Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Power of Understanding

As the parent of a child with complex challenges, I've been dealing a lot with teachers who think she is "defiant." And, on the surface, that's exactly how it looks: she refuses to join the song circle; bumps into other kids without apology; and won't take direction in the lunchroom.

My husband and I know that none of this is actually defiance. She won't sit in a circle because her body can't hold a seated pose on the floor. She bumps into kids because she's trying to escape the noise level in class. She doesn't listen in the lunchroom because it's hard for her to process verbal directions in that setting.

Believe me, if I thought any of this could be overcome by more discipline, I'd be all over that. I've learned through much experience that consequences and rewards are pointless when my daughter needs something else entirely: understanding.

If we meet her halfway, she can succeed. For example, she gets antsy at Shabbat services, so these days we bring toys to temple and have a designated "dance area" where she can move around and play. She stays there. She loves being able to express the joy in her body.

But all the threats and bribes on earth can't get her to stay in a chair for 30 minutes. She's just not able to sit still like most other kids; it's got nothing to do with being disrespectful. I could kick myself sometimes, remembering all the pointless shushing and restraining I used to do. Luckily my daughter has a fierce spirit and learned to love religion despite me.

It's been through learning how to parent my daughter that I've learned to give much less of a shit about what others think. There is a strong faction that believes kids don't really have all these newfangled "disabilities"--or, if they do, it stems from spoiling or poor discipline.

I think that's deeply ignorant, but I'll be damned if I haven't let it bug me. A lot. Especially when toilet training became a prolonged, ugly mess. We had no idea then that our child's motor skills were delayed 18 months; many well-meaning folks told us we weren't trying hard enough. We finally enlisted a specially trained pediatric nurse, at which point we realized how frustrated our kid had been because she had wanted the independence all along, but couldn't achieve it without the right help.

These days, I realize that no matter how a situation with my daughter looks from the outside, she is a sweet, sensitive child with parents who work hard to provide the extra structure and compassion she needs. We are being the change we want to see in the world. Nothing to be embarrassed about there. 

I think I am especially conscious of other people's lack of understanding because during my years of depression, I inflicted that upon myself. I took a narrow view of the situation, believing that my struggle to get through the simplest activity was a personal weakness rather than a symptom. I brought out my inner drill sergeant when I needed a loving inner parent.

In retrospect, I recognize how tough I was not to simply give up on life. I powered through immense despair, often clumsily, but I did emerge on the other side. However, I only got well once I accepted my depression. Then I could begin to understand it, with openness rather than judgment. Suddenly, taking eight years to get my bachelors degree was not laziness; it was having the right priorities.

People with mental and developmental disorders of all kinds suffer greatly from being misunderstood. This misunderstanding takes many forms: disgust, intolerance, blame, paternalism, impatience. Misunderstanding often leads to shunning and/or punishment, because isn't that what you do to someone who refuses to follow social norms?

Imagine what this does to a person's psyche, day by day. It's a no-win, because they are already doing their best to adapt and cope, but few others recognize this. Soon the person no longer trusts their own reality and stops asking for help. They choose to misunderstand themselves the way others misunderstand them, in a desperate effort to adapt.

As a social worker in the ER, I've seen how understanding can affect a person in crisis. They come in feeling totally defeated, and I point out how strong they really were to ask for help, and how they might harness that strength once their illness is under better control. Sometimes that's the first time they thought of themselves this way. Even if they are too ill to really absorb that message, they feel calmer and, perhaps, a little more hopeful. Someone has honored their mighty inner battle, which on the outside often looks like stagnation or giving up.
Understanding is a profound force, and yet one that's woefully underused. We all rely on personal prejudice, stereotyping, and snap judgments far more than we should. We are guilty of making excuses for ourselves while ascribing the worst motives to others. We draw false comparisons between people, failing to take into account differences in temperament, resources, and sociocultural privilege. 

We are also each shaped by our own experiences; for example, people who were parented in a rigid, punitive or judgmental manner tend to take that approach toward others, particularly if they've never addressed the issues from their own childhoods.

Even without such a sordid personal past, though, everyone is affected by living in a culture that relies on sound-bites and facile labels; a culture that values appearances, conformity, and competition at the expense of understanding.

Unfortunately, misunderstanding creates a society with skewed priorities. A society in which mental health and education funding are slashed while incarceration rates soar. A society in which people are punished for needing help. A society in which it's hard to be "different," visibly or invisibly.

In learning to understand, first myself and then my daughter, I've realized how easy it is to be totally wrong about someone.

For years I was wrong about me, and about my daughter. I pushed us both in the wrong directions, and too hard. I truly think we are in more danger when we insist that we already understand, than when we admit to confusion and ignorance.

