came and went. He was like, “Maybe it’s two all-star teams.” Then he got a second all-star appearance. He was like, “I bet I need to win the World Series.”

Then last fall, he won the World Series. He was like, “At that point, I just said, ‘This is wrong. This isn’t what’s doing it.’” Because he was caught in that cycle. I mean, it’s so common. Somebody like that should be held up as an example to everybody like, “Look, stop trying to achieve your way out of this. Here’s Sean. Here’s what he learned.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. You say that, you say it can come for anyone. The thing about depression, it doesn’t care about your career or your big bank account. It just wants to … You say, it just wants to kill you.

JOHN MOE: Kill you. Yeah.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I think that it’s really important. I mean, God, if you win the World Series and you still have that pit inside you.

JOHN MOE: Yeah.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want to go back to the piece about the unreliable narrator, right? Because I think that a common thread among people who live with chronic depression and anxiety, is that they are constantly having a struggle with the unreliable narrator that is their mental illness who’s telling them either A, “If you only win the World Series, you’ll feel great.” Or also, “You suck. You don’t deserve this.” What is your process for getting past your own unreliable narrator and trying to get to the logic and the reality?

JOHN MOE: Well, for me, a few things have led to some breakthroughs. I caution whenever I talk about this stuff, that my process will be different than everybody else’s process, as theirs will be from each other. It’s an individual journey. I’d make a terrible cult leader. I don’t ascribe to the one single philosophy that will lead you to redemption. That said, for me, it began with getting into good therapy with a therapist I really clicked with. Then getting an inventory of what those common distortions are.

Like you say, magical thinking, black and white thinking, catastrophizing, fortune telling. All these things. Spotting when I was doing that and learning how to put on the brakes. I couldn’t have done that by myself. Just like I couldn’t perform a kidney transplant on myself. It took someone standing outside to help me see that. That was a big breakthrough. Also, the phrase depression lies is probably familiar to a lot of people. It does lie. It’s your own brain, I get it.

Depression isn’t an actual ghost, but I think a lot of people don’t give credit for how clever the lies are and how good depression is at lying, because it’s probably been with you longer than anything else.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It’s in a way, your most intimate relationship. I always say that about … Yeah.

JOHN MOE: Yeah. It knows you so well. It can masquerade as your own thoughts, right? It does a dead-on impression of you when it’s telling you, you suck or you need to achieve this, or if you could do this then everything else will go okay. Whatever it is that you’re going through. Giving it credit. A big part of cognitive behavioral therapy, which has been really successful for a lot of people I know with depression, some it hasn’t worked for, but a lot of them it has, is knowing where those distortions are coming from and knowing why you do that kind of thing.

It’s not enough to just say, “Oh, in an uncertain situation, I always assume that I’m going to have the dumbest solution.” Or whatever it is. Like, okay. Let’s unpack some of this stuff from your past to figure out where that is coming from. Then once you have the thought, it’s not a matter of saying, “Oh, that’s a lie. Get rid of that. Throw up the wall.” That’s not going to work. It’s a matter of saying, “Okay. Here’s what I’m feeling. Here’s what I’m going to sit with. Here’s what I’m going to almost honor it to a certain extent, even though it can be destructive.”

Like, “Here’s what this is.” Take some breaths, fully feel it, understand where it’s coming from, understand that it’s a distortion and then invite the traveler to be on its way down the road. It’s not a matter of you’re never going to feel those things again because they’re lies and you’re going to shut them out. It’s just you’re going to hear them, but then you just have to manage them.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It sounds like you’ve successfully built distance from the thing, right? That you’ve almost made it into it a … Is it a character? Does it have a face, your depression?

JOHN MOE: I’ve experimented with that. I usually just think of it as a force more than an anthropomorphized thing. I debated like, “Do I capitalize depression in this book? Do I capitalize the D?” I kept it lower case. I mean, what it is ultimately is figuring out what is you, if the depression wasn’t there and believing in that person as a person of value. You let go of the idea that you’re trash or that you’re always going to be miserable or that you’re dumb. You learn to say, “Well, okay, I’m worthwhile. I mean, I’m a human with all the rights that, that entails.”

