Sara Benincasa Lets Us In

Published February 10, 2012

ABOVE: SARA BENINCASA

There was no place like Sara Benincasa’s former home. If you dared peer through the blinds, you would have been privy to the  garbage piled ceiling high and a gaunt, depressed 20-year-old girl hiding cereal bowls filled with urine under her bed. In her memoir Agorafabulous!: Dispatches from My Bedroom (Harper Collins), comedian Sara Benincasa brings you to the frontlines of her intense battle with mental illness. Raised in a middle-class family in Flemington, New Jersey, life was, by all accounts, normal. Her parents were happily married, she got A’s and B’s in school; she even took a class trip to Sicily. But something was off. By college, her anxiety had grown so mammoth, it almost killed her. Telling her story, Benincasa uses her trademark wit and humor to debunk the ugly stigma of what defines a “crazy person.” Her honesty evokes a rare compassionate understanding about the mentally ill.

We spoke with Benincasa about how during her descent into madness she was afraid to leave her home, had stopped eating, and refused to use the toilet. During our chat, she bravely took us places we had never been.

LIANNE STOKES: It was a bold move to write a memoir about your struggle with mental illness. What was the pivotal moment in which you knew your story must be told?

SARA BENINCASA: When I was coming out of the darkness, what really helped me was reading other people’s stories and knowing that it was possible to be OK again. The worst thing about depression, I think, is the total loss of prospective. For me, it wasn’t just depression, but agoraphobia and panic attacks. That’s a whole lot of perspective lost. When I first started writing about my experiences, I was 21. I was too close to it, and I was too young. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I got the book deal at 29. It was the space of those years and the ups and downs I experienced that enabled me to properly share my story.

STOKES: At Emerson College, you became a shut-in. It was a long time before a caring friend knocked on your door and alerted your family. Did you feel at all betrayed your peers didn’t intervene quicker?

BENINCASA: I’d lost awareness at how I appeared to the outside world. I was avoiding my peer groups and any social interaction. I was actually pretty stoked that no one tried to intervene. My parents didn’t tell me that my friends had called them until about two years later, when they felt like I could handle it and I wouldn’t be angry. I was in such a bad way I didn’t make the really obvious connection between my friend busting into my house, forcing me out to dinner and telling me that I needed help with my Mom and Dad’s concerned phone call that evening. I thought my parents were magical. I was keeping this great secret, and they had managed to figure it out!

STOKES: I found it shocking that you didn’t make the connection between the intervention and the timing of your parent’s phone call.

BENINCASA: Mental illness can make you wildly narcissistic. You think that it’s all about you. All the pain in the world is about you. All the sadness in the world is about you. Everything is your fault, and everyone knows it. When in truth, no one cares about you whether you’re a douchebag or a great person. You don’t have to carry the weight of the world on your shoulder. You’re just a human being going through some shit like everybody else.

STOKES: As a comedian, you managed to make me laugh while describing the disturbing moments in which you, too afraid to use your own bathroom, urinated into cereal bowls. You made a sensitive and sad scenario palatable through humor.

BENINCASA: I was hoping that this book could make fucked-up people amused, if for only a moment, and provide them with a source of comfort. I wanted to help people relate. The biggest strength is being able to have perspective. Get the distance, and it enables you to be able to laugh at yourself.

STOKES: After writing the book, you fell into one of the deepest depressions you have experienced.  What was the trigger and how did you rebound?

BENINCASA: I was crazy to think that writing a book about how I went insane wasn’t going to make me want to kill myself all over again. During the process, in addition to revisiting painful memories and things I had been ashamed of, I was dealing with getting laid off, going through a breakup, and had a friend I really cared about move overseas. I had also gone off my medication. When you’re on antibiotics, you’re told to take them for eight to ten days and you’ll be all better. Anti-depressants don’t work like that. It’s easy to start feeling good and think about how awful it is that you’re putting all these chemicals into your body in the form of a tiny pill. I needed to keep taking my medication. I know that now.

STOKES: The unconditional love shown to you by your parents is unparalleled in your story. You’ve acknowledged that if not for their support and being able to get you the help you needed you would have sunk deeper and deeper. What advice do you give to others less fortunate?

BENINCASA: When you’re mired in the depths of depression, it’s impossible to believe that anything can get better, but it can and it will. Seek out low-cost or free counseling. Get help and support from your community and stick with it until you can afford some fancy private shrink. Do anything. Join a church group if you have to. It doesn’t have to be about religion, it’s about not feeling alone. Also, do not be afraid to go to the emergency room. I’ve been there.

STOKES: When you started to eat again, you baby-stepped it with smoothies and listed the recipes in the book. Ever think of coming out with a “crazy cookbook”?

BENINCASA: [laughs] Yes, it’d be like, “What to cook when you’re suicidal,” and “What to bake after a panic attack.” All the recipes would be simple and consist of mushy foods like a baby would eat. The actual state of depression is infantilizing.

STOKES: You were the only American invited to perform the stage show version of Agorafabulous in Oslo. How did the audiences relate to your story?

BENINCASA: They were amazing and so receptive. Before I arrived, my impressions of Scandinavians were that they were an extremely good-looking and stern group of people, and I told them that. Everyone likes to be told that they’re attractive.

STOKES: [laughs] You can cut me down all you want, but top it off with, “The one thing you have going for you is that you’re pretty,” and I’ll forgive you.

BENINCASA: [laughs] Yes.

STOKES: If there was a TV show called, Agorafabulous: Tales of the Rich and Reclusive, what would your dream home be like?

BENINCASA: I’d live in Gehry’s Guggenheim at Bilbao, and keep all the art, but fill it with midcentury modern furniture and tacky Victorian overstuffed chairs and mourning wreaths made of the hair of dead children.

STOKES: Oh, my.

BENINCASA: And there would be a green roof where my vegetables and fruits would grow and also a rooftop swimming pool filled with champagne.

STOKES: In that case, you’d be crazy to ever leave.

AGORAFABULOUS!: DISPATCHES FROM MY BEDROOM IS OUT FEBRUARY 14.