‘Comedy and therapy both work on the same things: good communication and crafting a sense of self,’ explains Dave Chawner, who had anorexia throughout his teenage years and early 20s.
‘They are about trying to make dark things understandable to other people, as well as building your own confidence.’
Now, 10 years after he began his recovery, 34-year-old Dave is using his own experience of anorexia to help others with eating disorders.
But, as a stand-up comedian himself, his approach is all about using humour to get people talking about notoriously ‘tricky’ subjects.
Dave’s eating disorder surfaced in his late teens, when would obsess over calories and exercise. He would also have nightmares about food, avoid social occasions, and skip classes to exercise.
But he says it was during his time at university when things started ‘unravelling’.
Dave would skip meals but this resulted in dangerous binge eating. He would also hide food in his room – which led to a rat infestation.
The 34-year-old, who lives in Streatham, South London, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘I think it was very conflicted during this time because I was scared of potentially opening up and saying: “I think I have a problem with food” and someone going “oh mate, we all have that – stop making something out of nothing”.’
However, because he maintained an average weight, Dave says it took him a long time to realise he had an eating disorder.
He explains: ‘I thought you needed to be incredibly ill in order to have an eating disorder. I didn’t realise that eating disorders can be on a sliding scale – or you can be an average BMI and have an eating disorder.
‘I was quite ignorant about mental health and wasn’t really aware that an eating disorder was to do with the brain, rather than the body.’
It wasn’t until Dave was 23, and experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts, that he turned to his GP for help.
He continues: ‘I went to the GP to get help for depression.
‘I had previously turned down treatment four times and it was only when an exasperated but brilliant nurse said: “Look, the bottom line is you wouldn’t expect your laptop to work if you haven’t charged it, so how are you expecting your brain to work when you’re not feeding it?”
‘I just thought that was such a brilliant down-to-earth, no sh*t way of explaining it all.’
This was when the penny dropped for Dave about his eating disorder and how it was connected to his mental health. After accepting help, he was soon diagnosed as severely and clinically anorexic and received fast-track treatment.
Reflecting on this turbulent time, Dave realises he was reluctant to get help for a while, as he was worried that treatment would take away his ‘sense of self’.
He recalls: ‘One of the reasons I turned down treatment so much is that everyone talked about “taking the anorexia away”. No one talked about giving anything back – so I thought of recovery as having everything to lose and nothing to gain.
‘But I remember in therapy, the therapist saying you could gain back your sense of fun, humour, socialising and travelling – and when it’s put like that it’s a no brainer.’
In tandem with his treatment, Dave was also doing an hour-long stand-up show – where he experimented using humour, sensitively, to talk about having an eating disorder.
The positive reception to this inspired him to start Comedy for Coping – a six-week online course specifically teaching stand-up comedy to people experiencing eating disorders and mental health problems.
Using interactive games, workshops and tasks, participants are shown the ropes of the artform as the stigma surrounding the topic melts away.
His idea is to encourage those who might typically be reluctant to talk about their mental health – and to use humour as a way to normalise this conversation.
Dave says: ‘I did that show and I was very lucky with the reception that it got, and that’s where this idea of Comedy for Coping came from.
‘Now more than ever, post-Covid and with the NHS struggling, there’s never been more of a time for people needing help – especially when they are on waiting lists, that are only going to get longer.
‘This is aiming to help support and work alongside other treatment methods, to give people a bit of a lifeline while they are waiting for help.’
With funding by the British Academy and Leverhulme Trust – as well as direction from experts, such as Dr Dieter Declercq from the University Of Kent – the course champions humour as a way of informing, educating and inspiring.
Each week covers a different topic – such as identity, communication and connection – to give personal (as well as professional) skills to people who are struggling with their mental health.
These bite-sized comedy lessons aim to avoid overwhelming participants and, instead, offer a focus to help them engage in recovery.
Dave’s vision is that Comedy for Coping can be particularly helpful as a lifeline for those on lengthy NHS waiting lists for treatment.
He also hopes the course will help people see that comedy can help individuals understand, accept and explain an eating disorder.
It’s a timely conversation to be having too, with February 27- March 5 marking Eating Disorders Awareness Week – and this year’s theme focusing on male eating disorders.
Dave continues: ‘You can just as easily drown in a puddle as you can in a lake. Eating disorders are not about numbers on a scale, they are about the impact they have to that person. We are moving away from this idea of what it “looks like” to how it can have a negative impact on a life – and that is real progress.
‘It’s annoys me that, when we talk about mental health, we say you need to “just talk” – but I don’t think suicide is the biggest killer of blokes under the age of 45 because they don’t open their gobs.
‘I think a lot of blokes, myself included, were not given the emotional communication tools or language to express themselves. Comedy is fun and engaging – but it’s also about being OK with being vulnerable.
‘A lot of times, I laughed more in therapy than I did during stand-up comedy and probably cried more doing comedy than I did in therapy.’
Following great success with the course, Dave is now currently running one for the NHS with plans for more funding to make the course free and accessible for more people who need it.
For more information on the course, visit comedyforcoping.com
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