Healing through laughter

Farrah Bui
Princeton University, New Jersey, United States

Laughing boy, c. 1625
Frans Hals
Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague

“If there is one thing to know about me, it’s that I refuse to ever eat honey again,” Ben explains to the audience. Immediately, looks of confusion and raised eyebrows appear among the faces in the crowd. “Don’t worry, it’s not just cause I have diabetes!” he tells them as he points out the already obvious insulin pump clipped to the side of his jeans. “It’s something so much worse…SO SO SO much worse,” he says playfully. The crowd is silent. Ben grins with satisfaction—for the past two years, he has opened his comedy routines with this same joke and loves seeing the crowd’s reaction every time. “You see … I was traumatized. When I was like six years old, I remember waking up in my grandma’s kitchen with a low blood sugar that wouldn’t come back up.  My dad was holding my head back and holding my mouth open while my mom squirted an entire bottle of honey down my throat. I got honey water boarded. You wouldn’t eat honey ever again either. If you get water boarded, you stop swimming that day—you don’t even use moisturizer anymore.” The audience breaks out in laughter, and Ben chuckles with them. It is a great way to begin his show. He explains to the audience about his diabetes and throughout the rest of the show brings it up occasionally in other jokes. The audience stays engaged and most importantly, understands why Ben has an insulin pump clipped to the side of his jeans. In the back of his mind, he hopes the audience stills see him as a comedian who happens to have diabetes, not just a diabetic who does comedy.

Ben is beaming as he goes through the outline of his comedy routine with me. Even offstage, he laughs as he retells some of the jokes. I met Ben in middle school and have always remembered him as the carefree class clown with a distinctive roaring laugh that echoed in the hallways. And my first impression of him has yet to change today. With his brown hair swept to the side and a handsome smile naturally plastered on his boyish face, it is easy to forget how Ben’s jokes began in the first place.

Ben was a toddler when his mother and grandmother began noticing he was constantly thirsty and using the restroom. They brought him to a doctor, who diagnosed Type I insulin-dependent diabetes.1 Since his diagnosis, Ben found himself having to take his meals at specific times, check his blood sugar, and visit the doctor often. Yet since his diagnosis, he has involved himself in all aspects of his condition: serving as a counselor at summer camps for diabetic children, modeling as the face of Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation  posters, and speaking to the public to raise awareness.

Despite his extensive involvement in the diabetic community,  in Ben’s mind he is more than just a diabetic. To society he strives to appear normal, not diseased.  Comedy gives him some control over his disease, and provides another dimension to his identity. It is a way for him to redirect the disease towards normality by making it known, familiar, and laughable to his audience.  As Ben looks back on the past eighteen years of his disease, he reflects on his early encounters with a lifelong battle, “It’s more than just physical symptoms; so much of it is mental.” For a long time, he worried he had done something wrong that caused his diabetes. He struggled so much with this self-blame that during high school, he stopped checking his blood sugar. He figured that the disease would not exist as long as he did not acknowledge it; and that denial was the only way of escaping it.

Eighteen years of constantly being ill has also given Ben plenty of time to realize there was no permanent way to forget about his condition. He explains dejectedly, “One of the hardest things about diabetes and other chronic illnesses … [is that] it’s relentless. You don’t get a break, and it’s hard and it puts a lot of physiological strain on you, but there is also the psychological aspect,” he pauses for a moment, “… it’s a lot more than people realize.” The boyish grin on his face loses its charm, and Ben looks up at me with a sadness behind his eyes. Ben’s diabetes is more than a physical ailment—there is mental struggle and social tension. As his responsibilities and commitments increased in college, his strict eating schedule and blood sugar checks suffered, sometimes forcing him to skip a meal or not measure his blood sugar.

Ben once found himself lying on the concrete of his job’s parking lot and had a seizure and major concussion. When he regained consciousness, his first thought was how sorry he was for scaring his co-workers.  To this day, he does not want to feel like a burden, not even to ask a friend for snack because his blood sugar dropped suddenly or have a co-worker call 911 because he had a seizure.  He does not want others to feel responsible for his disease.

I asked Ben about his feelings towards other chronic illnesses. At first he pauses. Then eventually continues, “With something like cancer, there is pretty much an end in sight. You either make it through, or it’s going to kill you. With diabetes … unless someone finds a cure, I’m going to have it for the rest of my life. It’s hard and it’s long.”

Healing through laughter

Ben has grown accustomed living with a  disease for which there is no cure.  Diabetes is the only reality he will ever know unless biomedicine can show him otherwise.  Yet despite his adamant refusal to not be known as “Ben the diabetic,” he does not disconnect himself entirely from his illness. As much as diabetes has inhibited Ben’s health, it has also enriched  his life. He tells me that he met the girl with whom he first experienced “puppy love” through the diabetic community; and that the guy who got him into professional comedy was a friend he met at a diabetes camp.

Ben did not begin his professional career as a stand-up comedian until his friend from camp planted the idea in his head. Coincidently around the same time, a new comedy club was opening in his hometown, and he fell effortlessly into this new yet oddly familiar atmosphere. The inspiration for his jokes was his life with diabetes. “Having a chronic illness has forced me to be funny and light hearted and poke fun at it otherwise it consumes you … it becomes you.” The comedy stage became a source of therapy—a way to creatively redirect  his disease into an encounter. He admits not succumbing to his illness, but also embraces it as part of his personhood and sees his symptoms as sources for his jokes. Even the standardized way of living for diabetics has inspired some of Ben’s jokes. He explains: “Comedy and diabetes has taught me a lot. It has made me realize how much the human body can handle. Diabetes is annoying. I wish it would go away, but I got to deal with it, grit my teeth, grin and bear it.”

Refusing to be treated just as Ben the diabetic, he reminds his audience that diabetes does not stop him from being human and shows them that he can laugh and joke about it too. Indeed, there may never be a cure for many patients with chronic illness such as Ben, but what Ben does through comedy enriches their lives as much as it has enriched his—in the goofiest way possible.

References

A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia, s.v. “type 1 diabetes,” accessed March 14, 2012, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001350/
Benedict, Ruth. An Anthropologist at Work. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1959.
Kleinman, Arthur, The Illness Narratives: suffering, healing, and the human condition. New York: Basic Books, 1988. 3-55.
Kleinman, Arthur, Writing at the Margin: Discourse Between Anthropology and Medicine. Berkley: University of California Press, 1995. 21-40.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret Lock, “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, no. 1 (1987): 6-41.

Notes

A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia, s.v. “type 1 diabetes,” accessed March 14, 2012, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001350/

 


FARRAH BUI is a senior from Fort Mill, South Carolina. She is a pre-med student pursuing a major in the Woodrow Wilson School with a certificate in Global Health and Health Policy and Environmental Studies. She plans to attend medical school and pursue a master’s in public health. At Princeton University, she is involved with the Undergraduate Student Government, Projects Board, the Student Health Advisory Board, Community House Executive Board, SHARE Peer Advisor, Residential College Advisor, and is an intern for the Office of Religious Life.