Tag Archives: psychiatry

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 Lewis Schaffer on his time under a psychiatrist in Marilyn Monroe’s clinic

I talked to Lewis Schaffer at five Guys yesterday

I talked to Lewis Schaffer at Five Guys in London yesterday (Photograph by Rose Ives)

Yesterday, comedy critic Kate Copstick was ill in bed with vomiting and dizziness.

Possibly too much detail.

But the result was that she was unavailable for the weekly Grouchy Club Podcast. So I talked to UK-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer, a regular in these blogs.

This is a 4-minute extract from the 27-minute podcast which you can hear in full at Podomatic or iTunes.


John
At what point did you suddenly decide I’m not going to be an advertising person, I’m going to be a stand-up comedian? And why?

Lewis Schaffer
Why? Because it was the early 1990s and I was trying to get a job selling advertising space and no-one wanted me, because they were sensible. They could see the desperation; they could see the insanity. And I was flat broke. I was going to a psychiatrist in New York at the Payne Whitney Clinic, part of New York Hospital.

(NOTE: The US poet Robert Lowell wrote about his hospitalization at the Payne Whitney Clinic, Marilyn Monroe was hospitalized there in early 1961 and Mary McCarthy based her book The Group, on her in-patient experience there.)

I was paying $10 a session – I was going to a discount psychiatrist (he was a trainee) and I couldn’t even afford it. I was paying it on credit cards. I had like twenty or thirty credit cards that I was maxing out.

The psychiatrist said to me: Lewis, you’re depressed and, if you want, I can get you $800-a-month. You just have to go and I will sign the form for you to say you’re depressed. I said: Of course I’m depressed. I’m not working, I have no girlfriend, I have $100,000 in credit card debt and I’m going to be evicted from my flat. Of course I’m depressed!

If that had happened today, I would have said: I wish I had an airplane to fly into the side of a mountain. But I said to him: No. At that moment, I could have been labelled as a depressive.

John
Why were you going to the psychiatrist – apart from the fact you’re an American and all Americans do – if you did not want $800-a-month for being depressive?

Lewis Schaffer
I just wanted someone to talk to.

John
Thus your career talking to audiences…

Lewis Schaffer
Yeah. Well, I wasn’t doing comedy at the time, so I would go and talk to him and I would try to make him laugh. Or I would try to see the inconsistency of his advice – whatever he said – and I would try to drive him crazy. I reached a point where he was so fed up with me that… There was a really pretty girl who was working as a receptionist there. Girl/woman. She was a woman. And I would hit on (i.e. flirt with) her and she made a formal complaint against me because I was flirting with her.

When you are in a psychiatrist’s office and you’re not famous and it’s a discount psychiatrist’s office, women do not like to be flirted-with. Now I can flirt with anybody because – Oh! Lewis Schaffer, the great performer! – but, at that time… That was the lowest I had ever been, when a woman who was a receptionist – There’s nothing wrong with being a receptionist but – this woman made a complaint and the psychiatrist said to me that I should stop that. He got quite angry with me and I thought this was really inappropriate because I’m here for psychiatric help and I’m obviously mental, so he shouldn’t criticise me for acting mental. I’m mental – He treated me like I was a normal person!

I was so low.

I had a friend of mine who I’d met a few years before in real estate school, who was very successful. And he would goad me every single day because I was home during the daytime and he was home trading. I was his friend. He would talk to me every day and he would say to me: What do you wanna do? and he did more good than the psychiatrist, cos he found out that I always wanted to be a stand-up comic but I was afraid that, if I did stand-up comedy and I wasn’t successful, then the one thing I thought I was good at I would not be good at.

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Robert White: gay, dyslexic, quarter-Welsh, Aspergic, webbed-toed comic

Robert White, award-winning comedian with a record

Robert White sitting in a small room

“Sometimes people have tried to blame things on me because it’s easier to blame someone who may be presumed to have a reputation,” comedian Robert White told me yesterday.

Today, the British Journal of Psychiatry published a research study by Oxford University and the Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust which suggests that “an unusual personality structure could be the secret to making other people laugh”.

Well Hump-de-dinki-doo!

I do not know how much this research study cost, but I could have done it cheaper for them.

Yesterday at London’s Soho Theatre, I bought one drink and got 44 minutes of similar insight from Robert White who is – correct me if I am wrong – the only gay, dyslexic, quarter-Welsh, Aspergic, webbed-toed comedian working on the UK comedy circuit. He also won the highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality in 2010.

