Learning to laugh alone

Cameron Chomyn sits on the front steps of the Artesian in Regina, Sask. The Artesian is a place Chomyn is often found performing comedy or other theatrical shows. Photo by Mattea Columpsi.

 

THE ROOMMATE THAT NEVER LEFT

In order to have perfect 20/20 vision, Cameron Chomyn wears square, black frames with a hefty prescription, but in this moment his glasses sit bodiless on the wooden coffee table beside him.

His eyes, of the usual brown, stare forward at the blurred ceiling above him. His hands, sweaty to the touch, rest softly atop his chest with his fingers interlaced, his thumbs playing with the third button of his plaid fleece shirt.

When he stands straight his body extends to a whopping 6’4”, but in this moment he lays horizontal with his feet dangling ever so slightly off the edge of the gray sofa. His body is used to not fitting proportionately to the average couch.

With a twitch of his coarse mustache he ponders the question posed by his therapist. His right hand glides upward to scratch his tousled chestnut hair and he nervously bites at the chapped layer of skin on his bottom lip. His thoughts race backward like an old VHS tape.

“It was the first time I realized the world doesn’t stop when you’re sad,” said Chomyn, now 27, as he reflects on the past image of his grade eleven self.

Chomyn remembers the day he sat in the rear of a black hearse wearing the suit he didn’t have time to dry-clean between both funerals. Stopped at the red light, he watched as the world continued in its usual hustle and bustle – but he stood still. This was his moment of reckoning.

“Both my grandparents died a month apart,” said Chomyn. “It was the first time I’ve experienced death. I wanted to recover and mourn, but everybody around me was moving and I couldn’t pause it. I had to keep moving too.”

The boogieman that lived under his bed as a child had grown up to become a different monster; it packed up its belongings and moved into the vacant room of pink matter in his mind. He refers to it as the “shitty roommate” he never wanted – and it never left.

“I hit a real slump,” said Chomyn. “I was this bubbly, funny person that loved making people laugh. Then I just stopped talking. Months after I was having these dark intrusive thoughts of wanting to die or kill myself, and I started to express some of that to friends – that my will to live was very low.”

During a past Christmas Eve, the sound of the Chomyn household phone echoed throughout the house. Everything Chomyn hid from his parents would no longer be kept a secret. His mother, Cindy Chomyn, left the house in a hurry, and time halted.

 

THE CHAT OVER COFFEE

“We met for coffee and his friend reached across the table and showed me her phone and the text messages,” said Cindy Chomyn.

She remembered feeling un-surprised by the bubbles of conversation appearing before her.

“I was more shocked at the fact that it was real for him,” she said. “We really hadn’t been addressing it other than knowing that something was there. So it really, really became real at the moment, and it was heartbreaking. We were concerned.”

Cindy reflected reminiscently, describing her sweet baby boy as an even-keeled child with a discreet temper. She remembers seeing signs of her son’s depression slowly unraveling around 15-years old.

“I had known he’d been struggling for a couple months,” said Cindy. “Prior to that phone call I had a few conversations with the teachers at school. They expressed their concern because Cam was no longer the happy-go-lucky boy; there was a dark cloud over him.”

As Cindy learned about her son’s mental state over coffee, Chomyn anxiously waited for her car to pull into their driveway –  he knew exactly what was brewing. When she arrived home later that evening, those tough conversations were had.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, depression affects one in eight Canadians at some point in their lives and is the leading cause of suicide.

Doctors in white coats confirmed Chomyn’s prognosis: severe depression and mild anxiety, and what Chomyn believes to be a dash of abandonment trauma, with a sprinkle of personality disorder. For an outsider, it is a recipe for hitting the big, red panic button.

“Back in the day there was such a stigma,” explained Chomyn. “I was scared I’d get rushed to the hospital. I think it’s hard for parents to admit that their child is very sad.

“Part of me is still trying to protect them in the sense of not opening too much, and My Good Buddy Depression was the first time they really saw what my thoughts were.”

Chomyn always had a love for entertaining and connecting with people. Cindy recalled a moment in grade six during a junior improv show when her son had the entire room laughing from a skit. It was in that moment she knew he had found his passion, “You could see it on his face,” she explained.

Chomyn stands on the stage of the Artesian and looks onto the auditorium of empty seats. Photo by Mattea Columpsi.

