We got hip to Twitter phenomenon @sosadtoday after reading one of her insightful columns about depression on Vice. The woman behind the handle, Melissa Broder, is something of an expert in the field, having suffered from anxiety since childhood, self-medicated with drink and drugs as a teen, and cycled through no less than half a dozen therapists.
Fortunately, Broder also has her wits about her—even if she doesn’t have much peace of mind. A gifted poet and sensitive advice columnist, she combats her negative energy by reducing complicated emotions into simple, shareable words so she might be able to sleep…and so other people might relate. A self-avowed Internet addict and cellphone junkie, Broder created @sosadtoday as a sort of relief valve: It allows her to spout anonymously (and at random) about anxiety, love, panic, death, her hair—whatever was irking her—without judgment or fear of reprisal.
But Broder’s recently come clean, revealing her identity at Twitter and Vice and other online outlets: Melissa is @sosadtoday and @sosadtoday is Melissa.
At least, kind of.
Part of Broder’s impetus for dropping the ruse was the publication of her new book—the aptly-titled So Sad Today: Personal Essays. For while she’s authored numerous books of poetry under her proper name (Scarecrone, Last Sext, Meat Heart), she had yet to take similar ownership of her candid prose.
And the stark, confessional So Sad Today practically demands ownership by its scribe; it’s not the sort of work one painstakingly births only to orphan or dispatch it out into the world under a pseudonym. It’s too personal a write to afford the luxury of distance.
Throughout, Broder dishes frankly on her lifelong depression: Her infant neurosis and toddler hypochondria; her adolescent fixations with fire and the Holocaust; her teenage hunger for acceptance; her womanly wants of love, sex, and food. She cautiously dips her toes back into the cesspools of personal doubt and mental anguish, reliving early panic attacks and existential crises. Later entries find Broder mismanaging her torment and numbing her psychic pain with pills, booze, and…ah, prurient interests and amorous avatars.
Her inherent cognitive skills (she’s sharp as a tack) and penchant for stringing words together become Broder’s salvation, particularly where social media are concerned. She quashes her addictions, returns to poetry and journalism, and starts flinging her messages-in-a-bottle into the electronic nether…where she unexpectedly finds a receptive—even sympathetic—audience, many of whom are just as un-okay as she.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Broder by phone last week. Our review of So Sad Today is already live (see the link below); now we present our conversation with the Dark Princess of the Internet herself—Twitter’s reigning Nicotine Queen, the one and only Melissa Broder.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Hello, Melissa! How are you?
MELISSA BRODER: Hey, I’m good! How are you?
EXAMINER: Good, thanks. Thanks for taking the time with us to discuss the new book. I should say, your Vice articles really resonated with myself and my own depression. I don’t think I’ve read anything by anyone else who so succinctly worded what I’d been feeling.
MELISSA BRODER: Thank you.
EXAMINER: So the book, So Sad Today. You’ve done poetry, and you do an advice column and essays. What made you decide the time was right for a book of deeply personal essays?
MELISSA BRODER: Well, I think it was two things. A lot of my poetry was…I used to live in New York, and I write a lot in motion. So I would write a lot of my poems on the subway, on my notepad app on my phone, or in my journal. And then I moved to Los Angeles, and obviously I can’t type behind the wheel, but I started dictating things. Then I started doing longer works. It started happening organically. I wrote a couple essays, and I was offered a possible book deal and met with an editor. We talked about different things I could possibly write. One of our last ideas—we were having lunch—and one of our ideas was a book of essays called So Sad Today. It felt like a good fit, because I’d just started delving into that realm of doing personal essays. So it happened organically, that transition. But also I kept doing it because I got offered the book deal.
EXAMINER: Does writing help you sublimate, maybe find catharsis or provide some opportunity for self-therapy?
MELISSA BRODER: I think it does. I think like, the Twitter at @SoSadToday was an attempt for me through being anonymous to kind of…I didn’t know what else to do. I was going through a very dark time when I first started it, and I was working in an office, and just didn’t know what else to do to be okay. So I just started tweeting out into the void, because it felt like some form of motion. It was an attempt to take off the mask. But it’s the internet, and certain tweets get certain likes, so you start to go in one direction or another. And I was like, “Can we ever really fully take off the mask?” So the Twitter is an attempt for me to take off the mask. And the book is an attempt to take of the mask even more.
EXAMINER: How did you decide which essays made the cut? I expected to see some of those great Vice articles here, but I didn’t. Are they all-new?
