Ask Polly and So Sad Today Talk About Feelings

Melissa Broder, author of <em>So Sad Today</em>.
Melissa Broder, author of So Sad Today. Photo: Lord Byron

Sadness can be lonely, particularly online. But in a sea of party selfies, Facebook posts about yoga retreats, and chirpy tweets about the latest super-fun events you didn’t attend, there’s Melissa Broder’s So Sad Today tweets — an island of anxious, needy misfit toys. “The stuff that scares you probably won’t happen but other bad stuff definitely will,” she tweeted on March 10. March 9: “talents include checking in on my anxiety every five seconds just to make sure it’s still there.” March 8: “I’m a tiny speck in the infinite cosmos who feels fat.” Broder started the anonymous Twitter account in order to cope with her isolation and anxiety. What she discovered along the way was that not only does misery love company, but misery loves to retweet clever expressions of misery 500 to 1,000 times a day, minimum.

Where there are 300,000 Twitter followers rabidly retweeting, there is usually a book contract. And while many of the books that spring from Twitter feeds are the sorts of unnecessarily wordy experiments you wish you could shrink back down to a pithy 140 characters, Broder’s new book, So Sad Today, is a provocative exception. Instead of supersizing her angsty tweets,  Broder presents a dizzying array of intimate dispatches and confessions, in which she admits to everything from having a vomiting fetish to having chewed a new piece of Nicotine gum roughly every half-hour for the past 12 years of her life. One of her chapters lays out a lifelong battle with eating disorders (“I’m an eater who doesn’t trust herself. I am a bad mommy to myself and a poor steward of my body”). Another offers up Broder’s extended sexts with a guy she hadn’t met yet (“Him: I want to fuck you in an air duct, flattened out with our whole bodies touching”). She has a near-supernatural ability to not only lay bare her darkest secrets, but to festoon those secrets with jokes, subterfuge, deep shame, bravado, and poetic turns of phrase.

In person, Broder is much more cheerful and effusive than you’d expect. If you never asked her any pushy questions, she might seem like exactly the sort of polished, professional type who fits right into her sunny Venice Beach habitat. But luckily, I asked Broder lots of pushy questions over the course of our two-hour lunch together, and she discussed the inherent contradictions and inner conflicts of her work with the frank ease of someone who’s been on a long, arduous path toward self-acceptance for years now.

Your book, like your Twitter account, reveals a pretty twisted perspective on the world. When did you first start to question the world around you?
I grew up outside of Philly, in Bryn Mawr. My senior year of college, I was a big stoner. I found my stoner psychedelic people. I was deep into Pink Floyd, and I felt like they knew the truth. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but it had something to do with society being bad, and the way things were being run, and anti-money and corporate stuff.

It sounds like you did a lot of mushrooms.
I did a lot of mushrooms. I did a lot of mushrooms and acid.

You always think you’re going to figure out the whole world on those drugs, and it all easily boils down to something mundane. “Life is like a teardrop!”
Yeah. I thought I’d figured out the truth, but then I would come down and I couldn’t say exactly what the truth was. So I was delivering pizzas around town in this giant Bronco that belonged to my grandfather, thinking I knew the truth, thinking I was anti-capitalist without even knowing what capitalism even was. And then my mom, my spring break of my senior year, was like, “We’re getting you a suit, and you’re going to New York, and you’re going on job interviews.” And my world was crumbling. “Dude, in an office?”

How are you feeling about coming out as So Sad Today? You’re kind of in the middle of that process.
I don’t know, it’s weird. I’m never quite aware of how exactly I’m feeling. I haven’t figured out feelings yet at all. I think anxiety is a good mask, and also a good measure of how much unprocessed shit is going on. If there are a lot of unprocessed feelings, the anxiety is pretty high.

