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Humour & illness


So the above video was on Britain's Got Talent - 14 year old Jack Carroll's 2 minute stand-up comedy audition. Comedians often struggle on these shows: to win over a crowd within this short timescale, or rather - to avoid being buzzed off by the judges within 10 seconds, is difficult. Jack did it though.

Jack has cerebral palsy. His humour was self deprecating and his routine largely about his condition. Rather than being awkward, as some might expect, he broke the ice and had everyone laughing instantly. His jokes were genuinely funny but also it was lovely to see him finding humour amidst the pain.

Jack's routine also tackled some taboos around illness - ie that we don't talk about them for fear of saying the "wrong" thing, and we certainly don't joke about them.

I constantly joke about my condition, which means that people around me feel they can too - which is good. To me, it really is a way of alleviating awkwardness but also breaking the ice, so people tend to feel more free to ask questions - which can only be a good thing.

It also helps me get through it all - to find the humour in this ridiculous situation, to keep smiling and laughing.

Within the first few months of passing out a lot and being in and out of a'n'e, I went to see a tutor about some work I needed to catch up on - and answered her question about how I was doing. I answered honestly, but slipped in an off-hand joke, as I guess I tend to do.

Her reaction surprised me. She told me the situation wasn't funny, she didn't find it funny and was really worried about me. It was odd. Usually we'd get on well - she understood and engaged with my sense of humour, but not today. She pushed her point until I was in tears.

For an intelligent woman, I couldn't understand how she didn't see this was a coping mechanism. She said I had to talk seriously about it, to get the information across. The thing is, I'd slipped in one joke, and she shut me down. If she'd let me, I would have carried on telling her how it was. Instead, I was in tears - which was tiring and unnecessary. Yes, she cared and was concerned - but attacking me about my way of coping and communicating through my illness was not helpful.

Also, tears at that moment should not have been a crucial indicator of me understanding the seriousness of my situation. If I never got upset or talked about things seriously, that'd be worrying - but I did. I talked about it with my mum and my close friends, in the comfort of my own home.

I cried a lot too - countless times after coming out of hospital, whether another long visit to a'n'e or a hopeless outpatients appointment. However, if I cried, or even suddenly became very serious, every time I talked about my situation - I would have been a wreck. What got me through that time, and still does, is maintaining my sense of humour.

Yes, humour is a coping mechanism, but it's also part of my personality. If I shut that down, no doubt I would have shut down too. Staying strong mentally was completely necessary - both for getting through my final year of university and doing the best I could, but also to keep positive rather than letting it get me down.

It runs in the family. My Grandad has the most brilliant sense of humour. He went to a doctor's appointment, and was asked to take a seat - so he picked up the chair and asked where he wanted it. He knew what he wasn't doing - he hasn't lost his marbles. He simply saw the opportunity for a joke and he took it.

Equally when he went to plan and pay for his funeral in advance, he found the humour in the darkness and was cracking jokes. Still, he got home and had a little cry. Difficult situations are made easier through finding the humour - it doesn't mean the individual doesn't understand or truly feel the effects of the situation.

That tutor also told me that my sense of humour meant I wouldn't be taken seriously in my chosen career path. I was in my final year of university, working so hard to keep up with work despite passing out everyday - and suddenly it was a personality trait that was going to hold me back?

This really frustrated me. I'm a strong believer in not suppressing who you are or where you're from.  Turns out at the interview for my current job, I did feel comfortable enough to make jokes with the panel. They didn't chuck me out for not being serious enough - they hired me.

Anyway I guess the question arises, if someone makes jokes about their own condition - does that mean you can too? I think it's a case of gaging the individual's attitude and humour and responding in relation to that. I'm open about my condition and make jokes - so others can too. If someone didn't talk about, let alone joke about something, probably best not.

Thinking back on Jack's audition - while the majority of his material was about his disability, it somehow also had the effect of making you forget about his condition.

When you imagine a disabled person, perhaps a certain image is conjured in your mind, and maybe that is accompanied by a feeling of sympathy, pity or perhaps admiration because they are brave. That tends to be the last thing someone like Jack would want. Yes, it's a horrible thing to live with - but what defines Jack, rather than his condition, is his incredible sense of humour.

So if you ever hear a joke in this context and it makes you feel uncomfortable, think about it this way: they are choosing humour over sadness, and potentially thinking of you - to make you feel better about the situation. They are also choosing to not be defined by their disability, and your ceasing up or criticising is counteracting that.

Ultimately, let's all just have a laugh. Oh and vote for Jack on Britain's Got Talent when the time comes, because he's a bloody brilliant comedian.