Project Shui for Tay-Sachs

Coping With Humor                                        
Article from the Atlanta Jewish Times

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The many faces of Dr. Eric Fier
John McCurdy

Staff Writer
9/18/2010 9:16:00 AM

Pediatric psychiatrist Dr. Eric Fier has heard that no individual in his profession remains “normal” much beyond the age of 50, and he has concluded that this is due to a simple medical fact still largely denied to this point.

“I believe mental illness is contagious,” Fier said with a wry laugh during an interview at his Decatur practice. “The longer you spend with crazy, the more normal it becomes for you, and ultimately, it becomes you.

“So my antidote to succumbing to that is going to be to continue to try to laugh as much as I can and to encourage others to do the same.”

It’s a healthy approach from a man with an undoubtedly positive outlook, perhaps leading to the assumption that the doctor has some sort of “perfect” life. And while he is happily married, a father of four and enjoying a budding stand-up comedy career on the side, it isn’t all peaches and cream.

His daughter, Rachaeli, was diagnosed with infantile Tay Sachs in December of 2003, a little more than 14 months after she was born. This put her life expectancy somewhere between two and five years and dealt her parents a blow more painful than anything they’d experienced.

But Rachaeli is now almost eight, making her the oldest person with this version of the disease alive today, to the family’s knowledge.

“With each passing birthday that she’s still with us, it reinforces the message that my job is to celebrate her life, not to mourn her eventual passing,” Fier said. “I interpret her continued presence as being a message of, ‘Let’s go on with our lives together.’ She’s not checking out yet, so why should I?”


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Onstage: Therapist Eric

So what does a doctor who deals with his patients’ profound psychiatric struggles by day and is constantly burdened by the weight of his daughter’s condition have to joke about? As it turns out, plenty.

“Pain is one of the best resources or wellsprings of meaningful humor,” Fier said before cracking a smile. “The prevalence of depression among stand-up comics is likely a testament to the veracity of that conclusion; ultimately, the experience of suffering likely motivates the process of seeking a meaningful expressive outlet for one’s pain.”

Originally most interested in improvisational acting, Fier put all performing on hold after the bad news hit early in the last decade. There was a slow, family-wide process of coming out of that darkness and back into enjoying life, and in the first two months of 2009, the man of the house finally signed up for a stand-up comedy class.

He selected the long-standing program taught by Jeff Justice that culminated with a “graduation” performance at the Punchline and soon was hooked. Judges and audiences were, too, though not quite as instantly; after a few performances that allowed him to work on his craft and learn some valuable lessons, he started showing real promise, winning contests from Tennessee to New York.

Most recently, he took home the top prize in a Boca Raton competition and qualified as a finalist for Connecticut Comedy Idol, which is run by a foundation benefiting the mentally disabled. The hyperkinetic and sometimes “blue” Fier admits he will have to adjust some of his jokes for the final round, but it’s a challenge he looks forward to.

“I have worked diligently to try to write cleaner and cleaner comedy,” the observant, kippah-wearing Orthodox Jew said. “I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to write material that is somewhat provocative, but I would also like to, one day, allow my children to be able to comfortably watch what their father does on stage three nights a week.

“And with that goal in mind, I recognize that I need to raise my comedy to a certain level.”

With such a work ethic and high standard, he’s winning over even competing comics. Fellow amateur Kristine Kinsey waited in line next to Fier for five days for the New York auditions of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” (for which both made the exclusive second round), and the two became fast friends.

“Immediately, the first thing that went through my head was very much Woody Allen, Richard Lewis,” said Kinsey, who first saw him perform when the two were competitors in a Chattanooga contest. “He’s able to hyper-focus on every aspect of his life, which is interesting; he’s a very sharp guy. He always has the most amazing energy, and that’s so important when you’re doing comedy because if you don’t have good energy, you lose the audience very quickly.”

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Offstage: Daddy and doc

The laughs don’t leave Fier when he’s being a psychiatrist or a father. He loves using a hands-on method for both his practice and parenting, forming relationships that transmit both therapy and his own genuine caring.

A visit to his office is about having a conversation, chatting with a friend, perhaps even taking a walk to the nearby pond or coffee shop. He’s open, especially about the fact that he uses real-life occurrences with his patients for his material, and should one of them have a concern with that, he’s got a good line but in the end is respectful of their wishes.

“[I tell them] to think of it as your pain giving rise to humor for the rest of the world,” he said. “Your pain will ultimately generate laughter for others, and you should feel pleased in being able to be a part of that success.”

Again, pain is serving as the original impetus behind comedy, and Fier is probably better equipped to re-channel it than most considering the amount he’s experienced in his life. Harnessing the negative to create something positive is something he’s passionate about doing.

He was proud beyond words to see his son Joshua (better known as “Shui”) do the same with his recent bar mitzvah project, Though the ceremony passed in June, the whole family remains enthusiastic about his effort to educate the public about Tay Sachs and raise funds for research.

The doctor has gleaned some invaluable knowledge through his own trials, and now, whether it’s through the microphone, from his office chair or at home, he’s trying to teach others how to do the same.

“He just keeps building and building,” Kinsey said. “Considering everything he has to juggle in his life, it’s pretty amazing.”

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