Title: "This is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More for Young & Old Alike"
Author: Augusten Burroughs
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press, 2012; 240 pages; $24.99
Augusten Burroughs is a literary powerhouse. He’s managed to eke six more or less autobiographical novels out of less than 50 years of living, several of which have hit the top of the New York Times best-seller list and decided to stay for a while — you might have even seen the film version of one, "Running with Scissors," starring Annette Bening.
It would seem that Burroughs has his tumultuous childhood ("Running with Scissors" chronicled the results of his mother’s decision to send him to live with her psychiatrist and his, mmmm, unusual family) and the residual effects thereof on his adult life and self to thank for the source material — and for the inspiration to write about it. Now, having worked through and overcome many serious emotional issues, from suicidal depression to decades of alcoholism, Burroughs passes on what he’s learned in what I suspect may go down as his most impactful book of all: This is How.
Don’t let the simple title of the book fool you; its purposes are vastly grander than it would suggest, and are perhaps better described by its subtitle: "Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More for Young & Old Alike."
In fact, given his earlier work in darkly comedic memoirs and novels and the grandiosity of the title, on first glance, I assumed that "This is How" was another such book. Fortunately, it is not. "This is How" is a collection of dozens of essays reflecting Burroughs’ brutally honest, soul-revealing, sometimes foul-mouthed, brilliantly incisive insights on how to overcome all of the issues named in the subtitle — and many more.
If you have struggled with anything from the desire to be more confident to the desire to be more thin, to depression or severely traumatic life events, Burroughs has something to say to you, and his style of what he calls "help for the self" is unsympathetic, yet intensely humanistic and loving at the same time.
Essays on "How to Remain Unhealed" and "How to Get Over Your Addiction to the Past" hint at his style, while the one on "How to End Your Life" made me want to buy one copy for every suicide hot line operator in America; I am so certain that if each caller could simply hear this chapter, lives would undoubtedly be saved.
Throughout the book, Burroughs alludes to various emotions, which, if left unchecked and unmanaged, have the power to utterly undo us. Here are a few of those, with just a taste of Burroughs’ advice for how to overcome them:
1. Shame. In Burroughs’ world, the challenges with confidence that we deem a lack of self-esteem are often rooted in shame. And shame, in turn, generally arises from disapproval that adults wield to chastise and change children’s behavior — although it is "more coyly deployed by adults in the attempt to modify the thinking and behavior of other adults."
From these roots of shame, it then can grow, invasively and insidiously, in our own heads, in the form of negative self-talk and the stories that stop us from believing we can move forward on realizing our dreams.
Burroughs’ advice is to pay extra attention to what your inner voice says and, if it’s negative or critical or mean, to understand that someone else is the original author of those thoughts. Once you find a thought someone else put in your head, Burroughs says, your duty is to offload it, though it might take some practice to get good at getting rid of things you’ve heard your whole life. But it’s a worthwhile endeavor, because, in Burroughs’ words, "you shouldn’t step onto the plane with baggage that you didn’t personally pack."
2. Self-pity. Burroughs says self-pity is "infantile" and "dangerous because it signals a lack of accountability for one’s mental state and, worse, the outcome of one’s life." In childhood, on the playground and in preschool, adults make sure we get apologies when we are treated unfairly, and endeavor to correct the wrongs that are done to us. Unfortunately, some people begin expecting this and never stop. And this causes a victim mentality and gets people stuck in life, waiting for apologies and corrections that aren’t ever coming.
Burroughs implores readers to "[a]void self-pity by taking responsibility for everything that happens to you, even if it is someone else’s fault." He clarifies that "I don’t mean play doormat. I mean repair yourself. Move forward. Move on." Because, if you don’t, "while you wait for someone to come along and set things right, [you’ll find that] life has moved forward without you."
In this fashion, Burroughs unapologetically attacks all manner of human emotional foibles, addictions and life challenges, giving readers ample room for thought, healing and action along the way.