Just for Laughs: How Comedy Gave Me a New Lease of Life

By Graeme Rayner

I have written for Vent before about my experience of mental health issues in the past; how I learned to spot my danger signs, learned to talk about my issues and ultimately, to try and live with them.

In recent years, I have come across many folks who share similar issues and experiences with me. The commonalities go deeper when you look at how their issues impact their outlook and behaviour.

Having struggled with anxiety, low self-esteem and chronic depressive periods since adolescence, I have learned lately that some of the things that make me “me” are symptoms and causes in equal measure.

I’ll use one example: I hate quiet. If I’m alone in the house I have to have the radio or TV on, even if it’s just for background noise but even then, I hate idle hands. I struggle to watch the TV without keeping my hands occupied – often this means I’m on my phone, biting my nails, even stroking my beard! It’s impossible for me to just sit and be “in the moment”.

One of the most profound impacts my mental health has on me is my need to feel like I am involved in something i.e. a project or group.

Four and half years ago I was one of a handful of people that set up a local community choir. Since then, I have thrown myself into activities for them. In 2016 our local MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered and since then I have been heavily involved in community activities as part of her legacy. I mention these not as a plea for attention but to highlight the fact that generally, I can’t say no to events like this. These activities give me purpose and a sense of self-worth that (and this is critical) I should already have but for some reason I find lacking.

I am happily married (15 years) and have two kids aged 11 and 9. This should be enough and my rational brain knows it is. However, my irrational brain wants me to fill my time with stuff.

Let me run you through this year so far: I have trained for and completed the London Marathon, organised and compèred a charity concert, sung at several more concerts, written and performed poetry, played football in a community cohesion event and all of this was before the school summer holidays.

Since then, I have been trying to keep up with the choir, as well as two more ambitious projects. In September work began on “Batley Variations”, a community Opera culminating in 4 performances over 3 days. At the same time, I have been working towards my scariest challenge – stand up comedy.

I have always wanted to try it but in the past, fear stopped me from doing so. I have done different types of performances over the years but the thought of just me, a microphone and my thoughts used to scare the hell out of me.

My uncle dared me to try it this summer during a visit to my birthplace (Loch Lomond) and soon after I heard about a charity challenge – learning stand-up from a professional comic over 8 two-hour workshops, followed by a performance at The Wardrobe in Leeds.

There’s something a little clichéd about comedians and poor mental health.

During the course I asked my comedy mentor about his tattoo – he has a tattoo on his arm of some trees. I was fascinated. He said, matter-of-factly “that’s the tree where I tried to kill myself”.  When I expressed shock at how open about this he was being he explained that he’d based an entire Edinburgh show on it…

Many high-profile comics have had well documented issues. Billy Connolly (my hero), Frank Skinner, Russell Brand and Frankie Boyle have all faced addiction of different forms (alcohol, drugs etc). Spike Milligan, Tony Hancock and Robin Williams all also suffered chronic mental illnesses, in the case of Robin Williams it tragically took his life.

This article from The Guardian highlights this trend. I believe that many people with brains like mine gravitate towards the spotlight when their mental illnesses or conditions almost scream at them to go the opposite way.

When I was at my lowest, I struggled to function. I’d often nod off during conversations as my brain and emotions shut down. Yet the buzz from performing is unreal.

Last Sunday I performed my stand-up set. I was on stage for 11 minutes and five days later whenever I pause to think about it I am still given a little high. It is lessened every time, so I feel like I need another fix. This in itself is scary – could I become dependant on stand-up in some way to give me a boost? In the past I’ve found running and exercise helps, as does singing but none of these made me feel as good as making people laugh.

For now, having had (thankfully) only positive feedback about my routine, I am going to try and have a crack at (at the very least) an amateur career as a comic. However, I’m mindful of how this may affect me. I know there will be on stage (metaphorical) deaths and I need to prepare for these.

Sarah Millican, one of my favourite comics, has some advice – if you have a poor gig, you’re only allowed to worry about it until 11am the following day. Her advice, which I plan to follow, also says though that if you smash it out of the park you’re only allowed to be smug till 11am too. This seems sound advice to me and not just about comedy. I plan to follow Millican’s Law and if I manage to get even a fraction of her ability and success whilst doing it I’ll be a happy bunny.

If anyone would like to watch my stand up, it’s on YouTube – it’s a rough recording but the sound quality is fine. It is NSFW though…just the way I like it!

As always, my Twitter DMs are always open to anyone feeling like they need a chat or wanting a nudge towards the right support. Find me at @b1g_daddy_g


You can read more articles like this in our Experiences section.

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