In This Episode
After enduring what she calls “700 bad days” in a row, author Kelly Williams Brown realized that simple rituals and crafty projects were often what got her through her most difficult days. In her new book “Easy Crafts for the Insane” she explains the practical, fun, and do-able activities that offer an escape from a chaotic world.
Note: This week is National Suicide Prevention Week. This conversation offers a set guardrails to activate in moments of deep crisis. If you need to talk to someone right now, please call the national suicide prevention hotline at 800-273-8255 or try the Crisis Text Line, 741-741
Ana Marie Cox: Hi, I’m Ana Marie Cox and welcome to With Friends Like These. You’re probably tired of hearing about how these are unprecedented times because things have been unprecedented and terrible for a long time. I don’t even ask what fresh hell is this? Because it’s been fresh hell season for over a year. And that’s why I wanted to talk to Kelly Williams Brown. In her first book, a New York Times best seller, she coined the term ‘adulting.’ She had a lot of success. And then around about the time Trump came on the scene, Kelly endured what she calls 700 bad days in a row. Some of those days were full of personal struggle. Others were national and global disasters that we all experienced together, watching our TVs and our phones. How did she come out on the other side? Well, she discovered simple things that gave her joy and little projects that made her feel like a person in the world. She’s written about her experience in a new book called “Easy Crafts for the Insane: a Mostly Funny Memoir of Mental Illness and Making Things.” I’m also talking to Kelly because she is a fellow suicide attempt survivor and it is National Suicide Prevention Week, I don’t think either of us are making light of our experiences when we tell you that this book about crafting will teach you a lot about preventing suicide. This book will teach you how to set guardrails for yourself in the moment, and how to find help in a crisis. And the most important part of suicide prevention, this book will tell you about creating a life worth living. Kelly and I do discuss very generally and gently the attempt itself, so if that is something you’ll find really upsetting right now, please come back another day. And if you need to talk to someone right now, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800 273-8255. Or you can try the crisis text line at 741741. Coming right up, Kelly Williams Brown.
Ana Marie Cox: Kelly, welcome to the show.
Kelly Williams Brown: Thank you so much for having me. I’m super excited to be here.
Ana Marie Cox: I’m excited to have you here, too. I really enjoyed your book.
Kelly Williams Brown: Thank you.
Ana Marie Cox: It is about a couple of bad years in your life, among other things.
Kelly Williams Brown: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
Ana Marie Cox: And how crafting helped pull you through those years. But I want to kind of set up where you were before the 700 days of shit happened, because I think that’s kind of an important piece.
Kelly Williams Brown: Oh, yeah. No, it was, it was definitely quite the fall.
Ana Marie Cox: [laughs] I’m trying to avoid, like, fall. Just like change, big change.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yeah, yeah. It was, it was a real change from sort of being together a functioning person to really not, physically and mentally. So, but that’s just part of the fun. That was just the excitement of those years.
Ana Marie Cox: Yes. So, tell us about that. Tell us where you were.
Kelly Williams Brown: You know, it was interesting. So I do have to issue an apology to anyone who is listening to this, which there is a word that most of you probably heard. And I invented it and I knew it was annoying at the time. And that word is adulting. Because I came up with this idea for a book about, you know, how does insurance work, how do you [unclear] your counter, and wrote that. And so, and I had a great deal of success with that book and I’m still proud of it. But, you know, I was, people thought I had my life together, and I really didn’t. And I didn’t even portray it that way in the book. Like, I’ve always kind of been a little bit of a mess. But, you know, I was also in that place where, you know, in your in your early 30s and you’re like, all right, well, I have done the career thing, I guess I got to get married, I guess I got to have kids. That’s a logical order of things. There’s boxes to be checked. So, you know, I went ahead and got married even though I knew I shouldn’t. And but I just had like, what looked to be from the outside this fairly glamorous, great life, and that in no way reflected where I was internally. But I felt the need to keep up that appearance.
Ana Marie Cox: And it’s here, I think I just want to put a note in about privilege, which you, which you talk about a little bit in your book?
Kelly Williams Brown: Oh, yes. Yes.
Ana Marie Cox: And it may be a little bit of a thread here, but since we were mentioning how well off you looked from the outside and the privileges you had . . .
Kelly Williams Brown: That is absolutely very important to say. I am privileged in so many ways. I am a white cis female who was born to middle class parents and was always expecting to go to college. I did. Had, you know, a lot of privilege in terms of, you know, not necessarily financial support, but I’ve always had a good kinship network. And the things that happened to me, I want to be clear, they’re just sort of run of the mill bad human things that happen. And, you know, like everyone, I’ve had some real trauma, like from New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, that was a bummer. But the main privilege, I would say, that I don’t have is good mental or even necessarily physical health. I think a big part of my book, or a big point of it, rather, is that you can have good health insurance, you can have family and friends who support you, you can have what seems to be everything, and it is still so hard to get care. We have decimated our social safety network, and for someone in my seat to see firsthand how decimated it is, and how we do not take mental health seriously, and how people slip through the cracks so, so easily, and how close we all are to slipping in a way that I think we don’t really acknowledge to ourselves. I mean, those are all things that need to be fixed.
Ana Marie Cox: Yes, let us get to the somewhat ordinary, but still a real bummer events.
