Like a lot of only children, I spent most of my childhood surrounded by adults. I was pretty good at it too; I could listen, observe, and not get fussy. Behavior that makes my parents recall me as an “easy kid”. Whether these traits were inherent in me or evolved from suffering through countless dinner parties is hard to say. I do know that it earned me tons of praise: my parents, their friends, and teachers bragged about my lack of kid nonsense (coloring on the walls, flushing odd objects down the toilet, whining about being bored). I felt valued for my unwavering seriousness, and their praise incentivized my “30-year-old trapped in a 10-year-old’s body” identity.
This “grownupedness” perpetuated a refusal to participate in what I saw as “superfluous humor”. Poop jokes were far too base to be enjoyed. I couldn’t laugh at Ed Edd and Eddy and maintain the persona I had cultivated. Adult humor was funny. I took pride in “getting it”, getting the movies that my parents watched, the jokes their friends made about wine and marriage. I saw myself as a grown up and laughed at grown up stuff.
Early childhood seriousness morphed into pre-teen anxiety. My seventh and eighth grade years were the apex of feeling emotionally out-of-place. The positive feedback loop of feeling “different”, therefore unable to relate to my peers, therefore feeling left out, became a self-conscious desire for a carefree tweendom. My best friend coined this phenomenon “becoming a person too early”.
I started taking classes at The Second City in the summer between sixth and seventh grade. Second City is a comedy institution in Chicago, housing everything from prestigious performance groups to classes for elementary-age children. I took their two-week sketch and improv comedy camp in the summer where SNL-obsessed kids and kids whose parents wanted them out of their hair between the hours of 9:00 and 2:30 learned the basics of comedy. Our comedy pro teachers walked us through the foundations of improvisation: character work, storytelling, and of course, “yes, and.”
At the start of the camp, I still held onto my cultivated adulthood, and was wary to ever let myself get too goofy. It wasn’t a conscious choice as it was a symptom of fear. If I acted childish, I would lose the identity that I’ve been praised for all my life.
The class was pivotal, though, in exposing me to something that I was good at besides school. I took to improv immediately and by the end, I felt confident in my capacity to be a funny person. A label that nobody had assigned to me before. I returned every summer for the next four years. Each time I came back, I faced the class with a new notch on my comedy belt, growing in comfort and willingness to take risks.
At the end of eighth grade, I faced the future of moving to a different school for high school, far away from the people that made me feel left out. This anticipated shift helped set some of my anxiety into perspective. The reputation that I had cultivated over the years didn’t seem to matter anymore. I had an “oh, duh” moment where I figured out that It was much more fun to lighten up. As the seriousness slipped away, I became aware that I was making people laugh. I no longer sat at in the front of Ms. Lowry’s humanities class, anxiously tuning out my classmates’ middle school banter. I sat at the back, did impressions of the popular boys in our grade, and let go. I had a skill that I could tap into and it made me incredibly happy.
High school came, and I knew that I already had the tools for happiness inside me and that it was just a matter of finding space to into them. It wasn’t immediate, but I eventually knew I had found my true group of friends when the funniness flowed. Those friends helped my shake almost the rest of that childhood stoicism. My middle school self would have been amazed at how hard we could laugh together. Getting older and finding comedy made me able to not take the world so seriously. I learned being silly isn’t a bad thing. It can actually help make things better. And it’s fun as hell.
That said, comedy can be a double-edged sword when it comes to coping with anxiety. I definitely reaped some of its benefits, but developed some unhealthy habits in the process. While comedy can be incredibly healing, it can also be a defense mechanism, easily activated in order to laugh about something rather than face it head on. It’s still vital to be serious and vulnerable sometimes, and striking that balance is still a learning process for me.
Now, though, my friends and I can volley poop jokes back and forth until the cows come home, and I’ll laugh. That laugh releases my 10-year-old self’s fear of not being taken seriously. The philosophy that I shouldn’t say anything unless what I say is eloquent, smart, serious, adult-y.
It is clear to me now that anxiety can dampen one’s true personality. In my life now, I can check in with myself, note when that anxiety is coming back, and notice when I’m not comfortable in my own skin. I can tell because I’m not being funny.
JR Atkinson, Spring 2018
artwork by Charlotte Strange