How comedy can change lives | Dave Chawner's seen first-hand

How comedy can change lives

Dave Chawner's seen first-hand

It might be awful but having read how many amazing performers have mental health issues my first thought was: ‘How brilliant’!

I would never wish harm on anyone and instantly felt guilty for thinking it, but there was a very good reason.

I have always been amazed at comedy’s ability to reach people. Stand-up, especially, is one of the few opportunities where an individual gets a mic, a room full of people, and their attention. When people are laughing they are much more likely to be listening. That’s why I appreciate comics who find the funny in adversity and light in some of the darkest of places. I have always admired that because a lot of the time, what makes us different makes us who we are. That is something that definitely resonates with me.

People often get uncomfortable when I tell them I’m anorexic. For a long time I was uncomfortable to talk about it.

It all began when I was 17. I made a new year’s resolution to lose weight. It began ‘normally’ – I started watching what I ate, avoiding snacking etc. I lost weight, but I wanted to lose more. I started calorie counting. It got competitive, I reduced my intake more and more each day. It became a competition to see how many calories I could deny myself. To motivate myself to eat less I began weighing myself. At first it was in the morning, before I’d eaten anything, but that felt like cheating. So, I weighed myself at night to gauge how much my weight fluctuated. Soon I was weighing myself up to five times a day. On top of that I began using laxatives to help ‘remove’ as much of the little food that I had eaten as possible. All the while I was exercising: running, swimming, working out morning, noon and night.

It became an obsession. It was about more than the food, calories, weight, and exercise, it was about control. At 17 you’re made to think about university applications, student loans, exam grades, career plans. It was intimidating. Anorexia was a coping mechanism, the one thing I was in control of.

A friend put all the symptoms together, took me aside and confided in me: ‘I’ll be honest, I’ve been treated for anorexia. Have you ever thought that you may be anorexic too?’

That was the first time anyone had ever talked about it openly. It changed everything. For the first time it didn’t seem like something I’d got to be ashamed of. It wasn’t a taboo, it was just something I had. Accepting it was the first step to coping. It was then that I realised the power of talking to people.

Laughter is unique in its ability to ease tension around some of the most uncomfortable topics. Stand-up is a great opportunity to use comedy as a tool to make people think as well as laugh.

This is something I am currently trying to do in the show Over It: Death, Anorexia & Other Funny Things: using comedy to get people talking about more taboo topics – namely anorexia and bereavement. For me it is an opportunity to raise awareness of eating disorders, remove the stigma surrounding anorexia and demonstrate how it affects everyday people.

It’s been a real eye-opening experience to meet a lot of sufferers, their friends and family. As a performer there is obviously a buzz from the laughs, the cheers, the claps of an audience, but there is an even bigger buzz from helping people.

As the show has travelled the UK I’ve met sufferers who have had their lives ravished by eating disorders and it’s been amazing to use comedy to help people come to terms with difficult situations. Nothing demonstrates this better than one particular gig at the Fringe last year.

A girl in the front row who was laughing, clapping, whooping throughout the entire show came up to me afterwards asking for a chat. She told me she’d experienced everything I’d described; the mood swings, the lack of self-worth, the constant anxiety. It’d been going on for years, getting worse and worse. Friends, teachers even family were reluctant to talk to her because they didn’t know what to say. Yet, that’s all she’d wanted: someone to talk to. She’d felt trapped, like a freak. It became too much for her.

Only three weeks previously she’d tried to take her own life. What’s worse, this isn’t uncommon; one in every four anorexics either tries to or is successful at taking their own lives. Hearing someone else talk about it was the release she’d needed. It wasn’t something she had to be scared of anymore because she realised she wasn’t alone. Laughter had made it manageable. That meant she could go get help. Ultimately that meant wouldn’t claim her like it has so many others.

Now, please, please, please don’t think I am trying to arrogantly portray myself as some Christ-like missionary. I am not a therapist, I am not a doctor and I am not even that good at stand-up. What I am trying to do is show the incredible power comedy has to affect people.

This show has helped me so much - anorexia is not something I am ashamed of anymore. It is something I feel liberated to talk about and something I want to help other people with. Being able to talk about it was a relief but, being able to laugh about it was a joy.

So, I don’t think it is brilliant so many performers have mental health issues. What I think is brilliant is how many of them talk about it and are using their talents to break down the stigma. After all, these people have the power to help, influence and amuse people. And, speaking as a sufferer rather than a comic - that really helps.

• Over It is on at Finnegan’s Wake at the Edinburgh Fringe at 17:00. Dave Chawner tweets at @DaveChawner.

Published: 29 Jul 2014

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