They’re an easy target, all these different institutions and experiences I talk about. But, as my critical side is keen to remind me, if I’m in the game of garnering “sympathy” – of using the empathy in my readers to engage with those with conditions like mine and those without. Outside of polemical writing, there’s an arguably even greater tool to humanize our experiences, laughter. Equally piercing a response, equally effective a tool but a much more positive one. I’ve seen said positivity turn fights into hugs, sentiments into motivations and comforts into analgesics. Still, that doesn’t mean a positive take on the world is necessarily one that is untrue or event that flattering. The ability to take the piss, even and especially out of oneself, is fundamental.
By doing that you’re presenting your own behavior to yourself in a way that’s honest but also fairly easy to digest. When I was writing This Life is Beautiful, there were a few occasions when I found myself having to explain why I was in utterly absurd situations. Pushed to come up with plot points that I could make dramatic imagery with, I was as delighted as I was nervous to open a chapter with myself in the cockpit of a plane. That sentence missed out the part where I was safely surrounded by the trained pilots who didn’t find the input of my world-class aviation skills necessary, and were instead quite happy fielding my questions and returning them with inquiries about who this girl who had appeared in the most prohibitively secure part of the airplane.
As the story aged, it should have been more difficult to explain this controversial scenario and to give it the requisite entertaining brio that publishers insisted on. This is how the practice of quite literally running around where I pleased died a death, a slow one but one that, to my credit, was born of me becoming more stable, sharper and more reticent with what my medication was doing but it never got any less funny to me. Now I find myself walking around shopping malls and supermarkets as little versions of me run off to where they’re not allowed and giggle and titter about it – I know how I’m supposed to respond but I humour myself further with the idea that they’re happy in that moment and that when I was bounding around pulling that crap I was about 22 years of age. At the time I had been coming back from Thailand and wanted to enjoy the holiday without the requisite head cloud of medication. In doing so I actually incurred the most serious and panic worthy of situations: a manic state. At the time this was an abject situation, there was abject panic in me, abject panic in my Mother and abject panic in the people around me but I ended up doing more good than harm (which certainly didn’t happen every time) because I was using the energy I was granted for something positive. What was so wrong with me being confident? Or introducing myself to people? Or expressing curiosity? I wasn’t in the wrong, I just needed to moderate my impulses and my symptoms to reassure people of that. Laughter, banter and all the other kinds of positive self-effacement are as effective emotionally as many drugs are chemical, not a substitute for one another but certainly an enhancement.
Long before I wrote This Life is Beautiful, I tucked away that anecdote in my memory – firstly to let it age, like all good jokes but also to remind myself of a time that could be regarded as embarrassment and shame but also with a bit of humor. It was a costume test for the version of me that was on top of their symptoms. The story aged, many had to suffer through it more than once (I was simply flabbergasted I could recall one of my own episodes!) 9/11 came and went and soured how I felt about making the jest of such matters but never how I felt about making the jest of myself. In fact, how the situation has changed since then is a good whack around the head from verisimilitude; it’s like a visit from a past life when I consider how far the world has come since I was in the cockpit of that plane and I’m fully entitled to congratulate myself for it.
So save some levity for yourself and wield positivity as a tool as some people wear their predisposition to negative expectations like armor. When you plunder your memory for times that your symptoms played upon you, you just might find a happy memory.