“I’m a veteran of mental illness combat,” declares a gray-haired man with years of untrimmed beard from the History Theatre stage in downtown St. Paul. David Beebee is reading from his personal writings to a crowd of friends and supporters of Vail Place, a clubhouse in Uptown for people with severe mental illness where David is a member.
“I deserve to be proud,” he reads. “I fought the good fight. I nearly died. I survived.” He notes there is gay pride and black power and the purple heart for the wounded, and asks, “Where is my mental illness pride power?” It’s not easy to be proud of being disabled, he says, in part because of “my own self stigma.”
Fear, stigma, and a history of being ignored and scorned mark the harrowing trail for Beebee and many others who live with mental illness. On this February evening, their voices are heard. In a History Theatre project funded by the Minnesota State Arts Board designed to draw out the stories of these unheard Minnesotans, four theatre artists have been teaching members of Vail Place in Uptown Minneapolis and Hopkins how to write and perform their stories. Tonight these members share their art with the public, revealing what they care about and how they live with severe social anxiety, schizophrenia, PTSD, or other psychiatric disorders.
“Not knowing is scary,” reads Vail Place member Jane Dixon, gray and thin in a creamy orange shirt over faded jeans, as she tells of her experience with a blackout. Managing the daily challenges of her mental discord requires both discipline and improvisation. She says, “I’m under reconstruction every moment of my life.”
Another woman reads, “When I was a child, I thought being an adult was a finite thing. I thought you were done.” Not so, she found out. “I’m constantly morphing… changing old habits. I want to let go of old negative coping skills like eating sugar to soothe painful feelings [and] going to three movies in a row, then on a computer for five hours so I go to bed at 4 a.m.” Unraveling the knots of her illness takes a lot of work. She never feels like she’s done. “I want more. I want better. I want me to be more better. I want. And I’m tired.”
These two pieces were written in response to the group’s theme one week: “under construction.” A prompting phrase is chosen each week to spark the creative juices, and everyone in the group of a dozen or so people begins writing. They read their writing aloud and get feedback and encouragement from each other and the instructors.
The theme may be seasonal, like Halloween. One man shares a recollection of his sister receiving a kitten instead of candy on a trick-or-treat outing and how furiously his dad reacted, going out in pursuit of the “perpetrator.” Another theme, “Nobody knows,” generated these lines: “I was a pompom girl in high school” and “The hockey team I played for won third place in nationals” and “I won the 1993 Bob Dylan sound-alike c o n t e s t . ” The writings reveal a wide range of stories that matter to the writers.
“I am a performer, performing part of my life,” explains Beebee in an interview before the event. “I am not my illness. I am not a case study.” He spent 25 years as a mental health worker, and has been a writer much longer than that, having self-published two books. Schizo-affective disorder, anxiety and panic attacks have taken a toll along the way. This writing group is therapeutic, he says. “You clarify your own mind by writing.”
Concentration is difficult for Beebee, and early dementia has taken hold. He can no longer engage in his favorite activity, reading. “Too many years of illness,” he says. “Too many meds. They can’t help me anymore. It will only get worse.” He still writes with a certain wry brilliance (gallows humor he calls it), as in this piece he titled “Conversational Dementia”:
“In my 20s, I was talking to a psychiatric nurse. I was shooting my responses toward her rapidly. She stopped me and said, ‘David, you’re not listening to me. What did I just say?’ I summarized the last three minutes of our conversation. Her mouth dropped open. ‘You know what I said better than I do.’ That was in my 20s. Today I’m 66 and I’m listening, but I have no idea what you just said. I mean that. I repeat, I have no idea what you just said. I just take off on my own tangent for the conversation.”
Julie Tate, another writer, appears much younger than Beebee, though she has been a Vail Place member for 18 years. In a conversation after the show, she spouts off a list of conditions that derail her at times: depression, social anxiety, hearing voices, ADHD, past abuse, PTSD. “But I’m still a very functioning member of society who cares for her mother and volunteers with kindergartners,” she says, with a sparkly smile on her round face. “I just happen to have to deal with this too.”
Tate wears a large plastic support device around much of her short body and uses a walker. A brain tumor resulted in her spine crumbling, and after eight surgeries she’s now beginning a two-year series of treatments to rebuild her bones. She’s not worried, she says. “People have good lives in wheelchairs just fine.”
Tate attends the Uptown clubhouse and raves about all the kindness and good conversations she experiences there. She knows she won’t be lonely there, she says, and she realizes that her own pleasant hello might be the bright spot in another member’s day. In the writing group, members trust each other with deeply vulnerable truths.
“We’re all on a level playing field,” she says. “We’re all dealing with mental illness. Nobody makes fun of how I look and am. Everybody just is here.”
“There are men I’m afraid of in Uptown that might harm me,” Tate adds. “But there’s not a single man I’m afraid of at Vail Place, not one I feel uncomfortable with.”
Tate writes about the terror she feels riding a bus when her PTSD is in full flare. She listens to recorded books to redirect her mind. Yet when a man with alcohol breath sits next to her and wants to snuggle, she feels trapped and panicky. In the writing group, she is gaining confidence in dealing with PTSD, and she shares some of her writing with her therapist.
The therapist now invites her during their sessions to put in writing what’s too hard to say. She welcomes this chance to get on paper such hard-to-speak thoughts as the graphic description of what she feels like doing to her abuser.
For her and other Vail Place members, writing is both art and medicine. Tate advises anyone with mental illness, “Write it down. Spelling doesn’t count. Grammar doesn’t count. It’s writing for your own journey and healing. And as I tell my kindergarteners, nobody has to like your art but you.”
Sharing your writing in a group is also a way to bond deeply with others. Fatuma Ali, a native of Somalia, says she was shunned and shamed for her schizophrenia growing up. Vail Place in Hopkins has embraced her. “People like me there,” she says. “I finally have a place where I belong. I’ve been looking for somewhere to belong all my life.”
Onstage, Ali moves gracefully, her young face glowing as she reads, her head covered by a hijab dotted with shiny gems. She appears at ease. “I was very nervous,” she declares afterwards, laughing. “I have social anxiety. But now I feel great. It was like graduation!”
After “graduation,” seven male members of Vail Place and three staff members raised money for the organization through “Shaving Grace.” They shed years of hair growth to barbers onstage in exchange for audience and online bids. At the end, David Beebee’s chin was clean and his smile wide.
Pat Samples is a writer and a facilitator for creative aging, body awareness, and creative writing. www.patsamples.com