Once again, a study linking creativity and mental illness has wafted across the media like a darts player’s fart settling on a trifle. “COMEDIANS AND PSYCHOTICS SHARE TRAITS”, it screams, clanging together rhetorical kitchenware in a desperate bid for attention. At first glance, it seems something that we’d all agree with: who could possibly want to stand in front of a room full of strangers and tell them carefully-worded fibs? What kind of maniac does that?
Well, I do, for a start.
I’ve been performing comedy for four years now. Improv, sketch, stand-up – you name it. I’ve been on Radio 4, performed in front of Stephen Fry, and had drunken chats with the great and the good of the comedy world outside an Edinburgh bar at 6am.
I’ve also been taking a pretty hefty dose of anti-depressants for just over a year.
The idea that these two are linked – that the time I’ve spent sweating on stage for a happy audience and the time I’ve spent rigid with dread on the floor outside my bathroom are somehow connected – makes me so furious I can barely speak.
As a society, we still see mental illness of any kind as something special, something exotic. Being unable to see depression in the way that you can see a broken leg lends it an ephemeral quality. Gives it a sense of mystery. We treat creativity the same way: ideas must come from somewhere, after all, and it’s far more romantic to think of inspiration flowing straight from the Muses and into the ear of a slumbering artist than it is to think of a comedian hunched red-eyed at four in the morning, spitting an endless stream of invective because she can’t get the FUCKING words to come out in the FUCKING right order and FUCKING STUPID BASTARD BLINKING CURSOR.
Creating things is hard. There’s no magic. No mystery. Inspiration may strike every now and again, but if you want to consistently make things that are funny, or beautiful, or moving, then by god you’re going to have to sit down and sweat over every tiny, hateful detail.
That’s no fun. Hence, we fetishise mental illness. We make the bipolar into special snowflakes, crawling from a pit of black regret and soaring through the sky on wings of pure artistic drive, while schizophrenics, when not viewed as mass-murderering beasts by the media, are inscrutable psychonauts, guided through imaginative realms beyond our comprehension.
It’s all very romantic, and it’s all very damaging.
Going to the doctor for the first time was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. Despite knowing, knowing, that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, I still felt silly. Like I was wasting his time. I thought everybody felt like I did, like it was a reasonable reaction to the world and my place in it.
Then I realised that if I somehow took it all away, all the sadness and the anger and despair, I genuinely couldn’t think of what would be left of “Me”. That’s all there was.
I realised that wasn’t healthy. I booked an appointment. I told my GP all this. About the dread. About how walking through my office felt like wading through treacle. About the infinitely long minutes spent standing on the edge of the tube platform, waiting for a train and feeling the desire to take a step forward almost overwhelming me. I told my GP all this.
What did he say?
“You’re a comedian. A little creative angst is good for you.”
I felt like an idiot. I felt like I’d wasted his time. I felt like every one of my fears had been confirmed and that this was all normal. That I was making a fuss over nothing.
That was bollocks, of course.
Through the insistence of close friends, I went back to the doctor. I asked to speak to a different GP. I told her that sometimes I’d take off my boots and just scream into them and I asked her if that was normal.
“No…” She said. “That’s not normal.”
She told me about the options available and the treatments offered. We chatted more, and eventually she wrote me a prescription for an SSRI.
Weeks passed. I was still glum on occasion, I still wrestled with my place in the world. We all do. The difference was, this was now manageable. I no longer felt like iron bands were crushing my chest, like the walk to work was some Russian deathmarch. I felt like I could cope.
Weirdly, it didn’t make me less funny.
Reviews didn’t say “The performance was lacking a certain something” or “Since Guy no longer howls in agony, the spark in his writing has vanished”. Of course they didn’t. Why would they?
I guess that’s the point of all this. I’m not a comedian because I’m depressed anymore than a David Beckham is a footballer because of a sprained ankle. I’m depressed because my meat is faulty. Nothing more. There’s something in my brain that doesn’t quite connect, like a joint that clicks or a propensity to get food poisoning¹. I’m a comedian because I love it. I love wordplay and sight gags, stupid props and convoluted stories. I love making people laugh and, yes, I love the attention. Look upon my face, ye mighty, and sodding well clap.
It’s not the worst stereotype out there. I could have schizophrenia and have people worry that I’m a murderer, or I could have an eating disorder and have people think I’m just doing it for attention, but it is just another tiny, tiny stumbling block on the road to society finally seeing mental illness as the vital issue it is, rather than a shameful and murky domain of freaks and perverts.
¹I am, of course, aware that mental illness has myriad causes. I’m not for a second saying that X is purely mental or Y is purely physical. Pills aren’t for everyone and therapy takes colossal courage. People are complicated, but for this piece, hyperbole is convenient.