Kelly Williams Brown: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
Ana Marie Cox: I made a list and I just want you let me know . . .
Kelly Williams Brown: A list is, a list is good. Yeah. [unclear]
Ana Marie Cox: I love lists, I am so into lists. And so I’m just going to go through them and then we can maybe talk about some of them individually. I think some of them are somewhat self-explanatory. But OK, I think this is a mostly chronological order too. All right. You got divorced.
Kelly Williams Brown: It was a bummer.
Ana Marie Cox: You broke your arm.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yes.
Ana Marie Cox: Trump became president.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yes.
Ana Marie Cox: You broke your other arm.
Kelly Williams Brown: So I would actually, just a quick clarification, which is that I broke the elbow and then I fractured and dislocated the shoulder. But they thought I was pill-seeking at the hospital, so they kicked me out. So it was broken and dislocated for three days, which is not best practices when it comes to dislocated shoulders. And then the next day Trump was inaugurated. So I was just lying in bed. I didn’t have any arms. I was like, wow, what a metaphor. What a painful metaphor this is.
Ana Marie Cox: Your cat dies.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yes.
Ana Marie Cox: The world breaks out in climate related catastrophes and several of them are near you or have emotional connections to you.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yes.
Ana Marie Cox: Your grandmother dies.
Kelly Williams Brown: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
Ana Marie Cox: Your dad is diagnosed with cancer.
Kelly Williams Brown: Right.
Ana Marie Cox: Your meds make you manic.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yeah, I was sent into what’s called a mixed state where I was, I had no inhibitions or impulse control, but was still deeply depressed. So that’s a great, great place to be.
Ana Marie Cox: Yes, I feel you. I really do. I’ve been there.
Kelly Williams Brown: Oh, sorry.
Ana Marie Cox: And then last on the list but this is one of the things I want to talk about: you are left by your chosen family.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yeah, when I was in the hospital after my one and only suicide attempt, I didn’t really know how to articulate that grief. And then somebody said catastrophic loss of chosen family and I was like, oh, that’s yeah, that’s way better than what I was saying, which is like, my friends don’t like me anymore. Why am I wracked with grief and unable to envision my life without these people? And then once that was said, I was, I gave myself permission to actually grieve that, because I think the loss of friendship, especially female friendship, is something we don’t really have a script for and we’re very ashamed of, in a way that we have scripts for helping people through lots of things.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, there’s grief. There is real grief.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: That comes with that. That’s one of the things I’m glad you elaborated on because that’s one of the things I wanted to kind of get into, because I think you’re right that we treat friendship so casually in this culture right now. I think we might be somewhat promiscuous with our friendship—that’s not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.
Kelly Williams Brown: Right.
Ana Marie Cox: And then we leave those friends. And for some people it matters more than others. But I think it is a loss. So . . .
Kelly Williams Brown: It’s definitely a loss. And I think it’s it’s hard because, you know, with with a romantic relationship, you never assume like, well, now we’re together, it’s going to be easy, we’re never going to have to work on conflict, we’re never going to have to say difficult things to each other. There’s not going to be any kind of situation where we grow apart, we’re just going to be friends till we die. And if we’re not, that means that I’m not good at being a friend, which for some reason feels like a really damning thing to say or acknowledge about yourself.
Ana Marie Cox: And I guess the reason why the word ‘promiscuous’ occurred to me about this is because you don’t break up officially a friendship. There is not a thing where someone says to you, I’m not your friend anymore, and instead—
Kelly Williams Brown: Well, sometimes!
Ana Marie Cox: Well OK, sometimes. But I think for me it’s happened just in this, it’s more of a ghosting.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yes. A slow fade for sure. For sure. Because and again, like because sometimes we just lack the willingness to b, to say something like, hey, you did this and it really upset me, I didn’t like that, you know. But with the assumption that, like, the relationship is strong enough to live through that.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah. The other thing that I wanted to talk about as something that people might not expect to be on, that list of things that that were part of your 700 days of shit is the climate catastrophe part.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: So there’s not a ton of research on this, but I looked around and there are studies that suggest that exposure to an extreme weather event causes ongoing mental health issues, including higher suicide rates. It was Hurricane Katrina was one of the studies I looked at. And the suicide rates for Katrina survivors are not good.
Kelly Williams Brown: No.
Ana Marie Cox: And then there are ripple effects for those who are not directly affected necessarily. And that is via something you’d expect, just friends and family, but also a more generalized sense of loss and hopelessness.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yeah, and also the inability to watch Ponyo or Aquaman in the theaters, because waves scare you—just a lighter side effect. You know, there’s so much well-earned despair around climate change. And, you know, I want to be clear that I had evacuated, I was not in New Orleans for the actual event, although I returned not too long after. And you know, one thing that was really triggering for me during these bad days is Hurricane Harvey in Houston, which really spectacularly flooded my other childhood neighborhood. And so once again, it was these images of water filling streets that I knew and being like, oh, is that Ashley, I think that’s Ashley Lawson’s old house. And it really you know, I’m not the only one in the world for sure that feels such a sense of fatalism about this, and such an incredible powerlessness. I can recycle every single thing, I can cut down on my electricity, but I, I can’t solve it, and no one can. And that’s led to, I think, a pretty reasonable fatalism, particularly among Gen Z folk.
