It’s had a go at my moods, my self-esteem and my energy, but one thing depression hasn’t been able to defeat is my sense of humour. Although I haven’t felt like laughing a lot of the time, there is still part of my brain that’s hot-wired to automatically generate puns at every opportunity.
Even in my darkest moments, I don’t know if I’d have been able to resist the obvious ‘tooth hurty’ gag if someone had said to me that they had an appointment with the dentist that afternoon. If you wanted a blog about double entendres I could definitely give you one. If you wanted pencil puns I could quickly get to the point. If you wanted puns about baking bread I could rise to the challenge. As for dairy puns I could milk that subject until the cows come home.
While I try to see the humour in most aspects of life, there are some things that just aren’t funny. Depression is one of those things. Confusingly, despite its extreme unfunniness, there is a link between this miserable illness and comedy. People experiencing terrible depression can still be very funny. Take Kenneth Williams, for example – a man who made millions laugh, but who suffered from depression throughout his life. He is one of many high-profile comedians or comic actors to have grappled with mental illness while making a name for themselves as someone who tickles ribs and splits sides.
Making other people laugh is a good – but often unintentional – diversion from what is going on in your head. On the outside, you appear bright and bubbly, like a glass of champagne. On the inside, you might feel more like flat cola or sour milk, but nobody would know, because you’re still cracking jokes. When there’s nobody else around to amuse or entertain, that’s when the forces of darkness are at their most powerful and dangerous. With just depression for company, there’s little chance for a chuckle or a chortle.
Humour, it would seem, comes in spite of depression, not because of it. For all those depressed people who carry on making others laugh, it’s not depression itself that’s funny. How many jokes do you know about it? I’ve just done a quick Google search for ‘jokes about depression’. It turns out there are some, but unless I’ve missed any hidden gems, most don’t actually seem to be about the depression I know and none made me laugh. This doesn’t surprise me. I’d already experimented with my own jokes about depression, substituting parts of some very old and well-known jokes with depression-related symptoms or scenarios, and found them about as funny as a cabbage. For instance:
Patient: Doctor, doctor, I have constant headaches, I’m frazzled, I hate myself and don’t look forward to anything any more.
Doctor: Maybe you have depression.
OK, let’s move on.
Why did the depressed person cross the road?
Because they hoped the other side would be better than this one.
Oh – again, not funny in the slightest.
Someone with depression.
Someone with depression who?
Let’s stop right there. That one doesn’t even make sense.
How many depressed people does it take to change a lightbulb?
Who cares about the lightbulb?
Enough! You get my point. If this blog was a stand-up routine I’d have been booed off.
Much as I love a pun challenge, I have to admit defeat. I just can’t think of anything funny – or even worth a small smirk – about depression. Can you?
There is a scene towards the end of Return of the Jedi where the evil Emperor stands over a stricken Luke Skywalker and ferociously zaps him with lightning from his finger tips.
“Your feeble skills are no match for the power of the Dark Side,” he goads Skywalker, as our young hero writhes around on the floor in agony.
But the vicious villain is wrong. He is ultimately overthrown, and all because of Luke’s faith that there is still some good hidden away inside his father, Darth Vader – one of the ultimate movie baddies.
So where am I going with all this?
Well, last September I wrote about my depression for the first time, using a Star Wars analogy with Vader as ‘Stress’ and the Emperor as ‘Depression’. Since that first adventure, I’ve experienced the pitfalls of The Empire Strikes Back, the second part of the original Star Wars trilogy. When I say I’ve experienced it, I don’t mean I’ve sat down and watched it with a giant, over-priced bucket of popcorn. No, nothing fun like that. I’ve lived through the resurgence and revenge of an evil power – the one I call Paul Brookes. He is my alter-ego, who corrupts my thoughts and feelings with his equivalent of the Dark Side of the Force.
Brookes appeared to have taken a deadly blow in the first episode of my depression, but he was gathering strength, somewhere just out of view. He was waiting for my stress levels to build again, and looking for the right time to move in for the kill. And, like Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, he resurfaced and wreaked havoc. OK, so I wasn’t frozen in carbonite like Han Solo, and I didn’t have my arm sliced off like Luke Skywalker, but I did take a brutal beating from my nemesis.
