'MINDS INTERRUPTED': A CANDID, ON-STAGE LOOK AT MENTAL ILLNESS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On Monday night, Tyrone Stokes will stand up on stage and tell a paying audience about the "heavy season" that he likens to the final quarter of a football game, "when I was trying to get help for my loved one, who is mentally ill, before the clock ran out."

Cher Beasley will describe how the medication she was taking to treat agoraphobia had an unusual and unwanted side effect. "I started lactating at age 15, resulting in the justifiable question from my peers, 'Are you preggers?' I was mortified."

And WJZ anchor Denise Koch may say that, even though it's been eight years since her last, disabling panic attack, "I am a little bit too hyper-aware of my mental state at times of change and frustration," and that the possibility of a recurrence "is a cloud over me."

The three will be among eight Baltimoreans who will discuss the ways in which mental illness has wreaked havoc with their lives in a program called "Minds Interrupted."

Participants wrote and edited their intimate, sometimes funny, often harrowing tales at a recent workshop that included tips on performance skills. Tickets will be sold to the show, which is being held at Center Stage, and which was modeled on the popular Stoop Storytelling series in which nonactors tell seven-minute-long anecdotes about their own lives.

The hybrid nature of "Minds Interrupted" can be perplexing: Is the evening a high-minded attempt to publicize a vexing and misunderstood social problem, or is it entertainment? And can the two categories successfully be mixed?

The event can be seen as the most recent example of the nation's continuing fascination with real-life stories as told by the everyday people who are experiencing them. "Minds Interrupted" can be placed on a continuum with reality television programs such as "Jon & Kate Plus 8" and journalism-based theatrical pieces such as "The Exonerated," in which actors read verbatim interviews with former death row inmates.

Michele Herling and Rosemary Zibart, who are organizing the show on behalf of the National Association of Mental Illness of Metropolitan Baltimore, are aware they're walking a fine line.

On the one hand, they want to take advantage of what the theater has to offer: time-tested procedures for communicating difficult ideas in an easily digestible format, and the genre's implicit promise of pleasure - audiences walk in the door expecting to have a good time.

"We wanted to do this at Center Stage because we felt that the public would be more likely to attend a performance in a theater, rather than a lecture," Herling says. "I went to one of the Stoop Storytelling events because I wanted to see how they organize their programs. The friend who went with me said, 'Is your group going to be telling stories like this?' and I said, 'No, our stories are way more serious.' "

But organizers must avoid even the faintest tinge of exploitation, of the perception that they are encouraging vulnerable participants to package their personal tragedies for a paying audience - even though the event is a benefit for NAMI.

"We've done similar workshops and performances in New Mexico," Zibart says. "Occasionally, we've been approached by people wanting to know if the same group could tell the same stories on another night. And we've said no. These people are not actors and actresses."

Peter Rabins, a psychiatry professor and bioethicist at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, doesn't think there's a problem with adults discussing physical or mental illnesses in public if they possess the capacity to think clearly.

"Many medical and psychiatric conditions and the medications used to treat them can impair a person's judgment to a meaningful degree," he says, "In these specific instances, individuals can be vulnerable to exploitation.

"But, in general, our society has decided that it's appropriate to discuss private medical concerns in public. Once we reach that determination, we should treat all people with diseases the same way. There's no reason to separate out mental illness from physical illness."

The weekend-long workshop began on a cold Friday night at the Govans church where NAMI has its headquarters.

As is often the case in early fall, the world outside seemed especially black and impenetrable, and members of the group sat well away from the windows, gathering instead in the room's center. Inside, the ceiling fixtures bounced light off the white-painted walls. Edges were crisply defined, and shapes took on an exaggerated clarity.

Herling and Zibart handed out note pads and a collection of sharpened No. 2 pencils. "There's research that the process of using a pencil instead of a pen is more connected to your heart," Zibart says.

The two organizers asked group members to write for 10 minutes without stopping on one of three topics: "I remember," "the first time" or "breaking down."

For 10 minutes, the only sound was of eight pencils scratching across pages.

Royal Riddick, 58, has been diagnosed with three mental illnesses stemming from his service in the Vietnam War. He wrote a funny story about the large and intimidating roommate he was assigned during one of his hospitalizations.

"The guy didn't speak to me for three days," Riddick says.

"He just glared. Then he asked me why I was in the hospital. I told him I had tried to kill myself. When I asked him the same question, he informed me that he had chopped up his family with a hatchet. I immediately went to the nurses' station and told them that I had changed my mind and wanted to live. I don't know if putting a suicidal person in the same room as a homicidal person is a treatment strategy, but it worked for me."

Maxine Cunningham, 61, recalled the frantic, last-minute trip she'd made to Atlanta earlier that week.

"Three days ago, my daughter's best friend called," she says. "She was shouting that I had to come down and assume guardianship of my daughter and force her into a hospital right away."

As Cunningham read what she had written, tears rolled down her cheeks.

It might seem surprising that group members were willing to revisit memories so personal and painful, let alone tell their stories to strangers. But Zibart, the organizer, says that the difficult process can yield unexpected benefits.

"Storytelling is a healing modality," she says. "It helps people transform their lives, even though they may have told their story many times before. And the people in the audience can't be transformed unless the people on stage are transformed first."

Some participants are eager to celebrate the people they love. Kim Ward, 52, brought a framed photo of her younger brother, Chris, to show the group. He died 12 years ago at age 36.

"For the first 18 years of Chris' life, he was so loving, so brilliant, so funny, so functional and in many ways so happy," she says. "And the things I learned in the last 18 years of Chris' life, I've been able to bring to my job at a local law enforcement agency."

Koch's motivation is slightly different. The news anchor first went public in the mid-1990s about the panic attacks she endured after the birth of her twin daughters, Meg and JoEsther, now 14. She says she has never regretted her candor.

"Telling the story gives what happened to you a shape and a meaning, a beginning and an end," Koch says. It puts it outside you, and it brings that episode in your life to some sort of closure.

"If you can tell the story, you know how to live with it."

If you go

"Minds Interrupted: Stories of Lives Affected by Mental Illness" will take place at 8 p.m. Monday at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets cost $10-$20. Call 410-435-2600 or go to www.nami.org.

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