Ana Marie Cox: And they’re—sorry.
Kelly Williams Brown: No, please, go ahead.
Ana Marie Cox: Well, I was going to say that there is Hurricane Harvey and then also the fires that were relatively near you and affected places that you knew.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yes. Yeah. And interestingly enough, ever since then, or since then, last year, right around this time, there was a really terrible wildfire that was burning within, I think it got to within 16 miles of my house. And the sky was dark during the daytime and you couldn’t breathe inside without an air filter. Our air quality index was like the worst in the world for a few days there. And to experience these new things, having gone through many, many Oregon summers, and never before having ash fall on your car, being able to not breathe outside, you know, having the state fairgrounds open to refugees and to have, you know, be offering your home up. Again, it’s a, it’s a feeling of powerlessness and a feeling of despair. And I feel like a lot of what I do just in my day-to-day is to say the world is terrible and for, and we’re all living in hell world and I cannot fix it, so how do I cultivate a sense of contentment and peace within myself that allows me to change the things that I can?
Ana Marie Cox: I guess I just want to affirm the climate change piece of this a little more, because another thing that that can do is take away the things that comfort you. You know, like I mentioned, you loved some of those places in Oregon that were on fire.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yeah. I, I did. And I do. And you will drive through areas that used to be this like exquisite, lush green forest, you know, and you’re just winding through the forest, through the mountain pass and now it’s incredibly bleak. Everything is brown. I remember just a few days ago I was going over to Bend, which is over the mountains, a lovely little town, and I finally got out of the burned area and was in pretty forest for a few moments. And I thought, oh, this is so lovely, you know, maybe the other forest will be back. And then I got over the mountains and right into like one-mile visibility, wildfire, smoke. And it was like, well, this is peachy. Great. Love this. And it’s even you know, I don’t know if this is a relatable feeling for people or not, but I’m from New Orleans and I love New Orleans. And every single day I think about living in New Orleans. And I think, why don’t I live in New Orleans? Life is short, it’s the only place I want to be. And then I remind myself that New Orleans is probably going to be gone in my lifetime. And to live in New Orleans is to suffer a collective trauma after collective trauma in the forms of hurricanes and oil spills and, and my relationship with New Orleans has probably brought me more pain than any single relationship in my life, because I love it so much and I cannot save it.
Ana Marie Cox: And I think people probably understand why Trump is on the list, but I want to talk about it a little anyway, the terrible things that happened, and talking about, you know, shared trauma, perhaps.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yeah. And in that first—the whole thing was batshit crazy, I wouldn’t describe any bit of the Trump presidency as non-batshit crazy. And I don’t say that in terms of, like, referring to anyone as being mentally ill so much as the effect I feel like it had on all of us.
Ana Marie Cox: Right.
Kelly Williams Brown: In terms of feeling that up is down, and left is right, and who knows what’s going to—like any given moment, anything could happen. And that feeling of just that, I felt like I knew what my country was and how the presidency worked and, you know—not certainly not all great—but I thought I kind of knew. And it was sort of very similar to feelings that I was having within myself. Like, I thought I knew what I was. I thought I knew what my life was. And then those things just completely unraveled. And if you’ve never had no arms, I cannot recommend it. But through some interesting quirks of like how I fractured the shoulder, there was like a question of like, well, does Kelly have a brain tumor that’s gone into her bones? And it just felt so on the nose, like, wow, really bad things are happening, that I had no idea about. I don’t. And he’s no longer the president, and both of these things are very nice.
Ana Marie Cox: I did want to do some uplift for a second here because we have more, we have more dark shit to talk about.
Kelly Williams Brown: Oh, my gosh. I always feel so bad. I mean, I tried so hard to not make the book, like to make the book funny and to see what’s funny about these things, because there were some very funny things.
Ana Marie Cox: Yes! I agree. I totally agree.
Kelly Williams Brown: I absolutely must laugh at tragedy. So if you’re out there and listening, it’s not as much of a bummer, I don’t think, as it sounds. Or it is? I don’t know. You read it. I just wrote it.
Ana Marie Cox: I would say it is, oh, God, how do you say this about a book that does affect you, right?
Kelly Williams Brown: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: Like you will feel things if you read this book, and not all of it is, like, happy, fun feelings, but I don’t think the book leaves you in a dark place. In fact, it does the opposite. So now let’s talk about some of the lighter moments in the book.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yes!
Ana Marie Cox: Crafting,
Kelly Williams Brown: Crafting.
Ana Marie Cox: Crafting. So I first want to know, like, were you crafty during your good times before this? Was crafting something that you enjoyed, you know, apart from stabilizing your mental health?
