Category Archives: Mental illness

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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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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An interesting William Burroughs type piece of spam I received this morning

Photo of traumatic brain damage on Wikipedia (Photograph by James Heilman MD)

Photo of traumatic brain damage on Wikipedia (Photograph by James Heilman MD)

Occasionally, I take at look at some spam messages because they can be interesting.

Sadly I am no longer targeted by people who have several million dollars tied-up in Nigerian bank accounts.

Nor do I get spam suggesting (despite the fact I have a male name – John) that I should consider various new breast enlargement techniques. I got those messages for about six months. I think, at my age, my breasts are already too large.

But, this morning, I opened and read the humdinger of a spam message below. 

I did not click on the no doubt useful link to Reuters which accompanied it. One can take an interest in human psychology too far.

I was never a fan of William Burroughs’ writing technique, but I think this message runs along a similar stylistic path and speaks for itself.


Dear Honey bee La’me:

Hit a nerve on that last one and there were so many new idiots in my mail room I could barely open a new window. I have a SS tank with about 50 gallons of apple jack in it with just a cloth over it sitting with a thin mother on it to make vinegar.

These is a very sweet batch of last fall’s apples and is barely started to taste like vinegar yet and has such a smooth apple juice taste to it that u never notice what hit you but when sampling 2oz of it knocked me for a loop, about like these smooth talking child molesters on the Elijah list who have a bunch of starry eyed mku children.

My 72 trace mineral was a threat to big AG including Simplot and I know of someone who locked a ball mill for making lime stone so fine it would flow down to the roots with water. They never patented it, but locked it in a safe because of Simplot.

So before we talk about bringing the price of apples down to 2 bits per pound I will need to talk with you or a bunch of people in the valley will try and kill me again because I can put most of the tree and fruit nurseries out of business and grind their gold apple into dust and then make them drink it to the last dregs, by using a black willow switch on them when I tan their evil hides.

So this will probably be the last time I email you John Schultz because of all the peeping toms in my mail box. The word cretin was not on the net until I put the meaning out there. I heard it from the crowd of youngsters I grew up with at Albany Mennonite Church where your parents attended. He may have driven a Schwans Ice Cream route.

Darrell Fisher of Fisher Construction Albany Org used that word freely all the time as in ‘You cretin you!!’

It was in our high Swiss German language from Alsace Lorraine before Paul put it in the Bible to avoid these kind of people controlling things in your midst.

It means ‘You cock sucker you’ because that is what they did and they had a cock sucking lip like a baby has when it nurses its mother’s breast. Or they look like Bill Johnson, of I Bethel Vineyard Redding, like a Kraybill (flesh eating crow on the black mass slaughter hill of the raven flag).

They normally are licentious which means they fuck members of their own family and may even be mother fuckers like some Mormons.

We took a pounding yesterday and today on the electron meter which means you got beamed on with UV rays.

Here is the xchart and I do not know how to freeze it to this one spot in time. That last bit of excitement over the radar towers stifling my much needed 2-inch rain sent the UV rays spitting from the sun as the demons in butt fucking and fucked brains screamed at exposure and fear and drew down a snap from the sun.

Child molesters from the top on down are to be exterminated if they do not confess and repent and get put in lock down because the molestation pattern is ingrained in their psyche.

I do not believe it will even be necessary to round all you tares up because your delusion will be shattered when your income ceases and your utter panic will draw in a strong enough flare to fry all your shit filled brains into drooling idiots or zombie vegetables.

That is all the Borntraegers could talk about was shit and toilet seats around their necks while their mother supervised their incest on the floor in front of her.


I think that is all, pretty-much, self-explanatory and it would be difficult to argue with the logic therein. Everyone has their own logic.

 

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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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How to survive being attacked with a miniature flame-thrower for being gay

Simon Jay and Myra Dubois performing Jennifer’s Robot Arm last month (Photograph by Antony)

Simon Jay (right) & Myra Dubois performing Jennifer’s Robot Arm by Mr Twonkey last month (Photograph by Antony)

Simon Jay appeared peripherally in this blog last month, when he staged and directed Mr Twonkey’s play Jennifer’s Robot Arm.

“What’s the attraction of Mr Twonkey?” I asked Simon Jay this week.

“He says the most ridiculous things,” Simon told me, “in a very naturalistic, deadpan way and the detail of his fantasy world fits very well with the way my mind works. In fact, my partner says: It’s almost like someone has put your mind on stage. It’s the non-sequitur humour that I love – talking about a character that’s half witch/half accountant or the House of Cheese or the Wheel of Knickers. Very specific details and lots of stuff that comes from a really dark place, which I really respond to.”