MELISSA BRODER: Well, you know of couple of the essays in the book—three maybe—are some of my very first essays that were advice. So if you look way back in the column, they’re there. But I wanted to do mostly new, original material because I figured the people reading the book would be familiar with my advice essays. So I think what I did was, I sort of made of list. I thought, “What are the stories I have to tell, and feelings I want to explore?” Because that’s what is really at the heart of any kind of writing. Even if there is difference in experience, in terms of the detail, there’s a certain universality of emotion. We ended up cutting a bunch of essays that explored the same feelings, but were different avenues. It felt repetitive in that sense. Even if the subject of the essay was different, it continued to kind of…I’m a very excessive writer, and I only write about things like sex, love, death. You know, the emotions. So we felt like we were covering too much. And also, I got very nervous about some of the more filthy ones, because as a poet, nobody understands. It’s like, nobody understands poetry. Nobody can really say, “Oh, I understand what she was saying.” Well, they can; some poetry is more narrative than others. But it’s written through metaphor and archetype and symbols, whereas this is very narrative. So it’s not like, “I don’t understand what she’s saying.” But I showed them to some friends of mine, and they said, “You have to publish these. You have to keep these in.” But I was still nervous, and my parents were warned: Under no circumstances are they allowed to read the book! Although I said the same thing to my parents about the poetry, and my dad’s always been into my poetry….
EXAMINER: Did he agree to it? To not read it?
MELISSA BRODER: Has he agreed to it? My mom is usually cool, pretty good about that. My dad…it makes me smile that my dad has that interest in my work, that he will read my poetry even though he’s like, “I don’t understand any of it.” But for this, he’s gonna have to agree [laughs]! And I think he will. I think they’ll respect that.
EXAMINER: You talk a lot about your coming-of-age experiences in New York, and then in Los Angeles. Would I be right in guessing the book covers the last ten to fifteen years?
MELISSA BRODER: Yeah! I mean, I didn’t do too much writing about my childhood. I think the first essays talk about the feelings about, existential holds at a young age. And the last essay—I think it’s the last—talks about growing up, and how the anxiety shape-shifts. But I’d say yes, the book mostly takes place in the past ten, fifteen years. I think my anxiety disorder has been the most prevalent in the past fifteen years. As a kid I was a hypochondriac, and I had fears about fires and the Holocaust. But they never manifested in me physically until then.
EXAMINER: It didn’t manifest for me until college. I couldn’t take being in crowded rooms, like classrooms—especially during exams. I couldn’t concentrate, had panic attacks, and sometimes just had to leave. And then you’re convinced you’re being judged. Like, “What’s wrong with that guy?”
MELISSA BRODER: Exactly! Like, that’s the thing. It’s one thing to be in a giant crowd where no one cares if you’re there or not. If I was at a protest or something—I don’t know about you, but that for me is fine. It’s when people would notice if I left, that they might think it’s weird.
EXAMINER: I learned to deal with it. I like aisles seats in theatres—the easy escape routes. With music journalism I attend a lot of shows, and oddly enough I’m generally fine when I’m in a crowd of hundreds or thousands of people. We’re all strangers, and no one notices if you take off. It’s different with lectures and business meetings. Everyone knows who you are and why you’re there, and they notice when you aren’t.
MELISSA BRODER: Totally! That’s exactly it, right? It’s not claustrophobia; it’s the sort of, “What is their perception of me? Is there an escape route?”
EXAMINER: Do you suppose anxiety and depression are double-edged swords, in the sense that—yes, they suck—but do you think they offer a kind of deeper insight that quote-unquote “normal” people aren’t privy to?
MELISSA BRODER: Well, in terms of higher I.Q. and intelligence, it’s interesting. There’s one essay I wrote for Vice about this. There’s a Danish philosopher who wrote a lot about depression as—I can email to you—he wrote a lot about….
EXAMINER: Soren Kierkegaard?
MELISSA BRODER: It wasn’t Kierkegaard, but someone who was very simpatico, early 20th century…I’m blanking on his name right now [ed. Note: Peter Wessel Zapffe]. But he thought of the mind of the depressed person as a deer who has antlers, where the antlers are almost too heavy. It’s like the mind is too heavy, right? There’s too much going on. That’s one way of looking at it. I think another way is, I’ve read how people with intense anxiety—which can be a flipside of depression, as in my case—we categorize these things. But it’s all so murky. We have much more developed imaginations than people, and that’s very telling because, you know, it’s the perception of all that can go wrong, you know? And how do you use that imagination for good? I also think that the fact that the higher I.Q. and its connection to mental illness, or that line between genius and insanity…I wonder too if it’s a perception power, and how we see the love, and how we take that burden of questioning…. Honestly, I think, yes. It’s nice to be an intelligent human being, I guess [laughs]! But there are times when I’ve been in a really dark place and I’ve had trouble breathing, and I try to find a way out of it, and it’s like…I’d gladly take being so stupid if I could trade….
