Is Humor My Drug of Choice?

By Amy Dresner 04/10/15

Nobody wants to attend your pity party but everybody will witness a good car wreck.


They say a character defect is a coping mechanism that has stopped working. I’m beginning to wonder if humor might have accidentally fallen into that bin for me. I’m seeing my attempt (granted, usually successful) at humor as not only a way to avoid intimacy but also a way to mitigate feelings or completely avoid them altogether. I’ve realized humor is my drug and the good and bad news is that it's free, highly addictive and everybody likes me better when I’m on it. 

Even Gandhi said, “If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.” And I couldn’t agree more. I’ve had some rough and tumble patches in my life and I’ve gotten through by taking my pain and making it funny…to me and other people. I used to do it on stage and now I do it (too much) in meetings and hopefully, occasionally, in my writing. Humor helps me reframe things and gives me some emotional distance. Nobody wants to attend your pity party but everybody will witness a good carwreck especially if they can laugh at the bloodshed. But I’ve begun to notice something odd.  

Example 1: Months ago, I was dating this much younger intense musician and Burning Man enthusiast. Unsurprisingly, he was really into vulnerability and intimacy and truth and all that hippy shit. Whenever he’d start to get really deep, looking at me with disturbingly unbreaking eye contact, I’d make some stupid joke. And eventually, he called me out on it: “How come any time I try to be serious and sincere, you try to be funny. It seems like a deflection.” BOOM. It wasn’t “like a deflection.” It was a deliberate, if reactive, attempt to dilute the moment because I was feeling uncomfortable and didn’t want to be seen so closely.

Example 2: Many people in my home group have noticed that the more upset I am, the funnier I am. The more painful my share, the louder and more hilarious I get. It’s not that I’m not honest and raw, more that I shield myself from any true emotional nudity with outrageous details and loud impressions. The idea of truly expressing my pain without jokes makes me feel uncomfortably naked. And although everybody might not get the full extent of my pathos, at least they won’t roll their eyes or squirm uncomfortably in their seat as yet another sober chick cries in a meeting.

Example 3: A program friend ended up in the psych ward recently. A few of us from her home group went to visit. I’ve been 5150’d four separate times in the last eight years. I’ve used some of the details from those horrific stays as material for articles and even stand-up. It NEVER occurred to me that I would be triggered going as a visitor. I thought the opposite: “How great that I finally get to be a visitor instead of the person in green pants and sticky socks with unwashed hair doing puzzles?” But as soon as I walked into the lobby the stench hit me: old urine, institutionalization, lunacy. I handed over my keys, signed in and as I got a visitor name tag, the room swirled about me. I steadied myself, tears welling.

A nurse punched in a code and heavy steel doors opened. We were escorted through a sterile hallway into an elevator. When the elevator doors opened on the upper floor, to the left was an ominous restraining board on wheels with belts. My stomach lurched. Another barren linoleum hallway and we were in the unit. A fat older man in rubber gloves sat at a desk overseeing the chaos. Fluorescent lighting buzzed and cast an eerie evil glow everywhere. Overmedicated patients in gowns sat in front of a loud blaring television, mouths agape. Childlike drawings were taped to the walls. Metal grates covered every window.

And then like a tsunami, memories of all my trips to the "Nut Ward" flooded over me in succession, a fast visual montage with a gutting emotional soundtrack:

The schizophrenic woman with the goatee. The Jewish doctor who thought I was too smart for my own good. My own wrists healing from knife slashes. My hysterical screaming into a dirty pay phone. The styrofoam cups. The shuffling. Air heavy with dust and delusion.  

My father, Hal Dresner, comedy-writer extraordinaire said, “It’s definitely a form of denial. You think you’ve gotten through it because you’ve gotten a laugh.”


Amy Alkon, the science-based syndicated columnist and author, most recently of "Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck." had this to say:

“Addiction involves the avoidance of uncomfortable feelings—so humor can be unhelpful, even damaging (if it becomes a habitual way to escape) in terms of the need to feel your feelings instead of ducking them. Humor can be a way for people who are resilient to cope with tough situations in their lives but it can also be misused. It allows people to tell a story about something—to reframe it in a way so they have an easier time dealing with it. But "easier" isn't always healthier. And if you're a person with an addiction who needs to feel your feelings instead of ducking into a habit of avoiding them, humor might be a bad thing. And it comes with these fringe benefits, like making other people laugh and feeling good about that. It can have an allure because of that that adds to the desire to use it as a coping strategy.”


I like Allen Klein’s quote: “Humor does not diminish the pain - it makes the space around it get bigger.” That’s how I feel. I’ve never felt like my jokes numbed my pain, only that it allowed me to make it into an amusing story I could tell so that I wasn’t actually IN it as much. 

In defense of being strung out on humor, I delved into some scientific research.

“Psychophysiology Laboratory demonstrated that, in the face of stressful imagery, comedy is a more effective coping strategy than solemnity – and positive, optimistic humor is more effective than cynicism.” 

In the 2011, Cognition & Emotion, Stanford postdoctoral scholar Andrea Samson and psychology professor James Gross wrote this: "If you are able to teach people to be more playful, to look at the absurdities of life as humorous, you see some increase in well-being.” 

So, yes, humor does actually help control emotions and manage them, not as well as heavy narcotics or brown liquors, but I’ll take what I can get. 

“Researchers believe that changing one’s perspective to perceiving life humorously makes it possible to maintain distance away from negative situations and emotions.” (Martin, Kuiper, Olinger and Dance, 1993). 

But is “distance” a good thing? Maybe in the moment so you can cope with being arrested while you’re high on nine OxyContin or in a lockdown psychiatric ward with people who think they’re getting secret messages from aliens. But what about after? If you haven’t fully felt your feelings, are you ever really free of them? Or is that some gestalt therapeutic bullshit?  

Sometimes, I feel like some of my “negative emotions and situations” eventually catch up with me when I’m not looking and I’m suddenly overwhelmed with old trauma that I thought I’d dealt with. It’s like knocking a scab off a wound that hasn’t really healed and now is actually a bit infected—sentimental blood and puss just come pouring out at the most inopportune time. It reminds me of when I had my first grand mal seizure from meth after being up for umpteen days. I came to on a gurney in an ambulance.

“Have you done any drugs tonight?” the tech asked me. “Yes, obviously some really shitty ones because here I am.” Sure…clever but truthfully I was shocked and fucking terrified so I immediately (if unconsciously) donned my comedic armor.

It’s easier to say “Hey, my adult acne has really cleared up. You’d like me better now,” than to be real and say, “Hey, I miss you.” One is tough and nonchalant and a sarcastic escape route. The other is putting your heart and guts on a pewter platter and serving it up to a possibly psychotic hungry cannibal. 

We’ve all been on the receiving end of humor that seemed at best, ill-timed, and at worst, insensitive. Like when you’re trying to emotionally connect to a new beau by sharing a painful experience and they come back with some glib comment. When that’s followed by an “I’m serious.” They always counter with “I’m just kidding.” Or the even more annoying, “I’m just trying to have some fun.” Yes, please laugh while I recount my trauma. Being bound and gagged in that guy’s trunk for four hours was HILARIOUS. You’re right! My bad.

Granted, I’ve had worse coping mechanisms, as you all know. And I know there are better ones like journaling (barf), exercise and meditation. So humor is not the worst in my “I don’t want to feel” arsenal but I’m beginning to think there should be a new 12-step program for comedy writers and stand ups. Let’s say “Jokers Anonymous?"

Amy Dresner is a columnist at The Fix.

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