What Comedy Taught Me About My Mental Illness

I didn’t expect it, but stand-up comedy has given me the freedom to talk about depression and anxiety on my own terms.

“Hello. How’s everyone doing tonight?” I’m trying to take the microphone out of the stand with the ease of the comedian who was just up. She’s several years younger than me and also new to comedy, but you wouldn’t know it. I envy her control of the room and how comfortable she seems — onstage and, I imagine, in life.

I start off slowly. My hands are always shaky at the beginning of a set; I’m more confident in the jokes themselves than in my ability to deliver them. But gradually, I find my footing.

About two minutes into my material, I start talking about my therapist. “She’s heard a lot about all of you,” I joke. My friends who are in the audience laugh, knowing the real joke is that I’m not joking at all. When you’re the kind of person who agonizes over every social interaction, good or bad, your therapist really does know half the world — or at least half of your world — by name.

It’s particularly exciting that I’m seeing a new therapist, I explain, because my last one rejected me after two sessions. I go on to describe just how closely our breakup resembled any one of the handful of awkward interactions I’ve had with men my age in the past year, how at one point she actually told me, “I’m really sorry, I just don’t think I can be what you need.”

“It’s okay, I’m in a better place with it now,” I reassure anyone who’s still listening to me in the noisy bar. “I realized she wasn’t the one for me. Because if you can’t handle me when I’m not even at my worst...” — I can feel a few ears perking a bit at this, sensing a punchline, or an attempt at one — “you don’t deserve the thrill of psychoanalyzing me at rock bottom.” Thankfully, there’s laughter.

When I tell people I do comedy, their first instinct is to tell me how impressive that is, to praise my courage. The more I elaborate about my act, the more their astonishment grows. Isn’t it scary, talking about depression and anxiety in front of so many unfamiliar faces?

But the truth is, talking about my mental illness in a room full of strangers is much easier than talking about it with people I actually know.

I can’t remember a time when depression and anxiety weren’t a part of my daily life. I’ve learned how to distance myself from the worst of it — I hope — but my mental health issues are still here, just on mute.

Sometime between my first visit to urgent care, back when I was in college, and now, I realized that the near-constant presence of knots in my stomach and the way an ignored text message could drain me of any desire to keep living wasn’t healthy. I didn’t feel like I could share that realization with anyone around me, though; to have my distress validated by those closest to me was to afflict myself with a new and different pain — that of acknowledging my brain’s many defects. I didn’t want to suffer anymore (for the most part), but I also didn’t want to admit that I was in fact the crazy girl I was so often accused of being, and the two were mutually exclusive in my mind.

To have my distress validated by those closest to me was to afflict myself with a new and different pain — that of acknowledging my brain’s many defects.

I was still very depressed when I decided to try stand-up a little over two years ago. I had been living in Brooklyn for three years, and while my life wasn’t going anywhere fast, the bigger problem was that I didn’t have a clue where I wanted it to go.

Two of my friends from college had urged me to pursue comedy for a while; funny things seemed to find their way to me, they insisted, and I had a naturally self-deprecating way of relaying my crazy stories. I wasn’t sure what to make of their suggestion at first, and I had no idea where to start. Still, as I started going to more shows around the city and learning the names of up-and-coming comedians I admired, I felt determined in a way I hadn’t in years.

The first time I finally went up was at an open mic in the musty basement of a bar where I’d been lurking for weeks. It seemed like the biggest stage imaginable at the time.

“So, it’s my first time doing this,” I announced into the microphone, as though my small handful of underwritten jokes wouldn’t be a dead giveaway.

Somehow I made it through the six-minute set alive. Afterwards, a more experienced comedian pulled me aside to ask if it was really my first open mic. When I said yes, he smiled warmly and told me to keep going. Two months later I gave up on New York and left for Los Angeles, but I stuck with comedy.

I wouldn’t be the first to remark that comedy tends to attract people who are less than 100% mentally well; at this point we’re all somewhat familiar with the trope of the troubled performer using humor as a coping mechanism. I’m not saying that all talented comedians are unstable or that everyone who’s unstable is funny, but the high density of neuroses and addictive personalities — backpacks and misguided displays of male feminism, too — at any given open mic or comedy show is hard to ignore.

