I have long harbored fantasies that I will one day publish the funniest book ever written about bipolar illness. I know, right? It’s about time. And I’m not just talking about the good times to be had with party girl hypo- and her edgier cousin mania—they’re already laughing at their own jokes, most of which aren’t funny unless you’re in their head space. No, it’s depression I want to make fodder of, if for no other reason than the self-serving one: so that I can bring the funny wherever I go, even on a long walk down a dark corridor of indeterminate length, with bottomless cliffs on each side, yawning infinity straight ahead, and an entry point some ways back that sealed itself shut even as I stepped through.
Comedy seldom throws down with depression in a way that’s at all successful or satisfying—at least to those who have done lockdown time in its super-max cell block. That said, props to Avenue Q’s awesome Bad Idea Bears who, finding the lead male muppet Princeton bereft in the second act, suggest in a voice reminiscent of Snuggles the fabric-softener spokesbear, “Well, you can always hang yourself! Yayyyy! We found this rope!” at which the cuddly yellow girl bear proffers a noose.
Seriously, I laughed my ass off.
For the record, I’m basking in the sunshiny light of day right now. Truly. I don’t think I’ve mentioned that here, and I really ought to set aside space to honor it. Having felt despondent through damn near the entire 21st century to date, I am now entering my seventh straight month of largely unbroken fine mood. Neither up nor down, I am simply and blissfully well, and believe you me, I don’t take this gift of stability for granted.
Still, I never know whether I’m out on furlough, parole, or straight-up time served, and I’m forever on the lookout for the warden, ’cause that bitch hates me. So it is that, while I don’t plan on returning to the big house anytime soon—and the first commenter who suggests I can avoid such by embracing the awesome power of The Secret is on my lifetime shit list, very much like the friend who once told me that people who wear glasses only think they can’t see without them—I am realistic about the chance that I will be thrall to depression’s long arm in future. That’s why psychologist types call this thing a disorder, not a silly old patch of sad.
Therapists tell folks like me to put together survival kits during these up times, when we have the clarity of mind to select entertainment and mementos best turned to in a crisis—because the depressed person will reliably reach for the worst possible companion to her mental state. The ice cream that feeds my depression comes in a variety of drably irresistible flavors, including but not limited to: documentaries about down-and-outers; nonfiction on subjects like genocide, addiction, and prison; memoirs by people with mood disorders who may or may not have already tried to or managed to kill themselves; and, perhaps the worst influence of all, my own racing thoughts. In short, I reach for that which reflects my world view.
Say, doesn’t this post cry out for pictures of baby animals?
At times I’ve sought solace during dark periods by reading about the disorder and the workings of the brain in general, trying to get the lay of the land, as if one can rationalize the irrational and thus disempower it once and for all. But a visit to any bookstore’s psychology section will leave a person feeling more pathologized and diminished than before: The Bipolar Disorder Survival Guide, Surviving Manic Depression, Surviving the Crisis of Depression and Bipolar Illness. The ubiquity of this word survival in the bipolar literature presumes a couple of things: that mortality is my primary concern, and that survival is an end in itself. I appreciate all the parachutes, but I’m looking for something beyond living through each episode.
Depression can be fatal not so much because it just makes a person so sad they want to die but because it brings meaninglessness into high relief, taunting its host that the past is empty, the future is hopeless, and nothing can ever change those “truths.” And no matter how many missives I write to myself in better times, earnestly telling the depressed me who will eventually read them that it gets better, that I’ll get through this episode just as I’ve gotten through dozens before, my own words of encouragement fire as blanks when I’m in-country. The dialect of wellness is inaccessible.
That communication gap affects humor as well. Most things that are funny or uplifting when we’re in a good place simply deflate in the depressed brain, as if a different language is being spoken, stripping comedy of any meaning. Yet there is great meaning to be found in humor, and funny is possible in depression. I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed harder, inwardly or out, than I did during my last couple of days in the psych hospital. I didn’t laugh in response to any intended entertainment, whether on TV or in the book I was reading while there—Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a work of pure fiction which, incidentally, two of my nurses took to be a physics textbook and noted how very smart I must be to read such a thing for pleasure. (A minimum deduction of 50 I.Q. points is assessed all who enter the clink, as though mental illness is but a euphemism for mental retardation.)
I laughed on the inside when my intake nurse—amid her recitation of about a thousand rules as to what patients are and are not allowed from home, as related to my partner when she came to visit me that first surreal night—said in the direct company of my somewhat addled but nevertheless conscious self that “they can’t have caffeine because it stimulates their brains.” On being relegated to third-person status in such a situation, especially when the stimulation of one’s own brain is under discussion, let me just say that the ability to laugh is the only mechanism that’s going to save your ass from the eight kinds of crazy you assumed in the staffers’ eyes the moment the medical transport dudes wheeled you through the door.