Now that our family life is on solid ground, I often wonder just how many "bad" kids who antagonize teachers are really struggling with undiagnosed disabilities. And how many parents think they are failures because their kid isn't learning, or responds paradoxically (or not at all) to discipline. My prayers for a more understanding world have intensified since my daughter's diagnosis.

Clearly, understanding isn't just a touchy-feely luxury for those with the time to pursue it. It is the most transformative force we have in making the world better. Whenever I read about a scientific discovery that negates all previous understanding, I wonder who was brave enough and humble enough to start that ball rolling by saying, "Maybe we don't understand this as well as we thought."

Political, social, and scientific progress hinges on the proper understanding of the people and issues at hand; without this, there is only tragic waste of money and resources. This is why activism from the ground up is so important--whether it be New York City fast-food workers striking for living wages; mental health consumers storming Springfield to point out the enormous costs of "cost-saving" measures; or simply a parent advocating for accommodations in the classroom. 

In the end, individual realities must triumph over generalizations and assumptions. The work of understanding begins between individuals and radiates outward.

It isn't easy to open ourselves to understanding other people, especially when they operate in contexts very different from our own. It takes time and effort. When I am willing to take that time and effort,
I am always rewarded with amazement.

It isn't that a few select people are amazing. PEOPLE are amazing, which is what makes my work and my life such a joy. The poor and homeless clients I worked with in my former job: amazing. The patients I now see in the ER: amazing. I belong to an amazing family and community. Quiet examples of struggle and overcoming, courage and perseverance, great talent and sterling values, are all around me…and all around you. Isn't understanding amazing?


Lisa Sniderman, LCSW received her M.S.W. from the University of Chicago in 2003 and has been a licensed clinical social worker since 2005. She is a past member of ETD's Mental Health Advisory Board and one of our storytellers. Click here to check out Lisa's posts.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Meet Featured Artist Ghaith S. Jarew

***All of Ghaith S. Jarew's work in The Small, Dark Room art exhibit is for sale. Only two more chances to check them out: April 15th and 16th!***


Tell us about yourself.

My name is Ghaith S. Jarew. I was born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1976 and completed university study. I became a professional artist when I was 13, and I had the first gallery of paintings at the age of 17. Also, my father and uncle were both artists.

I traveled after the liberation of Iraq in 2003 to Syria and I did several art shows. I also traveled to Jordan and Egypt and did many art shows there, too.

At the end of 2012, I came to the United States of America to prove to the world that art is the only language that does not need a translator to reach you.
How would you describe your style as an artist?

I have a strong sense of color which is evident in all my artwork, especially in modern abstract paintings.

Are there any themes or issues that you communicate or wish to communicate through your art?

Human rights, children's rights, freedom and women's rights in the East. This is what I wish to communicate in my art.

Who and/or what have been your creative influences, and why?

The real artist is always affected by the circumstances, and this is the real reason for creativity.

How did you become involved with Erasing the Distance?

It was via an invitation from Meredith [Siemsen], and I was very excited for this event.

Did you find any personal connections with The Small, Dark Room

Yes, of course. I have friends who I connect with The Small, Dark Room.

What can we expect from your pieces in The Small, Dark Room exhibit?

Through the sense or feeling between the artwork and the human, it is possible to be a silent play, and a visitor can imagine theatre how he wants.

[The exhibit] is a wonderful thing that will complement and be an important part of the show.

Art can be such a powerful tool to evoke conversation and social change. Would you agree? How so?

Of course I agree completely; art is the most important thing possible to communicate with different peoples and civilizations. The proof is in the paintings that were found in the caves long ago that were ways in which humans in history spoke to others.

Do you have a studio, website or are you on other digital platforms (i.e. social media) where people can find out more about you and your art?

Of course. I have a home studio and my website. People can find out more about me and my art by visiting http://www.flickr.com/ghaith_art and http://www.facebook.com/Ghaith_art.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Small, Dark Room: Q&A with art curator Meredith Siemsen

"Sometimes half the battle is to get someone who really understands the subject, or who can really, personally relate or even have their own story to tell. That's when the work becomes vibrant and interesting."
 -Meredith Siemsen

The Small, Dark Room not only sheds a light on mental health views in Asian and Middle Eastern cultures through theater, but also through art. ETD volunteer Amanda Belo spoke with curator Meredith Siemsen about the exhibit.

What themes are characteristics you were looking for when conceptualizing the exhibit for the show?

