Glamour magazine’s interview with Sarah about I Smile Back came out today and is getting a lot of attention from other media. In it, Sarah addresses her own experiences with depression, which she hasn’t before this said much about during the press tour. Fans are familiar with those experiences and stories, because she wrote about them in her 2010 book. But it may be news to newbies, and other publications are spinning it like they’re revelations. Plus, the “as told to” article is written in first person, which gives it an especially compelling tone. And how about that glamorous accompanying photo!
Five years ago I got a phone call out of the blue. A writer named Amy Koppelman had heard me talking about my experience with depression on The Howard Stern Show, and she wanted me to be in the movie based on her book, I Smile Back. The story was about a suburban mother and housewife, Laney Brooks, who on paper has it all, but in reality suffers from depression and self-medicates with drugs and alcohol. I said, “Cool, yeah, sure.” It never occurred to me that the movie would actually get made. For that to happen, it would have to have a star attached to it, right?
Three years later I got an email saying, “It’s happening, we got the funding!” I replied-all: “Yay!” And then I collapsed on the floor of my bathroom, shaking. What had I done? I knew playing Laney Brooks would take me back to a very dark place.
I first experienced depression when I was 13. I was walking off a bus from a school camping trip. The trip had been miserable: I was, sadly, a bed wetter, and I had Pampers hidden in my sleeping bag—a gigantic and shameful secret to carry. My mom was there to pick me up, and she was taking pictures like a paparazzo. Seeing her made the stress of the last few days hit home, and something shifted inside me. It happened as fast as the sun going behind a cloud. You know how you can be fine one moment, and the next it’s, “Oh my God, I f—king have the flu!”? It was like that. Only this flu lasted for three years. My whole perspective changed. I went from being the class clown to not being able to see life in that casual way anymore. I couldn’t deal with being with my friends, I didn’t go to school for months, and I started having panic attacks. People use “panic attack” very casually out here in Los Angeles, but I don’t think most of them really know what it is. Every breath is labored. You are dying. You are going to die. It’s terrifying. And then when the attack is over, the depression is still there. Once, my stepdad asked me, “What does it feel like?” And I said, “It feels like I’m desperately homesick, but I’m home.”
I went through several therapists. The first one hanged himself. Irony? Yeah. Another one kept upping my Xanax until I was taking 16 a day. Four Xanax, four times a day! I saved all the bottles in a shoe box because I thought, Well, at least if I die and they find this, they’ll know what happened. I was a zombie walking through life. And then, a few years later, my mom took me to a new psychiatrist, who got me off meds completely over the course of six months. I remember taking that last half pill at the high school water fountain and finally feeling like myself again.
And for the next six years I was myself again. I didn’t need medication; life was good! I enrolled as a drama major at New York University (I’d wanted to be a performer since I was three) and started doing open-mike nights all over the city. Then, at 22, I got hired as a writer-performer for Saturday Night Live. The whole world was open to me! But one night, sitting in my apartment watching 90210, something came over me again. Though it had been nine years, I knew the feeling immediately: depression. Panic. I’d thought it was gone forever, but it was back. My friend Mark helped me get through it. He found me a therapist at 2:00 A.M. and informed me that no, I would not be quitting SNL in the morning and moving back to New Hampshire. Instead I got a prescription for Klonopin, which blocks panic attacks. It saved my life, even when I was fired from SNL at the end of the season (as it turned out, I didn’t know myself well enough to make a real impression). I eventually weaned off Klonopin, but to this day I have a bottle of seven pills in my backpack that I never touch because just knowing that they’re there is all I need.
Since then I’ve lived with depression and learned to control it, or at least to ride the waves as best I can. I’m on a small dose of Zoloft, which, combined with therapy, keeps me healthy but still lets me feel highs and lows. The dark years and those ups and downs—chemical and otherwise—have always informed my work; I believe being a comedian is about exposing yourself, warts and all. But my stand-up has evolved along with me, from the dumb, arrogant vessel I used in my Jesus Is Magic live show and The Sarah Silverman Program to my persona in my current show, We Are Miracles, who feels more honest because she’s really just me talking.
A few years ago, I casually said something in an interview about being afraid to have kids because I might pass depression on to them, but I don’t know if I feel that way anymore. I like to think I would therapy through it (instead of helicoptering around my kids in horror that something is wrong with them, like my character Laney). A part of me is baby crazy. A part of me goes, Why not? And every day I add “Freeze eggs?” to the end of my to-do list. Then it keeps getting passed on to the next day’s list. Maybe I’ll adopt.
I do have sorrow about the possibility that I may never have my own children. And I still have downward spirals, days when I have to drag myself onstage to do stand-up or I’m just tweeting Morrissey lyrics from my bed. But there’s one thing I know that I used to not know: It will pass. And it does. Usually after 24 hours or so of wallowing in depressing music and being the Sylvia Plath of social media, a friend will reach out: “Are you OK? I saw that tweet.” And I’ll sort of snap to it, brush myself off, and get back to life. I’ve learned that keeping busy is a good thing for me. Like my mom always said, you just have to be brave enough to exist through it.
That lesson, above anything, helped me get through filming I Smile Back, which, I’m not gonna lie, was not a great 20 days. After we wrapped and I’d finally shed the heaviness of it, I was so glad I made this movie. It may not have been fun, but it was the next best thing: It was scary. That makes you grow. Besides, I’m not short on happiness in my life. I love having lunch with my friends. I love the belly laughs that come out of a writers’ room. I love taking a hot bath on a cold day. I love listening to talk radio. I love my boyfriend, and I want to spend my life with him.
I wouldn’t wish depression on anyone. But if you ever experience it, or are experiencing it right now, just know that on the other side, the little joys in life will be that much sweeter. The tough times, the days when you’re just a ball on the floor—they’ll pass. You’re playing the long game, and life is totally worth it.