Simon’s autobiography – Bastardography – was published this week.

The blurb reads:

Telling this story is important for not only a generation affected by mental health and sexuality issues, but also for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider looking in. Growing up with a Combat Stressed Naval Officer Father, a neurotic Mother who flosses her teeth with her hair and an extended family of alcoholic eccentrics is bad enough, especially on a rough South London estate in the 90s. But that is just the tip of the trashy iceberg. Life in such a place is barely tolerable if you tow the line, but Simon didn’t even know where the line was.

“Why call it Bastardograhy? I asked.

Simon Jay’s tell-all Bastardography

Simon Jay’s tell-all Bastardography

“Because I’m completely unflattering about everyone, including myself. It’s about how creativity kept me going – just writing and performing.

“I first went with my parents to a psychiatrist when I was thirteen or fourteen for ‘family therapy’ because I wasn’t sleeping and was up at 3 o’clock in the morning. This was before I ‘came out’. People like to re-write history and say Oh! It was because you were being bullied at school! But this was before that. I was already fucked-up.

“I ‘came out’ when I was 14, at a really rough all-boys school near Sutton in South London. Added to which, I was very mentally unbalanced as a child, which wasn’t treated until my late adolescence/early twenties when I started having breakdowns and going into hospital.”

“You ‘came out’ at 14??” I asked.

“I announced it in a history lesson,” replied Simon. “Well, I didn’t announce it… In an all-boys school, everyone is obsessed with everyone’s sexuality and, in this one lesson, this boy – the skinhead boy – was asking everyone if they were gay.”

“Why in a history lesson?” I asked.

“Because,” explained Simon, “they were going on about What if Hitler was gay…because there was this rumour that Hitler was gay and that’s why he committed genocide… So this skinhead boy went round the classroom and everyone was saying: No… No… No… No… and I said Yes, just because it was the truth and I didn’t really think about it. And then there was this massive backlash and it just spread. It was my first viral hit. There were 1,000 kids at that school. By the end of the week, everyone knew who I was. I was infamous already.”

“That sounds great if you’re a 14 year-old,” I said.

“Until they start beating you up,” Simon pointed out.

“What did the history teacher,” I asked, “say when the skinhead boy was asking everyone if they were gay?”

“He didn’t hear it. Teachers are oblivious to what students talk about.”

“So you were bullied at school for being gay,” I said.

“Most of it was verbal,” said Simon, “but there were times when stones were thrown at me, aerosols sprayed over me and they tried to set me on fire; it was very creative.”

“Tried to set you on fire?” I asked.

Simon Jay - always comes straight to the point

Simon Jay – always comes straight to the point

“There was a boy who sat behind me in the tutorial lesson and, one day, I could feel this wet at the back of my neck and a tschhhhhhh sound. And I thought: Why are they spraying an aerosol at the back of my head? and then I heard a match being struck. They lit the match while they were spraying the aerosol to make a little mini flame thrower. At the time, none of it seemed very remarkable. When you’re a teenager, you’re resilient; you’re invincible; you don’t feel threatened by…”

“…the miniature flame thrower?” I suggested.

“The worst one,” said Simon, “was having stones thrown at me. Big stones.”

“What happened when they used a flame thrower on you?” I asked. “It sounds like it might have had an effect.”

“Luckily, it just singed hair, because I moved out of the way in time.”

“There was teacher present?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“And…”

“They did nothing. Sometimes they laughed when I was bullied. Sometimes they purposely turned a blind eye and went out of the room. There was a Christian art teacher who liked to laugh at one boy who liked to revel in very gratuitous homophobic rhetoric. It was just fun for him.”

“You said you were mentally unbalanced as a child,” I said. “Isn’t everyone mentally unbalanced at 14?”

“To some extent,” agreed Simon, “But I was very withdrawn as a child and was obsessed with death and had existential crises.”

“That still sounds normal for a 14 year-old,” I said.

“It is normal – or maybe you’re just as weird as I am. No, it is normal, but I didn’t function very well and I wasn’t very happy and it progressed into adolescence.”

“What do you mean you didn’t function?”

“I didn’t interact with the world in a way that would ensure survival. I didn’t eat or sleep properly. Didn’t urinate properly – never urinated in the toilet, just in the bed. I was a very strange child in a very quiet, unassuming family.”

Sion’s father was in the Navy

Simon’s father was in the Navy

“Did you come out to your parents before or after you came out at school?”

