New Year, New Festival

A new year is really just a term of art. And every year, it’s the same pattern at the library: all the books that come in on hold for folks are the books on how to quit smoking and drinking, how to lose weight, how to save money, how to organize your closet. Not to mention, we’re headed into another year of whatever the world’s been going through, which is wearing everybody down. But I think everyone still likes the idea of a fresh start, even if it’s an imagined one. I think we all need one. 

It’s good to think of self-improvement, but I think there will still be days for most people, not just those with mental illness, where you just need to muddle through, and days where we slip back to our vices or are tempted to do so. That’s why I’m not a huge believer in New Year’s resolutions. I feel like sometimes the pressure makes me feel more self-critical and makes my self-esteem even lower. I don’t know, this may seem similar in a way, but I like to have some goals and visions for the year ahead, especially now, to look forward to. 

And one of those goals is for Mental Filmness, which I’d like to grow more every year. I think there is an audience for it, and I’d like to see it get even bigger. I have a few ideas in mind for this, so I’ll see if we can make it happen. I hope we can have a modest in-person evening event in Chicago, but I’ve been saying that for the last couple of years at this point and I’m not banking on it. But working within the framework of possibilities, I’d really like to get more eyes on the films and more people talking about mental health. 

As I’ve said before, I feel like Mental Filmness helps me with my own mental health in the way that I would hope it helps others. It helps me to hear other stories and realize I am not alone, that many people have shared my struggles and overcome even more adversity than me. Other people have told me it is cathartic to tell their story. They feel as if it transforms what could be viewed as a shameful secret or stigmatized condition into a way to connect with others and help them realize mental illness is an obstacle that they have the strength to overcome. 

On this #MentalHealthMonday I am incredibly grateful to all the people who helped make Mental Filmness happen from the start. These include volunteers from the Chicago venue Comfort Station, volunteer screeners, partnering committees, and encouraging friends who spread the word; of course, all the filmmakers who submitted and the ones who paid their own way to travel to Chicago that first special in-person year; all those who agreed to do interviews to share their insights, and more. I cannot even believe as I put the call for entries together that this is “Year Four” of this event that means so much to me and hopefully others. I would like to keep it going as long as possible in some form because I think that mental health struggles, while they may take a different shape, are not going anywhere and there will always be novel stories and treatments and recoveries. Sadly, I think there will always be some people who are lost to mental illness as well but I also think that is why it’s all the more important to emphasize hope and empathy.

The call for entries is open for Mental Filmness 2022–I’m just operating on the presumption now that Earth will still be around in something resembling its current format in 2022. You can find it here on Filmfreeway: https://filmfreeway.com/MentalFilmness. Please submit a film you have about mental health, or encourage others you know to submit. There is a small submission fee of $10, which really just offsets any incidental costs we happen to have, (generally streaming and Zoom fees lately, things of that nature), and which also acts as a bit of a filter to narrow down the films to a mental health topic. By all means if the fee is a hardship for you, feel free to e-mail sharon@mentalfilmness.com and we should be able to grant a waiver—either way, someone’s thinking about the topic and still wants to enter!

That moment when the films start rolling in has actually become one of my personal favorite parts of the New Year. It’s really exciting to read the synopsis, to see where they’re from, to see what they’re about, and to view them. There are so many gems and such a variety, and I start to get excited envisioning how the festival will take shape for the next year. It has definitely become such a big part of my mental health, feeling like I receive little gifts all year from people who have a similar passion for this topic and their own story to share. Thank you to all those reading this for your interest in Mental Filmness and keeping the spark alive and going!

No Man Is An Island

Suicide leads in the main topic of movies submitted to Mental Filmness, and I’m sure that’s for a reason. It’s hard to find someone whose life hasn’t been touched by the suicide epidemic in some way. Many stories of mental illness have some mention of suicide, even if it isn’t the main topic. I took a Constitutional Law class last semester and remember being moved by these words from Justice Stevens pertaining to the right to suicide.

