“The brain is a dangerous place, you should never go there alone.” — anonymous Wives Tales wife, 2016
I don’t know whether this lovely participant from our first project made the above quote up or not, but either way, ever since I heard it last summer, it’s stayed with me.
I really do believe that the brain can be a dangerous place if you aren’t careful. That’s not to say that it can’t be a happy, magical place, full of dreams and ideas, but it’s very easy to get lost. One minute you’re skipping through fields basking in memories of an old flame, then suddenly you hit a foggy patch. You’re no longer in a field filled with memories of love and laughter, but a tangled dark maze of thick thorny vines, overgrown so you can’t see out the top, the vines are so dense that the life has been choked out of everything that was alive. This, is a dangerous place.
This dangerous yet beautiful organ is so complex, we (the scientific we) still can’t navigate it with complete success. We can’t figure out why people behave the way they do, or why someone can wake up from a coma knowing how to speak fluent Chinese, or why we can lose our memories to Alzheimers or why some of us suffer from mental illness. It’s crazy. We can pump out a new piece of technology every 5 minutes, but we can’t figure out why some people suddenly feel sad and can’t get happy again.
I live in the beautiful city of Guelph, and went to university here, and recently I’ve noticed a disturbing trend on the University of Guelph Facebook Page. Death notices. About once a month there is a notice about a student who has died, found in their dorm room, sometimes at home, first year to fourth year, male or female, they killed themselves. More than once is enough to raise red flags, but as the school continues to lower their flags in respect, no one there seems to be raising any in concern.
Sure there are counselors, and Bell Let’s Talk day, and help lines and blah blah blah. But when month after month we are preaching the use of the resources, but month after month more people are dying we have to ask ourselves, are we doing enough?
I think the programs and campaigns being offered are great for normalizing the topic of mental health. It really shouldn’t be taboo. Having diabetes isn’t some secret illness that people feel they need to suffer through in silence, so why should that be the case for depression, or anxiety or schizophrenia? But it’s all become a bit of a double edged sword. By normalizing mental illness it’s given people permission to talk matter of factly about things they sometimes have no real grasp on. It’s become casual, water cooler fodder as we hashtag photos of ourselves with #letstalk without thinking about what it is we’re really talking about. Obviously the alternative universe where no one does talk about these things is not good, but a world where it’s often trivialized into a joke of a disease, or something cool to brag about (“my house is so clean because of my OCD lawl”) makes those suffering feel even more isolated.
I suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder types one and two, and Bipolar Personality Disorder type two. When someone jokes that they are OCD about things as they arrange their pencils, it certainly discourages me to share my own struggles. Would you joke to someone that you’re bulimic as you excuse yourself to go to the bathroom? Or would you say to a recovering alcoholic that your alcoholism is really strong tonight as you take a shot? Probably not.
So what do we do? How do we stop this? How do we remove a stigma without trivializing someone’s struggles? Sadly, I don’t know that we can right now. Not while we still don’t even understand how these problems really function.
I think it’s great that we are trying to become more forward thinking when it comes to mental health. There’s more accessibility to doctors and therapists with all sorts of methods to help. And there are people who don’t feel they need to suffer alone anymore. But with things like Bell Let’s Talk, and other movements coming forward, I think the focus needs to be less on individuality, and more on community.
Theatre has been my community saviour time and time again. In a world where people want to judge and push away, it’s a safe place where you’re pulled in and welcomed. When Nicole and I started Wives Tales last year, it was amazing to see how 5 individual women, all strangers from different walks of life, could come together and create a community of inclusivity and warmth. A community where their deepest secrets could be shared over a cup of warm tea. A night once a week where they could laugh, or cry, and never worry that anyone would be criticizing them, or trying to generalize their personal struggles. No feeling was ever trivialized or diminished by someone trying to mimic those emotions. Each woman, and each of their moments were their own, not to ever be fully understood, not to ever be fixed by someone else, but just to be listened to and acknowledged.
Both women and theatre have a reputation for being emotional, sensitive, over-the-top… but why is that a bad thing? The sensitivity I saw these women display during our time with them wasn’t cheesy or dramatic. Sometimes the bluntness in which they would respond to each other was anything but sympathetic. But it was honest. It was pure and unfiltered; which is refreshing in a world where we curate our entire lives to look as happy or as sad as we want in order to fill some unrealistic image.
Trying to describe your mental illness to someone is like describing a sunset to a blind person. There are no words that can ever really capture the feeling of waking up and not being able to breathe, or the feeling of being overcome by anxiety, or how scary it is to see things that aren’t really there. Until there are words, or solutions, we’re all just trying to stay afloat in a sea of uncertainty.
So, in a world where it can feel like the only way to take control of our lives is by taking our lives, please do whatever it is you need to survive. You may not be in theatre, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be part of the type of community I described. Find a way to create your own space filled with people who listen and like to drink tea. Find a room where you can sit with a stranger who doesn’t understand, and can’t relate, but won’t pretend they do and make you feel patronized. Let’s build a community that’s made of love and respect. A community that supports you whether or not they’ve been lost in the maze. After all, the brain can be a dangerous place, and you should never go there alone.