Sanism and Bending the Map – Part I


For the past few years I’ve been working on my one-person, autobiographical show “Panther Hollow,” which talks about my struggles with clinical depression back when I was 25. When I first started researching stories of mental illness – before I decided to write about my own – I began interviewing friends and acquaintances and collecting their stories about depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia as well as stories about the difficulties of navigating the health care system and how our collective, fundamental misunderstanding of mental illness is making us…well…crazy.

Last year, I received a commission from Passage Theatre and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center to turn this material into another theatre piece. Under the working title “Sanism,” I’ve continued to interview people and gather their stories. I’m now at a point where I have so many stories – so many moving, remarkable, even heroic stories – that I’m unable to decide which ones to tell.

Hence, this blog.

Once a week, I’ll be sharing these stories and talking about my research. I’d love to know what you think – what speaks to you, what fascinates you and what pisses you off. By April, “Sanism” will have a public reading at NJPAC. That will be followed by a full production at Passage next season.

So where to start?

Recently, my wife told me about this concept called “Bending the Map.” Bending the map is something that people engage in when they are lost, or confused or in the middle of an experience they don’t understand. It doesn’t have to be depression or a psychotic break or anything like that. Everyone does it. It takes place when the person who is lost realizes that the map their using no longer corresponds with their environment. But instead of trying to understand how to survive their new environment, they decide there must be something wrong with the map. So they bend it. They break the rules outlined in the map in order to force it make sense with their surroundings. Of course, this can’t be done.

While it sounds like something only mentally ill people would engage in, all of us do it to some degree all the time. Unfortunately, we also bend the map when it comes to dealing with the mentally ill. When we can’t understand someone’s behavior, we prescribe motivations and character traits to them that we *can* understand. That person sitting in the corner sobbing for no reason? That doesn’t make any sense. They must just want attention.

We don’t understand mental illness because we don’t listen to the stories of the people who suffer from it. And we don’t listen to the stories because understanding them means creating a new map – one that clashes with our societal and cultural biases.

I want to make a new map. I’m starting with the stories.

My friend Gene (not his real name) was in his mid-30s when he woke up one morning, left his wife and four year old daughter, got into his car and started driving. He was missing for over a week. His friends and the police were notified. His wallet was found in an alley in Chicago, hundreds of miles from his home. He finally turned up in a hospital and returned home, but spent the next year coping with bipolar disorder and the dissolution of his marriage. Here’s what he told me during our interview two years ago. Highly intelligent, eloquent and introspective, Gene is able to look back on his bout with mental illness with an insight that is quite unique. I should also mention that Gene is funny – very funny – so if you wind up laughing at some of things he says, he meant for you to do that.

I didn’t have a map. I didn’t have anything. I just followed the signs. I knew…”go to the interstate and turn left. That way is Chicago.” But I wasn’t scared. I had no doubt, no fear, nothing like that.There was nothing really that led up to it. At all I wasn’t having any problems in my marriage – I mean we fought and stuff but there was nothing…we hadn’t been talking about divorce…there were no real stressers. The day before, I was working at the comic book store and a kid and his grandmother were checking out. They paid their money and I just stared at the receipt and I couldn’t do the math. I just couldn’t figure it out. Then they started talking to me but I couldn’t understand what they were saying and I became convinced that they were speaking to me in code. It’s such a cliché, the whole “I’m being tracked by government agents” thing. But that’s what I thought. It’s so typical.

That night, when Ally was asleep. I picked her up, handed her to Janet and said “I need you to take care of her.” Then I went to bed. The next morning, I got up, got dressed, got in my car and headed to Chicago. Because I had to see Del Close.

Del Close, of course, wasn’t in Chicago. Also he was dead. But there was a really, deep subconscious thing going on. Obviously, I knew him because he was an improv teacher and I did improv. But even more important than that, I knew Del Close because Del Close wrote a surreal comic book called “The Wasteland” and I had that in my head. You have to find this book and read it. You have to. It’s just a big “fuck you” to our whole notion of reality. So I subconsciously knew about the wasteland and it was written by Del Close and I knew Del Close was in Chicago so I had to go to Chicago.

It took me two days to get to Chicago. There are a couple of things I remember. I stopped once at a rest stop that had this circular dining area. I started walking around the perimeter of it because I suddenly understood that this was the whole world and I needed to encircle the world. And I knew it was the world because in the middle of the dining area, sitting at one of the tables, was this old guy playing a game of chess with a Hassidic Jew. I understood that was a symbol. A sign. Everything was a symbol. Everything was a sign. That was the level I was operating on.

About two hours outside of Chicago, I stopped at a hotel. I don’t remember what I did there. I think I just walked in, fell asleep, then got up the next morning and left. But I remember that I made sure I left the room exactly as I found it. That was important for some reason. I was covering my tracks.

When I got to Chicago I spent a lot of time walking. For three days. I didn’t sleep. I just walked. On the first day, I ditched my wallet. Because I had it in my head that people were trying to find me so if they found me, I didn’t want to have any ID on me. I didn’t want anyone to know who I was. So I threw my wallet in a dumpster in an alley.

At some point I went to this bookstore. And the reason I went there was because somehow I knew that Dave Chappelle was there. That was really important because Dave Chapelle was going to be my guide. My mentor. You see at this point, I realized that Chicago was a game. A puzzle. And I was playing the game. My job was to walk through Chicago, find the clues and solve the puzzle. And once I did, once I won the game, I would be…king of the world, basically. I would know everything. I would control everything from the background. Make policies. Pass laws. I would be in control. But first I had to solve the puzzle. I had to win the game.

To be continued…

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