Thoughts / Melbourne international comedy festival
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.
A sense of humour has always been a core coping strategy of mine, and I've been exposed to this in enough of my favourite people and comedians to know I'm not the only one. Hell - Freud even backs me up, as he once pointed out that humour plays a significant role as a very real coping mechanism when it comes to stress.
It's getting colder here in Melbourne, but we're warmed by the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF), and it is here that I got to chat through this same coping strategy with comedian and psych nurse, Cath Styles during her Festival run. Cath - a comedian for 10 years now, and an active nurse for 25 years - is in the midst of her latest show, 'Shift', which explores her career and personal balance in life.
'As a nurse, dark humour is my SPF100+. You can't be in this industry without it', Cath said.
'I use my experiences in nursing and mental health in my stand up because it's what I do, and what I'm passionate about'.
Having been on the circuit for some 10 years now, Cath recognises that more and more performers are using their own very person experiences - a number certainly dealing with mental health - in stand up.
'I can identify at the festival more and more comedy that is representative of the community, as it should be’.
Cath addresses early on in her performance, the use of dark comedy to talk about her career through varying emergency, crisis, prevention and recovery psych roles. She believes that talking about her experience allows her to personally reflect on an extensive career, but also to create the right kind of dialogue around mental health.
'To really reduce the stigma, we have to be less precious about our conversations about mental health. We need to be willing to chat about it.'
This dark humour was very evident in 'Shift', and gave a very real portrait of the caring aspect of mental health - not only the patient-carer realm, but in the systematic, processing realm (read: paperwork).
The structure of 'Shift' plays a lot on time - clocking on for work, start times, twilight zones, not seeing full movies. And this 'time' idea is one of the biggest messages I took away from Cath's show. Well that and the very significant impact of a good Milo, anyway.
Cath tells a story early on about an experience, as she neared the end of a long shift. Caught late by a patient asking for just '5 minutes to chat', Cath quickly weighed up the options of leaving on time or risking a late one, and gave those precious '5 minutes'. As is the nurse's life, this 5 minute conversation revealed a significant experience, and saw a double-shift occur. Cath's only learning from this: Always give people the 5 minutes. You never know just how important it is.
This Melbourne International Comedy Festival, we reached out to a number of awesome comedians to discuss mental health in comedy. With a show title like 'Am I mental?', reaching out to 24-year-old comedian, Daisy Berry, seemed like a potentially outside of the box thing to do - but it posed some really interesting ideas.
Real honesty and authenticity comes through in stand up comedy, when comics use personal experience and stories to engage with their audience. You can feel it quite easily at a show when there is the trust between the audience and the performer, as they reveal their secrets or stories to us, and that we feel they are comfortable in doing so. But it must be incredibly intimidating.
Daisy reveals some pretty important life experiences - the coming out to her family story or the time she met her Dad for the first time - and she does it with that mystical comedic brush that makes the often awkward or challenging situation seem oddly funny and more light hearted than it probably was.
When I caught up with Daisy ahead of her show, we chatted about how that concept of revealing secrets or stories can even allow the storyteller to keep potentially processing the event.
Whilst Daisy's coming out story might have been a bit less dramatic than some others, she highlighted that perhaps a lot of people saw that 'standing on stage seems a bit more forgiving then telling people closer to them.' - I can't help but think she's onto something.
Daisy's show - quite like counselling sessions we're some of us may be familiar with - was a 50 minute insight into her experiences and her thoughts. At the culmination we were invited to make a decision on her mental status.
Whilst I don't necessarily condone the use of stand up for clinical diagnosis purposes, or even counselling (and it most certainly isn't registered with Medicare or on the PBS), what Daisy's work does reveal is the importance of talking, sharing and connection with others to process thoughts and experiences. Don't be a stranger to sharing and talking, whether with friends, family or professionals.