Feeling better about yourself from that perspective lets you see that in relief compared to the muck all around your brain that depression is causing. Once that … I mean, it really does sound like I’m on some prog rock lyrics here, but once you can make that person glow a little bit more, you see all the tarnish all over and you say, “Oh, okay, that’s the stuff that I don’t have to live with.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I love that. It’s like when you get your kids to excavate your own dinosaur egg, did you ever do that? They have to chip away at this clay then all of a sudden like, “Oh my God, it’s a dinosaur femur.”

JOHN MOE: Right. Yes. That’s good.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want to talk a little bit about … It seems like you’re in an interesting inflection point.

JOHN MOE: Yeah.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Like many of us. You were laid off, right?

JOHN MOE: Yeah.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Is that the right term?

JOHN MOE: That is the right term. That’s the term they told me. I was laid off in June with about 25 of my colleagues due to economic reasons at the public radio company I was working at.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What did old [inaudible] D or the struggle to build the inherent value apart from the achievement and the security do in that situation?

JOHN MOE: Well, I was sort of prepared for it because I knew that the company I was working for was saying that they were in a financial crisis. The way I approached it weeks before it happened, months before it happened was to say, “Okay. Well, that could happen. That happens to people in a lot of jobs and in media jobs more often than most, so that’s a possibility. I had been worried about it and so I said, “Let’s do some preparation for it.” I started looking into some other similar places and people doing similar work. I started to gather a lot of information.

I had some things in motion already and I was also feeling about ready to leave anyway, but the big thing … And I’ve had shows canceled before. I haven’t been laid off before, but I’ve had big projects I’ve been very dedicated to end because I tend to make things that a small group of people love passionately, but not something that a huge group of people just sort of likes.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Me too.

JOHN MOE: Such is my lot, such is our lot. When it came, it was a blow, but I also instantly said, “This isn’t me. I wasn’t that show.” That’s a mistake I’ve made on other projects I’ve worked on because I thought, “Well, if I just am so dedicated to it, then it’ll be strong. If I just take all that is in me and give it to this show, then the show will be strong.” Of course in that process, I would always become miserable because I felt like I should always be working more. I should always be putting more of my heart into it.

It’s a bit of a swindle that I think a capitalist economy eventually inevitably gives people. Like, take everything you have and put it into this.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. It’s funny. Just when you were saying that, I was thinking that people with anxiety and depression who gravitate towards getting enmeshed or being codependent are really good at that, right? Giving everything our all and subsuming literally ourselves and then the blow is very … We get rewarded for it for a while, if it’s good or if it’s a hit, but then when it ends, who are we?

JOHN MOE: Yeah. I mean, I always took note of who … I knew who was really great to me when my projects were not going well. Then I took note of people who suddenly wanted to hang out with me when they were going well. I’m like, “Okay. I’ve got a ledger that I’m going to write this down in.” I had therapy a couple of days after I got laid off and my therapist said, “Well, how are you doing with that news?” I said, “I’m waiting to be devastated, but I haven’t been devastated yet.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, I was going to ask because I have a feeling that you may have been preparing for the bottom to fall out at other times because that’s what depression does, right?

JOHN MOE: Yeah.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: When it did end, were you better prepared because of your history, do you think?

JOHN MOE: Well, I think I was approaching the job differently. My career didn’t depend on working at that place. Especially in media jobs, writing books and speaking and doing a podcast, you could do that a lot of places and you could also do it on your own. I know plenty of people who have very successful careers basically doing it out of their own house and so I’m like, “Okay. Well, that’s always an option. I could always hire myself.” For me, the bigger issue is deciding at a certain point … Like I started this podcast because I wanted to have a show because I worked at a company that made shows.