 

THE COMEDIAN WITH THE SAD FACE

During university, Chomyn found a brief relief from his mental health through comedy and improv. Creative outlets were his medicine, a temporary spoonful of laughter and a pill of sought-out validation to ease his hurt.

He understands his addictive relationship with comedy can be unhealthy at the best of times, but it’s a fleeting chance for him to shed his skin like a snake – to step out of the body that he greatly hates.

“Performing was a chance to not be myself for a few hours,” said Chomyn. “I was always stuck in my own head, and I always felt sad.

“Performing helped, but I recognize that was a bit unhealthy because I depended too much on the stage to cure me.”

Written by Chomyn for the Regina Fringe Festival in 2019, My Good Buddy Depression was intended to personify his intrusive thoughts and spark a conversation about mental health.

The play introduces Chomyn’s depression as ‘Dee’, a really shitty roommate who moved in one day and the process of learning to cope with each other.

“The play was a way to share how I speak to myself and have people understand the power and weight words hold,” explained Chomyn. “I think comedy and laughter have a very cool way of letting people’s guards down.

“We built so much laughter within the play that people let their guards down and were really invested. Near the end, we started throwing in more serious stuff and I think that really helps paint the picture of my life.”

Katie Abramovic, a close friend of Chomyn, played the role of Dee.

“We had to talk about the nitty-gritty details and all the hard things,” said Abramovic, who explained Chomyn wrote the character of Dee with her in mind.

“To know he trusted me enough to play this role and bring it to life was really special.”

Abramovic explained there was never hesitancy to ask personal questions to help her capture the character.

“I felt lucky Cam and I could have an open dialogue,” said Abramovic. “It was challenging because I care deeply for Cam.

“Even though I knew he struggled, to hear those more intense details was sad because he’s a dear, dear friend of mine. It was special to know he wrote the story not only to represent himself, but to represent this universal experience so many people go through.”

My Good Buddy Depression generated a wave of positive response.

“A lot of people reached out and told me the play allowed them to open up to other people about their struggles,” said Chomyn.

“So many people found connections and were able to pinpoint moments in their life connected to their own mental health, or it allowed them to understand how mental health might affect someone else in their life.”

One comedian, Maria Bamford, explained in an interview with MentalHelp how comedy can be a tool for exploring mental health and other struggles; often it’s more than just the comedians who relate, but the audience who shares in the comic’s vulnerabilities. Bamford reiterated, “Comedy creates a space for people to laugh and let their guard down in a safe environment.”

After the unexpected death of Robin Williams sent shock waves through the world, people considered if there indeed was a universal link between humor and mental health.

Although there is no scientific evidence on the relationship between humor and mental health, some researchers like Gordon Claridge, a retired psychologist from the University of Oxford, collect and observe data to better understand male comedians and their personalities.

A recent publication by Claridge surveyed 523 comedians and compared them to a control group. Claridge found, “The creative elements needed to produce humor are strikingly similar to those characterizing the cognitive style of people with psychosis – both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.” Claridge added, “Comedians may use their act as a form of self-medication.”

With no agreeable consensus to the varying theories, one certainty does remain: mental health is relentless and can impact anyone, even those who bring so much magic and joy to the world.

Chomyn sits in the ‘green room’ backstage. Entertainers are found in this room prior to a performance. Photo by Mattea Columpsi.

 

THE MAN WHO LEARNED TO LAUGH AGAIN

Learning to understand his thoughts has been a rollercoaster of surging highs and sunken lows, but on this ride, Chomyn discovered that his thoughts can, in fact, be humorous.

“It’s been important for me to find the relationship of how funny my mental health can be for me sometimes, which is not for everyone,” said Chomyn. “Sometimes I think the whole world hates me, but that’s insane. I haven’t met the whole world and it’s funny my head tells me that.

“I am starting to recognize how false intrusive thoughts can be.”

When he was on the stage, it was his safe haven, a place where he could quiet his mind from telling himself he wasn’t important. He held on to these moments, performing more and more, but then the pandemic hit. There were no more shows.

“I was already about three to four months into therapy and the one thing I mentioned was I hated always being alone,” said Chomyn. “I couldn’t handle it.

“I learned I needed personal time. I needed to laugh on my own and that was something I’ve never been able to do.”

With the help of the pandemic and Netflix’s “New Girl”, Chomyn found moments of reflection and laughing, alone.

“When you watch a show by yourself you won’t laugh as much as if you watch with someone else, because the laughter will always bounce off each other,” he said. “I learned I could have those bellowing laughs you would with all your friends, but by myself.”