Kelly Williams Brown: Oh, yes, yes, yes. I’ve always been a crafter. I learned crafting kind of from my grandmother. Not the one who died—she died previously—but who was really my favorite person on Earth. And it’s always been something that I really has been a go-to. Like, I’m very ADHD and having something in my fingers allows me to actually slow my brain down and focus even while I’m doing something else. Like, for example, you don’t know this, but as we have been chitchatting, I have been making lucky paper stars because it allows me to kind of really zoom in on what’s happening and not go to my mind palace and whatever useless thoughts it might have to offer up. So, yes, I definitely do craft. It’s something that brings me joy. I’m not good at it. And I want to be very clear, like they’re legitimately talented people out there and then there’s people who make sort of, I would say, like maybe a talented fifth grader level of craft. And I’m definitely more on that side than something you would purchase in a market. I will say that crafts do really calm and quiet my mind and when I am anguished, if I pick up a simple craft to do that I know really well, and I turn on 30 Rock or something, you know, sometimes when things are really terrible, it’s just passing the time until they’re not terrible, it’s just being able to sit there and, you know, not elect to do heroin, not like, you know, fuck someone you shouldn’t, not elect to hurt yourself.
Ana Marie Cox: Call someone you shouldn’t.
Kelly Williams Brown: Exactly Oh, there’s so many bad decisions to make. And I love making them. I love making a bad decision!
Ana Marie Cox: You say something in the book that is a mantra for me. Like it’s a thing that I discovered in sobriety and it keeps me going like all the time, which is: tomorrow will be different.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yes.
Ana Marie Cox: It may not be better. But it will be different.
Kelly Williams Brown: But you never have to live today again. Fresh shit, perhaps, but not this shit.
Ana Marie Cox: What fresh hell is this?
Kelly Williams Brown: What awaits tomorrow? What could be around that bend?
Ana Marie Cox: Well, you know what, that’s actually kind of an uplifting thought. I think sometimes when I tell people that and I say the part about it may not be better, but it’ll be different, they’re like, well, that’s kind of, you know, like a pessimistic outlook. And I’m like, oh, no, you don’t understand. Like, just different. Like, it will be it, will feel slightly different, which, you know, spreading the pain around even, that, that helps.
Kelly Williams Brown: You know, OK, so despite having written a book that certainly at times is a bummer, I, I am actually a really sunny and fairly optimistic person and so my general outlook is like, wow, that was terrible, but something great is going to happen tomorrow. Like what if tomorrow is the day that I like, just randomly see a toucan? I love toucans. Wouldn’t that be great, you know, and both accepting that to be alive and to be human is to experience pain and suffering—like, it sucks, but like bad things are going to happen—like I’m knocking on wood here—someday my mom will die, someday my dog will die. Neither of those should happen in a just universe, but they’re going to. But on the upside, I have a delicious pie in my future, at least one, probably many. And I have the experience of meeting someone new and clicking with them and being like, oh my gosh, this is so great, you know? And I have the experience of going and seeing a place that I’ve probably never even imagined. And I have the experience of reading funny stuff or discovering a new movie or a book that I love and just realizing that there’s the big scary things but there’s so many little good things in between. And, I think it was Socrates who said the secret to happiness is not to seek more, but to enjoy less. And I have really found that in my life that if I can be absolutely psyched to see the little tiny birds hop around, I have a, I’m sitting at my desk, I have a window right out there, and lots of birds have created what I call Bird City USA out there, which is just a bird feeder and a bird bath. They don’t use the bird bath. But if I can really enjoy that, enjoy the hell out of it, then that makes me think, OK, global warming, that’s very bad, but these birds are great.
Ana Marie Cox: And what’s interesting about depression is the inability to form any of those thoughts.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yes.
Ana Marie Cox: They just, that muscle just goes away.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yeah, yeah. It’s, it’s a very strange thing for me to just not care about anything. And you don’t, I mean, you don’t even really care as much about the bad things because you’re like, yeah, that makes, yeah, sure.
Ana Marie Cox: Right. Of course.
Kelly Williams Brown: I, I have read in a lot of places, and I certainly found this to be true in my life—I’m curious how you feel—that people who are really depressed are really anxious, actually did kind of better during the pandemic because finally the outside world matched up with our expectations. [laughs] Which, you know, I’d spent the whole Trump presidency thinking something really catastrophic that’s going to kill hundreds of thousands of people is going to happen, and then when I was like, yep. I don’t like it, but this is about what I expected the whole time and here we are.
Ana Marie Cox: Yes, I think that was my experience. I also, I am mostly an introvert that can play extrovert.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yes. I’m the same.
Ana Marie Cox: So being at home all the time is kind of like my thing. Like . . .
[together] I love it.
Ana Marie Cox: I love being at home. Why, I mean, going out, you kind of have to drag me sometimes. So I didn’t suffer as much in that. And also, yes, I think, it’s not so much that the outside matched up with my insides, it’s I had a lot of the tools that other people had to develop on the fly, already.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yes.
Ana Marie Cox: And some of that’s sobriety. But all of it are the tools I developed to get through the worst periods of my life that only affected me.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yes. And there was also something and again, I want to acknowledge my tremendous fucking privilege that I had during this quarantine, which is that I had a comfortable, safe place to live. I didn’t have kids, which seemed to make a huge, huge difference. I did not, I could work from home. I stayed employed. You know, I had a lot of ways that, you know, it was, it could, I’m in the ideal situation for this. But I also yeah, I think just what you said and, you know, when people say, I’m sorry, all these things happen to you, I’m like, well, I’m not, because it made me really good at being a human. It made me really good at living in my own skin and kind of enduring through some things that would perhaps ahead of time, like had you described all of them in order and explained that all of this is going to happen in like 14 to 15 months, I would have said no, thank you, where is the nearest train? I need to go take a leap real quick, you know? But I didn’t. And now, almost no matter what happens to me, I know that I have the capacity to get through kind of unimaginable things. And I think that an unexpected gift I think a lot of us are getting during the pandemic is sort of a realization of our own resilience and our own ability to feel like you can’t get up in the morning and then get up anyway. As my mom put it, it’s one big AFGO, which is another fucking growth opportunity.
