Stories are important, who tells them is equally so.
In March of 2017 I heard an episode of On Being titled Belonging Creates and Undoes us Both and it was the first hopeful thing I had heard after the election of 2016, my mugging the previous August and the collective depression that had settled over everyone I knew and the art we were trying to create. The guest was Padraig O’Tauma who had grown up gay and Irish Catholic and was the current leader of place called Corrymeela. Now, I have to admit that I have a love/hate relationship with On Being. Sometimes I find the interviews interesting and moving and sometimes the self reverent tone of it makes me want to claw my eyes out through my ears. But he was poetic and funny as he talked about the power of language, the generosity of listening, the recognition to say, “Where are the limitations of our understanding?” And he was Irish. Der. I rabbit-holed so hard on Corrymeela. So the word Corrymeela can be interpreted in different ways— “Hill of Harmony,” “Hill of Honeysuckle,” or “Lumpy Crossroads”. It was started by Ray Davey who had been in a prisoner of war camp in Dresden during the bombing in WW2 and returned to Belfast aware of the tensions brewing. Corrymeela grew out of this concern. It began before “The Troubles and continues on after The Troubles,” promoting tolerance between people of differing backgrounds and beliefs. And in May of 2018 I went to live as a volunteer on a cliff in Northern Ireland at the Lumpy Crossroads. But that’s not the start.
Who’s telling the story? Who’s it for? Why now?
At the start of 2017 the world sucked but professionally for me things were pretty good. I was teaching and directing at Second City, being asked to be on panels and meetings and was called in to discuss directing the next ETC show. In the history of Second City resident stages in Chicago there have been a total of five female directors. Since 1959. Most of whom in the recent past have gotten one shot and then been labeled a failure or hard to work with while male directors tend to get, at least, a second show. A director at Second City is the gatekeeper to what gets pitched, what gets assigned, and ultimately what ends up in the show. To say representation in directing is important is an understatement and to say that systemic sexism or racism don’t play a part in that is a joke to anyone that works in the arts and is other. As an actor my voice there had been muffled but as a director I would make sure others had a platform to create. It was time. Except then I went crazy.
See, after my mugging (which happened on the way home from a Tourco show I directed at Second City on a warmish monday night) I had pretty bad PTSD so Second City offered to cover a few meetings with a psychiatrist (which if you know mental health is not how that should work.) But he put me on some pretty strong anti-depressants that worked. Really well. Too well. 9 months later and SURPRISE! I’m bipolar.
NOTES: 08/31/17 I might be having a manic episode.
363 notes, 19 tweets, hundreds of facebook comments and posts, immeasurable emails and texts and manifestos, a mere 6 days (with very little sleep and being sure I had in fact died but also discovered the secret on how to live forever) later… I am committed.
You know what’s wild? GOing crazy. Have you ever been depressed? Taken antidepressants? Had a full blown split from reality manic episode that resulted in a 3 day forced hospital stay? I. have. It was all fun and games and finger tattoos until I died on my birthday.
Turns out finger tattoos weren’t a great idea But I regret everything. Sorry. Typo I meant: I regret nothing. Nope that’s not right. First one. (09/03/17)
Well see I turned 34 thus coming out of my Jesus year.
Ruminate til it clears (09/03/17)
So obviously I had, in fact, died. But LUCKILY I discovered the secret of everlasting life the clues of which had been left for me in movies like Death Becomes Her and David Bowie’s music ohhowIcouldn’twaittomeetDavidBowiewhohadalsodiedandlivedforever.
Give a homeless person something frivolous but thoughtful
Take your pain and play NO it’s take your truth and play you might figure out why you’re in pain (09/03/17)
My brain was making connections like the last scene of The Usual Suspect, fast enough to stay ahead of logic and logical enough for me to explain but ultimately fabricated ahd deeply unsettling to the people who knew me.
I’m losing my mind but I don’t know that it was ever mine Buddhan Proverb 09/04/17
So after walking through the zoo after it closed (and thinking they had kept it open just for me) a couple wonderful friends got me to a hospital.
My mind is blowing my mind (09/05/17)
I’m in this room waiting, being guarded by a nurse.
Paranoia happens when you stop trusting that people believe you. Plus caring? (09/05/17)
Full mania, every breath gives me more energy. It’s exhilarating.
The world is fucked yo i am the God of my world (09/05/17)
I haven’t slept in days, I have ideas and I’ve decided while I’m in this holding cell, waiting: I would find each of the health workers laugh language.
It’s hard to watch someone you love struggle but if you walk away you’ll never see them succeed (09/05/17)
I remember so much of the episode. I was fully conscious and though not all of how I perceived things was “true” I was there for the whole ride.
My brain was broken so I broke it I had the memories I was just missing the Connections that brings them up (09/05/17)
So in this waiting room, after my brain concocted the reason I was being held there, I decided I would make them all laugh.
