Shake It Up — Laugh More!

A couple of weeks ago Paul, my husband, and I fell into a delicious sinkhole of uncontrollable laughter. The ventilator I sleep with was forcing my mouth open, so I was waking with an oral cavity so dry it felt as if my tongue and cheeks were cracking. I decided I should tape my mouth shut with my favorite all-purpose tool: gaffers tape (duct tape). Paul resisted. Gaffer’s tape seemed like an extreme measure to him. But I insisted. So he cut a length of the tape and came at me at bedtime. The absurdity of what we were doing hit us at the same time — if someone were to come in on the scene we knew they would think Paul had abducted me and was seeking to silence my screams. We broke up laughing, were convulsed by wave after wave of giggles and guffaws that took over our bodies until we wept. When the laughter finally subsided, he came at me again with the tape. Once again we were collapsed in laughter, limp and helpless. We tried again and again, and each time one or the other of us succumbed to giggling and couldn’t continue. It was challenging to move forward to the business at hand — we were having so much fun, why get serious? We finally did control ourselves enough to tape my mouth closed. And it proved to be effective — my mouth was perfectly moist in the morning. Now it’s become a bedtime ritual, and though we are no longer paralyzed by laughter, we still see the humor. It seems as if I’m suiting up in preparation for a voyage into space. Tape. Ventilator mask. Blastoff!

There is little I enjoy as much as uncontrollable laughter, especially when someone else is laughing with me. I love the way such moments arrive unexpectedly, and there is no choice but to give in. It stops everything else — the body no longer belongs to you. It is impossible to speak through such laughter; it’s impossible, therefore, to explain to anyone else what seems so absurd. Other people present often look on with dismay or skepticism — even annoyance. If you could explain, it probably wouldn’t strike them as funny anyway. But for the person who has been overcome, the full-body experience of uncontrollable laughter is almost akin to orgasm. Unfortunately, unlike orgasm, it can’t be easily summoned.

The physiological benefits of “regular” laughter have been well established in the world of research. Laughter exercises the heart, reduces cortisol, lowers blood pressure, alleviates anxiety, improves mood and overall outlook.

But if you Google “uncontrollable laughter” you find only links to pathology, mainly a condition called pseudobulbar affect. This can be a symptom of ALS, and it involves uncontrollable laughing and crying that is out of proportion to the situation at hand. This “symptom” became one of the ways my ALS was diagnosed. A discerning doctor asked me if I’d been crying and laughing a lot and I realized that I had; I’d been laughing with little prompting and crying at run-of-the-mill TV ads. It hadn’t seemed like a particular problem, but it was definitely a “thing.”

A drug called Nuedexta was prescribed to remedy the situation, and I only agreed to take it because it was also purported to sometimes improve speech (it didn’t). I have continued to take it ambivalently, sorry to relinquish the wild laughing I love so much, as well as the occasional tears that I didn’t find problematic. But Paul, understandably, was a bit freaked out by seeing me possessed that way. And I will confess there was a touch of the lunatic about it.

Recently I ran out of that drug, and the pharmacy has had trouble getting hold of it. As the days have gone by, my episodes of extended, out-of-control laughter have returned. I’ve been laughing when my text-to-voice device shoots off random phrases from my purse. Goodnight! Good to see you! My name is Cai Emmons. I laugh at the sight of the feeding tube that flops off my belly. I laugh at the way Paul’s cow-licked hair looks in the morning, or at the unnatural way the cat’s body is splayed in sleeping. It doesn’t take much. These things aren’t wildly funny, of course, but they’re funny enough to set me off. Then I disappear into a state like no other I know, a state I’ve always sought, a relinquishing fully to the moment. Bring it on — the more laughing the better.

My mother was a mischief maker. She enticed me and my sisters to skinny dip at night in the town reservoir (off limits to recreational use). She taught us to do singing telegrams for our friends on their birthdays. We would call and put on a fake voice, pretending to be Western Union. Then we would sing Happy Birthday and when we were done we’d say it was from an unlikely source, like maybe the math teacher. We confounded many a friend this way, and found much hilarity. Mom did things when she was a kid that shocked me and my sisters. Once, on a bet she jumped off a cliff into the ocean wearing an evening dress she hated. Another time, encouraged by a gang of her friends, she called the local ice cream parlor and pretended to be Mrs. Drake Smith. “I am having a surprise party for my husband, could you leave two gallons of ice cream at the end of the drive, and charge it to my account.” The ice cream was delivered, and Mom and her friends swooped down to eat it and never suffered any consequences. I can easily imagine how wildly they must have been laughing then.

I’ve inherited Mom’s love of mischief. For years April Fools was my favorite day of the year. I threw my energy into greasing toilet seats, switching the salt and sugar, and whatever else I could think of that was mostly benign, though there were definitely times when I annoyed people (maybe the peanut butter on the phone receiver was taking things a bit too far). A prank that still amuses me was done on the occasion of my ex-husband’s fiftieth birthday. I had planned a surprise party for him, telling him we were going out to someone else’s birthday celebration. Meanwhile he, a jokester himself, was sending out a Christmas card that featured himself as the oldest man alive. The day of the surprise party happened to coincide with the day he had a professional makeup guy come and turn him into an ancient-looking man. It was a perfect opportunity. I convinced him to go to the party with his makeup still on. A curtain drew back on the party room. The assembled guests gaped at him, stunned into silence, as he looked back at them, equally surprised. I was doubled over in laughter and was relieved when everyone else soon joined me.

The halls of medicine tend to be solemn. I am lucky to have a neurologist who knows how to laugh, even at himself. He and I are perfectly paired. But in other medical settings I’ve been frequenting, I find myself often overcome with the urge to shake things up and bring a little levity to the project of healing. I told the surgeon who put the infusion port in my chest and the feeding tube in my belly that I was grateful to have two new orifices, and he looked confused, then indulged me with a smile.

I want the world to take itself less seriously, to laugh more, to prank more, to see the myriad ways that human life is absurd. Knowing how ephemeral human life is — and possibly human civilization is too — shouldn’t we all be spending as much time as possible in shared, even uncontrollable, laughter?

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Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.

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Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.

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