How standup comedy helped me conquer anxiety, depression – and fear of public speaking

One friend asked, "Have you gone insane?" You are so brave. That's something I would never be able to do. One person said meditation would be more beneficial. Standup comedy may seem like a cruel decision for someone who has suffered from depression and anxiety for a long time. It makes perfect sense to me. Most people are afraid of failing, which is why they avoid making strangers laugh. However, I have chosen to make this public, embarrassing, and difficult to control fear.
My childhood was in suburban Hertfordshire, a comfortable area of middle class. However, my upbringing was complex and full of emotional uncertainty. Therapy has given me a lot of insight into how I have learned to cope with life over the years. My childhood and teenage years were filled with difficult experiences, so I avoided them. This evasion only increased in adulthood. In my 20s, I was mentally unprepared to face the more difficult challenges of life.

I experienced my first of many breakdowns at the age of 22. When I was 15, my parents divorced and my upbringing didn't give me the tools necessary to handle life's unpredictable journey. There have been many relapses over the years, culminating with a near-catastrophic meltdown six years back. I was unable to work, communicate with my children, or parent, and felt suicidal depressed and anxious for over a year.

My ex-partner's selfless support, the life-saving efforts by my local NHS mental healthcare team in east London, as well as the mood-stabilizing properties of lithium, helped me to recover. The latest episode made me more determined to face my fears and not hide them.

As a child, I used humor to protect myself from emotional discomfort. I have tried something similar as a freelance writer, but via the written word.

In recent years, I've tried out some unnerving journalistic endeavors, including the night as a life model and day in drag. Although I had always wanted to standup, it was not something that I could do. This summer was the last.

Whether it was marital separation, isolating lockdowns, or a clichd crisis in my midlife, I took the plunge and enrolled in a standup comedy class for beginners. It was taught by Andre Vincent, a comedian at London comedy collective Amused Moose. Past graduates include Jimmy Carr and Sarah Millican, Jack Whitehall and Greg Davies, and Romesh Ranganathan.

Andre created a warm and welcoming environment where my nine standup virgins were able to freely share their stories and confidence-building trust exercises.

I didn't intend to talk about my mental health.

Soon, we discovered that comedy's immediateness allows you to be honest and open about any subject. And that no matter how serious the topic, there is always a funny angle. A 50-year-old student wanted his material on his recent battle against testicular cancer. One man shared his experiences in London during the 1990s, while another chose to do so. One participant riffed about the absurdities of racial or cultural confusion in Yorkshire while another explored the challenges faced by young Chinese immigrants in London.

Although I had never intended to talk about my mental health before the course, one brain-storming exercise led me to a response that eventually led me down this path.

When I was asked to list the things we are grateful for, I thought of a happy family, Tottenham winning over Arsenal again, and a Jack Russell rescue dog that has been my constant companion during this pandemic. Half in jest, the word I wrote at top of my gratitude list was Lithium.

Andre gently teased me with more details and before I knew it I was telling strangers how the mood stabilizer psychiatric had helped me overcome the suicidal thoughts that plagued my life five years ago. Andre is a strong advocate for the theres comedy and truth school of thought. He encouraged me to investigate the topic further. I realized that the material was not only dark but also had potential for comedy.

In the midst of my most depressive episode, humor was a foreign concept. However, it felt therapeutic to let go in a supportive and safe environment. But I also knew that I might be sharing the material on-stage in too much detail. I didn't want to trigger anyone who had been through something similar. I decided to shift and focus on the fertile ground of parental embarrassment.

My children were very supportive of my comic dreams. Why are you doing it, Dad? Nobody thinks you are funny. My 16-year old daughter assured me that no one would ever pay money to see you.

My bucket list did not include a stay at a campsite naked.

This led to a funny story. My kids were embarrassed by my teenage anecdotes, such as my having to speak to their friends at teenage parties in Gen Z lingo. My parents also preferred naturist sun club lingo. I was finally able to openly share my most embarrassing teenage incident, which haunts me almost forty years later.

It was not something I had in my teenage bucket list, but it is now. One memory is still very much etched in my mind, except for one. I was a shy 13-year old standing incontinence at the end of the naturist pool when I saw someone that looked startlingly familiar. Her name was Rubenesque, a 50-year-old nudist who was about to jump into the water. She was also my history teacher. You can see, I wanted to be dead right away.

Every fledgling standup's biggest fear is to die on stage. But, As Andre, who frequently speaks on stage about the psychological effects of his battle with cancer, said that it was a completely unfounded anxiety.

Someone will always say to me, "What if everybody hates me?" but it doesn't make sense. People don't come to see comedy to hate others. They're there to have fun and that is the message that people need to get rid of.

My debut at London's Water Rats pub, Kings Cross, was approaching. It became obvious that my biggest obstacle to avoiding five minutes of tumbleweed was not the material itself but my memory. However, memory or not, that Sunday night at 7.30pm was quickly upon us and there was no turning back.

The show opened to a supportive audience. Five acts later, I was in the spotlight clutching the microphone for dear Life and watching as people laughed at my toe-curling stories of 1970s nudism.

Although Euphoria may be exaggerated, I felt a sense of relief and satisfaction when I realized that the experience wasn't as frightening as I thought. No one died. Many people laughed, and many kind people may have lied. Who cares? After I laughed, they told me that I was funny.

It's fair to say Jack, Jimmy, and Romesh don't look nervously over my shoulders two months later. However, Im approaching gig number 4. Although I am still far from being comfortable on stage, it is also far from being the terrifying experience that I feared. I will continue to experience fear, both on and off the stage, and try to do it anyway.

Go to if you have been affected by any one of these issues. Nick McGrath is at the Comedy Virgins night tomorrow (