Cracking up & staying whole

Why cracking up with laughter is crucial for keeping it together

Blurred image of the author laughing very hard.
Wibble.

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.