Laugh When You’re Afraid

“If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go in sane,” sings Jimmy Buffett. “Time spent laughing is time spent with the gods,” says a Japanese proverb.

A sense of humor, for me, is by far the most useful weapon in my depression arsenal. Which is why Eric is panicked when I stop laughing, when my funny bone is split in 43 places.

For two nights in the psych ward, our group therapy session was to watch a comedy act by an actress (I forget her name, sorry … I was on too many sedatives to take notes) who pokes fun at depression and mood disorders, the way I try to do on Beyond Blue. Our psychiatric nurses were well aware of the studies showing that laughter can be a powerful tool for recovery and healing. In between meals and meds, they did their best to evoke a few chuckles from their patients.

Depressive Art Buchwald translated his pain into hilarious columns; Robin Williams uses the manic and depressive cycles of his bipolar disorder to produce comedic genius on and off screen. Many comedians throughout the ages have used their wit to persevere through severe depression.

In a “Parade” magazine profile, I learned a bit more about Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”

stephen colbert2.jpg

The article starts with this line from Colbert: “I like damaged people. And I am certainly damaged.”

Like Buchwald and Williams, Colbert sought refuge from a painful childhood–when he was a young boy his two older brothers and his dad were killed when their commercial flight crashed–in making people laugh. “The beginning of my junior year, nobody knew me at school,” said Colbert. “A year later, I was voted Wittiest, and people were happy when I showed up at parties.”

Like many comedians, Colbert used his humor to process some of his inner turmoil. Eventually he began to lean on his faith as well, just as he and his mother had in the years following the plane crash. Colbert tells the story about a wintry day in Chicago, when he was walking down the street and a Gideon handed him a Bible. He flipped it open and read the Sermon on the Mount, the passage that I call the “chill out verse,” about the futility in worrying, in anxiety.

About the same time he was apprenticing with the comedy troupe Second City, when all of a sudden he burst into laughter while on-stage (and not on narcotics). He said this about that night, which is a wonderful, wonderful line: “Something burst that night, and I finally let go of the pretension of not wanting to be a fool.”

I love that so much because I can relate so well. For the longest time, I didn’t tell anyone about my depression, about the severity of my mood fluctuations, about wanting to die so much of the time. I took it all so seriously, as I was so scared by it all.

“My God, if anyone knew what went through my mind, they would think I’m a freak!” I thought. I became imprisoned by the task of “seeming normal,” by doing whatever I had to in order to fit in.

But then, like Colbert, that moment came …. in April of 2006, when I penned a short op-ed piece about how much I admired Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan for bowing out of Maryland’s gubernatorial race to treat his depression. I made fun of everything that I had done to try to get to sanity. What freedom I felt in finally articulating the truth and trying to laugh about some of it!

I’m not sure if some invisible spirit sprinkled me with fairy dust that day, but for the first time in my life, I truly didn’t care what anyone thought of me (probably because I had plummeted to a place where I was ready to take my own life … and as all person contemplating suicide know, you’re not exactly worried about what others think … you just want it to be over). To all of the uneducated folks out there (most of the US population), I might be a certified whackjob who should be embarrassed of her raw content. But that just doesn’t hold that much weight anymore. Yup. I’m damaged goods. But who isn’t? And who’s keeping track? (I don’t want to meet her.)

It all boils down to fear, and turning it into comedy, so that you can laugh instead of cry–which is how Colbert describes the lesson of the Sermon on the Mount:

Not living in fear is a great gift, because certainly these days we do it so much. And do you know what I like about comedy? You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time–of anything. If you’re laughing, I defy you to be afraid.

Originally published on Beyond Blue at Beliefnet.com

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Categories: Mental Health

2 replies

  1. When I was in the nuthouse there were a few patients who would never say a word. Not unusual. But every week when ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ was on the tv in the common area I’d hear these howls of laughter. That’s right, from the people who never said peep!

  2. Therese,

    I love this blog. Laughter has been vital to me all my life, and has helped many times to keep me grounded when I was depressed. The day you and I had lunch at Main Ingredient, I can still see you breaking out in a huge (and beautiful) grin as something funny came to your mind. It was a special diversion from your sadness that day! Thanks,

    Jim

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