I’ve always been a bit of a ham.
Smiling may be Buddy the Elf’s favorite, but laughing is mine. I enjoy watching shows like 30 Rock, The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Portlandia, South Park, Family Guy, and Modern Family. I live for parody and satire, but I can also appreciate a solid fart joke. I come from a family of funny people who appreciate laughter – it’s the only thing I love about my extended family.
In high school, I was known for my participation at improv. When I was on stage, I wasn’t worried about looking cute or pretty; I did whatever the scene called for. I loved that I could make people laugh. I tried stand-up comedy a few times my junior year of high school, but I failed. Besides the fact that I stood still like a choir girl and refused to move around the stage, my material was my biggest problem. It wasn’t until my last performance that I really stumbled upon something funny, something worth laughing about.
It was mental health.
When I told jokes about my anxiety, about being in therapy, about depression, that’s when people laughed. I have a feeling that they weren’t laughing out of some sick, schadenfreude-fueled inner cruelty. They were laughing because they could relate. After all, one in four people deal with mental illness, and we have all witnessed it. Since mental health is something so relatable, shouldn’t I be allowed to joke about it?
At that time, I lacked the confidence to pull off a whole set about mental illness. I think I could do it now, but I’m not sure. I don’t want to be seen as abusing the knowledge I have acquired and the relationships that have formed during my journey. I don’t want to be seen as laughing at people with mental illness. I am not an enemy of those who fight mental illness on a daily basis. I am their ally. But I would like the opportunity to spread the message of what we go through with humor.
As we work to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental illness, we have several tools. We have legislation, literature, and laughter. I don’t think we should forget about the third simply because it’s less poetic than the other two.
Joking about mental illness can be uncomfortable; I’ve noticed this first-hand at home. My dad will laugh at almost anything, but when I crack a joke about one of my symptoms, he is solemn. Now, this might be because my joke sucks, but I think I also make him a bit uncomfortable. I think as a society we’re not used to seeing people make fun of their own disabilities. I appreciate my roommate, Kathleen, because she lets me make jokes about feeding my leftover meds to the Towson University squirrels to see if they gain weight as rapidly as I did. She even laughs sometimes.
When I tell jokes about my mental health experience, I would be lying if I said I did it only to start a conversation. It also makes me feel better. Let me use humor to describe what is happening to my mind and my body. Let me take a break from feeling ashamed and angry. Let me try to make you laugh when I’m hurting inside.
Bottom line: Mental illness does not respect barriers such as culture or country. Everyone is susceptible. Let’s use our shared language, laughter, to help fight the disease and its stigma.