I once had a neighbor who had a little kid I called Bam-Bam, for obvious reasons. One day I saw her reading a book called Running With Scissors, and I figured it was a self-help book for coping with the little monster. But it turned out I was wrong, as I often am. "This is a book you're going to love," she said, adding as she passed it on to me, "but I didn't really get it."
She was right; I loved it and laughed long and hard with every page. As most everyone knows by now, Augusten Burroughs' memoir Running With Scissors is a story about growing up weird in the land of the weirder; a boy whose mother gave him away to be raised by her psychiatrist who was loony as a tune and then some; he dropped out of school at the age of thirteen and went on to become a drunken ad man before deciding best-selling writer was a more sensible route to pursue.
Flash forward half a dozen best sellers later, and Augusten Burroughs has now come out with a real self-help book, as unconventional as ever and starting with the premise that self-help will only make you worse off. And damned if he doesn't deliver the most sensible self-help book you're likely to stumble upon, and that's probably because he breaks every psychobabbling rule you can imagine. In This Is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More, for Young and Old Alike, (St. Martin's Press, 2012), Burroughs reduces all the life lessons he has learned through decades of therapy, rehab, drunkenness, poverty, fame, litigation, and the relentless pursuit of sex and life-long love, to the equivalent of a hard knock on the soft skull of anyone who has ever been so caught up in their own pain that they've forgotten how to live.
But it's not a book for everyone. In fact, I dare say that most people who read this book will toss it in the fire while cursing the author for daring to suggest that AA is over-rated, it's perfectly fine to be fat so buy yourself some clothes that fit, and the happiness industry is nothing more than "side-of-the-cereal-box-psychology" that has us fooled into thinking affirmations will somehow change the way we feel when what we really need to do is stop lying to ourselves and acknowledge that we're really feeling miserable and hopeless (at least when that is how we're really feeling).
And then he gives us hope. In a million little Zen-infused chapters with goofy titles like "How to Feel Like Shit," "How to Be Fat," "How to Be Thin," and "How to Fail," Burroughs reminds us that optimism is not the stuff of affirmations, but instead, a realization that we are in control of our own lives no matter how much they suck, no matter how much injustice we've been dealt, and no matter how much the odds are stacked against us.
I know, I know, you've heard this all before. Let's face it, this kind of message sounds like something we expect to hear from Dr. Laura along with a good long dose of conservative thinking that tells us we don't deserve a social safety net and having our health care snatched out from under us is something we'll be thankful for when we're scrambling into our deathbeds and die knowing our children will be self reliant. But Burroughs doesn't go there, and that is why his message is so powerful. Because he knows that the world is soaked in injustice and lies, but before any one of us can change it, he reminds us that we have to change ourselves.
So how do we do it? According to Burroughs, we start with wiping the smiles off our faces, acknowledging our misery, wallowing in all our negative feelings, beating ourselves and our friends to death with our self-flagellating thoughts and relentless ramblings and writings, whatever it takes to really feel them -- and then we move on. We decide just how much of that stuff we really need to hang on to and how much we're better off leaving behind. We repair ourselves. We repair ourselves by being thankful, truly thankful, for what we do have in our lives and in our world, and not caring what the world outside us thinks about who we are or what we are or where we are. And when we stop caring about what the world thinks of us, about the "image" we project, when we stop playing the tape of how hopeless our reality might be -- no matter how hopeless it really, truly is -- then we discover that no matter how bad it really is, it's all okay.
Yet there's nothing Burroughs has to say in his anti-self-help self-help book that hasn't been said before. It's not a book you turn to if you're looking for something truly new. And it's not the sort of book where you're likely to be convinced of everything he's saying. You might find only one or two little things in all the book that you'll want to play around with. But those one or two little things will matter. And there's a way he has of saying it that rings truer than you've ever heard it said before, a way Burroughs has of cutting through all the high-sounding gibberish to come right down to what you've really wanted to hear all along and that makes you want to slap your knee and holler, "Hell, yeah, I'm tired of living like this! Now what's for supper? Let's make it ice cream. And turn off the damned TV. Let's go dancing." That's the sort of book it is. Which is why This Is How is the perfect book for a wretched day. And a wretched day is the perfect place to begin.