I’m trying to listen to my body but it’s hard because she doesn’t speak in words!!! (09/05/17)
And boy did I. I found out later I had been quite a hit as they waited to admit me. Funnier than I’ve ever been and funnier than I’ll ever be. An insane person waiting to start living her immortal life.
This is the happiest I’ve ever been yet (09/05/17)
When they bring me the papers to sign myself in there are two pages. So I sign the first and say, winking as though we are all in on the joke (the cosmic game I have created and only I know the rules to) that I just sign myself in and right back out, right? In with the first signature and out with the second? WINK?!
What’s my language (09/05/17)
With what I take as them saying yes, I do and try to leave.
Good god will this make sense when I go back to sleep? And wake up? (09/05/17)
Here is where my reality and theirs violently split and I fear. Here’s where they hold me down and sedate me.
Art is to keep you alive. Either because you’re dead or dead inside (09/05/17)
So on September 6, 2017, two days after my birthday for the first time in my life, I commit.
“I’m going to work as a volunteer at a Peace and Reconciliation Center living in an open Christian community.” I didn’t really know what I was saying or what it meant. But it gave a great answer to the question that we are inevitably asked as humans in the arts, “What’s next?!” And in February of 2018 everyone wanted to know what was next for me and I was very happy to have any answer even if the words sounds like poorly written commercial copy coming out of my alien lips. But in May it was a reality and I was there. As a volunteer you were put on housekeeping, kitchen, hospitality or groups. I loved Hospitality because the way I did it consisted mainly of making sure there was always coffee brewing, setting up the tea cart and eating biscuits. Which are cookies. On my days off I would try to get onto a group to see the work on conflict resolution that was done there, which is how I helped facilitate a group from Ohio Weslyan there to study the Troubles as a ground work for learning about race in America. The group was led by Paul Hutchinson. Paul is magic. He’s an ex-drama therapist turned mediator who was both warm and funny. And Irish. Der. I’ve never seen such care taken to set up a room and handle group dynamics, awareness, and boundaries. An artist, he lived through the troubles and uses both his own personal experience and well as historical understanding and one of the first things he said that stuck with me was the 3 questions we ask when we enter a space: “Is it safe? Do you like me? Who’s in Charge?” Continue asking these questions and it will shape the space.
I kept a notebook in the hospital while I was committed. You’ll notice, if I were to let you see it, that it’s mostly in marker because I was not allowed to have pencils til they moved me down to the second floor because as my new floor mate explained “OH the third floor is for the REAL crazies” then she asked if she could have my cake and told me I looked like I read books. It is very confusing to wake up in your right mind in the wrong place. It is made worse by the fact that there are few answers, the doctor is rarely there and no one will tell you when you can get out. This leads you to a paranoia that is so palpable that you will never get out and no one will ever believe you are not crazy and you live here now and forever. This is made worse by one of your friend’s showing up on a tv show playing in the common area and the person coming in to lead the drama therapy session being a former student. You say nothing. It seems crazy and reeks of delusions of grandeur and you can not afford to look crazy in this hospital where no one will tell you when you can leave. You are totally in the moment. Because there is nothing else. You appreciate the humor of the orderlies and the stories of the other captives who are all choosing to be there. While also being terrified and confused. You cry in your room. There is nothing to do. On day three the smells start getting to you. A woman arrives who keeps shitting and puking on herself in the hall and keeps trying to sneak into the shower. You feel for her. You imagine how nice the feel of the water must be on her fitful body and her fitful brain. And you will agree with anything to get out. “You were really out of it.” Yes. “Here is lithium, you will have to take it for the rest of your life.” Yes. “In 20 years you’ll have to get your thyroid checked because it will cause problems.” YES? Is it safe? Do you like me? Who’s in charge?
At Corrymeela in the Ohio Weslyan group we talked about stories and how Your 7 year old story and your 27 year old story are all in the room shaping you. The first time Paul had held a gun was at 7 which was also when his parents told him never to tell anyone his name because in Northern Ireland that’s how they asked if you were the enemy. The power of names. The whole point was to look back at the past to see what can we learn how can we do better. That trauma and PTSD permanently change your response. And we talked about Truth. The kinds of truth. Forensic- the facts; narrative-peoples version; diagonal-what new truths emerge and healing truth-the truth that is relational. That sometimes people are not ready to hear other truths. That sometimes there’s a good learning not a good ending.
Who is the story for? What’s in the telling of it?
In December of 2017, after two months of ghosting me, yes ghosting me, the Second City producer who had excitedly talked to me about casting the next ETC show emailed, I refused to get the news over the phone. I went in and was coldly told they would not in fact be offering me the ETC job. That they didn’t want to stress me out. The timing wasn’t right. So instead of stressing me out with a job I was uniquely qualified to do instead I was stressed out with having no work and no prospects. What had been a conversation was no longer one. What was engaging was now transactional. They didn’t ask any questions, encourage any dialogue or show interest in understanding. They could have handled it better, I think. They should, as an instituiton, at this point be as adept at understanding mental illness, or trying to, as they are at covering up and trying to work with men who are accused of sexual harassment and complained about by a bevy of female artists that are also employed by them. In the history of Second City they have had a total of 5, now 6, female directors. In 59 years. I was not one of them.
