Still The Same

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Something has been gnawing away at me the past week and I’ve been having a hard time articulating what exactly it is. The Toronto Fringe is on and my feeds have been flooded with emotional posts about the ups and downs of mounting a show, of the love people have felt when it’s received well, of the anger and abuse they feel when there’s an unfavourable review – the consistent thing is that everyone seems to rally around and declare their support;

“All Fringe shows deserve a 5 star review”

” This review was unfair, we need to all get out and support the show”

“I’m overwhelmed by the love and support I have received from everyone, thank you”

Looking at this you’d think we all exist in a very supportive, inclusive community.

We don’t.

I’ve written before about my shitty experiences with Theatre 20 and in particular, Brian Goldenberg, and doubtless some will read this and think I should let it go. The problem is, nothing has changed. At least, not for the perpetrators.

This year Brian has 3 shows in the Toronto Fringe Festival – a good friend of mine is acting in one of them, something this friend avoided telling me so as not to make things “awkward”. He knows the whole story. He was one of the first people I told, years ago, when this started. He doesn’t mind working with someone who knowingly discriminated against someone because of a mental illness and who thought that someone deserves to be fired if they try to assert their human rights.

This topic has come up several times in the past few days, while hanging around the tent, and I’ve been told by multiple friends that they know the story, believe me, but will not be saying anything or changing the way they interact with him because they’ve known him for a while and again, don’t want to make things “awkward”. Don’t want to cause any “trouble”. They support me, they’re just not willing to show that, or say that to anyone but me.

The same thing happened when I first wrote about this. I kept quiet for over a year, waiting until I had proof, posting the results of a legal hearing rather than sharing my own thoughts and feelings. I was right. That was proven, non-subjective. A lot of people read that blog. Quite a few sent me private messages and shared similar stories about the men in question. But no one from the community said anything out in the open. Nothing changed.

Around that time a reporter (someone who knows well and writes about the theatre) reached out to do an interview about it. I had hopes that, with this being published in something major, more would see it and maybe something would change. Delays caused it to eventually be dropped. I don’t blame him, he’s reached out a couple times to apologize, once quite recently. He said there may be something happening soon that could lead to him reviving the story – I hope so. But for now, nothing has happened. Nothing changed.

I saw Brian in the audience at a performance the other night, ironically for a show about a woman who struggles with anxiety and depression and eventually leaves her job because of it. Shows like this are celebrated because it’s “important to eliminate the stigma” around mental health, to recognize it as a serious, legitimate illness, to support those who are suffering – but here is a documented, proven case of discrimination having taken place in our own tiny community, and nothing has changed. He didn’t even bother to come to the hearing. It didn’t cost him his job, clearly hasn’t damaged his reputation. He did read the post, because he contacted the HRTO (with me cc’d) to accuse me (wrongly) of slander, so clearly he knows that this behaviour should be damaging, but his lack of recognition let alone an apology tells me he really doesn’t care.

None of this changed him, but it did change me.

I missed weeks of work leading up to the hearing, costing me money I couldn’t afford to lose, piling on to the already nearly unbearable stress I deal with from my anxiety, daily, I’m sure it damaged my reputation because whether it was justified or not, no one wants an employee who misses 3 weeks of work, and here we are, another year later, and I’m still feeling the residual effects. I question my importance to my friends, and whether there’s any point in confiding in them. I question the support of my community, and whether there’s any sincerity behind the daily posts about acceptance and inclusion. I question myself, and whether saying this will give me any peace of mind or just further isolate me. I question whether I want to be a part of a community that seems to be more interested in appearing inclusive and supportive than actually doing anything to achieve that.

It’s time for something to change.

Mental Illness In The Arts

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I recently read a beautifully composed and poignant article by Shon Arieh-Lerer who I had the pleasure of meeting during the 2014 NYC Fringe when I saw his comedy show, His Majesty the Baby. Apparently, in addition to being very funny, Shon has an insightful view on the “Sad Clown myth”. As he explains in his article;

“…it was wrong and premature to apply the Sad Clown myth to Williams. He did not just commit suicide because he was depressed; he actually suffered from a horrifying disease whose symptoms are pulled from the dark playbooks of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia, and schizophrenia…The Sad Clown myth is false and destructive. It promotes a worldview that understands humor as a form of escape from a bleak reality that will inevitably triumph in the end.”

He goes further to address the unnecessary hardships comedians (and really, any artists in general) may endure when the idea that their talent springs from their illness is reinforced; “When you’re told that you’re funny because you’re mentally ill, you have a strong incentive not to seek help”.

Shon’s article makes an important point, and one that I hope people will read and give some serious thought to; it certainly got me thinking. Because in addition to these assumptions that mental illness can be a cause of, perhaps even the cause of one’s creative talent, it is also often assumed that it is an almost convenient affliction, one that they use as an excuse to dodge responsibility, or to gain sympathy. It seems that, to many, the stigma surrounding mental illness is supported by the misconception that, deep down, the sufferer has control over it, and can use the symptoms to foster creative ideas and when that fails, to throw a fit and escape any blame; it is “all in their head”, after-all.

