A little over two years ago Matthew sat me down to play me a live recording from the Largo comedy club in L.A. It was titled “Live” (as in the act of not dying) and the comedian was Tig Notaro. Initially I wasn’t very interested in hearing a live stand-up show if I couldn’t see what was happening, because I hadn’t yet grasped the idea of something called a podcast (which is kind of like talk radio, mom) so I didn’t expect to enjoy listening to humans tell jokes without simultaneously watching their lips move. But when he pressed play I was immediately enthralled. This comedian walked on stage with an almost entirely unplanned set just a week after finding out she had double breast cancer, and she f**king nailed it.

“Hello. Good evening. Hello. I have cancer, how are you?” was how her set began. And then I listened to one of the most genius, raw, hilarious comedy sets ever performed. And it was about cancer, and almost dying from a deadly bacteria called C-Diff, and losing her mom to a freak accident. And I was laughing. I was laughing so much I cried.

I told Matthew I might be in love with her because my brain couldn’t compute what I was listening to. It was a whole new level of comedy. It was so honest. Cancer isn’t funny. Having C-diff isn’t funny. Your mom dying isn’t funny. But Tig found a way to take all of these unimaginably painful life events and put them in a set that was so real, unrestrained and relatable (at least for some people) that it just worked, and people laughed. You could sense just from the audio recording that it seemed to be a therapeutic experience for everyone in the club. I was already blogging at this point, but if I hadn’t been, listening to her Largo set would have lit a fire under my ass to write my story and to not apologize if some of it makes people uncomfortable, because she has proven that there can be humour anywhere if you just look close enough, or flip it around a bit to view it from a different angle.

It seemed very serendipitous that while Matthew and I were on vacation in Dublin only a few months after my mind was blown by this comedian, during an afternoon stroll through the cobble stone streets and the random book stores and music shops, that we happened to stop and stare at a billboard inside one of these stores to see Tig’s name in bold letters, announcing that she would be performing there that very night. We rushed back to the hotel so Matthew could see if tickets were available. Sure enough we managed to score two tickets and ended up getting perfect seats to watch Tig Notaro perform live at the Sugar Club.

I wish I could remember every single detail of that show so that I could tell every last detail, because it was hands down one of the most amazing nights of my life. But I was on a lot of benadryl and prednisone on account of my immune system trying especially hard to kill me back then, so most of the finer details are hazy. I do remember some key moments though, and I do remember that my cheeks were hurting a lot from laughing. The show would have been perfect to witness even if everything had gone as planned; it would have felt like such an honour to see her push that stool around on stage for a very uncomfortable and funny three minutes without saying a single word (a fan favourite from her stand up performances). But we got way more than we bargained for. There was a member of the audience sitting in the front row, a rather sloshed twenty-something who felt very sorry for Tig every time she mentioned having cancer. She was disruptive, and Tig played off of her “I’m so sorries” in a way only the best comedians can. And then the girl, so overcome with emotion or maybe pity, ran on stage to hug Tig for a very long time before running out of the venue. Tig at first looked a bit taken back by the sudden physical contact, but quickly composed herself and asked the boyfriend if he planned on checking on the girl. He waved it off like it’s something that happened all the time, so Tig ended up pausing the show, leaving the stage with mic in hand and running outside to see if the girl was okay. While this was happening we were all erupting with laughter. I know it’s awful to laugh at someone else’s humiliation but the situation was just so bizarre, and Tig was handling it so perfectly. She came back with the girl and continued her show, only for the exact same thing to happen about ten or twenty minutes later. This time the whole audience berated the boyfriend until he got off his chair to go see if she was alright. It was a set that I knew would never be duplicated, as Tig improvised some of the most hilarious lines I’ve ever heard thanks to the drunk girl.

