(Realised how long this is & that some people may wish to skip to where I talk about my experiences with mental health and stigma)
Losing It is formed by the intertwining mediums of Judith Owen and Ruby Wax to tell the narrative of a life involving struggle with mental illness: piano and vocals from Judith combined with the performance-based story telling of Ruby. When asked about the choice to stage the piece in this way the duo responded that it was perfect because Ruby hated performing stand-up comedy and Judith hated performing cabaret. Together, they were able to indulge in their evident talent for both of these things but with the support of each other on stage. The relationship between the two is what contributes to the power of the performance. Ruby would be performing and at times re-living her experiences where Judith would cut in with fragments of songs – acting as the ‘emotional soundtrack’ to Ruby’s story.
Their closeness and trust in each other is beautifully evident in the piece. At one moment Ruby is ripping pages from Hello magazine, shouting statements on her disdain for the celebrity world contained within. In writing this sounds sinister and awkward to watch but the moment, along with so many more from the show, is so playfully achieved. We are laughing with Ruby rather than at her: this is important. (The whole Charlie Sheen thing happening at the moment worries me for this reason.) While this is happening Judith is on the piano singing and playing, with great talent, but the excitement in the moment comes from the eye contact and shared thrill in the two: always supporting and encouraging in each moment. This is the fun side of the performance and of their friendship, described in a tongue-in-cheek manner in the programme which cites their ‘shared damage and a love of mackerel’ as at the heart of the friendship. This juxtaposition in their friendship is echoed in the performance: the lighter, mocking moments and the poignant dark moments where the reality of mental illness is depicted. The switches in pace and tone were enhanced so much by the lighting: drawing the audience in for moments of intimacy with darker lighting, and filling the stage with light for the more energetically performative moments.
In her storytelling Ruby flits between a performed narrative, detailing and satirising her story and the culture of celebrity and a more internal evocation of the illness where it feels as if she is reliving moments from her past. The image of her on a chair resting her head to the side and just staring, while talking through her thoughts on the efforts of beginning a day or even moving around is one which will stay with me. It resonated in its simple truth: not the extreme moments of mental illness, but in its lowest, flat moments where life is dragged from the individual: left as a mere void, wishing but failing to maintain normal functioning. In describing these moments of falling into illness, Ruby’s voice speeds up as she conveys the attempt to stay busy but life is going much too fast for the increasingly-depressed brain. The simple repetition of “and you’re here, and you’re here, and you’re here” replace the need for any frenetic action as instead we see life whizzing past the helpless sufferer. As Ruby talked through this whole “crashing” process, I was so moved – it was familiar and to have both the pain and absurdity of these experiences captured was an uncanny feeling. After depicting this falling apart – in so many words, accurate though they were, to see Ruby cease the incessant talking and Judith’s song to begin was a seamless, poignant moment. Ruby watched Judith so closely, absorbed in her song but also all of what she had just performed. Later there was talk of patients in mental facilities looking so “busy”, as in their minds were working so hard even though they may have been physically perfectly still. In these moments this was the case also, in the absence of drama to fill the stage – the audience is left with this bizarre moment akin to the quiet after the storm, the words still resonating with the audience and performer alike.
All of this may sound rather depressing, I guess that’s in the nature of the subject matter, but the way it is handled is not. I didn’t come out from the show thinking of it as bleak and having lowered my mood: very much the opposite. I came out pretty much excited for life, and the possibility of such open communication. I also felt very entertained. The music was beautifully done, Judith’s voice having a rich, jazzy feel to it. Her sense of quiet wit and humour was evident, and this – in opposition to Ruby’s extrovert, physical humour, set up a perfect partnership with impeccable comic timing. Also, the story does not just focus on Ruby’s illness but on her life up to that point. Stand-up comedians using observational humour will use an example of some funny behaviour and rhetorically ask – ‘why do we do that?’ or ‘it’s like this, isn’t it?’ and the same is applied here, both to life in health but also during illness. This is both funny and new with the kind of observations which people might usually be too scared of causing offence to make. It also means that the show is not just for an audience of people interested and/or experienced in mental health issues, but for anyone at all. Mental illness is not always such an extreme: of course it can be, but not always. In the film Girl Interrupted (a brilliantly acted film, but do not look here for a contemporary view on mental health treatment as it is set in America in the 1960s in the setting of an institution) – the protagonist explains that the patient’s illnesses are like the behaviours of anyone but magnified. So for example, the “scene,” if it can be called that, on ‘pretty girls’ depicts the feeling of inadequacy – something universally experienced in youth, but with illness it is this taken to the extreme, feeling not good and enough and like a failure. The ongoing tagline of ‘there’s no manual’ conveys the fear we all have of not knowing how things really should be done, and whether we are doing them well enough. No one is perfect, but the fear of failure and not being good enough in a professional, romantic and also family situation is ever-present. Maybe we all feel like this. Everyone usually maintains the pretence of knowing what they’re doing so this is a very welcome change.