It’s terrifying. It’s heartbreaking to be told by a company that you’ve worked with for 15 years that Ya done.
Having to prove that you’re sane is very time consuming and terribly stressful. Not to mention extremely nuanced when you’re in a creative profession. Walking back into Second City, into work, into my community after my well self-publicized episode- I was not safe, I was hardly human and damned if I could figure out who was in charge. In the aftermath I was so angry and hurt. I was grieving. Grieving the job I had lost, everything I had built, and who I thought I was. Oh, and also my entire belief system and the refuge of my mind was shattered. Being inside my own mind I was no longer safe or liked and I was not in charge. The mania had reached out. The depression reached in. As it always has. I knew it was my fault and I also knew there was nothing I could do about it. So what do you do with that? You suffer a deeper depression that you knew possible, manage to have a skype interview at the height of it and YOU. FUCK. OFF. TO. NORTHERN IRELAND.
Because I guess for me, my reactions are MORE. Calibrated up or down.
I spent most of my time at the Lumpy Crossroads savoring the beautiful walk in and out of town along the cliff and beach. Walking back to the center one night in the pitch blackness with Kiera, an Australian volunteer, safe from Chicago and its assumptions and it’s sentence I told my story: that I had come to get away from stress. And she said, “You came to live IN community, working in a new country, that’s like the most stressful thing you could do.” And I thought… maybe I’m gonna be ok. Ahhh maybe I AM ok. Am I ok?
You know most medication for Bipolar is to keep the top on, there’s very little that does anything to keep the bottom from falling out? After trying several drugs that did little more than make me extremely tired or bloated and feel awful, I started to feel comfortable advocating for my body and my mind after being told very confidently by a doctor who saw me once that I would be on lithium forever.
And I had been much more comfortable with my depression. Perhaps because depression is something you have, bipolar is something YOU ARE.
Or perhaps because after my diagnosis I saw my friend in a show at Steppenwolf where a character threw bipolar as a flippant joke insult at another character and the audience laughed or how one of your students wrote ‘manic depressive’ as a ‘secret’ for a character to have in a scene in your improv class and you got to watch a lovely young student play it, a version she no doubt saw in a movie and then you got to give notes on it. Stigma leads to shame, eh? Or shame leads to stigma? I just remember when noting that actor I said “I’m bipolar and if it was a secret I’d probably work pretty hard to hide it. So perhaps playing against it as you would against crying would be a stronger choice, adding more tension and grounding it more.” I don’t know if it was a great note, but it felt nice to say that thing was a part of me in a class that had written it down as a punchline. The power of the words we choose to speak and choose not to.
I had my word now, my name and finally the power to know that I get to decide what it means to me and what I can do with it, it’s a starting point. For me.
Words are important. They help us find meaning and belonging and they can also be used against us, and undo us. I had to remind myself that having the word for something doesn’t mean that there’s a true and all encompassing definition especially when it has to do with humans. We should be afraid of assumptions- not of admitting the limits of our understanding. In an article on To Kill A Mockingbird Aaron Sorkin talked about the choice of changing the main character to Atticus Finch instead of Scout for the stage production. He sited playwriting reasons and you can say what you want about that, but it sounds condescending and dismissive and that is not the same story. A story written by a woman about girlhood becomes about a man. Fuck your old playwriting templates, try harder, tell stories different, stop doing what ‘works’ and discover what’s ‘next.’ Because what you create and uphold has power.
The Gatekeepers choose the stories, how they’re told and the words we use.
Who’s telling the story? What’s in the telling of it?
I was recently refused entry to a meditation retreat. Because I disclosed that one little word on the application, Bipolar. A word. So stigma is real and it’s trying to keep me from breathing.
Is it safe? Do you like me? Who’s in charge?
Paul Hutchinson produced a piece of art called ‘Just For One Day’ involving 10 artists in 10 venues across Belfast creating works to mark 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement that signaled the “end” of Troubles, you know when the real work actually begins. “When the agreement is made but the pain still lingers and everyone has their story to hold onto.” As you approached one of the pieces you hear a thud. breath. thud. breath. As as you enter the space you see a dancer, Leonie Mcdonagh standing up and falling down. She fell down 200 times in an hour to represent the 3600 lives lost. Beginning at 7pm in this empty theater, she fell down 200 times and when the audience arrived about 40 minutes into it she was tired but she was still falling down. Paul noted that interestingly most people were only looking at the falls and thinking “I hope she ok” and missed the other bit which was half of the performance. How many times did she stand back up...