This comedian and mental health advocate has a trick for your anxiety

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“I work at a preschool, and I was watching the children play, then I realized that they were already getting older. Therefore I was getting older. I would die when one of them was about 50. I sat on a rug, in the middle of a pond of children playing with blocks contemplating my own mortality,” writer and comedian, Tristan Miller recalled to Ladders.

Whenever I meet someone, the first thing I ask is: “What’s your weirdest anxiety spiral?” Their response is usually a reliable litmus test for how much wiggle room I have to submit to a panic attack in their company in addition to allowing me to gauge the kind of panic attack they’ll be the most forgiving of.

For instance, when I was a guest on Miller’s podcast, I stopped him at about the 10-minute mark after becoming acutely aware of how much I was monopolizing the conversation. In an attempt to restore balance, I started rapid-firing questions at him-indiscriminately: “Where’d you grow up? Who’d you vote for? What happened to JonBenét?” The last one set me on the “death helix;” a process coined by my late therapist that refers to the cyclical preoccupation with impending death engendered by a peripherally related thought.

Not that the thought of JonBenét is only peripherally related to impending death, but it is only peripherally related to my impending death (hopefully.) In any case, I was made less ashamed of my digression, having known Miller is on occasion, adulterated by the same kind of tendency. He also made a point to remind me that it is by no means abnormal for the guest of a podcast to do most of the talking.

tristan miller
Tristan Miller; Photo Courtesy Tristan Miller

Like Jason Chatfield, Miller likes to pit distractions against each other: he’s an actor, writer, podcaster, stand-up comedian, and mental health advocate. He has been featured on The Good Men Project, Stigma Fighters, The Psych Show, and has begun touring a one-man comedy show called, Manic Impressivea codified saturnalia of frenetic energy and unhinged productivity.

“As someone who is also living with Bipolar Disorder, these projects/life events can often be affected both positively and negatively. If I’m in a high swing, the distraction of many projects can soothe and simmer down the boiling energy that grows both inward and outward,” Miller explained. “Conversely, my relationship might be strained by all of my activity. I might make bad choices, and may instigate arguments that are of no real consequence. The depressive side is equally fraught with challenges. However, knowing that there is a constant in your life, whether it’s a partner or consistent creative and/or fulfilling work does wonders for an unquiet and neurotic mind.”

Of course, there are less prolific methods of intruding morbid ideations-the problem is they both seem to work about the same. At least in my experience, committing a month to write an awful novel, or a bloviating short film is attended by comparable lows and highs as a wide array of self-destructive vices. The biggest point in favor of treating dejection with poison is their one-dimensional side-effects. Choosing instead to devote your demons to your work sets you up for lurid disappointment, i.e., the most painful way to find out that you’re terrible at baseball is also the most reliable one — by taking a swing. The memory of the miss lasts a lot longer and stings much more cleverly than the worst hangover ever could.

The devil in the details

Miller makes a point not to mistake purpose for validation, adding, “Validation has a negative context due to the fact that those who seek validation often feel invalid themselves as if they are not worthy of affection or love. That’s where it gets tricky. If you find something that makes you feel valid, you should pursue it. However, the sense of self that is tied up with validation should come from within whenever possible. The pedestal you’re on which you place others when all of your validation comes from them will eventually erode, and you’ll be left with an empty feeling and a lack of self. I know this from experience. Work on things that clear up who you are. When you feel the most like yourself, that’s when you do your best work. “

This philosophy is much more reactive when applied to output, be it creative or otherwise. It loses a great deal of its potency, however, when applied to relationships. Miller recounted times that he insisted on ensuring his wellness by procuring the approval of others — ultimately, this lead to a series of career missteps. Despite conceived wisdom, Miller believes we should keep our mental health status close to the vest in a professional setting unless divulgence is absolutely unavoidable.

“If you do a cursory Google search of my name plus comedian you will find out that I’m mentally ill. I have only ever brought this fact up when I have absolutely needed to. I remember having a panic attack at work and needing to go home because I couldn’t stop crying. I was mortified. No one remembers that incident. Most people don’t care and don’t need to know. Be picky about who you share your life with in general, but especially when it comes to personal information.”

Unpicking the stigmas associated with mental illness too often starts and begins at the illness half-which is why I think Manic Impressive is the perfect title for a thing about this stuff.

George Eliot, one of the foremost writers of the Victorian Era, believed that for all of its powers of madness, anxiety dually afforded those that suffered from it a privileged insight into all of life’s implications — what she affectionately called, “the roar at the other side of silence.”

Existing is an intricately uncomfortable and upsetting experience. Those that have the misfortune of being unable to escape the perpetual state of disquiet inspired by these facts aren’t as a rule — weak or lesser — they just lack a suitable avenue to make use of clarity’s raw sensations. Similarly, Miller opts to define his panic with a hair more benevolence than neurology might.  He, like Elliot, consorts with the devil in the details.

“I think it allows me to think and operate in a way that’s unique and kind, which in my field is a boon. I know there have been ideas I’ve had, jokes I’ve written, friends I’ve made, and podcasts I’ve created, that, if it weren’t for my condition would not have happened. I wouldn’t have an hour of comedy already. I think my job as a comedian would certainly be more difficult. Mental health issues come with a litany of defense mechanisms. I’m lucky that mine bring joy to people and bring me a quick buck.”

If you’re one of the adverse many, that is privy to the unremitting “sound of grass growing,” consider finding use of the vibrations.

Be sure to listen to Positive and Negative, The Amateur Detective Club, and Anime-Zing Podcast and if you’re in the New York area in early September, check out Manic Impressive.