It’s a Saturday, shortly after noon, and 22-year-old Micheala Hiltergerke is anxious. She’s just spent the morning rehearsing maladjusted, the new play about mental illness from Theatre for Living (formerly Headlines Theatre). It’s her first role, and the character, a troubled teen named Danielle Williams, is based on fragments of Hiltergerke’s own life. Anybody else would likely be freaking out about how the scenes echo her own adolescence, or about acting for the first time (she’s riveting), but not Hiltergerke.
“It is pretty intense,” she admits. “But I’m not afraid to go there, because it’s not my life anymore. It’s not a scary thing for me. I’m actually happy to be able to bring that, give it to the public, and then walk away.”
Hiltergerke, who has travelled from Prince George to Vancouver for this experience, was only 14 when she was hospitalized, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and prescribed a cocktail of drugs. Finally, at 19, she quit all her medication, practised self-care, and withdrew from everyone, including her doctors.
“For over a year, I was really angry with a lot of people and the parts that they played, but after that, I came to an understanding,” Hiltergerke says. In fact, she thought she’d completely healed—until maladjusted. In her short time working with Theatre for Living on the show about the mental-health system, she’s already had a life-changing breakthrough.
“I never ever understood my parents and the pain they had to go through,” Hiltergerke says. “My parents went through fucking shit having to go through this with me. It’s opened up a huge spot in my heart….And the understanding—it’s not just the patients going through shit. The counsellors and doctors—my psychiatrist really went over and beyond for me, and for the first year I hated him, thought it was all his fault. But nobody’s actually winning in it and everybody’s hurting a lot.”
Maladjusted wants to change that. This is Theatre for Living’s first production since its name change from Headlines, and it uses the company’s style of forum theatre, in which audience members step into roles in the show to try to resolve situations. This means that every performance will be half play and half public dialogue. Maladjusted started with an outreach to people who were interested in a weeklong workshop to examine mental illness from both sides, patients and caregivers. From there, the cast and director David Diamond, who is also Theatre for Living’s artistic director, spent four weeks creating the play.
The goal isn’t as simple as just sparking a dialogue; rather, the troupe hopes to initiate real change and create policy, drafted by patients, caregivers, and others within the mental-health system. The play will examine budget inadequacies, misdiagnosis, lack of resources, and how the system, sometimes, sets its clients up to fail. Theatre for Living plans to prepare a community-action report based on suggestions from the performances, as well as a dialogue series. It will put forward the resulting policy proposals to groups like the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health, and the Canadian Nurses Association.
That’s what Erin Arnold was most eager to achieve when she joined the cast as Abby Neill, the frustrated social worker. Arnold has experience as both a patient and a caregiver. She has a background in counselling children and youth, having worked for the provincial government since 1998, but she’s also still dealing with her own trauma. Five years ago, after the birth of her son, she suffered from severe postpartum depression, which resulted in hospitalization and electroshock therapy.
“It affected my life profoundly,” Arnold says. “I didn’t find it useful to me and I felt like the system failed me. I feel like I didn’t have the right supports in place. Luckily, I have good family supports, and that really helped. It was a really challenging time in my life. I was able to get past the postpartum depression, but I’m still struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder from childhood sexual abuse. I deal with that every day—nightmares, flashbacks, things like that—but I try and build in supports. I have counselling, self-care, things like that.”
Yet, like Hiltergerke, Arnold didn’t hesitate to share her story to help shape maladjusted’s narrative about the mental-health system’s state of disrepair and its gutting impact on the province’s most vulnerable people. She’s lived it, and she knows others probably are living it too. It’s not easy, but it’s time to let these dark truths have a little light.
“I was pretty excited about the opportunity,” Arnold says. “It is scary to be public about having mental-health issues. I worry about that from a stigma point of view, but more for my son. And it’s challenging to work in the field and be honest that I’m dealing with my own stuff. A lot of people don’t want to talk about it.”
Maladjusted might not end up with all the answers, but at least it’s a place to start.