When you’re feeling anxious, how does that manifest itself? I guess I’m thinking of how you mention getting fixated on small things, or making small decisions.
Yes. I have these hair crises that don’t exist. I’ve been channeling a lot of the book anxiety into my hair. I went and got my color done, and I sometimes do a keratin treatment, the kind that will kill you. I’m ready for death; it’s fine. But my ends got so dry. So I was obsessing. I texted the girl who cuts my hair, and I’m like, “Am I crazy?” and she’s like, “Come in!” And then I’m spending all this money on masks, and she’s trimming the ends, but I’m like, “Don’t make it too short because my hair is my thing.” My hair is like my protection.

Do you feel a little exposed right now?
Well, no one’s really read it yet. My parents cannot read this book. It’s just too filthy.

Did you tell them you didn’t want them to read it?
Yeah. I always told them that with my poetry books, too. But I’ll tell my dad, “Don’t read it,” and he’ll text a photo of him holding up the book. The thing with poetry is that no one really understands what’s going on anyway. But this is very narrative and linear and you can understand what’s going on. So I’m nervous about that.

As a poet, for years my mom’s been like, “When’s (your reading) going to be at Barnes & Noble?” Because if it isn’t at Barnes & Noble it doesn’t count. So now it is at Barnes & Noble, but I still want them not to read the book. I want them to feel proud of me, but not know what they’re feeling proud of.

What compels you, do you think, to write such deeply revealing material?
Being a confessional human being for me is like a defense mechanism. If I can tell you the flaw before you see the flaw, then maybe it’s okay.

It’s weird because breaking my anonymity with So Sad Today — I told one person. I kept the secret for almost three years, which is a big deal because I’m not a good secret-keeper. I kept it anonymous because I wanted it to be pure and also I was embarrassed by how much I tweet. I tweet all the goddamn time. And when I first started, it was really to save my own life.

What year did it start?
2012. That was the year I found out that my husband and I were going to have to move to L.A. because of his health. He has a neuro-immune disease and his killer cells don’t really work. His condition is like chronic mono, so he’ll be bedridden for months at a time.

I would get so depressed under those conditions.
I don’t understand how he hasn’t killed himself. It’s kind of a miracle. He’s one of these people with a real desire to live. I don’t get it. And he’s had it for so long — for 15 years — but it’s changed a lot. When he first got sick, he had a bad fever for three months, but then he was fine for a year. So when we met, that’s where it was. He could exercise, he could go out and drink, he could do whatever, and every now and then he’d have a relapse, but once he got better, we didn’t think about the fact that he’d ever get sick again. It was very easy to be in denial. But then as time went on, his spells got closer and closer together, so he’s never healthy now.

The fall of 2012 was when I realized we were going to have to leave New York, and also realized that the landscape of his illness had changed, there was no respite, and it became clear that it was a progressive illness. So there was no time to be in denial. I think the juxtaposition of that, plus just being a person who’s subject to panic attacks and anxiety disorder, and like, some other things, were like this perfect storm. I had a bad panic attack and then what happened was I was so afraid that I’d have another one.

I have a friend who’s going through this. The fear of the next panic attack is half of the battle.
Yeah, you get into a cycle. He should do cognitive-behavioral therapy. I did psychodynamic for years and years, but it does nothing for anxiety disorder. You need tools.

What shape does your anxiety take?
Well, imagination is a big commonality among people who suffer from extreme anxiety. You’re too aware. It’s almost like I want everyone to understand that there’s nothing underneath it all. That’s the Pink Floyd truth.

The bottom line for me is: “Is anyone else a little freaked out about the fact that we’re alive?” And when my anxiety’s at its worst, the place it goes is like, “How are people not freaking out?” It’s not a dejected sort of “Why bother?” but more of a terrified “Why bother?” What is all of this? I’m like, “How are all of you not obsessed about this, and you’re just going about your lives?”

But then, I’ll also obsess about bullshit. I mean, I just spent a week obsessing about my hair. I think it’s like a luxury, not just a socioeconomic place to obsess about bullshit, it’s an existential luxury. There are times when I’m so scared I’m never going to be able to pull the blind down again, I’m so scared that this is going to be my reality. Part of my catastrophizing is that it’s going to be like this forever. So when I get into those cycles, that’s when I feel very alone. I don’t understand how we’re not talking about this more. I guess certain religions are talking about it, they use different narrative or archetypal attempts to address it, but it doesn’t quite explain anything

Do you know other people who are anxious?
I have some friends who have been in really dark times and I can reach out to them.