Brookes’ powers had grown. Just as the Empire ruled the galaxy, Brookes ruled my brain. Just as the Empire had been building a second Death Star (a moon-sized space station with enough fire power to blow up whole planets with one blast), Brookes had been working on demolishing my rebellion with his own destructive devices – crushing my self-esteem, convincing me to take everything personally, kicking me when I was down and smashing the life out of me.
Brookes isn’t dead - yet. His Empire has not been defeated - yet. His Death Star has not been destroyed - yet. But note the word ‘yet’. Because Brookes has not killed off my hope that I will get better. He has not finished off my faith that good times will return. He has underestimated my tenacity – my determination to hang on, no matter what wounds he has inflicted on my battered body and mind. He has failed to recognise the threat that the powers of good pose to his existence.
Just as Luke Skywalker had to face up to his destiny and confront the forces of evil to complete his training, I now stand with a mission ahead of me. I have an Empire to overthrow, a galaxy to reclaim, and a better life to lead. Brookes has made me small, weak and feeble – pathetic opposition to his sneering arrogance and despicable disregard for my wellbeing. But he has not taken away my terrier-like persistence. Not permanently. I am playing Brookes at his own game. He hibernated until the time was right for him. Now I’m emerging from my own slumbers to take him on in a climactic battle.
Do not underestimate the power of the bright side of the Force, Brookes. I’m back. And this time it’s personal.
There are some phrases or sayings that people just churn out when they don’t know what else to say.
Often this is something harmless about the weather that they might chirpily say to the postman or newsagent: “Nippy outside, isn’t it?” or “Lovely day.” In football, there are mundane cliches that players, managers and pundits trot out when they have to say something but haven’t had time to think about what that something might be: “He’s come in and done a job” or “At the end of the day it’s all about getting three points.”
People can take the same approach as those tongue-tied football experts when confronted with an awkward situation or inconvenient truth. Say, for example, a relative or friend reveals they are struggling with depression. Unless you’ve experienced depression for yourself, it’s hard to know what to say, because you don’t know what that person is thinking or how they’re feeling. So, out come those reliable old gap-fillers: “Chin up,” “cheer up, you’ve got lots to be happy about,” “pull yourself together,” “stiff upper lip” and all that.
I have nothing against such well-meaning attempts at helping someone to feel better. They’re often said with a kind heart and good intentions. OK, so they’re rather thoughtless and not exactly helpful, because cheering up is one of those things you would probably tend to do if you were blessed with the capacity to do so at that particular time. Even somebody who isn’t suffering from depression but is having a bad day might not react favourably to such merry, faux motivational small talk. Your well-meaning adviser is simply failing to understand and diagnose what is wrong, and is using their limited or non-existent knowledge of it to give you a slightly feeble and misguided pep talk.
There is a similar phrase I’ve heard a few times recently (not directed at me) that is not only unhelpful but is also ignorant and, to be blunt about it, stupid. That phrase is ‘man up’.
I am a man. I have the parts to prove it, should the need arise – so to speak. No amount of ‘manning up’, in any circumstances, is going to alter my manliness. It has remained at a constant level throughout my adult life. Before I was a man, I was a boy. Nobody tells you to ‘boy up’, though, so we can forget about that.
I have heard two men recently saying that they were going to ‘man up’. They meant they were going to try and toughen up. If that means they’re going to face their problems head on and get the help they need to get better, then fine. The alternative meaning, though, is that they’re going to do that ‘strong, silent type’ thing that’s meant to personify the rugged, heroic, masculine, chisel-jawed breadwinner, who ‘just gets on with it’. My problem with that is that ‘just getting on with it’ is what frequently seems to cause depression. There is only so much ‘just getting on with it’ a person can do before it starts to take its toll on their health. For ‘just get on with it’, read ‘just get stressed out, just fail to express your feelings, just take on too much, just get mentally ill as a result’.
Worse, though, is when someone else tells you to ‘man up’. I saw this on Twitter recently, in response to a well-known sportsman openly tweeting about depression. The tweet helpfully advised him to “man the f*** up”. In reply, he simply and brilliantly retweeted this moronic insult so that all his followers could see it.
