How This Man Used Comedy To Find Peace

Richard Gadd is a 26-year-old Scottish comedian currently performing a life-changing, one-man show called “Monkey See Monkey Do” at London's Soho Theatre. The ‘monkey’ is his anxiety, his depression, and the effects of post-traumatic stress that never leave his side. It’s a tragic comedy of Shakespearean depths – the comedy being he’s a particularly funny guy, the tragedy being he was sexually assaulted four years ago by a man at a party.

Since then, Richard has battled with anxiety attacks, addiction, intrusive thought, post-traumatic stress – “everything”. He wrote this show as a kind of catharsis. And so, on stage every night, Richard runs 10k on a treadmill while describing to the audience – in a stream of self-consciousness – what everyday situations, like going on a run, feel like when you’re going through something so dark.

“It’s very hard to get just how soul-destroying abuse is,” he told Refinery29, “Outside, you feel like an empty shell but inside, you feel like a raging fire.”

What Richard does, in one hour, is tell a story that you just don’t hear: the man’s. We don’t hear from men who have been sexually assaulted. And – despite men being three times more likely to commit suicide in the UK than women – the emotional narrative around mental health for men is sparse.

According to Survivors UK (a charity that Richard works with which is concentrated on male sexual abuse), police get reports of 750,000 cases of sexual assault to men each year. But as the charity’s CEO Keith Best told us over the phone, “You could stick another 0 on that number because so much goes unreported.”

Both Richard and Keith noted that the recently publicised abuse in football clubs has acted as a catalyst for many men to come forward and seek help as survivors of abuse. Keith continued: “We get a lot of calls during the night where men feel very low and disturbed in the small hours. The only reason they came forward was because of the courage of the first.”

In many ways, Richard Gadd is the first. He’s the first to depict mental health so accurately, so honestly, and so weirdly – because it is weird, it makes you feel really weird, like a weirdo, and people don’t really talk about that part. He’s the first to stand up in front of the general public every night of the week except Sunday, and talk about how it feels to be sexually assaulted as a man. He’s the first to talk about what it did to him, what it took from him, and how it changed him forever. He is the courage of the first.

At the end of the show – which really, you must see – Richard comes back onto the stage and reiterates the importance of talking and of self-expression. He also directs people to relevant charities (see below) and asks that if anyone in the audience is going through something, to message him on Facebook if they would like to talk. He has a 100% response rate. Most of the people who message him are women, often also survivors of abuse.

Here, Richard talks us through it.
In your show, you very accurately portray how anxiety feels. But for those who haven’t seen it, how does it feel? And is it something you still experience?
Yes, but it’s not quite so severe now that I’ve put it out there [through my show] for the world to analyse. I used to be kind of ashamed of being an anxious person. I still battle with it, I still overthink or if I’m feeling nervous in a situation, or if there’s something I want really bad, it seems to kick in. For example, if I’m meeting someone and I want it to go well, that’s often when it kicks in the worst – when you really want something. Anxiety is so twinned with ambition. It can so often just be about what you want. It’s a very weird feeling, anxiety, it rises up in you, like bath water. Sometimes all it takes is to focus on the IDEA of anxiety – to get anxiety. Does that make sense? All you need to do is focus on the idea of anxiety, and then you start getting anxious. I was on London Live the other day and by all accounts it was a great interview, but all of a sudden I was like ‘Ah this is going well… would be awful if I got a bout of anxiety right now…’, and then it started. I’ve learnt to manage it now but it used to happen all the time. To come back to your question of what it’s like living with anxiety: it’s difficult, but it’s getting easier.

Why is it getting easier?
I think the anxiety stigma is lifting and I think there’s a male revolution going on. The Grayson Perry work, the Jack Rooke work, there is a re-examination of what it means to be a man in the 21st century and I think that makes it easier. The old, draconian ideas of what masculinity is are fading now and I think they’re being replaced with a contemporary masculinity which is an openness – being comfortable with being open – and I think that helps my anxiety, at least, knowing there is that change. Knowing that I’m not going to be judged if I admit to a mental vulnerability helps.

