Normally abnormal with Dave Chawner

Last week, NUSU’s mental health charity Mind the Gap organised a series of events for Eating Disorders Awareness Week. As part of the events, critically acclaimed comedian Dave Chawner presented his award-winning show Normally Abnormal.

Dave has been featured on the BBC, The Independent, The Guardian and has also conducted a TEDx talk on his battle with anorexia.

Speaking on the significance of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Mind the Gap Treasurer Andrew Lister told The Courier: “Eating disorders are some of the most serious mental health issues, and they’re often minimised and seen to be “fad diets”, or not real. People need to realise that these are real issues that affect every aspect of a person’s life!”

Mind the Gap also had an Eating Disorders Awareness stall in The Forum on Wednesday.

After the show, I sat down with Dave to chat more about comedy, his experiences and how he thinks our attide to mental health has changed.

Excellent show, Dave, thank you! To start off, why do you think it’s important to hold events like Eating Disorders Awareness Week?

Thank you! I think it’s important to focus on it because that’s when it hit home for me, when I went to University.  And people are so stressed nowadays, it’s so much pressure on the kids. Trends are showing it’s a huge problem but I think it’s more important to talk about it. One of the most stigmatizing things for me was that nobody ever talked about it in a normal way.

Comedy is a great way to do that. If I want to go out with mates, I want to have a laugh. If I’m sitting around with people, I want to joke around – and I never had that when discussing anorexia. That’s a huge problem, and it can really bring you down.

So you think it’s majorly a communication problem that we have, when we discuss issues like that?

It’s hugely a communication problem. There are so many support networks in university, which is wonderful. I went to seek help when I was in my second year of University – and that was huge! I don’t know why I was so scared. I thought I wasn’t ‘anorexic enough’ and I was terrified that someone would say that. No one did, and that was amazing.

I kind of want to get people talking about mental health rather than mental illness. That’s a huge line to cross. I get so bored of hearing sad stories, depressing stories about mental health. They do happen, and they are awful; but let’s talk about being healthy rather than being ill.

That seems to be a trend that we’re observing recently anyway. Do you think that we’ve progressed a lot then, in our ways in which we talk about mental health, or do you think there’s still a lot of work to be done?

A bit of both. We’ve progressed in our conversation about mental health so much. It’s so easy for people to moan and whine about these things and we have moved on from that a lot. But there’s still a lot of work to do. Sure, 10-15 years ago, you wouldn’t have had anything like this, not really. But because we’ve made steps forward, it’s pretty hard to think of that as motivation to keep going. So yes, I do believe there’s still work to be done.

So let’s talk about your tour. Where have you been so far and where do you still need to go?

So far, it’s been Cardiff, Ipswich, Warwick, St. Andrews, Liverpool, Brighton, Cambridge. Bournemouth, Lancaster, Oxford, Sussex, Portsmouth and London are next.

Basically you’ve been going all over. How has it been going so far?

It’s been mental. People think that going on tour is glamorous, it’s really not. I just spend a lot of my time on trains. I know some of the Virgin staff by first name. And the thing is, you don’t really get to chat to people either. One of the people on the train, while I was getting down, wanted to sell me a sandwich and I just tried to engage him in conversation. By the end he seemed close to going “Do you want a fucking sandwich? Stop talking!” [laughs] You just start craving human contact.

I’d imagine! Certainly not what many people think going on tour is. What about the shows so far – how have students received you?

The reception so far has been really lovely. There’s only been one that has been [pause] interesting.

Not necessarily a bad thing, surely?

Not bad necessarily. They’d just forgotten to promote the event. And the next day they had this big event, which apparently about 3,000 people go to – so huge venue, 350-seater, and they’ve got nine people in. Nine! Now, in that situation you’ve got two things you can do – you either pull the gig, but because it was a free gig I didn’t really want to do that, or play with it, do it more conversationally.

