The recently published book, Broken People, is, at its essence, a study in depression. It provides an inside look into the psyche of someone who is deeply depressed, which is manifested in extreme anxiety, insecurity, self-loathing, and a sense of “unbelonging.”
The story in brief – the protagonist, also named Sam, while being outwardly successful and seemingly “normal,” is internally an emotional wreck who can barely keep it together, and despite badly wanting to be in a long-term committed relationship, he ends up alienating even those he loves. By chance, he happens to hear of a shaman who can ‘fix everything that’s wrong with you in three days.’ It seems outlandish and reeks of a scam, but Sam, driven to desperation, goes for it. What happens during the “treatment” – which is a ceremony led by the shaman over three days — makes up the bulk of the book. We also see a bit of Sam and his changed mindset and lifestyle after the ceremony.
What makes Broken People especially compelling is its authenticity, which comes from the fact that it is almost entirely autobiographical, based on Sam Lansky’s actual personality and experiences. He has not changed even the protagonist’s name, which is also Sam. (I am assuming, however, that the names of all the other characters in the book have been changed to provide them with anonymity.) The book also reveals, within itself, how it came to be. It had started out being written as a memoir, following Lansky’s first memoir called The Gilded Razor, which chronicled his years between the ages of 13 and 19 drinking, getting high on all kinds of drugs, and going in and out of rehab. The idea of a follow-up memoir was nixed by Sam’s agent, who advised him to turn it into a novel instead, and that is how Broken People came to be.
In Broken People, the fictional Sam – who is actually a stand-in for the author, Sam Lansky – reflects a little on his early years of substance abuse and accompanying dissolute behavior, but also marvels that he got a book out of it. At the same time, the stress of writing the book, once it had sold to a major publisher, was the ultimate death knell for his relationship with the man he loved (he is gay). But, of course, as he later realizes, the relationship was doomed from the start because ‘you can’t love anyone if you hate yourself.’
Because Broken People is so autobiographical, it is like reading a personal diary, like getting a searingly honest, no-holds-barred look into the psyche of someone who is deeply depressed. And since everyone, I believe, is at some point on the spectrum of depression ranging from positive-all-the-time to barely-making-it-and-suicidal, it is very insightful to understand what someone who is at the darker end of the spectrum is feeling. I was absolutely riveted and marked up so many pages describing Sam’s depression that my copy of the book is full of Post-Its! Here are some excerpts from what I marked.
Why asked why he didn’t like himself, when he seemed to be a good person, ‘Sam thought maybe there was no why. Maybe some people are just born self-hating and self-destructive and we die that way. And so we go to therapy and twelve-step groups and we take antidepressants and anxiety meds and we journal and we go to yoga and exercise and take baths and drink pressed juices and repeat affirmations to ourselves in the mirror and listen to Brené Brown podcasts. But we’re just swimming against the tide, because the darkness always comes back. All we ever do is learn to manage the symptoms.’
Lying next to his lover, Noah, who was fast asleep, but unable to sleep himself, ‘Sam wondered what it would be like to be Noah instead of himself, to have that loose, fluid comfort. Sam wished that he could make a home in Noah’s body, to live in him like a parasite, to see through his eyes.’ He continues with an insight that I found quite profound. ‘The great curse of being a person in the world [is]—you only ever get to be yourself.’
During an interaction with an older woman, ‘it occurred to Sam that he should appreciate his own youth now, while he still had it,’ followed by the thought that, ‘there was a very real possibility that he would still be pathologically self-conscious and anxious when he was this woman’s age, and that idea, of the years sprawling out before him, of never being able to quiet the chorus of self-obsessed insecurity, of it just going on like this for decades, filled Sam with a dread so black that it was nauseating.’ And then he thinks, ‘It would be better to be dead.’
Despite the dark, despairing thoughts that Sam constantly has, the book also manages to include some moments of levity, mostly in the interaction between Sam and his long-standing close friend, Kat, who has her own share of things that depress her, except that in her case they are external – mostly, the rapidly degrading state of the environment and how little humankind is doing anything about it – rather than internal. She does, however, share some of Sam’s angst, most notably with regard to the size and shape of their bodies.
Here she is, talking to Sam on the phone, “And did I tell you two new stretch marks on my thigh popped overnight? Literally overnight, Sam.”
Sam responds with, “Having a body is the worst.”
Kat heartily agrees. “The worst,” she echoed, like it was a chant.
I found this exchange hilarious — it still makes me laugh.
Further on in this conversation, Sam talks about body-image some more and his struggles with eating and his weight.
“And part of me just wants to pull out the rip cord and stop habitually under-eating to maintain a body weight that’s within the bounds of gay-acceptable, but if I do that, will I ever find a husband? But will I ever find a husband anyway? So wouldn’t it be better to just be fat and happy?”
Then there were the many insights Sam had after the ceremony with the shaman – which was almost like “spiritual surgery” in how much it changed his outlook. It started with his attitude towards his body, which he had loathed before.
‘… it suddenly struck him that perhaps this body was worth loving for no other reason than because it was his.’
‘That was all he was … just another person existing in his body … How had it taken him so long to understand that? … how much energy had he wasted trying to negotiate that insecurity with himself a thousand times a day …What could he do with that energy if he used it for something other than hating himself?’
However, it was not as if all was perfect from then on and Sam was completely “cured.” He did, now and again, backslide into his old behaviors, but he was a lot more gentle with himself now, a lot more accepting. When he binged on fast food one night, for example, he felt lousy the next day, but instead of purging it out as he would have done before, he went to a yoga class and made a conscious decision to forgive the lapse.
His interactions with other people – both friends and casual acquaintances – were now a lot less insecure and nerve-wracking, and much more genuine. He was even able to look back on why his relationship with Charles – the man he loved – fell apart. Like most people, Charles understood that ‘bad things happen to you because that is a part of life,’ but when it came to Sam himself, “… I always believed, even if I couldn’t articulate it, that bad things happen to me because I am bad.”
While the shamanic healing that Sam went through seems almost fantastical is its ability to cure his neuroses and depression, it was not unlike a religious or mystical experience that people sometimes report having. In Sam’s case, while it jump-started his healing, he realizes that this was just the start. ‘You don’t just get fixed in a weekend. You have to keep making the choice to fix yourself … to be nice to yourself instead of being unkind … to experience life fully in all its shades of joy and sorrow … to participate in the boring drudgery of self-care.’ Sam realizes the shaman just got him “unstuck” – the healing is something he himself would have to continue to do.
It is not surprising that Sam’s continued healing regimen is comprised of a lot of yoga and meditation, which are known for their calming and restorative properties.
I also found it fitting that the book ends with Sam realizing that ‘Everything was connected’ – which is the essence of the world’s greatest mystical and spiritual traditions.
Author: Sam Lansky
Publisher: Hanover Square Press
Publication Date: June 2020
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.