“‘What makes the desert beautiful,’ the little prince said, ‘is that it hides a well somewhere…'” -Antoine de Saint Exupéry
“Hi, I’m James! I’m three. My dad’s name is James too! This is my mom, but her name is Zena. This is my baby brother. We’re fifteen apart. We live by –” Thus began most of the conversations I had with strangers as a toddler, surprisingly confident for someone who didn’t know the word “months.” At this point, my mom would shoo me away before I shared every security-breaching detail of our lives. From a young age, my unfiltered public personality was always “on,” engaging others whenever possible.
Then, fifteen years later, I suddenly didn’t want to be around anyone. Though I wouldn’t identify it as such for another decade, I was suffering from my first major depressive episode. A freshman at Brown University, I attended almost none of my classes for seven weeks. At the time, I assumed I was becoming immensely lazy. This accentuated hopeless feelings of worthlessness and guilt, hallmark symptoms of depression. I also couldn’t stay asleep and spent hours apathetically wandering campus and the surrounding city.
During one of these aimless walks, a small sign outside a lecture hall caught my eye, reading “Auditions for Brown Stand-Up Comics.” Ever since middle school, I loved watching stand-up. I would dream up (awful) original jokes in my head, never thinking I could perform them myself. But passing the auditions that day, I depressingly thought, “No matter what they think of my jokes, it can’t be worse than what I think.” I went in, told some painfully novice jokes, and was accepted into the group.
Initially, this venture provided an unexpected benefit: performing with the stand-up group was a reprieve from feelings of isolation. Though I continued to spend most of my time alone, my joke-writing was a conduit for connecting with others, however peripherally. In striving to write jokes audiences could relate to, I engaged in a social role again and started to enjoy it. Unfortunately, my early jokes were founded on external observation rather than internal reflection. They were relatable comments on things I saw or heard, not what I was thinking or feeling. While this allowed me to look past my depression at the time, it did so by neglecting, rather than addressing, my emotions. Eventually, thanks to the episodic nature of the disorder, I pulled through this first chapter of mental illness without acknowledging it.
Over the years these episodes repeated, while I resisted noting anything pathological in my obvious depression. It wasn’t until I began medical school that I finally accepted something was wrong. School kept me so busy that my ability to escape through comedy suffered. I was still my silly extroverted self when I could manage it and connected with classmates through laughter. But the tension from hiding my inner struggle when depression struck was strained. I opted to sit at home alone in the dark more frequently to avoid feeling fake. I had to hide it. As in Marcel Marceau’s famous “Mask Maker” routine, I felt I had a laughing mask stuck on my face, one I couldn’t remove despite the distress.
Three years into my program, I realized I could no longer cope without professional help, and I called to set up my first mental health appointment. I’ve been in regular treatment ever since and finally feel I have a hold on my disorder. But the most surprising change for me was in my comedy writing. After spending time in therapy reflecting on my thoughts and feelings, I found myself doing so in my creative efforts too.
An idea from Robin Williams expresses this evolution best. At the memorial service following Robin’s death, Billy Crystal quoted his late friend’s description of the comedic process. In a discussion between the two, “Robin explained to him that it was like eating lobster: ‘You keep crushing stuff and then, hey, there’s something sweet where you didn’t expect it to be.’” Despite my lack of seafood expertise, this sentiment perfectly encapsulates the post-treatment approach I’ve noticed in my own writing. And the most rewarding manifestation of this method has come from combing my past depression for material, finding joy in moments when everything seemed so hopeless. This is therapeutic even when no viable routines develop.
For example, a few months ago I reflected on my first international vacation, traveling around Europe with close friends before beginning our graduate school programs. It should have been one of the best experiences of my life, and externally it was. But in therapy, I recognized that time as one of my worst major depressive episodes. Feelings of worthlessness were in full swing, I was crying in airports both to and from the trip for no reason, and my mind felt like it was moving through a swamp.
In Paris we visited the enormous Père Lachaise Cemetery. I immediately wandered away from my friends, losing myself in the labyrinthine gravestones as I brooded. While I wandered, lost, a middle-aged Frenchman asked if I needed help. Neither of us spoke the other’s language, but through an assortment of mimed gestures, he explained he was a cemetery guide, and I communicated what I wanted to see. He showed me around for an hour, and the entire time we never exchanged more than twenty understandable words. But somehow, amidst my depression, I connected with this kind man. I even got him to understand that I performed comedy, and he showed me plaques memorializing famous French clowns.
The best moment, however, came when he walked me to a large mausoleum with “Homer” inscribed above the entrance. He started laughing as he pointed at the name, leaving me confused. Soon he calmed down enough to say three words: “Homer. ‘Doh!’ Simpsons.” Then it hit me: it reminded him of the cartoon character Homer Simpson, and he thought a comedian would enjoy this. I lost it. Seconds later I was in tears, laughing so hard at the absurd humor the man saw in this simple joke he made outside a beautifully ornate tomb which was in no way inherently funny.
In the words of Robin Williams, this was a lobster crushing moment. It wasn’t until I looked back at this period of darkness that I realized a foreign stranger provided “something sweet” in the last place I expected. With ongoing therapy, as I keep “crushing” my encounters with depression, I don’t know if I’ll find anything sweet enough to include onstage. But the value of the process is undeniable. And I do think there’s something hilarious in those moments when a French stranger and I are doubled over laughing at a coincidental reference to “The Simpsons” outside a deceased family’s mausoleum in a giant graveyard. Three-year-old James would certainly be proud.
- Itzkoff, Dave. Robin. Henry Holt and Company, 2018, 418.