Watching that performance will go down in my history as one of my happiest, most carefree nights, which funnily enough tipped off a vacation which consisted of a series of unfortunate events that felt like smaller-scale Tig-esque bad luck. In her memoir, Tig mentions seeing a photograph of herself as a child and staring at her young self while thinking about how that kid was going to get cancer. If a photo had been taken of me smiling ear to ear in that comedy club, I could now look at it and say “awww, sweet little laughing Lisa, you have no clue shit is about to hit the fan!” After the perfect night of spontaneously seeing Tig perform in a country that I had no clue she would be touring, my vacation then consisted of my muscles giving out, followed by me developing double pneumonia, and to top it off while limping through London trying to stay conscious and enjoy myself, my sister texted me to tell me my grandmother passed away and that I was going to miss her funeral by two days, right around my birthday. I was staring at the Tower Bridge in London when I got the text, and I wondered if I would ever be able to walk without a limp again and if maybe I was also going to die. Now every time I see the Tower Bridge in a movie I just see a villainous pile of brick and metal that gave me pneumonia and made my nan pass away. But that evening with Tig was spectacular. At least I can look back on that trip and say “at least I got to see Tig Notaro do her thing.”

That brings me to present day, having just finished reading Tig’s memoir titled I’m Just a Person, which is something she would remind herself whenever she wondered why bad things happened to her. This book was powerful and witty, and was already added to my list of 10 books you should read if you have a chronic illness, even before I finished it. I think the reason I feel so very many things about this book is because Tig doesn’t sugar coat any of it. She doesn’t try to come up with motivational anecdotes about her cancer, her C-Diff, or losing her mother. She just straight up tells you what it feels like to have these things happen to you. For some people who haven’t experienced the shit storm of a chronic illness, hearing about someone’s cancer diagnosis in such a matter-of-fact way can be a hard pill to swallow, but for those of us who can in some way relate, it’s one of the most comforting things in the world to know that someone else gets you, and they aren’t apologizing for feeling the way they feel. During her Largo set, an audience member was particularly upset by her diagnosis so Tig responded “It’s gonna be OK. It might not be OK, but I’m just saying, it’s OK.” And that sums up life with an illness so well. It’s your every day, so you become quite used to it all, and half the time you end up having to comfort others who haven’t quite reached that same level of acceptance when it comes to you being sick or coping with a new disability. You end up being the one to make sure everyone else is okay with what’s happening to you.

One of my favourite paragraphs from the book is Tig trying to wrap her head around how healthy people keep referring to sick people as brave, and their life with an illness being considered a “battle.”

“My biggest problem with being called brave was that I felt undeserving. I didn’t choose to get cancer or to handle it in any particular way. It seemed that what people were calling courageous was simply the fact that I happened to still be breathing.

I feel that way about the word “brave,” and also the word “inspirational,” as you probably already know. Those words get handed out a lot to people who have been diagnosed with a serious illness. You become brave for being the person who is sick, and you become inspirational just for maybe trying to go for a walk with a friend instead of spending every moment sitting on the couch just having cancer, or lupus, or multiple sclerosis etc. Not everyone understands that being called brave or inspirational all the time can seem really strange to the person on the receiving end of those sentiments. But it is indeed very odd because you never really wake up and think “today I will spend my day being brave, and when I’m done with that maybe I’ll also spend a few hours trying really hard to be someone else’s source of inspiration.” You just keep being you, so it’s a very foreign concept that being you can be considered either of those things.

There’s another quote from Tig’s book that made me have a rather crucial moment of self-realization while reading it. I was reading one chapter while trying to walk down the stairs to get some water (something Matthew really advises against because I usually fall down the stairs even when all of my concentration is focused solely on trying not to fall down the stairs) and the paragraph hit me so hard with one of those “AHA!” moments that I had to stop and sit on a step just to think about life for several minutes.  It was really a rather eventful part of my day. Tig wrote:

“My body was different, my family was different, and my sense of self felt less reliable. Always looming heavily in my mind was the fact that both diseases that could have killed me might return at any time. Every choice I made – what to eat, where to go, who to be around – was tied directly to my health and what I had been through.”