“History and tradition provide ample support for refusing to recognize an open ended constitutional right to commit suicide. Much more than the State’s paternalistic interest in protecting the individual from the irrevocable consequences of an ill advised decision motivated by temporary concerns is at stake. There is truth in John Donne’s observation that “No man is an island.” The State has an interest in preserving and fostering the benefits that every human being may provide to the community–a community that thrives on the exchange of ideas, expressions of affection, shared memories and humorous incidents as well as on the material contributions that its members create and support. The value to others of a person’s life is far too precious to allow the individual to claim a constitutional entitlement to complete autonomy in making a decision to end that life. Thus, I fully agree with the Court that the “liberty” protected by the Due Process Clause does not include a categorical “right to commit suicide which itself includes a right to assistance in doing so.” 

Sometimes I’ve thought about the funerals I’ve attended, and my own in the future, and how many people will end up attending who were just on the peripheral vision of the deceased’s life. A childhood friend they hadn’t seen in years, a co-worker who was fond of them, a distant relative who brought them toys when they were young. It’s hard to go through this life without touching others in some way. Even a hermit living off the grid has some impact in their relationship with nature. We all send out energy into the world. “No man is an island.”

I’ve been suicidal and known others who were, and I know that telling someone to live their life for others isn’t necessarily the best thing to say. But I’ve also heard stories of those who found some kind of positive connection when they needed it most and it ended up making a difference. As sappy as it sounds, I mostly believe in the whole “It’s A Wonderful Life” effect, where if most people could see all the little ripples they’ve sent out into the world, many even unintentionally, they would view it differently.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Sixth Mass Extinction

I’ve always had a little bit of a gloomy streak, and I remember having the feeling the world would end sometime in my lifetime. In 1999 I irrationally felt it might happen, partially fueled by viewing the motion picture Magnolia, listening to the Prince record 1999, and hearing some panicked reports on the news about electronics going haywire due to the number change that I didn’t really understand. That was a little anticlimactic and I honestly felt kind of disappointed.

As I’ve gotten older, I feel like I’ve adopted a more reasonably objective view that it seems like humanity is unsustainable if it continues its current trajectory of population growth, depletion of resources, and widening economic gap. Now I feel like I’m less bonkers (in that respect) in that the world has probably felt vaguely apocalyptic to a lot of people lately, what with global pandemics, fires, and storms breaking out. People who are way smarter than me—researchers and scientists—have been predicting a “sixth mass extinction” of biodiversity approaching, and it sounds like the situation is becoming more dire according to the most recent study.

Top scientists warn of ‘ghastly future of mass extinction’ and climate disruption | Environment | The Guardian

“Dealing with the enormity of the problem requires far-reaching changes to global capitalism, education and equality, the paper says. These include abolishing the idea of perpetual economic growth, properly pricing environmental externalities, stopping the use of fossil fuels, reining in corporate lobbying, and empowering women, the researchers argue.”

All of those changes sound unlikely to happen to me. It’s a weird feeling of cognitive dissonance when a feeling you’ve had for a long time you thought was absurd shows at least some signs of becoming a reality.

However, despite the feeling, I’m not sure it will happen in my lifetime. It’s just a feeling. That would be too easy. I think it will probably be more drawn-out, and I hate to say it, I think humanity is probably going to have to reckon for more of its crimes. Some people think we might be able to colonize space and start over. 

I once wrote about the gloomy but lovely Lars Von Trier film Melancholia, where the clinically depressed character played by Kirsten Dunst is the only one ultimately prepared for the end of the world, because she’s been expecting it all along. There’s a great ominous line in the film where she says “Life on earth is evil. No one will mourn it.”

Von Trier, who himself struggles with depression, said a seed of inspiration for the film came to him from a conversation he had with this therapist where they discussed how someone with a depressed viewpoint would react differently to the end of the world, and might actually embrace it.

What’s the saying, “I love humanity, but I don’t like people?” I feel like it’s kind of the opposite for me. I really hate the human species as a whole and collectively, but individual people like, and of course there are so many wonderful people I’ve known who deserve to live rich and full lives. I would mourn them if I could separate them out. However, if I was told the world was to end because mankind sowed its own seeds of destruction, I would probably accept it as fair and reasonable. 

I’m sure my mindset does stem from my depression and the dim view its given me at times as well as my experiences with suicidal ideation. I also know that I am bad about “catastrophizing” in cognitive behavioral terms and expecting the worst, and I’m very often wrong.

