On the Dangers of Sarcasm

My school teachers were fond of warning me that my tendency towards sarcasm would get me into trouble one day. But did I ever tell you how it nearly killed me? Well, let's just say it was one of the contributing factors. I'd just moved down to Plymouth, ostensibly to recover properly after a stay in a mental health unit, as a result of my struggles with depression. My care was transferred to the local community mental health team (CMHT), for assessment and monitoring, while I was staying with my parents to recuperate.

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My school teachers were fond of warning me that my tendency towards sarcasm would get me into trouble one day. But did I ever tell you how it nearly killed me? Well, let’s just say it was one of the contributing factors. I’d just moved down to Plymouth, ostensibly to recover properly after a stay in a mental health unit, as a result of my struggles with depression. My care was transferred to the local community mental health team (CMHT), for assessment and monitoring, while I was staying with my parents to recuperate.

I should say that I have no first-hand recollection of these events, which is a tad suboptimal. What I do know about it is only from hearing accounts of other people, and from having perused my own medical records. (One day I might tell you why have a full transcript of my medical records — in a 2,300 page, 330MB, indexed PDF — but I don’t think I’m supposed to talk about that just now.)

Unfortunately, I was struggling to make my needs properly understood by the CMHT. Their resources were extremely stretched, so they were struggling to meet any of the needs I was successfully able to articulate. There was one particular telephone conversation, with the duty support worker, that he recorded in my notes. I’d apparently reached out to my GP for help, and she’d escalated it to the community team, so they’d given me a call. During the conversation, I said something along the lines of:

Aye, it’s a nice day out there, I should probably just go out for a walk, and that’ll make it all better.

I can tell at a glance that this is almost certainly my inimitable dry wit in action. It’s an attempt at sarcasm — the lowest form of wit if you’re rating its quality. Despite having no recollection of the conversation I can be reasonably sure that I was actually trying to say:

I’m fucking suicidal. What good is a walk in the park going to do? You’re an idiot. (Help me, please.)

I suspect that anyone who knows me well enough would have inferred much the same thing from my tone of voice, or from my facial expressions. (Pro tip: it’s much easier to hide your feelings when you communicate via the phone or, better still, by the written word. So if you’re trying to assess somebody’s risk to themselves, it’s probably a good idea that you’re able to look into their eyes.)

I do have a bit of a knack for playing the straight man and dead-panning, or comically understating, things. When I describe something as “suboptimal” for example, that’s a classic case of me deliberately using understatement for dramatic — or comic — effect. I’d describe Chernobyl as being suboptimal for local fauna, or that classic John Hurt moment as being suboptimal for his physical wellbeing. In fact, coincidentally, I just employed the phrase “a tad suboptimal” only a few paragraphs ago.

It’s a little unfortunate, then, that the duty support worker I was speaking with took me at my word. He made a note that he’d been in touch as a result of me crying for help1 to my GP, had checked I have the telephone numbers to call when in crisis, and would ‘signpost’2 me to other services in due course.

Two days later, I was in the intensive care unit of Derriford Hospital, on a ventilator, where my body was fighting for its life. My conscious brain had given up its own struggle for life and decided to take a massive (world record-worthy, apparently) overdose.

There was a whole catalogue of errors and omissions that led to this catastrophic turn of events. But this is one of the things I feel I could learn from the whole experience: sometimes people don’t understand my attempts at humour, and can take what I say more literally than I intend. So a good rule of thumb in future: don’t be a sarky bastard. Not only is it the lowest form of wit, it can be suboptimal to your wellbeing.


  1. When someone is in crisis, don’t tell them off for seeking help in the 'wrong’ way. Reaching out for help — at all, never mind in the manner that suits your protocols — is spectacularly difficult for some people. If they manage to do so, you should bloody well help them! 

  2. And don’t get me started on the fashion at the time of verbing (yes, yes, I know, it was deliberate!) the word “signpost”. As in, to quote from my medical records, “He was signposted for counselling and MIND Recovery College.” The word “signposted” here is code for “handed a couple of leaflets and told to piss off and stop bothering us.” 

    (Actually, knowing well enough that medical staff do communicate in an unwritten code — which has plausible deniability when someone gets hold of their medical notes — I do wonder if it really was the de rigueur phrase for something in particular…)

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