What do you think of “lad culture” – did it have an impact on you growing up?
I was quite a lad for a while. Not a bad one, not to the extreme, but I gravitated towards lad cultures and I liked being in a loud group of lads. Yeah, it did have an effect on me, particularly when I started to have issues with my mental health and doubts about myself. After what happened, I would say that I certainly started to feel like my face didn’t fit in among the lad part of my life anymore. I felt less like a lad and more like I needed to admit that perhaps I needed help, which isn’t a very lad thing to do, or at least that’s what I thought. But it was almost like society progressed around me while I was going through what I was going through, because, by the time I started to tell everyone about what happened to me, including my football team, they were so lovely and accepting, and I was like ‘Ah man, what a waste of six years feeling like I couldn’t tell anyone’. I play for a football team and they’re all lovely boys – and they’re lads, they like a beer and I like a beer, I can be a lad when I want to be, it’s fun – but I was worried how they’d feel and what they’d think. I came clean about everything that happened to me in this big Guardian interview and the first people to text me were the captain, the vice captain, and the central defender. They were the first three people to text me, and I had thought they were the three people most likely to make a joke about it, but they never have, and I don’t think they ever will.

At the end of your show, you come back onto the stage and name some charities that people can go to if they’re going through something similar, and you tell people to message you on Facebook if they want to talk. Do people message you?
Yeah, I get between five and 10 emails a day, or Facebook messages. They [the messages] can be very upsetting. When I set out to do this show, I was trying to come to terms with how I was feeling and what had happened, and it was like… I couldn’t keep it in any longer, so I tried to explain to everybody all in one big go, in a show, but then all of a sudden, people started to turn to me for help. Audience members messaged me and asked me for advice, about where they could go, who they could see, and I realised I had to have answers for these people. So I get back to every single person who messages me – there’s a 100% response rate on my Facebook page. It’s mainly women that get in touch – statistically, that makes sense, sexual assault happens a lot more to women.

It’s very hard to get just how soul-destroying abuse can be, but I think I manage to do it reasonably well in this show, and I do think that anyone who’s been abused… it will strike a chord with them. The primal aspect of abuse is very strong. Outside, you feel like an empty shell but inside, you feel like a raging fire. It’s very weird, it’s very weird, it’s a very strange feeling, you only feel it on the inside. The outer powerlessness, the inner fire.

Assault lasts for years – but people seem to think it’s an incident. People think ‘rape’ is the moment of penetration. But it lasts forever. The mantra of the Survivors group, which is the charity I’m an ambassador for, says that you have to see abuse as a journey – it’s not one isolated incident, and there’s no end point. I think that’s true. It’s a process of piecing yourself back together, learning to understand it and reflect on it, and trying to use it to strengthen you.

Did you see a therapist?
Loads. I went to CBT on the NHS and then they transferred me to a place that specialised more in what I was going through. Then I went from there to an amazing counsellor who is private – but also does this pay grade scaled to your income; I was working in a bar at the time, earning 11 grand a year, and she gave me a session for £10 an hour! I did that for a while, and then another guy.

Did it help?
Yeah. Therapy gets a bad rep, it’s so satirised on comedy shows, like in The Sopranos – the idea of the therapist who has a therapist who has a therapist. The idea that all humans are innately messy creatures, therefore how can one give advice to the other. I can see where the satire comes from but I think therapy has significant benefits – mainly, just speaking in a safe environment which is confidential. I think that’s important. That certainly helped me. I could say things to the therapist that I was terrified to say to people in the real world, but you know that everything you say in the room has to stay in the room. I think that’s hugely beneficial, especially if somebody is going through something that they think is a secret that could ruin their life – because that causes such internal instability. I think therapy can be vitally helpful.

Did you ever receive a diagnosis, like post-traumatic stress, or an anxiety disorder?
Oh yeah, anxiety, depression… everything. I have no doubt I was suffering from post-traumatic stress. Images would flash up in front of my eyes, like a film.