One technique in therapy for “catastrophizing” is imagining the worst of any given possible scenario—if you’re anxious about work, that you’ll get fired and lose your job; if you have relationship anxiety, that your spouse is cheating, and so on and so forth, and how if that thing eventually happened, it wouldn’t be as bad as you thought.

What thing could you imagine make the end of the world feel better? Well, there’s the life that you had the chance to have. And then, there’s whatever’s coming next–whatever you believe happens after life and, specifically, humanity.  

The Happiness of Living Alone

It’s funny, I was probably more scared to live alone than anyone else. I lived with my family, and then went straight from that to living with my future spouse. When I eventually got divorced I tried living alone briefly. I very quickly became stressed about finances and responsibilities and felt overwhelmed, and ended up moving in with a roommate.

I’ve always been a late bloomer, and at the age of 30, it still wasn’t the right time for me to live alone yet. I immediately felt a sense of relief after moving in with my new roommate, another recently divorced woman around my age with an adorable menagerie of pets. I could breathe easier knowing I could manage my money and there would be potential help or company there if I needed it. Even though we spent most of our time in our separate bedrooms, there was still something that felt so much more comfortable about it. Maybe part of it was that her cats liked to sleep with me, and she was okay with that. Another part was probably that I was afraid of being alone with the dark, racing thoughts in my brain.

As they say, the one constant in life is change, and eventually the roommate who helped me to heal moved out of state to get remarried. I thought nothing of advertising for a stranger to come live with me and split my bills, something that would absolutely terrify me today. What followed over the next handful of years were a series of roommates and a domestic partner, a couple of whom showed me sometimes living with people wasn’t actually easy—in fact, it could be very hard.

So the last time I wound up alone, I decided not to seek another roommate. Just like feeling you’re stuck in a bad relationship, I knew I was better off being alone than possibly sharing a living space with someone who might depress, stress, or annoy me. At this point I was finally making enough money to afford the place on my own, had my own pets, had decorated most of it myself, and just decided to take full ownership of it.

Shortly after making this decision the pandemic struck, and suddenly I was faced with a lot more “alone” time than I had bargained for. I think I posted online a couple of times about how I felt lonely and overwhelmed. That very same original roommate, who I’ve stayed friends on social media with, messaged me and said I should enjoy my own company. You’re good company, she said.

I felt like that brought everything full circle. It was almost like the person who gave me a security blanket during a time in my life when I truly needed it gave me permission to put it away, and to live with and love my own company. The demons in my head aren’t really going anywhere. But they live beside my ability to make up silly songs and tell myself stories and make myself laugh and talk to my cats. I can really be a lot of fun sometimes, I would tell myself. I can be good company.

One of my friends who lives alone shared these illustrations awhile back, and I love them. If you overlook some of the snarky comments about the size of the house and focus on the essence of them, I feel like they truly capture some of the joys of living alone. I’m sure everyone has particulars they relate to. I love to have private fashion shows with clothes from my closet, spoil my pets (though I’m more of a cat person), make an artistic mess, snack without judgment. There is definitely some empowerment—and also just plain fun—in that freedom.

https://www.boredpanda.com/happiness-living-alone-illustrations-yaoyao-ma-van-as/

Book Review: Fallible

I enjoy a book that gives you a lot of bang for your buck. (I also, apparently, love alliteration). I’ve established that I love mental illness memoirs, but I also love nonfiction that gives you a powerful insider’s view into an unfamiliar territory. There is a lot to learn from Dr. Kyle Bradford’s Infallible, the story of a physician struggling with mental illness. Not only is it a portrait of the innate, physical, and environmental factors of depression, but it is also a fascinating glimpse into the world of practicing medicine and it even touches upon Mormon missionary work.

We’re probably all familiar with some of the horror stories of medical residency. Doctors showing up to work drunk, or forced to work on so little sleep they have the judgment or motor skills of someone who is drunk. The financial pressure of the pharmaceutical industry on the field of medicine which can lead to corrupt practices like improper diagnoses and prescriptions. Burnt out doctors who become abusive toward patients and staff. Dr. Bradford witnesses it all and despite some of this being common knowledge he still has harrowing and unique anecdotes to tell. It is no wonder that substance abuse and mental illness run rampant in the field.

