We all have stories to tell. When we tell those stories, especially if they are about what society would call taboo subjects – like facing psychiatric illness in ourselves or in our family, we become change artists. The very act of sharing our story changes the world and the people around us.
When I ran down the street naked during a manic psychosis, I had no intention of writing, let alone acting in a play about it. I had no intention period. Well that’s not quite true. I did have one objective: find the Divine. At the time ‘naked’ seemed like a good idea. I thought I should meet my ‘maker’ how he or she made me, hence the ‘no clothes’ choice. Aaaanyway…
Fast forward 10 years later and three solo shows have been born – all revolving around my ‘adventures’ with bipolar disorder, anxiety, psychosis and recovery. Each play charts different aspects of my experience. I cover leather cuffs and hospital greens, shame and fear of having mental illness, refusal and struggle to take medication, dating in the psych ward, losing my career as an actor, returning to work and most importantly reclaiming my sense of self and my road of recovery.
I began writing instead of going back to acting because…well, after being at “Club Medication” several times (a.k.a. the psych. ward), I wasn’t getting the auditions quite like I used to. Psychosis has a way of doing that. And to be frank, I was gun shy about returning to the business of acting. I didn’t exactly leave at my peak. So with trepidation, I started writing about what happened.
Lo’ and behold when I read excerpts at a disability arts festival, the segments took on a life of their own. My voice was no longer only my voice. It was the sound of others struggling to come to terms with the lurid label of mental illness. I found there were people, like me, who craved to be heard, who hungered to see themselves reflected accurately within the context of mental illness.
Just like when I share my story of mental illness through the performance of my plays, when people share their stories with me I gain strength, validation and a sense of purpose and wholeness. I don’t know how this happens but it does. Even when the people sharing don’t consider themselves artists or storytellers, they are. We are.
All art forms give expression to the personal and universal. But ‘stigma-busting’ art, art that addresses subjects that we fear, illuminates the forbidden, the outlawed and the unspoken. It works in powerful ways: unearthing prejudices, dismantling myths, offering information and challenging deeply entrenched perceptions. Art changes societies – one person, one conversation at a time. There is no other way.
There’s a collective hunger to have mental illness brought out of the proverbial closet, to exchange information and share stories. There is also a fear of it.
To draw attention to psychiatric disorders through storytelling, painting, music or film (to name only a handful of vehicles), encourages others to reveal their journeys and create their recovery. It entices the public who might otherwise turn away to look more closely and ask questions.
In the words of the eminent educator and philosopher, Mr. Marshall McLuhan: ‘The medium is the message.’ When those of us with mental illness tell our story, we become the medium itself. We trigger change not just because of the stories we tell but because we tell our stories. People begin to see who is telling the story and realize we are all much more alike than we are different.
That is the power. That is the inspiration. Attitudes shift because we conflict with the social status quo of what it means to be mentally ill – violent, dangerous, forever unwell. ‘The medium is the message’ and here we become both the medium and the message.
We can give potent form to the ‘insider’s’ experience of mental illness and lift some veils of shame. In turn, it supports people to reach out for help earlier, or reach out period. And people who don’t live with a mental illness are force back upon themselves, to ask themselves questions about this still taboo subject. Stories and all art forms compel us to explore, question, and reflect on long held and often erroneous beliefs.
You are an artist of change – even if you’ve never considered yourself creative. If or when you share a part of your story, no matter to how many people or how much of your story – you are changing the tapestry of the world.
I have no control over what conclusions people come to after they see my shows, but I can offer an authentic glimpse into my ‘lived’ experience of mental illness. People will make up their own minds, but perhaps with more accurate information than before.
© 2010 Victoria Maxwell
Stigma has so many different faces: whether they be slim or not, different colors, or with different health conditions / mental issues – they all have one major point in common – the need to address the issue head on through education and advocacy. Brave individuals like Victoria who take the huge, and potentially career / life bombing step out into the light give us all a bit more courage to be who we are and share our own stories. So whether it’s your dress or pants size, your diagnosis, your orientation, or anything else, know that there are others out there just like you doing incredibly brave work to help all of us live lives of greater acceptance!