Cracking up & staying whole

Why cracking up with laughter is crucial for keeping it together

Blurred image of the author laughing very hard.

I used to wonder why laughter is such fantastic medicine, and since I never miss an opportunity to overthink all the fun out of something, it’s been a running quest for decades.

A few years ago, I saw Ruby Wax’s “Sane New World” tour after I was gifted her book. The first half of the show was a brilliant stand-up routine about neurotransmitters; what they do, and what can go wrong when they don’t. With funny stories and a hefty dose of Proper Science, we learned how we are each tossed about on the waves of our ever-changing, neurochemical soup-streams. It made mental illness feel much less like a personal failing, and more like a botched recipe. For me, that was a good thing.

The second half of the show was given over to questions and answers from the audience. Uncharacteristically for me, I beckoned over a runner and held tight to the microphone as I waited my turn. A squirt of cortisol about public speaking crept thickly, bitterly up my spine as other peoples’ questions were posed and answered. But I noticed that every time Ruby made us all laugh, my anxiety dropped, plummeting into my feet and dispersing almost into nothing, only to rise again when the giggling subsided. What was this magic?

When my moment finally came after ten, trembling minutes of “will I, or won’t I?” I stammered out that I’d always wondered what your brain looks like on humour, and how sitting here holding my nerve had gifted me a brilliant example of the way true laughter makes your whole body feel suddenly better. Did Ruby know which blend of neurotransmitters were released by laughter, and if so, how could I get the recipe?

She liked the question, but she didn’t know the answer, and opened it up to the floor. A learned scholar in the expensive seats gave an interesting answer about mode of mind, which wasn’t about neurochemistry and which I didn’t understand. (Fancy an autistic person not understanding mode of mind…) I came away still mystified, but happily so, loosened up and warmed through by hours of laughter and connection.

Humour, I’ve found, has been the best weapon in my arsenal against mental illness, and a lack of it is always a warning sign for me.

Dark or gallows humour is particularly tasty. In the 1990s I surprised everyone (including myself) by working for the police for some years, first in the control room (no, madam, you can’t report a lost wheelie bin on 999) and later as a business analyst (a promotion I was too young to understand no-one wanted if they cared about keeping their friends.) I spent time working across divisions and found that, the closer officers were to ground level, the darker the jokes would get. Scenes of crimes officers (SOCOs) always had the very best/worst jokes. Their office at Christmas was a joke that assaulted every sense – ceiling, walls and furniture entirely coated in tinsel, banners of celebration criss-crossing the windows, and a light-up Virgin Mary doorbell that played (what else?) Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. An entirely appropriate atmosphere when you’re putting together homicide stats for HMIC.

Closer to home, I lost my beloved Dad in a car crash almost 20 years ago. (Don’t worry, the funny’s coming.) The many tokens, flowers, and cards that flooded into the family home all landed like petals in the dark well of that impossibly painful first few days. Gentle words in pastel tones, hushed sentiments, apologetic visitors. But what gave me most relief was a beloved auntie arriving with a bottle of scotch, a copy of Roger’s Profanisaurus – and the willingness to sit and read aloud with me until our howls of laughter broke the shock and unlocked my first tears. They would have choked me far longer had she sent a “Live, Laugh, Love” postcard.

Enough sad stuff. Humour helps. My dearest friends have always been those with whom I can sink to my knees with laughter – and not care how we look. (My bestie Kate and I call this sinking, shaking sensation “wibbling.”) I’ve even forged some very unlikely friendships that have endured many years – all because we, say, once misheard a speaker at a conference, swapped a look, realised we had both misheard “willy,” and spent the rest of the speech clutching at each others’ elbows to prevent our giggles bursting out.

I keep a list of bookmarks that are guaranteed to make me laugh, and it’s used daily. I like childish things, mistaken things, over-the-top things. My favourites are wordplay and “misunderstanding” jokes. Me and my children have the autistic trait of sometimes taking things literally, and we often find the resulting misunderstandings hilarious – so jokes where others have done the same are most welcome – especially when someone misunderstands on purpose to cause mischief.