Dr. Bradford takes a multi-faceted approach to exploring his mental illness, much as I imagine he takes a holistic approach to treating a patient. He struggles with generalized anxiety disorder and depression. He effectively uses the metaphor of a gargoyle to describe its presence—something looming in the distance eerily looking down on him. I liked that while he readily acknowledged that the enormous environmental and life stressors of medical residency, moving, and having children had a significant impact on his mood, he also felt he had a natural genetic and chemical predisposition toward depression and anxiety. He explores how he’d experienced these feelings in the past and coped with them through over-achieving, often referring to his “Superman” complex. He poses the classic chicken or egg question of whether he’d chosen his profession because he was anxious to prove himself and his worth, or whether the profession itself drove that perfectionist anxiety within him, ultimately concluding that it was a symbiotic relationship.

Another interesting angle to Dr. Bradford’s story is that he is a Mormon and spent two years as a missionary in Ukraine. He acknowledges that a feeling of disconnection from his faith has played a role in his depression as well. He also explores how certain aspects of Mormon culture, such as his inability to have coffee, drove him to unhealthy choices like trying to drink soda to stay awake during his long shifts, further exacerbating his depression. 

The doctor’s experiences seeking treatment for his condition from inept doctors were almost comical at times. He met therapists who kicked him out of their office after he talked for twenty minutes and they gave him a curt response like telling him to exercise. He also cycled through a few medications before finding one that worked for him. He spent years identifying factors in his life that could help alleviate his symptoms, which included medication, therapy, church, family, finding more fulfilling and less draining avenues to pursue in medicine and, finally, sharing his story to help others.

The book is written in a very conversational tone that may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Dr. Bradford noted that someone suggested he write the book to help others after hearing him tell his story on the radio, and I can definitely see that. At times it seems to ramble or go off on tangents, and could have used a tighter structure or organization. However, it didn’t particularly bother me as a reader as I found pretty much everything he had to say interesting. 

I think it was very brave of Dr. Bradford to tell his story. We live in a day and age where more and more, it has come to light that people we once entrusted with our safety and looked up to as heroes—teachers, priests, doctors, police—can be deeply flawed people working within broken infrastructures. There is still enough of a stigma attached to mental illness that especially as a doctor treating other patients it was courageous of him to put his “fallibility” out there for all to see and to demonstrate that admitting some of this brokenness and seeking solutions is really a heroic act in the end. 

My Numbered Drinking Days

I have to reluctantly admit, post-New Year’s Eve, that one thing that is usually good for my mental health is moderating and even cutting out alcohol. 

Like a good portion of America I’d wager, I have a push-pull relationship with alcohol. With the medication I take, I really shouldn’t have alcohol. Not to mention, at times I definitely have the propensity to overdo it. Yet, there are still the good times when I drink: When I feel a little sillier than usual, a little more amorous, where it seems like alcohol is an enhancement and nothing bad happens.

As I approached middle age, I noticed more and more of my friends going sober. At least a few of them said it was for their mental health. One told me alcohol can make your medicine stop working, and I’m pretty sure I’ve experienced that a couple of times when my body processing the sugar from wine overrode the heavy sedatives I take at night and led to insomnia.

Another one of my friends on Facebook recently announced his sobriety. Someone congratulated him, saying American culture encourages alcoholism. While we may not be the most alcoholic nation, I think this is entirely true, and a big part is based on that idea of push and pull. When you try to stop drinking as I have a few times, you notice it everywhere, from characters on television revealing secrets at office parties on TV, to silly memes on the Internet about starting a wine “juice” cleanse. Alcohol is often advertised as both fun but also something with a bit of a shameful edge. I feel like America’s alcoholic culture is very wink-wink, nudge-nudge, like “we know you’re going to be bad tonight, so treat yourself, you deserve it.” 

