ON THE EDGE
What Stopped Me From Killing Myself: Brian Copeland on Surviving Almost Fatal Depression
The comedian and actor Brian Copeland purchased a gun to kill himself—then wrote a play about what stopped him from pulling the trigger.
At the end of his solo theater show, The Waiting Period, about a time in his life his depression got so deep he went to purchase a gun to kill himself (the title refers to California’s mandatory 10-day waiting period before being allowed to take home a firearm), Brian Copeland tells the audience, “If I can stand up here for 75 minutes and talk about this, you can tell someone you’re having thoughts that are not in your best interest.”
Copeland, a comedian and radio host as well as a playwright and actor, had a tough childhood—the basis for his first one-man show, Not a Genuine Black Man.
His father wasn’t around much. And when he was, he was abusive.
Copeland, who is African-American, grew up in San Leandro, California, in the ’70s–at the time considered one of the most racist towns in the country, with a population that was 99.4 percent white.
His mother died at 36, when Copeland was 14, and his grandma raised him and his four younger sisters.
Not a Genuine Black Man became the longest running solo show in the San Francisco Bay Area, going on to New York and being adapted as a book.
In that show, Copeland touches on depression and the isolation he felt as a child.
Some critics and audience members wanted him to do a whole show on the subject. (Copeland himself was diagnosed with depression in 1999.) But it wasn’t until a few years ago that Copeland felt ready.
It took a terrible bout with the disease and the suicide of a good friend’s relative to compel him to go on stage to talk about his struggle. Copeland says his trigger is loss—and in 2008, he had a whole lot of loss.
“My wife decided she didn’t want to be married anymore,” Copeland says. “I had a horrible car accident where I had spinal cord surgery and was immobile for months, on the couch, popping Vicodin. And my grandmother who raised me died.
"I really went down the rabbit hole. When I came out of it, I played with the idea of a show and took some notes. Then a friend of mine’s nephew lay down in front of a train and passed away, so I said, ‘OK, I’m going to tell this story.’”
The show covers the 10 days Copeland is waiting to get the gun after his purchase. He delves into how debilitating depression is—feeling unable to even boil water for spaghetti for him and his three kids, which leads to a lot of take-out Chinese food.
He also makes observations about his own thoughts—wondering how much he should spend on the gun, for example, and noting how the gun shop is one place, like Walmart and a Justin Bieber concert, where you don’t want to be seen.
He does portraits of other sufferers, such as a teenager who cuts herself, and a perky college student, and lists famous people who suffered from depression, such as Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain.
Copeland is upfront about his agenda with the show—getting those suffering to ask for help, and for friends and families of those with depression to reach out.
For National Suicide Prevention Month, Copeland is doing the show at The Marsh in San Francisco, where he first performed it.
Because he’s concerned that high school and college kids who might be particularly at risk for suicide won’t have the money for a theater ticket, he’s trying to raise $150,000 on GoFundMe, so he can do the show for free once a week for a year.
Copeland thinks he always suffered from chronic depression, but when he was a kid, he thought what he felt was normal.
Later he realized, these bouts he had went much deeper than regular sadness, and as he grew up, in spite of his career success, his bouts intensified.
He now understands that his mother suffered from depression also—sometimes she would go into her room Friday night, and he and his sisters wouldn’t see her till Sunday, just bringing her plates of food and taking the empty ones away.
As a kid, Copeland, often the only African-American face in the room, felt isolated and alone. Theater was his first rush, he says. A teacher put him on stage in a production of Oliver!, and Copeland loved the rush performing gave him.
Then when he was a teenager, he saw Richard Pryor’s performance film, Live in Concert, where the comedian talks about his heart attack, his wife leaving him, and shooting out the tires on his Rolls-Royce.
Copeland had never seen anything like it. He got a fake ID in Berkeley for $15 so he could start going to the comedy clubs in San Francisco.
A former baseball coach opened a club, Tommy T’s, near his house, and he called and asked the man if there was an open mic night. The man said he had had a comic cancel that night, and could Copeland come do 15 minutes? He could.
“It was 5 o’clock and he wanted me to come in at 9,” Copeland said. “I sat down at my kitchen table and wrote 15 minutes of material about current events. I don’t remember any of the material, but I went in and they laughed, and I was hooked.”
Copeland followed that rush he got from making people laugh. Besides doing stand-up and writing plays, because a radio and TV show host, with his own talk show on San Francisco’s KGO radio for the past 18 years.
He still lives in San Leandro—although in a better part of town, he says. His youngest son, in college now, lives with him, while his daughter has gone into broadcasting, and another son is a musician.
Copeland–whose next play will be about being a single parent—said he talked to his kids before doing The Waiting Period to make sure they were OK with it. They told him if it could help others, to go ahead.
It does help people, says the founder of The Marsh, Stephanie Weisman, who calls the show enjoyable, redemptive and meaningful, as well as funny.
“Imagine you were thinking about killing yourself,” she says. “But then so many things happen that get in the way. So if you think back on them and particularly if you’re a comic, like Brian, they seem funny. It’s called The Waiting Period, and it’s kind of a miracle because if you can just wait it out, you never know what can happen.”
Copeland said to make a show about suicide entertaining, he looked to television writer and producer Norman Lear, whose sitcoms include All in the Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons.
“As kids growing up, we would sit down with our mother and grandmother to watch Norman Lear shows,” he said. “They dealt with serious social issues like race and poverty, but he made it funny one minute and heavy the next, and then funny again.
"When I was writing Not a Genuine Black Man, I sat down and watched the first two seasons of All in the Family to get the rhythm. When I did the show in L.A., he came, and he told me, ‘I love what you’re doing.’ I said, ‘I’m doing you.’ He said, ‘You nailed it.’ I thought that was the coolest thing ever.”
Copeland says as a public figure he definitely had reservations about getting onstage and talking about suicide.
Depression still has a stigma, he says, (he calls it “the scarlet D”), but he hopes that stigma might be lessening—especially after the death of his friend and fellow Bay Area comic, Robin Williams, who committed suicide in 2014.
“You feel like you knew him because you’d seen him in TV and movies,” Copeland said about Williams. “He’s not one of ‘those people’ where you can say he’s not one of us. In the last 13 months, I’ve had more open discussions about this issue than in previous 13 years.”
There’s no simple answer for how Copeland was able to climb out of the despair he was in when he bought the gun, he says.
In the show, he talks about a sort of spiritual awakening, which allowed him to ask for—and get—help.
“I guess the answer is social engagement and being able to talk to people,” Copeland says. “You cannot do it by yourself. You’re being fed inaccurate information by a voice in your head telling you horrible things–that you’re no good and the world is better without you and no one will miss you. If that’s the only voice you’re hearing, you’re going to believe it.”
Another thing Copeland would like people to know (and he has a scene in the play about this) is what not to say to people who are depressed.
“People say, ‘Snap out of it, the sun is shining, look what what’s happening in Sudan!’” he said. “You wouldn’t say that to someone with cancer. Hopefully people are coming around to understand that depression is not a character flaw.”
People who have felt saved by the show—as well as some of their family members–have contacted Copeland.
One audience member said after seeing The Waiting Period, he recognized signs of suicidal thoughts in his brother, who he convinced to get help.
He sent Copeland an email saying, "All I know is, had I not seen your play, I never would have taken a closer look at the situation and instead of hanging out with my brother this afternoon, I'd be mourning him.”