Depicting mental health issues in entertainment is always a dicey endeavor. Even if the creative person (or people) behind a project are clinically diagnosed with what they’re dealing with, they still end up suffering from the inevitable criticism that their depiction is incorrect, tone deaf, or even irresponsible.
I understand the need for people to see healthy and positive representations of mental illness in entertainment. I, myself, suffer from severe bouts of depression, anxiety, and am still in the process of working through PTSD trauma I suffered at the age of 12. I am sensitive to the plight of the mentally ill, because I am one of them. We are legion.
I worry that—too often—critics in the media want to champion the fight against mental illness without fully understanding it. Anyone that suffers from say, depression, knows that it isn’t just a matter of “sucking it up” or dealing with it because “we all have problems.” Depression doesn’t work that way, yet a large part of the population still sees mental illness as a weakness. I don’t, but I get it.
There was a time when I did. I wondered what was wrong with me. Why doesn’t anyone like me? Why am I always nervous that everyone I encounter is going to yell at me? Why does that edginess make me irritable? Why am I so easily irritable? Well, no wonder every hates me! I’m a giant ball of angst, clearly giving off an unsettling energy, ready to snap at any moment. I suck. Who would want to be around me? I must be a nightmare.
You see how fast your mind can go off the rails? That’s what my mind is like, even to this day. I always clarify to people that when I say my mind is going a mile a minute, I don’t mean to imply that I’m constantly thinking brilliant thoughts at a pace so fast you’re tiny brains couldn’t imagine. No, it’s more like I’m in a tornado and all my thoughts are on Post-It notes whirling around, indiscriminately smacking me in the face while I try to meditate the chaos back to a normal, tolerable gale-warning level wind.
I suppose that might sound strange to you, but when I saw the comedy of Maria Bamford, I knew it didn’t matter anymore if everyone understood where I was coming from all the time. As I sat there and watched her act for the first time, I felt we were kindred spirits that could relate to each other in a way not everyone could.
Her stand-up is—in many ways—old fashioned stand-up comedy. She gets up there and she tells jokes, she does voices (and is an accomplished voice actress), and she acts silly. There is no anti-comedy deconstruction of the art form, she tells jokes. Yet, she tells them through her own prism, and I often find myself laughing so hard there are tears in my eyes.
In her early days, her sets often had bits where the audience would barely react to her jokes. There would be smatterings of nervous laughter. It was almost like the audience wasn’t sure if she was doing a character, or being herself. The fact she would go in and out of side-character voices perhaps muddied the waters a bit there, but when she “got real” in her act, people were uncomfortable at times, unsure where the (hopefully) inevitable punchline would be.
Am I Normal?
She talks about schizophrenia, which she refers to as “a cacophony of sensory hallucinations,” and does so in a way that fully describes the affliction without bringing the audience down. Is it sad and unfortunate that these issues affect her? Yes, and she has clearly dealt with some harrowing experiences, but she repackages it in a way that makes a difficult subject relatable. And most importantly of all, she can joke about it, without being accused to punching down on people with mental health issues.
I’m not one of those people that loves to be “seen” in entertainment. I’m not all that happy with myself most of the time. I’m usually just trying “to be normal.” I try to be laid back and mellow, but often the triggers inside me desperately want me to lash out—even if I don’t know why.
I’ve gotten better over the years. I had an epiphany many years ago, where I was mad about something (I don’t even remember what it was) and I was hella fired-up about it, and in this one moment I stopped and said, “Why am I mad about this?” I literally said it out loud. And then I answered myself, “I’m not mad. I don’t care.”
Now, I’m not saying I “cured” myself with one simplistic moment of enlightenment, but I got better. From then on I vowed to just take every moment as an opportunity to look at the world a different way. Be nicer. Don’t change who I am, or lose my weird edge (I’m kind of fond of how my weird brain is wired), but always remember that I’m interacting with a person who—at their core—are just like me.
That’s the thing about mental illness, it makes you hate yourself. You feel like you’re a failure at the things everyone else does so effortlessly. In order to go to a party with friends I’ve known my entire life, I need to pop an Ativan, so I can just relax and enjoy their company. It’s not them—my friends are lovely—it’s me. I don’t hate myself (too much) anymore. I’ve learned to accept my flaws, while still working on them, and I’ve come to the realization that all anyone wants in this life is to be happy, and that’s universal. In a way, that’s comforting, because “we all have problems,” and we’re all at various stages in dealing with them. I don’t see my issues as shameful, but I also don’t feel the need to wear them on my sleeve either.
Talking about my mental health issues—with people other than a doctor—is not something I choose to do. When I do, it’s with someone who understands. Someone like me. Because I can use a convoluted metaphor, or just straight-up tell them my thought process while retelling a story, and they get it. They know where I’m coming from. When I watch Maria Bamford talk about mental illness through jokes, humor, and raw honesty, goddammit, I feel seen. I hate that phrase, so much, but I do, I feel seen.
