illustration by Michel Streich
SCHIZOPHRENIA IS A SCARY WORD
Schizophrenia is a scary thing. I mean, even the word is terrifying. Look at it! It’s from the Greek, meaning ‘split mind’. Despite containing the same good Scrabble letters as say, ‘schnitzel’, with a phonetic shape of ‘arachnophobia’, the associations are scary. Nothing unsettles like the thought of an unhinged mind. I know schizophrenia well. It was the unwanted houseguest of my childhood; the estranged family member coming between me and my mum. Schizophrenia will always be the villain in my story.
I grew up as an only child in Burnie, Tasmania. Mum had paranoid schizophrenia. We never called it that, though. We didn’t even call it mental illness. She was either ‘well’ or ‘not well’. When I say ‘we’, I mean me and Nan and Pop (plus Blossum the cat). That was my team. My support network. I never called them that, but I called them up when Mum wouldn’t stop crying. I saw Nan and Pop on the weekends, which left the weekdays. The interminable empty afternoons, jumping on the trampoline, alone with madness.
To quote Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: “Sometimes I think people don’t understand how lonely it is to be a kid. Like you don’t matter!” I was double lonely, which is like a double rainbow, but the opposite. An unhappy monochrome mouth, squashed on the pillow, hissing and crunching.
People with schizophrenia experience auditory hallucinations. They hear voices. Can you imagine anything more terrifying? Sometimes the voices made Mum laugh. She would be cacking herself on the couch (this in turn made me giggle). Sometimes the voices taunted her. She would grind her teeth and hiss horrible swear words (this would make me angry). I was on the receiving end of Tourette syndrome. Heat-seeking audio blades, spearing into my ears.
My job was to say, “Get up Mum!” or, “Stop it Mum!” or, “Mum!” or combinations of anything and everything, all day, most days. My job was to talk her out of getting takeaway and to “please cook”, like the ‘opposites sketch’ on You Can’t Do That on Television. Mum was the delinquent teenager and I was the grown-up child carer. I didn’t call myself that, I just called it My Unfair Life starring Justin the Champion, who does his best in everything, whether it’s counting fractions or Mum’s tablets.
Now all grown up, I decided to reckon with my childhood. You better believe I went back there. I wiped my calendar for three years, opened every can of worms and unearthed each time capsule. These came in the form of cassettes. My childhood hobby was recording myself and my family. I collaborated with teenage ‘Heazy’, taking his tapes and combining them with my own fury and love and skill to turn a silent old story into something bright and new and bold. A book, called Get Up Mum.
It’s good work to remember Mum when she was well. She was funny and warm and caring. She fussed and fixed my breakfast and checked my spelling and tucked my tag in. People with a mental illness are still good people. My mum is a beautiful person. She’s not the ‘crazy person on the bus’ you might have in your head. She’d be sitting quietly, hands folded, arranging demons the universe forced upon her.
They say schizophrenia is still the black sheep of the spectrum. That’s understandable, it being so wild. We fear the unknown, so it stands to reason that education is vital. One in 100 people will experience it. Statistically, schizophrenics are more likely to be the victims of violence than the instigators. ‘Split mind’ doesn’t mean multiple personalities by the way, more like ‘split off’ from reality. Sufferers can’t tell what is real and what isn’t. What a mean disease.
My mum is a lovely lady. Our story is a great tragedy. Sundays and seasickness and ‘So Far Away’ by Dire Straits. For my whole childhood she would be well for three months and then sick for three months and then well for three months… That was the cycle. It was probably because she stopped taking her tablets, which is common. It meant she broke my heart over and over again.
The Big Issue 2018
WHY COMEDIANS GET DEPRESSED
‘Why are comedians depressed?’ It’s one of those age old paradoxes like ‘why are contact jugglers so creepy?’ I’ve been one for ten years (a comedian, that is: not a creepy juggler) and I’ve frequently pondered the equation.
Does it work the other way around? Are funeral directors the life of the party? Nick Cave seems pretty chipper in interviews. Jokes aside, there is a serious side to looking on the lighter side of life, which has been brought into the spotlight by the recent suicide of beloved comic actor Robin Williams. Like many comedians, Williams dealt with dark themes. It’s little surprise that his mental workplace was an occupational health and safety nightmare.
