Like many of us, I felt the bruises of my mental health issues before I could put a name to what was throwing the punches. Occasionally, when I was at school, something would descend, fogging my mind, darkening my mood, to the point where I’d just slip out of class, find the stairwell behind the nurses office, where nobody ever went, and sit there for the rest of the day – however long that was – crying and staring at the floor, for a reason I could never fathom.
These days, it has a name – several, in fact. Anxiety. Bipolar. OCD. The black dog and its friends. A dark syrupy cocktail of disorders that sometimes make life harder, sadder and more frightening than, perhaps, it should be. But any good fighter watches tapes of his opponent – knowledge helps you mount an effective defence, and through therapy, research, trial, and god knows, error, as I grew up and learned more about myself, I also learned more about my issues, and how to live with them.
I’m a lucky boy. For all of my adult life, I’ve had a job that shoots me around the world, from stage, to club, to screen, to festival, performing my comedy variety act. I do jokes and tricks. Feats of dexterity, danger and spectacle, wrapped in wit and silliness. Like I said, I’m a lucky boy.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not about to get all “tears of a clown” on you. That cliché that says that depression attaches itself more to artists and performers that other people? I don’t buy into that for a second – I think there are just as many bipolar plumbers as there are depressed comedians – but I’m not going to lie: However shabby I’m feeling before I walk on stage, having a room full of strangers laugh and clap at you is a pretty effective short term solution. So effective, in fact, than sometimes when I’m at home, sitting on the sofa with my wife, and if I’m feeling down, she’ll break into solo applause, cheering “Yay Mat Ricardo!” like an idiot. She did this as a joke, until sheepishly I admitted to her that it actually worked. There’s clearly a part of my brain that has been conditioned to hear applause and feel good about myself, so when she did it, that little hit of dopamine still happened. Or maybe I’m just a shallow showbiz fool? Bit of both, perhaps.
But this is not a cry for help, or a whinge for attention. This is a reality check. Yes, when that stinky old black dog is sat on your chest, stopping you from getting out of bed with its low threatening growl, or when your anxiety is flooding your mind with more questions than anyone can answer, paralysing your forward motion with dizzying options and panic, it’s awful. But there are ways to live with it, ways to minimize the amount to which it looms over your shoulder ready to bully you. In these pieces, I’ll be telling you some of mine.
Now, as I hope I’ve made abundantly clear, I am very much not qualified. I make my living throwing things around and telling jokes. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done, and the only thing I have any expertise in, so I’m not going to claim any wisdom, except to say that I’ve suffered from this stupid disease all my adult life, and I’m still here, together enough to grin at it and give it the finger. What works for me might work for you, right?
Perhaps the most important thing to do, at least for me, is be the simplest: Don’t fight it, and don’t blame yourself.
If you wake up one morning and the only thing you know for sure is that you soul is full of darkness, and your body full of heavy lead, then accept it. You wouldn’t get a broken leg, blame yourself, and try to go running anyway, hoping that the pain will go away. Soothe yourself with the knowledge of what it is, and what it isn’t. Don’t blame yourself for its arrival, and don’t blame yourself for not being able to make it leave. That bones can snap isn’t your fault, and nor is the fragile balance in brain chemistry that sometimes makes people think the worst thoughts. Know what it is, so that when it happens, your reaction can be “Ah. It’s this. Hello again”.
In the martial art Aikido, when someone throws a punch at you, rather than blocking – which might bruise your arm, or counter-punching, which is tricky and risky – you’re taught to move backward at the same speed that your opponent is moving forward. To harmonise with your opponents energy. Match them. Be them. By doing this, the punch is robbed of its power, and the slightest gentle trip will – as they say in the dojo – invite your opponent to the floor.
The black dog is awfully hard to push away, but if you know what it is, treat it almost as an old companion, scratch it behind its ear, then it’ll fall asleep soon enough.
Along with having no self-blame for it, comes no shame. One of the tricks it pulls is to make you worry and fret about what you did to cause it, and what you should do to cure it, and with those questions comes the assumption that it is, in some way, perhaps just partially, your fault. But its not a puzzle to be solved. Just because its inside your head, doesn’t mean you created it. You don’t own it and you shouldn’t be ashamed of it. In my experience, sometimes when you talk about it out loud, it runs away and hides, shy and embarrassed. And whenever it does that, its a little easier for you to remember that its only a part of you, by no means the totality.
These dark, negative feelings come looking for a fight. They thrive on it. The want you to be scared that they know where you live, angry that they think they can barge in whenever they like, sad about the possibility of how they’ll make you feel. Do all you can to accept them. Harmonise with their energy. Invite them in for a cup of tea. Confuse the bastards. Invite them to the floor.