Comedian recounts family’s experience with mental illness in Amboy show

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

Published:

 

If You Go

• What: "Signs of a Midlife Crisis," a one-man show by Lonnie Bruhn

• When: 9 p.m. Aug. 5 (seating begins at 8 p.m.)

• Where: Nick's Bar and Grill, 22011 N.E. 399th St., Amboy

• Admission: Free

• Online: www.lonniebruhn.com

Just remember, as you’re chasing big laughs and hard truths all the way out to remote Amboy, how much farther comedian and storyteller Lonnie Bruhn had to go to create this show.

Bruhn’s one-man tour de force, “Signs of a Midlife Crisis,” traces his own tale of growing up with cerebral palsy, then follows the behavioral troubles and family agonies surrounding his eldest son’s diagnosis of borderline personality disorder.

That’s a patchwork of chaotic emotions and mood swings, intense anxiety and depression, social isolation, fear of abandonment and risky, impulsive behaviors. In son Braedon’s case, it eventually meant bursts of violent rage that landed him in jail.

Hilarious, huh?

“All of this may seem impossible to make funny but … I have dealt with the impossible,” Bruhn said. “This is what I do, I tell stories about the challenges in our life, breaking them down in a way that makes it OK for us to laugh.”

Braedon Broderson, 17, participated in a father-and-son interview with The Columbian; he said his ambition is to become a mental health counselor so he can help others — the way two years of dialectical behavioral therapy has helped him.

“As someone who’s been down in the darkness, I want to be able to give to other people,” he said.

He has no problem with Dad discussing — and laughing at — the family’s personal problems in public.

“I’m really glad my dad is doing this. Even if just one or two other people are helped, I feel like it’s an accomplishment,” he said. “It’s really good to be able to laugh about it.”

Not funny

That’s a happy twist in a saga that’s been anything but happy. Bruhn, a working comedian and storyteller all his adult life, went on unofficial hiatus a few years ago because things were too messed up at home, and he just wasn’t feeling the juice.

“I stopped being funny. I became indifferent,” he said. Ironically, this was just when Bruhn’s career reached new heights. He auditioned and go on the TV show “Last Comic Standing”; Bruhn figures his audition was successful precisely because he was a basket case. “I didn’t care, I wasn’t overthinking, I didn’t hold anything back,” he said.

After the show, he stopped performing and got busy working on his fragmented family life. Reading up on borderline personality disorder was like reading a biography of his son, he said; Bruhn also learned that rigid family roles and bad (or nonexistent) communication patterns can be one underlying factor that tilts people toward the problem.

The family got deep into intensive talk therapy. Sometimes, Bruhn said, he went alone when the rest bailed out. This went on for two tough years.

“We were trying to find new ways of communicating with each other,” Bruhn said. “We all had to reprogram. By the time he graduated (from a two-year residential program), we were super close. We have really changed.”

“Therapy was great,” added Braedon, who wound up writing on a whiteboard in his therapist’s office: “I got my dad back.” The therapist usually erased messages at the end of each session, he said, but that one became permanent.

Now funny

This family’s story isn’t finished, of course, but Bruhn and Braedon said a lot has changed in a short time. One key to family closeness, they agreed, is always seeing humor in their special challenges. That was also the key to getting Bruhn back onstage.

“We started noticing a lot of funny scenarios,” Braedon said, and writing them down. Bruhn said he realized he was “hungry for the stage again, and I knew my next project would bring mental illness to the forefront.

“Most people don’t want to talk about it, let alone find anything funny in it,” he said.

There’s plenty to laugh at in this show, Bruhn said, but there’s plenty that’s serious too.

“Signs of a Midlife Crisis” isn’t just standup comedy, he said, but a more sophisticated, theatrical, live-storytelling presentation.

“It’s a bridge between comedy and some very emotional, very vulnerable content,” Bruhn said. “You follow me down into a dark hole … but we come back out again.”

Bruhn’s company, Stage Left Entertainment, brings the monthly stand-up comedy series Laughing on the Last Saturday to Ridgefield’s Old Liberty Theater (but is taking a summer break now); a similar last-Friday series may start up this fall at the venue for this show, Nick’s Bar and Grill in Amboy, he said.

This show’s language, by the way, is definitely adult. “It’s not a clean show. It’s an uncensored show,” Bruhn said. “It’s uncensored, like life is uncensored.”