AMBER LOVE 28-APR-2013 On Saturday night I took a seat in the eighth row of Centenary College’s Little Theatre. Soft music of Frank Sinatra crooned about love as guests filtered in. The stage curtains were open and it was set with meager props and furniture for this one-man performance by Michael Mack. There were easels of old family photos flanked on each side, a coat rack with hats and doctor’s lab coat, a small side table, a pulpit off to the opposite side, and in the center an isolated stool.
I have been having a struggle emotionally for many years and this month has been yet another particularly bad time in my life. When I scanned through NJ.com, our local news media website, I came across the announcement for HEARING VOICES: SPEAKING IN TONGUES. I didn’t expect many people to want to see an autobiographical play about a man who grew up with a schizophrenic mother. I was pleasantly surprised that most of the seats in the Little Theatre were filled. I was part of the rather small under 50 demographic but I did spot a three or four twenty-somethings in the crowd of almost exclusively Caucasian suburbanites. The guests were equal male to female. I was alone. I didn’t see anyone else that was. The couples entered as strangers but before the play began, they were chatting so much it was like a church picnic.
I read through the creator’s story three times before the play started. I had read it on the press release, visited his website for more information, then read through it again in the program as I waited for the chatty crowd to settle. Each version of the story had slightly different details about Michael’s challenging life. This play HEARING VOICES: SPEAKING IN TONGUES is a living work that Michael has been presenting for over ten years and allowing himself to naturally make changes as he learns more about his family and the disease.
Not much time passed before the audience is given its first look at the pivotal moment in Annie Mack’s life, when she entered the living room to ask her husband about her face because she had looked in a mirror and believed she was becoming the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Mack family was devoutly Roman Catholic and Annie sometimes forced Michael to kneel an entire day to pray with her. Church and piety were parts of their daily life. At that moment in Annie’s life, her husband knew he couldn’t keep caring for her and four children on his own and thus began her many trips to mental institutions. Michael Mack presented these roles by taking on the characters himself. He could transform believably just by putting on a baseball cap and swinging his feet like they couldn’t reach the floor to show himself as a little boy; or he would show the trembling hands of his medicated mother; or by donning the white coat to be Dr. Larry Simon.
I don’t want to spoil absolutely every detail of the show because I do think everyone should see it. The reason Michael Mack was even in Hackettstown, New Jersey performing this piece was because a woman saw his show elsewhere and made all the arrangements with the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to contract him. Michael has had a good relationship with NAMI for years. There wasn’t that sort of support back when his mother Annie was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He also explained that recently another family member is now showing the symptoms but is not accepting love and support seeing attempts at help as threatening. There is some kind of genetic component to schizophrenia, Michael said, and that 10-12% are likely to develop the disease if it is known to run in the family which should not be inferred to mean that people will have the same experiences.
The most difficult part of the show for me was early on. After the Sinatra music faded, the speaker system played “voices” unattached to anything. Voices that said things like, “Beware the falling bodies!” or “Angels of the AM and FM” or garbled gibberish. After Michael began his story, he alerted the audience that they would then experience three minutes of what he believed his mother felt like. The lights went out and those voices played again but in the darkness which was quite a different experience than when people were first taking their seats. No one moved or perhaps they did but I certainly couldn’t tell. I was nearly paralyzed by fear. My brain was trying to rapidly decide whether to endure three minutes of the darkness and the voices or force my legs to expeditiously run me up the aisle and out the door to the lobby. I had no hand to hold. I kept closing my eyes but they would always open even though almost nothing could be seen by the red light of the EXIT signs for the fire doors. When I closed my eyes I would try to picture the biggest and strongest person I know and imagine this person keeping me safe. “DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU!” the voices ended.
I noticed my left hand was cramped and uncomfortable. I think I had been holding onto the armrest tightly. I stretched it out as Michael picked up his life story. His mother suffered from a common symptom where she felt out of place and out of touch with her own body. He portrayed her saying that her body was a house of demons and house of diamonds and that she had the head of Siamese cat. In one of her residential facilities, she would hallucinate that Frank Sinatra was singing to her and dancing with her. My own great grandmother thought Merv Griffin was in the room visiting her too and when she stopped recognizing who we were she would yell that the Bradford family from the old show Eight is Enough was her family. Whether Merv Griffin, Dick Van Patten or Frank Sintra, I can tell you there are far worse hallucinations and delusions to have.
The Catch-22 for Michael’s mother was that when she was medicated properly she was able to recognize that she was sick but then she would inevitably get it in her head that the medications were part of the evil inside her so she would stop taking them. When his father could no longer sacrifice his own well being for her care, he continued to financially support Annie but they stopped living together. She would have problems maintaining apartments with roommates or staying in homes. She wound up homeless in D.C. sometimes wearing only a garbage bag. She would call collect to Michael who would meet her and give her more money and try to get a decent meal in her.
After the play ended, there was an intermission followed by a Q/A session with Michael. He isn’t a clinician but is quite comfortable being a sounding board for strangers. The audience that did stay for this portion, about half of the original, shared private details about their own families’ battles with mental illnesses. I wanted to ask how Annie actually died but I didn’t have the nerve; however, a white-haired woman in the front row did ask. Annie died after suffering from cancer in 2002. Michael and his audience discussed common concerns about mental illnesses: attitudes, shame, and stigma. He said that there are plenty of highly functioning schizophrenics on treatment protocols but it obviously is not working for everyone.
All of this talk about treatment was being heard by me sitting there in the eighth row. Me, a former patient of something and still current sufferer of stuff. My thought was not, “could new drugs help?” but rather, “I want to be loved for who I am.” I may never move out of my parents’ home again since I failed the times when I did. I may never find another life partner again either because it’s too much to ask of someone to be your rock. These are every day worries that I keep in because I don’t want people to know about them but at the same time I want to tell everyone hoping that they might be more understanding. It can be too much to ask of someone who readily shrugs off one of my crying episodes as PMS instead of seeing the possibility that there is something greater I live with every single day.