Gary Gulman, MISFIT: Growing Up Awkward in the '80s

Gary Gulman, MISFIT: Growing Up Awkward in the '80s

Beloved stand-up comedian Gary Gulman joins Zibby to discuss his witty and poignant memoir, Misfit: Growing Up Awkward in the ‘80s. Gary reveals the inspiration behind this book: a major depressive episode at age 46 and a move back to his childhood home. He describes his turbulent mental health journey, his awkward moments from kindergarten to twelfth grade, and his love of laughter and comedy (which turned out to be the best antidepressant!). Finally, he shares his best advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Gary. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Misfit: Growing Up Awkward in the ’80s.

Gary Gulman: It is a pleasure. Thank you. I love talking books in general and my book in particular.

Zibby: Today is your lucky day because that’s all you have to do. I love this title so much. I grew up in the 1980s. I’m forty-seven. I was just like, how many cultural references am I going to get? How much do I feel like I’m living here? I feel such nostalgia and warm feelings about the eighties. It put me off in a good mood starting the book. Of course, then there was the book.

Gary: That makes me really happy. I’m glad.

Zibby: I want you to explain to listeners what the book is about. You use this very interesting device where you’re going back and forward in time and even choosing different fonts and showing us the depth of despair contrasted with moments of time from your upbringing. Tell listeners, why did you do it this way? Why did you decide to write the book? Just your life in general. Go ahead.

Gary: Initially, I wanted to write a book — I’ve read several times — I forget who is given credit for saying this. Write the book you would want to read. I always thought it would’ve been great to have read a book when I was growing up, and later, about people who didn’t fit in. Wherever they were, they were either marginalized or bullied or left out. I was very athletic, but I didn’t really feel comfortable around the kids who were jocks. I was a good student, but I never really felt accepted by the really smart kids in class. Then I repeated the first grade, so when I went to first grade again, I was much bigger and more mature than those kids. I didn’t fit in there. Then in Hebrew school, which I cover some in the book, I felt I wasn’t as religious or as well-off as a lot of the kids in Hebrew school. Time after time, I was left out or marginalized; in some cases, bullied. I wanted to give people something, people who were misfits growing up, and also look back on that and say, oh, I understand, I get it, and also give some people some hope that eventually, you will find your group. You will find friends. I found a spouse. Things worked out well for me. The book is set up — it was originally called K through 12. It’s a memoir of kindergarten through twelfth grade.

The reason I was thinking about all these things so extensively was that when I was forty-six years old, I had what would be called a major depressive episode in which I was hospitalized and received electroconvulsive therapy treatments. I was in a very difficult position in that I didn’t know whether I was going to be able to work as a comedian anymore. My lease was up. I didn’t have the energy to look for a new apartment, so I moved back to the home I grew up in in the seventies and the eighties with my mom. I happened to intersect with a lot of events and people that I had grown up with. This is why I had such an extensive time remembering and pining for a simpler time, but also remembering certain aspects of that simpler time that made me who I am, for better and for worse. That was the impetus for collecting all these stories. In between each chapter from my childhood and early adolescence, I reflect on this time when I was forty-six and forty-seven living at my mom’s house. That’s usually the jumping-off point for each chapter.

Zibby: I love how you say that a lot of addicts or people who are recovering hit bottom, and hitting bottom for you could not go any lower than being back with your mom in your childhood home.

Gary: I had been in the psych ward. A lot of people would say that is your bottom. No. My bottom was moving back into the twin bed I had grown up in at my mom’s house.

Zibby: You’re 6’5″ too. I’m surprised you even fit in your bed. Aren’t you 6’5″? Isn’t that what you said?

Gary: I had to sleep at an angle. My girlfriend at the time, now wife, she would visit. We would have to use the Pythagorean theorem to arrange ourselves on that bed. I usually got the hypotenuse, so I felt pretty good.

Zibby: That’s great. Geometry made cool.

Gary: That’s about chapter tenth, I believe.

Zibby: I hate to laugh and make this seem light because so much of the book was really a period of significant despair and hopelessness. You talk about suicidal ideation and a lot of really heavy themes in here. There was one passage — can I read this? Do you mind if I read a little bit?

Gary: No, I love to hear my voice.