I wanted to come up with a show and mental health seemed like a good topic. In the space of the four years I did the show at that place, it became more, I’m going to talk about mental health and I’m going to talk about bringing these conversations out into the open. A podcast is part of that and where I do it is part of that but it’s not the whole thing. I’m going to talk about these issues as long as I have air in my lungs. If it’s there, fine, if it’s somewhere else, fine. I think the indirect object changed in the sentence, but that’s about it so I felt okay.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Gosh, that’s so freeing. I love that.

JOHN MOE: It was great.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Another question I have, which is, now that you’re a famous professional sad person as you call yourself. Do you-

JOHN MOE: Yes.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: You’re a pro-

JOHN MOE: Yeah. I went pro.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Do you still-

JOHN MOE: I was so good at being depressed that I went up to the major leagues.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Do you still have to perform normalcy? A feeling for me when I’m in a depression is that I can’t talk to strangers. I can’t have small talk.

JOHN MOE: Yeah.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m bad at small talk anyway, but when I’m depressed, I can’t even pretend to care or smile. I think that’s hard. Like when I go pick up my kids and I’m depressed and the other moms are like, “Who is the mother who’s sitting in the car scowling at everyone?” But it’s because I’m depressed. I cannot. Now do you have the right to not perform? Being okay when you’re not? How has that changed for you?

JOHN MOE: Like in interacting with other people?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah. I’m just curious. If you reach a certain level of going pro as a depressed person, can you say, “I’m feeling really depressed today I don’t think I can do this meeting.” Or how do you handle that?

JOHN MOE: Well, I mean it’s like everybody’s already seen me naked.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah.

JOHN MOE: It’s all out there already so I can’t go back. I’m naturally an introvert and yeah, the small talk conversation … I used to do a stage variety show at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Thousand-seat auditorium. Every show was sold out. Then we wanted to keep it really human and connected to the audience, so I would go out and say hi to the audience in the lobby afterwards. That was the part I dreaded most.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s the worst part.

JOHN MOE: Being on stage in front of a thousand people telling a joke, singing a song, whatever it was, that was fine. My heart rate was low getting out in front of those people. I think lately I’ve just found a lower gear that I’m more comfortable in and I’m not compelled to impress people. I’m not compelled to entertain people. I still like jokes. It’s a way of talking for me so I’ll still make the jokes. In general, since really writing down all that I’ve been through with my experiences, with my health, with my family and just knowing that and accepting it and finding the self-value through it all, I’m just a lot more relaxed.

Frankly too, since I got laid off, since I left the place I was working, my wife says, “Oh, you seem happier. You smile more. You’re calmer and you’re better looking.” If your spouse says you’re better looking, then obviously the right thing has happened.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What’s your advice for someone’s who doesn’t have the beauty of being a professional sad person and starting out in their career and might be feeling depressed, but has to show up at that meeting, has to go to that networking happy hour with their boss? Do you have any tips about just getting through it?

JOHN MOE: Boy, I thought you were going to say, what’s your advice for people who aren’t as good looking as you?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, I’d love to hear that too.

JOHN MOE: I guess, I don’t know. I mean, in that situation, I think it’s never a bad idea to return to who you are in a quiet way. Like, if you’re going out there trying to impress, trying to dazzle in order to cover up something that is missing in yourself, I think you’re really setting yourself up to fall on your face. I think sometimes in some meetings and in some situations in any job, you do need to dazzle. Like if you need to sell people on an idea, prepare to perform, right?

If it’s coming from a place of trying to compensate for some other pain, then I think that’s a problem because it’s really not going to be you doing it. The big thing is really though, if you’re feeling rotten and it’s getting in the way of things, go get help, just go get help. I know in our healthcare system, being what it is, you’re like, “Oh, I’m going to get some help. I better call a psychiatrist.”

You work up the nerve and you call a psychiatrist and they say, “Great. We can see you in nine months.” You’re thinking, “But I’m crazy now. I need help right away.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m not going to last that long.

JOHN MOE: Yeah. If you can’t get into the psychiatrist or the therapist, go to a family doctor, go to a general practitioner who can at least help you in that moment and maybe set you on a course that you’re going to have to travel, but to feel better. Because if you’re not functioning like you feel you ought to, you can feel better. That’s something that it took me till like age 50 to realize that, and I’m 52 now, because it’s another thing that depression gets so deep in it.

