GLENS FALLS — It was on the back porch of Annie’s Baltimore group home that she, while pausing from pulling in the inhaled vapors of a Pall Mall, recited without announcement or ceremony the Gettysburg Address.
And it was in this moment that Michael Mack made sense of it all. Made sense of his mother’s life. Made sense of her years of living with schizophrenia, her electroshock therapy, her lengthy hospitalizations, her arrests, her time living on the streets.
“I was stunned by it,” he said in a phone interview Thursday from his Cambridge, Massachusetts home. “It was a testimony to her life. When I think of all of the others who had mental illness, these people have not died in vain.”
Mack, an award-winning poet, playwright and actor, now weaves the “Gettysburg Address” into his poems, his full-length play about how his family waded through life with his mother’s mental illness and her eventual recovery.
In his poem, “Heart,” Mack writes, “At the words from these honored dead we take increased devotion I imagined the tens of thousands of mental patients before her who died locked up, forgotten, nameless, these words her call to the unfinished work of finding in their memory a purpose that these dead shall not have died in vain. She closed her textbook circuit road trip of the Gettysburg Address with a drag on her cigarette.”
On April 8, Mack will join other writers, poets, artists and musicians for an evening of sharing at the Charles R. Wood Theater for the “Come As You Are” performance. Through staged readings and songs by area and national writers and musicians, affected in some way by mental illness, the audience gets a first-hand glimpse of how mental illness winds into and around our lives.
And organizers hope the performance begins to dispel the myths and stigma associated with mental illness.
Featured cast members include Mack and Marya Hornbacher, an award-winning journalist, bestselling author, and Pulitzer-nominee for her book “Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia.”
Organizer and director Logan Beth Fisher, who has experienced mental illness in her family and she herself has struggled with clinical depression, said this year’s theme is “Embrace.”
“Doing these shows is a way to do something, to feel a little less helpless. This is my way to contribute … of doing something to make the taboo less,” she said. “When you share stories, there is an inspiration (for people to know,) ‘I am not alone.’ ”
“We hope people will understand and realize that people with mental illness are your neighbors, co-workers. They are really successful human beings,” she said in an interview on Wednesday. “It doesn’t have to be taboo. One in five people this year will experience some kind of mental illness.”
The proceeds from the show will support the services of the Warren-Washington Association for Mental Health. “They do such incredible work,” Fisher said.
WWAMH serves thousands of individuals in the area. “There are 12,000 visits to our outpatient clinic in Hudson Falls,” said Nicole Casey, human resources director and community relations manager of WWAMH. “Part of our mission is to talk about mental illness in the community. We are hoping the public embraces this event and it puts mental illness on the map.”
A beautiful mind
The brain, with its 100 billion neurons, 900 billion glial cells, 100 trillion branches and 1,000 trillion receptors, reacts to stimuli in a series of electrical bursts, spanning a complex map of connections.
And these synaptic connections fire in ways that are not always easy to explain and in ways that scientists are starting to understand as they study what makes us do what we do.
“We study the synaptic connections in brains and our goal is to understand electrical activity during behavior. But understanding the brain is not the same as understanding the heart, we know that is a pump,” said Linda Overstreet-Wadiche, an associate professor at the University of Alabama School of Medicine, Department of Neurobiology, who studies learning, memory and synaptic plasticity. “We haven’t been that successful because we don’t understand how the electrical activity and synapses between neurons work.”
In a study published in February, Overstreet-Wadiche and fellow scientists reported that stem cells in the hippocampus — the part of the brain where memories are made — make newborn neurons.
These newborn neurons can make new memories, and change older memories which can be altered or disappear.
While this science is still very new and evolving, Overstreet-Wadiche said it has been known for some time that our brain maps can be altered. And contrary to those who believe that we cannot change our brains, we can.
To simplify: We have a comfortable rut worn in our brain that we travel each day. And even if the behaviors tied to this rut are not healthy, we keep doing them because it is familiar.
The good news is, because our brains are malleable, we can alter these ruts or paths to create new ones.
And the same is true for people with mental illness; new roads can be formed.
Nonetheless, forging a new way of doing things is often painful and uncomfortable, but recovery can happen.
“Connections are changing and new connections are being made,” said Overstreet-Wadiche.
“Come As You Are” director Fisher said that her awareness came about through 20 years of therapy. And in a Wednesday afternoon interview just after her Big Cross Street School fourth-graders left for the day, Fisher discusses her own journey.
“For me, it’s the unraveling of what was dysfunctional and learning new strategies to survive. The road is painful to let go … for me it was managing the black,” she said. “I am a living example of that constant hard work.”
Mack was a little boy when his mother was first diagnosed with schizophrenia.
“Her presence was so big in our family, each of us struggled with the effects of growing up with that chaos,” he said. “And Mama herself endured more than any of us. She spent a lot of time in state hospitals, in jail. She was on the streets, at halfway houses.”
And while Mack admits it was very sad to see her in these situations, he said things started to change for her, and the 1990s is when the family marks her recovery.
The way he explained it, two group homes she stayed in helped.
But one in particular, that focused on the aspect of community and doing things together, really helped his mother thrive. “Everyone helped out with chores, they had a say in how things were done and my Mom flourished,” he said. “They cared for her and about her … my message is about recovery, about the reality of recovery.”
Sharing stories, changing lives
A few years ago, Fisher performed as a cast member in “Listen to Your Mother” on Broadway, and in 2015 she was invited to co-direct “This is My Brave” in Boston.
Representatives from the area WWAMH saw her Boston show and asked her if she would bring it to this community, and last year the show at the Wood Theater sold out, she said.
For the 2017 performance, after inviting several nationally known cast members, Fisher held auditions for the local cast at Crandall Public Library. “We had 21 audition and we chose five,” she said, adding that for those who did not make it, they will use excerpts and quotes from the essays not chosen as part of the evening event.
Fisher said the show has some very funny and memorable moments. “Anna Rose Johnson — her essay is in list form, and it is so funny,” she said. “Last night at rehearsal, it is brilliant, it’s not to be missed.”
“I wanted to add outside elements to keep the audience entertained,” she said.
Mack said he does not charge for his performance for this event because of the important work being done.
“Overcoming the stigma is part of the great work they are doing,” he said about the April show.
Casey, of WWAMH, said people often look at mental illness negatively. “The more the conversation opens up … and these community members are so brave, facing people they know (for the performance),” she said. “Logan (Beth Fisher) is the creative mind behind it. We’re so grateful.”
In trying to explain the stigma, Casey said it is not like a broken arm. A mental illness is often invisible. And because it is invisible, it is hard for people to understand that it is real.
“People are often afraid to talk about it,” she said. “Our work is to help people be part of the community.”
Fisher hopes the April show will open minds and hearts.
“Find out someone’s story before you make a judgment with a diagnostic twist,” Fisher said. “This kind of show shows you this is what mental illness looks like.”