What’s So Funny About Bipolar Disorder?

Author: Janet Coburn

I admit that humor and bipolar disorder are not a combination that one instantly thinks of. And I admit that when I slide into depression, my sense of humor is the first thing that goes missing. But the rest of the time, humor leaks into my writing – even my writing about bipolar.

Part of this, of course, is Jenny Lawson’s fault. She is one of my heroes, in particular for the way her Bloggess posts sparkle with both light and dark humor and for her book Furiously Happy, subtitled “A Funny Book About Horrible Things.” I met Jenny at a session called “From Blog to Book” at the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop. (For those of you not familiar with the name, Erma Bombeck is the patron saint of the Suburban-Mom-Takes-a-Humorous-Look-at-Everyday-Life genre. One of her books was called If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?)

I’m not a suburban mom, but the “humorous look at everyday life” is a fine jumping-off point. And since my everyday life is influenced by my disorder, voilà – the mixing of humor and bipolar.

After Jenny’s session at the workshop I did manage to turn my blog into a book – Bipolar Me, published by Eliezer Tristan Publishing. In one the chapters, called “On the Upside,” I tried to showcase some of my lighter blog posts. Here are a couple of examples.

From a piece on catastrophizing and mammograms:

If catastrophizing were a power source, I could light up Chicago. Good thing it burns nerve endings instead of fossil fuels….A mastectomy would suck for oh-so-many reasons: cancer, surgery, body image issues. Also, I would keep falling over to the right. And before the operation I’d have to take my breast on a farewell tour for all its friends and admirers.

Admittedly, that’s pretty dark humor. But sometimes dark humor is all we have to combat the various bricks that life throws at us.

Another meditation on depression was my essay “The Depression Diet”:

I maintain that one way to spot depressives is through their grocery-buying habits. Just as psychologists say that odds are that the last three people in any long line are likely to be clinically depressed, I say that someone who purchases an entire chocolate chip cheesecake and a bottle of Jose Cuervo is going to be in the back of that check-out line, too.

And in “Brain vs. Brain” I wrote:

What is cognitive dissonance? When people ask, I usually describe it as when the two halves of your brain slam forcefully into each other and give you a brain-ache. It’s also known as “brain go ‘splodey.”

And, from “Bipolars, Roller Coasters, and Sex”:

Maybe the best metaphor is that bipolar disorder is like sex. You can’t adequately explain it to someone who’s never had it.

That chapter also included musing on bipolar disorder and cookies, math, cats, work, armadillos, DisneyWorld, and science fiction conventions.

I was genuinely surprised when, in the Amazon review of my book, people mentioned the humor. After all, I hadn’t set out to write a funny book. And a lot of it isn’t. The humor isn’t in the disorder itself. It’s in how we look at it. And there are a lot of pretty good memes that show up on Facebook support groups that support that theory. I think what makes them funny is that these are people who have bipolar disorder laughing with others who do too, not laughing at them. (You can see plenty of those memes on Facebook, too.)

The kind of humor I like is the kind that makes connections between people. I hate what I call “asshole comedy,” in which a person behaves like a jerk, and revenge or humiliation comedy, which is too mean-spirited for me to find funny. But when your sense of humor reaches out to people and gets a “hey, me too” reaction, the writer has accomplished something worthwhile. And making those connections with other people who have the same mental disorder leads to much-needed community as well as a break from the often-grim aspects of our illness.

One theory of comedy is that it comes from pain. Think about laughing at someone who slips on a banana peel. Or think about Robin Williams and Carrie Fisher, to give examples that have been much on our minds of late. To take pain and make it into something funny is a trick that is not easy to perform. But when it works, it’s magical even beyond words. I’m not comparing myself to a professional entertainer, but I like to think that some of the spirit of comic writers and performers and even singers informs my writing, if only a bit.

Besides, my mother always said I had my father’s sense of humor. I’m not sure whether that’s necessarily a good thing. But he lived with multiple myeloma with quirky humor and a sense of the absurdities. I’d like to think that I address bipolar disorder in a similar style.


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Janet Coburn is a blogger, editor, and published author who lives with bipolar 2 disorder. She makes her home in Southwest Ohio with her husband and a varying number of cats. Her book Bipolar Me is available on Amazon as well as Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and other outlets. She posts every Sunday in two blogs, Bipolar Me and Et Cetera, etc. You can also find her on Twitter at coburn_janet.

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