Category Archives: Mental health

How to perform a comedy show to an audience with dementia in a care home

Ben Targét (left) & Pope Lonergan are working on a project

So I chatted to comedy performers Pope Lonergan and Ben Targét…

“The two of you have this joint project,” I said. “Does it have a name?”

“At the moment,” Pope told me, “it just has the banner title of The Care Home Tour. One thing we are doing is a three-hour Alzheimer’s benefit Forgetting But Not Forgotten, organised with Angel Comedy at the Bill Murray in London on 2nd October. Lots of different comedians.”

“It’s a great line-up,” said Ben. “Richard Gadd, Lou Sanders, Robin Ince, Candy Gigi, lots more.”

“And,” said Pope, “we are doing two Work In Progress shows in the lead-up to that. We are doing those with Fight in the Dog, which is Liam Williams’ production company. The whole thing is being supported by NextUp and they’re partially funding it.”

“And these shows lead to?” I asked.

“A performance that is specifically tailored for an audience with dementia in a care home. I mean, anyone can enjoy it, but the feed line/punch line of a conventional joke is too complicated. They can’t follow the logic of it. Instead, they respond with a visceral, limbic response to visual comedy and physical comedy – the slapstick stuff.”

“What is limbic?” I asked.

Cross section of the human brain showing parts of the limbic system from below. (Illustration from Traité d’Anatomie et de Physiologie, 1786)

“The limbic system,” Pope explained. “When we process music. It’s an emotional response, a visceral response; it’s like our primitive brain. It’s what develops early in children. There’s a correlation between child development and mental deterioration.”

“So the humour,” I said, “must not be too sophisticated.”

“A perfectly-structured joke is not gonna land,” said Pope.

“It’s got to be driven,” Ben added, “by the visual rather than by words. How the residents are stimulated is no longer through wordplay or story.”

“But they can,” I checked, “be stimulated through sound and music and audio effects?”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Pope. “100%. Even when they have really advanced dementia, if you start singing something like Knees Up, Mother Brown, they all know the words.”

“Is there,” I asked, “a difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s?

Pope explained: “Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia. Dementia is the umbrella term. There’s Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s… My nan and David Baddiel’s dad both had Pick’s Disease – frontal lobe dementia – and that made my nan very libidinous. She was having sex with a lot of the men in the care home.”

“At what age?” I asked.

“About 85. She done well. Every time we went in, one of the carers would come over to my dad and say: Mark… A word? And my dad would come out pale, saying: Yer nan’s been at it again.”

“Is anyone going to be offended if I print that?” I asked.

Ben Targét & Pope Lonergan take afternoon tea

“No, no,” said Pope. “Good on her, you know? People with dementia obviously have diminished responsibility. They don’t really know what they’re consenting to etc, so there’s a line. But we have a husband and wife in the home who have been married 60 years. We have caught them in flagrante having sex and some people have said: We need to stop them. But that was not policy. It was just some people projecting their own discomfort. They are a married couple. They are adults. They are married. Why on earth would you stop them?”

“At a certain age,” said Ben, “we stop seeing people as adults and they become infantilised in our eyes. I don’t know if we are trained to or whether it is innate.”

“And that’s where it’s tricky,” Ben added. “Infantilised means dehumanised. The efficacy of their brain is not what it used to be but they are still adult, complex human beings.”

“I can say,” I checked with Pope, “that you work in the care industry?”

“Of course you can,” he told me.

“I am always wary,” I explained, “about saying comedians have a ‘proper’ daytime job because punters want to think of them as full-time professional comics.”

“Most of us have proper jobs,” said Ben.

“But sometimes don’t want to admit to it,” I suggested.

“We should, though,” said Ben. “I think it makes us way cooler. You get far more respect from people if you are grounded in reality.”

“Yeah,” said Pope. “Some comics think they are de-legitimised by it – Oh, my God, I’m actually part of the real world! I actually have a real job!”

“So you work in a care home,” I said to Pope, “but Ben, how did you get involved in this?”

“I used to work in care homes as well,” he told me, “as a teenager – when I was about 16 or 17. And recently Josie Long introduced me to Pope because he was looking to work with people who do physical and visual comedy. So I am trying to assemble a troupe who are willing to embrace the project.

October 2nd Benefit before the gig on 9th

“We are building to this first gig on October 9th in the care home and we do think of it as like the first exploration vessel that’s been sent out. We are hoping to reassess afterwards and then, in the New Year, do more gigs across the country in care homes.”

