Healing and humour come together when we take our own pain and twist it, look at it differently, and adjust the light on it. In other words, we “make light” of it. There are literal physical healing benefits of it. (I list them in my 2017 post “Laugh. Jest for the Health of It.”)

I’ve used humour for decades in my solo shows to not only make it easier for people to talk about mental illness but as a healing tool for myself and the audience. To create a sense of belonging, hope, and optimism.

Part of using humour to heal is we must give ourselves permission to “slay our sacred cows.” Sacred cows are those things we think are too proper to joke about, perhaps too painful.

It might mean taking what feels like a risk, but that’s where the comedy gold is. You don’t have to change or manufacture a new style of humour that isn’t yours. To slay your cows, you don’t need to be “brashy” if that’s not your personality. But touching on taboo subjects does mean you can’t shy away from your natural sauciness. And believe me—we all have a little sauciness in us. It might be buried or perhaps subtle but it’s there. Be bold and brave, my friend. Be daring with your funny bone. You’ll find it’s incredibly freeing.

In order to shift our limiting perspectives of mental illness, old paradigms must be dismantled. Irreverent humour does that. Slaying our sacred cows does that. Irreverent humour shakes up the status quo and the preciousness of the politically correct.

How to slay a sacred cow without harming any animals during the process.

Again, your sense of humour doesn’t have to be a stand-up comedy routine. It’s about allowing yourself to see things differently, bringing smiles and brightness into areas that are otherwise dark.

Let’s use experiences and opinions regarding mental health, recovery, and therapy.

You can, of course, focus on any subject, but let’s take this one and run with it. If this subject is too close to home, choose another and run with that one. Take care of yourself and don’t inflict harm on yourself or have a case of “premature joculation”—joking about painful things prematurely. (See below for full description and examples about Premature Joculation.)

Learn where your “funny bone” boundary is. Some people have no trouble revealing personal stories; others are more comfortable making more general statements about situations.

Try the following:

Brainstorm, using a blank sheet of paper, about mental illness, mental health, the mental health system, recovery, or anything else related. As you brainstorm, think in terms of writing down: article continues after advertisement

  • “Juicy bits,” things that make your face frown or smile, that you love or hate
  • Your “pet peeves”
  • Issues that are important to you
  • Stories that you have a burning desire to tell
  • Anecdotes you remember (short experiences), observations, or opinions you have
  • Funny songs or rhymes you know

Some of my favourite “juicy” bits:

  • Psychiatric labels
  • Psychiatrists and my sessions with them
  • Therapy groups or self-help groups
  • Medication: side effects, names
  • Hospital stays

My motto is: Have fun and funniness will happen.

Pick from that brain dump, something that you’re excited about (and have enough distance from), and try the following. Have fun and funniness will happen.

Start with your truth. Be bold. State your belief, your viewpoint, and then twist it like silly putty:

  • Exaggerate an aspect
  • Embellish
  • Play with the words and terms
  • Use elements of surprise and irony

Tools and examples to help you slay your sacred cows:

If you’re telling an anecdote, exaggerate the good and bad elements of the characters and story (in other words fib). Humour is about exaggerating the truth.

Embellish and exaggerate:

  • “I finally like taking my medication now because they match all my outfits.”
  • “I’m on Epival and Zoloft and many other planets.”

Make up a diagnosis for psychiatrists or healthcare providers you didn’t like. Yes—I know this one goes against one of my rules for PJ (making jokes at the expense of another). But there are always exceptions to the rule. article continues after

  • B.F.E.D. Big Fat Ego Disorder

Top ten lists: For example, ten reasons to go back to the psych ward:

  • The drugs are better
  • I get more rest
  • I don’t have to clean the toilet

Do a play on words:

  • I made a “commitment” to stay at “club medication”

Create acronyms:

  • Victoria Maxwell BFA, BPP—Bachelor of Fine Arts, Bi-Polar Princess
  • LSD—Losing Simple Discernment

From David Granirer (humour expert) Three Reasons to Avoid <Blank>.

  • Reasons to Avoid My Psychiatrist: He thinks I’m crazy.