The distance between the onstage and the backstage persona is even more confronting when it’s a successful artist such as Williams. As a sharehousehold name performing as The Bedroom Philosopher, I can attest. Given the nature of my family history, my personality and ‘put all your eggs in one basket and break a few to make an omelette’ approach to creativity, I’m genuinely surprised when I’m happy.
Stand-up comedy is where sport meets service industry – it can be as draining as it is rewarding, and for a moody person, it’s consistently destabilising. Anxious highs dip into soul-crunching lows. The mood swing is the main attraction in the devil’s fun park.
These are the reasons why comedians often appear down. They are drawn from monitoring my own mental health over the years and somewhat coded debriefs with fellow cacktitioners. (Right click – ‘add to dictionary’)
1. The nature of the job.
Comedy equals tragedy plus time multiplied by anxiety squared. This anxiety may begin a week before the gig. That’s up to one hundred hours of nerve-tingling, bowel-clenching, stomach-sinking, dream-curdling, hope-dismantling worry before you even get to the venue. Then it triples. As your name is introduced by someone claiming to ‘love your work’, your body releases a civil war’s worth of survival adrenalin, your veins light up like a Christmas tree, and you stand beneath the glare of the headlights like a talking rabbit pulled out of your own sorting hat. Your soul is graded on the spot via laughter, or the lack of it. This crude survey information is stamped into you for life as you experience a terrifying emotional comedown: depleted natural chemicals quickly replaced by ‘electroheavies’ from the friendly barkeep.
2. The nature of the craft.
Comedians are miners. They must go inside the cave of human folly and swing a pick axe of anger at the iron walls until a hunk of coal comes loose. They must take the lump and flambé it in their imagination furnace, overthinking it until it becomes electricity. This is the satirical sizzle that finds its way on stage, powering the high-beam smiles of an audience. Coal mining is dirty, dangerous work. Most people sealed off their tunnels years ago, and wouldn’t enter it if paid. Comedians spend their lifetime in the darkness of emotional solitude. It gets lonely and it gets bleak.
3. Fitting the cliché.
People expect comedians to be funny in real life. Surely to God they’ll be cracking gags on the tram, right? Aren’t comedians responsible for the crime rate at airports, their wits deemed too pointy to take onboard the craft? No. Instead, most comics I know are reserved and nervous, their personalities muzzled by a lifelong obligation to be abnormally hilarious. (With great power comes great responsibility). This social pressure, real or perceived, can be marvellously tiring. The expectation is downright illogical – and somewhat disrespectful of these professional speakers. If you were at a dinner party with a clairvoyant and she started reading your future – ‘you’re going to choke on a fish bone’ – you’d be creeped out. One can imagine the clairvoyant would say A) sorry folks, I’m off hours, and B) you want me to read your palm? I see you reaching for your purse, dude.
4. No fallback emotion.
There is a theory that comedians have it tough because, unlike other artists who fall on shit times, they don’t have their sense of humour to rely on. A sense of humour is their main tool of trade. It’s like Kate Miller-Heidke trying to sing herself to sleep after a show instead of watching Game Of Thrones. Unlike a theatre troupe, who can drink and laugh together after a bad show, a touring comedian will sit alone in the padded cell of their hotel room. They may take a drag on their humour to find the charred, singed remains of coal dust. If you’re not laughing, you’re crying.
5. You don’t have to be crazy to work here …
Comedians are mad. Anyone who would actively choose this career path, to willingly undergo the mild emotional torture of running the validation gauntlet of live performance must be deeply imbalanced in some way. Perhaps it’s not that comedy makes comics depressed, it’s that they do comedy because they are a mess already. Most comedians report being picked on at school. Their sharpened wit was a mechanism built for survival. While this sword is attractive and effective, behind the armour is often a pale, vulnerable nerd still trapped in the perpetual self-loathing and rejection of their teenage self. Relationship anyone?
6. Success doesn’t buy happiness.
We all know money doesn’t buy emotional prosperity. By the same token neither does career affluence. In a truly sinister twist, for the neurotic weirdo described above, being lauded and loved only feeds the mould of low self-esteem. Deep down, most comedians will casually hate themselves and rarely feel comfortable in the yellow jacket of their stage win at the Tour De Farce. This guilty paradox is doused with a cold-fusion pressure to perform, creating a peace-sapping spiritual hamster wheel of micro-angst that would leave anyone as ashen faced and hollow eyed as Robin Williams’ recent press shots.