It's funny, because for this particular show the artist sort of found me...With Ghaith [Jarew], I literally bumped into this very random friend of mine that I barely know and we started chatting. She mentioned that she worked at RefugeeOne, which helps find employment for refugees. Almost as she was leaving I said, “Hey you don't happen to know any Middle Eastern artists that are looking for work?” And she said, “Actually, I do.” She had been working with this lovely man who just moved here literally 30 days previous to that from Iraq.

When I initially looked at his work, what I liked about it was that he had some amazing portraits that were abstract and very colorful. But even though they were very colorful, the faces [in the pictures] themselves were somewhat subdued. You could tell there was some real depth to what was going behind these faces. Then I thought it would be so cool if he did an interpretation of the characters in the play. So I like that he has this vibrant style, but the feeling underneath, it feels like anguish and pain. Which is very pertinent to the stories.

Overall, what can people expect from the exhibit particularly in relation to the play and the topic of mental health in relation to culture?

Ghaith's work will all be on easels and displayed in the lobby. He tried a variety of subjects, such as his signature style that has a lot of color. But he also has pieces that have a lot of contrast between dark and light, playing with the idea of the light at the end of the tunnel. He also ended up doing some portraits, some of which I was originally inspired by, but also others that are more abstract and raw. Emotional images that you can't necessarily identify what it is. They are these abstract shapes that are coming together.

Something else that comes to mind is that he already had a series of figures of ladies dancing with really dramatic backgrounds [see below left]. I saw them and they were from a past body of work and I said, "Ghaith, this could be really interesting with the darks and the lights, but I wonder if a different image would be more appropriate for the foreground than of a dancing lady?"

I wasn't really sure how that would relate to the show. And then he said, "No, they are dancing through the pain." I just thought, wow, you can't make assumptions about anything! I loved that it had a different meaning to him. So those are in the show and I'm excited for that.

Then there is another piece, a series of three with sort of a similar feel that has musical instruments on them [see below right]. There's a character in the show where while she was in college, she discovered the music department at her school and started hanging around in the basement just absorbing the music. Ghaith's piece is such a wonderful reflection on that story with the colorfulness and the instruments.
Artwork by Ghaith S. Jarew
Discuss your thoughts on art as a discussion starter for important issues, such as mental health, or anything else significant (i.e. social issues, political issues, global issues, etc).

I feel like art is a beautiful communicator because it's so emotional and so personal. Erasing the Distance's mission to shed light on mental health issues through theater is such a unique approach, because we're really putting a different face on the subject matter; one that most people haven't seen before in a way that makes it easier for them to connect and relate. I feel like art is such a beautiful way to do something similar. To tell a story in a different way that gives someone else the opportunity to tap into, very emotionally and personally. I think it's a very fantastic thing to do both at once. Get a little taste in the lobby then a taste in the theater. Between the two of them, hopefully the juices get flowing and people get to talking and sharing, hearts opening, compassion happening...all those connections being made.

Siemsen on the relevance of Ghaith’s work and the parallels of his own story with the show...

I think Ghaith's work is so relevant, particularly with one of the stories in the show about a woman who immigrated from Iran where she faced a lot of struggle. She was jailed for protesting as a student at one point and ended up in the United States with very little resources, struggling to make ends meet and make a new start. Ghaith is walking that story right now.

As an artist in Iraq, because he was an artist, a lot of his friends were Australian, American and British. In 2003 after Operation Iraqi Freedom, he was pressured to leave his home and ultimately was forced to leave Iraq or else a terrorist group was going to kill his family. So he's not allowed back in his country. He can't visit his friends and family anymore. He can't go back to his homeland. His isolation and sadness is something I can't even begin to wrap my head around.

[His story] is somewhat pertinent to the courage he has as an artist and a person. So much of his work is beautiful, colorful and vibrant, but when I talk to him about it, there's more to it than just that.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Wannapa P. Eubanks: actor in The Small, Dark Room

Thai native Wannapa P. Eubanks first arrived in the States in 1998. Back home, she had a career in commercial production as an assistant director, but found that she needed a change in pace. So she followed her friends to Chicago and has been here ever since.

“I thought I would just come here, learn, study and then go back to help my career. But look where I am!”

Since Eubanks’ arrival in Chicago, she has become quite the performance artist. In addition to theater and acting, she is skilled in the Japanese dance butoh. She said the post-modern dance style appealed to her because it was similar to theater. Choreographer and movement coach can also be added to her list of accomplishments.

Eubanks initially became involved with Erasing the Distance (ETD) as a storyteller. Eubanks shared her own personal experience anonymously for a show called Falling Petals that touched on suicide in Asian communities back in 2011. ETD executive artistic director, Brighid O’Shaughnessy, discovered that Eubanks in fact had experience in acting. So Eubanks agreed to perform her own story, and deepened her involvement with ETD when she was later named an artistic associate for the company.

