Dealing Hope, Mental Health

September 21, 2020

The Ongoing Attempt

I'm WillowjakMama!

My blog started as a way to document my journey to wellness, but turned into a place to be inspired by others through our collective messy & authentic stories. Now it's my favourite place to be.

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Living in crisis. Something I’d done for most of my life. Vulnerability, Rage, Passion. The only states in which I existed. My father believed that because life had been so turbulent at home, that I didn’t feel things were normal unless I was in a state of crisis. It was a painful place to live. But without it, I felt that something was missing, or off.

My career in the performing arts was a natural convergence of how I was built and the intense experiences I lived and it was eventually my commitment to it that anchored, focussed and fulfilled me. Once I was able to find focus and positive inspiration, I was able to invite things into my life that allowed my passion to live in a healthier place.  I found stability in my relationship with my husband Jack, my son Ethan (now 7), my family and friends, and despite the constant lack of certainty in my career choice, in the work I found comfort and power. And when that stability would begin to tremor, I could always find my way back. Will myself back. It was one of my greatest resources. I could always find my way out. I would always come back. But in 2018, my world shattered and for the first time in my life, I doubted my ability to do so.

Until then, I’d spent a lifetime unknowingly training and building up profound coping mechanisms. When I was very young, we moved to Canada from South Africa, shortly after the Soweto riots during the Apartheid regime. Despite a deep connection to the country, it was not a government or a system my parents could support. I am grateful to them for speaking to my brother and me frankly about what was happening in South Africa. It allowed me to connect what was happening there with what was happening in other parts of the world, including here in Canada.

Around that time, my mother was diagnosed with severe Manic Depression. My father hoped our new life in Canada would allay some of her pain. It did not. She was prescribed high doses of lithium, given shock treatment and hospitalized regularly. Eventually, my brother and I were taken away from her. My father, worried about the damage being done to us, to protect us from the ongoing trauma at home, agreed to the court’s terms and he was granted full custody of us. For most of my life, we had weekly scheduled visits with my mom, many of which were in locked-down psychiatric wards. The ones when she was well, were spent eating mangos and pastrami sandwiches in the park with the squirrels. It was a form of peace for us. Sometimes months would pass as I got older, but she was always there waiting for us when we were ready and my father always made sure we didn’t get swept up in life so long that too much time would pass between visits.

On New Year’s Eve, my final year in high school, my mother went into a coma. She’d been admitted to the hospital for issues associated with her medication. She received an IV and through it, was accidentally infected with meningitis. A staph infection. My brother and I were advised to take her off life support. We had power of attorney since my parents had been divorced for so long. I was young and unable to grasp what a terrible quality of life she would endure if we kept her alive. I couldn’t imagine life without her. I sat on her bed and begged her to show me a sign that she could understand me. At that moment, a tear fell down her face and I knew she wanted to live. And she woke up. Our relief was short-lived. The meningitis had attacked all her organs. Our beautiful, brilliant, vibrant, mother would spend the rest of her life in long-term care homes. For the next 17 years, she lived in several of these facilities, each worse than the next. She suffered immensely but was determined to live. While her mental state was always unstable, her intellect was razor sharp. Curious, full of knowledge, utterly poetic, she always spoke the truth. Her body gave out a decade ago. I wasn’t prepared for her death. She’d been sick my whole life, but had always lived. Lost and in terrible pain without her, my identity was shaken for years and I developed a deep-rooted fear that I would end up like her: sick, at the mercy of a flawed health care system, and lose everything.

In 2013 I had my son, and slowly began to experience peace. I still blamed myself for my mom’s years of unnecessary suffering, but I began enjoying life’s moments without feeling guilty. We moved to northern B.C. where Jack and I spent 5 years developing work and raising our son surrounded by nature, art, and an amazing community of people. We gained a deeper understanding of Canada’s unspoken history and through it all I began to feel gratitude for the life I’d been afforded.