Zibby: Here I go, then. When this comes out, you can just put it on repeat or whatever. This is one from August 2017. “I wake up and check my iPhone 7. It’s turning off and on and won’t hold a charge.” I don’t know why this happens. This happens to my phone right now. “I’m distraught. Phone trouble, computer crashes, tax returns, and insurance claims are all features of a gauntlet of quotidian stresses that in my fragile state can sabotage the momentum of being awake and send me back for more of that sweet, sweet oblivion. I owe thousands of dollars in taxes that are months overdue. I have tens of thousands of dollars in denied insurance claims from my psych ward stay, and now the phone is dead. I’ll need to spend more money than I can afford to get a new one. I have to make a trip to the Northshore Mall. When I am sick, it’s painful to interact with people at stores. I feel dumb and dependent and meek. I’m also afraid of running into people I know. They’ll ask me how I’m doing or what I’ve been up to, and I’ll either have to lie or tell them, ‘Better, I feel safe around shoelaces again, and you should see all the kitchen knives they leave out. I’m sleeping in a twin bed at my mommy’s house, but things are looking up.’ I park on the same side where my mom used to park where she worked at Murray’s. I’m anxious and self-conscious about my disheveled appearance, shorts with holes in them, wrinkled, ragged Bob Dylan T-shirt, but I’m also thinking back wistfully about how at one time when I was only eight, I was a star here, the prince of what was then called the Northshore Shopping Center.” Oh, my gosh. How’d I do? Okay?

Gary: Thank you. It’s interesting because I have two feelings. One is, oh, my gosh, how did I ever survive that horrific time period? I was so anxious and just so depressed. Then I think, wow, not only did I get out of it, I was able to discipline myself for over two and a half years to write it all down. Some things you see or hear that you created, you cringe. That didn’t sound so bad. I’m very grateful that I was able to pull that off. I was going to places that I had gone to as a child but as an adult. It was nostalgic. I would get wistful. Also, I would yearn for that innocent time when — yes, there’s many paragraphs about how popular I was with the people who worked at the mall. My mom would let me loose at the mall while she worked at this Hallmark store, greeting cards and stationary store, at the mall. It was weird because I fit in there better than I did at school. I was only eight years old, but the teenagers and some of the empty-nest moms who worked with my mom, they just adored me. It was this wonderful place that I was accepted and almost like I was a mascot.

Zibby: I think it really speaks to the collective childhood, what do you want to be when you grow up? We just all imagine ourselves to be something great or something interesting or whatever. No one ever thinks, well, I’m going to come back, and I’m going to be more upset than I am right now as a child. You have to come face to face with that. Not that you aren’t successful. You’re obviously quite successful in your ways, but I mean from an emotional standpoint, even.

Gary: That’s a great point. I think that part of the good thing of moving back home was that there were people who were — two of my friends had bought their mom’s house in our neighborhood, so I was able to visit with them. That was very helpful. Sometimes we would just sit and watch basketball games. Other times, we would go for walks. One friend had a landscaping company. I remember helping him out with clearing leaves and brush and things like that. It was very therapeutic to be back there. Also, it was a reminder of, yes, longing to escape and then finding yourself back where it all started.

Zibby: Not to dwell on the sad parts, but I was really drawn to the story of you overcoming all of that. When we enter the story, you’re basically a mess and are having trouble even getting to your therapist, which was another heartbreaking scene. You can’t even get the minimum help that you need. What happened from a depressive episode standpoint before that? Had you had smaller depressive episodes? Did this come out of nowhere? How did this come into your life?

Gary: That’s a great question that nobody has really asked me. Since I was seven, I would have these episodes. They were frequently associated with stressors in school or in sports. I would have two or three months where I was unproductive. I would say I was dragging myself through life. Things were much more difficult than they had to be. Then at about forty-five and a half, I started this episode. I kept thinking, I usually come out of these after three months. It kept going. The medicines that I had used were not helpful. Then about a year and a half or almost two years into it, my psychiatrist said, “Why don’t we admit you to the hospital? We’ll take care of you.” That started my recovery. It took a lot longer than that to actually be myself, what I would consider my best self, which is, I can be quite charming and happy and active and productive. I moved back into my mom’s in June.

About October of that year, so about two and a half years into this episode, which is eight times longer than they usually lasted, I felt myself. I’ll tell you, since then, I’ve been so healthy and also so grateful that I’ve gone out of my way to try and share this story and make people who are in the thick of it see some hope and also know that they’re not alone, that there are other people who go through this. I guess I never thought I was a person that people would say, oh, how can he be depressed? He has a lot going for him. It turns out that a lot of people feel some comfort in knowing that — this was very helpful to me — knowing that achievement or notoriety was not going to make me feel better about myself. It was chemical and biological. I couldn’t achieve my way out of my feelings. I needed to get my biology straight. There was no shame in not feeling great just because you had done some good things. That was very helpful to me. I’m very happy I’m able to pass that information along.

