Make Me Laugh
[Caution. Another Robin Williams post. Well, more like a self-indulgent, self-reflection. I needed to vent some emotions. If anyone finds this post interesting, that is a bonus.]
I have an old video from 1995 the week of my 21st birthday hanging out with high school friends at the Denny’s near my high school. It was a year after I moved to Texas. The video makes me cringe because I remember sitting there desperate to make those people laugh. Deep down I knew that chapter was over and that I had to move on.
Back in Texas that summer, my step father (at the time) was planning to kill himself. We later found out that he took the gun out of his mouth because our dog, Muffy, could sense he was not OK and would not leave him alone. He waited a few more months until my mother was away on a trip, packed up his belongings, and left. I came home from work and found his note. My mother eventually tracked him down and he sorta got his life in order after that. But he drastically altered the direction of my life and helped set the stage for my own depression.
I had to quit school and go to work full time. My step-father was gone long enough for his business and his finances to collapse. My parents sold their home and left Texas after declaring bankruptcy. Soon I would be living alone in a roach infested cinder-block efficiency apartment, two blocks from a school I could not afford to attend. 1996 was the first year I really experienced depression. The only girl I had ever loved (up until then) lived in another state and got a new boyfriend. My job paid $6.50 an hour, barely keeping me afloat. I could not afford to repair my decrepit car. I had no new friends and my high school friends did not live near enough to see regularly. I turned 22 that June and had lost my path forward. I was miserable. On top of this I had major brain oxygen deprivation as I slept thanks to a deviated septum that would not be diagnosed or repaired for another 14 years. Did I mention I had no medical insurance at the time either?
I remember driving home after work one day and all the cars on I-35 were pulled over. People were taking shelter from a massive shelf cloud and responding to the sirens warning of the tornado. I drove right into it. I wanted to get home and sleep, which thankfully was my drug of choice back then. I never considered suicide as a serious option ever in my life, but that night I kinda wanted the tornado to take me out. I just didn’t care. It wasn’t until visiting Denton, TX after Misty and I got engaged in 2006 that I realized I lived with a constant pit in my stomach the entire time I lived there from 1996-1999. It isn’t until that dread was gone that I could see I had been in a state of constant, daily fear. At the time it was just my normal. The first ten months of 1996 was just abnormally bad.
I owe much thanks to Troy, a high school friend, who moved to Denton in the fall of 1996. But there was a bright moment that summer. I ran into my future wife at the grocery store. She was shopping with her fiance and she said hello, remembering me from fall marching band, 1994. Being a shy person, I didn’t know how to make friends easily. I spent decades working at being social. Once I do become friends with you, I will be a great friend (as long as you are willing to put up with my dark side). I had a tight group of great friends in high school, but that was after being stuck in the same school together for four years. Which brings me back to Denny’s 1995.
I have video of myself sitting around a table at the Roseville Denny’s, desperately trying to be funny for my old high school friends. I was clinging to a time when I was voted class clown; when I was the only guy ever to do stand-up comedy in my high school; when I had a group of close friends. The video makes me cringe because there is so much desperation in what I am trying to do at that table in Denny’s. That video was shot before I knew my step-father was suicidal, but I look back to that trip and realize I was already a little lost.
I think my sadness started when all my high school friends went off to college and I stayed behind not knowing what the hell I was going to do. Two years later I got into college only to quit after my step-dad went tits up. I got back in again for a year and a half only to quit again for financial reasons. Got a better job, got back into school, and quit school again when the job ended. Eventually I landed an amazing job in San Francisco. Laid off. Another amazing job in Sacramento. Laid off. Which brings me to 2003. Once again I was alone, financially compromised, and very depressed having no clue what to do next. This constant negative state of mind starts to alter your brain chemistry. And I am one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to deal with serious manic depression. I just had a shitty decade. I know what depression feels like but I have NO CLUE what it feels like for someone with lifelong clinical depression. I am so disgusted with the Twitter psychologists who say, “Well why didn’t Robin Williams just do such and such?” Or that scumbag Rush Limbaugh who said liberalism killed Robin Williams. Fuck you, Rush.
Depression isn’t about being sad. It is a chemical state of the mind. My depression peaked in 1996. I experienced it again in 2003 after two layoffs derailed the beginnings of a great career that, at the time, let me briefly experience a good life. My depression, as bad as it might have been for me, was never close to what my step-father experienced, or Robin Williams, or other family members of mine who have been diagnosed with clinical depression. But I understand it more than most. I am really sick of reading these scumbags on the internet say, “Well why didn’t Robin get help?” He did, Asshole! For decades.
Imagine you are in a car accident, you are unharmed, but the person next to you says, “Hey, you’re not hurt! The accident is over. Snap out of it, Stupid!” You would punch that idiot in the mouth because your brain is saturated with chemicals that override all logic. Imagine being pumped full of adrenaline 24 hours a day for years. Now imagine instead of agitating you, making your mind alert, and your body ready for action… imagine if it did the exact opposite.
