Luis Alfaro is the Playwright-in-Residence at Oregon Shakespeare Festival through the National Playwright Residency Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Find out more about his residency experience here, and learn about the impact of the program at large here.
The problem with talking about mental health is that the parameters for how one can feel land in two general categories: 1. You have it together and you just don’t realize it, or 2. You are Amanda Bynes/Lindsay Lohan.
The truth is, most of us probably live in that happy stressed American middle where we work way more hours than we should and we never take all the time off that is allotted to us. That’s true, by the way. And why do we do that?
One in five of us have experienced some sort of mental health issue. One in ten young people experience major depression and one in twenty of us live with something serious like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. This explains a lot to me about my nights writing at IHOP and the clientele that frequent there. Not including healthy observant me, of course.
But the biggest surprise of doing any sort of research around this issue is that most people with mental health issues are very productive with good attendance and punctuality— generally better employees than their healthy counterparts. One need only attend a full time faculty meeting at any university to see such condition in action. Not mine, of course. Go Trojans!
You know that this is not about me, right?
Alright, I am also thinking of myself.
Sometimes (okay, all the time) I emote with the lines and even the essential stage directions. Out loud (or with the pillow over my face to not alarm the neighbors) I will weep with it and get angry and laugh uncontrollably. I will feel every emotion I am writing.
On the scale of cray-cray, I am confident that I am far from “cat hoarder,” but am I really so far away from the one loosened screw that is Peter Finch in Network?
What got me questioning my mental health is that I am simply a bit depressed.
On one end it’s what’s going on inside—creativity and the struggle towards finding the right way to say what you want—and the other is what I take in externally. Ferguson, Issl, Syria. I haven’t watched television since May, so I have become a bit addicted to news wires, which is actually not that good for me. Everything is always “breaking” and equal in importance.
There are three things that have not gone well for me. 1. This new play is way harder to write than I thought. 2. I threw my back out one morning. 3. I never take drugs and I took Vicodin for the first time.
But the truth could be that it’s just art.
Playwriting requires something extraordinary in your relationship with writing. When you’re in the zone it seems like all the world falls away, but the truth is, only you fall away.
I can stay up all night with a play if allowed. Especially because it’s not the quantity of pages that take over in the coolness between three and four in the morning, it’s a kind of quality of writing that only lends itself to focus, concentration, and all manner of, well, crazy.
Meaning that I feel it all.
I say the words from my play aloud in the quiet of my Little Ethiopia cottage. And sometimes (okay, all the time) I emote with the lines and even the essential stage directions. Out loud (or with the pillow over my face to not alarm the neighbors) I will weep with it and get angry and laugh uncontrollably. I will feel every emotion I am writing. Yes, I will act all manner of nuts.
The problem is that I don’t live like an artist.
I don’t get up at noon and adjust my black beret and little fake French moustache and grab at some crusty bread. No, I get up at a ridiculously early hour to go teach or read someone else’s play and sit in meetings to try to get said plays produced at either my theatre or someone else’s.
And then there’s that thing of cleaning your own house and washing your car and going to the bank and being there for your mother. So mundane, and we all share it, but yes, even then, the accumulation of little things that can so easily become Cat Hoarder! Just because we all have to do it doesn't mean that some of us don't go insane doing it.
And sometimes the writing doesn’t come.
I try and try, do all the tricks to trick myself into discovery, but the truth is that one needs to write a lot of words that you may never use in order to have one pop up that will take you down the path into something unique and surprising.
The mental health truth is that sometimes writing happens not in spite of life, but in place of it. And then things get funky.
Everything goes out of whack and you forget you were in the world. And things get a little fuzzy, like “is it Wednesday?” or “didn’t I already teach you last semester?” fuzzy.
Getting back to that list.
Plays are hard. They are puzzles that we unlock inside of ourselves. They are people speaking that are not ourselves but that we seem to somehow recognize. And at our best, plays are big reaches into big ideas that we didn’t even realize we had inside of us. Yes, at the risk of insanity, when we write, we are actually channeling and the best thing we can do is get out of the way and let that “other you” take over.
I was in a parking lot at school and I was totally culpable when I missed the stupidest easiest little sidewalk and tripped, doing one of my infamous stage falls (turn into an armadillo—curl up and roll into it and avoid further injury). Still, I felt the sharp spasm of pain rolling down my lower back. Ouch. Ow.
By the time I got to the doctor, I needed a big dose of an anti-inflammatory and a little pill for the sharpness of the pain.
I came clean with the doc about how few drugs I ever ingest, and he suggested a half of Vicodin and see how I feel. The problem with that theory is that I felt so good taking Vicodin for the first time that I immediately took the other half to feel even better.
I made the mistake of going to my IHOP to write and in a spasm of drug-induced generosity I paid for the meals of four nurses eating across from me. Three were touched and the fourth was slightly offended by my chauvinistic gesture.
I was too busy slobbering and wanting to dance next to my pancakes. They were pumping I Will Survive in the IHOP and the world seemed a wonderful Vicodin stack of buttermilk flapjack goodness.
But then, it wore off.
And I was left with a play that hurts, and a complicated schedule, and a lot of emails to return, and being here, now.
Sometimes being here now is hard.
I saw a couple of drunks beating the shit out of each other in front of the bus stop on Washington and Redondo, and then I went to a little taco stand and maybe it was just coincidence but four different desperate people came in asking for money and the owner, a short stout woman, finally blew up at the last guy and humiliated the hell of out of him in front of everybody and he left, shame dripping off of him, and she was red in the face and tired from all this bullshit, and it just happens sometimes, it just happens, that’s part of living in the city.
And I got to school and I comforted a young international student from Korea who was crying because someone stole her bike and I remember that sense of violation when mine was stolen too and we walked over to security and by the time I got to my office and was thinking about how to help my students, I doubted myself for just a moment. But isn’t that why I am a little depressed, because a couple of them doubted me last week?
Arrgghh, the vicious cycle.
But I am one of the lucky ones.
After class I went over to La Taquiza, bought myself an horchata and opened up my laptop and wrote a new scene. Not brilliant, probably not even good, but necessary. And you know what, thank goodness for words, because I do feel better. I just wish they would never leave me.
So, tonight, yes, a little depressed, but tomorrow a whole new day of possibility, and isn’t that good? Not all of us, but the majority, have the power to move that darkened cloud. If we only did what made us happy.
I can pick up that pen.
This piece was adapted and edited from Luis’ personal Facebook page.