I laughed audibly not at our actual “movie night” entertainment but at the fact that the films came from a distributor that edits videos exclusively for exhibition among institutional populations—primarily prisoners and mental patients—omitting all depictions of violence, sex, nudity, profanity, drug use, drinking, self-destructive behavior, mental imbalance, and anything else that might be deemed disturbing or stimulating to their brains. What was left, you ask? I’m not sure; I retreated to my room to read instead.
When I earned a promotion to ward 3—the lowest-security unit, housing all us high-functioning types; my stay had been initiated on unit 2, where they keep the low- to medium-functioning patients as well as folks on suicide watch—I at last found some gals I could relate to and laugh with, the camaraderie and normalcy of our interactions helping to defuse some of the feelings of stigma and self-doubt that inevitably come with having traded freedom for safety, having committed one’s own care at the most basic level to the discretion of others. It is, readers, a head trip of the most explosive sort, a virtual tear-down of the psyche through which one’s foundation may emerge reinforced or compromised—but the change itself is inevitable. Those unit 3 girls, together with my amazing partner—who was there every minute of every available visiting hour to laugh at my jokes and stories about this Jabberwocky world I found myself in—helped to ensure my essential soundness on release.
My less corporeal savior was writing. Every day, whenever the grid didn’t command my presence elsewhere, I wrote. And every night I processed each day, lying prone on my tiny institutional bed, by scribbling random thoughts with a felt-tip coloring pen I had pilfered from the day room—the grown-up rollerball pens my partner had brought me on night one were segregated as sharps, contraband, and sent back home with her, though I was allowed to keep the writing tablets she’d thoughtfully packed.
While I have on occasion looked back on events in my life with slight regret for having experienced them more as a journalist than as an intimate, my mad detachment skills came in pretty handy in the clink. The ability to become a wry observer was not just useful but necessary in maintaining a measure of dignity and self-respect. So long as I was noting the weirdness of my situation, I could assure myself that I was still me, that I wasn’t that subpar being reflected in the staffers’ eyes, the wild-eyed mental patient who needed to be reminded to groom herself (right there on the grid, between breakfast and group therapy). “Who, me?” I could say when the patronizing air of the nurses got too thick. “Oh, I’m just here for the material.”
Happily, I probably won’t be returning to the big house. Studies of mental hospital recidivism—interestingly, the same term used to describe repeat trips to prison—find that only around 30% of those who have ever checked into a mental hospital, voluntarily or not, will return. (Perhaps that speaks more to the non-luxe accommodations than improved mental health, but we’ll gloss that for now.) On the other hand, I remain realistic about the fact that hope is a tenuous, intangible thing—ebbing and flowing with the tide of my corrupt brain chemicals—and when its absence coincides with my mind’s ruder machinations, well, commitment is a far better choice than that offered up by the Bad Idea Bears.
As it goes, finding the funny in humor-averse situations is quite a lot easier than articulating it—unless one happens to live on Avenue Q. But those takeaway memories of transcendence lend us strength and give meaning to the rudimentary act of survival. Of course there’s more to life than the comedy therein, but that other stuff can be a devil to access when we need it most, whereas laughter has never, ever failed me. Funny takes the edge off when we’ve been unfairly judged, and it restores that measure of respect and integrity so rudely wrested away when we acknowledged a weakness and asked for help. It’s not for nothing that we’ve coined the term gallows humor: When our hands are tied and we’re face-to-face with our would-be executioner, the refuge of the mind is our only irrevocable freedom, and in that moment, when the mind can’t help but race, I’d rather dwell on life’s absurdities than on what it’s going to feel like when the rope catches and my neck snaps.
If you’re thinking right about now that this whole post about humor really isn’t all that funny, I agree with you. It started with a couple of funny ideas, then, as with so many of these posts, it grew quite beyond its author’s control—in this case, my rangy, wisecracking teenager matured into a somber adult who rather insisted on talking about this difficult period in her life that she’s still trying to make sense of. Because even as it’s just about impossible for me to initiate any serious conversation without cracking a joke, it’s fairly inevitable that the truth lurking therein will eventually break through to sternly ask what the hell everybody’s laughing about. And I guess that’s my quandary. The reason I’m almost certain to fail in my effort to produce the funniest book ever written about depression is this: Humor builds a bridge to what’s real.
That also happens to be why I find it essential.