I’ve given up and then re-picked up drinking again a few times over these past few years. Again, I know I really shouldn’t with my meds, and I have proven this to myself with a few bad incidents. Alcohol can affect me powerfully and especially exacerbate my depression. I guess it’s unsurprising that I picked up drinking again when I was trapped in my house during the pandemic. I felt alone and scared and even with the impact of the alcohol it was difficult for me to find calm or rest sometimes (in fact, alcohol probably acted to make me more restless in the end).

This sounds fairly obvious, but the good times are what make alcohol so hard to give up. And there are still good times for me. If I hit that sweet spot where I have just a couple of glasses of my favorite, a rich Spanish or Italian wine, and some really good food, and a relaxing evening by a fire or out on the deck with good company, there is not much better than that warm and pleasant buzz that helps you relax and just loosens your tongue a little bit, but not too much. Enough to become more affectionate and open, but not quite enough to let the demons out.

When I look at old pictures or think of the past, the good times were even more plentiful then. I drank quite a lot of red wine through a good portion of my thirties, and at the time would just get silly with my partner or my group of friends, sing karaoke, dance, make art. It seemed like bad things rarely happened and I’d even usually wake up in the morning feeling fairly normal, maybe a little drowsy. I can’t romanticize it completely because I still remember a couple arguments and embarrassing incidents, but it seemed like they were far outnumbered by the good drinking days. Of course, I have to remember that I’m over forty now, but probably most importantly, I did not have a serious mental illness diagnosis back then and I did not take meds. I could afford to be much more cavalier and carefree with my mind and my body.

Sometimes I become resentful now that I cannot do the things that many others can do for fun all of the time anymore, or the things that it seems used to be so much easier for me to do. I’ll go to a party or a bar and be so tempted to drink but know that I have a much higher probability than the other guests of having a bad reaction and starting to cry or pass out. I know I’ll be more likely to miss sleep, have nightmares, or feel like I was hit by a truck the next morning, even if I didn’t overdo it. 

It’s hard to separate how much of this is from age and how much is from having a mood disorder and taking meds. But either way, as hard as it is to refrain, I know I’ll probably feel better. I’ll get better sleep, have more energy throughout the day, and maintain a more stable mood. I’ve discussed this before with my psychiatrist and we talked about how relieving my anxiety during that little window in the evening is probably not worth potentially feeling worse throughout the next day. As many of us know, the hard part can be seeing through that window to the next day.

Surviving Samsara: A Memoir of Breakdowns, Breakthroughs, and Mental Illness

As I’ve written before, financially I usually break even with Mental Filmness or even end up losing a little money on it. But this, this is how I get paid. With gifts like these.

This is Kagan Goh’s Surviving Samsara, a poetic memoir about living with bipolar disorder. His heartfelt, genuine inscription in the front communicates how honored he was to have his short film The Day My Cat Saved My Life selected to premiere at Mental Filmness. It further elaborates that he toiled over this book, re-visiting and processing painful memories, so he could achieve the very same mission that Mental Filmness strives for—that of invoking understanding and empathy for mental illness.

I guess I need to get a few things out of the way. As I mentioned, this book was a gift from a very kind man who submitted a quite lovely and thought-provoking film to the festival, starring a cat, no less. The book is a memoir about mental illness, and I think I’ve mentioned here before that at one point I read pretty much every memoir on mental illness available in the library. Furthermore, it is a book about surviving bipolar disorder, which is my specific diagnosis. In short, I am very, very, very biased in favor of loving this book.

And, predictably, I do. What I loved about Kagan’s memoir was the same thing I loved about the others I’ve devoured: seeing myself reflected back to me, even when it was painful. Like me, Kagan’s diagnosis came on suddenly and unexpectedly in his young adulthood and broke up a serious and loving domestic partnership, fractured some of his close friendships, and challenged his ability to function and hold down a job. Like me, he rotated in and out of the hospital for years, experiencing suicidal ideation and revelations. He alternated between what he amusingly called a “flaming manic depressive,” proselytizing to all of his artistic friends of his madness and the unique vision it gave him, and being overly apprehensive of telling anyone about his illness, fearing their reaction toward him would change.

