Robin Williams, John Beluski, Chris Farley, Freddie Prinze: all funny men who chose to die. Robin was my favorite. His improvisational skills had no boundaries, as he hurled funny lines fast and furious, seemingly from a place where few have ventured. These comedians, ambassadors of humor, sang lyrics meant to tickle your soul, while suffering an inner dissonance that challenged their ability to get out of bed. They lacked any resolution to that harmonic pedal point of misery, a can’t-move sadness that creates the illusion that death is more attractive than life. They call it depression.
Depression can be caused by many things — genetic makeup, physical and sexual abuse, conflict, death or loss, physical or emotional pain, reaction to medication, to name a few — causing a chemical imbalance in the brain. The misfiring of a handful of neurons can bring you to your knees. When information is transferred from one neuron to another, the gap between the terminals and nearby neurons is filled by chemical substances called neurotransmitters, which fire across the space, sending signals to other neurons. At times, brain activity might resemble a well-lit midway at a county fair, with hundreds of rides and booths operating simultaneously.
Medication and psycho-therapy are the preferred treatments for depression. Medication controls the level of neurotransmitters that flow from one neuron to another. This is done by “tricking” the neurons into changing their actions based on the assumption that they have received an increased or decreased level of neurotransmitters. Certain medications force the release of the neurotransmitter, causing an exaggerated effect, while some medications increase neurotransmitters known to slow down or reduce the production of other neurotransmitters. Some medications block the the release of neurotransmitters completely. Medications can be a godsend, but the side effects can be intolerable for certain individuals. Maybe the newfound drug will work, and then, without warning, cause the individual to curl into a fetal position and wait for the pain to pass, or choose to die. The next drug will bring them peace, it certainly will. Perhaps….
Psycho-therapy is the art of understanding and creating strategies to deal with the tormented soul. Reliving the physical and sexual abuse was my journey. In the process, I became desensitized to the emotional trauma, leaving me with a soft melodic hum that I hear each day, warning me if depression is on its way. Some people check the weather each day, I check the forecast for depression. Is it going to be a cloudy or sunny day?
Hey funny man, where does the humor come from? How can you suffer through such sadness, spout jokes and act crazy all at the same time? For me and my fellow comedians, it’s quite clear. Psychologists call it coping mechanisms. Coping is a method of dealing with the misery. Maybe you learn techniques from your therapist, perhaps the medication, or some self-imposed means — drugs, alcohol, meditation, compartmentalization of memories, dissociation. And yes, we can’t forget “humor.”
I remember a certain day when I was barely fifteen. It was a time when Johnny Carson was the funny man of late-night television. Sitting in the isolation of my home, the idea entered my mind that I could become the next Johnny Carson. I seemed to have a talent for saying “witty” things, acting crazy, and making my friends laugh. Then, I added alcohol and hours of practice on my trumpet. I had formed my identity. If I had not become funny Larry, the boozer, the trumpet player, perhaps I would have died.
If my misery ever became too much for me to handle, I had my ace in the hole. Death was a way out, an escape hatch of sorts. During childhood, throughout my teenage years, and well into adulthood, my imaginary conversations with God were direct “Keep sending the misery,” I challenged. “I’ll deal with what I can, but if it ever becomes too much I’ll end my life.” Surprisingly, this gave me the element of control that I needed. I had a way out, and I was in control. Hey, funny man, that’s pretty cool.
Decades later, I retired from playing the trumpet, became a moderate drinker, but I’m still considered a funny, crazy man. I asked my therapist if my humor was annoying, and whether I should refrain from being “funny.” She asked me to imagine myself without the humor, and whether I liked that person. I quickly came to the conclusion that the imaged person was boring and without feelings. She smiled, followed by a few quite seconds. “Hey funny man,” she said. “I like who you are.”
I know why some comedians appear to be so funny. For many, it’s how they cover up their misery. I’m not surprised that so many have committed suicide. Perhaps their misery was greater than mine. Maybe I was just one of the lucky ones. Or perhaps my therapist saved my life.