29 September 2017, Parlour Projects, Hastings
Readers & Writers, HBAF
Mental health, suicide, paranoid schizophrenia and wellness. These are words we are becoming more and more accustomed to hearing in our everyday conversations. Words usually approached with sensitivity, caution, political correctness and, dare I say, at times, apprehension.
With introductions underway, you can feel the intensity in the air. Egan Bidois and Helena Keyes have something to say, and the audience want to hear it. Egan has worked over twenty years in the mental health sector and his wife Helena is a mental health nurse. But this is not a story of the mental health system, this is Egan’s story… a story casually, candidly relayed like the tale we may have told of that trip abroad or of that time we almost got that job. A style of dialogue that brings a sense of normality to the human experience of mental illness.
Sitting amongst the white walls of the industrial building that is the Parlour Project Gallery, I can’t help but wonder if the distorted faces of the Shane Cotton artworks gracing the walls were curated purely to play backdrop to the tale we are about to hear.
At the age of 18, after yelling at people only he could hear and physically fighting with people only he could see, Egan was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. A diagnosis that saw him institutionalised in a health system where he was given well over the maximum dose of more than seven different kinds of medication, gain nearly 40kg and be subjected to 27 courses of electro-convulsion therapy. All of which left him unable to move or speak, locked in a body that, despite all the medication, was still seeing and hearing things that only he could see and hear. Things that were sinister, cruel, demeaning and loud, telling him he was worthless and encouraging him to take his life.
But this is not horror story, it is a tale of love, of whānau, and of what the human spirit can overcome. There is lightness and hilarity in the banter between Egan and his wife, Helena, that makes the delivery of what they have been though and their methods of living with Egan’s paranoid schizophrenia, come across as lightly as offering a cup of tea. This soon becomes a conversation with the audience, who lunge at the invitation to ask questions.
Yes, Egan chooses not to use medication to manage his paranoid schizophrenia. He instead uses karakia, taonga, something he calls “wairua tripping”, going on diving trips, to the bush and other tools to manage his mental health. But Egan and Helena are not here to advocate for that, they are here to advocate for support, planning, the need for friends, whānau and asking for help when you need it. Whether you are talking about mental health or general wellbeing, Egan and Helena’s message is clear: find what works for you and make a plan. What also becomes clear, is that talking about mental health can be as causal and easy as Egan and Helen have shown it to be.
As the evening light drops and we are well over the allocated time, a required ceasing of the questions that flow brings this event to an end. Parlour Project, the artworks of Shane Cotton, the audience, Egan and Helena, all seem for a moment, to sit perfectly yet lightly together. Like a deep breath exhaled. A fascinating and optimistic contrast in comparison to the weighty topic just discussed. With Mental Health week ahead of us, I feel totally hopeful and inspired, for which I completely lay tribute to having experienced Egan and Helena’s mental health talk.
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