Ana Marie Cox: Yes, I love, I needed that acronym. Yes. Thank you. So you know we were talking about our resilience after having this stuff happen, but let’s go back to when you didn’t have those tools and one of your tools was indeed crafting. And you said you’ve always been a crafter. And I wonder, you know, did you realize, like, how important it had, it was going to be to you or that it became to you, or was it you just kind of started making things with your hands and then came to realize this is really important and I have to keep doing it.
Kelly Williams Brown: You know, I’ve crafted since I was very young, you know, and I’ve gone through intense love affairs with a particular craft where that craft is all I will do for months and months and months. And then it’s like, OK, well, now I know how to make linocut prints and I have not made one sense, but I could do it if I wanted to. And I think some part of my little tiny child brain realized before I knew about mindfulness, before I could even sort of articulate my own suffering or otherness to myself, that doing something with my fingers calmed my mind down. And it doesn’t have to be crafting, if I were a different person, this could be easy gardening for the insane, or easy cooking for the insane, or easy jogging for the insane—it doesn’t matter what it is. I think we all have things and they are physical things, things that sort of shut down that constant stupid churn of your brain, where it’s coming up with judgments and mean things and cruel memories and bad thoughts and anxiety about the future and bad predictions—I don’t know about you, I have never once successfully predicted the future yet, and yet I still continue to each and every day—and it takes you out of that cycle a little bit and it takes you to a slightly different place where you’re really focused, you’re really in the moment, you’re using your body, you’re using your brain and like this sort of practical way. And if you will allow me a brief detour and feel free to cut this if you’d like. So my grandmother was a Zen Buddhist and I, she wouldn’t tell me about it because she’s like, well, you just have to read about it to figure out if you’re into it, which is a very Zen thing to do. But I did inherit all her Zen books. And one thing that really stuck out to me was someone saying, you know, we have two kinds of thoughts and one of them is a useless thought and the other kinds of useful thoughts. And let’s say you have to clean an oven. The useless kind of thoughts are, I hate cleaning the oven. This is disgusting. Why do I have to do this? Couldn’t my partner do this? Why did I wait so long to do this? Is this gross cooked-on cheese, can I pay someone, can I get—you know what I mean on and on and on. And then the useful thought is first I’m going to open the oven, then I’m going to take the oven cleaner. I’m going to carefully apply it as directed, then close—you know what I mean? Like, that’s real step by step thing. And I think when you can take yourself out of that swirling mass and put yourself more in a step-by-step kind of useful thought place where you’re not making judgments, you know, which always to me end up being like, so what, of course you don’t want to clean the oven. No one wants to clean the oven. But they do it anyway. And I think crafting gets me to that place.
Ana Marie Cox: We’ve been talking so generally about crafting. I do feel we need to give people at least a tiny preview. I want to talk, because I want to talk real specific about it later.
Kelly Williams Brown: Please.
Ana Marie Cox: .But just rattle off a list if you want, like the kinds of things you were doing during this period.
Kelly Williams Brown: Sure. So my big thing was lucky paper stars, which I have an entire bowlful of back here. I’ve probably made 10,000 of these. They look like candy, like they look at the little puffy star you make it out of a long strip of paper. And it’s frustrating at first and then once you do it, you can really do it very easily. Like I think I’ve made about 15 during our interview thus far. And that’s really a total turn-off-your mind kind of thing. I have always loved to do calligraphy and lettering, and that’s another thing that is just practice, practice, practice. Like, you just need to make that oval perfect. You need to keep the line height right. I talk about Shrinky Dink charm bracelets. Shrinky Dinks are super fun. And I made, you can learn how to make a bad decision charm bracelet off your very own. That reflects, as I mentioned, some of my favorite bad decisions. I have also some things that I call brain crafts in there, which are sort of little things that I’ve worked out to calm my brain down or like if you were about to make a bad decision or how to calm a visceral middle of the night panic—yeah, the crafts are simple, I would say. Although with the origami, I’m always going to recommend—there’s a lot of origami because I’m a total origami dork—for that you probably will want to watch a YouTube video. It’s very hard to learn origami by looking at it, or like in my case, you know, in my elementary school, we had we had a lot of kids who had moved from Japan for a couple of years so their moms would all come in and teach us origami. So if you don’t have a patient, lovely Japanese mother to slowly instruct you, then YouTube is going to be your best, second best bet.
Ana Marie Cox: This will probably not shock you in any way, but one of the things that I observed when I was in rehab: everyone crafts. Everyone picks up crafting.
Kelly Williams Brown: Oh, yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: Like the number, and I would talk to counselors about it and they said it kind of, you can see trends. Like one season, everyone will knit, right?
Kelly Williams Brown: Really!?
Ana Marie Cox: And then like another season, people learn to play guitar. I was like, why wasn’t I in that season?