Comedians might make great clown doctors for sick children in hospital but, by golly, those clowns shouldn’t be operating on themselves. Most performers will try and counter the gross emotional rollercoaster by applying lashings of ale, nicotine, pot, coke and whatever else is cool. (Smack kind of died out in the 80s). You now have someone prone to depression treating their on-stage high with a stimulant washed down with a depressant. This is akin to giving yourself a hug then slapping yourself in the face (which is only okay if you’re Frank Woodley doing a bit.) If the comedian did a dodgy show (which is a 50/50 probability, at all levels), they will be left with a steaming pile of sorrow to absorb. Drugs are a snooze button for emotional processing, and when they wear off, the steaming pile is still there – only now stale. Breakfast of champions – and then it’s back down the coal mine!
Actors are narcissistic. Writers are arrogant. Puppeteers are … different. The clichés are all there. The sad clown image has been around for years. One of the most pertinent issues to be raised by the death of Robin Williams is an understanding and awareness of mental illness. My personal mantra is ‘better out than in.’ It’s a subject matter that cannot be discussed enough. Hopefully more comedians are encouraged to Come Out of the mine and talk about their experiences. Goodness knows: if handled correctly, they are the perfect ambassadors for depression, making this ghastly topic not only palatable but even – god forbid! – joyous.
2021 AMENDMENT: Robin Williams was not depressed when he took his own life. He was actually suffering from Lewy Body Dementia which is a disease explained in the recent documentary ‘Robin’s Wish.’ There is an article on the matter by his wife HERE.
THANK GOD FOR MENTAL ILLNESS
After watching the music documentary Dig! I was checking out The Brian Jones Town Massacre. Wild front-man Anton Newcombe had called their 1996 release Thank God For Mental Illness and the title fascinated me. It was about the most audacious thing I’d ever seen. Who would dare celebrate mental illness in anyway? Mental illness was the thing of dreary pamphlets and scary people on buses, not critically acclaimed lo-fi albums from the American underground. Even if the title was being ironic, glib, sarcastic or otherwise, it genuinely encouraged me. My life was defined by psychological disorders and as a survivor, it’s something I wanted to wear as a badge of pride, not shame.
I’m annoyed by how little empathy there is toward mental illness. Despite a solid advertising campaign during the 90’s (Jimmy’s got depression, can I catch it?) and being told that 1 in 5 Australians suffer a mental disorder, we’re still happily recycling the issue in the too hard basket. This lack of awareness is reflected in parliament where there are frequent calls for the Government to allocate as much funding to mental health as it does physical. In 2008-2009, there were 12.3 million scripts written for antidepressants, an increase of 46% in 12 years. Yet based on my statistics, only 10% of these people talk about it freely. There is still big time stigma attached to even low-level disorders like anxiety. Mental illness = fail.
Mental illness is too easily associated with being a loser. How quickly we forget those who wrangled fragile minds to succeed as artists: Russell Brand, Kurt Cobain, Ray Davies, Stephen Fry, Bill Oddie, Sinead Oconnor, Axl Rose, (all bi-polar). Syd Barret, Daniel Johnston, Brian Wilson (schizophrenia). Woody Allen, Jim Carrey, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, J.K. Rowling, Sarah Silverman, Jeff Tweedy not to mention our own Andrew Hansen, Natalie Imbruglia and Heath Ledger (depression). One listing took me by complete surprise. As a teenager, how much better to be handed a pamphlet about depression with Beyonce on the front than a grim stock photo of a dude on a park bench. Mental illness needs better publicity and cooler public faces, even if they are obnoxious rock stars like Anton Newcombe.
I grew up watching my Mother suffer schizophrenia. While for a large part it was tragic and disturbing, when I think about what I’d ‘thank god’ for, I am reminded that Mum also possesses a madcap sense of humour and appreciation for the soft-hearted silliness of life. She once gave me a rare insight into her ‘voices.’ She was paranoid Mick Jagger was coming to get her and was communicating with Mozart to help, but he’d said he was too far back in time to be of any assistance. I found it delightful. Even the maddest of worlds has its own sense of logic. In the same way we respect the customs of other cultures, we too should respect the integrity of those who see our world through a fractured kaleidoscope.
