Podcast Episode: Exploring bipolar disorder through theatre
Category: Mental health
What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.
IW - Ian Watson
VC - Vanessa Coffey
This is Iriss.fm, internet radio for Scotland’s social services.
Introduction The 2012 Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival is underway and Iriss went along to the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow to see a performance of ‘Piece of Mind’, a documentary dance theatre work that brings to live verbatim interviews with 15-25 year olds diagnosed with bipolar. After the performance, Ian Watson talked to Vanessa Coffey who devised the work and is one of the two performers.
- Clip from the performance…..
… ‘He’s crazy, he’s crazy, he’s crazy …’
IW I’m quite intrigued to know why you called a piece about bipolar ‘Piece of Mind’ … I can see there is a play on words there.
VC Yes, there was - we decided to name it that because obviously people were giving me a piece of their mind in relation to their bipolar diagnosis, but also it was about hopefully people being able to achieve a sense of peace of mind within their illness. Everything that was in tonight’s play was taken verbatim from people who agreed to be interviewed.
IW And the characters that you voice during the play - they talked about being called ‘crazy’ sometimes, and they weren’t necessarily unhappy about being called ‘crazy’?
VC Yes, I mean there were definitely different views from the people I interviewed as to whether or not it was okay to use the word ‘crazy’. Some people have very strong views that they would never want a word like that used in relation to bipolar, and other people thought it was actually quite fun and that there was a positive connotation almost that they are the life of the party.
IW Because some characters also say that we are all on the spectrum somewhere, so is there a sense that we are all maybe crazy sometimes and …
VC Yes, that’s right, I think that we all go through … well what I hope people see on stage is things that they can connect with, that it’s not that it’s these people who are ‘crazy’ who are experiencing these sorts of mood swings. It’s just, you know, we get these emotions, we get these moods, but probably to a lesser extent than somebody with bipolar does.
IW Because another line in it talks about just being another level of stress. I mean is there a feeling that it’s related to stress or …
VC I think there are different things that can trigger you going into either mania or into depression, and definitely when people who I spoke with start to feel too stressed or too anxious, they can feel themselves going into mania and they have to pull themselves out of that - and in order to do that they have to meditate or go and sit in a quiet room, or just really sit with how they are feeling, be conscious of that.
IW And the play also talks about if you could capture that level of energy without psychosis, we would have it made.
VC Yes, ‘you’d be onto a winner’!
IW Was that a feeling that people had - if they could sustain that energy …
VC Yes, definitely. I mean the people that I spoke with … although it depends what kind of bipolar diagnosis they have, whether or not they are acute, because the people who experienced acute bipolar disorder, they really experience psychosis in mania, and that is when you start getting this amazing creative energy and just what endless energy to do things, and all of these ideas. The problem is that there are often too many ideas for them to actually realise any of them. But other people don’t get the psychosis that goes with mania - they might just get slightly elevated, but really the thing that really distinguishes their bipolar is the depressive side of it. So I suppose it’s where you fit within the spectrum again: disorders are very hard to, I guess, have one particular description of.
IW And what was your objective in making this particular piece?
VC I really wanted to raise awareness of the symptoms of bipolar disorder, but in an entertaining way, so that you don’t hopefully feel like you are sitting in a lecture hall being told what somebody with bipolar, what their hippocampus looks like or something like that, you know, where you are quite separate almost - and you get that very medical … not that there is anything wrong with medical at all, but where you do … where you are very separate from the people who are going through these sorts of symptoms: ‘we’re here’ - people were very honest with how they were feeling and we are literally putting their words on stage.
IW Yes, there was a whole series there about the west perhaps disconnecting mind and body.
VC Yes, I mean I don’t necessarily know that that is definitely the case, but I would advocate for people doing yoga and practicing mindfulness and trying to live healthily - I mean that really goes for anybody, not just somebody with bipolar disorder. But really trying to find a balance - and this is definitely not to say that people won’t need medication, because I would never say that people don’t need medication, but that the symptoms can be assisted through practicing healthy living.
IW And I noticed quite a lot of young people in the audience tonight - is there greater awareness now of bipolar and what it is, say compared to 10, 15, 20 years ago?
VC Well part of the reason that I originally wanted to do the piece was because I felt there was still some uncertainty about what bipolar disorder actually is. You know, for example, I asked a 14 year old girl I know what she thought bipolar disorder was, and she asked me if it was where people steal things. So … ‘no, that’s kleptomania …. Different;'. So I still felt that there could be an educative purpose, I suppose, in doing a piece like this. But yes, it’s fantastic that we have so many young people who are interested in coming along and seeing the show.
IW More widely I see that you do quite a lot of work related to mental conditions through Sense Scotland. Can I ask you more widely what you think the role of the arts, and in particular theatre is in education about health matters and mental health in particular?
VC I always think it comes down to … it’s all communication. So to me, obviously working with Sense Scotland as a drama tutor, that’s about creating communication strategies and making connections with people so that we don’t feel that man is an island. And it’s definitely the same thing in a production like this, that we start to connect with the people who are around us and that we don’t dichotomise people and put them in different boxes, and we just understand that, you know, we exist on many spectrums, or spectra?.
IW I think we could do spectrum (… we’re not doing Latin) Yes, because I think one of the characters near the beginning of the play, I remember, talked about, you know, “we’re not - we are either characterised as one condition or the other”.
VC Yes, that’s right, yes, and it’s just, like I was saying earlier - it’s not the case that, you know, somebody with bipolar disorder will have exactly the same experience as someone else with bipolar disorder, you know, there are varying degrees of what that will actually look like anyway.
IW And finally, do you become involved in using drama as a therapy itself for people with, say bipolar, but may other mental health conditions?
VC That is definitely something that I want to have a look at doing through ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ which is the company that I started last year. I found that … well from the feedback I got from people who were interviewed, they found it very therapeutic that they could even just talk about their experiences in an open way without feeling that they were going to have any kind of ramification - be that that their medication would be increased or that they would be required to go to more therapy sessions or that family would be called in for a discussion. So by talking to me and just getting everything off their chest, they were able to explore their own feelings hopefully in an honest and open way. So getting people into a situation where they feel comfortable enough to do that and maybe explore something to do with their own mental health would be good, yes.
Clip from performance: ‘People look at you differently if they know you have it, you know, it’s like a derogatory thing, because they just go “oh, bipolar, crazy” - they don’t understand that it’s just when you go in those periods that you act differently. So you know, what can I do, not everyone, but what can I do? We could be friends, you could be my friend, an open book, an open type dialogue. And yet you listen to my baggage and if you can’t deal with that, then you’re not my girl. That’s the way that everybody should be in life and that’s the way I am’.
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