“There are,” Pope said, “loads of comedians who have expressed an interest. Sara Pascoe used to do theatre productions for people with dementia in care homes.”

“And there’s David Baddiel,” Ben added. “And Adam Riches – who has a lot of experience in his family of dementia and caring for people. And Phil Nichol. I’m interested to see Phil because, every time I have seen him, he’s got naked on stage and yelled at the audience!”

“Then,” said Pope, “there’s John Kearns. And Deborah Frances-White has been very supportive: she was the one who got David Baddiel interested. And Josie Long has been vital in putting it all together.

“I had done some of Josie’s gigs at the Black Heart. I was trying to figure out a way to incorporate my experiences in the care home into my stand-up act.

“Josie said: I’d love to see you bring your authentic experience of working in the home to your act. I told her: The problem is there’s a bit of dualism there. The way they act is not like the normal way ‘we’ behave. So you love the residents, you’re compassionate, you really care for them, but there is also a day-to-day blackly comic streak that you can’t put on stage because it would just sound horrible: that you are laughing at vulnerable people.

“The first time I done it, it was a bit too nasty, really. I didn’t intend it to be like that, but I hadn’t honed the material and it just came across as a bit mean-spirited. Afterwards, this woman who was apparently a High Court judge was shouting at me about it. It’s sort-of a tight-rope walk.”

“Even more so,” I suggested, “when performing to people with dementia?”

Josie Long said: “I’d love to see you bring your authentic experience to your act.”

“There are so many different types of dementia,” said Pope. “With some, the language centre (in the brain) has really diminished. Some have still got linguistic capacity – really good – they can process it. But still the normal, conventional joke is a bit too convoluted for them. So I always do things like shit gymnastics or shit karate. Anything that’s a minor spectacle they really respond to and laugh at.”

“Surreal,” I said, “rather than verbal.”

“Oh, absolutely,” said Pope. “Anything that is a minor spectacle and visual and silly. If you do wry observational comedy about Donald Trump, it won’t work.”

“Will seeing comedy,” I asked, “actually help them or is it just passing the time?”

“It is definitely better for their welfare,” said Pope, “in that there is a deficit in certain types of stimulation. When it comes to interaction, they don’t want to get up and be physically active, but they do want to be engrossed in something. They do want to sit there and watch something.

“We have told the comedians who are involved that they will have to re-calibrate their idea of what a successful gig is. There ain’t gonna be uproarious laughter. There ain’t gonna be the energy of a comedy club. But, even if the audience are not outwardly laughing, it doesn’t mean they are not stimulated and enjoying what they are watching. They always feel better after they have experienced some kind of entertainment.”

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Filed under Comedy, Mental health, Mental illness, Psychology

Don’t take hallucinogenic drugs on the beach until wolf population diminishes.

I have received another missive from this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent, Anna Smith. She lives on a boat on a river in Vancouver. This is what she says:

A psychiatrist from Imperial College in London named Dr Nutt was on the CBC radio today, extolling the therapeutic benefits of LSD, psilocybin, Ayahuasca and ketamine (not all at once though) to treat depression and to combat suicidal thoughts.

I agree with him that it’s tragic that doctors are not allowed to prescribe these drugs (except for experimental use) when they could be used to prevent suicide.

They were outlawed because they were the only drugs to have a political effect (like making people not feel like engaging in war).

There are some contraindications against hallucinogens – for example in young people and in people predisposed to schizophrenia.

On Vancouver Island, some beaches had to be closed because wolves were attacking dogs.

On a different beach there were guns fired in a dispute over clam licences.

I don’t recommend taking drugs on the beach until the wolf population diminishes and the shootouts die down.

In fact it’s never a good idea to take drugs on a beach. Better to take them on stage in a busy strip club or somewhere near a hospital.

One of my neighbours, the sturgeon fisherman, became concerned because he noticed I was filling up bleach bottles with water from a hose. He thought I was going to drink it. He wanted to give me some plastic jugs of store-bought water and I had a job to convince him that I prefer the water from the hose. My hose is attached to a spigot that is attached to a pipe that is attached to the water main that delivers fresh water from the nearby glaciers on Mount Seymour. It’s probably the best water in the world other than drinking straight from a stream.

Hoses are an important subject of discussion out here.

I don’t mind that.

One of my best friends was called The Hose Guy.