EXAMINER: That insight, that hyper-reality, for a bit of mundane distraction.
MELISSA BRODER: Yeah. But there are those times where you feel a window has been raised in your psyche, and it’s just like, “Shut it!”
EXAMINER: You wander around wondering how it can be that no one else seems overwhelmed by their own insignificance, the larger cosmos, impending death….
MELISSA BRODER: Yes! It’s like, how is everyone just talking about pepper, or how are they talking about what’s for dinner tonight? Like, “Isn’t it creeping you out that we’re all alive, and that we’re going to die? Doesn’t that bother you?”
EXAMINER: Meds can help. They stabilize you, or you occupy your time with work or some other distraction. You’re able to play the game of being “normal.” But you’re still acutely aware of what’s going on, existentially.
MELISSA BRODER: Yeah, it’s like, you’re talking to me now on the phone, and you have the wherewithal to do an interview, or you can go to a rock show. There are good days. And sometimes you’re deeply in it, and sometimes you can get really absorbed in the bullshit of the world. I think it’s kind of a gift to be able to be consumed by all the bullshit, because the alternative can be so painful. I think there are people who waiver, like how you or I may waiver, where sometimes we see it all so clearly, and then sometimes we have that relief of not having to see so clearly.
EXAMINER: Do you suppose people with mental illness—which includes schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety—have a higher aptitude for creativity? Some of my favorite musicians, authors, and artists created their best work when they were at their lowest, emotionally, or when they were messed up on alcohol and drugs. Not that I’d recommend it.
MELISSA BRODER: Totally. I’ve always kind of tried to believe that you don’t have to suffer to make art. You don’t have to. I don’t want to believe that, that you have to be a suffering human being. Because there are some very joyous artists, as well. And certainly I know that when I was an active alcoholic and addict, my art kind of sucked! My writing and my art didn’t really become whole and lucid until I got sober. So that was actually a relief. Because I was like, I thought I was never gonna be able to write again. And that’s not to say that the experiences I had with drugs—particularly psychedelics—haven’t informed my work. They absolutely have, just knowing that there are different contexts in which to see things, and that you can be jolted into other contexts within a couple of minutes. Right. That informed my work. But just speaking from personal example, I know that if I’d always felt completely comfortable with the world, I don’t know that I would I would’ve made anything! It’s like an oyster with sand in the shell; a part of the making of that part is the buffering against that sand.
EXAMINER: Like, creativity is an immutable trait that some people are just born with, and emotional ups and downs can influence it—but the talent is always there, regardless.
MELISSA BRODER: Yeah. I think that’s true. I think that there isn’t too much of a choice.
EXAMINER: And it’s there whether you use it or not. Like, some authors will tell you, “I have to write.” Or musicians will insist, “I have to make music; I can’t not make music.” Whether they’re commercially successful is another story, but their natural-born skills are there for the tapping whenever they’re ready.
MELISSA BRODER: It’s always there, and if it doesn’t come out in a creative way, it’s probably going to come out in a very destructive way. Something has to be moving, you know?
EXAMINER: Even today there’s still some stigma surrounding mental illness. Like, it’s not a “cool” way of being sick. It’s not a hip brand to put out there, like with pink ribbons for cancer and ice bucket challenges or what have you for A.L.S. Do you suppose people fear what they just don’t understand?
MELISSA BRODER: Yeah, the A.L.S. That would be interesting to have an ice bucket challenge for like, depression and anxiety. But I think there’s probably…some of that might have to do with fear. Mental illness is scary. Not that physical illness isn’t scary; it’s just that mental illness is so nebulous. You don’t have a fever. You’re not sneezing. Like, even with more serious illnesses, there are always physical, tangible symptoms, whereas with anxiety and depression….
EXAMINER: They aren’t as easily quantified; there’s no dipstick to detect or measure depression.
