HEY FUNNY MAN, SHOW ME YOUR PAIN
always try their hardest to
make people happy because
they know what it’s like to feel
absolutely worthless and I
don’t want anyone else to feel like that.
Robin Williams, John Belushi, Chris Farley, Freddie Prinze were all funny men who chose to die. They lacked any resolution to that harmonic pedal-point of misery–a can’t-move sadness creating the illusion that death is more attractive than life. Not only does this illusion lurk in the darkness of night, the underbelly of a rotting rat, or the heart of a seven-year-old boy subjected to horrific abuses, it’s everywhere. It is a formidable enemy we call depression.
My mother referred to depression as having a bad case of the nerves. “I’m having trouble with my nerves today,” she often said. To me, depression feels heavy, like a cloud of tears; it’s the darkness that yearns for a glimmer of light, a reason to get up in the morning, a promise from God that light overcomes darkness.
Causes of depression can be a genetic makeup, physical and sexual abuse, conflict, death or loss, physical or emotional pain, reaction to medication, to name a few. Some or all can contribute to a chemical imbalance in the brain, a misfiring of neurons that can bring you to your knees. Normally, 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, like tiny sparks of electricity. Imagine a well-lit midway at a county fair, with hundreds of rides and booths operating simultaneously.
There are some 50 different neurotransmitters in the brain, and too much or too little of these neurotransmitters may contribute to schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and other emotional conditions. When a person’s neurotransmitters do not function properly, it is said they have a “chemical imbalance.” Since communication between and among neurons dictates how our behavior is controlled, a chemical imbalance can impact how a person walks, raises an arm, sits on a stool, or orders a cup of coffee. Those of us suffering from depression are excruciatingly aware of its impact on our behavior, and we must regularly evaluate our actions against our perception of what is “normal.” We are always trying to signal normal behavior to those around us.
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. An abuse victim needs tools for survival, and for me, those tools included humor, alcohol, and ongoing conversations with God. I can’t speak for Robin Williams, John Belushi, Chris Farley, or Freddie Prinze, but for me, humor was a method of dealing with my misery. Just as in the wintertime, when the temperature hovered around zero degrees, I didn’t go outside without my coat; when depression was dark and heavy, I didn’t go outside without my humor. But perhaps humor, by itself, can only keep the tormented soul from death for a time. Perhaps if I had not met Olivia, my therapist, humor would not have been enough, and I would have died. Perhaps that is what happened to those other funny men.
Decades later, I asked Olivia, 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 concluded that the imagined person was boring and without feelings. She smiled before saying, “Hey, funny man. I like who you are.”
Olivia suggested that I try medication to reduce my anxiety and depression, but I wanted to understand how it worked before I agreed. I learned that the medication, a pea-sized pill, moves through the body like a mouse through a maze. First, it is absorbed in the stomach, penetrates the lining of the intestines, and races through the bloodstream to its intended target–receptors on the surface of certain neurons in the brain. To achieve the intended effect, psychoactive drugs must bind to and interact with these receptors, changing the functional properties of that neuron and thus, paving the way for healthy, “normal” behavior. However, only a small portion of the medication is attached to the intended receptor in the brain at any given time. The rest of the drug languishes in other parts of the body where it may cause unpleasant side effects before it is metabolized by the liver and excreted by the kidneys. The process is repeated until the desired level and duration of the drug is reached and a steady state of “chemical balance” is maintained. Although pharmacology — the science of drugs — has made rapid strides since the middle of the twentieth century, it is not an exact science. Side effects from the drugs are not uncommon and sometimes require a period of trial and error to find the correct medication and dosage. My initial experience left me with side effects similar to a bad case of the flu. When I switched to a different medication, it eliminated the negative side effects but didn’t reduce my anxiety. I agreed to try the original medication again and give my body more time to make the necessary adjustment. Fortunately, it worked. My depression and anxiety lessened, leaving me in a more receptive state of mind where I welcomed the therapy and medication that offered a better quality of life.
Funny or not, a happy face filled with laughter or the funny twist of a story is a mere cosmetic fix to depression. Healing is a combination of therapy, medication, and the willingness to find a better life.