Anyone talking to themselves on public transport (and not in possession of a hands free kit), usually becomes my favourite. I’ve always felt oddly comfortable around the mentally ill. Once you get over the instinctual fear of the unknown, you can appreciate the honesty of their features, childlike lack of self consciousness, and their captivating, often amusing quirks. I find those who have been broken by life pure and fearless, and there is a space in my heart that weeps for their opened minds. As the Jeffrey Lewis album title says It’s the Ones Who’ve Cracked That the Light Shines Through. I wonder if there is an element of the divine in their self-conversation.
“Will you follow me down?” Newcombe sings on Thank God For Mental Illness. We would all do well to follow our loved ones down the rabbit hole of psychological injury. We might appreciate that the line between creative genius and self-destruction is whisper thin. Once we overcome our fears through patience and understanding, we can celebrate this truly brave struggle against these common and treatable conditions.
BEING JUSTIN HEAZLEWOOD
I write this having last night watched Being John Malkovich and watching it for the second time I was reminded of what an amazing and original movie it is. In fact, I think if I ever got my three wishes, it would be to make my favourite movie ideas come true. Then I could have my own Groundhog Day, star in my own Truman Show and, oh, yeah, the third wish would have to be the ability to make my hair stand on end. That isn’t out of a movie, but what a party trick!
Then, lying in bed, the idea dawned on me – imagine if I really could let someone inside my head for fifteen minutes, or at the very least wrote an article called Being Justin Heazlewood. I slept and dreamt of some obscure person from high school as I often do, and awoke to ‘oh man what were you thinking?’ Like so many of my before bed ideas, where sense and reason (and fear) are snoozing, I awoke to realise that it was a painfully self conscious, incoherent and blatant exploitation of writing for therapy used as a thin veil to hide the fact that I haven’t any real article ideas. But there was something about it that excited me beyond belief. And now, as I sit on top of a hill out in the bush near my Uncle Ken’s place in Michaelago, I think, nuh, bugger it, I’m going to do it.
Apart from the movie, the other thing that inspired me was a man called Dave Eggers, who wrote a book last year called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Now I rave about this book and think it’s the best thing I’ve ever read (now I haven’t read a lot of books but I’m fussy) And I say ‘read it.’ It’s a painfully self conscious autobiography written after Dave had lost both his parents to cancer at age twenty one. He uses autobiographical writing in a fresh and unique way, and it is, in most parts, hilarious. But the one bit that got me was this passage:
We gasp at the wretches on afternoon shows who reveal their hideous secrets in front of millions of similarly wretched viewers, and yet…what have we taken from them, what have they given us? Nothing. We know that Janine had sex with her daughters boyfriend, but…then what? We will die and we will have protected…what? Protected from all the world that, what, we do this or that, that our arms have made these movements and our mouths these sounds? Please. We feel that to reveal embarrassing or private things, like, say, masturbatory habits (for me, about once a day, usually in the shower), we have given someone something, that, like a primitive person fearing that a photographer will steal his soul, we identify our secrets, our pasts and their blotches, with our identity, that revealing our habits or losses or deeds somehow makes one less of oneself. But it’s just the opposite, more is more is more – more bleeding, more giving. These things, details, stories, whatever, are like the skin shed by snakes, who leave theirs for anyone to see.
He is saying that he doesn’t need secrets. That making things public doesn’t take anything away. For me, this is a revolutionary way of thinking. To live your life with no secrets. We all know people like this. The open books. The ones who are happy talking about their sex lives, or problems at home – the ones who’ll tell you if they liked your hair before you cut it. Sometimes they give you insight, sometimes, insult, but they often make the best friends. I think we must love hearing other people’s problems. Quite often for no other reason than the fact it makes you feel a little better about your own life. I think of the saying ‘the greatest sign of strength is to show your weakness.’
You look at reality TV. We love it. Can’t get enough of it. Sooner of later there’ll be action figures so you can make your own reality at home. But is it reality? Would you act differently if you knew there was a camera pointing at you? There’s a theory that the study of atoms isn’t accurate for the microscope lens effects the movement of the molecules. I wonder if THIS is reality? Do I think differently when I get the pen in my hand? Do I assume a different persona, or is this just coming straight off the chest?
