Post by Auntie Vice
Laughing Ourselves to Death
I am Bipolar. I was diagnoses with Bipolar I with psychotic features 22 years ago. This means I am amazing in bed, but really awful to live with. I bring this up here, because there are so many comics who suffer mental illness.
When I introduce myself on stage, I joke that I got into stand-up because with a suicide attempt, lesbian divorce and a lot of dick sucking I had the right pre-requisites. There is more than a little truth to this. In reality, one in four people are affected by mental illness in the U.S. Most of us know at least one comic personally who has taken their own life.
I think people who suffer certain types of mental illness are drawn to comedy. It can provide an outlet for the frustration and pain that comes with depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness. It also forces us to be social. It is all too easy to isolate when the hurt is overwhelming. Going to a mic, even if you don’t get up, allows you to connect momentarily with other people. Plus, some parts of mental illness are funny. The fact that I have had frogs tell me what to do does make me laugh.
For people who are not afflicted by mental illness, it can be difficult to know what to say or how to respond to others when they are exhibiting signs. I know in a full-blown manic state I am amazing hard to deal with and no one ever knows what to say exactly when I am deeply depressed.
I haven’t been able to write any bits about being ill simply because I am still too angry at the massive failures of the health system. I still can’t find the humor in being held against my will illegally and filing charges that got a psychiatrist’s license pulled. I still don’t find the humor in being sent home with, “Well, we don’t know what is going on. If you are here in three months, come back and we will try again.” Comedy is tragedy plus time. Maybe in a few years I will find this funny.
Since we all have people in our lives who suffer from various mental illnesses, here are a few tips for interacting with us.
- Please, don’t tell me to “cheer up” or “smile.” When someone is really depressed, these comments hurt. It can be physically painful to smile. I know cognitively I have stuff to be happy about. However, when I am really depressed, I can’t connect with that. Reminding me of all the good stuff in life when I can’t feel it makes me feel like more of a failure. Instead, acknowledge that things can suck. Sometimes simply doing that or offering a hug to someone is much more helpful.
- Provide constructive feedback. A lot of people (including me) cannot always see that our behavior is telling or inappropriate. Simply saying, “Wow, you seem out of it,” of “Dude, you are really slamming down the shots tonight,” can help people recognize that they are spiraling. Not acknowledging odd behavior allows someone who is really ill to continue to think they are “okay” and that no one is aware they are really “off.” Gently pointing out odd behavior can be a cue to someone that they need to seek help.
- Know that some of this isn’t really directed at you. Depression is awful in that other people take your bad behavior as a reflection on them. I can be surly or angry or withdrawn for reasons that have nothing to do with you. However, my actions and behaviors look like they are a direct response to something you said or did. If I am not normally a dick to you, it might simply be that I am in the middle of an awful period. If you have questions, ask.
- If someone disappears from the scene for a while, it can be a bad sign. Many people will withdraw when they are depressed or anxious. The combination of isolation and depression can be deadly. If you are connected with a comic and they miss a bunch of regular events, reach out. A simple text message of, “Hey, missed you this week. Hope all is okay,” is more of a lifeline than you know.
- You are not obligated to help. Mental illness can make people super needy. If you are not a close friend, you are not obligated to get in the middle of my crisis. I may not want you there in the first place. It is okay to say, “I realize your life sucks right now. I am really sorry for that. I don’t have the bandwidth to help.”
- Know what resources are available to help. There are a ton of resources for people with mental illness. Hotlines and warm lines (for people not in immediate crisis) are useful to some. There are free and low cost support groups all over to help people. Organizations like NAMI (national alliance for mental illness), Balance (free bipolar support group here in town) and the Wellness Center are all appropriate places to direct people. NAMI.ORG keeps a great list on their website.
- You can’t save me. I know a lot of people who want to play the white knight when someone is in crisis. The reality is, it takes a lot of different types of support to help someone. If, ultimately, someone can no longer deal with the pain of being mentally ill and kills themselves, it really isn’t your fault.
I have managed my own illness for over two decades. I am here despite my own efforts at times. I am not alone in this struggle. I know too many comics facing the same issues. Basic kindness and connection go so beyond what you can imagine.