Bill Cosby once said, “Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.” Humor has been used to survive serious illnesses and live through terrible situations. Although it’s not one of the first things we talk about, most parents use humor to cope with the day to day chaos of parenting a child with mental health needs.
Survivors of similar experiences can often recognize each other. When you and another parent find something hilarious that others don’t, there’s a strong chance you’ve both lived through something much the same. You both are struck by the absurdity of the situation, understanding that no one else would believe it, unless they had also lived through it.
When our sons were younger, a friend and I used to share stories and commiserate. We would often remark, “I can’t believe he was so stupid!” One time my son took a note that a classmate had written about him that he didn’t want any one else to see. After school, he ducked into an alley in the town center, pulled out a lighter and set it on fire. Of course, a police officer walked by at that moment and he was given a warning. When we talked later, he told me he HAD to burn it, not rip or toss it and it had to be immediately. It didn’t occur to him not to set a fire in the town center. I called my friend and moaned, “I can’t believe he was so stupid.” A few days later she had a story to top mine. We ended up buying the URL for mychildisstupid.com, although we never ended up using it. No doubt there would have been some hysterical stories that topped either of ours!
We laugh about our children for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes, it’s because they are so darned funny. Sometimes it’s because they have such a hard time seeing the humor in life. Sometimes it’s because we can’t believe it, are gobsmacked by what happened or we can’t think of what else to do. So we laugh.
Research tells us that laughter is a wonderful thing. It boosts the immune system, releases endorphins and protects the heart. But most of us don’t laugh to increase our health. Raising a child with mental health needs is a roller coaster ride. There are good days and bad days. There are times that exhaust us, frighten us, frustrate us, anger us and sadden us. There are times that gladden us and encourage us as well. There are times when we feel incredibly lonely.
Humor is a way to share the experience. Humor can bring you closer to one another and confirm the comraderie of people who have been through the worst and lived to laugh about it. It creates a new language to share your experience that is free of labels, acronyms and pathology. It can be dark or droll, sarcastic or dry and express the variations of our lived experience.
Years ago, when I ran a support group, the mom of a nine year old boy used to attend regularly. Her son was alternately despondent and manic and they had not yet found much that helped him. Sometimes he saw things that weren’t really there. Through it all, though, she would tell stories of their week in a way that made all of us laugh. We were empathising with her and rooting for her each step of the way. One week, she came to the group and told us that the day before her son had run to her. “A stranger got in the house,” he said. “How do you know?” she asked him. He thought a moment and told her, “I was just in your room and there’s a strange man jumping up and down on the bed.” “Honey,” she replied, “I should be so lucky.”