I got through two seasons of making my show before I really allowed myself to believe that, because I just thought, “Well, I’m not getting worse so that’s as good as I can do.” Which is a distortion and a lie depression was telling me so convincingly that I, by then a somewhat of an expert on depression, couldn’t even spot. I mean, it’s a thing I evangelize now. Like, you can feel better. If you’re roughed up, you can feel better than you are.

It doesn’t mean you’re going to be happy all the time. You wouldn’t want that anyway, but it just means that you can be better than where you’re at.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: When you did your show, you interviewed professional dazzlers.

JOHN MOE: Yeah.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: You talked to people whose whole livelihood was commanding attention and holding a room and being a star. Yet, they were all depressed. What did you learn about how they compartmentalize or how they manage their mental illness through their work and through what they love to do?

JOHN MOE: I think for a lot of them, the work that they were doing was almost a way of talking to the depression and communicating with it and trying to not so much solve it with what they do, but to work with what they had. I’m always very interested and I have a lot of friends in these jobs. I’m really interested in comedians and musicians and songwriters. I think what they do is they speak from a sincere and beautiful place, even if it is about pain, a kind of honest place that connects with people on some level that a textbook about a chronic major depressive disorder really wouldn’t.

The people I talk to who are dazzlers, who have the room in the palm of their hand, they’re doing that because they love it. It’s from a really sincere place. It’s not really from a, I’m looking for validation in this capacity, because I think those people don’t tend to become very successful. There’s plenty of successful people who do that and plenty of unsuccessful people who try the more honest and direct route.

The ones who are trying to solve it through performing and I don’t need a therapist, doing standup comedy is my therapy. I don’t tend to see much of an improvement in the mental state of those people over a long period of time. The audience isn’t a therapist, or your spouses isn’t a therapist, the guy at the gas station is-

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Your friends aren’t therapists.

JOHN MOE: Yeah.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: A therapist is a therapist.

JOHN MOE: Right. The guy at the gas station is probably not an endocrinologist. People have different things that they do. Yeah. People have managed it in different ways. I will say that the people I’ve talked to who’ve been through addiction and are in recovery who are writers, performers, songwriters, their work tends to get a lot clearer after they’ve sobered up and are on that path. For most people it’s more of an accompaniment than a solution.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I think it’s really powerful, and I want to actually encourage the audience, even a few, have nothing to do with stand-up comedy in your regular life, to go and listen to John’s show because for me as someone who just works in business, it’s so empowering to hear people who are at the top of their game, who feel like I feel, and yet are still at the top of their game. Not always, they have low points and low points are real.

But I find your show powerful because it’s hard for me to get corporate people to talk on the record about their mental illness, but creative people and artists somehow have permission. I see so many parallels because work is work and the love of work is the same no matter what you do, right? It’s really powerful – the people that you talk to.

JOHN MOE: Yeah. It’s funny. When I first started doing this, I thought you always hear about the depressed comedian, the polyarchy figure and are there more depressed comedians than there are depressed dentists? Patton Oswalt actually told me no. He thinks that there’s about the same percentage by and large in every profession. It’s just that if your dentist was talking to you about suicidal ideation when they’re doing their job, you’d quickly find a new dentist. If a comedian’s talking about it as part of their job, then it’s kind of okay. It’s just a different context. Yeah. I wonder about that.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, John Moe, thank you so much.

JOHN MOE: Thanks, Morra.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s it for today’s show. Thanks to my producer, Mary Dooe, and thanks to Liz Sanchez for her help producing. Thanks to the team at HBR and the studio team who make the audio happen. I’m grateful to our guests for sharing their experiences and their truths. For you, our listeners, and for our advertisers. Please send me feedback. You can email anxiousachiever@gmail.com or tweet me @morraam. If you love the show, tell your friends or subscribe and leave a review. From HBR Presents, this is Morra Aarons-Mele.



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