Manicomio

In case you haven’t already googled it, I’ll just tell you that “manicomio” means “madhouse” in Spanish. (And yes, I can hear those of you who know me laughing your collective asses off right now — it was only a matter of time until somebody hauled me away!) This was a wonderful project for my first dramatic experience, and I’m extremely proud of what our troupe accomplished with this production. We were committed to doing something profoundly and powerfully different on stage — using live theater to explore that blurred line between normalcy and pathology, to unearth the humanity buried beneath the insanity.

Putting The Inmates In Charge

Live Performance -- Theater -- ManicomioFar too often, we who swim in the mainstream think of crazy people as being somehow “different than” — fundamentally unbalanced or broken or damaged in a way that could never happen to the rest of us. But I spent a lot of time around these folks during my Social Work tenure, and I can vouch that it’s not always an inherent neurologic defect causing the psychologically disordered to lose touch with reality.

A human brain can only stand so much pressure before it snaps. Take any random group of “normies,” and subject them to extreme stress (especially the kind that comes with living on the street, wondering when that next meal will happen, where you’re going to sleep, whether you’ll be raped or beaten to a pulp that day) — and you stand a good chance of pushing them over the edge. We all have limits, it’s just a matter of where your particular line in the sand is drawn.

I believe (in that cynical “if-you-think-some-safety-net-is-gonna-catch-you-when-you-fall-you’re-seriously-delusional” way of mine) that we’re all a paycheck short of homelessness, an accident away from disability, a few neurotransmitters (or crippling life-upheavals) shy of mental illness. When I see folks shuffling along the sidewalk in bare feet and soiled pants, babbling, gesticulating wildly to themselves, battling with inner demons and hallucinations who knows what all — I think, “There but for the grace of god go I.”

I wrote this ending monologue early on in our collective storytelling process — and while the group landed on a different finale, I still feel this statement perfectly summarizes what Manicomio had to say:

It’s easy for you to classify us as “screwed-up,” “dysfunctional,” “deranged.” Go ahead — labeling what you don’t understand feels comfortable and convenient. It keeps you safe at night. We asylum-dwellers live on the fringe of convention. At first glance we seem foreign and peripheral – far away, faded, something less than human. But take a good hard look in the mirror, and you’ll see a hint of us in your own reflection — a shadow of our insanity lurking behind your more socially-acceptable daily frustrations.

Those behaviors you’re so proud of? The ones that earned you a college degree and the big promotion, bought you that three-car garage and your trophy spouse? The ladder-climbing, the high standards, that stress you wear like a badge of honor? Four cups of coffee each morning to get going, then a bottle of wine at night to relax? There’s a dark, destructive side to them all. Workaholism, sleep-deprivation, self-medication, conformism, martyrdom, hypocrisy, perfectionism — taken to an extreme, they look an awful like “schizophrenia,” “bipolar,” even “psychosis.” But because they help you to fit in with the crowd, they’re considered normal.

One Person’s Anguish Is Another’s Art

HyperthymesiaEach cast member was tasked with personalizing a psychological malady so the audience could relate. I chose “hyperthymesia” — “extreme autobiographical memory.” Imagine remembering everything that had happened on every single day of your life with absolute clarity, to the point of fully re-experiencing emotions, sensations, even illnesses — each joy or stab of pain just as fresh and raw as the first time you felt it. While this might initially sound appealing, it’s actually incredibly debilitating — akin to being robbed of both your present and your future because you’re stuck endlessly reliving the past. In fact, one afflicted woman (who I heard interviewed on NPR, and whose MRI is shown in this picture) admitted that her only means of escape from the unrelenting stream of traumatic flashbacks was disappearing into a particular childhood memory, as many as a dozen times a day!

It turns out that being able to forget loss and suffering (or at least turn the volume down on a stressful recollection) is one of the most important coping skills homo sapiens possess. Without this ability, the crappy days drown everything else out and it’s easy to get caught in a loop. I thought to myself, “If I were in that situation, which moments would I want to flee? And where would I run for solace?”  I chose three seminal experiences to represent the spectrum of human emotion — the bliss of a new love, the terror of that first day in school, and the stew of feelings I still have raging inside of me over my own mother’s death.

Live Performances -- Manicomio

As I perched on a block mid-stage, my castmates marched in a circle around me — the highly regimented beat of a drum symbolizing my out-of-sync-ed-ness with their conception of time. Every few moments, a loud bang would sound as they came to a halt and called out the date in unison. Each time, this caused a switch to flip in my head, sending me into a different memory from my past. The dates came faster and faster as the piece progressed, pushing me into a more and more frenzied state — until the pressure became too great, and I collapsed under the strain (with a ginormous melodramatic scream, of course). The room went silent and I rose to my feet — recalling that awful evening when I had to ask a hospital nurse to end my mother’s life Then one final prompt sent me back to my safe space, that cherished first kiss.

BANG!

