And What Is Madness

Although the interview with Sickboy this past week was so special to me - illuminating even – this accompanying blog post has been a difficult thing to write.  One reason is that I am used to speaking about “schizophrenia” (that woefully stereotype-laden descriptor dropped on my medical chart a decade ago) as something I used to identify with, or used to experience.  I have spent most of the time in the past few years working hard, dancing between a career in the arts, and one in mental health, trying my damndest to make sure that people knew I was “recovered.”  

It wasn’t until I had the pleasure and the privilege of meeting with the guys at Sickboy Podcast, did it occur to me that this experience of illness has fundamentally changed me, for better and for worse.

And, one of the reasons it has become so important for me to refer to schizophrenia in the past tense, is because when you work as a psychotherapist, and even as a peer support worker – it is expected that you are on the other side of that precipice of “mental illness,” that you’ve climbed out of it unscathed, ready to guide others as they make their own way across.  It is in fact extremely taboo to admit to being human, and vulnerable, and messy, when you are supposed to be holding it all together as your job. So, to be honest, letting people into my head, and revealing some of my doubts and shortcomings, has kind of scared the bejeezus out of me.  

As a person who is “out of the closet” as a psychiatric survivor with a label like mine, I have to work twice as hard as a “normal” person to prove that I am reliable, dependable, competent, and worthy.  People are quick to write me off as crazy if they see me take a stand on an issue, and they happen to know my psych history.  

So, with this interview and blog post, I am attempting to do the impossible: to be vulnerable, and to somehow break through the biases and fears people may hold about how vulnerable, broken people aren’t fit to be leaders, therapists, or credible artists.

When I was in my Master’s, part of my thesis work was on the concept of the Wounded Healer, and how knowing the darkest depths within the human psyche can make one uniquely equipped to be a guide for others as they make their own way through it.  As a dear friend of mine has said to me, comparing me to “normal” folk: “Laura, you’ve been to jungles they’ve only seen maps of.” 

Although in theory, I know there is value in my lived experience of what some people refer to as “schizophrenia,” I realize that I have been so afraid of losing work opportunities, and relationships, that I have been careful to only reveal the parts of my experience that are beneficial, or socially acceptable.  The truth is – there are parts of the experience which even today are so bloody hard.

This past 2 weeks, I have been reducing my anti-psychotic medication down another increment (something I have been safely doing under the advice of my shrink for years now) and I am experiencing what I always do when I go through a change like this where my dopamine systems have to learn to readjust – lots of interrupted sleep, tiredness, and a mild form of dissociation – something I know how to work with, but it is definitely not pleasant.  Last winter, I had to cancel a couple of auditions for acting work because the last time I dropped down my dose (in a slightly larger increment) I became emotionally numb for about a month, and was therefore unable to draw upon any emotions I would need as an actor.  I am always navigating things like this.  I am always having to wrestle with my own secret struggles.  All the while, I get written about in newspapers or make films here and there, and I end up becoming some form of inspiration porn - when the notion that my life is now wrapped up in a neat little bow is completely ridiculous to me.  No one’s life is without struggle.  The linear story of recovery from mental illness is a harmful one.  It tells us that emotional pain is bad.  The truth is - I’m not so sure about that anymore.  Pain seems to me to be a necessary part of how we grow, how we learn to appreciate joy and all of the other emotions on the spectrum.  

One of the ways I’ve been able to reckon with all of this is through writing.  I am in the middle of writing my second play about my mental health history – this one entitled “Tight Rope,” as it speaks to how I am precariously positioned between the identity of sick person and all of the other roles that I play in my life.  Like a film I made a few years ago, entitled “Superhero,” it seems I am still grappling with the see-saw between victim and superhero, never seemingly being allowed to walk the more human middle ground in between. 

That is was I am striving for, I think.  And it is perhaps what we all want – to dare to be exactly who we are, and to have a special place in this world because we are authentic, and uniquely human.

Thanks everyone for listening.  I really appreciate it, and I hope I have spoken my story with enough courage to resonate.  

As per recommendation from the folks at Sickboy, I will end with a poem – something which found it’s way into the end of Heartwood, my first solo mental health play.  Much love.

 

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And what is madness

but the sadness of the whole world

leaking out of the furled palm

of any one of us holding an ocean of tears

with a clenched fist

It is the list of things

we're supposed to be

nailed two inches above 

the place on the wall 

where we can reach

 

And some of us fall so far below the ground

that they need the sound of our voices to remind them of which way is up

that this is all about love, it’s not about luck

My branches extend not toward the sky, but reach down toward the floor

to offer support for those of us who can’t stand on their own anymore

and there is of course only so much that I can do

But our roots are intertwining

so everything I build, is in part for and because of you

 

And as your desperate words

penetrate my mind

I wish I could find you a way

to rewind 

to the time

before you lost all that you knew

of inside

I would give you x-ray glasses

so you wouldn't have to go into it blind

so you could see through the demons dancing

and navigate your way

through hell

I would sell you the armour I built for myself

for only the price of a promise

that you will fight

that you will persist

inhale the night until you are filled

and you have to breathe it out

so the light has room

 

I know your tomb is bleak

buried under the earth

and it's a crapshoot

to find your way 

to rebirth

but we're digging

'til our fingers are raw

We're going to find you under there

and we're not waiting

for the ground to thaw

So hold tight

We're on our way

But you have to keep breathing

It's not the time for grieving yet

 

I wish I could explain

this thievery of vitality

I wish I could bring back the reality

you once knew

but I can't 

But what I can do is say that

this ending

may seem final

but there are several little parts

which make up a life

like vertebrae on a spinal column

and there are so many solemn voices

carrying histories like yours

who managed to scrape themselves

off the floor

and climb the stairs to the top

And trust me, it means more than 

taking the elevator

even if there is still the same drop

 

And there are no guarantees

No matter how many times

you cross your fingers or say please

But if you believe

then you have a fighting chance

Yes, embrace the night and dance

'cause there's no other way around it

It may seem impossible to hold

the darkness and the future

but trust me, I've found it -

the way to grieve and to believe

You, like me

have got more up your sleeve

In time, I bet that

your gift to all

is to show us where

your light and darkness meet

 

So don't retreat

You've earned your seat

and as you learn

you can't discern between

hell fire as it burns

and the sun as it turns

you know suddenly - it's all heat

It's all fodder for your path

So keep going

Together we'll sing a song 

about the aftermath

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