“In 2001, I was initially diagnosed as having Asperger Syndome by a psychologist when I went for depression,” Robert told me, “and it was like a light shining. It was like Wow! This is what my mind is thinking! and it cleared up so many things and, over the last few years, I’ve gradually got better.”

He has been performing comedy for ten years.

“Before comedy,” he told me, “I’d misunderstand things and, one time, that led to a practical joke that the police mis-translated as a crime and, as such, I got three months in Wandsworth Prison.”

“What was the practical joke?” I asked.

“Dressing up in a ballgown and walking down the street with a music stand. I was going to go into the shop where my ex-boyfriend worked and I was going to say to him: Music stand and deliver!

“But I didn’t do it. I stopped in the street, walked home and, as I did so, I walked in front of a police car and they asked me what I was doing and told me past intent to do something was the same as present intent to do something and, just because I’d rescinded and hadn’t done it, I was still culpable.”

“What’s illegal,” I asked, “about saying Music stand and deliver to someone while holding a music stand?”

“Well,” said Robert, “initially they were going to charge me with armed robbery but, on a plea bargain, they brought it down to attempting to threaten with an imitation firearm.”

“Ah! You didn’t mention the imitation firearm,” I pointed out.

“Well,” replied Robert. “It wasn’t. It was a music stand.”

“How was that an imitation firearm?” I asked.

“Because,” explained Robert, “in the police interview, I called it a gun because – for the joke – I was a comedy armed robber. I had originally been going to say Hand over the notes – you know – it was a music stand – Hand over the notes – but then I decided I was going to say Music stand and deliver.

“When I was in Wandsworth Prison, I was in the remand wing. One of the ways I deal with depression is to write music and they didn’t have paper or pen. So, by spreading toothpaste on a piece of newspaper and pulling my finger through it, I was writing a symphony.

“A guard came up to me and said What are you doing? and I said I’m writing a symphony and they put me in the mental wing of Wandsworth Prison, which is where all the hard nutters are. My solicitor came to me and said Either we can try and explain this in front of a jury or we can take a plea bargain. If you explain it in front of a jury, you may get seven years because they won’t understand you. A plea bargain? Three months.

“Incidents like that used to happen but comedy has cured me – well, not cured me, but it has resolved many, many issues.”

Robert White with Kate Copstick in 2010, after he won the highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality

Robert White with Kate Copstick in 2010, after he won the highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality

This year, Robert intends to return to the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time since he won the highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Award For Comic Originality in 2010. His new show will be about having Asperger Syndome.

“Last time I was at the Fringe,” he told me, “I won the Malcolm Hardee Award, I had one of the Top Ten jokes, I got loads of 4-star reviews and people were raving about me and I got one zero-star review which, at the time, I blamed on Asperger’s but the truth was it was a gig on the day of my father’s birthday a month after he died of cancer and I was feeling horrific.”

“This was the review on the Chortle website?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Robert. “Basically, I started, played the trumpet and – before I even said anything – I ran off, because my head was full of a million different things. Yes, it was wrong. Maybe other people would have cancelled the show.”

“And your new show is about having Asperger’s,” I asked.

“Yes. About fitting in. Most people might think I’m a bit odd. Before comedy, I’d fallen out with my family, I’d been in an abusive relationship, I couldn’t go into places on my own and I constantly got fired from jobs – 36 jobs in seven years. Everything from telesales through to being a music teacher.

“Once, I was at work and I was trying to do something clever with my pay and the manager said to me: Are you trying to be clever? and I said Yes and I got fired.

“Another time, there was this list of things you could not do at a call centre and it was such a specific list that I noticed it did not state that you couldn’t answer the phone wearing a Gareth Gates face mask. So I put on a Gareth Gates mask and got fired.

Comedy makes Robert feel he fits in

“Comedy makes me feel I fit in” says a reflective Robert White

“Performing comedy makes me feel I fit in. The problem is that, because I don’t understand social relationships, sometimes I can go a bit wobbly.

“Once, when I was sent to my room as a kid and I thought that was wrong, I sat in my room for ages, then dressed up my large cuddly toy panda in my own clothes and chucked it out the window. So, when it went plunging past the window where my mum was having dinner, she thought I had committed suicide. Which was quite funny but also quite horrific.”