It’s a warm and sunny Tuesday afternoon, the first time you kiss me. We’re walking through the neighborhood, and a breeze is blowing the scent of jasmine in my face when you take my hand in yours. In the distance I can hear a dog barking. You glance over at me and smile…

BANG!

Everywhere kids running and screaming — I can’t take all the noise! Ow! Hey you stupidhead — watch where you’re going! And what are you laughing at? You don’t even know me yet! It’s too hot and this place stinks like like sweaty socks — I wish I was anywhere but here, the doctor’s office getting a shot, or even sitting in the corner in time out. Oh I don’t like it here…

BANG!

I hate this fucking place — everything about it. That awful light over your bed that keeps flickering on and off, the smell of piss and Lysol and disease. You were healthy as a horse! I expected you to live at another 10 or 20 years — so why am I sitting here watching you die in a hospital bed? I could slap that stupid doctor who kept saying you were just “getting older” — too cowardly to be honest, too chickenshit to get your blood on his hands….

BANG!

We pass a bakery, and I can smell the fresh blueberry muffins coming out of the oven. In the shop window reflection, I catch you looking at me, looking at my mouth. You’re going to kiss me, I know you’re going to kiss me — and a little shiver runs down my spine…

BANG!

Please momma, don’t make me. I don’t want to go out there alone — I don’t know anybody here. I want to stay home with you — oh, I’ll be so good if you just let me stay with you…

BANG!

Why did you tell me you were “fine” when you really weren’t? I wish you’d told me the truth — I’m so fucking angry at you for that! Every time that C-Pap machine forces air into your lungs, it’s like someone sticking an icepick through my heart over and over again….

BANG!

You put your hands on the sides of my face — there’s a rough spot on your left index finger. You pull me close and I can feel your body pressed against mine…

BANG!

Oh momma — I know you want me to act brave and be a big girl, but I don’t feel like a big girl. Please stop looking through your purse. I need you to pay attention to me….

BANG!

The squeak of that woman’s shoes is driving me crazy — and the constant beeping from that goddamned pulse oximeter….

BANG!

I’m so sorry momma — please don’t be mad. I’m not trying to be bad….

BANG!

It’s so cold in here…

BANG!

Brushing my hair away from my cheek…

BANG!

My head hurts and I feel dizzy…

BANG!

Watching you cough up blood…

BANG!

The smell of your skin…

BANG!

Oh Momma, I think I’m going to be sick!

BANG!

You knew I’d take care of things when you said, “It hurts too much. I don’t want to be here anymore” — but why did you wait until everyone else had left the room to ask me to kill you? I’m not even sure if you felt me kiss your forehead or heard me say that I love you that one last time before they gave you the morphine.

BANG!

Your lips are warm and soft and wet, and your mouth tastes like toothpaste. You taste so good! I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. This, right here, right now — THIS is what content feels like.

I wish I had a video to show you! (Unfortunately, the theater owner was dead-set against any taping.) Of course, my segment is just a single brushstroke in a much larger picture — one that depicts the bravest artists I’ve ever met stretching boundaries, embracing fears, pressing hard on those sore spots in their souls. But at every performance, attendees pulled me aside to tell me how powerfully my story had affected them. (Many, including our assistant director, had gone through similar end-of-life experiences with loved ones — they knew exactly the sort of despair I was expressing.) I can’t tell you how gratifying it was to have folks really understand such a highly personal piece of art — especially when it was my first attempt at this particular genre. (An exceptionally positive way to conclude my thespian cherry-poppage!)

I adored the staging and transitions, the light effects, the weird electronic background noises, the way we blended our many traumas together into a mix of pathos/humor, love/horror, and rage/reclamation. Pre-show was a schizoid Improv Everywhere skit (where you couldn’t tell actors from audience), and the ending was priceless — patients vacating the theater like Thorazine-drugged zombies, locking patrons in to take our place as the new inmates running the asylum.

Interestingly, the producer’s day job is teaching art in a mental institution — his colleagues’ comments were along the lines of, “You nailed it. I feel like I’m at work!” I guess that’s as big a compliment as a show like this could receive. But the best comment made about my individual piece by the theatrical press was, “Wonderful sense-memories — mortifying and mirthful, distressing and delightful, tormented and ticklish — the likes of mortal magnificence, hot and cold terrifically terrestrial tales all being told.” Cool! Here are a few other reviews, if you’re interested in what the scribes had to say.

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Ramona Creel is an award-winning 15-year veteran organizer and member of the National Association Of Professional Organizers. As well as having birthed “The A-To-Z Of Getting Organized,” Ramona is also the author of “The Professional Organizer’s Bible: A Slightly Irreverent And Completely Unorthodox Guide For Turning Clutter Into A Career”—and the creator of more than 200 “quick-start” business tools and templates for use by productivity professionals. She writes seven different blogs, has worked with hundreds of clients, and has delivered scores of presentations on getting organized. Ramona resides on the roads of America as a full-time RVer—living and working in a 29-foot Airstream. Learn more at and RamonaCreel.com.

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