Health Battles Feature Part 3:
In a small conference room on Cutshaw Avenue, five people are talking about the darkest moments of their mental illnesses — and they're laughing.
"I've had four psychiatric admissions or, as I call them, stays in an elite think tank with a low threshold for admission and highly exclusive exiting requirements," says Chris Owens, director of programs for Mental Health of America's Virginia office. Ba-dum-bum-ching.
He and the others in the room are practicing their routines for a statewide conference in late May of VOCAL (Virginia Organization of Consumers Asserting Leadership), a Richmond-based nonprofit group of people in mental-health recovery.
Their leader, David Granirer, is coaching them via a live Internet hookup from Vancouver, British Columbia. He's also the keynote speaker for the conference, held at George Mason University's Fairfax campus.
As founder of a program called Stand Up for Mental Health, Granirer has conducted similar classes around the United States since 2004. The idea is to use comedy as a way of building confidence and erasing the stigma attached to mental disorders.
"I think when you have a mental illness, almost as bad as the mental illness is the shame that it carries in society," he says. "Shame has all its power in the dark. When you bring it out in the light, it often dissipates."
When you tell your story — maybe with a few twists and embellishments — and an audience relates to it, he says, "It doesn't seem as bad anymore."
Myra Anderson, another comic-in-training, says, "I never thought I would make fun of some of this stuff, because it was hard going through it."
But here she is, talking about a suicide attempt: "Fifteen years ago to this very day, I decided to take my own life. And I said, ‘Myra, do it in front of your co-workers and your manager at work. End the years of misery.' Now I don't know how many of you have tried to jump off a Little Caesars building, but all you get out of the deal is a sprained ankle, and then you have to limp back inside and serve crazy bread."
Her routine gets consistent laughs, and her skilled delivery and timing prompt Granirer to call her "a natural."
Up next is Debra Knighton, who traveled from Charlottesville with Anderson for the session. "When I'm in bad shape, I tend to accuse people of things: You want to get rid of me. You don't want me to succeed. You gave birth to me," she deadpans.
Mechanicsville resident Betsy Brown aims some of her jokes at mental-health providers. "When I have a psychosis, it feels like I'm being pursued by an evil force," she says. "That's why I avoid my psychiatrist."
She also zeroes in on medication: "One psychiatrist kept putting me on excessive doses of meds. … When I was on those meds, it felt like I was going to die every time I lay down. So I called my boyfriend and made him stay on the phone with me for two hours. The good thing is that he did it," she says, pausing for effect. "The bad thing is, he charged me $4.99 a minute."
Sometimes, family members provide inspiration for humor. Saluda resident Becky Sterling jokes that around the time she was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and post-traumatic-stress disorder at age 45, she became a couch potato. She stopped doing housework and cooking. "Then I realized I wasn't acting like I was depressed. It was just like I was a guy." She adds that she has trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. "I hear thunderstorms and hurricanes and all kinds of noises," she says. "Then I have to nudge my husband to make him stop snoring."
Though she was hesitant at first, by the end of the session, Sterling decides she doesn't mind being photographed or quoted by name for this article. She's ready to put her face on a story about mental illness. After all, isn't that what this is about?