Using Humor as a Coping Tool

JAN. 15, 2020


At times, I need to talk honestly and directly about my depression. It’s hard, but my recovery depends on it. Then, after a while, I need a break. For me, the best break is something that makes me laugh.

You can find humor in a lot of places, but I wasn’t expecting to find it during one of my earliest sessions with my therapist. I was waiting for him to bring me a cup of coffee. Offering me a cup of coffee was how he started each session – a simple act of kindness that did much to cement our relationship. 

While I waited, I read the titles of the books on his bookshelf. I don’t remember the exact titles, but I do remember that if you put them all together, you’d have a mental health train wreck. It was a bookshelf of doom. My thoughts went something like: Okay, I know I’m sick, but I can’t have all this stuff wrong with me. It was so over the top, I couldn’t help but laugh. Just then, he came in with my coffee. I’ll always wonder what he thought of me sitting there laughing alone, though I’m sure that there’s an explanation for it in one of his books.

Going into the therapist’s office, my main feelings were shame and fear. My meds were making me feel like a stranger to my own mind. Though he had reassured me, I still feared that my therapist would tell me my problems were boring, a waste of his professional time. I could barely keep it all together, yet the bookcase full of doom struck me as funny. Something about being able to laugh in that place gave me hope that therapy was going to be okay. Humor sustains resilience.

Finding some humor in a situation allows you to step back and see things more clearly. Laughing is like taking a deep breath and bringing everything back down to earth. For example, when I catch myself brooding on my life as nothing but a sea of troubles, I remember what a girlfriend called me in high school: “Woeful Wobert.” It always makes me smile. Or when I was in a psych unit, and I would watch movies with the other patients, laughing hard at the best lines and funniest scenes. Locked in that place with no control over what happened next, we could laugh, which meant we had some control after all. 

I cannot write about using humor in recovery without a caution. Humor can help in many ways, but it can also do harm. There’s a kind of humor that restores our spirits, and there’s also sarcasm that inflicts pain. Unacknowledged anger at another person can so often sneak out this way. I do my best not to do this, and I do my best to apologize when I do it anyway. This same caution applies when I direct humor inward. I’ve laughed at myself with contempt and fierce anger, which can be emotionally self-harming. This doesn’t happen much anymore, but I still have to pay attention to what I’m laughing at.

If used in the right way, humor is a way to take depression down a notch, a way to tell the truth and a way to cope. I use humor because I need every tool available to help me in recovery, and when I laugh at the irrationality of depression, I move my recovery along.
 
Bob is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and lives in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. He is active in Vail Place Uptown, a clubhouse for people living with mental illness. This piece is an excerpt from his recent book, “Recovering from Depression: Forty-Nine Helps.” 
   

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