There was a moment when my daughter was a few months old that I became brutally certain of something: not only was I never going to perform comedy again, but I was never going to laugh again myself. I had developed what my husband and I referred to as "The Humour Bypass": nothing, and I mean nothing, could get me laughing. Oh, sure, I'd still put on a face for others - fake laughing at jokes, then nervously making my own and nervously fake laughing at those. But I couldn't let go and really laugh - let alone imagine getting back on the stage to try to make anyone else let loose and enjoy themselves. I felt like a cardboard cut-out of myself holding an infant.
I had two weekends of prearranged comedy gigs booked at my favourite comedy club in the UK when my daughter turned three months old. In my pre-parent optimist head, I'd figured I'd be ready and able to jump back into action by then. Instead, like a zombie, I emailed to cancel them.
"Sorry, but I've developed a Humour Bypass since becoming a mother. I'll need to quit this amazing job I've worked hard to get into. Please bear me in mind for future bookings when she's about twelve? Love, Taylor,"
I think that's what I wrote, feeling both a sense of deep regret and painful, guilty relief. And then panic.
Who was I?
My daughter turns three soon, and it's only now that I'm able to look back and really acknowledge my post-natal depression (PND), and to call it that. Confession: I still hate that term and how it makes me feel to write it. Before I became a writer and comedian, I was a psychotherapist, and I'd seen my fair share of PND - so I knew it looked a little different for everyone. And it shouldn't carry any stigma with it given my background, right? But when I think of that term, I think of sad stories in the news which end in tragedy, bad storylines on TV shows, and dramatic documentaries which show the most extreme cases of post-partum psychosis: some very real stories, but not ones which resonated with me. Not ones which helped me to feel like my experience was OK, and that I could still be the complete person I was before.
PND for me was like a strong, unpleasant seasoning sprinkled on the meal of parenthood - it affected the flavour of everything, but there was still a lot more on the plate. There was real joy and real excitement and gratitude. I didn't spend every day miserable by any means and I was absolutely in love with my beautiful daughter, even though some days I called her an asshole in my head. There was normal, healthy exhaustion and the process of coming into a brand new identity which everyone goes through. But then that darkness would seep in - some days, worse than others - some weeks, unbearable.
At the worst points, I didn't want to see or talk to anyone and I'd just stew in my own bleak and angry thoughts. It's ridiculously easy to find reasons to not leave the house when you've got a baby - they become the handy excuse for your avoidance as much as they're the cause of it. I avoided all comedy shows and movies and instead binge-watched Lars Von Trier films, which if you've never dabbled - well let's just say it was a testament to how dark my head had gone that those cheered me up. I also watched Orange is the New Black, which scanned like a holiday brochure to my muddled brain. I figured if the worst happened and I wound up in prison, it looked pretty good: a bed to yourself, showers when you wanted, and non-penetrative sex? Sign me up, I thought.
Meanwhile, whenever I'd feel angry, or guilty, or scared - which was a lot - I remembered a classic piece of advice often given to comedians which is to write down what makes you angry, and later you can turn it into comedy. So I took notes on my phone daily. I scribbled things on scraps of paper, hoping that some day, the Humour Bypass would lift and I'd be able to do something with all these thoughts. Something funny.
Then two things happened: one, I returned to my fairly idle Twitter account and started using the hashtag #ABillionDaysofParenthood. This was in response to the social media craze "A hundred days of gratitude" where people were pouring out reasons they were grateful. I was bitter and resentful of all of these - "I'm grateful today's breakfast burrito was so TASTY!" "Hey, FUCK YOU, and your burrito" I stewed. "I have a billion days of parenthood under my belt and still more to go, and you know what? I'm not feeling grateful today." There, I said it.
I never meant for this hashtag to turn into an hour long comedy show, but somehow, that's exactly what happened. It started with me doing twenty nerve-wracking minutes of untested material at a gig and went from there. Something strange was happening when I'd talk about these feelings on stage. It wasn't just me getting something out of ranting up there - although I could feel myself healing from the whole experience by joking about it - but other people were actually interested in what I was saying. More importantly: they were laughing. People would come up to me after and tell me, in hushed tones "Me too. We went through that too. Thank you for making it funny." And voila! The Humour Bypass was lifted and a new show was born. Thanks, PND!
I'm hardly the first comedian to harness the power of laughter to deal with some dark stuff. In fact I owe it to dozens of brave, funny pioneers who've taken to the stage to give the middle finger to their troubles behind the safety of a microphone. And on the one hand, it's a self-serving old business: you effectively get a paid therapy session and a sense of taking control over the things which are otherwise controlling you. But there's something else that happens when comedians tackle things like mental illness: it creates a conversation. It lifts stigma in a more powerful way than a dozen earnest documentaries can do. It achieves that which seemed impossible that day I genuinely thought I'd never do comedy again: it makes it OK that I went through it - and it's OK if you went through it, too.
Taylor Glenn: A Billion Days of Parenthood is at Just the Tonic the Caves from August 4-28 (not 15) at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It picked up a 4* review at the Bath Comedy Festival and a 5* review at the Brighton Fringe and it's for parents and non-parents alike.
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