When you’re walking through Hell, laughing at the devil as you go along makes your journey a little easier. I learned that from my family, a rag-tag group of do-gooders who have been through ugliness and agony, war and hopelessness, death and depression, but have survived it and, in most instances, thrived. Much of their success in that regard can be credited to their humor, which I describe as “fairly dark.” Did I say “fairly dark”? I meant deep-black-as-midnight dark…locked-in-a-metal-container-with-a-thick-blanket-over-it-and-put-in-a-lightless-basement dark…with-your-eyes-closed dark…and wearing-sunglasses dark.
My family members are the kind of people who say things that make others shudder in stunned, pin-drop silence, leaving rooms full of wide-eyed friends gleefully whispering to each other, “Did he just say what I think he said?”
Yeah, he did.
This is by no means a new reality. Ever since I was little, dark humor was popular in the house. While my parents had pretty dry senses of humor, the kids took it to the next level, outdoing each other with inappropriateness. Morbid, macabre, perverse, sinisterly shocking; this is what held us together in the face of adversity. Even today, the things we say to each other on the phone would get us locked up, thrown out of office, and otherwise rejected by society and stranded on deserted islands and – I might add – that response would be entirely fair and correct. Maybe the worst aspect of it all is that we are transplanting that to the next generation. The amount of times my 13-year-old son has said, “Oh my God, Dad!” is second only to the amount of times my wife has yelled, “Oh my God, Daniel!”
HIM: “I read that John’s dad died after a long illness.”
ME: “Yeah, my dad will never endure a long illness. If he sneezes once, I put a pillow over his face and push down.”
So, why dark humor? It demystifies taboos, strips monsters of their power, and allows us a moment or two of genuine relief from madness. As bad as my depression has been – and I’ve experienced more than 40 years of it– I have somehow, luckily, always found the magic of laughter within reach. Humor has saved me again and again, and I believe it can do the same for you.
Dark humor isn’t “mean”. It’s not racist or cruel, sexist or bullying. Dark humor is about taking away a sort of presumed dominance that a fear or a disease may have over you – the imaginary power we’ve given something. It’s laughing in the graveyard, thumbing your nose at superstitions, “dropping trou” and mooning that thing that others fear and run from – with their pants firmly buckled and zipped-up. It’s about gaining control of life and building real strength against whatever comes next.
HER: “So… Mary died.”
ME: “Yeah, I heard. Good news!”
ME: “Her chocolate cake was awful. I wish she would have died before Tim’s birthday last month. I’m still choking from that stuff.”
My family jokes about death. At funerals, we’re the ones telling funny, odd stories about the dearly departed, instead of morosely waiting for the buffet to open up. Especially in cases where the loved one was as “inappropriate” as we are, my family loves to muse about whether they might be the kind of spirit to haunt mischievously or perhaps a lazy ghost just hanging around on a cloud somewhere, watching us repeatedly do stupid things and calling us unprintable names.
And then the “good” people raise their eyebrows, and bellow, “You can’t say that!” “That’s not right!” “God will smite you!”
God will smite me? Why would God smite me? There are so many others who are far more smiteworthy. Smiting me is like smiting a teddy bear. Why would God smite a teddy bear? No, God and I have an understanding – I help with charities, donate money, and stop to assist people in trouble and, in return, He doesn’t smite me. It’s a business arrangement.
Dead people are so lucky. They never have to worry about finding a bathroom.
Embracing gallows humor works for me. It helps me with my depression and anxiety, and has long been the one thing upon which I can consistently rely. When I feel like I am spiraling down or even just starting to feel a little out of control, a quick bit of dark humor is often what I need to level me out. Yes, my depression is chemical in nature, but the ability of humor to “pull me out of my head” is sometimes just enough to pause my mind’s destructive default setting. The voices that undermine my successes and shake my confidence can be quieted by some beautifully inappropriate thoughts. Maybe I need to picture Death as a spoiled brat, upset that every pet he touches falls lifeless to the floor. “Lil’ Death has just killed his 378th goldfish.”
Thankfully, the dark humor doesn’t stop with my family. I have had the good fortune to surround myself with folks as “tastefully-challenged” as I am. Whether they’re from my school years, previous or current jobs, or groups where I volunteer, these friends seem to feel the same relief that I do when it comes to the jokes. Many of them deal with the horrors of life on a daily basis. They are police officers, firefighters, nurses, doctors, healthcare workers, and those who work with people suffering from drug/alcohol addiction, mental illness, dementia, homelessness, and other serious afflictions. They know the value of dark humor and how it can release the negative energies our bodies seem to store up, the ones that can increase our anxiety and depression if left unchecked.
This might seem alien to people who don’t deal often with tragedy and death. But when this is your daily reality, you need something to put a barrier between you and the horror. You can’t let it eat you alive or take over your life. You can’t give in to the darkness. By mocking it, by reducing its power, you can get through the day. It’s about protecting yourself, fighting off that which could intensify your depression, the things that will put a gun in your mouth. Just ask any cop about that.
