Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Interview: Therese Borchard on the Dark Side of Funny

Therese Borchard has come out with a terrific new memoir of depression, Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression and Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes, that had me rolling in the aisles. That’s right, a book about depression that is funny. I decided to confront Therese on this ...

John: Listen, Therese. William Styron’s memoir of depression was bleak. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar was heart-breaking. Yet, here you are, agony with a thousand punch lines. This has to be sacrilegious.

Therese: Funny you should ask the question that way. Gus Lloyd, who has a radio show on Sirius Satellite, confronted me with the same thing this morning. But he asked me, “How do you know when you are using humor and comedy to heal, and when it is perceived as offensive?” I responded, “I don’t. I guess that’s why a lot of people stay away from humor.” I typically offend 5 to 10 percent of my readers when I use sarcasm and wit in a post. So should I skip the attitude satire? Absolutely not. I hate to say this – it sounds cold and heartless – but I’d rather offend five listeners to allow 95 listeners a moment of healing laughter, than to stay boring and safe. It’s sort of the opposite philosophy of Jesus and the lost sheep. I’d rather lose one sheep in order to help out the 99 that are desperate for a laugh. Sorry, Jesus.

John: Uh, uh. I’m not letting you get away with that. By your own admission, you’re a self-confessed manic-depressive, alcoholic, stage-four people pleaser; ritual performing weirdo, hormonally imbalanced female, and Catholic. What could possibly be funny about that? Honey, you got some ‘splainin’ to do.

Therese: Here’s the deal, John. It goes back to the Seinfeld rule on humor. You remember that episode? When Jerry is telling dentist jokes and his dentist calls him an anti-dentite. And the dentist converts to Judaism so he can tell Jewish jokes safely? If someone came up to me and said, “Therese, you are one manic-depressive, alcoholic, people-pleasing, ritual-performing weirdo!” I would be offended if they A) were wearing ugly clothes, B) could not laugh at themselves too, C) could not check off anything in the DSM-IV, and D) had no sense of humor. I have earned the right to call myself all those things with levity because … for crying out loud … I’ve wanted to die for big chunks my life. Cut me some fricking slack! Now if a former co-worker of mine emails another co-worker and accidentally copies me on the email in which she says I’m looney (true story, actually), then yes, I have a right to be pissed. But can I call myself looney? ABSOLUTELY. I say let’s err on the side of recklessness.

John: Right, that’s your story and you’re sticking to it. Okay, let’s shift gears a bit. Some of our darkest thinkers in history also doubled as our greatest humorists. I’m thinking of Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and George Carlin. You can also throw in Shakespeare and Swift. What accounts for this? Were they as twisted as you are?

Therese: I believe in the theory of the rubber band. Your brain (sanity) is stretched, and stretched, and stretched, and stretched to where it … ZAP! … just snaps one day, and from that day on, everything in life is somewhat hysterical because you can’t believe how messed up the world is. You see everyone around you trying to walk straight while juggling five heavy suitcases of baggage … and for some reason, it’s funny, and you know you can’t take life so seriously. As G.K. Chesterston once said, “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

Stephen Colbert was interviewed in Parade magazine a while back, and he explained the night to burst out of his shell of pretension and was able to fully be himself on stage. He said, "Something burst that night, and I finally let go of the pretension of not wanting to be a fool." I don’t know, John, something burst in the psych ward, where I sat eating rubber chicken with women wearing granny underwear for everyone to see and painting birdhouses with a teenage boy who wanted to hook up with me at the mall after we were discharged. Some people probably wouldn’t find the humor in it. But man, they do make great social hour stories (and especially since I don’t drink or use any illegal drugs).

John: Are you trying to tell me that had you been born “normal,” you’d be some shallow humorless stuck in the mud?

Therese: Yes. Absolutely. Haven’t you noticed that pattern? Those who’ve had rather uneventful lives don’t have as much to say at cocktail parties as the ones who have been cleaning up feces for a few decades. As much as I curse depression and bipolar disorder (and most of the DSM-IV that I’m diagnosed with … let’s be honest), it has brought me the blessings of humor, perspective, compassion, humility. Plus I write better! Because I no longer have to make stuff up anymore. There actually WAS a guy in my inpatient unit that tried killing himself by chugging down a gallon of Tide laundry detergent. And there WAS a psychotic woman who attacked an innocent 97 year old man one night because she said her spouse slept with the old man’s wife! Let me tell you, that group therapy session was interesting!

John: In all seriousness, Therese, you are a gift to humanity. Any concluding words?