As others struggled to cope with the isolation of the pandemic by discovering new fitness routines or baking sour dough bread, Chomyn was conquering a fear and fostering self-love and self-care.

Part of his therapy homework is to create art for himself, not necessarily sharing it, but appreciating the writing he generates.

“I can’t rely on others’ validation my whole life,” said Chomyn. “I spend a lot of time just writing for myself, whether it be stories, TV shows, or movie scripts and just working with ideas and having fun.

“I understand it might not make it out to the world, but as long as I can look at it and think it’s brilliant, then that’s a big step for me.”

A friend for almost 10-years, Cole Nicolson described Chomyn as a “private person,” and someone who led the charge of bringing awareness to mental health in the improv community.

“I don’t think he ever wanted to be the face of anything,” said Nicolson. “It sounds contradictory because he’s somebody where a lot of his life has been defined by performing and being in front of people, but he doesn’t really like the spotlight or being the centre of attention.

“I think there’s a big stigma of being a man and being open and emotional, and that is something I think he struggles with, and I do too. It was cool to have a role model of somebody willing to open themselves up like that publicly, especially when I know how hard that is for him to do.”

Men’s mental health is a silent crisis. Bayshore Healthcare explains men are taught to be, “tough, stoic and ‘manly,’ rather than encouraged to talk about their emotions or show vulnerability. Men are also less likely to seek help, instead suffering in silence or turning to destructive coping strategies such as substance abuse and risky behaviour.”

For Nicolson, Chomyn’s vocalization about his mental health has made him more open to share his personal experience through art too.

“I think [Chomyn advocating for mental health] it sort of set the tone,” said Nicolson. “It’s a tight-knit community and I think it made people feel more comfortable sharing their stories, and also realizing everybody’s story is different.

“It’s nice to know you are not alone. When you see somebody else communicate what they’ve gone through with art, I think that can be pretty powerful.”

Chomyn believes a lot of people who struggle with mental illness flock to the theatre community because of its love and acceptance.

“People who are feeling unaccepted or are struggling in life will step on stage with people who build them up,” said Chomyn. “I think the misfits and those struggling come to this art form because they need that acceptance, they need that build up factor after being broken down for so long.

“I think everyone needs a creative outlet of some sort. It just so happens a lot of sad people find improv and comedy.”

Chomyn practices a comedy skit on the stage of the Artesian, a second home for him. Photo by Mattea Columpsi.

 

THE FLIGHT PATH FORWARD

At the end of My Good Buddy Depression, Chomyn portrayed a segment of self-realization. Chomyn, who no longer wants Dee around, recognizes that neither will ever go away and they will need to learn to co-exist together.

“I think in life we measure everything by end goals,” said Chomyn. “Like by the end of the week, by the end of the month, when this is finished, when I’m done my laundry, that we hold so much to hoping one day we will be completely fixed and that’s when we’ll know. But, I know this is very much a lifelong journey.

“I’m understanding I will always be sad, but there are ways to change that for the better. There will be high moments, there will be low moments, but I can work with the thoughts in my head and find a better path for dealing with that.”

For Chomyn, one of the biggest lessons he’s learned is to make himself laugh before others. He refers to it as the airplane analogy.

“It’s assessing yourself before helping others,” explained Chomyn, “And I think it goes for any walk of life. If I’m feeling sad my first instinct is to make others feel better because I think that’s going to help me. But at that point, when I’m helping others I’m losing oxygen by not putting my mask on first.

“The best way to help others is to make sure your oxygen mask is on and that you are clear headed. Then you can assist everyone else to put their masks on.

“It’s taken me so long to understand this, but that’s been the biggest thing I’ve learned of understanding to be the best version of myself. I need to love myself and I need to make sure that I’m built up instead of building others up.”

Spurts of impending doom flicker on and off, but he now knows how to fly in tandem, with his Co-Captain, Pilot S.R.

“I think there’s such a power between comedy and sincerity,” said Chomyn. “We need to have these conversations about mental health, and not sound the alarm so fast. When we share our intrusive or suicidal thoughts we’re scared everyone’s going jump to the red panic button instantly. But we need to sit and listen first.

“These are conversations we need to have a lot more. In My Good Buddy Depression, someone could have watched that show and said, ‘This guy’s definitely not mentally well, let’s save him.’ But most times when we open up about mental health, we don’t want to necessarily be saved, we want to be heard first.”

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