There’s a story about three 95-year-old men bickering. One says, “I have a heart ailment, cancer, and I’m losing my eyesight.” The second one says, “I am paralyzed, can’t hear, my lungs are full of fluid, and my fingers are crippled.” They turn to the third one who is lying there, completely inert, his mouth open, making no sound. The second one turns to the first one and says, “Well, I guess Marvin wins.”
Of course serious illness is, well, serious, but the power we give to it concerns me. I have had depression and anxiety since I was an adolescent. After many years of a life surrounded by depression, anxiety, anger, drug/alcohol addiction, lies, and emotional/sexual abuse, the wide-eyed optimism of childhood was destroyed. I spent decades allowing it to break me down, completely unaware of what was happening to me and why. We didn’t call it “anxiety” or “depression.” You were weak. You needed to get over it. You had to grow up. It wasn’t until things had become so much worse, where I was actively avoided life and becoming unable to get through the day, that I finally sought help.
I was in my thirties when my therapist finally forced me to realize the truth in my diagnosis. For many, that would be a scary, worrisome, debilitating malady. At first, for me, it was. The fact that I had a mental illness was stunning, as was my need for medication. I had always thought medication was for “weak” people. I had been suicidal before and this made me concerned it would come back. I had spent days in bed and was agoraphobic, doing everything I could to run from life. But not too long after the medicine kicked in, the therapy seemed to make more sense and then things didn’t seem so frightening. Once the fear was gone, the funny returned.
Able to leap tall buildings if it was the only chance I had to survive…
Faster than a speeding irrational thought….
More powerful than that hateful voice in the back of my mind……
Look, down on the couch! It’s a lump! It’s a throw pillow! It’s a lazy schlub! No, it’s…
Once the funny returned, my depression and anxiety were now far less sinister. They were under control, not things that controlled me. As long as I was taking the meds and doing the work, they were sometimes even punchlines.
Taking illness too seriously or (God forbid) trying to control it all by myself without all manner of help is the real danger. Giving into it or giving up was the worst road to take. However, take the power out of it through humor mutes its influence and reduces its negative march through your head. The illness isn’t any less real, but its psychological impact is far less stinging. The hold it once had over me is lost, and hopefully that connection is forever removed. And if it isn’t, I’ll mock death a little more to rejuvenate myself.
“How many depressed people does it take to change a lightbulb?”
“Meh– who cares?”
“How many anxious people does it take to change a lightbulb?”
“I’m not doing it. I can’t. I could fall or electrocute myself. This is not good. I’m going to be sick.”
My beloved stepfather was diagnosed with cancer. I responded by becoming a recluse, taking on his illness myself, creating a belief in my head that I was suffering the same malady. I had anxiety attacks – one after the other.I knew I was sick. After a few days of this, my stepfather came to visit me. He sat down next to me and put his hand on mine. He said, “I’m so sorry I’ve done this to you.”
He had done this to me? I was ashamed and felt even worse, but in a different way. I felt guilty. He was the one who deserved the care and kindness. Maybe noticing my reaction, he said, “I know you worry about people. I should have thought of you and how you would react.” In one moment, I began to feel better. He was acknowledging my illness as a real one. He knew I was suffering out of my love for him. He could see the anguish of my struggle, how my mind had attacked me. His unforgettable kindness freed me somehow. His love was a gift, his acceptance; amazing.
When he and my mother were about to leave, she was ushering him from the house a little faster than he wanted He turned to her and said, “Darling, you should not rush me. I’ve got cancer, you know.” He turned and smiled at me, giving me a wink. Then he added; “Now wait, I’m onto something here. If we want a better seat at a restaurant, I can just tell the man, ‘Can we get a booth? I’ve got cancer.’ Or if I have to take the car in, I could say to the mechanic, ‘Could you fix my car first? I’ve got cancer.” It was the last thing I expected to hear and we all burst out laughing. The scenarios we came up with for which the retort, “I’ve got cancer” was the best response multiplied throughout the afternoon.
When my stepfather died, there was morbid humor at his Celebration of Life. Not a lot, since most people still seem uncomfortable with it, but enough so that we could honor him with true stories about the way he approached life. His honesty about the inconvenience of cancer and its treatment, the awful way he went from being this robust figure to a patient on the couch, even the way he apologized to me for having to carry him naked to his bed. I remember saying to him, “I think you having cancer is just your way of getting me to pick you up all nude and tuck you in.” He laughed and said, “Yes, well, that may be so.”
ME: “How’s the cancer treatment going?”
HIM: “Everything’s fine except for the Goddamn catheter.”
ME: “I know but there are some good things about them. If I pull hard enough, I can get you to do anything I want.”
So my suggestion to you is to feel free to laugh a little at the devil, to poke fun at Death. After all, crappy things are coming anyway so why not have a little giggle along the way? Anyway, Death is nothing more than a petulant little crybaby running around killing goldfish.