…to many, the stigma surrounding mental illness is supported by the misconception that, deep down, the sufferer has control over it.

I’ll use my own case as an example. I have been diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety with agoraphobia, a diagnosis that I received several years ago and have been undergoing treatment for since. It’s not generally something you go shouting in the streets, because despite all the happy ads that encourage you not to stigmatize the mentally ill, when there is something wrong that doesn’t create a clearly visible change in people, many are inclined to believe it somehow isn’t “real”. This is especially difficult when you work in the arts like I do; how can you work in theatre if you can’t go outside? How could you act onstage if you have anxiety? How can you smile and schmooze at fundraisers if you have depression? These are the questions that are seldom asked to your face, but instead whispered behind your back; well obviously she’s making it up, exaggerating it at least. I’ll answer this in the simplest terms I can; mental illness is not who you are. It is not the fundamental aspect of your personality. It is exactly what the name describes, an illness. And just as you would never say that a paraplegic’s personality is that they are paralyzed, you should not say that someone who has depression is simply a “sad person”, or that someone with an anxiety disorder is just “high-strung”; when you’re talking about actual mental illness these are just unfortunate factors the people have to deal with. It is something they are afflicted with, it is not who they are. And when they are able to overcome that anxiety and get onstage, or put on a smile to do their job, despite feeling awful inside, that is not something that should be used to criticize or discredit them, but rather the opposite. That’s just one step they’re taking on their way back to who they really are.

Mental illness is not who you are. It is not the fundamental aspect of your personality. It is exactly what the name describes, an illness.

While the arts community on a whole likes to think of itself as a very liberal, accepting group, I have been disheartened to find many small-minded and critical people near the top. In an instance that I won’t go into detail on now (because of pending legal action) I found myself shocked when reading a formal response, one vowed to be truthful, that stated quite clearly that I did not and could not have a disability because they, a) had not seen any example of it and, b) I could not possibly have agoraphobia since I traveled to NYC to produce a show this past summer (I encourage you to research agoraphobia if on reading that you are at first inclined to agree). My claim of discrimination could not stand not because they had not acted in a discriminatory way, but because apparently I simply do not have a disability (a producer and an ex-actor would know better than the psychiatrist and host of other professionals I’ve seen, I’m sure).

Just as Shon so simply puts in his article, “when you’re told that you’re funny because you’re mentally ill, you have a strong incentive not to seek help” so can be said for the struggle to beat your affliction; when your success in overcoming the symptoms is used as fodder to support a claim that you “don’t really have a problem” or that it’s “all in your head” you begin to question the point in trying. If you can’t overcome all the time, and the times when you do only turn more people against you, what’s the point in trying at all? It can become much easier to let the illness win.

…when your success in overcoming the symptoms is used as fodder to support a claim that you “don’t really have a problem” or that it’s “all in your head”…it can become much easier to let the illness win.

To go back to the questions that no one is directly asking, how do I do it? With difficulty. That’s the simplest and most honest way I can describe it. I love the theatre, and I am naturally an outgoing and enthusiastic person, it just so happens that for my adult life my brain chemistry has thought otherwise. And while I can’t speak for others, I suspect many of them in similar situations would say the same. There are famous cases of performers who suffer from near crippling stage fright (Barbra Streisand comes to mind) and yet still manage successful careers; does that mean that she does it without difficulty, or that anyone with the same problem can “get over it” if they “want to” or “try hard enough”? Of course not. And it should go without saying that every case is different.

For me, the greatest challenge with anxiety is its unpredictability. Some sufferers have consistent thoughts and fears, such as the worry that they will be trapped on a subway and run out of air. While there is a part of them that knows that not to be true, another part of their brain is telling their body that it will happen, and so comes the racing heart, shortness of breath and all the other fun symptoms. In my case, I have almost never had those accompanying thoughts, and so for years I had severe panic attacks without knowing what they were. Sudden dizziness, nausea, and impromptu blackouts had me being tested for things like diabetes or a heart problem. It wasn’t until a few years later that I finally had a doctor put their finger on it, and start to treat the actual issue.

So what to do? As a sufferer, do you give up and give in, knowing you’ll be miserable but not called a liar? Or do you keep trying, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, and always trying to block out not just the negative voices in your head but the ones around you, suspicious of your ever move? That’s the issue I’ve been struggling with a lot lately, and as I can’t answer it for myself I won’t try to for anyone else. But I will say this; try giving people the benefit of a doubt. It takes a really messed-up person to fake having any mental illness, and I’ve gotta say, even in that case I suspect it just means they have another one. There is nothing fun, or easy, or helpful about admitting you have an anxiety disorder, or suffer from depression. In fact, it almost always leaves you regretting speaking up, at least in my experience. The only reason I have in the past was the hope that our anti-discrimination laws would protect me where common-decency and kindness might not; maybe they can fire you for not showing up for work, or for not having a “fun” attitude, but they can’t get rid of you for an illness that is legitimately beyond your control. Or so I thought – we’ll see how that one goes.