420k people are still wibbling.

It amazes me that autistic people are often thought not to have a sense of humour; indeed, my tendency to laugh uproariously was for some time a key factor in my not thinking autism applied to me. Robyn Steward and Jamie Knight covered this brilliantly in a BBC podcast. There are jokes that don’t make me laugh, though – mainly those at others’ expense, particularly when they highlight the deficits of a person or a group. I lose my sense of humour pretty quickly over those, and can kill the fun stone dead with my inability to join in. I can’t always tell if it’s affectionate. Teasing is a mystery, too. A boss of mine used to joke that “Emma just isn’t putting the effort in.” I knew he meant it as quite the opposite, and that he liked and admired me, but I could barely raise a chuckle, and sometimes teared up. Even though I knew it was a joke, even though I knew it was affectionate, even though, even though… it made no difference. Those words had been spoken and that made them true. My sensitivity in this regard is hard on me and hard on other people. I wish I could turn that function off.

Last night, after a tough day for us at work and at school, I tried to explain to my son what “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” means. It took ten full minutes, several allegorical diversions, and lots of neighing. Rolling around together on the sofa, our bodies racked with laughter, was a delight. Later we snuggled in the garden by the fire pit, stroking heads and talking softly about the summer ahead. Would we have finished the day with that calm affection without first having cracked up?

Maybe it’s some sort of trauma release exercise – the clenching of jaw, eyes, and chest, then the violent shaking and noise-making. Maybe it’s the connection you feel when someone else “gets it.” Maybe, for someone like me who is particularly sensitive and prone to feeling left out, that release, that connection, is even sweeter nectar.

The one thing guaranteed to dull a joke is having to explain it. Maybe that’s why trying to make sense of the nonsensical – however confusing, however dark – is one of the silliest, funniest things you can do.

Coming to you live on the airwaves…

Paper Lifeboat joins a podcast and gets invited onto the “proper” radio

A few weeks ago, my friends at A.I.R. Team Global asked me onto their podcast as a guest to talk about my blog and my work.

I’ve been interviewed before for various campaigns and work projects on TV & radio, but this was my first time being on a podcast as “just me.” Luckily Rowan, Anna, John and Carl knew what they were doing, and made me feel right at home.

We covered some serious subjects, such as the gender gap in diagnosis, and internalised ableism, but we had a lot of fun, too. I even debuted my two-step seagull deterrent program, which involves weeing into a bucket and waving bunting on a stick. (I live on the coast and have spent the last 6 years trying – humanely – to deter seagulls from nesting on my office roof.) You’ll have to hear it to believe it…

A curious offshoot of this is that we’ve been invited to talk on our local radio station, BBC Radio Devon. Michael Chequer has asked us to speak on his evening show at 8pm today, Tuesday 2nd July. We’ll be talking about Team A.I.R. and our favourite musical decade. I’ve picked the 1980s – I spent much of my childhood overseas, and chart music from the U.K. was a lovely way to feel connected with home.

Tonight, I’m going to be the team chaffeur and cheerleader – it’s Team A.I.R.’s work that is in the spotlight – but I confess I’m feeling a little nervous about being on the “proper” radio as myself, rather than for something work-related.

Maybe I’ll take my crochet and a big sign saying “Don’t swear… or talk about throwing urine at seagulls.”

Tweets, quacks and… what noise does a cygnet make?

Last year, I discovered the #actuallyautistic community on Twitter. These brilliant folk have been the source of much information, validation, and friendship.

One brave soul from their ranks noticed that she and I lived close together, and suggested a meet-up. Having both acknowledged that socialising with strangers was usually very low on our to-do lists, a procrastinate-tastic period followed. Then, thanks again to Twitter’s #actuallyautistic community, fate gave us a nudge with an event that seemed designed exclusively for us… in the shape of “The Duck.”