Last night I discovered a Mongolian man singing at the bus stop. After I asked him if he was singing Mongolian songs (as he seemed to be doing) he asked, in surprise, in halting English, whether I was going to Mongolia.

I said: “No. I’m going to Montreal.”

I asked him if there were lots of redheads in Mongolia and he said no. They have lots of grass and lots of sheep. He put his hands on his head to mimic a sheep’s ears because it was hard for me to understand his accent.

Here is a hip hop Smoke Dance which I thought you might like to see.

 

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Filed under Canada, Drugs, Mental health

‘Queer As Jokes’ – The new LGBT comedy night starting this weekend

Simon Caine, begetter of the Queer As Jokes night

Simon Caine, begetter of Queer As Jokes night

So, this Sunday, I am going to a new monthly LGBT comedy night – Queer As Jokes – at Angel Comedy’s Bill Murray venue in London. The evening is being organised by Simon Caine, who runs the comedy industry Facebook group The Comedy Collective and the interview-based Ask The Industry Podcast.

“You are full of ideas and projects,” I told him. “What do you do in your ‘day job’?”

“It is probably,” he told me, “60% or 70% writing jokes for brands for Twitter and Facebook and then 15% I do stuff for clubs and stuff – helping them out with their social media – helping them, basically, build a community around what they’re doing.”

“Do you work from home?” I asked.

“It depends on the job,” he told me, “but I have an office at home. I have psychological problems which mean I am so used to living in one room that I have put the bed in the kitchen along with a cupboard where I keep my stuff in. It’s a one-bedroom flat. So, in the room that is meant to be a bedroom, I have put a desk in the middle and do my work in there.”

“Why?” I asked.

Simon editing his Ask The Industry podcast at home

Simon edits his prestigious Ask The Industry podcast at home

“I just like having all my stuff in one room so, when I cross the corridor, I feel like I am travelling to work. A girl who came there was a little taken aback.

“She asked me Why have you put your bed in the kitchen? and I told her Because I like all my stuff in one room. She asked me: Doesn’t that get confusing? I told her: It’s more comfortable for me. Why would it be confusing?

“Does this one-room thing,” I asked, “go back to your student days?”

“Well,” Simon told me, “I lived at home until I was at university. I lived in one room at uni and then I moved back to my parents’ house and, when I moved in with my girlfriend, we lived in one of the rooms in a one-bedroom flat because her mum was living in the living room… It’s a long story… And then I moved back to my parents’ place and then I moved out and now I just like being in one room. I’m sure I will slowly edge back into having a bedroom separately.”

“Anyway,” I said, “why are you starting an LGBT night? You are not gay. What do you know about such things?”

“I am,” he explained, “running it with Tom Mayhew, the gay comedian. I put myself down as an ally for LGBT stuff but, no, I can’t properly relate to it, cos I’m not in that and never really been in that. For a long time, I was pansexual.”

Simon performing (Photo by Viktoria DeRoy)

“You are attracted to woodland creatures and play a flute?” (Photo by Viktoria DeRoy)

I asked: “You are attracted to woodland creatures and play a flute?”

“No,” Simon said, “you are attracted to someone personality-wise. You can see their sexual attractiveness but you very rarely find them sexually appealing until you’ve got to know them.

“That was how I defined my sexuality for about four or five years but, in the last three months of last year, I met two girls who I immediately found sexually appealing which was weird, because I hadn’t found that for ages. So that was interesting. I am straight, but it’s kinda complicated. I find men attractive, but I’ve never found them sexually appealing. It’s kinda weird like that.”

I asked: “You mean you find men aesthetically attractive?”

“Yeah. Yeah. I dunno. I’ve got a weird relationship with my gender at the moment. I’ve got a lot of polyamorous friends and a lot of kink friends and all of them say regular comedy nights are very heteronormative and very geared towards straight people.”

“So,” I asked, “that is why you’re starting this monthly LGBT night?”

Simon Caine - Buddhism and Cats

Simon’s comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe

“It’s more because I realised I was bored of the comedy circuit. It’s awful at the moment. There are a lot of straight white men talking about Tinder and their failed dating lives. I’ve got a lot of friends who are in LGBT or another minority group who don’t get booked as often as they maybe should. Why not? And does it mean they don’t get to develop as much as other acts who get more stage time?… How many clubs have you been to in the last two weeks where they’ve had a person overtly talking about their sexuality who wasn’t straight? I just thought I would put on a new gig where I would actively look for new voices I had not heard.”

