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I am a nervous wreck as I walk on stage in an unmistakable neon-pink Barbie bathrobe. I hear laughter (a good sign) before I’ve said one word. When the laughter subsides, I speak:
“My parents were worried about me being a ‘real boy,’ because I loved playing with Barbies. One day the dolls all disappeared. Dad said I was too old to play with Barbies.”
“Then I discovered G.I. Joes! Here’s a doll that is hot, muscular, and bearded — like that guy,” I say enthusiastically pointing to a handsome audience member, who couldn’t help but crack up. I’m gay, so the joke makes fun of contrasting assumptions (that I must be gay) with GI Joes (Yup, I really am gay).
So began my first-ever Stand Up for Mental Health (SMH) comedy routine.
During college, more than three decades ago, I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and bipolar disorder. Both have wreaked havoc in all areas of my life. Let’s just say, it’s been a long, strange trip that’s provided me with no shortage of humorous material.
Through it all, humor has been a common thread. Sometimes I bounce back quickly from painful experiences; sometimes it takes years. Humor has always helped me get through challenges at school and in life. Through bullies who targeted me for my “differences,” breakups with friends and lovers, job loss, rejection by my family, working through pain in therapy, and dealing with medication side effects — I’ve used laughter as a coping tool.
Born This Way
During childhood, my best friend and I constantly bounced ideas and jokes back and forth (during classes no less!) and laughed so hard it sometimes physically hurt. Our teachers put up with us — to a certain point — because we weren’t harming anyone (unlike the bullies) and the other kids found us funny. Apart from that, laughter generates a positive mood and everyone knows that feeling good helps kids (and adults) learn.
Humor is a way to challenge my negative experiences. I typically use it to diffuse awkwardness and respond to painful experiences like being hurt by family members and others who desperately want me to conform. I’m often asked why I write jokes involving family and friends, and I say because it’s easy. I honestly couldn’t invent better material myself.
I never make fun of anyone; my comedy is about what I personally experienced and how it affected me. Comedy helps me turn it around. The Barbie joke could be used in a generic way to denote the experience of anyone wanting me to “conform,” but it’s funnier because it involves my parents.
So much comedy material comes from the well-meaning yet ignorant questions I get about ADHD:
- When did you know you had ADHD?
- Can’t you just try not being distracted?
- Isn’t ADHD a lifestyle choice?
- Isn’t ADHD just a phase like puberty?
- You don’t look like you have ADHD!
- Can you still have kids?
- Do you know my friend Tom? He has ADHD, too!
Learning to Laugh Through the Tears
I never thought about writing and performing comedy until I saw an SMH performance at a mental health clubhouse I belonged to in Vancouver. The year 2018 was a challenging one for me; I spent most of it spiraling in and out of depression. Seeing the SMH performance was a revelation. The comedians used their painful experiences (usually involving mental illness) to make jokes. They were genuinely funny, and their jokes were as good as any professional comedy I’ve seen.
David Granirer, a mental health counselor and stand-up comedian who struggles with depression, founded SMH as a way to reduce the stigma and discrimination around mental illness. He believes that laughing at setbacks helps people rise above them. The group holds classes and training sessions with the goal of helping each participant develop six really good jokes.
In January 2019, I signed up for the class even though I didn’t know anyone else in it. I was feeling down and stuck and performing comedy somehow seemed like it might be good for me. I knew that being onstage would be intimidating, but I didn’t care. I’ve gotten through other scary and intimidating things; this would just be one more. The class turned out to be a lifesaver for me.
From January through June, as a class we listened to each other’s material and gave feedback, which is essential to narrow down the joke to its “nugget” — the most impactful part. To prepare for “graduation” — performing at a professional comedy club — we practiced in class with a stand and microphone and performed at local community clubs and neighborhood events.
The Big Reveal
About 175 people bought tickets to see our final performances. (The audience knew they’d be seeing performances about mental health by people struggling with mental health.)
In spite of my nerves, I find the experience of performing humor on stage to be amazingly empowering. It means that my life — my story — is worth telling. It means I can give the gift of laughter; that I’ve accomplished something new, challenging; and worthwhile.
When I tell others I’m doing stand-up comedy, they usually say “Oh, I could never do that.” But it’s my way of contributing to society. Instead of just being a person struggling with ADHD and bipolar disorder, I’m out there giving voice to the struggle and destroying misconceptions about the conditions.
There’s no doubt my ADHD and bipolar disorders have changed me, for better and for worse. I’ve lost a significant amount of my life to mental illness and trying to conform to other people’s expectations, but comedy and other creative endeavors have given me a reboot and helped me to rediscover myself. That’s one of the strongest validations I’ve ever had.
Updated on March 5, 2020