Goan lady tops crippling ailment,
to become stand-up comedienne
By Frederick Noronha
If you're suffering from a difficult ailment, even while in the prime of life, what do you do? Become a comedian! That was the choice of Chrystal F. Gomes, a Goan settled in Scarborough, Ontario, in Canada. This is a story of bravery and courage, of this lady of Goan origin, whose family was earlier in Tanzania. She got to grips with multiple sclerosis (MS), and battled shyness to do something she really enjoys - making others happy with her punch-lines.
Not only is she enjoying life and staying away from a kind of fear that paralyses even the boldest, but she is also inspiring others. Including those more fortunate than her. Canadian newspaper 'Toronto Star' termed this a "stand-up response to MS (multiple sclerosis)". A clear case that laughter is the best medicine. Today Chrystal is the most famous comedian of South Asian origin in the country of her adoption.
Sample her humour: Did she face any racial prejudice on shifting from Tanzania to Toronto? "Some. And we were pretty sensitive about it. I remember my parents pulled me out of Girl Guides because they didn't like me being called a BROWNIE!"
Is it true that she's still living with her parents at the family home in Scarborough? "Yes. I recently spoke to Mom and Dad about finally moving out. But THEY WOULDN'T LEAVE!"
But Chrystal's real-life story isn't that funny. MS is an insidious illness of unknown origin that strikes one in 500 Canadians. It is a wasting disease that causes short circuits in the electrical impulses carried by the nervous system, and a relentless foe that attacks slowly and intermittently with increasing severity. There is no known cure. Several years ago, just when life seemed to be getting on fine, it started with a terrible headache that came on suddenly one night. The next morning, her headache left the whole left side of her face numb. Many tests and two weeks later, it was diagnosed as MS.
In days' time, the whole left side of her body was numb. Symptoms just seemed to progress, and they included double vision, eye pain, diminished peripheral vision, slurred or garbled speech, dizziness, inability to walk without assistance, complete loss of hand coordination.
She recalls: "I couldn't write or feed myself." There was also loss of taste, frozen feet, and a desperate feeling of being trapped inside her own body ...to name a few symptoms. "I thought I was going to die, but I wasn't so lucky...or so I felt at the time. I was hospitalized for a month-and-a-half, during which time, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS)," she says.
Long sessions of physiotherapy and occupational therapy followed. Chrystal had the relapsing-remitting form of MS, which means that unpredictable relapses are followed by partial or total remission.
Doctors advice: avoid stress. This meant the career she was following, with its long hours, and shift work was no longer viable. She was advised to take on small, easily-reachable goals. For the next few years, Chrystal did temporary office assignments, and continued to "live in fear". Fear of having relapses... fear of doing anything that might trigger a relapse. When she wasn't afraid, she was either very sad or very angry. "MS was all that I thought about. I read everything I could find about the illness, and I obsessed about it," says the young lady.
In 1998, a friend introduced her to a series of courses called "The Pursuit of Excellence". These were self-discovery, personal enrichment type courses. She learnt a lot and faced many of her own demons'. "I realized that there had always been a part of me that wanted to speak out, be a part of society, feel accepted, feel like I belonged. I faced `who I was', revealed `who I wanted to be', and admitted 'what was stopping me from becoming that person'," she recalls.
One huge sign on the wall at one session put it thus: "Live large... or, go home!" Chrystal got the message. "I knew then, that if I was ever going to become the person I really wanted to be, I had to take steps now. And for some strange reason, it almost felt like this was going to be my last chance," she says. During that course participants had the job of listing ten dreams they had never pursued, and work towards making it come true in the 8-week course.
"The dream that meant the most to me was to become a stand-up comedian. I've always enjoyed watching comedies on TV, as well as listening to stand-up comedians. But I never once thought that I would ever become a comedian myself. And yet, it was the first dream I listed, and the one that filled my heart with hope and excitement," she says.
Chrystal 'stood up' for the first time in front of her twenty-five classmates in February 1998, and has been performing ever since. Her first performance at a comedy club was on March 1998. "I was terribly nervous, excited, and more than a little overwhelmed! What was I thinking? Had I gone completely bonkers? Could I really do this? Would 'shy Chrystal' suddenly panic and run off the stage at the last minute? And if the audience didn?t laugh at a joke, would I dissolve into tears and retreat into my own little world again?" These were some of her thoughts as she recollects them.
