Depression and how to laugh it off | ‘Nothing makes me happier than talking about depression,’ says Glasgow-based comedian Susan Calman. Despite being one of Britain’s funniest women, Calman has lived with what she called ‘the crab of hate’, whispering in her ear for as long as she can remember. Now she’s written Cheer Up Love, a book full of stories, humour and serious ideas about coping with the black dog.
“The crab is never on stage with me.”
“I try to make it something to show what it feels like to have depression,” explains Susan, on the crab of hate that sits behind her head and says horrible things in her ear. “The crab is never on stage with me,” she continues. On stage she’s the business, off stage she’s shy and likes to hide. It’s like a character – Al Murray isn’t the Pub Landlord.
It’s a brave book, but why did she feel now was the time to write it? “I think the best comedy is about things that are true, that are about what you are,” she says. She said she had depression on a radio show and the response was overwhelmingly positive. It’s not about defeating it, but saying, “I have depression and have learned to live with it. This is part of who I am.”
Almost everyone in the world knows someone who has depression – this book isn’t just for those who understand, but to explain what it’s like living in this fog. Sometimes it sounds trivial, but it’s very real to those suffering. There’s many strands: the sense of impending doom, the unexplained anger, the paranoia.
As a child Susan had to present a happy face. Her theory is that post-war, you got on with things. People felt “Others have suffered worse, come on now!” so you bottled it up. She talks of how she tried to take her life at 16 and how that felt – “scared straight”, bottling it up even more for fear she’d be sectioned again. But now she can talk about it, joke about it, deal with it.
“Once you realise what your depression is and what the triggers are, you can control it,” she explains. Not drinking helps for her, exercise is a big help – it’s an hour not thinking about depression, with other positive impacts.
“The NHS is the greatest, most beautiful diamond we have in this country.”
From the book she reads a list of unhelpful things to say: Cheer up love, it could be worse, at least you don’t have cancer, what do you have to be miserable about?, what’s wrong now?, pull yourself together. What helps can be as simple as asking how the person is but genuinely meaning it and listening, or saying nothing and just sitting beside them when they need it.
The hour looks at the impact of depression on you and those around you, the world of comedy and how no topic is untouchable in jokes as long as the right remains to not like them, and where mental health care can be improved.
“The NHS is the greatest, most beautiful diamond we have in this country,” says Susan. They’re underfunded, taken for granted and vital. It’s a tough time at the moment, but as for what we can do, “It’s all about supporting the NHS.”
It’s an incredible event, both important and hilarious. Mental health acceptance will be a ground up change, and it begins by talking. “Stories don’t need to be written, stories can just be told,” she says. “Stories are fantastic. It’s interesting saying things you’re thinking out loud – they become slightly better.
“It’s part of the conversation – I’m a depressed person, this is who I am.”