Therese: Thank you, John. As I’ve said to you before, I have no idea how I am going to repay all your kindness and generosity. I think you should rename your blog as “Beyond Blue Promotion Site.” I suppose I must quote Kay Redfield Jamison here, because she gets credit for my philosophy on humor, and I live by her words every day. She says, “Tumultuousness, if coupled to discipline and a cool mind, is not such a bad sort of thing. That unless one wants to live a stunningly boring life, one ought to be on good terms with one’s darker side and one’s darker energies.” I guess I ran from my darker side for so many years. And that just made me more afraid. So now I try to look the beast in the eyes and ask him what he’s got for me, and, whenever possible, to “break his face” as Jerry Seinfeld says, to make him laugh.

Show your gratitude to someone who helped you in your time of need. Nominate your favorite mental health grunt for a free copy of Therese Borchard’s Beyond Blue. See: Calling All Mental Health Grunts.

Purchase Beyond Blue from Amazon


herb said...

Good for you Therese and all the others for trying to maintain a sense a humor throughout all your trials and tribulations.

Speaking from another perspective and that of a support person I know my spouse despite all the years of her pain, agony and suffering has laughed and cajoled and continues to do so despite her many challenges as do I. Our sense of humor (sometimes off-beat) has simply been the best of medicines to have kept us going.

And John as I’ve often stated your work and efforts to maintain positivism despite the heinous nature of these disorders is more unique and a very refreshing contribution to the mental health community in cyberspace.

Folks keep up your healthy efforts to also have shared laughter and thanks once again.


Anonymous said...

If I couldn't laugh at my situation, I would have no joy at all. Crying is a release, but so is laughter..it releases stress.
Sometimes, when another event threatens my sanity..there is nothing I can do but laugh..and reading books on depression and self help and sadness..without a witty comment..or a silly statement that makes you laugh out loud,would simply be a sad read that does nothing to make you feel better. A sense of humor is necessary for all of us who suffer from any form of mental illness.
Bravo for humor!

Anonymous said...

If I read a book about depression with no humor in it. When I was done, I'd be so depressed, I'd probably have to slit my throat. But, I doubt I'd finish a book like that. I' likely quit midway to head for a comedy club. It would be a better therapy. Humor is medicine.
Laughter jump starts my heart and keeps my lungs breathing long after they should have quit from being filled with asbestos and scar tissue. Even though asbestos has wrecked my lungs and will probably kill me. I figure they're, at least, flame retardant by now. Which I think is funny. So, that makes me charcoal. Oops, I mean chuckle.
If you ask me, humor fits in with nearly anything

Anonymous said...

Therese, you are absolutely right on this! Sometimes humor is what gets us through... I have found this in my support group for childhood abuse (we definitely have "black humor" but it keeps us laughing instead of crying) and later found the same thing in my support group for Crohn's and Colitis.. there are things that no one else can understand other than folks who are also going through it, and while those who haven't experienced the same things might recoil in horror at the situation, those who have been there often have the gift of making it funny, and laughter is healing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Therese--I just wanted to applaude you for going where few people would with this book. I wanted to share with you that I have had chronic pain from a couple of accidents I had in the early 90s and resultant back complications (herniated disks, etc) as well as fibromyalgia all throughout my body. I too have dealt with depression throughout my life. Like you I find humor helps. For me I tell jokes to anyone and everyone to help me deal with my pain that I am in on a daily basis and that never goes away, just changes in intensity. There are days when I can barely move, but I can still tell a joke to someone. My favorite is every time I go in for any kind of scan, etc and they ask me if I smoke. My reply: Only if I am on fire, and if you see me smoking please roll me around and put me out. Hee hee. Gotta keep laughing, as that is all that gets you through the day sometimes. I just wanted to share.

Anonymous said...

Great, great interview. I know Therese Borchard and can testify to her sufferings and to her compassion. She IS a funny girl, and has earned it! Her book is a treasure. -- Mike

John McManamy said...

Hi, everyone. Thanks for the endorsement. The DBSA group that I facilitated in Princeton was fairly raucous, with a comedy club atmosphere. I would notice people come in reporting a miserable depression at the beginning of meetings, then leaving with a spring to their steps. It wasn't my brilliant facilitating, take my word for it. We had people in that group who could get everyone - literally everyone - laughing, and that was surely the best medicine.

By contrast, I've attended groups that were so depressing I entered upbeat and left depressed.

I know humor doesn't work for everyone, and when you're in the midst of a force 9 depression absolutely nothing is funny. But I do believe depression allows us to look at life's absurdities and see the human comedy in the supposedly ordinary. And when we use this gift we are able to somehow rise above one of the most devastating illnesses on the planet.

Anonymous said...

Hello. Humor is one of our greatest attributes. Humor has gotten me through these past 20 years. I believe that if I can make another, full fledge laugh, then '1' of my purposes...is fulfilled. And making someone laugh is one of life's priceless gifts!

karl c. said...

That was funny seeing you get BACK into your refrigerator at the end of the video.

Anonymous said...

