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Tammy Swift: Humor a crutch for hiding anxiety, depression

It happened between the third and fourth grade.

My parents noticed a dramatic change in my disposition. Up until then, I had been known for a bouncy, happy-go-lucky personality. Suddenly, I became withdrawn, sad and worried. I fretted obsessively about everything: germs on silverware, my parents not being home should something bad happen, tornadoes. Life transformed from sunshine and laughter into an endless series of obstacles, threats and ominous-looking clouds.

We didn’t know of anybody – at least any 9-year-olds in rural North Dakota – who went to psychiatrists back then. That was something that coddled city kids did in movies. But my mother was concerned enough about my behavior to take me to the family doctor.

She did most of the talking, telling him about my nervousness, my constant anxiety, my emotional turbulence. I gazed at the tile floor in shame. He told her I was an unusually sensitive child who happened to notice more things around me than other kids my age. We left the clinic that day with a prescription for Valium.

At some point, my growing brain figured out what many of us spend a lifetime trying to learn: that I could not control everything around me and that most things I worried about didn’t happen. I had to let go. And so my anxiety subsided, although I still was sometimes prone to worry and melancholy.

A few years later, I appeared in a backyard production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” I was small and nimble and goofy, so naturally I was cast as Snoopy. When show time rolled around, I was terrified. But I made my first funny gesture on stage, and the audience giggled. My confidence buoyed, I overplayed a bit more. More laughter. Over the next hour, I turned into a gigantic, spiral-cut, sugar-cured ham. I upstaged the other actors with a cutthroat abandon. But the audience loved it. They roared and cheered and clapped.

Afterward, I was showered with compliments. I felt admired and accepted. On that night, life changed. The laughter of others became a powerful drug. It was power and love and approval, all in one heady cocktail. It was the answer, and I needed to spend the rest of my life seeking it.

And so I became a humor writer. Innately shy, it was a less-terrifying way to make people laugh than if I climbed on a stage.

Throughout life, I would constantly wrestle with anxiety and depression. But I could channel all of my pain through a funnel of exaggeration and wit and absurdity. In doing so, I could project the absurdity of our humanity to connect with others. I could smile about things that I didn’t want to smile about. I could repeatedly return to that stage of laughter and love. Humor became an asset, but it also was a defense mechanism and a crutch.

I tell you all this, of course, because of the recent suicide of Robin Williams. Although his talent and brilliance far exceeded mine, I do feel I understand this small part of him. I know what it’s like to cover sad with funny. Like many of us out there, I have used an outrageous comment or weird observation to deflect pain. In fact, a good friend of mine once said: “I know when you’re hurting most, because that’s when you’re at your funniest.”

It seems important to talk about this topic, if only to point out the difference between our insides and our outsides. Williams was outrageously hilarious and talented, yet the thread of frantic energy and deep melancholy always ran beneath his work. It’s one reason he turned out to be such a surprisingly effective dramatic actor.

Maybe it’s good to remember this when we talk about the afflictions of depression and anxiety. It might be especially important for our men, who are culturally conditioned to act like everything is alright even when it isn’t. We need to find out whether they’re hurting, even when they use anger or impassivity or – yes – humor to hide it.

Believe me. As Williams’ sad end shows, depression is no joke.