Well, the audience didn't laugh at all her jokes. But she didn't flee. They did laugh at many. But for the jokes that didn't work, the audience seemed to find her awkwardness or embarrassment funny, and burst out laughing at that. "I received lots of encouragement from friends, strangers, and other comics," she adds.
"I've learned that the audience likes to see the real you onstage. They want to hear the truth. They want to believe you. They want you to be yourself. And that's what I am onstage....shy, self-conscious Chrystal. I don't swear or use crude language. I don?t 'monkey around' on stage. I just talk," she explains.
Chrystal talks about "everyday life experiences" that hopefully everyone in the audience will be able to relate to. Job-related issues, family, upbringing, parents, male-female issues, relationships, marriage, children, travel, politics, as well as current and seasonal topics. She says: "As a comedian, I have to keep trying to get as much stage time as I can. I have to keep trying out new jokes, working out the 'kinks', losing extra words, and tightening my material."
Chrystal says she still gets very nervous before going on stage. "That nervousness turns into excitement, and pure joy when I get over the first joke and hear the audience laughing. I feel a connection with the audience because they're laughing at what I've written. It's like they stepped into my mind, and saw what I was seeing when I wrote the jokes. And by laughing or applauding, they accepted and agreed with my 'thinking'," as she explains.
What does it take to be a successful humourist? That's a tough question, because everyone has a different sense of humour, as the lady explains. Some people like clever, witty material. Others just want to hear foul language.
Chrystal is more on the serious side. She loves words and, so, relies on words to evoke laughter, not actions. Says she: "If I did try to 'monkey around' on stage, I don?t think I could pull it off, because that's not me, and anyway, that behaviour wouldn't complimInt my words."
Chrystal likes to think that "the more you write funny material, the funnier you become". Says she: "I am a minority within a minority. I've been introduced countless times as the first Canadian South Asian woman of stand-up comedy. But it wasn't tough for me to make my point. Most audiences want to hear different
viewpoints, see different comedy styles."
Multiple Sclerosis is unpredictable. The uncertainty of what might happen terrified her, and literally paralyzed Chrystal for years. I wasted so many of my 'todays', worrying about my 'tomorrows'. "It was only when I flipped that 'uncertainty' coin in my mind and realized that on the other side of 'might happen', was 'might not happen', was I able to move forward,".
She explains: "I?ve come to believe in the mind-body connection. That our thoughts have a great impact on our body. And so I keep feeding myself powerful, positive, strengthening messages. I?ve been reading positive self- help books, and I try to keep negative, self-defeating thoughts from having a place in my mind."
"I've never been a brave person. I wasted my early years, before MS, as an observer, totally withdrawn. After MS, I wasted more years just existing, feeling sorry for myself, being angry and scared. I do believe that every experience I lived somehow strengthened me, although I didn't know it at the time," she looks back wistfully.
Says she: "I believe in prayer. I have faith that I am in God's loving, protective embrace, and that He will always give me the strength to face whatever comes my way. The more I believe that, the less fear I have. I believe that laughter is very healing."
Of course the seven years since her diagnosis have not been symptom-free. MS continues to "remind" her of its presence in her life every so often, but humour and laughter have given her strength, a release. She now goes to comedy clubs, watches comedy on TV, and laughs as much as she can. "I try to find 'the funny' in every experience that I have. It's not always easy, but it does always help me to face the issue and move on, laughing."
Her dreams include having her poems published - she has written hundreds over the years. She wants to become a published author. She would like to have her own one-woman play/act/story to take 'on the road'. She wants to start
painting and drawing again. "I have so many dreams, I feel very greedy listing
them all." But as she puts it, "I am really proud to be a member of an industry that spreads the feeling of well-being that laughter creates."
"If I got the chance to start all over again, I would definitely go into comedy once more. Comedy has helped me tremendously. It has given me a whole new perspective on life," she concludes. "Multiple Sclerosis, this bizarre illness that won't kill me, somehow led me to the place where I'd always longed to be. I am so lucky."