Bo Burnham: 'I have a legitimate anxiety disorder'

It was the summer of 2008 when I first heard a song by the musical comedian Bo Burnham. I was in the car with my friend Brittany when she played the now iconic "My Whole Family...Thinks I'm Gay." (Some people probably remember the first time they heard a song by the Beatles or Nirvana or something —but, me, I remember exactly where I was when I first heard a Bo Burnham song). 

Bo recorded this video two years previously, during the early years of YouTube when we got gems like "Charlie bit me!" And this video that, at the time, he only posted to share with his brother in college, shot the unsuspecting 16-year-old to fame.

"I definitely didn’t put it up there as like, 'This is my ticket out of this town!' ... At the time, YouTube was nothing, no one knew what it was. It was just like another outlet, and I didn’t think of it as a career move," he said in an AV Club interview.

I think I was drawn to Bo's music because, not only was he some normal kid who accidentally became famous, but also because, as it turns out, our brains may be on similar wavelengths of crazy (and, whenever I say "crazy," I mean it as a compliment). 

I recently watched Bo's Netflix special "Inside," which he wrote, directed, filmed, edited and starred in. And, full disclosure, I couldn't watch it all in one sitting; I had to watch the 1 hour and 27 minute film in half-hour increments. Not because I didn't love it. But because it felt like Bo was rummaging around inside my own brain and, if I watched it for longer than that, I would most definitely experience a full-blown panic attack. 

For those who haven't watched or heard of the film, Bo shot the whole thing confined to one room in a year's time during the COVID-19 pandemic. He performs songs with titles such as "FaceTime with my Mom," "White Woman's Instagram," and "Welcome to the Internet," and talks about topics like suicide, depression, anxiety and isolation. 

While I related to a lot of the songs and skits, sometimes so acutely that it made me feel uncomfortable, I particularly connected with the song "All Eyes on Me." In it, Bo reveals, "I was beginning to have severe panic attacks while on stage, which is not a great place to have them. So I quit, and I didn't perform for five years. And I spent that time trying to improve myself mentally. And you know what? I did! I got better!"

Bo had his first panic attack on the opening night of his show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013, and another in front of 3,000 people in Providence, R.I. He said his vision tunneled, and he experienced shortness of breath and numbness in his hands.

"Anxiety is a language,” he told Rolling Stone. “People without it can’t get it. In high school, I was in and out of the hospital because they thought I had some like stomach disease … I was just nervous. Every day. And that’s why I was, like, on the toilet. I know I have a legitimate anxiety disorder.

After his "Make Happy" tour in 2015 and 2016, he did, in fact, take a hiatus from performing live, taking that time to make his directorial/film writing debut with "Eighth Grade" and showing off his acting chops in films like "The Big Sick" and "Promising Young Woman." 

"You feel pain and embarrassment and shame and endure it and then you go, 'I'm still here,'" Bo told photographer/director Sam Jones on the Off Camera Show. "(Anxiety) is not unique. It's not because I'm a special little boy. ... (After a show), a bunch of 14 and 15-year-old girls came up to me and said, 'I feel exactly like you.' That was a huge realization for me." 

Through his experiences, Bo made me feel better about my own anxiety disorder and taught me several valuable lessons, such as:

1. People with a mental illness can be successful. Very successful, in fact. 

2. Sometimes you can even become successful by talking about your mental illness.

3. Even if it doesn't make you famous, talk about it anyway. Live your dreams anyway. Because you never know when, someday, it'll pay off. And you never know who is listening and who feels a little less alone because of you.

4. And, if the thing you love starts making your anxiety or depression worse, it's okay to walk away. It's okay to find a different dream that benefits your mental health. Your self-care is the most important.

You Might Also Like