“But,” I suggested, “is having gay people talking about being gay in an LGBT night not restricting them in their own niche pigeonhole?”

“Everyone,” suggested Simon, “gets pigeonholed at some point when they get to a certain level.”

“So,” I said, “you are going to run these Sunday night LGBT shows every month?”

“We are going to do the first four monthly nights as a charity thing and then, after that, depending on how it goes, we would run them as a monthly pro gig (i.e. paying the acts).”

“They are themed?” I asked.

“Yes. The themes we have down for the four shows are… January – New Years… February – Anti-Valentines… March – Anti Steak and Blowjob Day… And, for April, we will probably do April Fools.”

“Anti steak and blowjobs?” I asked.

Simon Caine strikes me as a glass half full man

Simon Caine strikes me as a glass half full man

“Yes,” said Simon. “Some men got together and said they hated Valentine’s Day because it was ‘for women’ and they wanted ‘a day for men’ so they started a steakandblowjobs website for men. Ours would be an Anti Steak & Blowjob Day night.”

“Ah,” I said. “And, given that you are always full of new ideas…beyond the monthly Queer As Jokes nights… any other projects?”

“I have,” said Simon, “briefly talked to a friend of mine – a black comedian – about starting a black gig later in the year. Obviously, I would not be performing in that.”

“You could black up?” I suggested.

“No,” said Simon.

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Filed under Comedy, Gay, Mental health, Sex

How to become a comedy promoter? – Tim Rendle stripped for a policewoman

Tim Rendle in London’s Leicester Square

Tim Rendle in London’s Leicester Square, near the Lion’s Den

Last night, I went to the weekly Tuesday night Lion’s Den Comedy Club (aka Comedy Car Crash) in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, run by Tim Rendle.

How do you become a comedy club promoter?

If Tim Rendle is anything to go by, then fuck knows.

He has been a painter, barman and baby sitter, web designer, magician and spy hole fitter. He has sold windows and doors, installed security systems, flipped burgers, busked with a drum and his first ever self-employed job was as a car washer when he was nine.

There is also a bit of controversy, because the Lion’s Den is a pay-to-play club. Acts have to pay to appear on his comedy night and there is no quality control at all.

“So,” I said when I met him, “pay-to-play. Terrible idea. Why do comics have to pay to perform? Why can’t you just make money from punters paying on the door to get in?”

Comic Johnny Vegas (left) with Tim at the Lion’s Den

Johnny Vegas (left) with Tim at the Den

“It’s really hard,” he told me, “to get an audience for open mic nights. We have an open door policy. We don’t require videos or CDs in advance for acts to perform. I’m happy to have first-timers and, as a result, on the circuit now, some of the biggest names did their teeth-grinding at the Lion’s Den and the Comedy Car Crash.”

“You are getting money out of comedians who can’t afford it,” I said.

“If you want to be a swimmer,” Tim replied, “you go to swimming classes. If you want to be a gymnast, you go to gymnast classes. All of them charge more than we do. It’s a spot. It’s a stage to work material out on. It’s not a bad thing. We’re not… what’s the word…”

“Exploiting?” I suggested.

“Yeah, that’s the word,” said Tim. “We are not exploiting anyone. They can get a spot anywhere else if they want.”

I told him: “I saw an act a few weeks ago at the Lion’s Den and I thought he might be slightly… deluded?”

“Yes,” said Tim, “But he has a right to play, same as anyone else. The club is a massive part of my life. I’ve never been so loyal to any thing or person. I’ve been doing it for ten years now, which is a quarter of my life.”

“You were brought up Amish,” I said.

“Yeah. Amish-ish. The Hutterian Brethren, down in Robertsbridge in East Sussex.”

“There is a community of Amish down there?” I asked.

Hutterian women return from working in the fields at sunset. (Photograph by Rainer Mueller)

Hutterian women return from working in the fields at sunset. (Photograph by Rainer Mueller)

“Yeah. When I was 1½, we moved from Lincoln to this Amish commune where my grandparents lived. My mum was brought up in a different commune in Shropshire. I stayed there until I was five, then came out into the real world, which was an eye-opener.”

“Did the Amish start to your life scar you?”

“No. I think it gave me a really good set of morals. Maybe a bit too unrealistic in the real world.”

“Being too honest?”

“Yeah. It’s just how honest, isn’t it? Knowing when not to be honest. Or knowing when to shut up. It’s the tree that grew inside me, so I do try to be nice and honest.”