Kelly Williams Brown: Oh, I’m so relieved. I was, nothing troubles me more than an acoustic guitar, but to each their own.
Ana Marie Cox: And then I was there for part of a nail art like trend like, all the people got really into nail art. And then my mom was in rehab and she must have been in an origami phase, because when I was there, she sent me origami paper. So, yeah, people needing to distract themselves for sure, going through their own version of both quarantine and depression. So, crafts.
Kelly Williams Brown: Craft it up. You know, if you’re somewhere with not that much to do with your time, and not that many choices to make, you can make a little a craft choice.
Ana Marie Cox: Yep. Let’s talk a little bit about bipolar disorder. You were diagnosed with bipolar too, samesies. We’ve already discussed that. And I wonder, you know, do you think that you’re, what people would see as your natural, like, creativity and desire to do big projects and maybe having a lot of energy to do those product projects, do you think that maybe slightly disguised the disorder for you?
Kelly Williams Brown: So, it’s interesting. I am not 100% sure whether I have—I certainly have ADHD—but whether I have unipolar depression and ADHD, or bipolar depression and ADHD. Something I learned was that for a lot of women, what can look like mania could actually be the hyper focus of ADHD or what could look like hyper focus of ADHD could actually be a mania. So it’s hard to tell. I still don’t know. I’m never going to know 100% for sure. And something that was really hard to look at is that, you know, sometimes I do get into this tremendous creative place where I’m just writing and writing, or I’m doing ambitious art. Yeah, and I’m like, you know, doing my home and decorating my home, and during those times I feel really so in my zone, so in my place, like so very myself and almost a little bit magical in a way. And it was really painful to think that that state of myself, which I so treasure and does feel unique for me, might actually be a manifestation of mental illness. Like that was a mind fuck.
Ana Marie Cox: You know, I’ve had pretty much the exact same experience, in terms of having a part of me that seemed to occasionally come forward, like, almost like a, I don’t, it was still me, but it’s like I almost could feel like a physical, like something rising to the surface. Like it’s me . . .
Kelly Williams Brown: Interesting.
Ana Marie Cox: Buy yeah, maybe me plus, you know? It’s me deluxe. Yeah and for me also, that would be periods of like incredible sociability. Like I would be like, yes, let’s meet people, you know, which is normally kind of odd for me, but also something that as a journalist like you can do that thing and people don’t ask any questions, like if you’re just going around asking people questions and meeting people. And I would have periods of all this creativity. I have written more like book proposals.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yes.
Ana Marie Cox: I have an idea for a book, wait, I have this idea for a book. Like that’s, like, you know, lots of those. And I do feel good in these periods and if people are going to hear this maybe and think, well, why couldn’t, how could that not be a sign to you that something was wrong. But like you said, magical. I would say untouchable.
Kelly Williams Brown: Oh, interesting.
Ana Marie Cox: Like the bad feelings fall away. So that incredible feeling that I’ve had on and off, you know, most of my life, yes, to be told that might be a manifestation of a mental illness . . . you know, I just managed to turn that around somehow. Like, for me, the diagnosis was like, oh, well, that explains it. Like, that’s who I am and now I know in what ways I’m different.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yes, and you know, I’ve always felt that regardless of whether it’s mental health or physical health, if it seems like something has been wrong for a long time and sort of a constellation of things that you can’t logically connect and then you finally get a good doctor and they say, you know, this is what’s happening, even if what’s happening is very bad and not what you wanted, it feels good to know. But, you know, one thing, one group I should say that I really take a lot of inspiration from is the autism community who has done such a great job of saying nothing is wrong with me. My brain is different. My brain does some things really, really well, some things it doesn’t do as well, I think that can be said of literally every human, even non-brain things. Some of us are great jumpers, some of us are not, you know? And not necessarily assigning a value judgment to it. And I love my brain. I think I have a great brain. I would not trade my brain to someone else’s, but I do need to take care of it the way, the best that I can. And I also need to not ever use it as an excuse to be shitty to other people. You know, for me, one thing that has helped me really prioritize keeping myself well is that, yes, when I’m depressed, I’m hurting, but I’m also hurting people around me, and I don’t want to do that, you know? And even if maybe I, it’s worth my mom’s feelings, you know what I mean, to make sure that I’m not in a dark place.
Ana Marie Cox: So I want to continue the conversation but we do have sponsors to hear from. So let’s take a quick.
Ana Marie Cox: OK, so we’re talking during National Suicide Prevention Week. And I know we are both survivors, and I don’t want to dwell on it, and I want to talk about solutions. But could you just tell us what you think is important to know about your attempt?
