Saltspring Island artist and performer Helani Davison wants us to see the people who reside inside the outward signs of mental illness, addiction and poverty.
For Davison says whenever you find people, you find stories, poetry and even laughter.
"Turning [mental illness, addiction and trauma] into a form of entertainment, I think, is so much more effective than having somebody give you a dry lecture," Davison said this week in a telephone interview.
The 68-year-old sculptor, writer and performer has devised an autobiographical performance piece mixing narrative, poetry and anecdotes she calls Daughter of Chaos. It draws on her personal experiences with mental illnesses, addictions and poverty. She performs it March 10 at 7 p.m., in the Eric Martin Pavilion theatre at Royal Jubilee Hospital.
Davison's story begins in Sudbury, Ont., with a mother diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia who was at times violent. Davison fails Grade 9 because of her own alcoholic episodes and leaves for Toronto at the age of 16. She develops an addiction to amphetamines in her early 20s, during a modelling career where the drugs kept her weight down.
Davison would go on to gather psychiatric diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. And she had an ongoing eating disorder, beginning with anorexia before it swung the other way to compulsive overeating.
But there have been some triumphs. At age 40, Davison returned to school and became certified as an addictions counsellor. She also enjoyed a successful career in public relations, working with several major corporations including CP Hotels and IBM.
Eighteen years ago Davison moved to B.C., attracted by its natural beauty, and now lives on Saltspring Island, with its artist community where she writes, rehearses and creates stone sculptures.
She has also been clean and sober for 28 years, and while she still struggles with compulsions such as overeating, there is always the opportunity for laughs.
Davison said one of the biggest hits in her show is a retelling of a past Christmas season when she found herself alone in a house with her eating disorder and a little Nativity scene constructed of white chocolate.
First to go was a little sheep. "Nobody will notice." She progresses through other barnyard animals and shepherds. "By the time I got to the Three Wise Men, I knew I was in big trouble."
Ultimately, Davison said her performances allow people to see her as an ordinary human, beyond all the traumas, illnesses and other issues. "They see me as a person."
"I don't think [mental illness and addiction] should be anonymous," she said.
"There would be much more healing if we could speak openly about it.
"When I give these performances, I always have people from the audience coming up to talk to me saying, 'I could so relate to what you were saying, it's so good to hear someone talk openly about this.' " Davison said.
Bruce Saunders, co-ordinator of Movie Monday, a weekly event in the Eric Martin Pavilion theatre, said he saw Davison perform in December in a community hall and quickly asked her to perform in his venue.
Saunders said when the Eric Martin opened 42 years ago, before the appearance of the modern medications, "psychodrama" was in vogue. Patients were asked to act out things, such as their dreams, for example, as part of their therapy.
Eighteen years ago, when he was a patient at Eric Martin for a time, Saunders noticed the 100-seat theatre sitting largely unused. On his release, he approached hospital authorities and Movie Mondays was born.
Admission is by donation and the movies always deal, at some level, with mental health. Saunders has also since branched out to include some live performances and talks in the theatre, called Saturday Live.
Discussions usually occur and people interact. The whole experience works well for people who are dealing with mental illness and for people in the community who can meet those facing challenges.
"I know it works because I've seen it in my theatre," said Saunders.
Drew Barnes, co-ordinator of psychiatric day services for the Vancouver Island Health Authority, said Movie Mondays and other presentations such as an open-mike-style talent show have been a big hit.
Also a success was a play created by Eric Martin clients with assistance from members of the University of Victoria drama department.
Barnes also recalled a recent production that explored the issue of mental illness and smoking. It looked at why people with mental-health issues are more likely to be smokers, smoke more heavily and smoke more dangerously.
Ultimately, he said the theatre has become a valued part of Eric Martin Pavilion, giving people with mental illness a chance to meet and interact with each other and the community at large.
"It's like a stimulus for things to happen," said Barnes. "It's having that resource here in the community; it's there, it's available and it's flexible."
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