Comedy completely shattered the link between normalcy and success as I understood it. It was comforting to see the same impulses that are often unwelcome in the world at large embraced on the stage. Finally, I saw potential — value, even — in the way my mind worked.

I didn’t consciously set out to write jokes about my mental illness, but I quickly realized just how much material there was to mine from my daily experience of anxiety and depression. It’s funny how a cluster of houseplants will proliferate on my windowsill when I’m feeling particularly down, as though buying a ton of succulents in pretty pots will be a total game changer, or how I’ve gotten annoyed with bewildered middle-aged women running crisis hotlines for not knowing what Instagram is. (Honestly, Instagram is such a trigger.)

Comedy allowed me to step into a different mindset, one where I was the curator of my highs and lows — not the emotionally frailer version of myself who lived through them. It let me control my own narrative, even and especially the narrative of my flaws and failures. It gave me the freedom to share my life’s imperfections with the world on my terms.

Comedy allowed me to step into a different mindset, one where I was the curator of my highs and lows.

I’ve recently started talking onstage about a low point in my life — much worse than the time I cried during Argo on a first date — when my behavior was objectively crazy. I don’t dive right into it. Instead, I start by describing my relationship with my best friend: She and I are so close that I often wonder if my parents think we’re romantically involved, I explain, but then I remember that I’ve cut myself over way too many men for them to ever entertain the possibility of me dating a woman.

It’s a dark joke, and I typically assess the audience’s reaction, to gauge if they’re comfortable traversing even darker territory with me. If they are, I continue and talk about how I used to cut myself on special occasions, just to show how much I cared. I talk about the time it landed me in the hospital — I liked a boy more than he liked me, so I decided there was only one thing to do: dismantle a disposable razor and dig one of the blades into my arm, duh. I talk about the implied logic of this cry for attention: You don’t want to be in a relationship with me? Well, what about a super toxic one? I talk about the very Boston EMT, seemingly plucked right out of a Mark Wahlberg movie, who showed up at my dorm room and asked — in the thickest accent I’d ever heard — if I was a cuttah. (Great question.) I talk about it all.

Some times I’m able to make it funnier than others. Some times it is funnier to me than others. When I make it funny and the audience laughs, they’re laughing both with me and at me. I am also laughing at me — at the me who didn’t know any better. Laughing and talking about it as though it’s firmly in the past helps me to actually leave it there.

The last time my parents visited me, I decided, against my better judgment, to take them to a comedy show at a bar in my neighborhood. The minute my friend took the stage and started recounting how her mom always calls her right when she’s masturbating, I looked over in horror at my own mother, tightly clutching a giant Perrier bottle, and felt the panic set in. Thankfully, my parents’ hearing is going fast.

I enjoy talking to my parents about depression even less than I like going to the dentist. We tend to talk only when things have gotten so bad they can’t possibly be ignored anymore. (Usually, a phone call from one of my concerned friends lets us know when it’s time.) So I was happy to let the comedians onstage — who inevitably brought up their own self-destructive habits — do the talking for us.

On the ride back from the show, my dad, who will often take a few conversational detours before showing a sentiment as soft as concern, shared a series of generic observations: The comedians were funny. That blonde girl was hard to understand. They didn’t seem happy. Some of them made fun of themselves.

It wasn’t until he asked me, “Doesn’t that make it worse?” that I recognized he was worried — about the potential toll comedy might take on my mental health.

No, comedy doesn’t make it worse — in fact, it’s one of few things that help — but it’s hard for me to articulate precisely why it’s so freeing to put a spotlight on my problems. Maybe it’s because I find it exhausting to constantly run away from my mental illness, and when I’m performing is practically the only time I’ve felt like I don’t need to.

Onstage, I don’t have to worry about convincing the audience that I’m normal — just that I’ve grown enough for us to laugh together at the things I used to do. And for a brief moment, when I convince these strangers that I’ve changed, that I’ve moved past it all, I convince myself that I have too.

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