Kelly Williams Brown: Sure, the first thing and I’ve certainly alluded to this before, is that although I have been depressed for quite some time, I had not, you know, a suicide attempt, suicidality was not really ever a part of my story, even when things had been pretty bleak. And I was put on an antidepressant. And, you know, how like mania and suicide are always listed as side effects but then so is everything else, like that psychosis and random throw ups. You know, like every med you take, it has such a warning list. But that’s what happened. It didn’t cure my depression, but, you know, you talked about something rising within you. I felt like I was in a car that had just like was accelerating. And I had so many ideas and I had so many thoughts but also I was still in this place of grief at the loss of these two very close friendships and in a relationship that was not healthy. Looking back, I think if you’d asked me that day, are you suicidal? I’d have said no, absolutely not. But if you had asked me, have you sort of been passively contemplating for months how someone—not you, not you—but just someone who lived in your house with access to the things in your house, how they could effectively kill themselves? I would have said, well, maybe sure. Who doesn’t? Who doesn’t think about that? That’s just, you know, that is something you do. And like most suicide attempts and most suicides, the timing—and this is what truly terrifies me and chills me—is the time between thought and action was so brief. I had a really painful, bad night, a big fight with the boyfriend. He’d gone upstairs, I was just crying and crying downstairs, and then boop! Just made a choice. And you know, I forget who it was who you were speaking with, but someone, a suicide prevention expert, talked about building a life worth living. The things that I have done for prevention is that I have built a life that is worth living. I have built a kinship network here in town that’s not just like, OK, I can hang out with these two or three people and otherwise I am too anxious to talk to anyone. It’s like, no, I’ve made friends with all of my neighbors. We have a group neighbor text. And I know that, like, if anything was going wrong, there’s people close to me that are here that I could call. I have done things to get really involved in my community. You know, for a while I had a Girl Scout troop—it’s still iffy with COVID. I have an outdoor trivia night. I have realized that for me, working at home alone is never going to work. I can just never be a stay at home writer, because I need to have that structure in my life where I get up and I put on clothes and I put on makeup and I go to the office. It’s really a challenge that my work is still remote, but I still try to keep all those structures in place for myself and even go into the office sometimes, even if it’s just me there. And I’ve built a really good mental health care team that I intend to stay with for as long as they can. I found a psychiatrist who’s young. He’s a little bit older than me. He can be my psychiatrist for the rest of my life, you know? And so I think, you know, that is the real, the real tips that I have is to build a network before you need a network. And keep it strong and prioritize it. And connect yourself to other people.
Ana Marie Cox: Your description of building a life worth living is so beautiful, and I do think that we need global approaches to suicide prevention, but you also have some really specific instructions in your book. You have a list that may sound to people that it’s just about making trivial, bad decisions. But I would say, it’s a good list no matter what kind of bad decision you’re looking at.
Kelly Williams Brown: Absolutely. I mean, and yeah, this this can be for small, bad decisions, this can be for big, bad decisions. When you’re about to make a bad decision, you know it’s a bad decision. You know, that you shouldn’t, right? But you really want to. And so what I try to do is set a timer for ten minutes and I will say, you know—and usually this is for lower-stakes stuff, like texting that person you shouldn’t text or smoking a cigarette if you haven’t smoked in months and you’ve been really good—I’ll set that timer and during that time, I tell myself if I still want to do it at the end of the ten minutes, I can do it. But let’s spend this ten minutes thinking about other things that we might do instead, like instead of texting the thought to that person, could I text this to a good friend? Or instead of having that cigarette, can I remove myself from the situation and go chew on a straw? And I think building in that little bit of extra time to contemplate what you’re about to do, and say is this really what I want to do? Is this what I want to have done tomorrow, not right now—can help a lot.
Ana Marie Cox: See, people might hesitate to apply that to something as momentous as self-harm.
Kelly Williams Brown: Mm hmm.
Ana Marie Cox: But that’s basically what you learn getting sober too. Like, which is I mean, a grievous form of self-harm is, you know, picking up your drug of choice again.
Kelly Williams Brown: Right. Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: And setting the fucking timer. Just, and then in AA, we do say and if you still want to drink at the end of the ten minutes, we’ll set the timer again.
Kelly Williams Brown: That’s actually probably a better thing. But I have to tell myself that I’m going to make a choice and I get to choose, but let’s just press pass. And more often than not, at the end that ten minutes, you know, you still might want to do it, but hopefully the impulse has passed. Hopefully I’ve turned on a 30 Rock episode.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, let’s talk about these, these—they’re not interventions necessarily—but the other tools like crafting. And you know what? Familiar TV that makes me feel like I’m hanging out with my friends, you know, but not the show “Friends.” I do not like the show friends. But 30 Rock? Oh Liz Lemon, hi! You know?
Kelly Williams Brown: Yes!
Ana Marie Cox: Say, Jack, let’s hang out for a little while. And you talk about Bob’s Burgers.
Kelly Williams Brown: Absolutely. And Bob’s Burgers is so key. I absolutely love Bob’s Burgers. If you’re not a Bob’s Burgers fan, if you’ve tried it and you’re like, oh, it’s not that funny. You just have to watch like—and I hate when people say this—but you have to watch it for a little while to really get into it. But, you know, I love Bob’s so much and it is so tied to mental health for me. And I didn’t realize this, but for other people, too, as I’ve since heard. So I have a grand podcast idea called Bob’s and Sob’s, where someone comes on and talks about their favorite Bob’s episode and then afterwards we talk about, OK, besides just watching Bob’s Burgers, what are our mental health strategies?
Ana Marie Cox: I, you know what? I mean, everyone has a podcast.
Kelly Williams Brown: Everyone has a podcast.
Ana Marie Cox: Everyone has a podcast. I don’t mean this, what I mean is your dream is easy to achieve. Like, it doesn’t have to be just a dream.