“When you say you might go a bit wobbly, does that affect your performance?” I asked.

“Not any more,” said Robert. “But, because my mind is built up of facts – that’s the way I see the world – if my mind is thinking quickly and lots of facts present themselves, they just over-take my head because there’s too much to think about.”

“So your brain seizes up?” I asked.

“Not any more,” said Robert. “Because now I have various ways of overcoming it. The way you compensate for not having instinctive understanding is learned responses: a sort of cognitive behavioural therapy. That’s happened before, therefore this will happen now.

“Before I go on stage, I write various things on my hand. I write CAN DIE on my hand, because you don’t want to get complacent because that’s the time when you do die. I write YOU’RE BEST THIS GIG which makes me focus on how I do at this one gig.

“So I have certain rules written down. One of the rules is KEEP ON. JUST DO. I’ve got the word SWEAR written on one finger because, in some gigs, the C word is not appropriate and I’ve got NO MENTAL written on my hand to tell me not to go mental.

“I have to input facts into my head before I start the gig. Then I’ve got facts about the audience. All these facts are building up in my head before I go on and that is how I build up a picture of the world.

Robert White looks ahead to a hopefully brighter future

Robert White looks ahead to a hopefully even brighter future

“I’m also very good at improvisation. I can make up songs 1-5 minutes long about what’s happening in the moment. You can get riotous responses from making something that’s in the moment. I played the trumpet when I was a teenager, I was a jazz improviser, so I’ve got a memory for remembering little licks. I’ve got a mind that can remember little snippets, then repeat them in different orders as appropriate.

“My comedy over the last ten years has been filling-in the fuck-up of my life – the hole which the previous years have been. I feel I’ve now made a foundation and I’m building on that now. I still am autistic and occasionally my mind will be wobbly, but now I can deal with it much better. I think this year will be very positive. I’ve got my head together.”

__________________________________________________

In 2010, panel judge Kate Copstick interviewed Robert White after he won the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality, presented by Simon Munnery. There is a clip on YouTube.

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One specific example of how watching stand-up comedy can change your life

The BBC’s publicity for Feeling Kind of Funny

Janey Godley in the BBC’s publicity for Feeling Kind of Funny

BBC Radio Scotland are currently transmitting a mini-series called Feeling Kind of Funny about comedians tackling mental health issues.

On Thursday, the first episode covered depression and, amongst others, featured my chum Scots comedienne Janey Godley performing and being interviewed.

This was interesting because her autobiography Handstands in the Dark is possibly the most horrific book I have ever read. Yet, despite what I see as a horrific life, she has not suffered from depression. In Thursday’s radio show, she said:

“Depression… I don’t understand it… Don’t I know the whole world has got depression? And here’s me with a daisy sunshine hat on telling everybody to shut up about their lost kite? Well, you know what? Thirty-three years of listening to somebody who was depressed and, before that, listening to my mammy who had psychoticness depression – I’m awfie bored with it.”

On Twitter, Derek Timothy reacted:

Derek Timothy reacted on Twitter

Derek Timothy Tweeted

“The real mind fuck is that when I was depressed my therapist sent me to see Janey Godley. My therapist believed comedy was a valid treatment and advised me to go to the club where Janey was on. Best advice ever.”

He Tweeted:

“My mother was a schizophrenic savant who died of her illness when I was four. No-one told me she was dead. I had issues.”

I talked to Timothy yesterday about hearing Janey’s comedy routine on depression on the radio and previously seeing her on stage. He told me:

“My mother was Dux of her school and had a true photographic memory – not just a good memory but totally photographic (which is very rare). 

The Daily Record report on Timothy’s mother’s death in 1971

The Daily Record report on Timothy’s mother’s death in 1971

“It must have seemed like a gift but, in her early twenties, symptoms of schizophrenia began and got gradually worse. She disappeared in January 1971 (as she had often done before) but this time she was struck by a vehicle and died of a brain injury two days later. She died with her wedding rings missing and 2p in her purse.

“When I saw Janey perform live on stage, I had a bigger belly laugh than I had had in years. She was doing her black Biro routine and I was in tears of laughter.

“I was not aware of Janey’s depression routine until I heard it yesterday but it put a chill down my spine as it exactly described the situation in my life where my depression was making life for the people I loved the most unbearable.

