I’ve been having a lot of conversations recently about mental illness stigma in theatre/acting, and the steps being taken to combat it. Everyone seems to agree it’s important. But everyone is so damn obsessed with proving how ‘okay’ they are with mental illness they forget the most crucial element: being okay with mental illness means being okay with the behaviour and symptoms of mental illness. No one judges someone with cancer or MS for being sad, tearful, angry, fatigued, etc. So why is it that people with mental illness are often only accepted if they take their meds and ‘behave’, especially when the range of acceptable behaviour for people who are officially ‘sane’ is so broad?
Bad behaviour can be pretty damn rife here. I’m sure most people who work in theatre/screen have witnessed screaming tantrums, drug abuse. Directors doing impersonations of small Italian children making false child abuse allegations (“dadda spanka my botty-bot and I fink he like it!”).* That’s all fine and dandy if you aren’t labelled as mentally ill, especially if you’re a man, not to go into the gender politics.
I do not want your acceptance of my mental illness if it’s dependent on me playing along to some standard of what’s considered mentally healthy/acceptable behaviour, particularly if that standard doesn’t apply to everyone.
People always perceive your behaviour through the prism of their own experiences and perception of you, and if you are open about having ever struggled with mental health they perceive all your behaviour through the prism of “mental illness.” If you behave with anything other than 100% perfect Walton-esque TV-mom cheery stability it’s perceived as being evidence of mental instability, while an officially ‘mentally healthy’ person can go to more extreme behaviour without suffering the same judgement. (And I’m not even going go into the ways in which women are labelled as being crazy, hysterical, hormonal, etc. as a control mechanism.)
I’ve worked in the industry since I was a child; I have seen some outrageous shit. This is simply not a job nor an industry that rewards or is possibly even compatible with perfect level emotions and behaviour. Not to be all wanky or promulgate the tortured artiste myth, but both writing and acting involve some pretty deep explorations of the soul. It’s messy, sometimes. Shit happens in rehearsal rooms that can take people to a pretty dark place sometimes; ditto writing. I know I couldn’t do my job without being willing to dive into that darkness and messiness.
I wrote some dialogue in my first play (set in, hey-hey, a mental hospital) talking about how psychiatric patients are the explorers of the psyche (I managed to work in a reference to the Trieste as part of some tortured metaphor) and I kinda still think that. Art needs to go to the frontiers, because some one has to.
This is a bathyscaphe, which is a good word. Mainly I didn’t want to use a cliched image or one promoting a stereotype of mental health.
I want to tell you a story: I was groped by an industry figure last year, and due to past experienced/PTSD it made me have a minor breakdown. Now I’m a smart, competent woman and I’ve lived with my own brain for a long time: I know how to take care of my shit. I am extremely proactive in managing my mental health. The minute I realised I was sinking I made a GP appointment, I made a therapy appointment, I started being vigilant about exercising and going outside in the mornings and filling my social calendar. I did everything right. I worked so hard and I did absolutely everything right and I managed to work and be productive throughout and to get over the breakdown completely in a matter of months.
And I was destroyed by it. It burned bridges. People noticeably distanced themselves.** One woman completely cut contact because apparently the fact I cried in front of them one time and told them that I’d been groped meant I had “poor boundaries” and was “unstable” (oh and apparently being groped was my own fault and I must never, ever tell anyone else**). I still don’t know what kind of gossip it might have sparked or what damage it’s done to my reputation or my career in the long-term. Of course the guy who got coked off his tits and ran around sticking his tongue into random people’s ears and grabbing strange women’s breasts in public doesn’t get accused of having poor boundaries.
Actually I don’t think I can ignore the gender politics. You know ***** ******? You know, that powerful guy every single young male actor has a horror story about? I’ve heard several blokes making casual reference (sometimes in front of large groups of strangers) to “oh that time ***** ****** told me he was going to bum me LOL.” I don’t know what’s more disturbing, that male victims of sexual harassment are expected to laugh it off, or that men are allowed to laugh it off.
Twitter informs me it is Mental Health Awareness Week. I don’t know how to finish writing this except to say: keep talking. And if anyone is suffering know I will never judge you.
* Okay that one’s probably unique.
** This is not to ignore those who were supportive, because honestly 90% of the people I told or who were around were overwhelmingly wonderful.