revelatory comedy

On the 18th July 2018 I drove into Melbourne from Alice Springs to do a season of Melbourne Fringe (via Sydney Fringe) and to settle here after an assault in my day job left me depressed and unhappy.  This decision came after being in remote or overseas locations since 2005.  That’s not unusual for my profession.  I am an anthropologist by day.  In my 40’s I pursued what I had been afraid to all my life – being a comedian/writer/performer at every opportunity I can find.

I’m a variety type of human.  Some would say that’s because I am Autistic.  I think that’s accurate, I need novel ideas (and also more structure to pursue them than other humans, which a common contradiction in the Autistic experience).  But also, I am just easily bored.  But living back in Melbourne (last time I was four years old) has been more than transformative – opening up opportunities to be fully authentic on stage that is allowing me to be the same in life.

Art just doesn’t imitate life, it is life.  It makes you feel and do and change.  I am one of those people who still thinks comedy can be an artform.  I do skits, character and musical comedy with storytelling/narrative observation comedy woven in amongst it all.

I don’t perform as often as I would like.  I have some big sensory and social challenges to work around to get on stage, but once up there I love it.  Venue and performance accessibility is and always will be an issue for me, but I have carving my way regardless.

The last 12 months have been personally transformative, or rather, revelatory. I hold comedy 80% responsible for that.

I knew I would have to deal with culture shock.  The shock of coming from the remote Northern Territory to a city was one aspect.  But I had lived in a large Chinese city too, so that wasn’t the most of it.

What I found was that I wasn’t prepared for the changes it would prompt in me – that would allow me to be me.  You may recall a post where I had been diagnosed with depression just before I arrived in Melbourne.

I am happy to say I was not depressed, I was oppressing my true self.  That caused sporadic depression as not being authentic invariably does.  That’s not actually any rocket science really – but something so many people struggle with.

A kind of period of chaotic and complicated personal change took place in the last 12 months. This wasn’t a learning curve.  This was a learning mountain epic filmography, complete with crevices and dodgy theme music.

I knew I had to leave an mask behind when I came here, that Melbourne would have a much more accepting culture.   I had already started to drop the mask when I started doing comedy in 2016.  I fully accepted that the diagnosis of autism I had been grappling with (first mentioned to me in 2006, partial diagnosis for years until recently) and started to get my head around the fact it made me who I am – it didn’t make me less.

In my first ever comedy writing workshop, before my very first performance in Darwin I had a lightbulb moment. I was confronted with an exercise often done in comedy classes.  Two truths and a lie.  I did it well, but mainly because all of my stories about my life are weird.

My answers were:

  • I nearly married a Tunisian olive farmer during the second wave of the Arab spring revolution in 2011
  • I have just come back from living and working in China
  • I’ve been married three times

No one picked that I have only been married once. The other two are true.  My life and it’s funny stories made other people laugh and I love making people laugh.

I refuse to lie on stage.   I choose to embellish stories to get bigger laughs, but not lie.  In the process of finding material it has all come from my experience and research and knowledge combined.  Experiences such as being a late diagnosed autistic person, a late coming out queer (I actually outed myself on Channel 31 BentTV) as an ENBY-femme and gray asexual (I can hear some of you opening a Google tab…).

It’s not catharsis either, as some cynics have said to me.  It’s about me OWNING who I am and poking fun at world that dictates to us who we should be.  Plus I think the performance world is changing.  We are challenging non-disabled actors playing disabled parts.  We want real. That’s a good thing, not something to be cynically given a clinical label to.

There is part education though.  A fellow comedian once said “your comedy is like a TED talk, only funnier”.  I will take that.  That’s fine with me.

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Performing out and proud for “Wear it Purple” event at Hares and Hyenas – Produced by Teddy Darling. Photo by Margot Fink. Image description: Jacci standing on stage, arms raised, mid parody song, dressed in black with pride striped rainbow socks.

But putting my foot on stage for the first time prompted a wave of personal change for the better, but often through tumultuous times, like I never expected.

The mask has broken.  I am me on stage and increasingly more so than ever – off stage.

The comedy journey has been harsh and hilarious and helpful.  Sorry about the alliterations, it’s one of my autie quirks.

I refuse to do the low hanging fruit of comedy.  I aim to “punch up not punch down”, critiquing systems and the language of bigotry and prejudice.  If some think attacking bigotry and prejudice is punching down – then Google “false equivalence”.

So through four years or so of dabbling in comedy and several large-ish productions that I have written, produced and performed in (including the recent Melbourne Fringe opening night variety showcase “Tickets on Myself“).