There is nothing fun, or easy, or helpful about admitting you have an anxiety disorder, or suffer from depression.

At any rate, I’m saying this now in hopes that someone will read this and give a second thought to the critical glances and whispers, that instead of accusingly gossiping behind someone’s back they will actually go up to that person, if they want to know, and say, “how do you do it?”. Maybe that way they will actually gain some insight, and maybe even empathy. As a final thought, again, try not to let someone’s hobbies or career influence what you think they can or cannot be afflicted with. Doctors can catch colds. Comedians can be depressed. Singers can have anxiety. Just because the symptoms of a person’s illness seems contrary to their personality or career doesn’t make it less real, it likely just makes it that much harder for them to deal with. Mental illness isn’t who you are, it’s what stops you from being all you can be, and we shouldn’t be judging or assuming or criticizing those who have it, we should be trying to help find a way to get them back on track.

-E.

Read Shon’s poignant article, “Robin Williams’ Lewy Body Dementia Diagnosis Should Finally Crush the “Sad Clown” Myth”, in its entirety on Slate.com.

Promise Productions, “No Visible Scars” True Story, IV

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When this team was put together, we had no idea how connected we all were to the subject matter of the play. I don’t know if we were all subconsciously drawn to it, or if it really is just a testament to how many people go through these sorts of things, but it’s only been through our late-night chats that we’ve come to realize that all of us connect with No Visible Scars on a very personal level. Here’s the fourth installment of our Real Life stories.

I’ve struggled with depression most of my life. Since the age of 10 there had been a steady decline, and it was around age 14 that I really started to feel I had nothing to live for, and made a few meager attempts at ending my life. There were, of course, ups and downs. And it’s difficult to explain to someone how, literally, one day you can be out with friends, fully functional and full of energy, and the next night be sobbing in your closet with a razor in your hand. It’s easy to get labelled a “drama queen” or “emo”, and so those of us with actual problems, not looking for attention, tend to keep things hidden. We push the pain down.

While I had struggled for a long time, it was about a year ago that I felt I had finally reached my limit. I felt abandoned by everyone who was supposed to love me. Once a straight-A-student, I was now barely passing my classes because I could not get over my anxiety about leaving the house; I spent most days lying in bed, trying to sleep because whenever I was awake I so desperately wanted to go out, but couldn’t. I felt immense guilt about skipping classes, skipping work, and there were the practical fears as well; how was I going to pay rent? Why was I throwing away thousands on classes I couldn’t attend? After a violently emotional breakup, I thought things had finally hit rock bottom.

I don’t remember very clearly what exactly happened. I do recall shoving a handful of various pills into my mouth, and, according to my roommate, I did this again sometime later in the day. The entire thing is a blur and I remember most glimpses of hallucinations, the sound of my roommate’s voice (but being totally unaware of what he was saying), and lying on my back (I later learned, in an ambulance), staring up at a bright light and shivering. When I woke up hours later in the hospital, I was greeted by an IV in my arm and a callous ER doctor who asked, “Are you going to kill yourself?” while shoving a piece of paper in my hand and sending me home. I slept through the next day.

Once I had my senses back, I still felt awful, but the pressure had subsided a bit. It was like a valve, letting off a bit of steam; I knew things would build again quickly. The piece of paper was a referral to a psychiatrist at the hospital. I don’t like psychiatrists. I always thought I’d like to be one but I never had any interest in seeing one, and my few past experiences with them had never yielded any positive results. But my roommate insisted. He saved me again. And so I made an appointment and a week later met with a very young, very understanding doctor who was the first to talk to me like a person, and not a mental patient.

She was ok with the fact that I rejected some forms of therapy (“too wishy washy”). And she was ok with me requesting medication because I knew I needed to get on track, fast. Basically, she was ok with all the (reasonable) things I said, and so I felt like I could talk to her and started actually looking forward to sessions. I left feeling better, which had never happened before. While this was considered a “crisis clinic” and so had a limited number of sessions available, it still helped. Depression can’t be cured in a matter of weeks or months, but with the right person that’s all the time you need to realize that things can get better. I got over some of my major anxiety issues and started putting myself out there again, finding new friends, new jobs and starting a new life. Now I’m writing from New York, where I’m working on a play. I have a fiancé I love, a house, and two baby birds. I am far from ok – I still get depressed, I still have anxiety, and I will likely need my medication for years to come. But I’m here. And things have gotten better. And they will continue to get better for me; they can for you too.