You can no more shake off “the sad” than you can shake off the adrenaline after you’ve been in a nasty car accident. It feels like you are falling into a bottomless pit. I was so disconnected at times when I was depressed that I found myself standing in a random aisle at the supermarket staring off into nowhere. Suddenly I would look around and think, “How long have I been standing here?” Even in the case of treatable, mild depression, a person may take a year to fully snap out of it. Robin Williams was bipolar for his whole life.
There is another connection I feel to Robin Williams. I have always been the clown and others have often said I reminded them of him. It is a huge compliment and I have always taken it to mean people find me funny. But the comparison runs deeper. We both have a dark side. Granted, I am a very light, mild, less intense, non-famous, mediocre version of him who is likely to never accomplish 1% of what he did in his life. That is probably why I’m stable. As a “funnyman”, when I am feeling down my instinct is to run away and hide so that I don’t depress others who are used to being entertained by me. I tend to only REALLY share innermost feelings with friends I really trust. I am not alone. Most stand up comics I have known, and I’ve known a ton, are just as twisted an messed up in the brain as me. We tend to be bipolar by nature. It’s both a gift and a curse sometimes. It can drive us to create and inspire us to feel and express. At an early age, most comics turned to comedy for help. Laughter is both our superpower and our kryptonite.
There are times when I have felt that not getting a laugh was akin to rejection. It is no surprise I did the most stage time at comedy clubs during the years 1996 and 2003 when I was the most depressed. Laughter is approval to us clowns. That is especially powerful when you are young and very insecure. I escaped constant belittling and ridicule from my brother by going to school and making my friends laugh. At home I was mocked and marginalized, seeking solitude to escape into my own world. Around my friends I was validated. Laughter is how I overcame shyness and got others to notice me. I once made my friend Greg laugh so hard in the first grade that he fell off the jungle gym and knocked the wind out of himself and kept laughing. That power is intoxicating. Especially for someone who felt insecure and repressed.
The problem with being the clown is that you can uplift the world but they don’t always reciprocate. In my case, I was there to uplift those at school, work, or home. But what about when I needed uplifting? I remember in the peak of my 2003 misery, my corporate Kinko’s job ended and I had to work the remaining several months at a Kinko’s branch. The manager thanked me for always making our assistant manager laugh. She had a rough life and I would come into work singing “Hold Me Closer Tony Danza” along with the radio. In the middle of of my own depression I took small hits of joy by making others laugh.
There are many other examples in my life when I have been really down, had no energy whatsoever to be funny, and others got mad at me for not making THEM feel better. Some would say that they relied on my silliness to get them through the day. Well pardon the hell out of me if I have a bad day, let alone bad year. That is when you see who your real friends are. The ones who stick with you when you are so miserable that you lash out at the world. Your real friends see you act like an arrogant jackoff and can tell that it’s all an act. They can tell when you are just ranting, knowing that the bitterness in your humor is mostly a defense mechanism. They put up with your bile for a few minutes and then disarm you completely with a few compassionate words. I guarantee you that if you are a good friend of mine and I have ever been hurtful to you, I was wounded at the time.
I have never been this happy and content in my life, partly thanks to my situation. I married my best friend, life is great, my dogs are wonderful, career is moving forward, etc. But I also know what misery feels like. The contrast between misery and joy helps you fully appreciate the two states. My happiness today made me realize how miserable I was in the past. It might be no surprise that the last time I did stand-up comedy was the few months before Misty moved in with me. People say it all the time and don’t mean it, but Misty honestly is the best thing to ever happen to me. There is one happy ending to my step-father and all his misery. His mental instability, and desire to flee when things get tough, is why my parents moved to Texas in the first place. If they had not moved there I would never have applied to the University of North Texas. Who was the very first student I met in college? Misty.
To quote Tom Hanks in that film where he was marooned on an island full of FedEx product placements: “You never know what the tide will bring you.”
What is the point of this post? I don’t know. Introspection? Self indulgence? Therapy? All of the above, I suppose. At the end of the day we are each the captain of of our own ships and it is a good idea to dock often and check our hull for holes. My ship is in great shape right now. But you never know what the tide will bring you.
My friend Clark killed himself several years ago the day after we all went and saw Doug Stanhope. He suffered from chronic pain and decided to check out. Clark waited a few extra days so he could see his favorite comic one last time. I am glad I was one of few who got to be with him at that comedy show the night before. I was fairly stoic about his death and I empathized with his choice, especially in the context of his chronic pain. Other than my former step father, a few other family members made suicide attempts. For the sake of privacy I won’t mention them directly.
The suicide of Robin Williams reminded me of so many of my own experiences in dealing with my own depression, being a comedian, and people I love trying to kill themselves. I generally don’t react when a celebrity dies. Losing George Carlin was hard for me, but he had a long history of heart disease and his fifth heart attack was inevitable. I was very stoic about Robin Williams at first. I didn’t start to be reflective about his death until I saw this online. The quote is from The Watchmen, but in the context of the Robin Williams suicide, plus this image of him…
It just wrecked me.