A couple of thoughts why performance has set me free:

  1. Somewhat paradoxically, the opportunity to lie on stage (which I chose not to take) freed me of expectations to be other than myself.  Yep, you read that right.  Whilst I have never been described as fake, suddenly I was presented with something that I realised I had been doing all my life – and no longer wanted to do.  To stop lying to myself about who I was (we call this masking as a survival technique for Autistic people, but it’s nearly always harmful to us) and be myself.
  2. The influence of some amazing performers I have met along with way who are completely comfortable with who they are.  Some of these people are big names, some are not.  But none of them subscribe to “fake it until you make it”.  They ascribe to developing confidence, self-belief and bravery, which is something quite different, in my humble opinion.

Up until six months ago I was scared.  Recently I have found that holding the stage made me brave. So I went all out and revealed my true self. And it feels fucking marvellous.  

I need to give the incredible Nelly Thomas a huge shout out.  You may remember my post about her new book about neurodiversity, Some Brains. I was very privileged to have her as my Melbourne Fringe Navigate Program mentor.

The weekend before Tickets on Myself, she reminded and encouraged that me I only had one job – to bring joy.

And I did.  I hope I made you proud Nelly.  Thank you – you believing in me still makes me tear up (in a good way).

Finally, I remember being in this massive t-shirt market in Guiyang in China in 2014.  There was a wall covered in hundreds of the one t-shirt slogan, “Be Yourself”.  I remember it made me laugh heartily out loud.

The irony was here were mass produced t-shirt proclamations were telling us something the world least expects of us.

Because if the world did give us permission to fully be ourselves, the t-shirt industry would go broke.

After the world stripped me of the safety to be me, the comedy stage gave me myself back.  There is no going back now and that’s a beautiful thing.

I hope everyone puts down the t-shirt slogan and finds their own personal comedy stage, figuratively and literally, to be who they are, not what the world expects them to be.

In Defence of Joy

There are dozens of self help gurus, books and videos telling the world to do what we love.

Maybe this is my autistic thing, but I’m puzzled why someone might need someone to tell them that.

However, the irony is that for AS youth the messaging is somewhat contradictory.

Their joy for something is reduced to an “obsession” or “special interest”.

It’s societal gaslighting.

I remember my interest in fascist regimes (prompted by watching The Sound of Music over and over again) – was looked upon as a very strange obsession. Yet knowing everything I could gave my life meaning – and JOY!

My love of language (and music) that counters hate eventually led to work in project management and political social justice fields as an anthropologist.

Is it because we are classed as different that we don’t “deserve” to have that joy fostered into skills? Is this just reserved for neurotypical adults – in the books consumed in million dollar self help industries encourage the rest of the world to do?

I was lucky to have a parent who encouraged me to follow my interests instead of what everyone else wanted for me.

Yet, because AS young people often show signs of knowing what we love so early, this seems to be detracted from by some (not all) educators and parents. Sometimes it’s because they think we don’t have room for the rest of the curriculum. Maybe the child is more important than rigid adherence to curriculum?

And yes, I do understand the importance of curriculums.

Are we meant to just go down the path of lots of general knowledge and unhappiness and not knowing our joy because then we’ll be “normal”? I reject this type of normal.

Then there is footage of youth being restrained and dragged down hallways for not conforming. This madness is not the fault of the young person with AS, but of a system trying to turn people into consumers of self help products.

If “normal” means I am meant to be searching for meaning in books written by people who’ve done what I’ve always done (found joy in focussed interests) – then isn’t that a wait of my resources and energy?

Why is there then an apparent double standard when it comes to AS young people? To anyone really?

Because I’ve looked at the books, videos and talks and they all say the same thing:

Find what gives you joy and do it. Make a career out of that joy or something related to it.

Not exactly rocket science. Often AS young people are blessed with what the self help books are selling at an early age.

Whilst I doubt that this is possible for everyone, I’m sure that aspiring to it, is not a terrible thing.

Maybe, just maybe, if we seriously created industries of joyful meaning from birth onwards – not only for marginalised AS children and people – but for everyone, the world would be a much happier, more peaceful world.

 

*I have used identity first language in the majority as is my right as an Aspie woman. I understand that some carers, experts and parents prefer to use person first language and that is their choice. However take away my autistic identity and I am not me – and I’m proud of who I am. So thus I prefer identity first language.

Autistic Employment Collateral #1

This is the first of a series of posts about the aspects of something I call “Autistic Employment Collateral” and its impact. I hope it’s useful and that the parents of AS young people and AS young people find it validating. I will examine three traits each post through my own experiences and offer the practical strategies I have learned to use.  *nb: all Autistic people are different, but hopefully some of my experience might help others with may have experienced similar.

The last five years I have shifted from denial to acceptance of who I am – and moved beyond the “collateral” that the world claimed from me. I have stress related illness (including blood pressure) from masking myself to make the world feel more comfortable with my autism and I am done with it.  I will do my best not to mask anymore, unless of course I don’t feel safe, and then it may come back up.