Zibby: It’s great. It will be so helpful. It’s just like any other disease. Your mind, you’re in this whole bad loop where you beat yourself up for feeling bad.

Gary: Exactly. Most of the diseases don’t come with that aspect where you blame yourself and beat yourself up for feeling that way.

Zibby: Or question if it’s a disease or if you’re just having a hard time.

Gary: It’s all in my head. I brought this on myself.

Zibby: I actually am on the board of an organization called the Child Mind Institute. They’re working on finding a biomarker in kids that you can tell early on if you’re prone to getting all of these things and to be on the lookout and then working on treatments for that. I find that really exciting.

Gary: Have they found a biomarker for it?

Zibby: They’re working on it. They have this whole open-source platform with all the — they’ve opened up the data, so everybody from all these different universities and organizations are working together to find what this is and how to help kids from a young age and set more people up for success.

Gary: Amazing. I think just a diagnosis or an understanding from people back then would’ve been so helpful in not blaming myself and also treating it before it became so problematic.

Zibby: Yes, true. The comedy side, while you’re going through these periods, you’re also building a stand-up career. Even post-this, coming out with The Great Depresh and all of this stuff, turning all of your experience into something that people relate to and being able to perform, how did you navigate that in the midst of everything and even before? This doesn’t seem like a natural job from how you describe your childhood, necessarily.

Gary: I do think I made it clear in the book, throughout my childhood, I did find so much comfort and solace in laughing with my family and friends and also making them laugh. I’m nearly certain that there is a boost of serotonin and dopamine when you participate in laughter and when you make other people laugh. It feels really great. I was sort of, in some cases, self-medicating. Then in my recovery, I found it very helpful to go to the comedy shows to be around other people who knew me and also had similar interests to me. I would get on stage frequently even when I was just in the early stages of my recovery. I would get on stage. I had to address the fact that I looked awful and that I frequently had just thrown on the cleanest clothes I could find. I would say, I’ve been very depressed. I would make jokes about having been in the hospital. I got recognized by a patient when I was in the hospital. I told the story about how I got recognized. I would say, have you ever been recognized in the psych ward from TV? People would laugh. I would tell the story.

It was helpful on so many levels. It was getting some feedback on my story that was very positive. People would say, I have a daughter, I have a friend, or I’ve suffered from depression. That was incredibly helpful. What they don’t tell you is that sharing your story is not something that will make you feel worse. It will make you feel better, and it will make others feel better. I think it also helps to reduce the stigma and makes people feel less alone. It’s just a winner on all fronts. The other thing was that it was getting me to do the hardest thing at that time, which was to get out of the house and be amongst the living and get some of that — there’s also serotonin in just being around people and relating. That was immensely helpful. I built a routine of getting up and walking my dogs and then making breakfast for them and then feeding myself and then eventually, leaving the house later on in the day and exercising. Then the day was always finished by going to this comedy club in Harvard Square called The Comedy Studio. I would perform there. It was really all part of my recovery routine.

Zibby: That’s so funny. I’ve never really heard of performing comedy as an antidepressant, essentially. People look to self-medicate in a lot of not very productive ways with drugs and drinking and all these other things. This is a pretty sanctioned, healthy way to do it.

Gary: It was. I don’t think it has to be stand-up comedy that gets you out of the house. That was especially rewarding because it also happens to be my vocation. One of the things was that early on, I was very tied to how the audience reacted. That would affect my mood. That was not good. That was part of the reason why I was having such a difficult time. I didn’t feel I was good enough as a comedian. I was able to figure out a way in which I would say, you just have to get on stage. Whether it goes well or it doesn’t go well, the act of getting on stage is the success. That’s the end point. You don’t have to judge yourself. That was so freeing. Of course, once you’re able to do that, then you’re not self-conscious, and you can do your best work. Getting to that point was difficult for me. I’m very grateful that the stars aligned and that the universe complied in my escape routine.

Zibby: You wrote about your dad a lot in the book, especially as a young kid, and your relationship with him and your brothers and all of that. I saw in the acknowledgments when you said, dedicating it to him in heaven and all of that. How do you feel about having examined your relationship a little bit more with your dad, I’m assuming, than before you wrote the book and how you feel about that now? Just any general thoughts about it.

