Mental Illness is hilarious - because it's absurd
Staying well is key to living with a mental illness. When things feel difficult and everyday feels like an uphill struggle it is important to find something to help you stay focussed. In this special series for Christmas, writer, presenter and performer Juliette Burton blogs about how comedy helps her keep stay well and offers a light in those dark moments.
Mental illness is hilarious. Because it’s absurd. The ridiculous nonsense of my OCD and anxiety, the ludicrous void of my depression, the outlandish demands my needy eating disorders scream in my ear… The silliness of these solutions to my deep-rooted anxieties and disordered thinking – I find it laughable. And laughing helps keep me well.
Before I got into comedy as a career I was making my friends laugh about my darkest mental health experiences. Because when you’ve experienced darkness it’s a survival technique to seek out the light. I wanted to break down the isolation of my illness. I wanted to explain what depression felt like, and why, thanks to my bipolar, some days I physically couldn’t get out of bed and why sometimes when we met, I seemed to be one type of person and the very next day I’d seem to be someone completely different.
Comedy is a way of dispelling tension. Most comics build up tension through telling a story or a “set up” followed by a “punchline” that twists the story in an unexpected way. And so people laugh at the odd change of direction, relieving the tension created. My mental illness creates tension; in my own life, in my family, among my friends. People are tense because they are scared. We as humans are scared of insanity because, I feel, we all fear it within ourselves. We all know we have the capacity for darkness. We - the mentally unwell - look just the same as anybody else; we’re no different. So we are feared because we ARE they. If I talk about my hallucinations some people feel uneasy because they are scared. I don’t want them to feel scared. I want them to feel relaxed, at ease, to know they can open up about their darkness too. So I break the tension with a joke.
Now, years after being sectioned under the mental health act but still living daily with those conditions that led me there, I work as a comedy writer and performer. My jesting about my mental health experiences comes from a place of personal experience. I work hard to ensure it’s a knowing nod, but one that is accountable and justifiable. I do all I can to be certain the stories I tell on stage aren’t likely trigger anyone who may be suffering themselves. That’s a very real possibility – I’ve struggled at other comedians’ shows when I feel their accounts are making fun of the sufferer, not the illness or the ignorance in society. Or when the stories are too vivid, too real, too close to home.
For years I wanted to talk to people about my hallucinations, to connect and tell them all the details of when I “saw the Devil, was visited by aliens and talked to angels”. But of course, things got tense. Why wouldn’t they?! I’m talking about being suicidal, of nearly ending my life, we’re talking ruddy visions! Classic insanity!
Comedians tread the line between what is acceptable to say and what is not. To do so in a clever way that makes you reassess previous assumptions or prejudices are when comedy operates at its best. Using comedy to break down barriers and increase understanding about mental illness; to me that’s one of the best uses of my time on stage. Mental illness can very easily already set a person in the beyond, the outlands, the fringes of society. So why not tread that line, talking about what is perhaps to some ‘unacceptable’ by using humour?
To be honest very often mental illness doesn’t feel funny. It feels debilitating. Very often I feel like there’s nothing to laugh about and there never will be. But then, one glorious day, I do. The clouds break, I see the sun, I’ll make a throwaway comment to a friend about kicking depression in the gonads and we’ll laugh. And if I’m laughing then I know there’s hope.
Making a joke about the pain I'm experiencing to a close friend who understands helps me keep it in perspective. It helps me make fun of something that terrifies me and threatens to rob me of the joy of life. Or if some ignorant schlong-womble has said something foolish and nonsensical as I come off stage like “I don’t know why you say you’re unwell, you look totally normal” or “come off it! Mental illness is just an attention-seeking ploy!” then I can laugh at it. Finding the funny helps me reclaim my power. Comedy is my armour against not only the illness itself but also the mental health stigma I still encounter regularly.
Finding light within the darkness; if it doesn’t keep me well, it keeps me within sight of wellness. I’ve learned there is always a funny side. There has to be.
Juliette Burton is a multi award-winning writer, presenter and performer with sell out shows at the Edinburgh Fringe among her credits. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook or visit her website.