“You need to understand my state of mind when I went to see Janey. It was Autumn 2012 when my lovely, kind wife told me that she couldn’t take the angst any more and that she was leaving me. I realised that my depression was everyone’s depression – just as Janey said in her radio piece – and I was overwhelmed with remorse and sadness. I faced a future alone, without the woman I loved most in the whole world. I quickly spiralled into a full blown breakdown and spent the best part of two months crying. If a comedian had to choose their audience members, I do not think I would have been first on the list!

“My therapist sees comedy as a valid part of a wider treatment regime – in combination with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and anti-depressants. Mindfulness is the art of staying present and paying attention on purpose to what is happening right now this minute. Anxiety and depression are often caused by regrets about the past or worries about the future so letting these thoughts go and being present is the goal of mindfulness. Watching good comedy puts you in a mindful state.

“She sent me to see Janey’s comedy show for two reasons. (1) She wanted me to laugh as I had spent two months crying and (2) She wanted me to see that it was possible – for no matter how short a period – to stop having remorseful thoughts about the past and to stop having doom-laden thoughts about the future. To do this, the comedian not only had to be funny, they had to grab my attention enough to keep me in the present, to keep me absorbed in their performance to the point where my mind was not wandering to past regrets and future anxieties.

Janey onstage in Glasgow at Children In Need Rocks Scotland

Janey onstage in Glasgow at Children In Need Rocks Scotland

“That is why I was so glad Janey was on the bill that night. There were three or four other acts on that night, but I only remember Janey because her act was in the form of a story. And not just any story. It was a true story, which made it all the more absorbing. For 30 minutes, I laughed and I stayed present, I stayed mindful. I now knew I could do it. I could be mindful. I kept up with the therapy and dealt with my issues. My wife and I are reconciled and we are living together without the angst.

Did Janey cure me? Clearly not. But being sent to see her was a stroke of genius and I am privileged to have had these two wonderful women cross my path in this bizarre journey through life.”

You can hear what Janey said on Feeling Kind Of Funny here.

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The manic-depressive comedy act and the fantastic female astronaut phenomenon

Tonight I’m off to see the last of American comic Lewis Schaffer‘s twice-weekly shows Free Until Famous at the Source Below in Soho. The shows should resume in January. As far as my extensive experience goes, “a rollercoaster ride of emotions” is pretty much what Lewis guarantees.

He tells me a psychiatrist friend told him his shows are an exact recreation of a bi-polar, manic-depressive incident. Bloody right. Rollercoasters. Comedy rollercoasters. That’s what they are. He has an extraordinary and mesmerising talent for plucking defeat from the jaws of victory just as often as vice versa. He has perhaps four or five hours of good, solid, funny material and you can never be certain which parts and which configuration will surface in any particular one-hour show… and then you throw into this volatile mix his occasional sudden bouts of self-doubt (which he then analyses as part of the act) and his low boredom threshold… plus he will career off-course if there is any distraction or any good audience interaction. He is a Wikipedia of knowledge. Throw him an audience member from some obscure village in Guatemala and the odds are he will know some bizarre and fascinating fact about it.

“Unpredictable” does not quite do him justice. And then there are the audiences he attracts.

A few weeks ago, he asked an American girl in the audience what she did for a living and it turned out she was USAF Sargent Katie Sparks, a former astronaut on the Mir Space Station. She had spent twelve days up there in space in 2006. Lewis got her up on stage and he and the audience asked her questions about what she’d done and how she’d felt and she answered with fascinating details.

Except that, after the show, Lewis checked out her 2006 trip to Mir and discovered that not only did the Mir space station burn up in 2001 – five years before she claimed to have been in it – but he could find no reference to any female astronaut called Katie Sparks. She had made the whole thing up – whether as an intentional con trick for unknown reasons or as a fantasist’s dream, he could not figure out. There is a photo of “Katie Sparks” on Lewis’ Facebook page.

Lewis won the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe for pulling a publicity stunt so outrageous that the Edinburgh Comedy Awards (showing a remarkable lack of any sense of humour) threatened to take him to court. Could he have been out-stunted and out-witted this time?

He (and I) would be interested to know who “Katie Sparks” is and how and why she managed to persuade Lewis and an entire audience that she was a female astronaut. Born-and-bred New Yorker Lewis is even beginning to doubt that she was American.

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