What are your top ten lists? What kind of invented diagnosis can you create? What are your stories that you can tell and laugh about? Find a topic that makes you zing. Tell a trusted peer what you find funny, or create a top three list with them. Have fun. Keep it safe and keep it kind.

Good luck tickling your funny bone and lighting up the world of mental health with your laughter and humour. It’s a public service.  

*Premature Joculation, or P.J., is a highly treatable condition. It is when laughing at or joking about happens at inappropriate stages of healing or near a recent tragic current event. It may occur as an avoidance or denial tool.

Examples of some P.J. are:

  • making a joke about someone else’s recent pain
  • making a devaluing sarcastic remark about your own recent crisis
  • laughing at someone else’s expense
  • making racist, sexist, homophobic, ageist, or religious jokes

© Victoria Maxwell

How ya holding up? Pretty wild, draining, unusual and challenging times, huh? I’ve been pretty up and down. I found something hopeful and fun and want to share it with you.

I was having a really hard time a couple months ago and watched some YouTube videos of adorable animals. They made me laugh, but I felt guilty. Distracting myself with silly videos – that can’t be helpful, right?  I’m just wasting my time, right? But nope! Research shows cute can equal a boost in mood.  I think we could all use some good news about our guilty pleasures.

Scientific studies demonstrate watching these kind of clips is a tonic for our brain and can increase positive emotions. We release all sorts of feel good chemicals when we see something cute and novel – we’re wired to positively respond to cuteness. 

My most recent ‘therapy session’ has been with Pluto the talking dog .

In an interview with CBC, University of Victoria neuroscientist Olav Krigolson explains  when “you are not expecting to see something cute and cuddly and then you see it, it’s perceived by the brain as a reward,” said Krigolson. The cute image triggers the chemical reward system and the brain receives a mini dose of dopamine. 

The benefit is even stronger when reward and emotions are paired together Krigolson explains. The amygdala (a part of the brain involved with experiencing emotions) is turned on when you stare at cute pictures or videos  But the trick here is that the image needs to be a surprise otherwise the reward system won’t get ‘tripped’.

Who woulda thought surfing for different cute puppy videos or getting new ones from your friends, wasn’t a bad thing after all? In moderation of course. Spending an hour watching the cute and cuddly isn’t what we’re talking about here. Mini-breaks of staring at lovable little cats or hedgehogs that you’ve never seen before is all that’s needed to grab a dose of dopamine.  

Findings in a survey of 7000 internet users revealed similar outcomes for improved mood and increased energy.  In an article for The Conversation, Jessica Myrick, Associate Professor of Media Studies at Penn State writes “some research suggests that taking short breaks for a mood-boosting activity, be it petting an actual dog or watching a video of one online, may not only improve your mood but also decrease stress or re-energize you when you do return to your work.” 

This Hiroshima University study shows watching cute animal videos improves focus and productivity too.

Cythnia Johnson a psychotherapist and social worker in Toronto, was pleasantly surprised to see the science behind watching cute animal videos. 

Johnson suggests it to her clients and explains to them “they may find watching cute animal videos a great “distress tolerance” activity. For my clients, such videos could be used as a distracting activity or as a means to replace emotion with another emotion.”

Distress tolerance, which is a key element in Dialectal Behavioral Therapy is defined by Psychology Today as “ distress tolerance is geared toward increasing a person’s tolerance of negative emotion, rather than trying to escape from it.”

My foray into viral videos of bears in hammocks, and the antics of dogs isn’t just fluff or wasted time. 

Let’s hear it: “Power to the Puppies”. Oh and if you’re a cat fan (I’m learning to be more of a meow buff), how about “Kudo’s to the Kitty”?. I thought about power to the pussy, but that just doesn’t sound right – at least not for this post. Now go ahead, click on a  couple or five. No need for guilt. Your brain will thank you for it. 

What are the cute animal videos you watch? C’mon, I know you watch ’em. From time to time at least. No shame in that. Remember, you’re doing something good for you and your brain.

© Victoria Maxwell

As my husband and I move past the 40-day mark of staying at home due to COVID-19 (egad!), I thought another excerpt from my ‘work-in-progress’ memoir might be a nice diversion. Not much context is needed for this. Gentle feedback welcome. Email me at [email protected] or leave a comment. Happy reading!

