Monday, February 7, 2011

Guest Blogger: Carla Ulbrich

I recently read “How Can You NOT Laugh at a Time Like This” by Carla Ulbrich. Carla is a fellow lupus blogger and her blog persona is The Singing Patient. I’ve invited Carla here today to tell you a little bit about herself and her book.

What does the title “How Can You NOT Laugh at a Time Like This” mean to you? (And by the way, the cover is super cute!)

CU: Thanks! I’m really happy with the cover art (I can’t really take credit for it – it’s all the graphic designer, Linda). I’ve been dealing with several chronic illnesses for years. One summer, my kidneys were failing and my legs and feet were so swollen I couldn’t wear shoes. My only pair of shoes was a giant poofy pair of Snoopy slippers. I wore them everywhere – the drug store, the doctor’s office. I got some really weird looks and comments. I had to use a cane to get around, and I walked really slowly. And I spent a half hour every morning getting on my compression hose. In the summer. In South Florida. And it seemed like every time I went to the doctor, I would leave just as the sky opened up with an afternoon thunderstorm. And me with no umbrella, walking through puddles in what were now essentially 2 giant sponges. Well, if I couldn’t find that funny, I was just going to be pretty ticked off on a regular basis. Somehow it went past the point of being annoying and embarrassing to just being ridiculous.

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. They’re both great releases.

Comedy, they say, is pain plus distance. When everything is falling apart around you, it’s kind of a gift from the comedy gods – it’s half of what you need for great comedy. 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 mentally stepping outside the current situation and seeing the absurdity of it.

Laughter helps you relax, releases endorphins and lowers blood pressure. And humor helps you to gain perspective. 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 other’s 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.

Your blog persona is the Singing Patient. Did you write the funny medical songs on your CD Sick Humor while you were sick? Was that hard to do, or did it help you cope?

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 current situation was a great distraction. It helped me step outside of what was going on and find the humor in it, and also helped me feel like myself, because I am a songwriter, and I was back to doing what I do. 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? Or did you start writing music to help yourself cope?

CU: Yes, I’ve been playing guitar since age 4 and writing songs since high school. I always wrote songs about difficult things I was going through – boyfriend problems, annoying roommates, difficult teachers. So I suppose it was natural to turn my lyric-writing efforts towards illness and medicine when that became the main struggle 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. 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? Was this intentional?

CU: That’s great to hear. 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, 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 talked to my hand (“talk to the 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: Getting a book deal.

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. But seriously, a deadline is amazingly inspiring. I would not have a book without it.

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 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: 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.

Thanks, Carla, for making me laugh out loud many times while reading your book. I’ll admit that I was a bit skeptical about a book about illness that relied mostly on humor. But it’s all good! And thanks for stopping by Getting Closer to Myself today.

Be sure to check out the shout out I gave to the book in my first ever vlog, and make sure you head over to Lupus and Humor and say “hi” to Carla (a.k.a The Singing Patient)! 


  1. Thanks Leslie for getting the word out on this GREAT book!

  2. I have to get my hands on this book!!!! I am like the only person I know "in real life" that jokes about chronic illness to the extent that I do! Humor is my life!!