I have also recovered from a trauma and associated brain injury that means I have a complex set of challenges I manage daily. I am tired of not talking about it and the world bullying me into a being just a commodity and not a human being first.

Happy to be a human being and a commodity, but on my own terms.

I also need to say these are Autistic (AS) traits. They can’t be turned off but can be harnessed into skills, but they are not deficits.

Many AS people are tired of being “normalised” as though the “unicorn” of normal is what we are meant to be modelled against.  Unicorns are cute, but I don’t want to be one. I would wear unicorn slippers. Probably to work too. But I digress.

I am Jacqueline (Jacci or Jacqui), depending on what context you know me in.

I am autistic. Here’s an example of some the collaterals that the world has taken from me that I have tried to mask and now refuse to mask –

1. Eye contact drains me, and prolonged eye contact distresses me. Yet the western cultural world tells me to look people in the eyes. If I don’t use eye contact, people think I am being dishonest or shifty, when my senses are just overwhelmed and drained by looking at you in the eyes.

When I studied Anthropology, I was delighted to learn that not all cultures think eye contact is a good thing. I ended up being quite comfortable with working with Aboriginal Australians and having awesome conversations where little eye contact was had.  Without the aggression of forced eye contact, the conversations were so meaningful and rich. I dropped the eye contact mask and I now tell people that I am not good with eye contact.

What I say to people now is, “I may look at the floor, or over your shoulder when we talk. But I am listening to you. In fact this is how I listen to you best”.

2. I see the world and process information visually (in pictures), in 3D detail in my mind’s eye first, then I convert them into words. Yet people think my drawing and doodling is distraction or that I am being rude. In recent years my career has become about helping organisations to represent complex systems and charts and visual representations. That is my autistic superpower.

In the past I was given minute taking roles because people thought I was good with words.  There are people who are great at minutes, but I need to record the meeting and do it later.  I am good with words, words are my passion, but it doesn’t start with words. It starts by images and a lot of them. I sort them out using words, arrows, shapes and I process the relationships between the images and through the words I hear or read visually.

But the words don’t come first and often I have frustrated employers who don’t understand that I need to understand the relationships of things before I write and that I am not just a “scribbling monkey” for their own personal use. I need to walk, move, draw, map the ideas before I can write them.

I once was bullied by an employer because I needed to walk the hall and draw the work before I wrote. They thought I was wasting their time and that I didn’t want to work or that I was “slacking off”. When they forced me to stay in my office and “just write”, I nearly ended up hospitalised with mental health issues.

In recent years I have learned to say to employers and even at interview; “I am a visual thinker. I can break down systems into images and representations and words for you, like you have seen in my previous work, but in that order, not the other way around. I need to walk and draw and mind map before I write and design”.

3. I do amazingly well at detail and logic and can focus on tasks for long periods, but people think I am being harsh or critical or nit-picky or, in the extreme example, they “diagnose” me with depression or anxiety. I see the world in complex ways. This is not a problem. I can relax. I know how to relax. I just don’t need somebody who isn’t autistic telling me how to fit in with their way of seeing the world.

In fact, let me distil this down. When you try and force me to lose the detail, you are telling me I am less. You are turning me into a problem. I do then start to develop mental health problems – panic attacks primarily. These are such that I must withdraw from the world and take time off, which can put me at a financial disadvantage and have long term negative health impacts.

The other issue is like the one at #2 in that I get shoved into an office and get too much detail thrown at me, because I am good at it. But it takes its toll and I need to walk, draw and talk to people to stem the constant flow of information in my head – unless it gets too tiring. Think of the matrix, yet you can’t unplug without conscious effort and to seek quiet or nature or meditate or engage in a mind stilling exercise that best works for the individual concerned.

But my mental health problems are caused by the world insisting I should “dumb it down” and that my expression of detail is unwanted. It is a rejection of my very person, my very humanity. When I employed for my detailed analysis and supported, these mental health issues abate, and I operate far more efficiently.

Now, I have learned to say to employers, “I can process a lot of detail for long periods. I can then analyse and distill it down for various audiences very quickly. However it takes a toll on me and I need to break up my duties so it doesn’t exhaust me.  If I am allowed to do this, you will get large amounts of clear and precise work from me. So I am not ‘slacking off’, I am processing.”

Illustration of an isolated line art comic balloon with  a broken shieldFinally, let me conclude with this.

The mask is off. Women with autism have exemplary masking ability. That is because the world expects different standards of us as women to begin with and we are therefore better at it.

The mask is not a lie. The mask is a way of coping with a world that turns us into medical problems rather than see that our “issues” are superpowers when harnessed and valued correctly.

I will not put my mask back on. I have smashed it. It is gone.