For years I tried to manage without help from the medical system. I put up all the clichéd roadblocks: I don’t trust big pharma. Doctors just want to push their agenda, their pills. I don’t have mental illness. I didn’t have psychotic episodes. I had spiritual awakenings. I don’t like the labels. I don’t want the drugs. I want to treat it, heal it the ‘natural’ way. Read: the ‘healthy’, morally superior, spiritually evolved way.

I tried everything from colour therapy, primal therapy, aromatherapy, psychotherapy (you gotta wonder why they call it “psycho”-therapy – pretty insulting if you ask me), astrology, numerology, reiki and pranic healing. I saw channelers, tarot card readers, psychics. I studied A Course in Miracles, the Alcoholics Anonymous’ big book. I went to halfway houses, support groups, 1-day workshops, weekend retreats. Did muscle testing, moving meditation, insight meditation. Got acupuncture, shiatsu, massage. Took flower remedies, Chinese herbs; did affirmations, journaling, morning pages, automatic writing, body work, dream work, aura cleansing, aura reading, chakra balancing, chakra clearing. Joined AA, OA, OY-VEY.

 You name it. If it was New Age, Self-“Yelp” or somewhere on the shelves of Banyan Books (Vancouver’s oldest new-age bookstore), I had read it, paid for it, trained in it, practiced it, meditated over it, ingested it, sniffed it, got fleeced by it. And none of it, not really, super down deep, was enough to keep me well.

 My last resort? Enlightenment. See, I thought if I got enlightened, I wouldn’t feel depressed anymore. I wouldn’t feel anything anymore.

I have more trouble telling you I went to India to visit a guru to get enlightened than I do admitting I ran down the street naked in a euphoric psychotic episode and ended up in the psych ward. 4 times.

I don’t know why. Maybe because the perfectionistic overachiever that I am, is ashamed I failed to reach my goal. I am definitely not enlightened. Maybe because mental illness is common. Enlightenment not so much, and what’s the point of it, really? It’s not like being enlightened is practical or even attainable. Mental illness however, now THAT’S attainable. Though mental illness isn’t all that practical either. Practically fatal, perhaps.

Spiritual searching (more like lurching in my case) is…embarrassing.  My fervent hunt for enlightenment revealed my desperation. Granted, it kept hope alive and as a result, it kept me alive.

Depression led me to question everything. Like paint thinner, depression denatures our lives of purpose and point. Living with dramatic despair and mangy meaninglessness, I spiraled into an existential crisis. Over and over and OVER again, I was caught in an Escher-like maze of questions: “What is God? Why are we here? What’s the meaning of it all?”

On a cloudy North Vancouver day, my dad sat beside me on my springy mattress in my bedroom. Both of us looking at the floor, him shaking his head as I rattled off those questions that ricocheted between my temples. With that furrowed brow of his, he sighed and grunted “Man has been asking those questions from the beginning of time. If you keep that up, you’ll go crazy.” More prophetic than either of us knew.

Instead of focusing on a traditional way of combating my malaise by going to my doctor, treating the symptoms or continuing with counseling, I assumed if I discovered the meaning of life, I’d be fine! Enlightenment, the end of suffering, the Buddha said. What’s not to love? Those contemporary gurus seem pretty chill too, right?  The Dalai Lama is pretty much always giggling. Eckhart Tolle – though a bit creepy in an elfish kind of way – seems fairly content. Thich Nhat Hanh – now that dude is laid back. Pema Chodron? My rock star. She exudes equanimity while also readily embracing her messy humanity. I put all my energy into seeking the answers to life. Because that was the real root cause of my suffering. Not this thing called mental illness.

The new age movement says the psychoses I experienced were spiritual emergencies and awakenings. I didn’t need to ‘resort to’ medication or medical treatment to heal. The medical system has one perspective: mental illness is a disease; a complex interplay of genes and environment. I hadn’t experienced God. 