“Six months later. I did that by letter. I left it on the kitchen table. Saying what had gone on for the last six months: that I had come out and I’d been bullied because of it. I was very passive. Once the other kids realised I wouldn’t fight back, they saw it as open season on me.

“I left secondary school after taking seven months of being bullied. Then they put me in a ‘special’ school when I was 15 for the rest of my secondary education and I failed all my GCSEs: I could do them, but I was completely detached. I was completely out of it, not in the real world any more. Completely separate from reality.”

“Drugs?” I asked.

“I started smoking,” said Simon, “but I’ve never really taken (recreational) drugs.”

“So you started smoking weed?” I asked.

“No, no. Cigarettes.”

“That’s bad,” I said. “Weed OK; nicotine bad. So why haven’t you taken recreational drugs?”

“Because my mum said: If you take drugs, you die. And I’ve always been frightened I’ll have some sort of seizure.

“Anyway, I flunked all my GCSEs, then I broke down and didn’t sleep for a couple of weeks and thought my parents were ghosts. I had a complete mental breakdown. So they popped me in the hospital – the psychiatric unit – and that was the beginning of my recovery, really.”

“They filled you full of uppers?” I asked.

“Oh yes. An anti-psychotic called olanzapine that makes you like a zombie.”

“But you weren’t seeing visions?” I asked.

“Vaguely seeing visions. I thought I was a woman at one point. I thought I had ovaries they were not telling me about. One thing that was not a vision was I had to have a Northern Irish male nurse scrub me down. But I was so fucked-up I couldn’t enjoy it.”

“Just scrubbing you down?” I asked.

“I had pissed myself. So I was covered in piss and they had to put me in a shower and I couldn’t wash myself, so they had to do it for me. But I wasn’t into it because I wasn’t there. That’s the most disappointing moment of that era: the lack of male nurse action.

Simon at the Freshers’ Fair in 2009 (Photo by Sarah-Jane Bird)

Simon at the student Freshers’ Fair in 2009 (Photograph by Sarah-Jane Bird)

“Then, as I was getting better, I went to college and did an access course which allowed me to go to university without having GCSEs. I was going to do drama, but I was 15 minutes late to be auditioned, so I did Media Studies instead – Screenwriting for Film & Television at Bournemouth.”

“At what point did you want to be a performer?” I asked. “All this mental stuff sounds like it’s pushing you towards performance.”

“I was a complete neurotic fuck-up,” agreed Simon, “until I got in front of people in a theatrical way and I was safe then: because I had control then.”

“When does the book finish?” I asked.

“Last year – 2014, when I had my last breakdown and finally recovered properly. I had a really bad breakdown in 2013 and nearly died.”

“Why?”

“It was almost like a mid-life crisis. Basically everything broke down. I think it was worse than the one I had when I was a teenager.”

“You’re still with the partner you met at university?”

“Yes. But I should say my book is not a misery memoir. It’s a very funny book. There are jokes on every page.”

“Did I tell you,” I asked, “that my blog has been nominated as the Funniest Blog in the UK?”

“Yes,” replied Simon.

“I am not convinced they have read it,” I said.

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Juliette Burton: the writer-performer who can make psychosis hilarious

Juliette Burton with Nick Clegg in background

A Juliette Burton selfie + Nick Clegg in the centre background

Comedy performer Juliette Burton was recently invited to Whitehall to meet Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg at an event giving out awards to ‘Mental Health Heroes’.

“Were you up for an award?” I asked.

“No,” she told me. “I was invited as a ‘celebrity ambassador’ for the mental health charities MIND and Time To Change. At the event, I met this guy called Harry who worked for the Department of Health who knew all about me. He knew I do voice-over work and shows and I was rather confused but also kind-of liked it. The explanation was that apparently I was one of only seven people there the staff had access to biographies of.”

“Did you meet Nick Clegg?”

“No. But I did slurp my wine very, very loudly during his speech, which I felt was opposition enough.”

Juliette has just moved down to London from Edinburgh, where she lived for three years.

“All of the industry is centred in London,” she explained, “so it’s a lot more practical living down here, but I do miss Edinburgh desperately.”

“Until recently,” I told her, “I’d always had relatives in Edinburgh. It is the place I’ve always felt most at home and the irony is I’ve never had a home there. I always reckoned, if I won the Lottery, it would be a house in Edinburgh and a flat in London.”

“I loved living in Edinburgh,” said Juliette.

Juliette Burton: Edinburgh-London, King’s Cross

Juliette Burton talked to me at King’s Cross…

“But now,” I prompted, “in April, you’re starting a new monthly comedy show in Shoreditch.”