“I love the work of ETD, because I can relate to mental health issues on a personal level... I am honored to be a part of this journey, and now [The Small, Dark Room] is my second show.”

In ETD’s current production, The Small, Dark Room, which touches on mental health in Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, Eubanks portrays Ha-Tai-Cha-Nok, a Thai woman struggling with depression and physical disability.

Last week, she sat down to briefly discuss her experience with the show and how she relates through her own journey.

What does The Small, Dark Room mean to you on a big picture scale?

“This piece is about life experiences, about a journey into a dark place that I'm sure that everyone has experienced. Each of the stories appeals to me and I can more or less relate to them, especially because we’re talking about the Asian community where [mental health] is taboo. We don't talk about it. Our parents, that generation, they don't even know what depression is. I don't even think there is a word in Thai for ‘depression.’

So it's basically if you are stressed or worried, move on because some time you are going to snap out of it. You don't really go to a psychiatrist until you've gone mad and then you go to an institution.
Culture is a big deal, so I'm excited about this piece. We've all been through darkness in our lives, and as it goes, who would have thought I would get to this point to be able to talk about it. I think it's important to talk about it. In life, you don't have to stay in that darkness. Life goes on. You move on. And for the audience, I think it's important to think, 'Look, we've gone through this dark place, but look at where we are now.' It gives more hope in life and encourages people to get up and talk about it. There is a line where my character says, ‘You shouldn't feel like you’re betraying your ancestors or you’re letting down your family.’ We want to get rid of the stigmas of mental health.”

How would you describe your character, Hai-Chi-Ti-Nook?

“In Thai the name means ‘heart of the daddy.’ Her name is ironic, because her relationship with her father is not that good and more complicated because of her disability. Actually, the whole family holds this burden, which I understand because I have a special needs kid. I talked to the person who shared this story, and when we talked I told her that it was kind of like full circle for me. As I portray her story, the character is like my kid. And I know my kid is going to go somewhere, someday. It’s just that now it's hard.

She talked about family and how she feels like she needs support. When we talked about it we were very teary eyed and wowed at the shared experiences.

My character has a physical disability and she also has depression, but she's at the point where she is ready to tell her story. She is moving on and she is successful.”

Did you find any challenges in preparing for your role?

“First of all, the physical [characteristics] I have to do as close to real as possible. She has a full spectrum of psoriasis and arthritis. [One reason why] I went and met her was because I didn't want to come out as fake. I talked to Reshmi [Hazra], the director, and Brighid [O’Shaughnessy] first and we talked about doing a wheelchair. Sometimes she uses a wheelchair and sometimes a cane.

I wanted to do the wheelchair because I didn’t want to take anything away from the story I had trouble. And then I remembered the point where we wanted her character to come out as a strong woman in the play.

[The cane won out in the end and Wannapa uses her butoh training and technique to incorporate how she moves with the cane.] Butoh is kind of grotesque, so I use that grotesque posture and bent knees to capture the character’s use of the cane.

The second challenge is my English. I'm coming along and everyone is so nice and supportive. I'm open to corrections because we want the right message to go out to the audience so that they understand.”

Are there one or two takeaways for the audience that they can get from the play or your character’s journey?

“The courage to share the story or to just talk about it. No matter what, in your own time, when you are ready. This show can spark that idea and give hope that you don't have to be on the dark side.You can just pick yourself up and not worry about your family or ancestors, because you are doing the right thing. Otherwise we just keep it deep down until we explode. I'm just hoping that this show will give people, not just Asians, [the strength] to pick themselves up.

Break the silence and have hope.”

What are some of your general thoughts on the mental health issues in society?

“It takes a lot for people to break the barrier and to share. I feel like mental health issues should become the new norm... I actually hope people realize that maybe it might be much easier to share or to talk about it if you feel you are not alone.”

In your opinion, what role does theater play in the conversation of social and political issues, such as mental health?

“I think theater plays an important medium with purpose that allows the story to be presented in an expressive way. In a way, the meaning behind each performance is that these are all true stories from real people who are ready to come out to share to the community. It's like the healing process in a way to them, and in the meantime, it is also an example to the audience. Once the audience experiences it, the barrier can be broken. It's chain reaction!

I have shared and told my story through theater with ETD. Oddly at that time, when I portrayed myself, I didn't feel like I was being myself. It felt like an out of body experience. It felt like I was slowly being healed and the issues became easier every time I performed or talked about it.”

The Small, Dark Room has two more performances - Monday, April 15th and Tuesday, April 16th at 7:30pm. Don't miss this powerful show! Click here for more details.