Personal/Film: Learning how to laugh again

Blazing Saddles is my favourite film of all time, for an intensely personal reason connected to my mental health. This post was and is in many ways a review of this marvellously silly and humorous film. However, it is also a post that requires context, and so it is a (very lengthy) post in two parts.

Five years ago I underwent what one of the people involved in my care later described as a ”severe psychological trauma”. The initial period of that I described in a previous post, here. When I finished that post we had reached a point when I was on new medication, which helped stabilise me. My illness has, amongst everything else, been a highly educational experience. Until I was ill, I always thought “depression” meant being very morose, or melancholic. Understanding is not helped because we use the same word to actually mean different things. For me however, depression meant the following: severe epileptic-fit style panic attacks, thoughts of suicide and self-harm, total lack of energy followed at times by periods of frenetic energy, inability to maintain any sort of sleeping cycle, being unable to laugh, and a total lack of self-confidence so severe I refused to leave my own house unless I was accompanied.

The new medication, over the course of September and October five years ago started to help deal with principally one of these symptoms, which in turn helped alleviate some of the others. Initially my panic attacks eased. At first this was at the cost of my temper sometimes wildly flaring, but that too passed as one medication replaced the other in my system. The reduction in panic attacks also lifted my mood a little – I no longer thought of suicide or self-harm. However, one side effect of the medication was I began to sleep much longer and much more heavily – indeed on one occasion sometime that autumn I slept for over twenty-four hours – but even sleeping for fourteen or eighteen hours occurred with some frequency. An old fashioned alarm clock position a foot away from my head could not wake me. Otherwise I still alternated between being absolutely listless to being consumed by the need to do something, and I only slowly started to leave the house alone – and never into town.

My new medication hadn’t “cured” me of course. Medication cannot cure this sort of mental illness. It is broadly like taking paracetamol to help with a common cold – it does not effect the virus that is the cause of the cold at all. Rather it acts as a palliative allowing one to function better whilst one’s own immune system deals with the virus. Likewise my medication did improve my life, because despite the many negatives I was not having regular panic attacks, and I was not often thinking of self-harm. In other words it was doing its job: giving me an opportunity to heal myself. Unfortunately, mind is not body. One’s body has an immune system that knows what to do without direction, but psychological recovery requires actual thought – and it was not something I was able to do by myself. My GP had referred me to the local Mental Health Trust. My initial appointment was in the beginning of October – an initial assessment for the team to try to work out what sort of therapy would be most useful in my case.

Either side of this first appointment, my farmor and farfar died, eight days apart. My farmor had been diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer earlier in the spring, and her death was inevitable, though no less sad. She died the day she was admitted to hospice. It was as if her mind, absolved of all responsibilities by the progress of her illness, saw no point in continuing the struggle. My farfar, who suffered from Alzheimer’s which by that point was so severe he could barely interact with the world around him, passed away eight days later. It was as if somehow he realised his wife and life-companion of sixty years had gone, so there was no reason for him to stay.

One day I hope to write a post about just what wonderful people they were, but I cannot get passed this moment without writing giving a glimpse to my wonderful paternal grandparents. My mormor and farmor both grew up in London, and endured the Blitz. They both served in the armed forces, both out in Singapore during the Malayan Insurgency. The met on the troop-ship back home in 1952. When he returned home my farfar vowed never to leave these shores again, a promise he kept until the late 90s when he visited Normandy a couple of times to visit his brother’s grave. My farmor was always a traveller through, and spent time visiting various places in the world. She had a fascination for other cultures. She was also a working mum, who I believe earned more than her husband long before that became common. I believe very strongly that women like my farmor did more for women’s rights than the more militant feminist movement ever did – by going into workplaces and proving by their competence day in and day out there were just as good as their male colleagues, if not sometimes better.

My maternal grandparents had already died by this point – my morfar when I was only a few months old, and my mormor a few years earlier. To this day – indeed as I type – I tear up when I think of my grandparents. I was fortunate enough to have three very wonderful grandparents while I few up and into my twenties, people I could talk to about pretty much anything, secure in their love. I do very much wonder that if my farmor had not taken ill about the time my decline had started and my mormor had still been in good health if I would have avoided my own illness. We will never know.

In the event the loss of my remaining grandparents did not make my recovery any easier. My employer was aiming for me to try to return to work at the start of November, but this got delayed for a week because of the double-funeral we now had to hold. Funerals are tricky things, and I remember feeling drained at the end of it.

The return to work quickly proved to be a disaster. At first I was only working part-days, but it did not matter. By the end of the second day my thoughts once again were turning towards self-harm. After the end of the second week my supervisor called a halt to it, after she realised what was going on. I did not always get along with my supervisor – sometimes our personalities clashed. However when it mattered most she helped look out for me when I was basically unable to do so myself.

So there I was, still awaiting an appointment to start some sort of therapy – I was not exactly sure what it would be – having just failed to return to work. My grandparents were all dead. I had no idea what the future held, on those rare occasions when I could think further ahead than a few days. Into this mix I get a letter saying I would not be seeing anyone until February, over three months away.

To say this had a negative impact on me would be an understatement, and I seriously wonder how many lives are lost, or impaired beyond recovery, by the bureaucracy of mental health. I rang up the person who carried out my original assessment in a state of complete panic. In particular I was massively worried out my employment situation. She no doubt heard my utter desperation because she said she would arrange an appointment with an employment specialist in their service. My memory may be playing tricks with me, but as I recall I saw this specialist, whom I shall call M, that very afternoon.

The arrival of M into this story is something of a turning-point, as I shall describe in a future post. M remains involved in my care to this day. I owe him so very much – so much so he was one of two people in the Mental Health Service I sent an email to after Melian was born thanking them for all that they had helped make possible.