Escapism takes on a different meaning where we achieve escape from the ridiculous silence we maintain daily as we skirt around common problems that have become stigmatised, and enter into a comfortable realm of honesty. (And they are common problems for anyone doubting it – one in four people suffer with mental health problems at some point in their life. It’s only because people don’t take about it that it feels so infrequent – once you start talking with people you feel like everyone and their brother has had something, whatever it may be – from panic attacks, to depression and psychosis. Knowing this figure eliminates the association of the loaded word ‘mental’ with such extremes and risk.) Of course, some people may feel uncomfortable with such truths being presented. After the applause and bows at “the end” – it was announced there would be a short interval before returning for a “chat.” Some members of the audience did not come back from the interval for the post-show discussion. No one was forced to speak, it was just an open forum for anyone that did want to ask a question or to comment. Maybe these people had to run for a train, though with it being a matinee this seems unlikely – but whatever, they may have had their reasons. On the other hand, they could be disturbed by the nature of truth in the theatre, not the “emotional truth” of a naturalistic but fictional piece, but of real people and their experiences. It was so nice to feel that this was genuinely for the audience: to encourage discussion and in the process take a step away from stigma. Here, audience interaction was not a West-End novelty but a genuinely compassionate act from the performers.
For me, this session was such an empowering experience. The people in the audience had most likely come on the basis of interest or experience with mental health issues, and so there was no fear of reproach: everyone was on each other’s side. Ruby talks in the show about humanity and society being at its strongest in the face of crisis – becoming a “tribe”, ready and willing to support each other. This to me was the perfect example of this. As people spoke, you could sense heads nodding and quiet murmurs of affirmation, and the atmosphere changing to one of increasing excitement. People put painful experiences or thoughts on stigma, into words and consequently brought a sense of normality with the realisation these awful experiences which feel so isolating, are actually quite common.
(This is where I talk about my experiences with mental health and stigma for anyone that wanted to skip to that. )
The liberation I felt talking to Ruby, Judith and the rest of the audience about the desperate conflict between wanting people to know and thus understand, but also desperately fearing “being found out,” was incredible. They understood. Talking I realised that another conflict that makes the experience difficult is the issue of feeling “fraudulent.” Again, this is something addressed in the show – but in the context of living everyday life and feeling like you are faking it. I came to think that you can even feel fraudulent within the illness. Although the feeling of depression and anxiety is real and raw, putting into the context of everyone else’s life feels bizarre. People know me as confident and making jokes all the time, and so to reveal this about myself makes me feel like they could doubt its truth – though who would lie about such a thing I don’t know. You fear being found out for – what? Perhaps a fear of people changing their perspective on you. Well, maybe that is the case, but I don’t think you can ever know or control people’s perspective on you. There’s a quote about this – ‘What other people think about you is none of your business’ – a nice idea but perhaps difficult to put into practice, especially amidst the shame felt during illness. Another quote which I do like however is ‘Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.’ I’ve heard this so many times before but only just looked it up and found it came from Dr Seuss – wonderful!
If someone knows you and then finds out you suffer from some illness, it doesn’t erase all experience they’ve had of you before. The bottom line is – it’s an illness, not a weakness in character. Just because you have depression or whatever else mental illness, does not mean you will be any less liked, intelligent, confident, compassionate, funny or even positive. In times when you are struggling, the illness can feel so all-consuming where you can’t even function and it feels like personality is stripped away. However, in the course of your life, these times – hopefully, become very small. As my Dad said in the post-show discussion, in 32 years working for the mental health services, he’s had 9 months out of work through his illness. To me, that’s an achievement and nothing to feel ashamed of. I’m so happy he’s come to not just know this but believe it, and could express that in this environment. You have to put things into perspective. You may struggle, and this illness may be a part of your life – but that does not mean it defines you. If people know you and don’t know about your illness, and enjoy your company, respect you, etc – what does finding out about your illness change? It doesn’t mean you’re then going to constantly talk about it and lean on everyone, though you can then be open about it if you so wish, but these relationships can carry on just as before. You love the person – not the state of their health. Finding out about such an illness might prompt shock, but maybe only because you had no idea, as you’ve hidden it so well – and then wishing the sufferer well, sad to think of them suffering – but you wouldn’t then look on them with disdain. Some people have no understanding or compassion, but I think you can tell by the person, and yes times really have moved on. Also it’s by talking about this that we can help understanding for this, and next generations.
