Making Myself Vulnerable on Stage Isn't Easy - But It Has the Potential to Be a Positive Power for Others

28/06/2016 09:02 | Updated 28 June 2016
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I'm staring into a mirror in the green room backstage. There's five minutes until doors open. I've just layered on six applications of bright pink lipstick, zipped up my neon-coloured attention-grabbing dress and smeared on sparkly shadow around the eyes staring back at me right now. Those eyes have been crying most of today.

I perform comedy shows that talk openly about my mental health. For the past few months I've been touring a show that covers some pretty dark parts of my history; eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, being sectioned aged 17 for being a month away from dying of anorexia. I make jokes on stage about depression, anxiety and body dysmorphia... these are things I still struggle with every day. Today is a particularly difficult day.

Hitting hard today is my depression and Body Dysmorphic Disorder. I'm crying for everything and for nothing. My body feels heavy and getting from my bed to the shower feels like the hardest thing I've ever had to do. My BDD means I feel my body as being far bigger than it is, disordered thoughts whisper sweet lies into my ears to tell me I'm disgusting, my flesh is revolting and how worthless every inch of me is. It's not funny at all.

I'm often asked how I manage to get on stage on days when my conditions hit hardest. At the start of those days I really don't have an answer. Even I don't know how I'll get through it.

In May 2015 I had a major relapse. I struggled to leave the house. I struggled to leave bed. I became paranoid and couldn't bring myself to eat. These are dangerous symptoms. I had a gig coming up - one which I host. I didn't know whether I could get to it, stand on stage and speak. And yet I knew there would be an audience there, wanting to be entertained. That thought forced me to get there. And it wasn't until I stood in front of that audience and tried out the jokes about that very situation - the Twitter interactions, the trolling, the relapse - that I found my strength. Comedy gives me a voice when my conditions threaten to rob me of it. Hearing that laughter from a roomful of strangers literally changed my mind. I don't think audiences realise how much that means to me.

With a deep breath I leave the green room and now I'm on stage in front of an audience, with my painted, six-layered pink framed grin. I'm ignoring all those dangerous disordered thoughts and as I force all my energy into delivering my jokes and focus myself upon taking this particular group of individuals on a journey I hope they'll enjoy. Something shifts within me as I see a teenaged girl on the front row lean forward smiling at me. I see the enlivened faces of a group on the front row - eyes wide and smiles wider - I feel the wave of emotion I've been riding in my own mind break. Another feeling floods in.

I've been lucky enough to tour around the UK, and in Australia and New Zealand, and what strikes me is that similarities in the stories I hear. Because my shows are so raw and real, some audience members are brave enough to take that as an invitation to begin their own dialogue - either amongst themselves or sometimes coming up to me to chat after the show, usually in the bar because that's one of my favourite places.

In Wellington a woman told me about her sister submerged in compulsive overeating disorder. In Hay On Wye near Wales another woman told me about her own struggles with compulsive overeating. In Auckland a man told me about his history of hallucinations and how he had found recovery. In London a woman told me about her son who had been hospitalised because of delusions. In Adelaide a mother told me she'd brought her daughters because she didn't know how to broach the subject of mental health with them and hoped that I could start the conversation for her. In Brighton a woman hugged me fiercely as she left and whispered that she too is battling her anorexia; she like me has found a life worth fighting it for now.

On days when my mental health conditions hit me hardest, it's not easy to get on stage and do my shows. It's not easy to get out of bed. But I know that however I feel before I get on stage, it will change. It will pass. It will shift. Sometimes only a bit but I am dragged out my own head as my experiences might just have a chance of being meaningful to someone. However bad I may feel before a show I want other people to feel amazing afterwards. Making myself vulnerable on stage isn't easy but it also has the potential to be a positive power over others.

Now I'm taking my bow and the audience is applauding, I thank them sincerely for more than I can say. I leave the stage and the teenage girl comes up to me grinning. I notice the cuts on her arm and recognition registers. She asks for a hug which I gladly accept, warning her to hold her breath - I've sweated quite a bit. Her mother locks eyes with me as we embrace. Her gentle smile doesn't mask her tired concern.

Worldwide, one in four of us may be diagnosed with mental health conditions but that doesn't account for how many people are undiagnosed. It doesn't account for how many people feel alone and isolated because of difficulties they're grappling with and they feel like they are the only ones. They're not. None of us need be alone if we are honest and comedy is the most honest art form we have - comedy is the truth wrapped in a lie.

Juliette Burton's new docu-comedy show Decision Time will be at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe. For info please go to

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