May 10, 2018 by Paul
Tragedy + Time + a Grown Out Burgundy Perm = Comedy
Canada is talking about mental health. So is one of its funniest gifts, Jessica Holmes.
Jessica’s latest memoir, Depression: The Comedy – A Tale of Perseverance, traces her experience with depression and its colourful disguises. Her story weaves together her deeply personal anecdotes and cheeky insights, offering readers a window to peer in on the long months she spent on a couch, “on a hiatus from [her] personality.”
The memoir’s lighthearted voice places the reader (whom she names “Pat”) in what was then her absurd, depression-induced world of low-fat pudding, unfortunate haircuts, and an indifference to meeting Oprah Winfrey.
The book begins at the first signs that something is “off” for Jessica, and ends with her turning inwards to heal. But the beauty of the story is not in its happy ending, but rather in Jessica’s ability to poke holes of light into the experience of pain itself.
The road to dismantling the stigma around mental illness is paved with good intentions, but one of the largest potholes is simply how to talk about it. Depression: The Comedy suggests that mental illness does not always have to be handled with the severity it occasionally demands, and that there is much to be said about the healing nature of laughter.
With respect to her husband, Jessica anticipates the readers’ curiosity – what about his reaction to her depression? – and answers the question with ease: “The further my pendulum swung to an unacceptable place,” she writes, “the further his acceptance swung with it. Maybe my devolution from civilized woman to angry couch-rodent was so gradual that he didn’t feel the shock he should have.”
Jessica has long been vocal about her history with mental illness – she speaks to organizations and companies all over the country about wellness, infusing her talks with humour to make the heaviness of depression digestible to those who have experienced it firsthand, and accessible to those who haven’t. Here too, her voice creates palpable safety. Depression: The Comedy aligns gracefully with Canada’s quest to erase the fear and confusion around mental illness, and it does so with a wealth of laughter.
Can you share a bit about your experience writing this book? Were you nervous to return to this place to be able to recall those feelings/experiences?
The first draft of this book was lost when my hubby brought the computer in to have something fixed, and they wiped the entire memory. No backup. I took it as a sign that I was supposed to dig deeper, because that first pass was more of a generic, self-help approach to wellbeing (which already exist in the thousands), and I knew this book could make a difference if I let down my guard and spoke from the heart. I waited a year, and started writing again, this time with more vulnerability — and that’s where the best comedy comes from. Each chapter was planned around how depression affected one area of my life: my sense of humour, marriage, comedy career, etc. My repartees with Pat (a fictional character who represents the reader) was born generically out of me improvising conversations while I was writing, and picturing the reader helped me feel brave about being transparent. Plus, we comedians are natural over-sharers, so there’s less at risk for me to write about my most awkward moments than it would be for, say, a school principal or a warden.
You were speaking openly about your history with mental illness when it was considerably more stigmatized than it is now. Where did that courage come from?
We comedians work through our issues with comedy. We use the mantra “Tragedy + Time = Comedy”, so once I recovered, I was excited to set about discovering what new insights I could gain about mental health, and how I could reframe them in an entertaining way for audiences AND for myself. For example, although depression itself isn’t funny, I’ve since laughed about the excuses I made for myself at the time (“it’s cause my husband’s big shoes are always blocking the front door”, “it must be low iron”, “artists are supposed to be moody”, “doesn’t everyone eat corn chips and Timbits for breaky?”), or how trying a new anti-anxiety medication led to an awkward performance where I had ZERO awareness that I had crossed a line. Depression is still very misunderstood, so I’m happy to clear some things up, like for that person who told me “my cousin cut out gluten and poof, the depression went away. People just need to stop eating so much bread!” If only it was that easy!!
I particularly like how you saw your diagnosis as a beginning rather than an end. What words do you have for Canadians in the first steps of their journey to recovery, which are, as you know well, often the ugliest?
Oh, I love how you phrased that: a beginning rather than an end. I can honestly say that during my depression, I had no idea my life would ever get better. When you’re depressed your mind is like a sieve that only lets negativity get through, so even though people can say “but your life looks so good on paper”, I wasn’t experiencing all of the blessings I had been given. Once I got the diagnosis and started doing small things for wellness’ sake, with whatever energy I could muster up, it did get better. Then, when I kept doing those things, it got fabulous. I will continue doing those things (mindfulness, exercise, setting sustainable goals that I’m excited about, etc) for the rest of my life, because it’s such a wonderful payoff.
There’s this dominant idea in our culture that comedy masks sadness. It is scarcely seen as an effective tool for addressing it directly, like you have. Where do you think that idea comes from?
When I started sharing my mental health story, other comedians selflessly reached out to me to share their mental health stories and offer support. There is a prevalence of depression among comedians, and in the book I interview the late Mike MacDonald to ask his take on it. I eventually came to the conclusion that we comedians are deep thinkers who internalize a lot, and when you mix that with the ups and downs of being a performer, it can be tough on your mental health. I’m honoured to have spent 20 years in comedy, and I didn’t want to walk away from this career if I didn’t have to. I took a new, healthier approach by tying my creative goals to a deeper purpose, trusting my instincts when it comes to boundaries, and deciding that keeping up with the Joneses is a complete waste of energy. It’s been so empowering to accept that my path doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s.
Have you considered putting a photo of Oprah reading this book on your dream board?
Haaah – I just might do that, cause ya never know!