At some point around this time though I did something that I had not done for months: I laughed, loudly and with abandon, because at some point in those weeks I watched Blazing Saddles.

What is there to say about this film that has not already been said? It is a spoof, a send-up of racists and racism, and so subversive it using racist language (nigger and so on) to do so. Some of the jokes are very much rooted in the time of the film – satire so often depends on contemporary culture – yet the theme is timeless. It is a barrel of laughs from the start to the finish. It also mocks Westerns, small town-America, politics, the film industry, and so much more. Most of the satire feels like good-natured banter – except when it comes to the racism, where there is I think just a touch of a more scornful edge.

It is not just funny, it is silly. It starts silly and gets sillier and sillier as it goes. Just when one thinks the film cannot possibly get more absurd, Mel Brookes manages to smash through the boundaries of reality once again. It is quite possible this relentless idiocy of genius will put some people off this film, and that is fair enough.

For those that do not know the – very loose – plot of the film is a corrupt politician wishes to make some townsfolk up and leave so he can profit from a railroad going through their town. To do so he hires some bandits who do in the old sheriff. He then arranges to appoint the first black sheriff in the hopes this will do disgust those common folk they will up and move. The rest is, as their say, film history.

It is a film I had watched several times before, and liked. I do not know why I started watching it again – no doubt because I was bored. I enjoyed myself, and after the film had finished I realised something – I had spent minutes just laughing. Laughing loud and clear, at times so utterly creased up with laughter I had started to cough because I was not breathing quite properly. For a few minutes this film managed to transport me to a place where I was not staring out at (what seemed to me) to be a wrecked life with no hope of recovery.

The euphoria did not last – it could not. I was still deep in depression, after all. The memory of the euphoria remained however, and I rewatched the film several times over the next few months. Just as much as M became so vital to my recovery, so did Blazing Saddles. Given half a chance I can now recite large portions of the dialogue (this may not be a good thing for those in my vicinity) and I still smile when I think of my many favourite scenes.

 

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6 comments
  1. Jessica said:

    Thanks for sharing this very personal story. you’ve really been through a lot, but you’ve also had some wonderful things in your life, such as your grandparents and the contact you had with them. I wish I could say the same. All I can say without getting lenghty is that it’s complicated.

    It was great to hear what an impact this film had on you. There is such a relief in a good laughter, isn’t there? And when you’re deepest down in the very darkes, that’s the point where you need a good laugh most desperately. I’m glad you got that.

    I will read the next part with great interest too of course.

    • stnylan said:

      Thank you for reading. One of the difficulties I have, I realise, in writing this is that it sounds bad – because it is – but I am conscious there are very many more people who have had it so much worse than me. Ultimately, I am alive, and all too many who descend in the darkness no longer are able to say that. There is almost an element of survivor’s guilt – how come I happened to be so lucky to have friends and family that supported me, and then happen to meet the wonderful woman who is now my wife.

      But yes, laughter is such a great thing. Truly, I did not appreciate its value until I realised I was not laughing.

  2. Gank said:

    Good post mate. I doubt there are very many people who haven’t been affected by mental illness either their own or that of friends/family. It is still, unfortunately, somewhat stigmatized and no one want to talk about it. I try to approach mental health like I do physical health. If you were physically ill you’d see a doctor so why not if you’re not feeling well mentally? I have had some dealings with public mental health in Canada both personally and professionally and I agree- it is a bureaucratic nightmare. There are times though when people will really come through for you and it sounds like you’ve had that.

    Grandparents can be great, that’s for sure. I had the good fortune to know my Great-grandparents and they were a very positive, strong presence throughout my childhood which wasn’t a very happy time for me. Those memories are priceless.

    Stay well!

    • stnylan said:

      I briefly knew two of my great-grandparents, but only very briefly.

      One reason why I am posting these posts about my own period of illness, recovery, and occasional ways in which my Asperger’s impacts my gaming is precisely to try and break down the stigma, the conspiracy of silence. I don’t have any illusions I will make much difference in the grand scheme of things, but perhaps just a little difference here and there. And of course my own experience will be very different from people with differnet mental health problems, or even other people with autistic conditions. However, since the stigma is certainly one reason why I self-deceived myself when I first became ill (and thereby made everything much worse) I will do what I can to break it down.

  3. Joe said:

    Good post. Just now, I almost thoughtlessly googled stnylan just to see what would come up. Years ago, just as I started college, I used to write a bit on the paradox forums. I remember you would comment on my AAR and much more commendable than that you would take the time to read a lot of other people’s work and comment. If I’m not mistaken you are that stnylan -it’s such a unique name after all! I eventually stopped writing AARs on paradox but I I have kept writing on and off.

    In the meantime, I experienced something that was really a trauma for me. In the grand scheme of things, it really wasn’t anything very bad at all-maybe something closer to college male-angst, but I felt so very heartbroken about it all (and still do from time to time). I feel depressed sometimes, and my mind often goes back to that place and to my own actions which were largely responsible for what happened such that I struggle with guilt and regret and wonder what might have been if I could do things over again. But it helps to have temporal distance from that event and to consciously recognize and acknowledge those feelings as they manifest themselves, yet without dwelling on them. I remind myself that those dark negative thoughts really don’t reflect reality. Sometimes I feel hopeless and alone but intellectually I can at least say that these feelings will pass. Sometimes throughout the day something so seemingly imperceptibly minor can wash those feeling away, at least for a time.

    I’m so glad for you that things are working out, and as you and others have said, it is good to break the conspiracy of silence.

    Thank you.

    • stnylan said:

      It is very late here in the UK (about 0130), so I will write more tomorrow, but I just wanted to say that yes, I am indeed that stnylan from the Paradox AAR fora 😉

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