I recently read a beautifully composed and poignant article by Shon Arieh-Lerer who I had the pleasure of meeting during the 2014 NYC Fringe when I saw his comedy show, His Majesty the Baby. Apparently, in addition to being very funny, Shon has an insightful view on the “Sad Clown myth”. As he explains in his article;
“…it was wrong and premature to apply the Sad Clown myth to Williams. He did not just commit suicide because he was depressed; he actually suffered from a horrifying disease whose symptoms are pulled from the dark playbooks of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia, and schizophrenia…The Sad Clown myth is false and destructive. It promotes a worldview that understands humor as a form of escape from a bleak reality that will inevitably triumph in the end.”
He goes further to address the unnecessary hardships comedians (and really, any artists in general) may endure when the idea that their talent springs from their illness is reinforced; “When you’re told that you’re funny because you’re mentally ill, you have a strong incentive not to seek help”.
Shon’s article makes an important point, and one that I hope people will read and give some serious thought to; it certainly got me thinking. Because in addition to these assumptions that mental illness can be a cause of, perhaps even the cause of one’s creative talent, it is also often assumed that it is an almost convenient affliction, one that they use as an excuse to dodge responsibility, or to gain sympathy. It seems that, to many, the stigma surrounding mental illness is supported by the misconception that, deep down, the sufferer has control over it, and can use the symptoms to foster creative ideas and when that fails, to throw a fit and escape any blame; it is “all in their head”, after-all.
…to many, the stigma surrounding mental illness is supported by the misconception that, deep down, the sufferer has control over it.
I’ll use my own case as an example. I have been diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety with agoraphobia, a diagnosis that I received several years ago and have been undergoing treatment for since. It’s not generally something you go shouting in the streets, because despite all the happy ads that encourage you not to stigmatize the mentally ill, when there is something wrong that doesn’t create a clearly visible change in people, many are inclined to believe it somehow isn’t “real”. This is especially difficult when you work in the arts like I do; how can you work in theatre if you can’t go outside? How could you act onstage if you have anxiety? How can you smile and schmooze at fundraisers if you have depression? These are the questions that are seldom asked to your face, but instead whispered behind your back; well obviously she’s making it up, exaggerating it at least. I’ll answer this in the simplest terms I can; mental illness is not who you are. It is not the fundamental aspect of your personality. It is exactly what the name describes, an illness. And just as you would never say that a paraplegic’s personality is that they are paralyzed, you should not say that someone who has depression is simply a “sad person”, or that someone with an anxiety disorder is just “high-strung”; when you’re talking about actual mental illness these are just unfortunate factors the people have to deal with. It is something they are afflicted with, it is not who they are. And when they are able to overcome that anxiety and get onstage, or put on a smile to do their job, despite feeling awful inside, that is not something that should be used to criticize or discredit them, but rather the opposite. That’s just one step they’re taking on their way back to who they really are.
Mental illness is not who you are. It is not the fundamental aspect of your personality. It is exactly what the name describes, an illness.
While the arts community on a whole likes to think of itself as a very liberal, accepting group, I have been disheartened to find many small-minded and critical people near the top. In an instance that I won’t go into detail on now (because of pending legal action) I found myself shocked when reading a formal response, one vowed to be truthful, that stated quite clearly that I did not and could not have a disability because they, a) had not seen any example of it and, b) I could not possibly have agoraphobia since I traveled to NYC to produce a show this past summer (I encourage you to research agoraphobia if on reading that you are at first inclined to agree). My claim of discrimination could not stand not because they had not acted in a discriminatory way, but because apparently I simply do not have a disability (a producer and an ex-actor would know better than the psychiatrist and host of other professionals I’ve seen, I’m sure).
Just as Shon so simply puts in his article, “when you’re told that you’re funny because you’re mentally ill, you have a strong incentive not to seek help” so can be said for the struggle to beat your affliction; when your success in overcoming the symptoms is used as fodder to support a claim that you “don’t really have a problem” or that it’s “all in your head” you begin to question the point in trying. If you can’t overcome all the time, and the times when you do only turn more people against you, what’s the point in trying at all? It can become much easier to let the illness win.
…when your success in overcoming the symptoms is used as fodder to support a claim that you “don’t really have a problem” or that it’s “all in your head”…it can become much easier to let the illness win.
To go back to the questions that no one is directly asking, how do I do it? With difficulty. That’s the simplest and most honest way I can describe it. I love the theatre, and I am naturally an outgoing and enthusiastic person, it just so happens that for my adult life my brain chemistry has thought otherwise. And while I can’t speak for others, I suspect many of them in similar situations would say the same. There are famous cases of performers who suffer from near crippling stage fright (Barbra Streisand comes to mind) and yet still manage successful careers; does that mean that she does it without difficulty, or that anyone with the same problem can “get over it” if they “want to” or “try hard enough”? Of course not. And it should go without saying that every case is different.
For me, the greatest challenge with anxiety is its unpredictability. Some sufferers have consistent thoughts and fears, such as the worry that they will be trapped on a subway and run out of air. While there is a part of them that knows that not to be true, another part of their brain is telling their body that it will happen, and so comes the racing heart, shortness of breath and all the other fun symptoms. In my case, I have almost never had those accompanying thoughts, and so for years I had severe panic attacks without knowing what they were. Sudden dizziness, nausea, and impromptu blackouts had me being tested for things like diabetes or a heart problem. It wasn’t until a few years later that I finally had a doctor put their finger on it, and start to treat the actual issue.
So what to do? As a sufferer, do you give up and give in, knowing you’ll be miserable but not called a liar? Or do you keep trying, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, and always trying to block out not just the negative voices in your head but the ones around you, suspicious of your ever move? That’s the issue I’ve been struggling with a lot lately, and as I can’t answer it for myself I won’t try to for anyone else. But I will say this; try giving people the benefit of a doubt. It takes a really messed-up person to fake having any mental illness, and I’ve gotta say, even in that case I suspect it just means they have another one. There is nothing fun, or easy, or helpful about admitting you have an anxiety disorder, or suffer from depression. In fact, it almost always leaves you regretting speaking up, at least in my experience. The only reason I have in the past was the hope that our anti-discrimination laws would protect me where common-decency and kindness might not; maybe they can fire you for not showing up for work, or for not having a “fun” attitude, but they can’t get rid of you for an illness that is legitimately beyond your control. Or so I thought – we’ll see how that one goes.
There is nothing fun, or easy, or helpful about admitting you have an anxiety disorder, or suffer from depression.
At any rate, I’m saying this now in hopes that someone will read this and give a second thought to the critical glances and whispers, that instead of accusingly gossiping behind someone’s back they will actually go up to that person, if they want to know, and say, “how do you do it?”. Maybe that way they will actually gain some insight, and maybe even empathy. As a final thought, again, try not to let someone’s hobbies or career influence what you think they can or cannot be afflicted with. Doctors can catch colds. Comedians can be depressed. Singers can have anxiety. Just because the symptoms of a person’s illness seems contrary to their personality or career doesn’t make it less real, it likely just makes it that much harder for them to deal with. Mental illness isn’t who you are, it’s what stops you from being all you can be, and we shouldn’t be judging or assuming or criticizing those who have it, we should be trying to help find a way to get them back on track.
Read Shon’s poignant article, “Robin Williams’ Lewy Body Dementia Diagnosis Should Finally Crush the “Sad Clown” Myth”, in its entirety on Slate.com.