An overly simplified way of defining “samsara” is as a cycle of death and rebirth. One thing I love about Kagan’s story is that we see him check into the psychiatric ward on a few occasions. Open and honest about his journey, Kagan shows the realism of most people who grapple with serious mental illness diagnoses: they experience more than one stumble, more than one hospital stay. Mental illness is such a mysterious illness, so multi-faceted and reactive. It can mutate in the face of different medicine and routines and life events. It really does feel like a big circle sometimes. As Kagan’s doctor put it, he had an incurable illness that would last for the rest of his life. 

Kagan’s experience as a spoken-word artist and poet definitely lend the manuscript a verbal artistry and flair. I was happy to recognize the piece that would eventually become The Day My Cat Saved My Life, a vivid portrait of a psychotic breakdown and its accompanying imagery of architecture and riding on an escalator, all interrupted by his cat Tarim “grounding” him. Other episodes are portrayed in the book with an unflinching detail, like when Kagan becomes so hypersexual he persistently tries to seduce a friend of his parents, and when he checks himself back into the hospital after standing on a bridge contemplating suicide and experiencing visions that he is responsible for his father’s death.

The book is formatted in the style of chronological diary entries and recollections, many of them brief and concise. They could probably all stand alone as interesting personal stories, but they all tie together and interweave the same characters and concepts, eventually painting a larger picture of incidents of illness and recovery. Kagan has to experience and conquer many challenges that his illness presents: hypersexuality, suicidal ideation, sleeplessness, intense visions and revelations, and more. Battling mental illness ain’t for sissies.

This book is probably not for everyone. Some may not like its style of short, poetic diary entries that make up a larger narrative. Some may be frustrated with the circular nature of Kagan’s recovery and relapse. It may seem like the story arc doesn’t progress, or end with enough certainty. I could be presumptuous here, but I think the circular nature is part of Kagan’s point. As he says earlier in the book, the doctor tells him he has an “incurable illness.” Managing the illness is a lifetime responsibility, and though it may become easier at times, there are bound to be life changes that sometimes exacerbate it. The idea of a cycle also implies the hope that things will eventually circle back to stability again. 

So how does Kagan’s story end? Well, I already knew that when I spoke to him he seemed both happy and stable, that he’d just gotten his short film accepted into Mental Filmness and seemed thrilled about that. He had several other artistic projects in the works as well, including this book and other readings and theater events. He was happily married and seemed to be well-regarded and to have many friends in the Vancouver arts scene. According to Surviving Samsara, he has been giving back to the mental health community by leading recovery workshops for the mentally ill. Not too shabby for someone whose doctor once advised him that people with his condition oftentimes couldn’t work for a living.

Kagan is careful to note that recovery is not an end, but an ongoing journey. He stresses that putting his health ahead of everything–he makes the metaphor that it is the first car in the train pulling everything else behind it–has helped him constantly manage his condition. He hasn’t been back to the hospital in sixteen years. It’s true that there is no cure for bipolar disorder, and recovery can sometimes take much longer than desired, but Kagan and others like him are proof that mental health management and leading a happy and productive life are possible. 

Kagan even has a unique take on bipolar disorder. He feels it should be viewed as a “condition” rather than an illness, and even a condition that can tap into unexpected fonts of creative and spiritual energy. From Kagan’s essay “Zen and the Art of Manic Depression”: “Perhaps people with mental illness are not freaks of nature but instead the next evolutionary stage in humankind. Maybe we are mutants. We are X-Men, who have evolved to the next level of human development. I wonder if people with mental illness are using more of the brain’s untapped potential—unlocking secret hidden powers, psychic abilities, and extrasensory perception.”

Yes, I realize that there’s a bit of a stereotype to the “mad artist or visionary.” And l will readily admit, if I had a choice at the beginning of life, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to be born with bipolar disorder. There is no doubt, however, that those of us who live with this condition have experienced a way of thinking that others have not—and yes, a way of thinking that doesn’t quite fit in with society’s expectations. However, the thinking can provide epiphanies, visions, and revelations that can be as beautiful as they are sad. The ecstatic energy and the dark despondency create a more intense and emotional connection to life and the world that provide perspective and deep appreciation during moments of balance and harmony. Kagan Goh taps into all of these aspects of living with bipolar disorder, training an in-depth and non-judgmental eye on his own experiences. He captures the pain and the specialness and sometimes even the humor of living with mental illness in a way that is eloquent and relatable. I would highly recommend Surviving Samsara as a way of understanding and relating to this unique condition. It is a quick, accessible, and very humane read. It is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Surviving-Samsara-Breakdowns-Breakthroughs-Illness/dp/1773860321/ref=sr_1_7?crid=2Z2GY90RJ9JXZ&keywords=surviving%20samsara&qid=1640204911&sprefix=surviving%20samsara%2Caps%2C126&sr=8-7&fbclid=IwAR29fYmYkwYJ9ANsIG_KWDvq_hSSGInT11FW-ruVO4-kdWTtsjI952keWQk

