Johnny's story from our Stand Up To Stigma programme
Stand Up To Stigma – September – October 2014
Humour in Uniform, Laughter is the Best Medicine
On one of my first visits to the Peace Centre I met a Northern Ireland Veteran whose recollection of service life was very different to my own. Theirs was somewhat traumatic; being shot in the head will have that effect. Later at FACT, though the Liverpool Veterans project I met younger PTSD sufferers and again felt how lucky I was to not be affected.
Were I recalled even the bad times; ten Parachute Jumps I had not Volunteered for, an explosion from a van bomb IED, a Chieftain tank coming through a wall in the room next to where I was sitting, one day nearly being assassinated going for a Sunday paper, shot at in a helicopter, the cold wet and thoroughly miserable exercises, the long separations from friends and family, etc, etc, with my dry sense of humour, as an experience I would not have missed, others found maybe just one incident a life changing, traumatic experience they continually live with.
Many veterans endure for years living with the mental scares from their experiences, some drink or become reliant on drugs, too many in desperation commit suicide. And its not only Veterans and their families who suffer from mental health problems, in fact one in four people in Britain are affected.
After that initial visit to the Peace Centre, I was inspired to return for more courses and became involved with other organisations that help provide improvements in mental heath and well-being. With the Wellbeing Project, I attended a Journalism Course and later using humour to get the points across I gave a few talks for them on the problems Veterans and their families face, after which I would give out the STEPS “Life after trauma” leaflet I had helped to put together at the Peace Centre. Though now a bit dated with all the organisations names, it still contains many useful tips and solutions for looking after oneself.
In October 2014 I joined a unique and inspiring project called STAND UP TO STIGMA, a Community Comedy Event funded by Time to Change. This is a programme run by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, designed to highlight and hopefully end the stigma and discrimination faced by all those with mental health problems.
The course I attended, organised by The Comedy Trust, consisted of six sessions held in St Helen’s Central Library, with the Liverpudlian Comic Sam Avery as the principle tutor. Each two hour session consisted of some warm up exercises to break the ice, very similar to those employed by the Programme Professionals on a story telling session at the Peace Centre. Sam gave tips on the correct way to use a microphone, common faults to avoid and other valuable comedy techniques learned by his experience. Then one by one, if we felt brave enough, we would Stand Up for our two minutes of “comedy”. At the end of each persons routine constructive criticism was given by Sam and the group.
As the course progressed each participant added to their routines becoming more professional in their delivery, adding props or a costume. Some were natural comics and very funny, others however, never felt confident to take the step up to get behind the microphone but we all had a good laugh.
The first show was held on World Mental Health Day in St Helen’s main Library and coincided with the opening of Tight Modern. This is a miniature version of London’s Tate Modern where marginalised artists, selected after a nation wide competition, get to have their work displayed. I was so pleased to see included in the sixty works on display one of my photographic art works, “Right On The Torch”, a Northern Soul based work.
I began my routine by introducing myself as a Forces Veteran and explained why I am known as JB for any “Arty-Farty” projects I am involved with.
It went something like this: “Hi I am JB, an Army Veteran and Northern Soul Boy, only because I haven’t decide what to do when I grow up yet”! I then went on to say “JB stands for Johnny Breakdown, a nickname I once hated”. The crowd then looked at me with sympathy and I said “I bet you think it’s because of the PTSD I suffer from? No, its because I used to use an Italian Scooter to get to Soul nights at the Mecca in Blackpool and the famous Wigan Casino, being a Lambretta GP150 it was always breaking down, so they called me Johnny Breakdown”!
I continued with “In the Army I was a Photographer, taking pictures from a plane in Northern Ireland at heights as high as 10,000 feet or as low as 50 feet above the ground, flying at 115 miles an hour. Things happen pretty quickly at 115mph at 50ft, I can tell you”!
One morning I was asked by a Royal Air Force Photo-Interpreter “What’s it like to fly over a bomb at 50ft”? He then showed me a photograph from my previous days work, pointing out the Command Wire to the concealed Improvised Explosive Devise (CWIED). “That’s a 1000lb bomb, what would you do if it went off”?
“I’d die”! I relied. He said “You must be mad”! To which I said “Mad I’m F****ing livid”! “Do you think I would voluntarily fly over a bomb at 50 feet if someone had told me that was what I was photographing”?
At the end of all the routines the crowd seemed pleased and I was approached later by many of the volunteers and heath professional who had stands set up for World Mental Heath Day and to whom I gave the STEPS leaflets.
Maybe I am a little mad, to have got involved in Stand Up Comedy? Would I have done so if not for that first visit to the Peace Centre? Probably not but I have found laughter is the best medicine.