Looking for a Laugh
I’m not entirely sure when it happened, but the phrase “get the dog dressed” features so frequently in my day to day that it no longer even registers as out of the ordinary. As a tax paying, grown adult with his own self-proclaimed, wholly unsubstantiated, “world famous” scrambled eggs recipe, I happily spend a pre-portioned amount of my life dressing a mardy Boston Terrier in a knitted Stegosaurus hoodie. It never fails to make me smile, plus proves helpful in differentiating between which end is which. We all, in 2020, have the luxury of defining ourselves by the parameters in which we choose. While these progressive steps offer mobility for so many who are often marginalised, a way to challenge the assumptions of who they are and who they can be, it also presents us with a new set of unique problems. Who are you meant to be, when you don’t know who you are? So we look to others to define our edges. To strangers in the park, I am the chubby lunatic with the stone faced dino-dog, a role which I’m happy enough to fulfil as long as possible. Truth is though, I am that person for a fraction of my life. This can be seen most widely when observing people’s self-representation online. With the advent of social media, you can present yourself as who you want to be and not necessarily who you are. Summarising yourself, your wishes and goals into a social media profile is like doodling an autobiography in the margins of the page; it can never truly represent the full breadth of who you are, warts and all; only how you wish yourself to be seen. It’s like trying to fly a kite inside a broom cupboard. My job in hospitality and making people laugh has always been the currency with which I bank my own self-worth. As a child, I would announce myself with ostentatious but tasteful drag performances in my grandparent’s living room. As soon as I could legally drink, I performed standup comedy for the first and only time. My opening gambit was “I’ve always wanted to be a standup comedian, but I was afraid that people would laugh at me” and judging from the dead silence that punctuated the room I clearly had nothing to worry about. Laughter defines the person I am and acts as the engine with which I navigate the world. I have always - in some capacity - worked in hospitality. My career anchors my sense of self-worth, and I have profited from this in friendship, experience and happiness. I know there are numerous faster, cleaner, smarter, round-building-ier bartenders than me and that is fine; I have always made a concerted effort to learn, adapt and put the ingredients in the tin according to their financial value. I’ve accepted that I’ll never be the fastest gun in the West. As long as I could make the people in front of me smile, it was a job well done and outwardly I was worthwhile. But rightly or wrongly, when nose-to-nose with uncertainty I default to humour as reflex. Just look at the paragraph previous; I’m writing this article because for a long while, I was treading water, up to my neck in the darkness of depression. But, as a knee-jerk reaction, I’ve tried to make you, a person I’ll never meet, laugh; by calling myself fat and making you imagine my dog looking like a dick. My girlfriend knew that I was depressed well before I could come to terms with it. I’ve asked her about it since. She wrinkled her nose and smiled in a way that spoke of past sadness. She recalled that she realised as soon as “you stopped trying to make people laugh.” ‘God, I must be insufferable to be around’ I thought; but she was right. You can make a Negroni when you’re depressed, I found that out. Something about the systemic processes of building mixed drinks is immutable. There is a demonstrably right way to operate, prescriptive movements repeated over the course of a night. Over the course of a week. No middle ground, no interpretation; just process. This couldn’t be undone by the niggling sense of hopelessness that crept across my life outside of building the next round. I wore my denial and I worked in it. I would flash people the inevitable falsehood of a smile as I pushed their drinks towards them. At the time I felt ashamed by my inability to properly emote. At this point in my life real joy came as naturally to me as flight does to a pig. I was fulfilling the motions of my work to the highest standard and therefore, in my mind my self-worth was unsullied. I was still a good bartender and by the skew whiff internal logic of depression and denial, a fully working human person. Depression is interesting in the same fatalistic way playing with a loose tooth is. It is the subjective experience of objective reality. It’s universal and somehow fundamentally personal. As someone who relies on humour as others do on clean water, I didn’t deal with it very well. I didn’t pick myself up because I couldn’t, or more truthfully, refused to see that I had fallen down in the first place. That’s the story you’ll hear the most; some sorry soul who refuses to acknowledge the reality of their situation. What you hear less, partly because of how difficult it is to articulate, is how it feels to be truly, deeply depressed. It’s like hearing your voice being played back to you and saying, “that’s not me is it?” I understood depression as unhappiness in stereo. Misery in a hat. That it had empirical grounding in something I previously experienced and understood. None of it comes close and by that same token, I cannot speak the language of other people’s experience. You can’t be a tourist in other people’s souls. For me, it was a sustained unfeeling; a dull ache of nothing in particular. The looming sense that someone had snipped at the wires that connected me to my emotion and to my ultimate humanity. It isn’t easy to be lost and feel so agonisingly empty in a room full of people enjoying themselves. Caught in a regress of shattered-selfworth, making drinks by regiment for no-one in particular; praying to disappear, that no-one would look at you. Emotion taps into the deepest faculty of what makes people human. It’s right next to the part of the brain that intermittently wakes up to ask “Did you leave the oven on?” or without provocation sings “Shakira, Shakira!”. To stand straight and face the enormity of “it” takes qualities I didn’t, and may never, possess. I admire the people who can and have. Other people helped me. Other people made me laugh. They helped me make some tough decisions. They were patient. Choices that flew in the face of the accumulated sense of importance I had placed on bartending. I left my business. I had to stop caring about shiny plates and unimaginative lists. I realised that defining myself by the brush-strokes of those who were already acting as pundits in my sadness could never bring consolation or happiness. The idea I once had, that depression is a binary experience that can switch on and off, is now a shortsighted memory. I’m still haunted by a tingling sense of dread that invades my mind if I think too hard. But, I was led by the hand into realising, that “it”, whatever “it” means to you, isn’t easy. My obligation towards bartending, the next round, the hours, the drinking, the calloused emotional immaturity wasn’t a talismanic example of pride. I wasn’t a member of a bartending higher order; I was paralysed by the fear of being pointless. That at the end of it all I’d still have nothing to show for my time. If I could take anything away from this, it is that we all owe an obligation to ourselves. That none of it matters. It is just some drinks. It is just some jokes. You can have a choice in what defines you. That doesn’t mean you won’t struggle. It’s ok to get it wrong. It’s ok to feel lost. Listen to the people who care. Now go and call your mum, or hug your partner or dress your dog up. You deserve to.
Originally published Discard Issue 1 Artwork by Rebekkah Dooley