The Beautiful Way These People Are Coming Out About Mental Illness
Pickett gratefully took the meds, but that wasn't enough. In her search for other moms experiencing postpartum issues, the 32-year-old communications professional eventually came across This Is My Brave, a live performance series that asks those who've been touched by mental illness to get up onstage and do the seemingly impossible and utterly terrifying: tell their stories in public.
When Pickett met the organization's directors at a wellness convention in Washington, D.C., they encouraged her to try out. She laughed off the idea. "I was like, what the hell are you talking about? I'm in no condition to be in a show. I can't even put on pants with buttons right now." But with a little coaxing, Pickett wrote something up. Which is how she's come to be standing backstage at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theater in Arlington, Virginia, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in May, ready to divulge the intimate details of her postpartum depression and anxiety to some 200 strangers.
Above: RaeAnn Pickett speaking her piece, "Sunshine and Zombies."
In the greenroom, Pickett and her fellow performers nervously crack jokes and try out dance moves (the Whip and Nae Nae are dissected at length) before doing deep-breathing exercises and vocal warm-ups. Out in the Spectrum's airy, glass-walled entryway, a couple dozen ticket buyers mill about, their chatter mixing with the Doobie Brothers ballad humming through the ceiling speakers. Today's event has several sponsors and partners: pharmaceutical companies, a psychiatric treatment center, a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the grocery store chain Wegmans (because everybody's gotta eat). Some have set up tables stacked with pamphlets. Instead of ushers, counselors in matching teal T-shirts wait in the lobby, ready to speak with any audience member who might become distressed midperformance. Attendees can nibble on chocolate chip cookies while they browse info provided by a crisis hotline.
Almost as soon as the show starts, the crying starts, too. (Before the day ends, three audience members will ask the counselors for help.) The 13 performers—including an education consultant, a nutritionist, and two students—sit together onstage; they range in age from 16 to 57, and they're here to talk about everything from bulimia to post-traumatic stress disorder to clinical depression. Touring musician Eric Scott sings a lovely, unadorned song—his own composition—called "Break Me Open," dedicated to his therapist. Annie Powell, a Virginia personal trainer who has bipolar disorder, struggles to focus her teary eyes on her essay, as sniffles echo back from the theater seats. Sixteen-year-old Sidney Wollmuth reads a poem about her battle with depression—"I am sick, PLEASE / someone free / me from my / free will"—and her intensity stuns the audience into silence. But there are also moments of wry rapport and real humor. Knowing smiles appear throughout the theater when Pickett, summing up the experience of caring for two small kids while battling the urge to permanently hide in the bathroom, says simply, "Some days...it fucking sucks."
This Is My Brave is the creation of Jennifer Marshall, a mom and writer who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in spring 2006, after she was hospitalized twice with bouts of mania, staying awake for days at a time. (During one episode, she hallucinated that she'd seen a ghost in her baby's room.) She's been hospitalized two more times, once while still a breastfeeding mom, the other while pregnant. In both cases, she'd tapered off her medication because she feared it might cause medical issues for her kids.
In 2011, back on steady footing, Marshall began blogging about her experiences on a site she titled Bipolar Mom Life. But she never shared her identity. "My family and friends all said, 'Get your story out, but don't put your name on it because people will discriminate against you.'" She stayed anonymous for a year and a half, until a parenting website invited her to blog. Marshall gave the site permission to use her name and photo; after her first posts went up, she was inundated with calls, texts, and emails. "People who I didn't even know had their own struggles were saying, 'Thank you, I've gone through something similar.'" The experience gave her the idea to put on a show that would bring true mental illness stories to live audiences.
Marshall enlisted Anne Marie Ames, a communications specialist and friend whose son suffers from depression, to work with her on the project. After pricing venues and marketing plans, the two created a Kickstarter page in October 2013. They'd hoped to raise $6,500, but they received more than $10,000 in only 31 days. A few months later, they held auditions, chose performers, and put on the first This Is My Brave show, outside D.C. At the reception afterward, Marshall was approached by an emotional audience member with an urgent message. "She said, 'I drove all the way from Philadelphia to see this. I found your blog in my darkest moment, and your writing saved my life.'"
Above: This Is My Brave cofounder Jennifer Marshall reads a piece originally published on her blog.
Offering hope to people still in crisis is the main objective of This Is My Brave. "Your brain is just one part of your body," Marshall says, "and it can get sick like your heart can. I'm proud of the way I live with bipolar disorder. I'm proud of overcoming four stays in a psychiatric hospital and that I have two beautiful children and a husband who loves me. It's possible to have that with mental illness—I've seen it with our performers."
Above: The Arlington performers take a bow after the May 2016 show.
After the Arlington show, well-wishers wait in the lobby—friends and family ready with cheery flowers and much-needed hugs. Helen Dennis, in a bold-print dress, greets her partner and poses for photos. Her piece, "My Normal," focused on her lifelong battle with bipolar disorder; postgame, she smiles and says, "I feel incredibly lucky. It was so freeing. I just hope the audience felt the same way." High school senior Carmine Gothard beams and rushes toward her friends. Some performers seem as wiped out as if they've run a 10K, but they radiate peacefulness.
Days later, Pickett still feels a bit transformed. "It's not like I'm cured and everything's perfect, but I'm relieved that I don't have to lie anymore," she says. "I read my essay to one of my coworkers, and now she knows. So I don't have to put on a mask and go, 'Today's going to be a great day!' Just knowing that someone else gets me and can give me a little wink or an eye roll on a stressful day—it's huge." Other performers are equally grateful to feel they're not alone.
"On our alumni Facebook page," says Ames, "you can say 'I spent the day in bed,' and nobody's going to judge you." Annie Powell says she feels "like I have a whole new family now. We were all brought together to share something so important." Says Pickett, "We bonded so fast. Now we're all like, 'Okay, are we getting together this weekend?'"
As Wollmuth suggests, This Is My Brave is a powerful chance to represent: "At my high school's suicide prevention assembly, the counselor asked if anyone had struggled with depression. I just sat there. Later, I was so frustrated with myself. But doing this is kind of like raising my hand." Pickett affirms the power of showing the world your flawed, unvarnished self. "This Is My Brave gives people an outlet to say 'I'm not okay, and that's okay.' It's not a brick-and-mortar nonprofit where you walk in, get something, and leave. It builds a therapeutic place where not everyone has the answers, but we're all trying to figure it out."
Above: Families, friends, and supportive strangers absorb the poetry, music, and storytelling.
For those who want to plan a This Is My Brave night in their own city, Marshall and Ames have created a manual with guidelines and tips for putting on a show. This Is My Brave also uploads each live performance to YouTube (YouTube.com/ThisIsMyBrave), so even people who can't attend a show can still be inspired by seeing others share their stories.
Additional photos courtesy of Samantha S. Marshall and This Is My Brave.