Problem was, I had a sound tech, a lighting tech, and a bar manager. And they did a lighting show, there was dry ice and I just looked like the most arrogant prick in the world. Because there was like nine people!

Wow! You must be happy that tonight went so well then.

Oh yes! Newcastle is wonderful, I always love coming up. Kate, who organised this, is absolutely lovely, and so is the audience, always.

It’s interesting how you do the show every night and new things always pop up. So by the start of the month it can be a completely different show. I think that’s really interesting. Even now I’m learning new stuff about mental health, which is fascinating.

That’s great to hear. Your show is so insightful and touching, and it approaches anorexia in a very unconventional way. Why do you think it’s important that we change the way we talk about eating disorders?

I went into comedy because I’ve always thought that it’s a wonderful way to start conversations and bring people together. I love the lyricism of it, and I love the articulate angle to it. Sometimes it’s a problem for people and even doctors dealing with mental health, because you’re trying to articulate something so ineffable, so difficult to grasp. One of the finest examples of that – depression. The first thing to go when you have depression is the ability to articulate yourself. With comedy shows, once you’ve got the bit of an anaesthetic, having a bit of a laugh, people say the truest things.

Once I had a therapist, who instead of asking people how they’re feeling asked them what colour they were feeling. And it’s such a simple kinesthetic thing to ask. It’s so intuitive. It’s stuff like that that we can all learn from.

The thing about mental health and about therapy, which I’m still going through, is the ability to learn together. Learning together is key.

So how does the audience contribute to your shows?

I remember the first time I took [one of my shows] to Edinburgh and a girl came over to me afterwards, crying. She said she’d been anorexic for two years and three weeks and she’d tried to kill herself. And she said that just being able to talk about it and hear about it she felt instantly safer. That really hit me – I cried like a baby.

The audience adds a big thing to all shows. Without being arrogant, as I get more confident in the show, it’s quite nice to be able to see what audiences laugh at and also prod them with a stick as well. A lot of the stuff that I say, like for example that joke [referring to anorexia] about ‘everyone needs a hobby’, it’s very interesting the reaction it gets now. In the early days of writing the show, I kept thinking ‘Please laugh, please laugh, please laugh,’ and if they didn’t I had to think of a backup. Whereas now, it’s quite interesting to be able to sit back and go ‘Okay… so what do we think from that reaction?’ That’s very interesting.

It is indeed! So do you see yourself as some sort of a role model? And who was your own role model, growing up?

That is a very good question! If I am a role model, I’m the worst one in the world. I’m not Gandhi, I’m not splitting the atom. Comedy is in a dire need of pulling the celebrity aspect out of it. I hate to admit this, but as soon as I allow myself to think like that, I’m an arsehole. It would feed my ego and I want to take ego completely out of the conversation.

The best way that I think of myself and the best barometer and compass I have for me is ‘Who did I need when I was seventeen?’ Who did I need? How did I need them to talk? What would have been important for me to hear? I’m in a very lucky position that I have that experience to draw on.

In terms of where mental health is going, we need to lead by example. That’s what I mean when I talk about stigma. We need to stop talking and start doing. Instead of saying ‘Oh, we need to stop being so awkward around people in mental health,’ no! Just do it. Just openly ask friends how their mental health is, doesn’t need to be a big thing, doesn’t need to be awkward.

I had a number of different role models. I don’t like that idea very much though, because I don’t want to take on the role of someone else. I have people who have inspired me. Robin Williams though, joking aside, comedically at least. I’ve watched Mrs. Doubtfire so much that I find myself doing the silly voices, quoting some of the lines. If you’re exposed to something so much – the Geordie accent too, you take it on the more you hear it. That’s why it was so huge and that’s why [Robin Williams’ death] hit me so hard.

A great answer to a great question. So, final question – will you be back in Newcastle at some point?

I would definitely come back to Newcastle. Always, always, always. I love the Mind the Gap guys, they have a great cause, all the mental health and wellbeing stuff, it’s so great. Beautiful city, I would always want to come back here.

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