“What did you want to be when you were aged 16?”

“I’m not sure. I didn’t have the happiest of family lives. When I was 16, basically, I wanted to get the hell away from home as soon as possible, so I joined the Army. I was accepted by them, but they said I had to do my GCSE exams.

“Then, on the way to sit my second GCSE, I got run over. I was riding my motorbike to school and a car smashed into my leg. That upset the Army. They said: We don’t want you any more. That was a bit sad, because it meant I had to stay around home a bit more.

“Then, a couple of years later, I got run over again. That time, I put my face through a car – the window of a car.”

“Why?”

“Because the driver was an idiot. He signalled left but did a U-turn. I tried to overtake him, he cut me off, so I went through his windscreen. My girlfriend went under the car.”

“She was OK?”

“She bruised her ankle and got a bit of petrol inside her. I ripped my neck open, got 35 stitches plus a few in my chin. I did pass out through lack of blood. That was just the start of it, really. Then the Crohn’s Disease kicked in just after that second crash and I started to think: Why the fuck does God hate me so much?”

“What does Crohn’s Disease do?” I asked.

Tim developed Crohn’s Disease when he was younger

Tim developed Crohn’s Disease when he was younger

“Fucks your life,” replied Tim. “Makes you skinny.”

“So you had accidents and disease rather than a career start?” I asked.

“I don’t think I’ve had a career ever. I wasn’t able to think about the future. Every time I did, I got gazumped by Fate at the last minute.

“We had moved down to Hastings when I was 5 and, when I was about 20, I was being hassled by my mum to get a job. I was getting so much nagging by my mum to get a job and I saw an ad to be a stripogram and my mum said Go on, then! so I did.

“It was the weirdest job interview I’ve ever had – having to take my clothes off and bend over in front of people who then told me: You’re gonna have to shave your arse. Women don’t like it and there are times when you need to bend over.”

“Can you make a good living as a stripogram around Hastings?” I asked.

“At the time – 1994-ish – yeah. £11 per minute.”

“An anecdote?” I asked.

“Loads. I was getting ready in a police station and they had sectioned off a toilet just for me to get ready.”

“This,” I asked, “was to pull a surprise on a police lady?”

“Yeah. I was actually technically sexually assaulted by that woman in front of about 150 police people.”

“Any tricks of the trade?” I asked.

“Basically,” explained Tim, “when male strippers warm up, they have to… eh… punish… erm…”

“Fluff?” I suggested.

“Yeah. Fluff. But, with my bad back from the car crashes, there was no way I’m going to bend down there. So I just had to punish it a bit.”

“A bit of slap and tickle?” I suggested.

In the police station - slap, tickle and elastic bands

The police station – lots of slap, a little tickle and elastic bands

“Yeah. More slap than tickle. And then you get an elastic band and you tie it off. Halfway through doing it in the police station toilet, a policeman opened the door. It was a weird situation with me halfway through slapping myself into position. He asked: Are you going to be long? I told him: I am trying, sir; I’m trying.”

“What’s the elastic band thing?” I asked.

“You tie yourself off,” explained Tim. “Once you have achieved a good… eh… state of being, you tie it off to preserve that state of being.”

“Keeping the blood in…” I said.

“Yeah,” said Tim. “It just makes it took great inside a g-string or banged against a tea towel.”

“But you gave all that glamour up,” I said, “for what?”

“Many years later, I moved to Colchester and did a full-time 2-year engineering course. I wanted to take that further and do industrial design.”

“You were still interested in erections?” I asked.

“No. I wanted to be an inventor, basically, because that’s the way my mind works. I’ve got an engineering mind, but I find engineering very boring – working out how much force a bridge can take is really boring. I wanted to make things and make the world a better place. I did the degree and found out they are just painting the wheel a different colour.

“But, while I was doing the degree, a friend I was staying with suggested I try his job out and that’s when I started working with people who have learning disabilities and in mental health. I became a support assistant.”

“I couldn’t do that,” I said. “Too depressing.”

“No,” Tim said, “not at all. It was one of the best jobs I ever did. I found the learning disabilities not particularly challenging. I tended to veer more towards the challenging behaviour and that led to the mental health work.”

“What do you mean by ‘challenging behaviour’?” I asked.

Where mental health meets kick boxing

Where mental health meets comedy and kick boxing

“Getting beaten up, basically. They were quite angry and violent people. A lot of the job was pacifying behaviour and basically being a target.”