*Stands up*

My Names anonymous and I'm a depressaholic. It has been... well no time at all really since I had my last glass of depressionade. I will admit to laughing very quietly while reading this and smiling while no one was looking.

It's so good to hear a fellow sufferer acknowledging humour as a weapon they use without guilt. I use it all the time online but the few people I know in the real world just don't get my darker blend of funny and often make me feel guilty for trying to see the humour in sadder parts of life. After all, a depressive should be depressed at all times, failure to do so only reveals you were never really depressed at all. Yeah right and anyone with a cough has to cough constantly or they're putting it on too right?

I digress, I will get this book, it sounds like a must read.

*sits down*

Anonymous said...

At last I am validated.Thank you Thank you.After being revived 4 times after a heart attack my Doctor looked down at me sitting in the hospital bed and said in pompous tones "You are a very sick lady"I looked at him and with a grin said am I? Thinking to myself WOW this guy is a dead ringer for Tom Selleck. I Had to have open heart surgery and when I 1st woke up in ICU I looked around and thought Holy Crap I made it I'm alive.Nurses picked up on the fact I love a good laugh.3 months later I left the hospital and no matter what comes my way I always find something to laugh at about the situation. Works for me.I was recently told some people don't like me because I laugh too much and I am too happy.How can you be TOO HAPPY?

John McManamy said...

Hi, Anonymous. I can really relate. I often get accused of being hypomanic. My attitude is I don't care. I've been through way too much darkness and sadness in my life, so I am going to milk every up moment for what it's worth. No one laughs as loud as me. I used to put brakes on this kind of behavior, as I tried to "fit in." But I actually get on much better with people when I'm myself - even if it means incurring the disapproval of some.

Here's to being too happy! You go!

Anonymous said...

I'll give up chocolate before I give up having a warped sense of humor...this coming from someone who stands in line at the grocery store and drinks from a can of Hershey's syrup.
During my last attempt at a DIY final exit, this thought came to mind, "I shoulda gone to Hawaii...Damn!"
Prim and proper ran like hell during my baptism under fire as an Army nurse during the Tet Offensive. Black and white humor kept us going; patients and medical professionals alike. It was the best thing I brought home with me. It sure beats the jungle rot still found on my feet...
Ever see a group of Vets with PTSD having lunch? See who is sitting with their backs to the wall, it's a contest to see how long you can hold your pee so you don't lose your seat when you get up.
At my age, I cackle and toot dust. I earned these things and more by not taking up residence in the town of Woe-Is-Me. Yep, I'm a transient when it comes to that town.
But my visits there are down by 98% since I stopped groaning and moaning sans sex and started laughing while having sex and living my life.
Peace with the reflection in the mirror, yes?

Amy said...

It's not unusual for me to be crying and laughing at the same time, and it astonishes me that most people think that's weird.

Many years ago illness made it impossible for me to do my work and I was trying to get a medical leave from IBM. It was a nightmare: Managers and medical personnel would tell me one thing today and then deny ever having said any such thing another day; they broke many of their own rules and policies in the process; it's a long story. One day I was recounting the whole absurd story-so-far to a colleague I hadn't seen in a while, to which he said, "Amy, you'll never convince anybody you're sick if you keep laughing about the situation." I told him that if he ever suspected I'd lost my sense of humor he should call an ambulance for me because that would mean I was in *serious* trouble.

Later, at a similar suggestion while I was applying for Social Security disability (which took 5 years), I said, "I know sick people are supposed to be all morose and miserable all the time, but I could never pull that off with a straight face!"


John McManamy said...

Hey, everyone again. Great stories. Great insights. We certainly tapped into something major here. Keep posting ...

Anonymous said...

Hi. I'm a depressive woman who has dealt with the stuff life has thrown at me with humor, too. I understand what you meant about viewing the world in a different way.
When my house was on fire and I stood outside in an ice storm watching the flames consume my familyroom while waiting for the firetrucks to arrive I started laughing. It all seemed so absurd. The firemen arrived and tried to walk up the slight incline to my garage, hoses in hands, and they would nearly reach the garage and then in slow motion they slide back to the bottom of the drive. I wish I'd filmed it. It was so funny.
After the fire was put out there was a huge hole in the middle of the floor where they had had to chop it up to maintain the fire. There was black smoke everywhere and an awful mess. Nothing was saved. They had the fans blowing the smoke outside and were standing in a circle around the hole. I walked in and joined them and in my best "Mom" voice I said, "Look at the filthy mess you made!!" In unison, these exhausted men looked up with fear in there eyes, as though "mom" had caught them being naughty. Those faces were priceless. As soon as I started laughing the tension left their faces and they laughed, too. We laughed until we cried. But in a good way.

John McManamy said...

Hi, Anonymous. This story is absolutely priceless. Many many thanks for sharing.