If we’re only as sick as our secrets, Melissa Broder must be the healthiest person on the planet.
The intensely introspective poet just released a book tied to her quiet phenomenon Twitter account, So Sad Today, and it’s a radical exercise in emotional transparency. Even for a book of personal essays, these essays are deeply, deeply personal. They’re also, obviously, sad. Just wrenchingly sad. Like, living-inside-of-a-Leonard-Cohen-song sad. But they’re much more than that. They’re highlightably hilarious. They’re richly complex. And it’s partly this very dynamism that readers magnetically pulled to the book by their own depression might find solace in. The first person to get any help from So Sad Today, though, was the author herself.
In the fall of 2012, Melissa Broder was going through a profoundly dark time. All her life, she’d trained herself to cope with the steady hum of anxiety and depression—often with drugs and alcohol. Occasionally, the hum would crescendo into marathonic periods of all-consuming panic attacks, and she’d trained herself to cope with those too in the same way. This time was different, though. Now, she was clean and sober, and the constant cloak of panic seemed impossible to bear or escape.
Therapy wasn’t working. Society-approved medication had little effect. A trusted self-care book, Panic Away, could no longer do the trick. And although she was already a respected poet with two collections to her name at the time, she was also working a day job as a publicist for Penguin, where she had to interact with other humans in an office environment every day.
"I just felt like I didn’t know what I was gonna do to be okay," Broder says. "And it sort of spun out in my mind into this narrative of basically, 'How am I going to keep that mask of okay-ness and, like, functionality?'"
It was getting increasingly less possible to not scream brutal horrifying truth in people's faces, so she instead started doing so on the great faceless hinterlands of the Internet. Although Broder already had a Twitter account in her own name, one that was known for being hilarious and odd, and a compelling advertisement for her poetry, she started another one just for emotional bloodletting. This new pristine space was strictly for shouting into the void without any fear that the void would shout back with pedantic concern-trolly suggestions of therapy.
She created an avatar out of a pink pyramid found on Tumblr—"The fact that it's pink was never intended to be Sad Girl Twitter, I just thought the image was cool"—and started compulsively unburdening herself of everything she needed to get out. Anyone following would get to know the author's body, fears, mistakes, desires, and especially her despair over the point of existence. Broder's tweets tapped into a primal panic center she also accessed for her poems, but the anonymity afforded her the chance to pair these feelings with something previously absent from her poetry: Internetspeak and Twitter memes. She was using ephemeral, disposable language to describe some of the most ancient, scary feelings known to humans. The juxtaposition clicked.
"I don't really see it as a persona. I always see a persona as giving you a character you come to inhabit," Broder says. "I'm a human with anxiety disorder and Wi-Fi. I see So Sad Today as just a part of myself. It's one part of me, but not all of me, and so I don't need to represent all of me, and all of me won't be implicated by what this one part of me says."
A lot of people responded to this part of Broder, and they did it quickly. Within a few months, So Sad Today eclipsed her own account, which had around 15,000 followers at the time. Next came high-profile devotees like Sky Ferreira, Katy Perry, and Miley Cyrus, whose cosigns and retweets brought Broder's stream of imprisoned consciousness to a whole other level. Before she knew it, there were hundreds of thousands of fans, sympathizers, and rubberneckers hanging on her every 140-character dispatch.
"I loved anonymously getting this stuff out. I kind of felt like if it's out there and people can still be okay with me, then maybe I can be more okay with myself. It's maybe not the healthiest, but probably not the unhealthiest," Broder says. "Also, the dopamine of having that kind of response felt really fucking good. I'm such a junkie for dopamine, so I just kept going."
