Talking mental health in this season’s Eating Fried Chicken in the Shower. From left, Henry Hohenberger, James, Church (Elijah Manu), and Oscar Kightley (Photo supplied)

James Nokise’s mental health podcast Eating Fried Chicken in the Shower is back for its fourth season, this time with accompanying video.

Here he talks about the mental breakdown that led to the idea for the series, the suicide attempts that preceded it, and why he’s stepping away after this season.

And a warning: “If suicide has touched your life, and in reading this you find yourself treading dark territory again, please pull out.”

 

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t actually like writing about my suicide attempts. 

That statement may seem strange to anyone who’s seen God Damn Fancy Man, the comedy show that I made around those attempts. Or to those who’ve listened to Eating Fried Chicken in the Shower, the podcast which came from the aftermath of my last attempt. 

I’d love to tell you that at least I’ve been able to monetise the dark periods of my life, but live comedy and podcasting are not the lucrative cash cows that opinion pieces might have you believe. 

One of the main problems with discussing mental health in a colony like New Zealand is that the act of colonisation is designed to degrade a people’s state of mind.

The foundations of the westernised South Pacific overflow with so much trauma, it has bled through four centuries, and several generations, into a diaspora with some of the highest youth suicide rates in the world.

For me, writing about my personal events is psychologically uncomfortable. The memories bring a heavy sense of embarrassment and shame both from the pain I was in, and the pain my actions caused other people. 

It destroyed relationships I cared about, and fractured others that have been maintained only by the grace and understanding of friends. There are people I haven’t seen since and will probably never see again. I miss them, and in writing about these events, I remember how much I miss them and our connections. 

Still, there are reasons to discuss these sorts of things, including the studies this year which show that one in three young people are having suicidal thoughts.

But, first, don’t feel you have to finish reading this article. There will be no great wisdom at the end. If suicide has touched your life, and in reading this you find yourself treading dark territory again, please pull out. 

This is just one person’s experiences. And that person, trust me, has no grand understanding of mental health that can aid you. He’s just a charming idiot, with an idiot’s luck, who chanced upon a mechanism that allows other people to share their stories. 

That’s all Eating Fried Chicken in the Shower is — an accidental discovery of a way to allow guests to discuss their traumas. 

The two main questions I’m asked about the podcast are these:

  1. Is the shower on? 
  2. How did you come up with the concept?

The first answer is simple enough. No, the shower isn’t on — but also, please don’t mix electrical equipment with water. Especially equipment that goes near your head. And, no, the shower doesn’t provide any special sound quality. In fact, it creates the kind of hassle that might generate mental health issues for sound engineers. 

Also, if you want someone to feel comfortable discussing their personal life, inviting them into the shower is probably the wrong, if not wrongest, option. 

The second answer sounds simple: I had a mental breakdown. But that needs a bit of unpacking. 

In 2017, I was in London, fresh off a successful run in Edinburgh. I had money in my pocket and a coveted 5-star review from The Scotsman, which felt very important at the time. But I was rundown, beyond empty. 

I’d pushed through an exhaustion barrier and hadn’t paid attention. Professionally and personally, I’d run the tank empty. A big part of that exhaustion came from telling everyone I was fine, when, in fact, I was increasingly feeling numb. 

I now know this was burnout. I still feel like being in that state was some sort of failure. A stronger person would have pushed through. A stronger person would have kept going. A stronger person wouldn’t have given up. 

A smarter person could have figured it all out, would have anticipated it, would have adapted better. 

Even though my brain tells me that’s not the right way to think of things, the emotions of the memories make those internal hate tracks louder. I’m a lot better now at acknowledging and quietening them, but they’re still there. It was only four years ago. 

Being exhausted after the Edinburgh Fringe is quite normal for anyone involved, and most will take a vacation of some sort, or ride the adrenalin for one more festival before having a break. 

It’s hard to convey the scale of the event to New Zealanders, but the “Devil’s pact” it offers will be familiar. There are professional, artistic, even personal opportunities such as you could never have back home, and all it will cost is all you have in you . . . and then a little bit more. That sounds like a song lyric sung in a small, smelly bar in Edinburgh — and possibly it is. 

I’d taken a week to stay with my old flatmate, the man who had saved me the first time I’d tried to kill myself in 2008. That was a very spectacular and dramatic evening (overly dramatic if you ask him) involving razor blades, sore arms, and eventually two men crying while they finished a bottle of port. 

He doesn’t like to talk about it. I’ve shaved only with disposables since. He wasn’t meant to be there, but he was. I was in an immense amount of pain, but holding it in. When it finally exploded, it was unbearable. 

I don’t remember much from that night, but I do remember the certainty that no one else should have to deal with it or with me. That’s what sticks, the certainty. It really felt like the most logical choice. 