On August 20th 2018, it all fell apart. I was diagnosed with Advanced Breast Cancer.  When I learned about the horrific treatment protocol I would have to undergo, an almost two-year process in the end, I didn’t think it was something I had the capacity to endure. I’d spent a lifetime training for this very moment, building up coping skills but for most of the experience, terror led the way and I found myself, like my mother, sick, at the mercy of the health care system and terrified I would lose everything, including my actual life.

My journey battling this disease has been epic and it will be something I refer back to often and in greater detail. As I process what transpired, I am putting it behind me. Slowly. Gently. I have come to realize that control is mainly an illusion. We don’t know what will happen from one moment to the next. By holding on to notions of control, I believe we restrict ourselves and the people around us, further fueling conflict, and the cycle of compression and explosion continues.

As actors, directors, playwrights, we organize our thoughts and actions so we can communicate the story and relationships to our audience, ideally both entertaining and moving them. As humans, we organize our lives to maintain control. To feel safe. To protect ourselves, our lives, the things that matter to us. Some people are willing to go to great lengths to maintain their control and power, often at the expense of others. Rules and boundaries can protect us. But it can all change in an instant. For anyone. We’ve seen this with the pandemic. And we see how holding on to systems of power that control and oppress people to the benefit of others, will eventually lead to unrest. Control tightens. Freedom softens.

Staying open, unguarded and deeply responsive to everything has always been my on and off-stage superpower. As an actor and creator, I learned to harness my energy by exercising my heart, like I would any muscle. I learned to stretch it so I could let go of my thoughts, and be present with my collaborators and the audience. As artists, by surrounding ourselves with anchors of stability; the text, the staging, the relationships, the rehearsal, the knowns, we feel a greater sense of safety while we work in such vulnerable and pressure filled environments. It is a form of protection.

But crises will always arise. It is inevitable. And when the Beast of Cancer entered my life, the force of it nearly knocked me down for good. Before then, I practiced meditation on and off. I found it to be a calming discipline. But what was the virtue of meditating on a mat if I couldn’t practice it when crisis hit? So I had to do the work. I had to learn to step outside of the crisis. I failed most of the time. And so I read and I walked. And I began to discover the act of Surrendering. Never feeling fear, anger or sadness is not possible. But not getting caught up in it, choosing how I react is what my focus has become. It takes constant work, mindfulness, failure, discipline, hope. But I keep trying because it benefits me and makes life easier for the world around me. It is why I am here on this platform. To share and to learn, with the hope of making a moment easier for myself and some of you.

I think a great deal about the word ‘Surrender’, its implications and its outcomes. Learning to surrender doesn’t mean I don’t believe in rigour or passion or fighting for the things and people that are important to me. While I’ve come to relish the times when life is mundane, living passively is not something I am capable of doing. Passion drives us, Resistance can bring about necessary change and Vulnerability and Love can open closed or wounded hearts. When unbridled or focussed in the wrong way, they can be destructive. When channelled in the right way, they can bring about a sort of peace. And when activated, they can bring about freedom.

The image above is of my mom and me, before it all went wrong. I think back to her epic life battle; losing her mind, her body, her home, her husband, her children and the crisis and pain it created. She wrote to me sometimes. In one of her letters she writes, “…I am so sad because you are so far away. But most of the time I just think of you and am happy.” Through these letters, I see her ongoing passion and drive to find peace for herself and for us. While she came to accept what she had lost, she never stopped fighting for a relationship with her children. And maybe this is what kept her going. I think sometimes she may have found peace. And I know with certainty that she eventually found freedom.

Freedom. A word with so much personal and historical resonance. To all of us. In many ways. It seems to exist for some but not for others. We don’t always have control. We don’t always have the means. We don’t always have the privilege. Not in a world where balance seems so far away. But I believe finding freedom, for a tiny moment or a duration of time, is worth the ongoing attempt.

Lauren Brotman

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Hi, I'm Stacey.
Welcome to the
Willowjak Blog 

My blog started as a way to document my journey to wellness, but turned into a place to be inspired by others through our collective messy & authentic stories. We chat about themes that are often ignored and voices that aren't often given a chance at the mic. Now it's my favourite place to be. 

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