The Special Special Special
In 2012, Maria did The Special Special Special on Netflix, a stand-up act for two audience members: her parents. It was perhaps the bravest thing stand-up-wise I had ever seen (no disrespect to Tig Notaro’s “I just found out I have cancer” routine, which is deservedly legendary).
She pulled no punches, she said things that were raw and depressing, and difficult for any parent to hear, but she did it with grace and humor. I thought it was brave, and I don’t really care what your definition of brave may or may not be. It inspired me, as a writer, to stop writing for other people. I began evolving my writing to better reflect who I was on the inside, even if it was dirty in there.
In her This Is Not Happening special, Maria talks about the deep discomfort of the arts, and uses a surreal clown performance to juxtapose how mental illness is often something that is deeply uncomfortable and hard to watch.
She mentions how depression means “every moment is unbearable.” She talks about how she took a year and half off because she “went mental” and was institutionalized. It’s a deeply sad moment, retold truthfully, and full of specific details, that she masterfully turned into comedy.
Mental illness can be portrayed a lot of different ways. In the movie Hereditary, it serves as a narrative device (and a great one if you ask me), and the writing, visuals, and the acting (Toni Collette!) all take a fairly standard horror story, and infuse it with something real. In Bamford’s Netflix show Lady Dynamite, it’s played for semi-surreal, offbeat comedy. And I love both.
In her stand-up, she can joke about suicide. She tells the audience that if they are considering it—don’t. “Late Fall is the season for suicide.” I know about suicidal thoughts. I even know people that have committed suicide. Suicide is irrational. You feel ashamed for considering it. You tell yourself how other people have it far worse than you, and that you’re just a baby for thinking it. You’re weak, dummy. You want someone to slap you like Cher in Moonstruck, telling you to, “Snap out of it!” In the moment it’s harrowing and awful, with no light at the end of the tunnel, but Bamford takes those moments and turns them into something I, personally, can recognize and say, “I want to be more like her.”
She does this wonderful thing where she talks about all the things she deals with, and makes it funny. She doesn’t evoke sympathy or pity, which is why I usually never discuss my own issues for fear of boring people, or making them wildly uncomfortable. She’s just brilliant and funny.
Comedy is Hard
A year or so ago, a cafe in my town was doing an open mic night. You could sing, read poetry, whatever. I decided to do stand-up. Everyone always says I’m funny (in real life—on the page, it’s mostly intentionally-bad puns) and I often get the “you should do stand-up” comment here and there. I personally didn’t think someone with this much social anxiety should go on stage and tell jokes to strangers—but I did.
My wife, my parents, all of my closest and dearest friends packed that yoga-studio-by-day stage and watched me do my one and only stand-up act. I had worked on it tirelessly every night, trying to make a short, tight set of jokes that would elicit a decent amount of laughs. As I wrote it, I always assumed each joke would bomb—expecting a laugh seemed presumptuous and unlikely.
I launched into a bit about a new astronaut on their first day at NASA finding out that they’re not going to work on rockets, and instead will be helping make non-stick pots and pans for infomercials. I followed this with jokes about suicide and depression. There was a segue but it was pretty tenuous at best. In my head, I was doing a raw, honest peek inside my brain, and it was supposed to be funny. In the end, it just brought people down. I even heard a few people go, “Aww…” Eesh. Anyone who knows me is very aware that the last thing I want is that. So I went into a bit about how old people whisper when their new neighbor is black, as if it’s a secret that no one (perhaps even the new neighbor themselves!) knows. That part was a moderate success, because we all know old racist people. “They’re not us,” we say to ourselves. It’s easy to laugh at them. What’s not easy is to find the struggles of someone’s mental health funny.
Also, I’m terrible at delivering a joke. I have no timing. Conversationally, yes, I am funny. The term “quick-witted” gets bandied about. I’m—in the right environment, at times—even charming (I’ve been told). But I can’t do stand-up. Nope. Suffice it to say, I’m probably gonna stick to writing.
Tips and Tricks From an Absolute Beginner
I’m an absolute beginner when it comes to life. Some people seem to have this shit figured out. I don’t. I mostly accept that. However, I have found some pretty neat ways to deal with my bouts of depression. They’re not revolutionary but they work for me, and maybe they’ll work for you.
I have notebooks. Tons of them. They’re strewn across the house. And they have thousands of stream-of-consciousness thoughts, half-ideas, and sketches that might someday be something.
When I’m upset about something, I write about it. Eventually, I find that my position on something has holes in it, and that my stance is no better than the person (or people) I’m fired up about. This leads me to dissect not only the “flaws” in other people’s arguments, but my own. I find it very refreshing to discover that we’re all just trying to figure things out, and we’re all just trying to deal with ourselves and others the best way we know how.
Maria Bamford channels her problems and turns them into comedy. The last thing I would ever say is that her comedy is “important” because when a review or pull-quote says something is important, or prescient, usually adding “now more than ever” I wince and/or cringe at the potential of what that means. What I will say is she’s one of my favorite comedians, and she takes very serious issues and makes them funny and relatable, especially for weird, broken people like myself that have learned to be a little more comfortable in their own skin, partly thanks to her. So thank you, Maria Bamford: you’re my hero.