I’ve always loved writing and performing stand-up comedy. It’s like a sped-up version of my anxieties and depressive streaks in real life. In the week before a gig I’ll sit down to write or practice and I’ll be filled with self-doubt, even self-hatred. I’ll ask myself: ‘Do I actually enjoy this anymore?’ or ‘Who am I even doing this for?’ But somehow, regardless of anything, I will push through all of it and perform anyway. And then, maybe more than not, I hear laughter.
I’d be lying if I said all or even most of my insecurities melted away at the sound of laughter. To me, laughter is kind of like one of those little white noise machines I use when I can’t sleep, tossing with worries and woes. The sound temporarily disrupting those endless and exhausting spiralling thoughts I have.
I think that these thoughts are like little rewards for surviving my teens. It’s quite hard to sum up my specific experience of being bullied for an entire scholastic career because, as of five years ago, I came out as a transgender man. Meaning that up until I was twenty-five years old I thought I was a woman and so did everybody else. Funny, people spend your whole life mocking you for looking, sounding or acting like a man and then when you finally agree with them they’ll tell you you will always be a woman. Suffice to say, life was very lonely for me. Nobody ever really ‘got me’. Like probably most comedians I learnt that being funny was a simpler way to get somebody (and when honed) anybody to like you if even just for a second.
Granted, laughter is much easier to attain from a person than their trust or praise. And whilst the former is like a fine wine and the latter is more like boxed wine – I’ve always been a bit of a cheapskate – I can’t be picky about how I get my validation as, quite honestly, the sheer amount I require a day is often twice that of what the average Norn Irish is capable of per year. Perhaps this is why I’m so much of extrovert – I’d rather have a steady supply of sources of validation which I can ask for in manageable chunks than asking unwieldy devotion from a select few (despite what the media say about transgender people being a dangerous cult, I personally don’t have the project management skills to run one myself).
Like I said, stand-up often reminds me a lot of my experience in fighting mental illness. Despite it all, I just keep going and perform – whether it’s to my friends, family, co-workers or strangers. This all sounds so tragic, but it’s not always a bad thing! Sometimes you put on an act then someone laughs or smiles with you and suddenly it’s not an act anymore.
But then suddenly, I didn’t have an audience anymore. And I obviously do not just mean stand-up. Whilst some intrepid comedians and socialites moved online, I did not share their can-do, make-it-work attitude. No matter how much I tried, whenever circumstance – be it work or social – forced me in front of a webcam or front-facing camera, I couldn’t help but feel painfully self-conscious and woefully detached. Sure, I knew when to hit my cues: when to nod, smile, laugh and occasionally say ‘you’re on mute’ but I just couldn’t perform like I used to. Even when I managed to make someone cackle or crack a smile, their laughter never truly reached me. I initially just thought that it was because that indescribable magic spark of a person’s laugh must be somehow lost travelling through routers and ethernet cables onto a screen. Looking back, I realise that what was happening was that for once it truly felt like it wasn’t just me who was performing. Everyone was putting on their best and bravest faces. I wish I’d realised that sooner! Maybe then I wouldn’t have felt so compelled to fall back on my tried and tested method of ‘fake it til you make it’ which quickly spiralled into ‘fake it til you can’t take it’.
I doubt anyone is truly comfortable with being open and honest about how mind-numbingly awful mental illness can be. Personally, I’ve always felt guilty whenever I try. No matter who it is, what I want to talk about, or why, when I speak to someone, I feel that I’m unfairly burdening them. Never more so have I felt this than during lockdown. With every forced laugh or tired-looking smile, I couldn’t help but feel that opening up (despite probably being exactly what I needed) was a cruel thing to foist on people already living through some of the most difficult times of their lives.
I’ve always felt much more comfortable revealing dark, ugly truths about how empty I can feel at times punctuated by jokes to break the unbearable tension – if I ever reveal those dark, ugly truths at all. Now I know that laughter is meant to be the best medicine, but maybe I’ve been misusing and abusing it. Like when your counsellor keeps recommending mindfulness or yoga when what you actually need is a steady job and a safe place to live.
Maybe it’s time to take off the clown shoes for a moment and let you know: I’m lonely and I’m sad. I miss hugging my friends, I miss hearing my dad talk about politics on the drive to my parents’ house, I miss dancing at a sweaty club and I miss those quiet moments where I can’t help but let my guard slip enough to say ‘I’m feeling so depressed’.
Believe me I’d love nothing more than to tie this all off with a pretty bow and a funny joke. At least that way I could finish this piece with my carefully constructed, albeit paper-thin, image of a happy-go-lucky person intact. But maybe it’s better for the both of us if I don’t. Maybe that gives you, dear reader, an opportunity to let your guard down enough to recognise that you too are suffering. Maybe you’ll give yourself a break for feeling tired even when you’ve slept twelve hours or when you’re trying to work from home but have mostly just sat on YouTube watching TikTok compilations. Maybe, emboldened by my embarrassing attempt at being emotionally vulnerable, you will have the courage to speak to someone else in your life honestly about how you’re doing. At the very least I hope you’ll feel less alone.
Thankfully, in this very moment – I do. So thank you for that.