Something that I keep in the back of my mind an awful lot is the phrase “don’t let your disease define you.” Sometimes I think about that phrase and then I decide “you’re right, person who thinks they know better than I do what is good for me, I am an entirely separate entity than my disease and I want to never be associated with it because I’m so much more!” And other times I think about it and just laugh at the absurdity of such a phrase because how can a lifelong illness not, at least in part, define who you are as a person? I keep switching back and forth between nodding my head in agreement when someone offers those words of advice to me and wanting to punch the person who tells me that. Ultimately, as much as I want to be Lisa Without Lupus and not be known simply as Lisa With Lupus (nickname: The Girl Who Has to Go Home Early Because She Tires Easily), I’ve come to see that statement as nothing more than a healthy and able-bodied society forcing me to conform to what makes them comfortable. And what makes them comfortable is not having this sick girl hobbling around telling people that she’s sick. So screw that, I’ll let my disease define me as little or as much as I want to. I’m okay with being known as Lisa With Lots of Attributes And One Thing About Her Is That She Has Lupus, although I doubt that would all fit on a name tag. As absolutely crappy as it is, pretty much everything in my life revolves around my unpredictable, often times debilitating disease. I can’t do certain physical things that I used to do because of it, I can’t work sometimes because of it, I can’t eat certain foods because of it, hell half the time I can’t even go outside during certain hours of the day because of it. And I shouldn’t have to waste my breath explaining or rationalizing that to others. How my disease defines me is something I will figure out on my own, over time, and I won’t hurry the process because some random person might squirm a little if I say something about lupus.

I’m very glad I read this book so that Tig could, without knowing it, knock some sense into me and remind me that I don’t have to keep making excuses, or spend so much time fussing over how comfortable everyone else is so much that I sacrifice my own comfort in the process. That’s the message I’ve been receiving from her since I first heard “Live,” and which she nails time and time again but it took reading that particular line in her memoir for it to really settle somewhere deep inside me and to be able to put it in my own terms. I get it now; sometimes it’s perfectly fine to make others awkwardly watch you push that stool around in complete silence when you know they’re expecting you to simply say things that will make them laugh.

Matthew and Tig after her Dublin show at the Sugar Club.
Matthew and Tig after her Dublin show at the Sugar Club – September 5, 2014.

After Tig’s show in Dublin we stopped to talk to her, and Matthew had his picture taken with her. I was too nervous to really speak to her so I think I mumbled something in a shaky voice about loving the show. I also decided against asking her for a picture because I felt it would be rude to expect her to physically interact with another stranger so soon after being rushed by a drunk girl twice in one night. Of course now I really wish I could have that time back to get that photograph with her. I hope someday I can meet her again and get up the courage to tell her how much her comedy and her writing has meant to me during my own “battle” with being sick.

Make sure to grab a copy of her book and check it out for yourself. You will love it.

2 Comments on C-Diff, Cancer and Comedy: How Tig Notaro Made Sickness Funny

  1. Tripping
    July 7, 2016 at 8:35 pm (2 years ago)

    I struggle with being a hero also. At its worst it feels like your life is being judged as so horribly unliveable that only a brave super-person could possibly live it and not blow their brains out. As for being an inspiration, I’m not here to remind you of how much worse your life could be. Unfortunately, it’s super tacky to say this bugs you out loud because the people who say this are really trying to be encouraging and say something nice. So, now I am a brave and inspiring asshole.

    Reply
  2. Legacy
    September 25, 2016 at 2:57 pm (2 years ago)

    “My body was different, my family was different, and my sense of self felt less reliable. Always looming heavily in my mind was the fact that both diseases that could have killed me might return at any time. Every choice I made – what to eat, where to go, who to be around – was tied directly to my health and what I had been through.” – Just wanted to say thank-you for this quote. Now, I’m gonna continue reading your awesome post.

    Reply

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