Touching By Underground Wires

mental illness happy hour

The Mental Illness Happy Hour podcast always begins with some variation on the same intro:

I’m Paul Gilmartin, and this is the Mental Illness Happy Hour: honesty about all the battles in our heads, from medically diagnosed conditions, past traumas and sexual dysfunction, to everyday compulsive negative thinking.

This show is not meant to be a substitute for professional mental counseling. It’s not a doctor’s office; I’m not a therapist. It’s more like a waiting room that doesn’t suck.

Everything about the show can more or less be found in this disclaimer/description that begins every episode.

The biggest thing to focus on is the waiting room aspect. The image is of a room full of damaged people, all of them depressed, anxious, suicidal, traumatized, repressed, manic or withdrawn, and all of them insecure about those feelings. The MIHH exists to help these people believe that they’re part of a larger group, People With Mental Illnesses, as evidenced by the way the host Gilmartin signs off every episode:

If you’re out there and you’re struggling, please remember that you’re not alone. There’s help out there for you.

In between the intro and the sign-off, Gilmartin interviews someone every episode, either a comedian (like Gilmartin himself), a listener (AKA a normal person), or a therapist. The interview centers around the most personal details of people’s lives: their inner monologues, deepest shames, addictions, childhood traumas, and their attempts to reconcile all of these things into a healthy, coherent life.

The other half of the show, which usually bookends the interview, consists of Gilmartin reading surveys that listeners have submitted anonymously online. The topics of these surveys range from “Shame and Secrets” to “Awfulsome Moments” to “Struggle in a Sentence”, and the anonymity of the forum allows the listeners to express their darkest selves fully. Some listeners are stuck deep in the ruts of depression, and some recall their past experiences while speaking from a place of managed recovery.

That road towards recovery is always filled with potholes, of course. The show itself, likewise, has its scars, bumps and bruises. Usually by the 2-minute mark, GIlmartin will find himself making a self-deprecating comment about how he’s just a “jackass that makes dick jokes” and how he’s not funny, or he’s only doing this podcast to hear his own voice.

It’s these self-aware interruptions, these critical appraisals that pepper the show, which make it truly relatable as a listener. It becomes clear that Gilmartin himself is not so much a host as a quote-unquote Person With A Mental Illness—he struggles with depression and is a recovered alcoholic and former drug addict—and as a Person With A Mental Illness, he is just another one of us, someone who the listener can see themselves in.

And therein lies the essential, most animating characteristic of the show: the MIHH is therapeutic for the host as well as the listener. It’s group therapy in the form of a community, the members of which download and listen to this podcast, and can count themselves as belonging in this group.

Gilmartin is not shy about admitting that he would not do the podcast if he didn’t get some sort of spiritual and emotional pick-me-up from it. His interest and empathy for others stems as much from a desire for them to benefit from sharing private things in a public forum as it stems from a desire to help himself emotionally by connecting with his guests.

The curious thing about the show is that it wouldn’t be half as successful in offering a community for listeners if it wasn’t motivated partly by the host’s self-interest in strengthening his emotional health. And it’s this striving for self-love that animates the show. It animates all forms of therapy. So when Gilmartin says “This is not a doctor’s office; I’m not a therapist”, that does not mean that the show itself is not therapeutic. Many survey takers speak of the catharsis they get from having their dirtiest laundry aired to the world.

The podcast is the perfect medium for this kind of show. For one, the audio format allows listeners to use their own imaginations and personal experiences to illustrate what they’re hearing. Second, the lack of time limit allows for a segment to be as long or short as it needs to be. And thirdly, the recurring, weekly, dependable release of the show’s episodes mimics the visits to a therapist that many listeners often write about in their survey submissions.

The show is a regular dose of group therapy that stimulates understanding of and empathy for those with mental illnesses. But no group therapy is successful unless you open yourself up to the group. Gilmartin has created a space in which all can be heard and all can speak the thoughts that otherwise might be left unspoken. It’s a comfortable space for me to live in.


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Highlight Episodes:

#274: Melanie R.—22 year-old Melanie R. shares about living with D.I.D. (Dissociative Identity Disorder which used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder), being bullied, having a perpetrator who is female, integrating her “alters” and Sensory Integration Disorder.

#211: Maggie Mull—“The 28 year-old writer shares about being unemployed and an only child, her fear of abandonment, being born with club feet, body and sexuality shame and the depression that often makes everything feel like an effort.”

#195: Todd Glass—”The comedian and author shares about growing up with Dyslexia, OCD, being held back in grade school, his coming out of the closet in his 40s and the politics of language especially in regards to sexism.”

#100: Brody Stevens—”The actor (The Hangover, The Hangover 2) and standup comedian (Comedy Central Presents, Chelsea Lately, TMZ) talks about his very public manic episode in 2011, the blurry line between his onstage persona and his real life demons and how he has learned to live with his diagnosis of Bipolar I.”

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