‘Gallows humor’ is an escape hatch from depression
“But you’re so funny!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t think you’d be funny.”
I get this frequently.
My name is Wonder. I write tragic songs and keep a blog of self-serving, existentially morose poetry. It’s not an insult when people come up to me, telling me they didn’t expect me to make them actually smile while they watched me do what I do. I would expect me to be just as gloomy in person too, if I didn’t know me.
I’m not alone in this paradox. The sad clown stereotype stretches to most entertainers and beyond into most cheerful people I know. Sometimes it ends there — people who are silly and funny and lighthearted fight to be so because they know how it feels to be depressed, and by forcing happiness into their art and interactions, they can fake it ’til they make it.
In some cases, this humor goes a step further. It darkens into something morbid and oftentimes inappropriate. This is gallows humor: grim and ironic humor in a desperate or hopeless situation.
These are the people who think of terrible “your mom” jokes in the advent of a friend’s mother’s death or diagnosis. The details that others would rather skirt around and not talk about at all, those affected by this strange sense of humor will shine the spotlight on to point and belly laugh at.
I performed at a reading for the Amy Ferris anthology “Shades of Blue” in Davis, California recently alongside a panel of authors who contributed to the book. The book is about depression and suicide. Experience with these topics was a prerequisite not just for writing the book, but also, it seemed, for attending the reading. (If you’ve never been crammed in a bookstore with 40+ people who are all there because they’ve had firsthand experience with mental illness, I highly recommend it.)
At the “Shades of Blue” reading, all three of the speakers read passages that were dark and heavy and unflinching in their seriousness — yet, all three of them wrote with an acerbic wit and humor that eeked out even amid statements of horrific abuse, paralyzing anxiety, and grief overwhelming to the point of numbness. All three writers shared a self-deprecating lightheartedness, which stuck with them throughout the reading, answering of questions and in the signing afterward.
It’s jarring for most people to hang around those of us who are familiar with that kind of darkness and illness, because we so rarely actually live there. It’s always tempting, always lingering in the back of our brains (brains which were rotted and impaired before we ever really figured out how to use them — thanks, mental illness). And with that temptation comes this response:
We look at it with a raised eyebrow, then jam our fingers in our ears and run away shrieking “ICAN’THEARYOUICAN’THEARYOUICAN’THEARYOU.” We make jokes to try and lessen its power, to distract from the fact that we are terrified.
Read it again.
We are terrified.
I. Am terrified.
People come up to me and smile and say, “The thing about you is that you’re fearless.”
But I’m not. I’m scared ALL THE TIME.
There is no conquering something like this.
I can’t remember a time when my soul didn’t feel unnecessarily heavy, when being alive wasn’t a burden. I first tried to kill myself at 14. The last time I cut myself, I was 21. That was only two years ago.
Like many women who seem to “grow out” of their self-harm as they get older, I have learned to channel my desire to not be alive into other, more subtle, less attention-demanding, less inconvenient methods. I don’t eat at all, or I binge-eat for days. I don’t sleep for nights on end, or I stay up until 4 a.m. and sleep until 3 p.m. and isolate myself from anyone who could do me any good. I overwhelm myself with productivity and projects until I start to crack under the pressure I get myself into. I charm my way into abusive relationships and let them chip away at my soul until I can’t recognize myself.
I stay in my pajamas and eat rice cakes when I know I should be working out.
I don’t like talking about my depression. When I volunteered to be involved in the “Shades of Blue” event and people asked me, “Have you had experience with depression?” I just said, “Are you kidding me?”
If you ask me about it, I will acknowledge it and move on to the next subject as quickly as possible. I’ll probably try to convince you to watch funny YouTube videos with me. I have avoided going to therapy because I hate dwelling on it, actually looking it in the eye and acknowledging, “Wow, this sucks.”
It’s even worse when big awful global events happen, because if I’m in a depressive state already, I can’t even absorb the reality of massive-scale tragedy. My first impulse, honest to God, is to make a joke about it. To lighten it somehow because there’s this dark, writhing creature in my brain that’s already squeezing hard and trying to kill me and if I take on thinking about one more unpleasant thing, I might actually kill myself.
I couldn’t let myself feel how bad the Paris attacks were. I had to shut off my empathy and focus my attention on something else. It already took all of my energy to make sure I was controlling my eating, staying away from alcohol, and not driving myself off the road.
The morbid humor, the terrible jokes, the inappropriate laughter — it’s all a way of looking at something terrible without actually looking at it. To glance it coming out of the corner of our eyes and say “FUCK NO” and run away screaming with our hands over our ears.
It’s an escape hatch out of the death trap that is depression.
It’s a knee-jerk instinct to survive.
And that’s why I don’t care when you look at me sideways and shake your head in the aftermath of a terrible, horribly inappropriate joke. It’s why shushing me won’t do any good. My whiplash sarcasm and grim self-deprecation isn’t going to stop anytime soon. It’s my life support, and if you’re trying to cut it off, it’s because you don’t know the cost of the alternative.