There are very few books that I am scared to read when I first pick them up (I’m reading one right now that scares the crap out of me). That being said, Agorafabulous! *Dispatches From My Bedroom didn’t scare me too much at first. The cover was bright red, cheery, and there were polka-dots. Polka-dots make everything happy, don’t they? Then I read the summary on the inside flap and I found out it was about a woman who is now a comedian, but suffered from panic attacks, depression, and peeing in bowls. Are you scared? It is okay to admit it, because I was.
Once I got the guts to start Sara Benincasa’s memoir, I started to like it, but in the way that I was scared for this woman and enthralled at the same time. Kind of like when you see a car accident and you can’t look away. Benincasa is the kind of memoirist that every memoir-loving reader dreams of, she’s completely honest, but almost terrifyingly so. She delivers her stories with comedic charm that only a person who has gone through what she has gone through can pull off. If there were any other author who were to write a comedic memoir chronicling mental illness without actually going through the mental illness it would be completely offensive.
Benincasa starts the memoir with her first memory, when she was seventeen, of how her world was shaped by mental illness. She explains how the hottest and smartest guy she knew killed himself. Humbling herself and the reader to realize that mental illness does not just affect people talking to themselves on the side of the street. She shows that it can fester and grow in the most unknown places, making mental illness one of the most terrifying diseases.
She shares some of her first panic attacks while on a high school trip to Sicily, and how one of her attacks pissed off the most popular girl, and ruined the ever anticipated trip the beach. Now, you’re thinking, this can’t be funny, but let me assure you it is.
Benincasa has guts. You can see it in how she lays out everything from when she was arguably at her worst in her battle with anxiety, while she was in college. She explains how her anxiety had taken over her life manifesting in a fear of leaving her apartment and using her own bathroom, she started to pee in bowls and hide them in her bedroom. Yes, the mental image of this is unforgettable, but Benincasa delivers this terrifying reality in such a humorous way that you forget to be disgusted.
“Fresh urine can smell sweet, but it ages in a decidedly bitter fashion. If you leave it in the bowl for a few days, the acrid stench will peel the skin off the insides of your nostrils. If you get in the habit of shoving bowls into the closet or under your bed, it won’t be long before the whole room is choked with stink. The best advice I can give you is to open all the windows, get a fan going, and hold your breath until you’ve dumped the stuff down the drain and filled the bowl with scented dish soap.”
When Benincasa tells her stories you tend to laugh because of the way she delivers them. At the same time there is obviously a much deeper level to what her story is conveying. This is not just a memoir about Benincasa revealing her battle with mental illness with a comedic twist, she is showing the realities of a crippling disease that many people suffer from.
With Benincasa’s humor a reality is conveyed that cannot be undone. You are exposed to the battles she dealt with and will continue to deal with for most of her life. While we laugh along, Benincasa is teaching us about what it means to have a mental illness, how it can affect lives, how it can affect anyone, and how you can come out it. If you had to categorize Beincasa’s Agorafabulous? A humorous coming-of-age-story dealing with the realities of mental illness.