Comedian Jesse Case on Managing Anxiety and Practicing Mindfulness

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Jesse Case is a comedian who was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer at 29. After the diagnosis, he began recording a podcast about the experience of moving back home to Nashville to live with his parents and undergo treatment. He recently beat cancer and is planning a stand-up tour. He has continued his weekly podcast, Jesse vs. Cancer, and discusses a range of topics, from UFOs to dealing with cancer survival. I spoke to him about managing anxiety, practicing mindfulness, and receiving support from his dogs.

You mentioned on the podcast that your anxiety subsided once you were diagnosed. Why do you think that is?

I think there’s a level of immediate acceptance. I find that so much anxiety is actually just the worry about whether or not you can control something or do something about it. Most anxiety is illogical, if you really think about it. Not that logic matters when you’re dealing with anxiety, but the anxiety is sort of “Can I fix this? Can I do something about this?” So, I’ve always had this very weird general anxiety disorder. Just my whole life, I’ve been rattled with nerves and that did kind of go away. I’m still sort of trying to figure out why.

Everything that I’d been nervous about my whole life just got so immediately minimized, it became so incredibly absurd so quickly. Once I had an actual problem, I mean I’ve had plenty of problems, but like an actual, huge problem then all that stuff became really, really easy. I was less nervous in social situations. I was just all around more fearless just because I don’t know, why not? It just sort of became my natural state, I think. Not that it’s not coming back, mind you. I still struggle with anxiety a lot. I just think my general day-to-day anxiety went down a lot. It was like a forced perspective shift.

Is there anything that you do (like specific hobbies) to manage your anxiety?

Yeah, any time I can get hyper focused on something, any sort of comedy writing or anything like that. Some people work crossword puzzles or do Sudoku or something like that. Anything to hyper focus your brain on something is good, it alleviates that giant gloom and doom that some of us feel from time to time.

I play a lot of music. I play a few instruments. So much of music is pattern recognition and math and different scales and putting together different chord sequences. So, writing a song is almost like the audio version of Lego or something. Building anything is really relaxing to me and just getting hyper focused on it. I can sit down with a guitar and start working on a song and get so into it that I forget to eat. But, I’m not anxious during it. I’m sure a lot of it has to do with auditory triggers. It’s just soothing in general. Anytime I’m feeling really wigged out, maybe not to the point of a panic attack where I would want to go for a run for something immediate to help that, but with just general nerviness, I generally find picking up a guitar helps me a lot. And I’m sorry that I took five minutes to answer that when the answer was play guitar.

You’ve mentioned choosing to stay sober on your podcast. How has that helped to ease your anxiety (if at all)?

It has quite a bit. Nothing was ever outlandish with me. I would just find that if I was drinking, my hangovers were less physical symptoms and were more pretty hardcore depression or I would wake up really, really anxious. Before I rubbed my eyes and got some coffee in me, I would really be feeling horrible in the morning and it wasn’t really worth it. It wasn’t working for me. I’m also on antidepressants, so you’re not even supposed to have alcohol on it. So, I was probably constantly going through Paxil withdrawal without knowing it when I was drinking.

As far as other stuff, smoking pot and whatnot, for my anxiety to be ok, I really need to remain present and anything that lets my head float away is not good for me. I think I’m probably going to go off the rails a little. So, it’s just a choice I made. I just didn’t feel good. I’m not sure the exact pathology of it. I did it enough to know that this is certainly related. I felt a lot better afterwards, so it helps. It was just obvious to me that this is killing my creativity and motivation.

I think the go to with anxiety is to want to numb it, just to want to be somewhat sleepy all the time through self-medication or something because any other state is normally pretty terrifying. I do stand-up and stuff where your heart rate is very high during it and all of the symptoms of anxiety are there, but it’s not the same. It can be awesome. Once I learned to quit associating any sort of physical arousal, and I don’t mean sexual arousal, just physical arousal – sweaty palms, fast heart rate – once I started not necessarily associating those with just anxiety, it became a lot easier for me to do stuff that I wanted to do. A lot of that was because of sobriety. I was mainly just doing drugs and drinking to be as passed out as possible all the time. It was definitely self-medicating.

I’m an anti-social drinker. I weirdly wanted to be alone because I didn’t feel like talking to anybody. I was using it as a medication. It took me awhile to realize that. You tell yourself endless bullshit about why you’re doing something that’s harmful to you. I mean it was harmful for me. I don’t consider it harmful. Some people are allergic to peanuts or whatever. It’s just a very personal thing. I would never begrudge anyone of it.

How has your anxiety influenced your comedy? Has stand-up been therapeutic for you?

Stand-up is certainly very cathartic. It makes other things less nerve-wracking. I think that anxiety is, on a base level, fear of being out of control and that you’re in chaos and that you’re all alone. Stand-up comedy ultimately is a great way, as a performer and as an audience member, to figure out you’re not all alone. If I have some really weird thoughts and say it to a large group of people in the form of a joke and they laugh, it’s because they’re relating to the thought. That lets me know that I’m not so alone.