Do you reach out to them, though?
No, not really!

You reach out through Twitter, right?
Yeah. I would rather tweet it. The day I stop tweeting is when people are going to ask if I’m okay.

Both on your Twitter feed and in your book, you seem to struggle with imbuing people with magical powers, and then trying to bring them down to earth afterward. It seems like you want a kind of a magic, so you project it on people and then pretend that they’re bringing it to you. Like the chapter where you’re texting with that guy, it seemed like you taught him this whole way of romancing you. He learned what you wanted and then fed it back to you.
Yeah. Probably just to get ass.

Well, that could be the final line of almost every love story ever written.
I know, it’s so sad! “Probably just to get ass. The end.” It’s like, “I want to write this narrative, will you play a part in it?” Yeah, I do want to believe there’s magic. That dates back to my psychedelic days. We’re alive. It has to be more than craft.

But that need for magic, it’s a very addictive desire. It reminds me of when I would get wasted in my 20s and I’d look around and wonder, “Why aren’t people making art and fucking and doing weird Dionysian shit?”
Yeah, we should be burning money and having sex.

But it also sounds like that longing for magic can overwhelm you completely.
Yeah, sometimes I’m scared that I’m not going to be able to function in the world. I’m such a perfectionist. God forbid I have to take a week off. What if I never go back again? So I created So Sad Today so I could sit in my office and power through and I had this place to just put the darkness when I couldn’t focus and I was like shaking and stuff. But then So Sad Today came out in a Fuck You, rebel tone. I never felt like I fit in with the rebels or anywhere else. But it feels good to me to be like, I know I have a sense of humor, I know I have sarcasm and wit, so I’m going to not want part of your world. Before you show me that I’m not fit for your world, I don’t even want it. It seemed to me a good way to protect yourself. But it absolutely is an addictive thing.

In your book and on Twitter, you express sadness but you don’t express anger as much.
I don’t want to express anger because if you express anger, that means you care, and if you care that means you might be rejected. I mean, that’s obviously not the truth, I’m telling you my fucked-up thinking.

Anger would mean investing too much.
Yes, if I get angry, that means I’m a loser. It’s better to be like, “No, I’m fine, I’m going to do this without you.”

It’s like vulnerability with a shiny epoxy layer over it.
Yeah. That’s the thing. I mean, last April, when I was changing the meds, that was a very scary time for me. I tweeted this thing, and of all the shit I’ve ever tweeted — the sad shit and the fucked-up shit — friends of mine for the first time were like, “Are you okay?” However many followers I had at the time, like 200,000 or whatever … All these people follow me, but I’m still more fucked up than all of them! The outpouring of kindness was kind of amazing.

My fear is that I’m going to lose control of my life, and it’s going to smell like mashed potatoes in the psych ward. This one woman who follows me was anxious and she was a nurse, and she really helped me. She told me she’d been through it, and she said, “They will figure it out. It’s all going to be okay.” But some of the people who contacted me, it didn’t help. I didn’t want to hear their stories, because it meant I was just like them.

The paradox of entertaining with confession is that you don’t necessarily want to connect completely. You want to connect, but only on your own terms. With So Sad Today, you’re creating a strange serving size of you, but it’s like plastic food, almost. And your poetry and your Twitter account are like different genres that are delivery systems for this sort of artful desperation. By desperation, I obviously mean passion, energy, frustration, and longing, too.
Yeah. Longing is a big one.

What do you want to do next? Do you know?
I do. I started writing more poetry, but I felt like I was rewriting poems I wrote in Scarecrone and in Last Sext. But I was still obsessed with these themes, so I’ve been working on a new project focused on the same themes. I don’t want to say too much about it, but it’s really exciting. I always saw myself as a poet, but all of this other stuff just feels like, who knows? I’m very much where the muse takes me.

This interview has been edited and condensed.