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Me and the Voice in My Head review – Joe Tracini’s disarmingly frank take on borderline personality disorder
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Me and the Voice in My Head review – Joe Tracini’s disarmingly frank take on borderline personality disorder

Me and the Voice in My Head takes a potentially chaotic premise for a documentary – a comedian trying to perform a show that has previously proved unperformable – and turns it into a raw and creative exploration of one man’s experience of debilitating mental illness. From the beginning, it is clear that bluntness and humour are the order of the day. There is more bluntness than humour, it should be said, but it finds a balance nonetheless.

“How are you, Joe?” asks the man behind the camera. “Awful,” replies the comedian and actor Joe Tracini, shifting in his seat. Tracini is palpably agitated and nervous, and with good reason: he has decided to make a film about living with borderline personality disorder (BPD).

Each time he has attempted previously to talk about BPD in public, he has had a panic attack and found himself unable to speak. At one point, he recalls, he had to pull out of a show in Norwich just as the audience were taking their seats. In order to get over this block, he has committed to performing another live show, in Norwich again, for 300 people, and filming it for this documentary. “I am such a dick,” he adds.

Tracini, 35, says he has wanted to be a performer since he was a boy. As a child, he was a magician and comedian, but now he wonders if he spent too much time alone, learning magic, doing standup, and if his social skills suffered as a result. It wasn’t until he was in his 20s that he got his big break, with a starring role in Hollyoaks, and he went viral in lockdown with his alternative dance moves. It looked as if he had fulfilled his ambitions, but what he calls his “twat of a brain” continued to intervene.

This is an ambitious, blunt-force film that takes a number of paths around and through Tracini’s brain. It establishes the challenge of him putting on a standup show with just 10 weeks to prepare. That means writing a set and working out how it will be possible for him to address BPD without it causing paralysing distress.

This provides a countdown-style frame that is considerably more jaunty than the subject matter. When asked to pitch the show to the theatre’s creative directors, he sets it out plainly: “They’re going to see a show about mental illness that’s uncomfortable, because I want you to know how I feel.”

Tracini splits himself in two to illustrate the workings of his brain. He explains that he pretends the worst thoughts come from a person he calls Mick. Then there are two Tracinis on screen: Joe, the voice of this film; and Mick, who chips in to criticise him at every turn. It is a clever idea that demonstrates just how exhausting it must be – and what Tracini goes through on a daily basis.

We also see his relationships with his family. He sits down with his mother, Debbie, to watch videos of himself as a child. He berates himself; she tells him, sadly, touchingly, that he wasn’t bad then and isn’t now: “You’re still not shit, Joe.” He also visits his father, the comedian Joe Pasquale, to attempt to have an honest conversation about BPD. The results are varied, their relationship evidently complicated.

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There is an educational intent to the programme. Tracini lists the nine main symptoms of BPD, which range from fear of abandonment and extreme mood swings to self-harm and paranoia. He discusses some theories about the origins of the mood disorder. The science here is a little vague; the show is on steadier ground as a personal account.

BPD seriously affects how Tracini feels about other people and leaves him with intrusive thoughts and chronic insecurity. He talks about his childhood, trauma, addiction, suicidal ideation and self-harm in matter-of-fact language, with Mick’s ever-present voice chipping in. Amid all the messiness, the performance itself provides an illusion of a neat ending. Can he make it through the show? You can’t help but will him on.

There is a note at the end explaining that Tracini received psychological support during the making of the film and will continue to receive it afterwards, which should not be surprising, although it is a relief. This is a portrait of vulnerability and pain, delivered with disarming honesty. It is an unusual and arresting documentary.

Me and the Voice in My Head is on Channel 4 now

Source: theguardian.com