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An interview with humorous author and songwriter Carla Ulbrich, a.k.a The Singing Patient, about her new book “How Can You NOT Laugh at a Time Like This: Reclaim Your Health with Humor, Creativity and Grit” What does the title “How Can You NOT Laugh at a Time Like This” mean to you? CU: To me, it means when things are really bad and you just can’t take it anymore, you’re either going to cry, strangle somebody, or laugh. And if you’re sick, then you’re too weak to strangle anyone. And laughing is so much more fun than crying. Comedy, they say, is pain plus distance. The more painful it is now, the funnier it will be when you have some distance from the situation. You can either create distance by letting time pass (“we’ll laugh about this later”) or by just stepping outside the current situation and seeing the absurdity of it. It can seem impossible to laugh when you’re in the middle of a really tough situation. But the thing is, who needs a laugh more than someone who is suffering? In the book, you write about the importance of humor in healing; can humor also be hurtful? CU: Yes, of course. Humor can be mean. I think we all remember being taunted in the schoolyard. Some of those comebacks and nicknames were pretty witty, but they were mean-spirited. It’s really important that we avoid laughing at others' pain when they are suffering, at least until they are able to laugh at it themselves. At one point I had lost my hair and was wearing a wig. I was at a folk festival with friends, and we were hanging around backstage cutting up, and I was laughing so hard I lost my balance and fell over. And my wig fell off! My friends all showed concern and helped me get back up. Then we had a good laugh about how I literally had laughed my head off. But if they had started laughing at me before they were sure I was okay, it wouldn’t have been funny to me at all. You call yourself the Singing Patient. Did you write the funny medical songs on your CD "Sick Humor" while you were sick? CU: Yes, I wrote them while I was recovering from a pair of strokes. Even though I was writing about my problems, the act of writing humorous songs about my problems actually (weirdly) distracted my from my problems. I suppose that's because it helped me create that distance required to make pain funny- it helped me step outside of what was going on and look at it from a different perspective. It also helped me feel like myself, because I am a songwriter, and I was back to doing what I do- being creative. I find creativity to be so life-affirming. And as a huge bonus, it gave me something really fun to do during those long waits in the doctors’ waiting rooms. So were you a musician before you got sick? CU: Yes, I’ve been playing guitar since age 4 and writing songs since high school. I always wrote songs about my struggles – boyfriend problems, annoying roommates, difficult teachers, lousy jobs. So I suppose it was almost inevitable I would turn my lyric-writing efforts towards illness and medicine when those became the main struggles in my life. Do you consider your book to be an illness memoir? CU: I don’t think of it as an illness memoir so much as a collection of thoughts about what I’ve learned over the course of 19 years that I think might help other patients- and maybe help myself if I forget what I've learned and get sick again. I wanted it to be in bite-size chapters that stand alone, so that you could read it on the toilet – because heaven knows when you’re sick, that’s your second home. You have lupus, but your book certainly seems to appeal to people with a variety of chronic illnesses. How did you do this? CU: Oh, it does? Great! I guess because my illness led me to a lot of specialists, and lots of drugs, and multiple hospital stays, I think I wound up with a lot of experiences that everyone who has any illness goes through. It wasn’t intentional, but really for the most part it does seem our struggles are the same – trying to get good care, struggling with blaming ourselves, seeking balance and meaning, dealing with friends and family. In 2002 you had a pair of strokes that left you unable to use your left hand for months. Were you scared you wouldn’t recover? CU: I would not allow that thought to take hold in my mind. I just refused to believe it. I did all kinds of crazy things to get my left hand to work again, so I could play guitar. I squeezed a tennis ball a lot, I got a cheap ukulele and glued corn pads to my fingertips, I put those rubber tips that cashiers use on the ends of my fingers, and I even gave pep talks to my hand. Most of all, I believed. I believed I would play even better than I did before the strokes. What inspired you to write your book? CU: I wanted to write a book about this for years, to share with others in a neat package all the ways that I’ve found to make the challenges we all face more bearable. Also, a deadline is amazingly inspiring. :D You’ve performed your humorous medical songs as "The Singing Patient" for organizations such as the Lupus Foundation, Medicaid, the Alaska Palliative Care Conference, and Nursing in Practice. How do you make illness and pain funny? CU: My number one rule is to only joke and sing about things I’ve actually been through. Since comedy is pain, and someone has to be the person in the joke experiencing the pain, it is best if it is me. I don’t want other people laughing at my pain until I give them permission, and so I don’t laugh at theirs. Are you well now? How do you stay healthy? Do you think you’ll get seriously ill again? CU: Yes, I’m doing well now, thanks for asking. I am on a gluten-free, vegetarian diet. I do chi gung. I work out. I have a great husband and a sweet dog, and we usually have a good belly laugh every day- what I like to call "vitamin F" (fun!). What have you learned from your experiences? CU: Friends are everything. Creativity is healing. Laughter is a great release valve. Pets are angels covered in fur. I can have a tremendous impact over my own well-being. I am not a victim of illness. I can get better. I can get my life back. And from that, I’ve learned that I can make a lot of other dreams come true as well, by deciding to pursue them, asking for help, and believing. What do you hope readers will get from your book? CU: Hope, and the ability to find humor in tough times. A few good laughs. And some ideas about dealing gracefully with chronic illness. Most of all I hope they feel less alone and more empowered. What’s next for you? CU: People have asked me about whether there will be a second book. Probably! But... not until I have something more to say. Meanwhile, I’ve been doing more and more performances for medical events as The Singing Patient, focusing on the funny medical songs I wrote when I was recovering from the stroke. Those shows are really rewarding. I feel like I can make a difference in that setting. I like to help people laugh at things they never thought they could find funny.

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