Improv For Social Anxiety–Yes, And?

I’m lucky to live in Chicago for many reasons, but one is because it’s one of the premier improv destinations in the United States. I’ve met people who moved here for the improv scene and because they wanted to make it in improv. We have the legendary Second City Theater, the iO Theater, and the Annoyance Theater. And those are just the big ones–not even touching upon the plethora of small theaters and clubs where you can see improv shows every night for free or a nominal donation of a few dollars. I guess it’s no wonder that, as a naturally curious person, I eventually wound my way through the Second City circuit. I know this sounds like hyperbole, but it truly was life-changing for me.

Some people think they wouldn’t be good at improv because it’s about “being funny.” It’s not. Improv is often described as the ability to react without thinking. The result of improv often ends up being funny because you start out with absurd or comical scenarios, and because people are usually funnier when they’re trying not to be. If you’re always thinking ahead and plotting a funny line, chances are you won’t be any good at improv. First, you won’t be truly listening to your scene partner, because you’ll be caught up in your own head the entire time they’re speaking. And secondly, chances are that line will no longer be funny in context, or even make sense, when it comes time for your response.

The more you can let go of your personality and your ego, the better you will become at improv. It’s almost like you simply become a conduit through which communication flows. It’s a skill that works at un-teaching years of social conditioning: thinking before you speak, giving off your best impression, planning ahead. Viola Spolin, whose work Second City’s basic courses were largely modeled after, started out using her theater games and techniques with children, who are natural receptors for improv. Kind of like that saying about all children being artists and only later growing out of it, all children are improvisers until they learn otherwise. They’re gradually taught as they grow up to conform their speech and behavior to societal norms.

You can imagine what a gift improv can be for someone with social anxiety, and in fact there actually is a whole track at Second City devoted to just that, “Improv For Social Anxiety.” One of the gifts that improv can give you is the ability to get out of your own head and to stop over-thinking everything. One of the students in the improv class I took transferred over from Improv For Social Anxiety. He said he had come to believe that all improv was actually improv for social anxiety.

Regarding the impact that improv has had on my own mental health, it is one of the few things I have studied that I feel actually re-wired my brain in some ways. I would probably get in trouble for voicing a lot of my unfiltered thoughts, but I find myself noticing them and laughing at them more often now. I find I’m a better listener, and wait until a speaker is finished to react to them instead of formulating a response ahead of time. I feel like I’m overall more flexible and less rigid, better equipped to think on my feet. If something doesn’t work out as planned, I’m better at managing my panic and brainstorming other solutions, from Plan B to Plan Z. And if I have a public speaking gig or interview, I feel I am better prepared to react to unexpected situations or speak off the cuff. I am not trying to say at all that I am fantastic at any of these things or have become some kind of superhuman communicator, but improv had a measurable influence on my thinking, most notably lending it a fluidity and flexibility that works wonders in helping me mitigate anxiety. That’s why I’d like to salute improv, and the impact it can have on mental health, on #MentalHealthMonday.

P.S.: I just have to note, as well, that I must have had some kind of body memory or subconscious spirit guiding me today, because I actually started writing this blog post last week and just today this photograph of my Second City improv program graduation popped up in my Facebook memories! I was in the midst of the most severe depressive episode of my life at the time, but I was determined to make it to that final performance, and I did.

My graduation from Second City Theater’s improv program, December 20, 2015.

