Not long ago there was an article circulating the comedy community called “Brains Behaving Badly.” I, like many of my peers, read it. Unlike many of my peers I didn’t take it to heart. In fact, I passionately disagree.
I do not believe you have to be deeply damaged to be truly great. I believe you have to be you, whatever that means to you.
Now let me start by making something very, very clear. I do not believe depression is a weakness. I believe it is a malfunction. Something just isn’t firing correctly and many people truly do need medication to fix it. If you suffer from depression, as many of my near and dearest friends do, please seek professional help (http://www.sccc-la.org/). I do not believe you can will yourself out of a legitimate disfunction.
I have been lucky enough to not have to deal with those issues (yet) in my life. I recognize this is pure luck of the draw. In no way do I want to seem like I’m belittling those who really do fight those demons. I am simply trying to voice the creative journey through a different perspective.
So here’s my response. Because I feel like I need to say something. I realize my piece isn’t going to be featured in Rolling Stone and probably won’t reach the same number of people his did. But maybe it’ll reach a few. And that’s what matters to me.
Mr. Gould, I’m so sorry for your loss of a friend and peer in Robin Williams. He truly was a spectacular performer and I can only imagine how tough it would be to lose such a seemingly good man and good friend. And I am so sorry for the loss of other friends of yours to suicide. And for your own struggles with depression. As so many performers have begun openly discussing their own struggles with depression, I in no way disagree with you that depression amongst people who have an uncanny ability to bring so much happiness to others is very real.
But I wholeheartedly refuse to believe that my creative brain will cause me to “self-destruct.”
I said it before, but let me reiterate. I love my creative brain. I love my creativity. I’m grateful every day for it. I do not yet know your level of success, but I can vouch having an overactive imagination. And I know the times it can start to work against me. It takes little more than a look for me to create an entire backstory of a stranger I walk past and a life for us together. I have several imaginary personalities on Twitter who sometimes fight each other. I have gotten so enraptured in writing that I’ve almost burned my kitchen down on more than one occasion because I forget that I’m actually living in the real world. I can vividly picture what will happen when I’m driving near a cliff and how it will feel if my car veers off suddenly or any number of creatures that could be waiting for me outside in the dark as I walk alone at night.
I understand imagination. Both the good and the bad.
But I love my imagination. And I am grateful for it. And I have spent years of my life cultivating it so it stays strong while simultaneously cultivating a strong foundation outside of my own mind so I can reel it in when I know it’s going down a dangerous path. I know how it feels when I let it run free so I’m careful- no, meticulous and disciplined about being proactive about my own positivity.
Yes, it sometimes wins out and I can go in a tailspin. But I’ve created an environment of support around me who can help me quickly get out before I go too deep. And I do everything in my power to stay self-aware of my emotions so I can communicate them openly and do my best to stay balanced.
Comedy gives me the voice to vent and understand my frustrations and pain. It keeps me away from the abyss rather than plunging me into it.
My creativity and imagination are the tools I use to give myself a voice in this world. Even if my conscious mind is in denial about a feeling or an attitude or the status of my life, it will come out clearly in my work. I can’t hide from it. And when sometime goes awry, I know that I will use those same tools to try and understand it and maybe make light of it. Even if it doesn’t work, comedy is how I view the world. It’s how I cope. It’s how I bond. It’s how I communicate. It’s how I comfort. It’s everything to me and does everything for me.
I refuse to believe that I am only as good as my level of anxiety. Of course my imagination can create a number of anxieties when I let it run free. But because I know it can, I do my absolute best to keep in check. I talk to friends and family to make me feel loved and safe. I protect my active imagination and train it to work when I want it to and how I want it to. Then I’m grateful for it and protect it. I protect it from me and from itself. And I do that by constantly, diligently being careful about my friends, my environment, my feelings, my thoughts, my time, and a thousand other smaller factors that are choices I make beyond what I pursue career-wise.
It’s important to talk about depression. And I’m glad we are. But let’s not make unfair generalizations about the nature of any particular brain. I want to be very careful not to feed the already fragile minds of so many up-and-coming creatives who may allow their minds to get the better of them in an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy of needing anxiety and depression in order to be accepted as a true comedian.
The imagination is a beautiful thing. To squash it preemptively out of fear it will turn on you is a disservice to yourself and the world around you. And to believe if it doesn’t turn on you that you’re somehow not as good as those who have had it turn is just false.
I think it’s not only a slippery slope, but one that doesn’t even guarantee greatness. There are plenty of other slopes on this mountain. Just look around.
Depression affects everybody no matter how they interpret the world. It’s very real and very serious. It’s even more dramatic when it affects those who are able to bring so much lightness to others while carrying such a heavy weight themselves. I recognize that I lucked out and was dealt a brain and body chemistry that are more balanced than others. Yet it is my imagination helps me to continue to keep that balance and to, whenever I can, bring more light through lightheartedness to those who feel they need it. It works with me, not against me.
I vehemently refuse to believe depression is inherent or inevitable in the mind of the best creatives. Depression, like alcoholism, is a debilitating disease that should be treated with care. But, like alcoholism, it would be unfair to say that just because many great entertainers were alcoholics, you have to be an alcoholic if you want to be a truly great entertainer. It an inaccurate and unfair conclusion that could cause more damage than good.
There are a number of extremely famous comedians who have made millions laugh who have gone on to lead particularly balanced and healthy lives. Lucille Ball, Ellen Degeneres, Carol Burnett, and Mel Brooks are a few that come to mind immediately. Of course they’ve had their ups and downs, but they’ve used their creativity, their comedy, and their gift to be resilient in the face of difficulties and to continue to bring light and laughter to millions internationally.
When I was a kid, I saw Aladdin in theaters because I was part of that lucky generation when Disney was creating their classics for exactly my age group. I remember laughing so hard at the Genie that I was nearly crying in my seat. I saw the move two more times in theaters. And bought the VHS the week it came out. And I had every line the Genie said in that movie memorized in no time. I was mesmerized by the energy, the charisma, and the creativity it took for a human to make that character come so alive to me. And it is no exaggeration for me to say that that Genie is one of the major factors in why I want to dedicate my life to bringing that same laughter and light to others.
So I disagree with you, but thank you and your generation- alive and passed- for the world you’ve carved out in comedy for me and my generation. In many ways, it’s your creations that have allowed me to become my best self. And when I’m my best self, I’m balanced, happy, and loving. And I want to bring as much of that to others that I can.