Did it help putting a label on what you were feeling?
I think labels help and I think they hinder. I got so bogged down in labels: Who am I? What am I? There are so many labels that we have labels for a lack of labels now, like sexual fluidity, gender fluidity – there’s labels for not having labels. I think we all do exist between labels. I think they can help people, but I don’t think they’re necessary. I beat myself up over labels, but the second I came to realise that those ideas are ridiculous – because fundamentally I’m just trying to do my best and I’ve got a good bunch of people around me – then surely the labels don’t matter anymore.

In the show, you’re running on a treadmill the entire time and you’re telling the audience what you’re thinking about as you’re running. Did you really go for a run and record your thoughts? How did you achieve that stream of consciousness – or stream of self-consciousness?

The whole show is so real, I almost can’t believe I went through with it in the end. Because of the stress and the invasive thoughts I was experiencing, the only way I could get to sleep without having anxiety attacks was if I ran and ran and ran to the point where I was too tired to even think about it. I would run stupid amounts – I’d run at least 10 miles every night. I run 10k every night in the show – but it really is a walk in the park compared to the distances I used to run when I was going through it. It’s like you’re running to get it out of your system.

After what happened, I felt very detached from my body. I felt so… out of body… and the only way to bring me back to body was just to run and run and run.

I was speaking to a guy who’s been abused... and I remember him saying that he didn’t know what his penis was, for years after he was abused, it was just this thing on his body because he felt so out of body, so desexualised, so empty, that he would look at his penis in the mirror and think ‘I used to have fun with you, I don’t even know what you are’. I sort of went the other way – but I think that’s because I was so determined that it wouldn’t ruin me, that I had more and more sex, because I wanted to reconnect with sex itself – but it’s all from the same bag. To deal with the de-connectedness, I went out and tried to reconnect.

Were you an anxious child? Or did this anxiety develop?
Na, not really. That’s the sad part of this. I don’t think I would have ever had anxieties and stuff if I hadn’t been through this. I had a happy childhood, it was amazing, I wasn’t anxious at all. Which makes me feel very depressed about what this did to me.

You reference Katie Hopkins in your show– when she tweeted saying “People with depression do not need a doctor and a bottle of something that rattles. They need a pair of running shoes and fresh air.” Which is just such an irritating thing to say on so many levels. But you run throughout your show, and you said you used to run loads, so does exercise actually help you?
Yeah, it does help, but, I mean, there are some things you can’t run off, and I realised that the hard way. But it does help. I feel good when I do my show because it releases endorphins and they last a while and they recharge your batteries. Running does help, but it’s not the answer. People like Katie Hopkins saying that people just need to exercise to get over depression and anxiety – well, well done her for having such an easy life – it’s just not true, it’s a stupid opinion, she’s a stupid person.

I love the line in the show where you talk about your rational brain leaving your side: “Rational brain, where are you going? Rational brain, come back!” How much time do you spend with your rational brain, and with your irrational brain? Is it a constant push and pull?
It’s merging; more and more it’s becoming one voice – through self-acceptance. In the show – there’s the voice in my head. But then on top of that, there’s the actual, unscripted voice in my head seeing how the audience is responding and going ‘Oh god, that needs a bit more work’, ‘Oh god, that didn’t go down well…’ So it’s always there, just at varying levels of audibility.

Which charities do you work for?
SurvivorsUK. Then the charities who support my show by supplying leaflets for people to take as they leave include the Rape Crisis Centre, The Havens, London Friend.

What strategies do you have in place to keep mentally healthy on a daily basis?
I keep myself busy. I have passions – hobbies. I can’t stress enough how much hobbies help. I draw cartoons, I write creatively, for myself and professionally. I play football on a Wednesday and a Sunday. I have good friends. I’ve learned that if I keep busy and keep doing things I’m enjoying, that’s half the battle. But I need to work at my happiness; other people are lucky and they don’t have to be so busy and that’s great, but my advice for the people suffering from anxiety and depression is to find a hobby that you didn’t know you enjoyed. It’s the key to a different life. They always say learning a language is the key to a new soul – I think it’s the same with a hobby.


See Richard Gadd “Monkey See Monkey Do” at the Soho Theatre until 4th February. For tickets visit www.sohotheatre.com. See him on tour from 16th February. For tickets and more information visit www.showandtelluk.com

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