Gary: That’s a great question because that was one thing that was so helpful with the book. I’m very enthusiastic about journaling and writing memoir. I always say, even if you just stick it in a drawer, keeping track of your biography is really helpful. It was very helpful in bringing some of these ideas and events to my therapist every Tuesday at one thirty. We would examine these things. I was able to get perspective. One thing that I didn’t anticipate with my dad — I just really wanted to tell the stories and our relationship — was that he was a figure that was negative initially, especially at the beginning of one of the chapters, but he redeemed himself so beautifully. I couldn’t have planned it better if I was writing a novel. He redeemed himself so beautifully and came through for me again and again. I think it was really helpful to see that and also examine just the nature of humanity, which is, we’re a mixed bag. We do some wonderful things. We do some really messed up things. It’s that Walt Whitman, “I contain multitudes,” and not just I, but everybody I intersect with had some great points and some negative points. We were all doing our best. My mom was another really interesting, quirky character who served me, overall, as a great mom. Yet there were points where I would say, oh, man, she really messed up there. As a whole, both my parents and my brothers were positive. I’m really grateful for their influence on my life.

Zibby: It’s amazing. This is great because if you ever switch therapists, all you have to do is just hand them the book. You can be like, read this first. Let me know when you’re all caught up. Then I’ll come in.

Gary: It’s so funny. That is really something I think about from time to time. I think, what if I had to get a new therapist? It would take weeks to bring them up to speed. That’s so funny. I would probably have to reimburse them for the time they spent reading the backstory, but it would free me up.

Zibby: I remember — I’m not in therapy right now. Although, I should be, but whatever. I was writing all these personal essays. I was like, why am I coming in here and saying, let me just read you this? Now this is ten minutes, fifteen minutes. This is a waste. Can I just send these to you ahead of time? Can I come in later?

Gary: Brilliant idea.

Zibby: Didn’t really work out. Anyway, from a writing perspective, what advice would you have for aspiring authors and people who want to go into their own experience to write memoir?

Gary: I think it was very helpful to read a lot. Stephen King, in a book called On Writing, which I would recommend, he says a good writer is a good reader, or maybe a great writer is a great reader. You have to read a lot. In particular, I did read a lot of writing books, and particularly, a book called Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and then a book by Mary Karr about memoir writing. Those were really helpful. Then there was this other book that a woman had compiled of Kurt Vonnegut’s speeches or anytime he had talked about writing. It’s called Pity the Reader. Those three were really, really helpful. The only thing is that I found that at some point, you’re reading to avoid writing. It’s just another procrastination technique. I had to say, all right, I’ll read for an hour, but I have to then sit down at that point and write. The most helpful routine that I was able to get to was this practice where I would say, okay, I will just write for fifteen minutes. If I don’t feel like writing anymore, I will stop. Invariably, I would keep going because I was giving myself a push through the hardest part, which is actually starting. I would say do that. Then if you can, write for at least two hours in the morning, more if you can, less if you must. You build up endurance. You can’t start by saying, I’m going to write eight hours today. I don’t know many people who can maintain that type of strenuous writing activity. You can build up to longer than just an hour, but you can start with an hour. You can start with fifteen minutes and then build up.

I would say, also, that sometimes you don’t have the energy to create, but you do have the energy to revise or edit. That can be something that you do later in the day. Find whatever routine works for you. Also, know that your subconscious will do a lot of work while you’re sleeping and while you’re not writing. If you find a stumbling block that you’re just not able to get over, I found it really helpful to sleep on it. Then I would go back to it the next day. Almost without exception, I would find a fix or at least make it better and get towards the end goal. I would say that’s my writing advice. They say you have to figure out how to write every book on its own. I think next time, I will be able to write it a little bit quicker because I won’t fall into some of the pitfalls. I noticed that it was really hard to skip one day. It was really easy to skip the second, third, fourth, and fifth day. Try not to skip a day, even if you’re just opening up your computer and reading what you read yesterday. That, I feel, gets you into that habit of being a writer.

Zibby: That is excellent advice. It’s kind of similar to the gym, right?

Gary: Yes, totally.

Zibby: If you get out of the habit, it’s so hard to do.

Gary: Exactly like the gym. The hardest one to skip is that first day, and then it gets progressively easier.

Zibby: All these tricks we have to play on ourselves.

Gary: They work.

Zibby: It does. I know. You have to do it. Amazing. Gary, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for your book.

Gary: This was a pleasure. Thank you. I admire your podcast. It was a delight talking to you. Thank you so much for including me.

Zibby: My pleasure.

Gary: And reading my book. Thank you for that.

Zibby: It was great. I really enjoyed it.

Gary: Thank you. That’s great to hear. Have a great day. Thanks again.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Gary: Bye.

MISFIT: Growing Up Awkward in the ’80s by Gary Gulman

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