Penned by Rhi Lloyd-Williams of Autact Theatre, this one-actor showcase by Lucy Theobald spoke to us both in a voice so clear and pure, a voice that said, “no, it’s not just you.” Delivered as a monologue, it describes a young autistic woman’s attempts to come to terms with the masks others wear, and discover which might fit her. By turns funny, hopeful, and heart-breaking, it blends delicacy with a deep dive into how it feels to be at odds with the world, and yet madly in love with it and wanting to belong.

“The usual representation of autism is not someone like me. They’re usually children and male. It’s so important that we see autistic women out there too. That representation is vital.

Rhi Lloyd-Williams

And so it was that we two Twitter strangers quacked happily with ideas and relief right through the 3 hour round trip to see it, freed up by the permission the show gave us to tell our stories and connect.

A sliver of my ever-changing Good Things Gallery

The flyer has been pinned to my office noticeboard ever since. It’s now a part of my “good things happen” gallery. The reverse even has origami instructions to make your very own paper duck. (Wouldn’t that look nice next to a paper lifeboat..?)

The Duck is doing another fly-past near me soon; this time, to Exeter’s Cygnet Theatre next Friday 15th February.

I’ve already bought my fistful of tickets to see it again, and can’t recommend it highly enough.

If you think you’re a duck and would like to come, but are lost for someone to sit with, drop me a line – maybe I’ll see you there!

Before and after

Travelling home from today’s National Suicide Prevention Alliance Conference with a head full of ideas and a heart full of hope. Lots to share in the days to come; tweeted some highlights of the day as it unfolded. For now, I’m (happily, justifiably) wiped out.

Here’s the before and after pictures!

9am – raring to go with Chukumeka Maxwell, founder of ATPS

After – decompressing on the train with crochet and crumbles!

Huge thanks to Action to Prevent Suicide for inviting me.

Let the nonsense flow

Pattern made from upholstery on the Victoria line

Today, a friend messaged me from their mid-morning Monday desk to say that they were struggling. (This friend thinks they might be on the spectrum and is wrestling with whether that warrants further enquiry. People in this situation seek me out often, and I actively welcome it.)

Their pleasingly logical plea for help came with an insistence for me not to worry about them; however, if I could send them a couple of tips to get through their messy, stressy Monday, they’d appreciate it… sorry to have troubled me… don’t worry if I don’t have time… and other adorable, relatable minimisings.

I shared a couple of quick fix check-ins. The Pomodoro technique. The sensory sweep. (I’ll write about these in time – links will appear across these posts before too long.) However I sensed something more fundamental in their offloading.

Their stress arose from a situation in which other people were not making much sense. And when you’re prone to thinking you’re defective, it’s all too easy to assume that any deficit of understanding lies squarely with you.

So I offered this: Consider the possibility that other people aren’t making sense in this situation. Just because you’re having difficulty understanding something, it doesn’t automatically follow that it’s been properly explained and the fault lies with you, the receiver. You are entitled to seek clarification. You are allowed to ask the same question twice.

“The beginning of wisdom, I believe, is our ability to accept an inherent messiness in our explanation of what’s going on.

Rupert Sheldrake

Sometimes, no-one has the first idea what they’re doing. Sometimes a whole business meeting can go by with nothing having been achieved or agreed on at all beyond a little power-wrestling or grandstanding.

Yes, it’s taken me twenty five years of working life to fully understand this. When someone is only making 10% of sense, my sense-seeking mind has a tendency to leap forward 90% to make up the shortfall of understanding between us. Sometimes this speeds things up; sometimes, it develops ideas. Sometimes though, it misfires and annoys them – either because I’ve drawn the wrong conclusion, or frankly, been a smart-arse.

I’ve learned (or rather, am learning) to quiet that internal voice that insists on perfect sense from others. It’s not my job to restore everyone else’s thoughts and actions to order, and it’s an arrogance to try. There are times when, if nothing much is at stake, the quickest route to sanity is accepting that an exchange simply made no sense to anyone, and letting that pass by unremarked. And of course, a pleasing side-effect of letting other people not make sense is that you give that permission to yourself, too. What a relief.