It’s a blessing OR a curse. I was caught in a psychiatric “Sophie’s Choice”. Choose the spiritual perspective: suffer. Choose the medical perspective: suffer. But over the course of 25 years since I’ve been diagnosed, I’ve discovered, it’s not that clear cut. It never is.

Maybe I have a hard time telling you I went to India to sit with a guru and “wake up” because I think my seeking actually led me into the foul spiral of mental collapse. Maybe. Just maybe – I feel like I’m to blame for bringing my mental illness on myself. Or that I failed myself. If I had just been more grounded, more prepared, that massive burst of energy that coursed through my body on that particular evening in a meditation room wouldn’t have resulted in me believing that I saw my own grave and that I could drive my car with my thoughts. Maybe just maybe I’m disappointed in myself. That somehow, I could have harnessed that moment into permanent liberation, instead of plummeting me into a fight for my vision of spirituality and for my mental health.

Does mental illness and spiritual experiences have to be mutually exclusive? That’s what I felt the medical system was telling me. That’s what I thought my spiritual community was telling me. It was one or the other. But I needed it to be both. Both. For me to stay alive, I needed to find a way to be spiritual and crazy.

To be continued…

© Victoria Maxwell

I’m struggling a bit right now with anxiety and depression. So I’m practicing what I preach. I’m being as kind to myself as I can and simplifying what I need to do. Instead of writing a full blog post and long newsletter, I’m sending out this mini-mental health memo to you.

A cute animal video. For your viewing pleasure, here’s Justin (baby) Beaver.

One of my tactics when I’m in this uncomfortable place is to watch cute animal videos as therapy. And guess what? It really is therapeutic. Scientific studies show watching cute videos is good for our brain and mood. We release all sorts of feel good chemicals when we see something cute – we’re wired to positively respond to cuteness. 

So go ahead, click on a couple or five. No need for guilt. Watching cute videos is scientifically proven to raise mood! Read this CBC article to learn how it happens.

I hope Justin Beaver brings a moment of joy to your day. Be kind to yourself my friends.

© Victoria Maxwell

Before you go all nuclear on me saying ‘how dare you make fun of people with psychiatric disorders!’, check my two previous posts about my rules for finding the humor in mental illness: rules for finding the humour in mental illness and 13 One-Liners About Being Crazy. Mean-spiritedness, degradation are NOT my M.O.s

The two most important tenets in my rulebook:

    1. If you don’t have mental illness, it ain’t your rodeo to ride in. I live with multiple mental health issues. It’s up to me if I want to joke about them or not. If you have mental illness, you have the same choice.
    2. I don’t make fun of people with mental illness. Yes, I may make fun of myself, but mostly I discover the humor in the situations I find myself in because I have mental illness.

Why bother finding the comedy in pain? The overarching reason: for me, it is healing.  I hope you have some giggles as you read these and as you giggle I hope you heal (just a smidgen).

Ok here goes. Warning: some corny, really corny jokes ahead.

  1. Mental illness runs in my family. Which is sort of weird, because my parents weren’t very athletic.
  2. I’ve never had paranoid delusions. Somebody told me I did, but I know they’re lying.
  3. I’m lucky, I have very little side effects from my medications. They can fit right into my pocket.
  4. In the beginning my eating disorder meant I had dessert before my entrée. But then it got serious and developed into compulsive overeating – as opposed to apathetic overeating.
  5. Hallucinations are when people see things that aren’t there. I totally understand that.  An ex-psychiatrist of mine had them. I know for a fact, she never saw me. I don’t know what she was seeing, but she definitely didn’t see me!
  6. I’m on Zoloft and Epival and many other planets.
  7. I have psychotic breaks – my car stops at all delusions.
  8. I have an anxiety disorder…which means my anxiety orders dis and dat.
  9. I’ve faced mental illness. Stuck my tongue out at it, shook my fist at it and finally gave it the finger.
  10. What does it mean when people say “I don’t believe in drugs for mental illness”?  ‘Cause they seem pretty real to me. I think those people might have a delusional disorder.
  11. It makes perfect sense mental illness runs in my family. I’d run too if I had a family like mine.
  12. Where do they get these names for psychiatric drugs? No wonder we don’t like taking them. They sound like a bad storyline from a Star Trek sequel. You know: Captain Zoloft and his commander in chief Colonel Paxil are involved in negotiations with the Prozac Nation and the Lithium Liberation Army.
  13. I still have psychotic breaks from time to time – which are very different than coffee breaks. You don’t get paid for psychotic breaks.