“Trying to avoid them beating you up?”

“Yeah. Which I was pretty good at.”

“Because you are good at psychology?”

“Good at psychology and because I used to do kick boxing. There was nothing that I had not had worse.”

“So,” I said, “you are the ideal comedy promoter. You deal with mad people and can kick them.”

“I’ve had a few hairy situations. We have only ever had two violent incidents in ten years at the Lion’s Den.

“I once walked into a situation where six people were trying to pull an act off an audience member who he was beating the crap out of. They couldn’t get him off. I walked up and just managed to put my hand across his face and pull him backwards, which separated them instantly.”

“What was the problem with the act?”

“It was an act just assassinating every woman in the audience – being really horrible. Nasty. It wasn’t comedy.”

“And is the act still around?”

“I’ve not seen him since and I think he’s lucky, because the police were after him.”

Tim Rendle has had an interesting life, which continues.

There is a video on YouTube of Darius Davies introducing a performance by Sweet Steve at the Lion’s Den.

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Madness in Edinburgh – It’s not only comics who have psychotic interludes

cropped-blackfordhill1.jpg

As per several of my blogs last week, madness reigns and financial damage to performers comes ever closer as the Edinburgh Fringe approaches because of a tussle between the Freestival and the late-to-arrive PBH Free Fringe organisation, both claiming to have rights to programme the Cowgatehead venue.

Today, there is a meeting to try to sort it out after a compromise was suggested by the Freestival – although, in correspondence last week with critic Bruce Dessau, Peter Buckley Hill (the PBH of the Free Fringe) said: “Such a meeting is not on the cards. There is no compromise deal on the table… There is no meeting.”

So someone somewhere either has to be telling porkie pies or is delusional.

I merely report the facts as a detached observer with a raised eyebrow.

But – surprising as it may be to some – there are other people in Edinburgh during August in addition to comedians and, indeed, some of them actually live there. Lucky them.

I have been going to Edinburgh every year since I was an embryo. When I was a kid, we used to go up every year to visit my father’s aunt who lived there. My mother also had a cousin living there. And, later, my father’s sister lived there.

I also – again surprising as it may be to some – know people other than comedians.

And psychotic interludes are not restricted to comedians.

Take my chum Sue Blackwell (not her real name).

“Have you ever wanted to be a performer?” I asked her on Skype yesterday.

“No,” she told me. “I was in three AmDram plays in the 1990s. I wanted to just try it. The minister at the local church was a very flamboyant character and held the rehearsals in his manse. It was fun. It was an experience.

“I did enjoy it but, at the end of the third one, I became ill. That’s when it started. They held a barn dance after the third one and I went feeling I was alright. The next day, I was telling people I had been hypnotised. It was a quick as that.”

“Did someone,” I asked Sue, “spike your drink?”

“Well, that was what the psychiatrist asked me, but I don’t think so.”

“Had you,” I asked, “had any psychotic incidents before this?”

“No. But I was in a marriage that was particularly bad and abusive and I had probably earned it after 20 years of what was going on. I think I had probably decided to do the AmDram to distract myself.”

“How long did these psychotic incidents last?”

“I was away from work for three months.”

“This was,” I asked, “hallucination stuff?”

“Voices,” Sue told me. “The first voice I heard was a man’s voice. It’s hard to describe. Eventually, I went to see a psychologist. Then I said: I want to see a psychiatrist.”

“Why did you want to change from a psychologist to a psychiatrist?”

“There was no rational rhyme or reason to my thought processes. But I did see the psychiatrist and I took a newspaper with me. I could no more have read that paper than fly to the moon, but I wanted to appear normal. I wasn’t thinking rationally. My daughter was with me and I was telling the psychiatrist this story about feeling different after the barn dance and she said: You’ve been odd for ages, mum.

Odd? Me? I said. And so it went on and eventually I left my home and went to stay with my daughter. I had this man’s voice in my head and it was really scary. I was still telling friends I had been hypnotised and some of them believed me. It felt like I had walked into the barn dance that evening OK but, looking back now, I probably wasn’t OK.”

“What were the voices like?” I asked. “Was it like listening to me now, in reality? Sometimes, when you dream, other people talk to you in the dream and…”

“It was an actual man’s voice,” explained Sue. “Lots of things I do remember, but I can’t remember the nature that it took. It was very unpleasant to me. It must have been me. It didn’t tell me to kill my husband – it only approached that once. But I was very frightened of the voice.