When I go to comedy clubs, I sell a lot of solo tickets, meaning that people aren’t coming in couples or groups of friends. A lot of people go alone to watch me and I think that’s kind of cool. Maybe they can feel less alone for a minute. In that sense, it’s really therapeutic for me because I’ve always felt so alone and so isolated and like such a freak weirdo. Then a large group of people is basically agreeing with me and telling me through laughter that they have those same thoughts. I think that’s great.

How were your dogs a source of support for you during your treatment?

They’ve been an enormous support to me. I try to figure out a lot why dogs are so calming. There’s something about them where all of our human stuff that we ruin our lives obsessing over, they just don’t care. They not only don’t care, but literally don’t know about it. I think it’s really cool that my dogs have no idea that there’s a terrifying election going on. That’s so cool to just be around that. That’s a great point of view.

During my treatment, they knew something was up. They knew I was really sick. They could always tell. I assume because I smelled different. My bloodstream was so toxic. I would get back from chemo and they always knew. Anetta, the older one, she would just come over and sit next to me. She was just always there and almost took it upon herself to make sure I was ok. She would follow me around incessantly, but never in a needy way. She wasn’t following me around as if I had food or something. She just wanted to make sure stuff was cool. I fell down one time, I was too nauseated, and she got my Mom. It was incredible.

I don’t know what it is about dogs. I don’t know why they’re so amazing. I don’t think we deserve them. We’re clearly not as good as they are, but that’s ok. I just love having them around. I’ve often thought that the most unfair thing in nature is that our lifespans are different. We generally make it to somewhere between 70 and 90, and dogs make it to 12 to 15. If we could figure out how to get dogs to make it to like 80, that’d be awesome.

You mentioned practicing mindfulness on your podcast. How do you practice mindfulness in your daily life?

I try to. I probably don’t practice it consciously as much as I should. I very much try to live through that filter. I try to be very much in the moment. I try to focus on whatever I’m doing and really focus on it.

I went to audio engineering school and I’m obsessed with sound, so I’m constantly listening to everything and I think that keeps you really present and mindful – if you don’t let things become background noise to your own head, but actually live in the noise. I do that a lot, which is definitely mindfulness. It’s not concentrating on being mindful, it’s just sort of doing it. That sounds so cocky, but I’m not nailing it. I think it’s really important to stay locked in to your reality in the moment. You get too anxious otherwise.

I got a lot better at it during treatment and that has remained because treatment is so horrible that any time you’re not receiving treatment, but know you have one coming up – it’s so terrible. You could spend the whole day before just dreading it, but it’s so futile. There was nothing that I could do about it, so why not just enjoy the day before? I’m going to think about tomorrow, tomorrow. Then when that day would arrive, even then I would try to stay mindful. “You’re not getting chemo right now, you’re just brushing your teeth. You’re not getting chemo until you’re in the chair, so enjoy this hour.”

The problem with being mindful is when things actually suck. Sometimes you do need to escape. For instance, while I was getting a chemo infusion, I’m not going to sit down and start concentrating on the chemo. So, there is a time and a place.

Why was it important for you to create a community through your podcast on your website’s Forum?

I guess similar reasons to why I do comedy. I just feel alone a lot and when the cancer started happening, then I was more alone than ever. I felt so alone. I felt alone from the other cancer patients at the clinic. I was the youngest one there and I had stage IV. I also had a weird point of view about it. I wasn’t religious or spiritual or anything at all.

I knew that despite feeling so alone, I knew that I wasn’t. I kind of created the forum because I wished something like that existed for me, so I just made it myself. What if you’re just a young, cynical bastard who gets cancer, what do you do? There are no support groups for that, so I thought, “Just start one.” It didn’t necessarily have to be cancer related. Anyone who just feels weird has a place, has a friend. I know that all of my feelings of isolation aren’t accurate because we’re not alone. It’s just that you’re spread out. That’s the great thing about the Internet – if someone’s in another city, you can say, “That’s alright, I feel like that, too.”

Do you plan on performing in Chicago?

Absolutely. I really love Zanies in Old Town. I had no idea how hard the recovery would be after treatment. I thought, “I’m going to wrap up my last day of treatment and then I’ll start touring immediately.” It really rips you apart, mentally and physically. It just leaves you for dead and then you sort of have to put yourself back together. So, a lot of that is the comedy stuff, as well – piecing my act back together, hitting up different shows, and gradually increasing the amount of time I’m doing. So, all the tour plans had to be delayed a little bit. I will absolutely be in Chicago – I wish I had a firm date. It’s probably looking like the upcoming spring.

You can follow Jesse on Twitter @jessecase and on Facebook @jesse.case.comedian.

Filed under: Interviews

Tags: Cancer, Comedy, Jesse Case

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