I can’t tell you how my brain got there. It didn’t take much to convince me I was wrong, but it did take someone being there, intervening. I love him. My family loves him. He’s one of the few people in the world I feel safe to trust with my head, so I make time to stay with him when I pass through — eating bad food, watching bad films, and having the piss taken out of me in the way only true friends can. 

On the day I left London, I was on my way to the airport via the Underground. Standing at the traffic lights, across the road from the station, I suddenly felt . . . if I said “hollow”, would that make sense? 

I was grounded but didn’t have mass. My limbs moved but with no weight. It was like having so little phone battery, the “plug in” symbol didn’t even appear. A final numbness, a certainty that all the energy I was meant to have, had been generated and spent. I had finished. I was done. 

There were loved ones waiting back home, but no energy to summon their faces, or quantify what they meant to me. Somehow, without realising it, I’d reached the end.  

The light was green, a bus was coming through, and an opportunity to use the very last bit of energy presented itself. I stepped in front of it, suitcase and all. 

Why did I take my suitcase? No idea. A comedic mystery to carry through life. 

The bus slammed on the brakes and I saw how fast a driver can go through the emotions of fear, relief, and anger. He opened his window and called me a rude four-letter word. The one that horrifies mothers, unless they’re Scottish. 

Then he drove off, and I caught the tube to the airport, because London doesn’t stop and the moment had passed. Twenty minutes later, I had an asthma attack as my body caught up to my brain. 

I think about that driver a lot, again with embarrassment and shame. It’s a horrible position to put someone in. They’re not paid enough for that. I’ll never see him again, I don’t even know his name. But he saved my life. Go figure. 

When I made it back to New Zealand, there was counselling and heartbreak, guilt and grief, but still no real rest. A dear friend, who was on leave from work, shouted me lunch, and whatever they saw in my face, made them ask me to come crash at theirs and play computer games for the week. 

Sometime during that stay, I ended up in the shower eating KFC popcorn chicken, sobbing and feeling safe to sob. Another one of my friends, who’d heard something was up, took me for a coffee, and as I told him about sobbing in a shower with chicken, we both laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation. Later that night, he emailed me with a podcast idea. 

I like talking to people, listening to them, and seeing the joy and catharsis they get from sharing their stories. But trauma carries a weight. That’s why so many cultures have specialised individuals in the community to deal with it. 

I’m not sure I have another series in me. I think we’ve set a decent precedent for other mental health podcasts with a lighter tone to continue the work. I’m still one of the few Pacific Islanders fronting this kind of show anywhere in the world. That has to change, because the more voices you hear talking about mental health, the more those discussions become normal.

Ross Taylor is one of New Zealand’s best ever cricket batsmen and he’s the same age as me. His full name is Luteru Ross Poutoa Lote Taylor, and when he says that he’d be known as just Luteru Taylor if he was growing up in New Zealand now, that hits harder than his slog sweep. 

Representation isn’t just about seeing people that look like you and hearing names that sound like yours. It’s the moment the weight of feeling isolated is lifted through shared experiences. It’s knowing that your introspective fears are not insanity creeping in, but part of the collective story of your scattered community. That is the power in diversity.

If a guy in a shower with chicken can get green-lit, then surely others can, too. I hope the outlandishness of the concept encourages younger Pacific people to feel they can develop and pitch these kind of shows. 

I wanted my podcast to be a simple collection of conversations around mental health. A resource of the kind of chats I wish I’d been able to hear 20 years ago when I was finishing my teens and couldn’t conceive of how little I knew. 

One thing that I’ve realised from talking to my younger guests — thoughtful and assured voices like SWIDT, Church, Moe Laga, Joe Daymond, and Tegan Yorwath — is that they’re so much more informed than I was. 

It brings hope that, if those of us who are older can help clear the thicket that society has put in front of them, they’ll build some pretty amazing things. 

See? No great wisdom. But there doesn’t always have to be. Sometimes just a chat is enough.

James talking mental health with fellow stand-up comedian Joe Daymond, for Eating Fried Chicken in the Shower. (Photo supplied)

Where to get help

If you or someone else is in danger, call 111. If you need to talk, these free helplines operate 24/7:

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Need to talk? Call or Text 1737

Samaritans: 0800 726 666

Youthline: 0800 376 6333 or text 234

The new series of Eating Fried Chicken in the Shower was launched last week and will be released weekly on Wednesdays on podcast platforms, RNZ’s YouTube channel, and at rnz.co.nz/friedchicken.

James Nokise (Sāmoan, Welsh) is an award-winning stand-up comedian and writer. He was nominated for the Billy T Award in 2005 and 2006 and won the Fred Award for best New Zealand show for God Damn Fancy Manin 2019. His TV and theatre writing credits include Pulp Comedy, 7 Days, 7 Days of Sport, and Wellington’s most popular satire theatre series, Public Service Announcements, which he created.

© E-Tangata, 2021

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.