“It went on because it was not treated and, eventually, I went for treatment and they put me on amitriptyline and the voice dampened down. Then I went back to where I was living with my daughter and then it all started again, except it was a woman’s voice, which was softer. It wasn’t so harsh. There wasn’t the aggression in it.

“Eventually, I went to live with a gay friend of mine. I couldn’t talk about it by this time. I disassociated myself to cope. It was like a big egg. I was outside of it and I was not in contact with what had happened to me. Every time I did attempt to talk about it, my whole body would shake. I had been living in a place where I was scared of the person I was living with.”

“Your husband?” I asked.

“Yes. So I went to live with my gay friend and never went back and my gay friend was just amazing. He said: You need a bloody good scream, dear. So he took me out – but trying to find a place to scream in a city… We were driving around and eventually went up Arthur’s Seat but there were people parked in cars and we thought: We can’t do it here. People will call the police. So we drove down to the Blackford Hill in the south of Edinburgh and drove up to the Observatory car park and it was dusk and we walked round to look at the panorama of Edinburgh, where I know you like to go, and I just screamed my head off.

“We had also both been screaming while driving there. We went out a couple of times and screamed from the top of Blackford Hill and my gay friend was probably right. It helped on some level. Eventually, it got better.”

“Did the problem go away as quickly as it had started?”

“No. I went and saw another psychiatrist and I was barely… I can only remember bits of it. Going into the mental health unit. I accidentally went next door, which was a solicitor’s and I thought they were doing that to trick me. I was OK when I was talking to somebody. I told the psychiatrist: There’s a tiny part of my mind… I probably sound normal… rational… But inside I’m not. He gave me Seroxat.”

“Jesus Christ!” I said. “Did you read my blog about The Amazing Mr Smith committing suicide when he took Seroxat?”

“Yes, I know. But for me it worked. It started to dampen down the voices.”

“What were the voices telling you?”

“Every notice I saw… My anxiety was through the roof… I was getting panic attacks and God knows what. I would see a notice for a jumble sale and I would think it was somebody targeting me.”

“What for?” I asked. “To get jumble?”

“Not necessarily. Any old notice.”

“You thought they were criticising you?” I asked.

“Or something. It was all linked. I said to the psychiatrist I’m a schizophrenic and he said Oh no. that’s a totally different thing. He said: If you want a diagnosis, I would say you were very, very deeply depressed. But I had been functioning in the depression. I can look back now and think I was almost becoming manic. I couldn’t cram enough into my life.”

“To cram so much into your life you would not be aware of your depression?”

“Probably. I didn’t feel depressed but I suppose I was distancing myself from myself. Also another big thing was that I’d had these mental ‘absences’. If I went into the bathroom when I was living with my daughter, I might go into a… you know sometimes people are… just not ‘here’ for a minute. Then my daughter would say: Mum! Mum! and I had a sense of being pulled back from this other place, wherever it was, and I would feel a sense of almost anger.”

“At being pulled back?”

“Yeah. It was happening a lot. It was a deep ‘away’. I couldn’t help myself. It wasn’t just absent-mindedness. It was like going to a safe place.”

“But this was 15-20 years ago and you’re OK now.”

“Maybe that long ago. I don’t know. I can’t remember. I don’t put myself under huge stress now. It’s a difficult thing, mental illness. Because it’s all on the inside. It doesn’t show.”

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Comic critic Kate Copstick on a wibbly

Kate Copstick remembers an incident...

Kate Copstick remembers when she got on her bike…

Today is the last in Mental Health Awareness Week.

Coincidentally, this week’s Grouchy Club Podcast includes my co-host Kate Copstick talking about depression:

COPSTICK
Your brain or your mind just becomes detached from everything else and you can’t make it work any more. I was a bit like that for a while. I had a couple of wibbly times when I was in my teens and my twenties and my thirties – I’ve been wibbly quite a lot. It’s the kind of thing that, when it gets bad, you would sit there and, if somebody came and just punched you in the face, you would just sit there and let them punch you in the face and, inside your head, you’d be going: “He’s going to punch me in the face”.

In The Bell Jar, I think Sylvia Plath’s description is pretty fucking good.

Anyway, this night after that – and there were a couple of other incidents – I don’t know… I had a bit of a moment and I wanted to sort of feel something. So I got on my bike .

JOHN
A motor bike?

COPSTICK
No. Push bike. Dressed in black, of course. No surprise there.

JOHN
Of course.