If you like this post, sign up here to receive my newsletter. You’ll also get my handy dandy ‘7 Steps to Escape Perfectionism, Anxiety and Depression’ e-guide as a thank you gift!

© Victoria Maxwell

Fair warning: the following self-penned jokes may not make you laugh. Some are real groaners to be sure. Some of you may even find them in poor taste. No one should make jokes about being crazy. But I live with multiple mental illnesses and have so for years. Since I’ve been there done that, I say I have the right to crack said jokes. For more of my rules for making fun of mental illness, check my previous post here.

When you read them, think me, a mic, my bipolar, anxiety and psychosis at bay, and a very kind audience. No hecklers, please. Well, hecklers be damned. If I can deal with mental illness, I can deal with hecklers, right?

On a serious note: these are not meant to dismiss the very real pain that we face when dealing with psychiatric illness. It’s meant to help us live with that pain a little more easily.

Laughing helps me heal. Or at the very least it helps pass the time and offers a micro distraction when depression or anxiety has a choke hold on me. I hope it does you too.

  1. I have bipolar disorder. I keep it in the bottom drawer with my underpants so I always know where it is.
  2. I take psychiatric medication–it’s better than stealing it.
  3. I have generalized anxiety disorder, but it sucks because it affects me specifically.
  4. They say mental illness runs in my family. But in my family, we’re all pretty lazy, so it just sort of meandered its way through the generations.
  5. I don’t do drugs. I do therapy. Unfortunately, therapy isn’t as fun and it’s just as expensive.
  6. I live with mental illness–which makes my husband really jealous.
  7. I have bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety, disordered eating, and psychosis–which are more friends than I had in elementary school.
  8. I never say I’m bipolar. I like to scream it at the top of my lungs while running around naked at the supermarket.
  9. I’m really lucky. I have very little side effects from my meds…they’re less than a centimeter tall.
  10. I have an anxiety disorder…which means I get panicky when I’ve done something out of order.
  11. What exactly is a serious mental illness? As opposed to those what? Carefree, happy go lucky ones?
  12. I have a lot of people who believe in me–which sort of scares me because I always knew I was real.
  13. I have rapid cycling bipolar disorder, which is weird because I can’t pedal that fast. In fact, I don’t even own a bike.

Which one is your favorite? Do you have one? Tweet it out. Or share it in the comment box.

© Victoria Maxwell

Wait I know what you’re thinking. You can’t make fun of mental illness. You’re right. YOU can’t. Unless you’ve been there. Stay with me.

By far, the most effective, accessible and economical health tool is our funny bone.

I’m not a big fan of country music. Though I have been known belt out a bad rendition of Dolly’s iconic ‘Jolene’ in the kitchen. That being said, I love Country Queen Reba McEntire’s quote: To succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone.

I couldn’t agree more. There are times when having a mental illness just begs for some levity. Recovering from any chronic illness, maintaining mental health, heck, just plain o’ living requires some kind of sense of humour.

Finding ‘the funny’ helps me put things in perspective. Humour helps me heal from the missteps that inevitably occur when I’ve been manic or euphorically psychotic.

  1. Only if You’ve Been There, Done That

If you’ve been there, done that – you can joke about it. If you haven’t you can’t. It’s that simple. Those of us who have tread this journey have the right to make (or NOT make for that matter) jokes about it. No one else does.

If you’re Scottish (which I am – in part), Jewish or from Wisconsin (or which I’m neither) – you’re free to make jokes about your experiences and your clan. Other wise be kind. Laughing at someone else’s expense doesn’t make you funny, it makes you an a**hole.

  1. Laugh with Us Not At Us

True, I don’t want you to make fun of me about being crazy. But I do want you to laugh with me when I make jokes. I know it’s counter-intuitive.

