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.

When The Clowns Stop Laughing

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It’s a sad day when the comedians in the world stop laughing, stop telling jokes, and bend to the darker thoughts in their head. I was out with the No Visible Scars crew when we heard that actor/comedian Robin Williams had been found dead in his home, likely from suicide.

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As a kid who grew up in the 1990s, I naturally adored Robin Williams. He was the Genie in the first film I ever saw in theatres; Disney’s Aladdin. I grew up watching Patch Adams,  Mrs. Doubtfire, and when I was a teenager discovered his early classics like Mork and Mindy. He was clever and funny and played the sort of fun-loving dad every kid could look up to.

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This has been a month of a lot of personal loss; two friends have died (one from suicide) and two more are very sick. As I work on a play that centres on depression and suicide I can’t help but feel more affected than I’d like to. That’s probably why William’s death hit me so hard; he had a family, a great career, he was a comedian, one of the ones who is meant to make light out of dark and to inspire all of us to laugh it off and move on. And even he couldn’t manage it.

I’ve been saying it a lot as I work on No Visible Scars; depression effects so many more people than you’d think. It’s not just “emo” kids and poor people. It isn’t exclusive to any age, race, sex, religion – it can take a hold of anyone. His death certainly goes to show that.

“Each and every one of his in this room is one day going to stop breathing, grow cold, and die”

His famous line from Dead Poet’s Society is certainly true, but it’s not a process we need to be rushing along. His death was a waste of talent. A waste of a life. A selfish act that has affected his family, friends, and all who adored him. Don’t let that happen to someone you love. Don’t let that happen to you. Reach out before you lose someone. Reach out before we lose you.

-E.

Promise Productions, “No Visible Scars” True Story.

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As I’ve mentioned before,  No Visible Scars is a play about mental health, depression,  suicide and hope. 1 in 4 people will experience mental health issues in their lifetime,  and yet it is still highly stigmatized and rarely talked about.

In an effort to break down some of these barriers and minimize the stigma surrounding depression, the Promise Productions team has decided to share some of their real-life stories of depression,  suicide and hope.

To start things off, here is our technical director Craig A. Nelson’s own story.

     Hope is a wonderful thing. Yet certain events and circumstances in life can cause hope to diminish, even disappear completely. I’d like to tell you my story of how hope changed my life. During the years between 1998 and 2009 I abused my body with malnutrition, alcoholism and drug addiction. The human body can take a massive amount of punishment, but it can only take so much. I found myself at the limit of what my body could take and on January 6th, 2009, my body finally gave up.

During the years between 1998 and 2009 I abused my body with malnutrition, alcoholism and drug addiction… I found myself at the limit of what my body could take.

     I was diagnosed with Acute Necrotizing Pancreatitis and the Owen Sound Hospital I was in was doing everything in their power to keep me alive, with little success. Finally, I was transferred to St. Michaels Hospital in downtown Toronto where I was treated with the care that saved my life. I underwent a series of major abdominal surgeries, including a colostomy and other various drainage bags. Although my life was spared, I was still in really bad shape and the hospital was preparing a room in their long-term care facility where I was expected to remain for the rest of my days. This fate was not appealing to me at all, so I decided then to start digging for hope.
I made up my mind that I was not going to stay in the hospital until I died, rather I would start pushing myself to get stronger. It started with little walks from my hospital bed down the hall, then up a stair or two. It got to the point where the hospital was rethinking their plan to have me stay forever and now decided that I was ready to be discharged.

     I went to stay with my parents on the beautiful Bruce Peninsula. I would take daily walks down an old back road to a nice wooded area and then back again. On my way to the woods, I would pass an old farm gate. During one of my walks, I stopped at the gate and thought to myself, “I wonder if I could do a push up on that gate?”. It would be easier than doing a regular push up, but still, a virtual impossibility. I stepped toward the gate and placed my hands upon it. I awkwardly let myself down to rest my chest on the gate, clenched my teeth, closed my eyes and pushed with all my might. I could feel myself lifting off of the gate!!! I had done it!! I had actually done a push up. No matter how “girlie” it was, I did it!
The next day, I came back to the gate and dared myself to do two push ups this time. On the third day, I did three and so on until I was doing dozens of push ups on this old farmer’s gate. Today, I have made a full recovery and live every day to the fullest because you never know when your time will be up.

     There is hope in all of us. Sometimes that hope can disappear. It doesn’t ever leave the body, but becomes so far away that it seems absent. It’s in there though, waiting for us to start digging for it. If you dig and work hard enough, it can be found again, and that is the most hopeful notion there is.

Sometimes that hope can disappear… It’s in there though, waiting for us to start digging for it…it can be found again.

     Today, I am in the best shape of my life. I suffer no residual effects from my illness and require zero medication. I owe
it all to hope. Thanks for reading my story!!

Check out Craig’s technical designs onstage at the Connelly Theatre. No Visible Scars opens this Saturday;  check out the event page for details.