I’m starting to have more self doubts. I’m thinking, ‘Dave Eggers let you get inside his head with a thoughtful, well crafted novel which probably took him years. I’m trying to sum up what I want to say before it gets too cold and I have to walk back to my Uncle’s.’ While Dave’s Author-Self-Aware-of-Himself-Writing-a-Book bits are used sparingly, I’m basing an entire article on it.
This is the bit where I imagine all my friend’s going ‘Just, what are you thinking?’ And some bloke in the refectory going ‘What’s he trying to say? This is pissweak.’ Yeh, self doubt is pissweak. And it’s based on one thing, fear. For example, I fear that by writing this article and having people read it they will:
- Not understand it, think I’m stupid.
- Understand it, think I’m stupid.
I fear that it will be published and:
- A year later I’ll look back and regret it.
- A day later I’ll look back and regret it.
In answer to that I remember the saying, ‘you learn from mistakes, you don’t learn from regret.’ Something like that. My theory is that something is better than nothing, as imperfect as it is, might be, or will be. I would rather this article be here than some band interview.
“God help the man who doubts what he’s sure of.” - Bruce Springsteen.
I think the more aware you are of self doubt the better. And know that it is entirely made up of fear. Fear of failure. What are you afraid of? What holds you back? What’s the worst thing that could happen? Being so aware of things can be useful, but also awful. I think it’s called being hyper-aware. That’s me. My example of it is studying film in a subject like Media Representation and Analysis. Before you know it you can’t watch a movie without noticing the camera angles, use of colour, symbolism etc. In that subject we even pulled apart a Road Runner cartoon as an example of ‘classic narrative’ or something. Basically you can’t allow the movie to ‘effect’ you because you’re too busy analysing it.
When you’re hyper-aware you think way too much. You agonise over everything that is said to you and everything you say back. Usually negatively. It’s no surprise that you end up a lot quieter than normal, as there is now an almighty filtering system on everything you’re about to say. (Where about 80% ends up unsaid as ‘it would sound dumb’ when in fact it would sound perfectly normal, as you’re the only one in the room holding yourself up an gunpoint). You’re so used to feeling alone in a crowd that there is almost a comfort in it. You feel like your self esteem is so far behind everyone else’s that there’s no use changing anything. You’re not half the man you used to be, there’s a shadow hanging over you and yeah, yesterday comes suddenly.
You don’t feel like being around anyone, especially your friends, because your biggest fear in the world is a) revealing your weaknesses. It’s impossible to hide and impossible to explain. This is depression. I don’t want to go on too much about it but I’ll just say this: You start to feel guilty about all the crap thoughts you’re having, especially when you are supposed to be having such a good life. You feel like you’re the only person on the planet whose mind can think up such ugly thoughts. And you feel guilty about sharing it in case you infect people with your negativity.
This is just to say if anyone can relate to this, it’s okay.
The most important thing I’ve learnt is that we’ve all got the same insecurities, the same fears, the same self doubts. I reckon it’s just a matter of making it easier for each other. Smile, look people in the eye. Say G’day to people as you pass them. Anything that says: “Geez, we’re both here, we’re both human.’ At the very least, remember one of my favourite sayings: ‘in five years, what will it matter?’
It’s only fear that stops us. What if they ignore me, I’ll look stupid. So what? You’ll feel better. There’s a ‘what if’ for every situation. From what if I look her in the eye and she thinks I’m cracking on to her, to what if I write a novel, to what if I wear this shirt to what if I believe in god? We care more about what others think about us than what we think about ourselves.
I refer to an old football cliché my coach used to say: ‘They’re just arms and legs, same as you, they’re made up of the same stuff.’ Not that it made us feel any better about the team of giants that were about to give us a thrashing, but it’s just good to realise that we all get intimidated by each other. Remember that girl you thought was a snob in high school and too good for you? She was just shy. She probably thought the same thing about you.
Sorry, must interrupt. There’s an ant crawling around my page and it brings me to another point. I just love looking up at the stars at night. That billion gallon universe, and thinking, ‘gee, today I was worried about how flat my hair was.’
Curio, University of Canberra 2001