Learning to Say No to Life with Your Body

An excerpt from Jacqueline Novak's How to Weep in Public.

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The first holiday spent with your significant other's family is always a source of anxiety. Will the food be gross? Will they insist on joyful parlor games? Will the "sober" uncle "accidentally" touch your ass? It was with this exact set of fears that, six months into our relationship, I followed my beloved to his family's Thanksgiving, wearing my most mature velvet dress and carrying a Luna bar in my purse. 

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But my fears were unfounded because the turkey rocked, no one told me to do shit AND his cousin is Jaqueline Novak. For those of you who don't know, Jackie is the funniest comedian around. Her unique observations on food, fucking and the prisons that are our bodies make me laugh until I wanna barf. But what really moves me is the openness with which she discusses her battle with depression, allowing it to be fodder for — yes — comedy. This is an excerpt from her brave and comforting book. I am lucky to have inherited such a family member.

--Lena Dunham


Adapted from How to Weep in Public by Jacqueline Novak, in Bookstores Now!

When I was around four or five, I had my yearly physical exam, in which I was asked rather casually by a nurse to provide a urine sample. Problem was, I hadn't realized urinating was on my itinerary, so I'd peed before leaving the house. I told the nurse I just didn't have it in me.

She told me to sip some water and try again in a few minutes. I played along, but I knew that a fuller bladder wasn't going to be enough to overcome my now seized-up pubococcygeal muscle. I had shut down.

Eventually, hours later it seemed, they gave up and told my mom to take me home and just bring back a urine sample. I was relieved, but as the day wore on, I still hadn't peed. Concerns grew, and my parents sat me on the carpeted landing on our entryway stairs, right by the bathroom, handing  me endless refills of water.

I remember other family members gathering to observe the spectacle. But for many years that followed, I had no memory of what happened next.

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Then, a totally separate memory, or so I thought, popped up years later. It was disturbing enough that I felt compelled to ask but was pretty sure it was just a dream: an image of me, naked on my back on a table in a dark room, bright lights shining down on me, the silhouettes of female figures hovering over me . . . doing something to my vagina.

I wondered if this meant I'd been abducted by aliens, experimented upon by the Greys! But no, when I asked my mom, she admitted that what I had been remembering was my catheterization. They had stuck a tube up my urethra to get the urine out. It wasn't that there was anything physically wrong with me. But they had no choice. What were they supposed to do? The girl simply wasn't peeing.

Now that I know the whole story, it all makes sense. In later visits to the pediatrician's office, no one pressured me about peeing. They'd hand my mom a  sample cup and tell us, in a notably over-casual way, to just return it  when we felt like it.

My guess is they changed their system thanks to me, and learned not to put so much pressure on young children to pee. My revolt had been effective. My total shutdown  made a change, hopefully not just in our pediatrician's office, but throughout the medical network, rippling across our great nation.

Of course, I hadn't consciously acted out of a desire to help others. I had just been driven by my objection to pressure of any kind. It's an impulse I still feel in me, and depression has only strengthened it.

For example, when someone tries to tell me, "You need to sign this lease ASAP," I might not have the courage to say no, but I can be counted on to passive-aggressively refuse by willing myself into a state of psychosomatic blindness until they've retracted. Only after the landlord stops hounding me can he expect to see a signed document slide under his door.

You, too, are no doubt as capable.

If we depressos are going to use our skills for the greater good, we must be unwavering in our non-efforts. With non-depressed people, you see them regularly  drumming up the energy to please people just to get 'em off their back. We, on the other hand, stand firm, unwavering, in our resistance.

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Our supposedly childish reactions to being asked to do something—panicking, running away, shutting down—are in fact our greatest strength. We're uniquely qualified to stand up against the stresses put upon us by those more capable. I think we alone could dismantle the tax system.

Look deeply into your childhood to locate a memory of a total  shutdown. Maybe you refused to eat breakfast when a tyrant tried to offer you an un-cinnamoned-and-sugared piece of toast. Perhaps you were told to put your crayons back in their box, and instead you flushed them down the toilet. And then demanded the even-bigger box, with the sharpener on the back.

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Once you uncover such a memory, let it serve as a touchstone. Let it give you strength (or all-encompassing weakness, really) whenever someone tries to pressure you into doing, frankly, anything.

And that is, of course, not an order.

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