George Orwell said, ‘Every joke is a tiny revolution’. It is true that humour can be found in everything. But talking about my diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder doesn’t always go down well at comedy clubs. There is still a lot of stigma around mental illness. Sadly, there are even people who will bully someone they perceive as vulnerable. For this reason, I choose to perform my comedy show Covered about recovering from a mental breakdown on mental health campaign days. It helps me to feel like I am not alone, but part of an inclusive and caring culture.
I didn’t write my show for everyone, I wrote it for the 1 in 4 of us experiencing mental health issues and those who love us. I trained as a Time to Change Champion, which ties me into a wider conversation. It’s not uncommon for people like me to feel isolated, campaigns like Time to Change give us a sense of belonging, and in my case, also a sense of purpose.
For this reason, I chose to perform Covered at the Leicester Comedy Festival on the 6th February, which is Time To Talk Day. Then as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, I will be performing at the Brighton Fringe Festival on the 18th and 19th May. I hope this is an opportunity to connect with like-minded people.
Six years ago, I was in a mental hospital feeling completely isolated and helpless. The crisis was triggered when my dad passed away, on the run up to his death I’d lost my home, my job and my marriage was in turmoil. A psychiatrist told me I should stop working, claim benefits and that I would be on medication for the rest of my life.
Without comedy, I would have been hopeless.
I performed my very first gig only weeks before I became unwell. It was another comedian, Alfie Brown, also diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, who’s inspired me to give it a try. If I hadn’t met him, or been aware of Russell Brand’s struggle with mental health issues, I would have given up. Thanks to their visibility in the arts, I believed I could get better and play an active role in society. Since my breakdown in 2014, I have performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe every year, finding more inspirational comedians like Juliette Burton, Laura Lexx and Dave Chawner who speak openly about their mental health issues. I joined forces with them and created Pulling It Together, a collection of podcasts and blogs on the subject of mental health.
Performing at a mainstream comedy gig I may get one or two people who want to chat to me about their own mental health journey afterwards. But I also get weird looks and occasionally abuse. I have met people who have used my mental health diagnoses that I talk about in my show against me. Once someone gaslit me for having different political opinion and I felt crushed and powerless. I was in a Catch-22; the more I protested that I wasn't crazy, the crazier I looked. I have learned the hard way that it’s better not to argue with people like that. Thankfully, they are unlikely to buy a ticket to my show. I am more likely to find people open to what I have to say by linking into the wider conversation on mental health campaign days. I hope my work can inspire someone the same way my heroes inspired me. The more visibility people with mental health issues have in the arts and culture, the better.
Many people with mental health issues feel that they don’t have a voice. Or that if they speak-up they will be dismissed as crazy. People who come to see my shows have told me that they found it inspiring, moving and they open up to me about their own issues or those of family members. That sense of connection keeps me alive. For me, laughter has certainly been the best medicine.
Samantha Pressdee: Covered is at Leicester Comedy Festival on Thursday 6 February 2020 at the Knight & Garter, 8.30pm.
She is also performing Covered at Brighton Fringe Festival on Monday 18 and Tuesday 19 May at The Caroline of Brunswick, 7pm.