There Will Be Light

I wanted to highlight something fairly simple again this #MentalHealthMonday, so I thought I’d choose light. I think I’ve mentioned here before that light is one of my personal methods of combating the early darkness of winter in the Midwest. And I’m not even talking about light therapy boxes or SAD lamps, which have honestly never worked that well for me, for some reason. Just having some pretty, unique lights lit around my apartment, or some candles, definitely brings about a noticeable lift in my mood. 

The lights make things feel cozy and warm, and make “nesting” seem like not such a bad idea, especially if it’s nasty outside. I think for every room in my house where I had a more traditional light, I’ve eventually gone through and replaced it with either a softer bulb, or a more diffused and/or colored shade. Here are two examples: the Mason-jar light fixture in my kitchen and one of the jewels of my collection, my Majestic midcentury modern lamp in my living room. It helps that I am an estate sale and vintage flea market junkie! But really what these lights help do, I think, is create a more comfortable environment to relax in, so any time you spend indoors really does feel warm and enjoyable. At least in my situation, it’s not exactly a magic switch, but it does shift my brain gears a little from “oh no, I’ve got to spend a lonely night in with my brain torturing me” to “what a nice space, I think I’ll catch up with my reading/movie watching/cat videos.”

I guess by now we are all mostly used to light as a symbol of festivity during the winter, and one of the bright spots is beginning to see them pop up in the windows of stores and homes. I had to laugh when, just as I was thinking of writing this very post later in the day, I saw my work building had installed these light structures in the lobby as I came in. And you know what? It really did make me feel a little more cheery!

How I Learned To Love Vintage Fashion

I have been “snowed” (hahaha) under, but I promised myself I wouldn’t forget to post at least a brief #MentalHealthMonday post. The last few have gotten kind of unintentionally deep and personal, so I really wanted to do something slightly more frivolous this time. So, I nominate vintage fashion! (This could really be extended into the universe of vintage *stuff*, but I thought I’d keep it focused).

Sometime in my mid-twenties I became fascinated with vintage fashion and trolling the Internet for it. I was initially inspired by the fashion blog of artist and children’s book author Emily Martin. When I saw it, I thought to myself, now that is exactly the kind of style I want! Very classical, children’s literature inspired. (You can see she also extended her coverage to “stuff”). Some Girls Wander (typepad.com)

I had good timing, as I felt there was a vintage boom around then with Mad Men, and not too far off came the Vintage Garage Chicago, a pop-up vintage market held in a parking garage where I became a regular customer and even, a couple of times, vendor.

So, I guess, let me explain how vintage fashion ties into my mental health. Most obviously, it just makes me happy. Curating a wardrobe I love and caring for and wearing it makes me feel stylish and good about myself. Acquiring new pieces either online, at markets, or through what I later learned was the ultimate thrill of estate sales, gave me an adrenaline rush of treasure hunting discovery. Having people comment on them or even start a dialogue about them (in the classic “conversation piece” way) is fun.

Secondly, one of the great mental health perks of having a hobby is getting involved in a community of like-minded folks. The Chicago vintage community is *awesome*, and I love the fact that when I’m buying pieces now I’m often supporting people I love and what I know is their very hard work of waking up at 4 a.m., driving out to God knows where, waiting in their car, and sifting through closets at estate sales (because I’ve seen them there). I love that some of my favorite vintage dealers know exactly my style (usually forties or fifties day dresses) and pull out things I’d like right away. I actually met someone I consider among my best friends because we were often standing in line at estate sales together. We bonded over our collections, traded pieces, and even split a booth at the Vintage Garage a couple of times.

Finally, I love what vintage fashion can teach you about history. Like how dresses from the thirties or forties are often sheer because all women just wore slips, girdles, or other undergarments at the time. Or how day dresses from the forties and fifties which I so love often have generous pockets sewn in (which I also love) because it was more convenient for housewives. Or the cool mod patterns that emerged in the sixties and the subsequent shortening of skirts. Really getting into something in a way where you begin to acquire knowledge and deeper understanding, at least for me, is really good for the old brainpan in developing confidence and lessening anxiety. I am by no means an expert, but love learning these details.

So, that’s it for today. I truly believe if you pursue some of your interests and hobbies, it can lead to opportunities you might not expect, including even friendships, and we all know how valuable those can be. Even if the hobby seems frivolous.

Going a little mod.