This use of ‘man up’ was deliberately hostile and provocative and clearly wasn’t the well-considered product of an ingenious mind, but the ignorance riled me nonetheless. It’s based on the presumption that someone going through depression is just having a prolonged sulk, and can suddenly jolt themselves out of it when they receive a timely piece of unexpected guidance. It’s also grounded in a ridiculous misconception of what a man should be.
The reality of depression is that it is not merely a bad mood that you can snap out of, however manly you may be. It’s an illness. As I was mulling over – and probably scowling about – the idea of ‘manning up’, I caught side of the inhaler by my bed, and it occurred to me that there are some parallels between depression and asthma:
- both are medical problems
- both have varying degrees of severity
- both can be triggered by a range of factors
- many cases of both can be managed with the right treatment
- both can be killers
If I were ever to have a severe asthma attack, I hope it would not even pop into someone’s head that they could suggest I ‘man up’, because that would not help me to get my breathing under control and prevent serious harm. It is equally daft, useless and dangerous to aim a ‘man up’ at someone fighting depression. What possible good could that phrase do? It is about as much use as a PE teacher telling you that you ‘need more confidence’ when you’re not doing very well at a particular sport. “Ah yes,” thinks the teenage boy, “you are right. Glad you pointed that out. I will locate my ‘confidence’ switch and that will solve all my problems’.” If you don’t have confidence, how exactly are you going to find more just because someone has suggested it?
‘Man up’ could have been a phrase that encouraged men to face their troubles in a healthy way – it could have been about admitting to a problem and asking for help. Instead, it is a sub-cavemanesque grunt of ground-breaking stupidity that enforces meathead sterotypes of masculinity. Gentlemen – it’s time we gave it the boot.
I wrote this blog for the Blurt Foundation. Visit them at http://www.blurtitout.org.
There’s a well-known saying that every cloud has a silver lining. Sometimes I’ve suspected that the only silver lining in my black cloud is a bolt of lightning that’s about to fry me on the spot.
Other times, I’ve spent so long staring at the black cloud that it’s got bored of just hanging around above my head and dropped monsoon-like rain straight into my face.
The cloud I’m talking about is depression. It’s more than just a cloud – it’s a whole weather system, wreaking havoc in countless ways. It follows you around, showing no mercy.
When the cloud descends it’s like dense, black fog – a suffocating wall of smog that makes any potential silver lining slip away, deep into the impenetrable gloom. Which is terribly unsporting of it, isn’t it? It envelopes its victim and seeps into their brain, controlling their mood, but it doesn’t stop there. It tries to infect everyone around that unfortunate person too.
Not content with its cloud-like tendencies, depression can whip up a whirlwind of stress, anger, worry and raw emotions and pelt you with them, like a giant storm smashes windscreens with grapefruit-sized hailstones. You can feel like your head is spinning like a tornado, or you can feel buffeted from all directions by a hurricane that nobody else can sense.
It takes on other sinister forms too. It can be like quicksand (OK, I know it’s not a kind of weather, but it’s sort of elemental so bear with me), dragging you down, zapping your mental, physical and emotional energy, sucking the lifeforce from you.
But however much it might not like it, my cloud does have a silver lining. More than one, in fact.
For a start, it’s given me something to write about. When I started blogging, I had no idea I would end up writing so many posts about depression. Then again, I didn’t exactly intend to have depression. Nobody would choose the wretched thing, would they? I mean, it’s… well, depressing. But writing about it has helped me to get to grips with what I’m feeling and to put it into words, and the best thing about it is that it’s helped other people too.
The other positive thing to come out of my depression – which, incidentally, is still stalking me – is that so many people, friends and strangers alike, have shown me such kindness and support. I’ve learned that there are loads of other people out there who have gone through the same thing, or are still going through it, and we can all help each other. And, despite the misery of depression and the ongoing struggle to overcome it, I’ve actually learned to like and value myself a bit more than I used to, because the kind words of others have proved to me that I’m really not as bad as I thought I was.
If there’s a black cloud hovering over you, chasing you or engulfing you, don’t give up on seeing the summer sun. It might take a while to appear, so, in the meantime, grab and appreciate any flashes of silver you can find. They are up there somewhere.
I’ve written this blog for Mind. Find out more about them here: http://www.mind.org.uk/