COPSTICK
And I cycled down to Shepherd’s Bush Green and Shepherd’s Bush roundabout.

JOHN
That’s the big roundabout with almost a motorway spur going up to Westway.

COPSTICK
Correct. And I cycled round it the wrong way, into the headlights of cars.

JOHN
And this is a serious roundabout. It’s almost a motorway spur.

COPSTICK
I had no lights or anything on my bike and they all swerved and everything. It was about one o’clock in the morning. The cars were going a bit faster and I think I just wanted to see if I could be frightened or panicky or that something would click and I’d go Oh, good grief! I’ve come out of it now and it’s all marvellous!

And what happened was it was a white van man who screeched to a halt in front of me: “What the fuck? Wah! Wah! Wah!

FULL 29-MINUTE GROUCHY CLUB PODCAST IS ONLINE HERE

Shepherd’s Bush roundabout from Google Maps

Shepherd’s Bush roundabout from Google Maps

 

 

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What is it like to expose your psychotic hallucinations, live on a comedy stage?

Juliette and I talked at King’s Cross station

Some say you can never be too intrusive when recording…

In the absence of comedy critic Kate Copstick, who is cyber-trapped in Kenya by a malfunctioning computer and an eccentric mobile phone, I recorded our weekly Grouchy Club Podcast in London yesterday with comic performer Juliette Burton at King’s Cross station.

Last month, Juliette started a ‘new material’ comedy club in London – Juliette Burton’s Happy Hour. It is billed as “a night of positivity and happiness guaranteed to leave the audience uplifted”. She is the compere and, in the first show, she described what she saw when, as a teenager, she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and had psychotic hallucinations.

Although she has mentioned these in this blog, she had never before described them on stage in front of a live audience.

Here is a brief extract from this week’s 39-minute Grouchy Club Podcast:

John
Whenever comedians expose themselves, as it were – psychologically – they feel very nervous about doing it. But I always tell them the person doing it feels empowered and the audience feels uplifted in some way – because someone else has survived something worse that they have experienced. At the first Happy Hour, you did a piece about your hallucinations, didn’t you…

Juliette
Yeah.

John
… and you had never done that before. I think you said you felt nervous about it, didn’t you?

Juliette
I felt terrified.

John
What is it like to, as it were, expose yourself? Because all comedians, by and large, are insecure and there’s nothing more insecure than exposing your actual deep psyche when people may reject you. People may laugh at you rather than with you. So what was it like to expose yourself or know you were going to expose yourself… and then do it?

Juliette
Yeah, I went naked in my last show and this time I’m actually going psychologically naked.

John
When you say you went naked in your last show, that was a magazine thing, wasn’t it?

Juliette
A magazine thing, yeah. I did a body confidence naked shoot for Cosmopolitan magazine.

It (the recent Happy Hour show) was weird. It was the first time ever that I had stood on stage and said: Right, this is what I hallucinated and I’ve spoken to friends about it and actually this whole experience (the hallucinating) was what eventually, I think, led me to comedy. Because I realised, if I wanted to talk about these hallucinations, the only way people would listen was if I could get them to laugh about it – because conversations with laughter last longer.

I was really nervous because they are very ‘out there’. I talk about seeing God and the Devil and these are big words that are terrifying anyway – I don’t know if I even believe in God and I’ve seen him – him/her, whatever.

You are right inasmuch as the audience seemed to really, really like it. I would say that actually it turns out that people want to talk about these things or want to listen about them now. It took me 13 years since the experience to want to stand on stage and talk about it, but it took Society about 300 years to want to listen.

Somebody came up to me after the show saying they, too, had been sectioned. Somebody else e-mailed me saying they, too, have had hallucinations – and that was in a relatively intimate audience. It was a packed-out room, but it’s not a huge room and, out of those people, already two of them had felt able to open up to me about their experiences and they had had similar ones.

I think people want to listen now; it’s just we need to be brave enough to actually stand out there and be more honest and truthful and I think the comedy I like most is the daring stuff – talking about things that people might not want to talk about in everyday conversation. I think it’s the most real and most truthful and the most raw and the most interesting because it’s honest and people respond to honesty.

********

On YouTube, Juliette has started to post a monthly video called BAHH – Backstage At Happy Hour.

In the first, she talked to performers Doug Segal and James Hamilton:

She also posts a weekly blog called TWIL – This Week I Love. The latest is HERE.

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Filed under Comedy, Mental health, Mental illness, Psychology