MELISSA BRODER: There can be physical symptoms as well, but they’re more…it’s not like you have rashes or scars. It’s more experiential than it is some tangible thing you can point to. So I think there’s part of that, for sure. It just seems to me like science is still figuring shit out. Like, when I was transitioning on my meds—like a year ago—and I was going through a rough time with that, I was like, very frightened to see…you always think these doctors know everything, but it’s still not an exact science at all. There’s still a lot of playing with it. And it’s scary to be the person on the receiving end of that. It’s like, “We’re just gonna try something here. We’re gonna experiment!” [Laughs] But there is more awareness now with the public, and obviously there is more scientific research being done. But there’s a lag.
EXAMINER: Tweak the cocktail and hope for the best.
MELISSA BRODER: Yeah. It’s like, it really is an illness. And like any chronic illness, you have your relapses. But it really is…in terms of the mind-body connection, it’s interesting how people talk about eating well and getting enough sleep. Sometimes that can seem dismissive, but I think sometimes people with depression can—as with any illness—you run yourself ragged and make yourself more susceptible to it. But again, because it’s all so unseen…you can take someone’s temperature, but you can’t diagnose depression like that. You can’t take a blood test or pee test and have that kind of stuff show up. I think that’s why it gets attributed to mood. That can contribute to it. The diagnostics part just isn’t as tangible.
EXAMINER: Okay, enough with the heavier questions; time for some lighthearted stuff. Are you still chomping on those nicotine lozenges, like you write about in the book?
MELISSA BRODER: Yeah, the gum. Still chewing the gum! I’m chewing it right now.
EXAMINER: And you’re a cereal connoisseur, too. What’s your favorite cereal these days?
MELISSA BRODER: I go through phases. And at this moment, I’m really into Special K Chocolatey Delight. It’s like, Special K with these tiny chocolate bars in it. It’s the illusion of health, but with fun mixed in!
EXAMINER: I saw not too long ago that your fave was strawberry Special K….
MELISSA BRODER: Yes! But I’ve sort of transitioned. I do enjoy sort of a hybrid sometimes. They have a Special K with the chocolate and strawberry. But I like to do the separate boxes! What’s your favorite cereal?
EXAMINER: Probably Honey Nut Cheerios. And lately I’m into the granola stuff. The squirrel food, with nuts and oats….
MELISSA BRODER: Like a hardier….
EXAMINER: Right. Chomp, chomp! And how about your daily regimen of ice cream with Splenda sprinkled on top? Is that still a thing for you?
MELISSA BRODER: Yeah, the Equal or Splenda. Every day! I’m still in that game [laughs]. I don’t know when that will let up. We shall see!
EXAMINER: So Sad Today releases March 15th. Did your publisher choose the Ides of March, or…?
MELISSA BRODER: That’s the day they picked, and I didn’t even know it was that day. And I only know it from my old Shakespeare: “Beware the Ides,” and all that. I have to do my research! But no, no significance!
EXAMINER: And finally, what kind of music does @SoSadToday listen to?
MELISSA BRODER: I listen to a lot of rap. I really like Future, Young Thug. I’m trying to see what’s on my…I’ll look at my Spotify and see what I’ve been listening to most in 2016 [pauses]. Some of my favorites have been…I like DVSN. They keep releasing singles. Like, an R&B thing. They’re really beautiful. I like Anderson .Paak’s album. If there were a single…oh, I don’t know. Maybe something off the Jamie XX album from last year. That was pretty beautiful. I like the new Rihanna album, too. Who have you been listening to?
EXAMINER: I’m all over the map. I can go from James Taylor and Billy Joel to Anthrax and Slayer. But lately it’s a lot of John Frusciante, the old guitarist from Red Hot Chili Peppers. He has a lot of great solo stuff now. And John Grant; he was the singer in a band called The Czars. Good stuff. Say, have you ever considered during your tweets into a day-by-day calendar? Like, those old brick-type The Far Side calendars where there’s one comic per day, then you tear the page off?
MELISSA BRODER: I didn’t. But that’s a really cool idea. I think I had the Garfield one of those, with a new Garfield cartoon every day.
EXAMINER: Well, thanks again for speaking with us, Melissa. Congrats on the book, and good luck with it!
MELISSA BRODER: Well, thank you so much for taking the time. I really appreciate it! And good luck on your journey through life!
EXAMINER: It’s never not an adventure.
So Sad Today at Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/zgs3hdm
So Sad Today at Barnes & Noble: http://tinyurl.com/zyn38vy
So Sad Today on Vice: https://www.vice.com/author/So-Sad-Today