Black humour

A sense of humour is one of the big keys that can help reduce traumatisation and increase resilience. Some survivors of trauma develop a very black sense of humour that can be incomprehensible to people on the outside, but is actually a really useful survival strategy. A number of years ago I was seeing a shrink who would be startled on occasion that I would come in, talk about something really dark and frightening, cry and get really emotionally intense about it, then when enough stress had been discharged, start cracking very black jokes about the situation. He advised me to hang on to my sense of humour and told me it would help get me through. He was right.

One of the things about crises I’ve noticed is they build momentum over time. There’s a sense of situations, problems and experiences all stacking up on top of one another until the whole situation is so huge and exhausting I can’t cope anymore. Humour is great because it can interrupt that process. Instead of being stuck on train tracks speeding downhill, watching the crash coming and being unable to stop it, humour can lift you off the tracks and take you sideways – somewhere else entirely. The problems are still there and the pain is still there, but you get a breather and a different perspective. Often humour in these situations is dark because that’s what you have to draw upon. The same things that hurt you can also be darkly funny in certain lights.

Obviously, this isn’t about humiliating someone else, and not everyone is comfortable with this kind of humour. There is a crowd who will get jokes about psychosis, catheters, and all the things that we also cry about on other occasions.

A few years ago I was in a really difficult place in my life. My housing was unsuitable and deeply stressful, my family had broken down, my mental health was crashing badly and one night I was really in trouble. I was self harming, feeling constantly suicidal, suffering severe insomnia and dissociation and pretty desperate. I’d had a frightening and exhausting day and it was about 3am. I hadn’t slept in a few days and I was becoming really scared about my state of mind. I sat on the floor and called Lifeline, hoping a friendly voice might help get me through the night without hurting myself.

Lifeline are really busy outside of business hours, because most people feel in crisis and need to call at the points when all their usual supports – doctors, clinics, friends – are asleep and unavailable. I always expect at least a 1/2 wait to get through if I call at this kind of hour.

I huddled against the wall, listening to the hold music on loop and jumping everytime it sounded like my call was being picked up, only to hear a recorded message about how busy they were. The suicidal feelings were increasing as I waited and I was trying to calm myself down and talk myself through them without much success. I felt trapped, exhausted, and totally overwhelmed.

Finally my call connected, the guy on the phone said hello, and then accidentally disconnected my call.

In the swirl of numbness and desperation I had a moment to decide which way to fall. It was like a see-saw balanced perfectly in the middle for just a second. I laughed. The sheer stupid ironic ‘Murphy’s Law’ nature of the whole situation made me laugh. I was going to laugh or I was going to self destruct, and laughing saved me. I shook my head in disbelief at my total inability to catch a break and gave up on getting any help that night. I crawled back into my bed and left it all as a problem for another day.

So, if you find a sense of humour helps – and sometimes the weirder or darker the better – make sure you keep reminders around you that sometimes life makes no sense and if your options are to be crushed by it or to laugh at it, it’s better to laugh. I keep Monty Python movies around, tack up comic strips I like, and have a few mates with a wild sense of humour who help to keep me from cracking up. There’s a time and a place for offloading and honesty and emotional expression too of course, but I find it also helps to laugh until your kidneys hurt from time to time. It might be the thing that gets you through.

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