My correspondent today was twenty years my junior. I hope they went back into their day feeling a little less wrong-footed.

Later that evening on the tube (I’m in town for tomorrow’s National Suicide Prevention Alliance conference) I found myself propped against an open window between carriages. Each time the train set off, tepid air gusted through, carrying chatter and scent from all the carriages ahead. At first I winced and dodged it, fringe whipping at my face, eyes stinging as I turned this way and that.

Soon I found the right angle. With my face pressed full into the breeze, the warm scent of working machinery and discarded coffee cups pushed my hair away from my closed eyelids; a temporary figurehead in winter coat and messenger bag. I felt the pressure give way as we all surged through the tunnel, together temporarily on our many missions, carrying tiny payloads of potential to our myriad destinations.

It’s a wonder, really, that anything synchronises at all. Don’t exhaust yourself trying bring it all to order. Save your energy for those times when directing the flow could make a difference.

How many lifeboats is too many?

Starting Paper Lifeboat has taken me a long time. Five years, to be exact. One of the things that’s held me back is wondering whether the world really needs yet another autism and mental health blogger. Aren’t there enough of us out there already? Won’t my words just sink like a stone in the churning waters of voices?

This is great fuel for an inner critic. Mine’s been admonishing me that there are other things I Really Should Be Focusing On. Such as the impending void of Brexit, climate change’s implications for our children, and the refugee crisis. Brains are helpful like that; they love to remind you how impotent you are in the face of major, systemic problems. And of course, that impotence is hard to argue against. It taints everything with pointlessness. Before you know it you’ve been under the duvet for three hours. And so the challenge becomes to Do Something Anyway.

So it was that, on Sunday, I took myself off for a walk by the sea. I’d taken this blog down a day after starting it, terrified that telling my story was going to bring Brexit-sized calamity down on myself and everyone I loved (thanks, brain.) Grey seas battered the prom as the soggy January wind blew all over my catastrophising. The weather’s solidarity with my mood made me feel a little better, but soon I was quite cold (having failed to plan my outfit properly for the weather, basing it instead on Just Bloody Well Getting Out For A Walk Before I Sabotage Even That.)

“It is surprising how many unoriginal thoughts we have”

Martine Bachelor

And so I dived into a place I have probably walked past twice a week for many years without stopping – the RNLI gift shop. Inside this teeny space crammed with cheery goodies sat two women whose ages I would not dare to guess at. Dressed in jaunty scarves and woollens, they chatted brightly, Britishly, about the weather and the vagaries of their new kettle (the hot topic of the morning). I was comforted by the tradition of it all, and soon we were chatting away about their new stock.

Making suitably interested noises about their gift cards, tote bags, and travel sweets, I suddenly realised that their branding colours were the same ones as I’d chosen for this site. I found myself staring at the children’s gifts in their navy and orange livery, and when my eyes settled on a lifeboat itself, I started to laugh. I was in a freaking navy and orange lifeboat shop. A shop that, as a U.K. seaside dweller, had been in my peripheral vision for decades. I hadn’t set out to copy them, and yet I totally, if unconsciously, had.

There are very few original ideas in the world. We all soak up influence like sponges, and in turn, influence more than we can understand. Maybe it’s time to accept this and take my little bit of influence out into the world after all. It might not be new, it might not be original. But the vanity of not offering anything at all is a poor excuse not to try.

The following day, I re-published Paper Lifeboat. It has already reached 9 countries and over 600 people have read so far. Turns out there’s a need for more lifeboats. An endless chain of demand and supply, in fact. I’d been demanding something like Paper Lifeboat for so long. Time to get over myself, and supply it.

I’m going to change my colours eventually – it’s the right thing to do (not that the RNLI need protecting from my mighty empire!) As a peace offering in the meantime, I bought some of their lovely gifts.

I think I’m going to need more of that tea…