So Sad Today scratched a certain itch that was hard to reach. Public displays of depression rarely come off as authentic or insightful, let alone funny. Lately, however, some stellar examples have achieved low-key zeitgeist status. The Netflix series BoJack Horseman used an animated horse to depict the self-destructive tendencies of a clinically depressed person more realistically than most theatrical dramas. Similarly, FX's You're The Worst saw one of its lead characters, played with nuanced depth by Aya Cash, bottom out in its recent second season. When afflicted people recognize part of themselves in cliché-dodging representation, they glom onto it. Although Broder could be intentionally glib about the pain she was describing, there was iridescent honesty beneath the veneer. She had something to say, and after a while she had her voice down. It was time to do something more with it.
She had always written poetry, but after moving out to LA in 2014, Broder decided to experiment with essays. She would be driving around for long stretches and find herself sketching ideas out loud in her car. The early drafts of what became the book, So Sad Today, were dictated during these therapeutic driving sessions.
Around the same time, one of the author's friends introduced her to an editor from Grand Central and they had lunch. The editor was immediately convinced of the strength of both Broder's point of view and her way with a sentence, and they began to talk about what kind of book she might write. They discussed a book of So Sad Today tweets and quickly nixed the idea. A novel about Broder's open marriage was on the table as well. Finally, since she'd been trying out the essay format anyway, the two landed on a book of personal essays bearing the title of the Twitter account. (One of the essays reveals in typically unsparing detail the history of its author's open marriage.)
Now that a book was in the works, Broder would have to let go of her cherished anonymity. She was determined to do it on her own terms, though, so she made Grand Central wait until the very last possible moment before revealing her identity in a Rolling Stone article.
"I had the publisher black out and redact my name on the sales sheets and the marketing data when they were first selling the book, like it didn't have an author on it," she says. "And then finally I was like, 'All right let's do this.'"
When she got the galleys, however, the reality of the book became clear. She was about to share the most private aspects of her life imaginable with potentially every person she'd ever met and every stranger she might meet. There was one chapter in particular, one that all reviews will probably single out as the marquee example of how raw this book gets. Let's call it the "vomit fetish" chapter. After one of the people blurbing the book mentioned to Broder that she'd skipped the vomit fetish chapter, the author second-guessed its inclusion.
"I was worried it was just too much and people were going to think I'm just trying to be outré—even though for me that chapter was probably the most honest. And I was talking to my editor and agent and I was like, 'Okay, you've gotta take this out,'" she says. "And then they were like, 'Let's just sit with it.' So I sent it to a bunch of friends and they convinced me to keep this in. A lot of people related to this. Not like the topic itself but having something in your life you just feel is just so fucking weird and it feels like so beyond your control and makes you a freak."
The book that this revelation was in service of is unlike any other book to share a title with a Twitter account. It's an origin story. It's a manifesto. It's the dark, terrible truth of a person who has lived with anxiety and depression all her life, but possesses enough self-awareness and wisdom to wring humor out of it. Broder's prose has the linguistic fluidity of her poetry, and she finds creative ways to fit it into the text-message style and meme-iness of the So Sad Today Twitter. (See the "Google Hangout With My Higher Self" essay for a stark example)
The book and its source material are not without its detractors. Some people think Broder is glorifying depression and anxiety. Others think she's wearing it like a mask—like the mask of civility she describes wearing when dealing with other people during moments of spiritual crisis. Ultimately, though, the author has received far more positive feedback from people who see their struggles in hers to pay the naysayers much mind.
"First of all, if I could make mental illness cool, that would be fucking amazing, like to make people who have these differences feel like we're special rather than like not really fitting into society and not able to 'do life.' That would be great," Broder says. "And second of all, this is my experience and nobody can tell me I can't make fun of it. I would never make fun of something that wasn't my own experience."
Everybody who experiences anxiety and depression feels it differently. For some people, it manifests as lethargic paralysis, and for others it’s utter terror. For some people it appears sporadically; for others, it lasts indefinitely. As long as So Sad Today exists, though, they at least don’t have to experience it alone. They can feel seen and known. It's a mutually beneficial communion that's helped its creator as much as its fans.
"To know other people feel the same and that I'm not a total freak has been really important for me," Broder says." So if I can give that to some people, then that's awesome."