Humor and Recovery: When the Difficult Can Be Funny

By: Melanie Sue

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For all the dark and cynical places my mind can go, I’m not a very serious person. That doesn’t mean I never feel angry or upset, but I do try to remember the absurdity and ephemeral nature of life when I choose which battles to fight. I was raised by two ridiculous, albeit loving and intelligent, parents (love you!) who consistently managed to find the humor in everything, so I grew up with a habit of joking around a lot. I like telling stories, being sarcastic, and I probably make far too many pop culture references. For me, almost anything can be funny. But I’m not sure I’ve always felt that way.

After college, I accepted a job providing resources and referrals to people with eating disorders. I also speak at local schools about body image and self esteem. This job is a fitting way for me to continue processing my own struggle with an eating disorder and depression. During my darkest hours with these demons and long after reaching a stable recovery, I was mostly silent about my experiences. I didn’t tell many new friends what I had been through, and I hardly ever brought it up to those who knew. I certainly would never have been able to laugh about it.

Flash forward to today, when I am routinely telling hundreds of students and strangers about my deepest insecurities. The bad memories and thoughts don’t always sit well with me, but I have become more comfortable owning these parts of myself. Just as it has become easier to talk about my eating disorder, I have recently noticed myself actually laughing at it. The past several times I have teamed up with another recovered speaker for a presentation or event, we find ourselves giggling as we tell our stories to each other. We share our embarrassments, our Achilles heels, and the hilarious surprises we found on the road to wellness.

Just a few weeks ago I was recounting to a colleague how I completely sobbed when I started seeing a second, tougher nutritionist who showed me what my “new and improved” meal plan would look like. That night had been heartbreaking; I cried, my mom cried, and I screamed and pleaded with her the entire drive home. Back then, I could hardly smile as I hopelessly discovered new rock bottoms, and now here I was five years later rattling off the story with a laugh.

Afterwards, I wondered if my delivery sounded insensitive. I know how serious eating disorders are from my own experience and through the stories I hear every day. But laughing about my past pain had strengthened my distance from it and showed me how far I had come. I thought to myself, “Can something so difficult and painful really be funny?” After some thought, I said yes.

And in the past year or so, I have noticed a big emergence of “recovery humor” online and in person. This has probably been around for ages, but I am typically slow on trends (I still quote the “Let’s Get Some Shoes” video on a regular basis, so once that’s over for me I’ll make room for new stuff). I have found myself smirking and scrolling through multiple pages of Tumblrs like EDRecoveryProblems and have noted the knowing nods in support groups when members laugh and say, “ Been there.” Navigating recovery can suck, but it can be funny.

However, there is a big difference between flippant jokes about bulimia on Family Guy and memes like ED Recovery Starfish. When a TV show or an ignorant dude at a party tell jokes that make a mockery of eating disorders by framing them as a “weird” or “gross” fad diet of teenage girls, they are trivializing someone’s struggle. Similarly awful are the jokes about people who could “never” have an eating disorder, such as men, older folks, or people who dare to look different than the emaciated photos in health textbooks. These types of jokes only serve to further isolate those for whom an eating disorder is a horrifying and often already misunderstood reality. Those jokes strengthen the myths and stigma surrounding mental illness. We should critique this humor, educate others, and ultimately rise above this type of cheap comedy.

When recovery blogs post memes about awkward moments in treatment or a group of recoverees laugh about their first encounters with Ensure shakes, there is a commonality and sense of community being created. These are laughs of understanding—they are an illustration that we are not alone, even when we feel frustrated or confused by our own thoughts. While the first type of joke listed above can translate to, “The thing you fight hardest against is laughable, therefore you are weak,” the second type of joke puts the power back into the hands of the recoveree. When we laugh at our struggle and fear, we dilute the power they have over us.

Okay, nerdy metaphor time. This example reminds me of the scene in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” when the young wizards are in class and must confront their boggart, which takes on the appearance of each individual’s worst fear. Students must combat it by using the Riddikulus spell that transforms their fear into something funny. Ron opens the chest to be tormented by the appearance of a giant spider. Upon casting the spell, the spider is given roller skates and begins tumbling over itself. When we laugh at our inner demons, whether they stem from eating disorders, addiction, depression, or anything else, we are essentially doing the same thing. We are not saying they don’t exist or they don’t matter to our story—we are just giving them roller skates.

The thing about recovery is that there is no one right path for everybody.  I can’t tell you that you should laugh at your pitfalls or sadness. Those are experiences that belong to you. But I can say that humor has been an essential tool in maintaining my own recovery. Laughing at my challenges and setbacks has allowed me to accept my own humanity. My illness has tried to take so much from me, but the thing I will fight hardest to protect is my ability to connect with others. For all of my life, laughter has been what connects me to strangers, the people I love, and myself. When it comes to my recovery, I may falter but I’ll never let joy slip away completely. When it comes to your recovery, I will seek to understand and I will never laugh at you. But I will invite you to laugh with me.

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