Through struggling and getting through Depression a few times now, I have only come to have more respect and admiration for my Dad. It’s a horrible struggle, but he got through it. Those same feelings also rocketed in regard to my Mum for having the strength to continually deal with the situation and care for my Dad, and for me. They are both incredible. This also shows that there is no profession or lifestyle that grants you a ‘get out of jail free’ card. My Dad knows all about mental health having worked in that profession for so long – but it doesn’t make him immune to it. Equally, despite this experience and understanding, feeling free of stigma or shame is not a lucky benefit. If anything it added to the difficulty: usually the ‘healer’ and in times of his depression and anxiety, he was the one suffering and being helped. I can see how this is a harsh shock to pride. Like I said though, he has learned to become more open and this has so helped. It’s also wonderful that he has this empathy where we can have such honest conversations now. At times, even though I was his 20 year old daughter – I was helping him. He felt bad for this, but I think it’s nice that we can actually help each other and have that understanding. Besides, from birth until now he’s cared for me so it’s only right to give that back!
In the show Ruby addressed how society has moved forward so much, and now people are open about their sexuality. Coming out as gay initially may be a struggle, but from then on their sexuality is just a part of their life and nothing more. Obviously, this is not an illness but what these things have in common is the societal stigma around them. Where now, although things might be better than they used to and with more understanding, people still keep their mental illness as a shameful secret and may only “come out” to those closest to them and absolutely necessary. Fair enough some people are private, or actually don’t like over-sharing or talking about any illness, but I do think there is a massive amount of shame the individual feels, which is sadly inherent in the illness – but through talking about the illness and its stigma we can help overcome this. Keeping something a secret surely only adds to the weight and burden of the disease. My Dad also said the more he’s been open about his depression, the easier it’s been. Like with any human behaviour, there will be an initial level of fear stepping outside your comfort zone, which lessens with every action taken going through this fear, until it is no longer a fear or issue at all.
All of that said, I have only been open with a very select few about having periods of depression and anxiety. I have always thought there shouldn’t be such a stigma about it, but when actually in it the shame felt is inevitable and inhibits openness about the condition. The more we can talk about illness before, during and after – the easier it will become, the less stubborn people may be about seeking treatment. While someone with diabetes would not perhaps reject insulin in favour of fighting the disease by themselves, when anti-depressants are discussed there is often a reluctance and the worrying thought that it shouldn’t be necessary – you should be able to cope without some chemical: but why? Often the physical side of it involving hormones means you do have to have something to regain balance, and why would this be a bad thing. There may be an internal hormone imbalance but again this does not mean that you as a person are weak; that would be ridiculous. It’s different for every person but in the post-show discussion, both Ruby & Judith encouraged combining this with another form of therapy to come at the illness from both sides. From both mine and my Dad’s experiences, talking therapy has only proved helpful when the medication has lifted mood enough to be able to engage with this process. Obviously talk to your Doctor about this, but this stubborn reluctance can be counter-intuitive where you become increasingly less able to “fight” anything, especially the illness pulling you down. For some people medication may not be the best route at all, but it seems irrational to dismiss it ouright as so many are inclined to do.
Whether its out of interest or experience in mental health issues, excitement for refreshing honesty in the theatre or just for sake of being entertained by two talented performers: this is a show that I would highly recommended. It is funny and it is moving. I also think it is important. We’re in 2011 and you’d think there would be more openness about mental illness but it is still very much a work-in-progress. Yes, people still have prejudices and assumptions, but surely the way to address this is by explaining how it actually is. It doesn’t have to be a massive revelation, but it is unavoidably a part of life. The show is, apparently, going to Edinburgh fringe and then potentially going to the West End. I think the Menier Chocolate Factory was perfect because of its intimacy, especially for the post-show discussion, perhaps a massive auditorium would dissuade some people from participating, but I think overall the atmosphere created is one where the people who do want to talk feel very free to do so. It is leaving the Menier shortly but returning in May where there will also be half-day drop in sessions with mental health specialists, which I think is amazing and applaud both the performers and the venue for doing this. Wherever it goes I hope the show does have a future and continues to do well. Go see it, and if you have something to say in the discussion afterwards – say it, it’s a wonderful opportunity.
Again, I reinforce how devastatingly ridiculous the cuts to arts and theatre funding is, especially when the performance is addressing something in a way which perhaps other mediums cannot. You can read about someone’s experiences, and Ruby does have a book out, but sharing this with an auditorium full of people and talking together afterwards made the experience so special and memorable.
For official information & to buy tickets go to the Menier Chocolate Factory website. The show closes on 19th March but returns to the Chocolate Factory 17th May - 19th June. The theatre is a short and easy walk from London Bridge station. Another good reason to see the show, as if you need another, is that a portion of the ticket money is going towards Comic Relief.