Kelly Williams Brown: But do we need more podcasts? I think we got a lot of podcasts. I think we’re probably good on podcasts for now. But, yes, exactly what you were saying. And sometimes transporting yourself to a world that is different than the one you’re in right now, that you find familiar and comfortable, and just, you know, it’s just, sometimes we have to get, we all want ways to get out of our heads sometimes. Because our heads can be very gruesome places to be, unfortunately. And there’s better ways to do that and there’s worse ways to do that and let’s choose the better way.
Ana Marie Cox: So another interesting tool in your arsenal is your altar.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yes.
Ana Marie Cox: Tell us about your altar. That’s also a craft that you suggest.
Kelly Williams Brown: It is a craft, and I love my altar. It’s right over here out of view. So I don’t have a higher power, I have a council of higher powers. And it’s anyone sort of on the ethereal plane that I feel would have my best interests at heart or be rooting for me. So it includes everything, it does include God, it includes the Buddha, it includes Saint Francis and St. Anthony and St. Ignatius Loyola and includes my granny Barb and some ancestors who are gone, it includes a photo of Texas Governor Ann Richards, it covers the waterfront. And so I have all these little things on there that are the people I think are kind of rooting for me, and also some little things that remind me of the things I love in life, there’s some things that represent beloved pets of the past. And I arrange it and it’s just a place that I can go. I don’t sit there every day. I don’t have a special practice with it. But when I’m really in trouble, I will go and I will say: hey, everyone, you know what I should do, what should I do? And sometimes I don’t get anything back. Sometimes I get something that really does feel like it’s coming from outside myself. And sometimes I get something from within myself. And to me having all that specialness together in one place sort of reminds me that I’m the same person through space and time, like the same way that like listening to a song that I loved when I was 15 did. And it also reminds me that the scope of my life is so much bigger than what I’m feeling at any given moment.
Ana Marie Cox: So one thing we haven’t talked about is it crafting is pretty gendered, I think.
Kelly Williams Brown: Yes, I think so too.
Ana Marie Cox: We could have a whole other show, another hour-long conversation about why that is and whether it’s a good thing. I want to plan on having that conversation. But for now, I just want to ask you, have you heard from men or non-binary people about crafting and mental health?
Kelly Williams Brown: It’s interesting, so I have actually, a strange and surprising demographic for this book has been straight cis men, which I did not see coming. I think a lot of times for them, they might think of crafting in a slightly different way, like it might be like a woodworking or, you know?
Ana Marie Cox: It is the word perhaps and not the activity, that’s more gendered.
Kelly Williams Brown: It is. It is. Yeah. And you know, and then there’s also a question of like what is craft versus what is art? And what do, how do we categorize that, and not being gendered as well. So I have definitely heard from some guys who like crafting, as we, you know, tend to define it. But, you know, again, I don’t, it doesn’t have to be crafts. I think it’s just doing something in the real world with your body, you know? And I think everyone can relate to that and can relate to the need to have something that you do that you’re not attached to the outcome, it’s just about doing it.
Ana Marie Cox: Another thing I love about the solution of crafts, though, and I think I am specifically talking about crafts, although you could name other things that fit the category I’m about to describe, which is that it is such a low bar to entry.
Kelly Williams Brown: Oh, yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: It’s relatively cheap and often easy. So I wanted to ask as it’s kind of we close our conversation, what is your advice to the would-be crafter? You know, where should they start?
Kelly Williams Brown: Well, I will say lucky paper stars are cute and they are easy and you can get very cute paper star strips off either any Japanese stationery store or a certain giant online retailer that pervades everything, widely available. And those are really fun things to get started with. Origami again is very tidy. You just need the paper. But the main thing I would say about any anyone who wants to do crafts who’s new at it, is I think a lot of times we have, like I said, these outcome-based expectations of I’m going to try it and I’m going to be great at it, and if I try it and I’m not great at it, that means I’m a bad crafter. And the truth is, is that there is so much satisfaction in becoming better and better and realizing also that when it, when it comes to my art, generally, I don’t put a lot of stake in my feelings about it afterwards because—you know, and a friend said this to me once—but, you know, sometimes I make it and I really like it, and then I don’t like it later, or I make it and I hate it and then later I think it’s great, you know? And that’s not really, that’s not why I did it. And so you’re going to have to push through some frustration and pushing through the frustration itself is part of the reward, because you will look back at the first things you did and then you will look eight months later at how good you are, and you will think, wow, I really did it there, didn’t I? And now I can make something cool.
Ana Marie Cox: Kelly, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Kelly Williams Brown: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. I’m glad to be here.
Ana Marie Cox: So many beautiful and practical ideas from Kelly. I want to thank her for coming on the show. And, you know, I feel better. And that may or may not be because I’m holding up a tiny paper star right now. Do whatever activity makes you happy. And if you’re in crisis, you have resources. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 800 273-8255. You can also send a text message to the crisis text line at 741741. There are suicide prevention and mental health groups that help veterans, sexual assault survivors, LGBTQ folks, and people of color, and more. Lifeline and the crisis text line can help you find them. Our show is a product of Crooked Media. Andi GardnerBernstein is our new producer. We get production support from Izzy Margulies and Bill Schulz is our audio editor. Take care of yourselves.