When Mental Illness and Comedy AND Irritable Bowels Meet for Laughs: Felicity Ward

Some evenings seem like the most perfect meeting of worlds. Take for example, this evening. I wanted to see Felicity Ward - comedy AND mental health humour guru. And the best person to invite? Well, my delightful friend with Crohn's Disease, of course. Anxiety and poo. Ticks all round!

I reached out to a few comedians, this Melbourne Comedy Festival, to chat about the use of mental health as a topic in stand up. Felicity was super busy, but took the time to email me her apologies, and this evening I got to go along to her show, What if there is no toilet? to get all the answers I was looking for anyway. 

Felicity's current show is very much centred on her multiple diagnoses - generalised anxiety, evolving depression and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) - or as Felicity acknowledges, the "triple threat" - and her experiences as they evolve over the last couple of years.

Diagnosed with IBS in childhood, the show reveals the development of other diagnoses, and the connectedness of these toilet related anxieties with her own mental health. And shit (excuse the pun), it's not hard to believe it. We hear about that ongoing battle between the geographical locations of toilets. And paying to use toilets. And weird bathroom attendants in UK nightclub toilets. And sensor lights in toilets. We hear about 'Beryl' - the anxious voice that presents herself to Felicity in all kinds of situations. We hear those common thoughts that all too often run through people's minds - "I'm just tired. I'm just 1 sleep away from being great. Just 1 sleep, and this 15 years of tired will all be gone". And it's not surprising. It sounds exhausting. 

Felicity talks really candidly about so many things about her experience with mental illness. Having sat down with a few comedians this month, I get that a lot of professional comedians often believe it easier to reveal significant stories to strangers rather than loved ones. And Felicity really does nail this. She speaks a lot about failing to see her own safety behaviours and symptoms, and avoiding speaking out with loved ones. Even about playing down the symptoms when she eventually sought out professional help. But she also notes, that at some point there is the realisation that in fact mental health issues don't simply plateau when nothing is done about them, they actually keep deteriorating. (Literally, I'm quoting Felicity's therapist here when I say "Avoidance is the maintenance of every problem"). 

Felicity had me on so many levels during this gig. She took the piss out of people wearing ugg boots outside. She educated the audience on appropriately using the smiling poo emoji. She sang. She swore. She wore a dress my sister would've really got a kick out of. She even made an analogy between those people caring for loved ones with a mental health issue with Danni Minogue - coz they just keep sticking around.

What if there isn't a toilet? talks mental health, and talks about it without bullshit. Early in the piece, Felicity does call out that, yes, this show is about mental health, and it isn't to be taken too seriously. This is proven pretty obviously when - half way through - Felicity wears a moustache made of toilet paper, whilst she tells her story about an incredibly (incredibly) short run of self harm, just to make it seem less serious. And she even calls out the audience for the quiet that sets in when she goes into it.

Felicity acknowledges that there are few places that people with mental health issues (and we do a rough audience tally during) can laugh at themselves and their experiences. Comedy has got to be at least one of them.

I like to think that one day, we won't need our comedians to provide disclaimers such as 'Show may contain traces of mental health', and that our conversations with mental illness will be awesome everywhere. But in the meantime, I'm happy for Felicity to introduce us to such conversations, and I look forward to one day passing the toilet paper.

We're nearing the end of the Comedy Festival, but Felicity Ward's What if there is no toilet has 4 more shows up until Sun 17 April, before taking it to Sydney April 23 & 24. Don't miss out.

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