“Yes. Juliette Burton’s Happy Hour.”

“And how long,” I asked, “does Juliette Burton’s Happy Hour last?”

“About two hours.”

“So that’s interesting,” I said.

“Well, yes,” agreed Juliette. “Happy Hour is longer than an hour and it’s hosted by someone with clinical depression.”

“Are you going back to the Edinburgh in August with a new Fringe show?”

“Not this year. I’m doing last year’s show Look at Me for eight days and I think I’ll also be doing some performances with Abnormally Funny People and some other things with other people.

“I’ve been working on Look At Me with Kevin Shepherd, who’s directing it. I’m doing it at Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival on 22nd February and at the Brighton Fringe on 28th of May.”

“Ah,” I said, “that’s your broadcast journalist background showing. Getting the plug in… So why do you need a director now for Look At Me? Is it slightly different from the version that played the Edinburgh Fringe last year?”

“Yes. I’m being a bit more free with my ad-libbing.”

“How?” I asked, “given it has to run the same length.”

Juliette Burton - Look at Me

Juliette Burton says Look at Me ad-libbing more

“I’m cutting out some things and allowing myself to be a bit more ‘me’ – so a bit less ‘performer’ and a bit more ‘me’.”

“Why?”

“Because Kevin tells me I’m naturally funny, which I never thought I was – and I’m still a bit skeptical about that. He tells me I can relax a little more and not hide behind a script. “

“But why no new Fringe show this year?” I asked.

“Because the three new shows I am working on are all rather complicated and will take longer to put together. I’m going to try to get one, if not two, of them at a preview stage by autumn this year.”

“You had a plan of seven shows, didn’t you?” I asked. “And, so far, you’ve done the first two – When I Grow Up and Look At Me. What are these next three?”

“There’s The Butterfly Effect, which is about how much impact somebody can have on the world and about how, if we want to see change in the world, we need to be the change we want to see in the world. Something like that. The Dalai Lama and all that.”

“He’d be a good audience for a comedy show,” I suggested. “He giggles a lot.”

“And then there’s Daddy’s Girl,” Juliette continued, which is one I really want to do.”

Daddy’s Girl Juliette retains some secrets

Daddy’s Girl Juliette still retains at least one secret off-stage

“And which I know we can’t talk about,” I said.

“Yes,” said Juliette. “It’s about something I can’t yet divulge everything about. It’s something that is extremely close to my heart and I’m really keen to do it. But there are lots of other exciting things happening at the moment. I think Dreamcatcher is the most likely show to be ready first, though a lot might change in the coming weeks. It’s a very exciting year.”

“Why are you doing THREE new shows anyway?” I asked.

“Because I have lots of ideas and I can’t stop myself.”

“But it’s a lot of psychological pressure,” I suggested.

“I love that kind of pressure,” said Juliette. “I love creative pressure. Dreamcatcher is about our relationship with reality – and it’s funny. It’s how to make psychosis hilarious. I want to take time to make sure it’s fun and that I don’t try to cram too much into an hour. I need to make it the most accessible and light show I can while keeping real meaning. There ARE ways to make psychosis funny and you were the one who inspired me to do it.”

“I made you psychotic?” I asked.

Juliette Burton’s first So It Goes blog

Juliette: So It Goes

“When you did your first blog chat with me, I was so scared about telling everybody about my psychosis because I thought they would all judge me. But the reaction they had was so warm and welcoming that I thought: Well, maybe I could be a bit braver with this. And then a bit braver and a bit braver.

“Then, at the end of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Paul Levy from Fringe Review asked me if I thought I was unravelling more and more in each show. I thought that was very astute of him and it has stayed with me for the last few months because there are so many people out there doing all these amazing shows that do not involve them psychologically challenging themselves.

“Recently, someone said to me: Are you sure you want to be exposing yourself so much psychologically on stage? And I have been thinking about that and I think I want to really connect with people in a meaningful way and the truest stories are the most exciting. So why not just tell the truth? But make it funny in the process.”

“When Paul Levy said were you unravelling,” I asked, “did he mean Are you going loopy? or did he mean Are you revealing – unravelling – more secrets – more of yourself – in each successive show?

“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” said Juliette. “I might choose to hear it that way next time I hear it in my head. I thought he just meant Are you unravelling mentally?”

“Did you tell him Yes or No?” I asked.

“I think I said Yes. If we’re all going to go through life and it’s all going to be a little bit painful, then why not connect with other people about what you’re going through, so that you’re not alone?”

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Filed under Comedy, Mental health, Mental illness, Psychology