The humour I employ is meant to get you laughing. It’s meant to help loosen you up, so you feel more comfortable talking about mental illness. The humour I use is to help highlight the erroneous stereotypes and dispel the myths of mental illness. It’s meant to provoke reflection and spark discussion.

  1. Timing is Everything

They say timing is everything in comedy. It is. Using humour in the healing process, timing is everything too.

Laughing prematurely when I’ve yet to process a painful event, isn’t helpful. Cracking a joke before enough time has passed can make me feel worse.

There are very real losses, and often tragic experiences that comes along with living with a psychiatric disability or loving someone with one. Humour isn’t meant to minimize this. But humor, appropriately timed, well placed can go a long way to help heal.

Go by the old adage: “Comedy is tragedy plus time” (a quote attributed to Mark Twain, Carol Burnett, Steve Allen among others).

Allow yourself some time before finding the humour in your depression or psych ward stay. But be sure to find it. Or at least look for it.

To laugh WITH me, check out my video about all the crazy labels we get called.

Recently, I was standing at the check out line at my not necessarily so friendly local 7-11. I usually giggle at the Hollywood tabloid headlines: ‘Oprah Delivers North America’s First Alien Baby’ or ‘Brad Pitt Is Really a Girl’. But what happens? Nothing. Instead, I cop an attitude; surreptitiously buy 4 jumbo-sized Snickers bars and a family sized bag of Doritos so I can lay into a self-induced carbohydrate coma.

Then worse: I’m watching my favorite rerun of ‘Friends’ – the one where Joey screams and scrams because Monica’s dancing with a frozen turkey on her head. And I don’t laugh. I always laugh when Monica has her head in a frozen turkey. Crap…I laugh if anyone has their head in a turkey. Or I thought I would.

My shrinking sense of humor is the canary in the coalmine – the alarm signaling clinical depression is slithering around me.

I have to get to work. Find humor in something, anything or risk falling into the ‘no laugh, no color, everything tastes like cardboard, not just chicken and who cares anyway’ kind of zone. Because humor is my lifeline to my vitality, to hope, to the idea tomorrow will be better or at least not worse.

Interestingly, it’s the foraging and fighting for my sense of humor that’s the remedy. Not necessarily finding it. Rediscovering my sense of humor is a by-product of my willingness to look for it. Something about looking for ‘the funny’, that act of faith there is some, somewhere, though I can’t sense it, expels bits of cemented depression from within. The rummaging around allows a little light in, and slowly, very slowly, my funny bone moves back into place.

First? Seek out what I call ‘memory or phantom laughs’. Those times when I know normally I’d be giggling but instead, I’m just remembering I would; that ‘if I weren’t so depressed I’d be laughing’ feeling. Bittersweet insights, but helpful ones. Memories of laughing are better than no laughing at all.

Second? Size doesn’t matter. I don’t worry about the BIG guffaws. I’m on the lookout for anything making me remotely smile, just want to smile. What makes the corners of my mouth stir slightly; my cheeks subtly lift?

That’s my body telling me I’m near my funny bone. And bones don’t disappear; they just get weak. The solution? Fortify them, anyway I can.

So I rent my favorite movie: ‘Big’, watch ‘Two and a Half Men’, flip through People magazine’s issue of ‘Worst Dressed Stars in Hollywood’. (How can anybody with that much money, dress badly – don’t they all have stylists?)

When I do this, it doesn’t mean things all of a sudden seem hilarious, but it’s a distinct advantage over curling up on the sofa, listening to weepy Vince Gill songs about a cowboy who looses his woman, job and dog. That’s definitely not a humor ‘honer’.

When I feel inklings of depression or even when I’m deep in its clutches, I set aside time every couple days to give myself a chance not to laugh outright, but to witness things I know are funny to me. Eventually the lighter side gets the better of me. Not right away, not for long, but it’s a start.

Implementing this ‘laugh-able’ strategy doesn’t eradicate depression of course; I’m not that naïve but it can make it more bearable.

Once I’m out of the darkness, I fortify that funny bone with some kind of humor every day. It may sound simplistic. But to this day, my relentless pursuit to find something, even marginally humorous everyday is one of my best coping tools to date. My sense of humor is as valuable to me as the medication I take and the therapy I do to stay well.