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How Joining the Circus Helped With My Mental Health

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For some people, their body is a wonderland. For others, it is a three-ring circus complete with a wild animal menagerie, carnival barkers and a virtual dealership of clown cars. In order to keep the whole show moving, sometimes it takes a team of dedicated professionals and kind-hearted souls to stop the tent from collapsing and make sure all of the performers are happy, on task and not causing a ruckus amongst the local townsfolk.

In my case, issues with my body and brain literally meant taking my “Greatest Show No One on Earth” through circus training. After decades of dealing with depression, debilitating anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and autoimmune issues, I figured that in order to see what was keeping me mired in misery and help me develop a humorous lifeline, I would run off and join the circus. Well, not exactly run. The aforementioned constant terror left me less on the impulsive, let’s-hop-a-boxcar side of things, and more on the save-money-for-several-years-tell-everyone-and-have-emergency-contacts-in-place end of the spectrum.

I knew that regardless of whether my mental health was creating my physical problems or vice versa, I needed to learn how to play, take myself much less seriously, and pursue an energy that represented love, acceptance of the eccentric, laughter and teamwork. Also, I enjoyed greasepaint and acting like a complete “idiot.” In other words, I was hoping to become a Muppet in real life, and have an adventure while my medical insurance and body were somewhat reliable.

While I have found that expectations never quite fulfill reality, completing the San Francisco Clown Conservatory program was the best decision I have ever made regarding my spiritual and emotional health. Although I was unaware of most of my autoimmune issues at the time, the process of becoming a clown allowed me to transform mental stress into performance material, and bring perspective to the maddening parts of my personality. It also introduced me to human beings who were simultaneously flawless and utterly fallible. These superheroes not only defied gravity through physical strength, but celebrated their idiosyncrasies and took emotional pratfalls with grace and resilience.

Over my course of study, I created and exhibited performances that represented both the light and dark sides of my personality. I discovered and gave voice to characters I could accept and play with, even if I found them profoundly uncomfortable. In the role of a student, everyone from faculty to fellow clowns and strangers on bus rides became teachers. This is not to say my tenure as an “Idiot-in-Training” was without tremendous confusion and stress, but at least the soul-searching and tears could eventually lead to laughter and connection. Traditional therapy felt isolated, cold and excruciatingly boring. Shouldn’t healing at some point be fun?

I have taken many existential pies to the face since leaving San Francisco all those years ago, but as far as the Universal Ledger is concerned, I am still in the black. I know that suffering is a condition of life, and will never be fully extinguished. Luckily, I gained tools at the circus to help me reframe pain and graduate with a few chunks of art that still make me feel proud. It is one of my deepest sorrows that my body decided for me that a life on the road acting the fool in the ring was not physically feasible. However, the circus provided me with mentors who had also fallen ill after long, successful and respectable careers. They continue to embody the advice on how to make the best of a tragically unfunny situation, and inspire a sense of levity even when the entire world can feel like a long lead-up to a terribly cruel punchline.

The circus gave me a storyline, multiple characters to play and coping mechanisms that a host of medications and therapies failed to address. I may no longer be part of any touring company, but I am surely a member of a much larger play.

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Getty Images photo via alphaspirit

Originally published: February 21, 2018
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