The language of film is well-suited to explore the journeys of the mind. I have been so very lucky to work with men and women who agree about the potential of this kind of storytelling; who are also invested in sharing journeys of recovery that inform and inspire. My colleagues have enthusiastically embarked with me to tap into the extremely vulnerable, but ultimately triumphant, adventure of translating these stories for the screen.
My personal history with the powerful combination of mental health and film started with OC87: The Obsessive Compulsive, Major Depression, Bipolar, Asperger’s Movie, a feature film that I directed with Bud Clayman and Scott Johnston. OC87 is a moving, insightful, and often funny film that tells the story of Bud Clayman’s own mental health recovery journey, in which filmmaking plays a significant role. We learn about Bud’s personal history as well as his hopes to pursue a career in filmmaking. Throughout the film, everyday activities are depicted that, for Bud, (and for many others, in fact) can be quite challenging — riding a bus, walking down the street, or ordering at a restaurant. Sound design, slow motion, and other cinematic techniques are employed to recreate Bud’s lived experience for viewers. It was a risky undertaking, but it worked. Audience members strongly identified with Bud’s heroic internal struggle as he battled the everyday. “You gave my story the red carpet treatment,” said one beaming viewer to me after a screening. At that moment, I was moved to continue using my skills as a filmmaker to give more people’s stories the “red carpet treatment.”
Bud Clayman & Glenn Holsten during the filming of OC87
OC87 screenings around the country were followed by Q&A’s, where men and women would get up and share their own inspiring journeys of recovery. Each was a moving and valuable contribution to the understanding of mental health struggle, and most were filled with hope for positive and fulfilling lives. We wanted to find a home for these stories, and OC87 Recovery Diaries, the website, was born.
I am incredibly fortunate to be able to create short documentaries for the website that are inspired by the tradition started with the feature film OC87. For the past few years, Bud Clayman and I have directed stories that bring to light the lived experiences of recovery from mental illness, and show how people who live with mental health challenges create paths to meaningful lives. The rewards of crafting and sharing these short films are immense, and I’m very happy to share the news that a new, one-hour special for public television has been created, and will begin to be shared with public television stations this month. On May 18th at 10:00pm, viewers in the WHYY (Philadelphia) area can watch the film on WHYY TV 12. A wider PBS distribution will occur in October.
OC87 Recovery Diaries is a film about people, not diagnoses. The film is a collection of beautifully told short stories that inspire and empower, stories that generate discussion and awareness in an effort to dismantle stigma — all told by people moving through their own recovery journeys.
Here is a promo for the film that presents our players and their stories.
Video portraits include:
Stephanie Sikora, who uses equine therapy to help with her bipolar disorder and Asperger’s syndrome. Working with horses helps her control anger, frustration, and anxiety. Her trust in horses has allowed her to trust people.
Robert “Cozmo” Consulmagno, aka “Crazy Cozmo,” is a Marine Corps. veteran who lives with PTSD and bipolar disorder. Extreme physical exercise is his way of coping with the challenges of the trauma he experienced as a child at the hands of an abusive stepfather.
Mike Veny attempted suicide at age ten. He was expelled from three schools for behavior problems and was hospitalized repeatedly for psychiatric issues as a child. Today, he is an outspoken mental health advocate and drummer who is searching for a definition of healthy masculinity as he deals with depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and anxiety. Watch Mike Veny do the (near) impossible: interview his depression.
Sheri Heller is a powerful trauma survivor who now helps others who have experienced trauma. This short animated film artfully details her journey with a mother who had schizophrenia. Sifting through the wreckage of her childhood, she uses her creativity to help her channel the hurt and the pain. As a therapist, Sheri looks for beauty in the ugliness of the world and helps others to heal.
The staff members at Montgomery County Emergency Service (MCES), a psychiatric hospital in Pennsylvania, rush through busy, stressful days helping people in mental health crisis. But do they ever have time to look at one another? In 2014, they stepped way out of their comfort zones to slow down, and learn, and grow by rehearsing, producing, and performing Thornton Wilder’s timeless play, Our Town as a benefit for their patients, and themselves.
Hyacinth King traveled from private school to private hell as she wrestled with the toxic combination of schizophrenia, drug abuse, and homelessness. Eighteen years ago, she discovered Project HOME, and her life as an advocate for those who have experienced homelessness began.
Monica Rose, a young transwoman, talks about her experience with mental health challenges, homelessness, and finding her chosen family at The Attic Youth Center in Philadelphia.
Danielle Hark is a passionate mental health advocate and wellness warrior. She created the website Broken Light Collective to bring together images from photographers all over the world who live with mental health challenges. Although Danielle wrestles with many of her own mental health issues, she is also a stunning photographer who explores our delicate world with her camera.
On a personal note, I am indebted to all the wonderful people who help us craft these videos, including talented producers, directors of photography, assistant directors, sound recordists, editors, composers, animators, graphic designers, production assistants. The quality of the work reflects the respect the creative team has for the storytellers. Everyone who is touched by these stories is affected by these stories.
We will continue to promote screenings of the one-hour film throughout the year on this site and our various social media platforms. I hope you enjoy meeting these men and women as much as I have. Their brave and passionate journeys of recovery continue to inspire me, long after the filming and editing is over.
Those in the WHYY viewing area can watch the one-hour film live on Thursday, May 18 at 10:00pm or via Apple TV, Roku, or On Demand via the Local Tab on your PBS On Demand section.
For those outside the WHYY viewing area, stay tuned for updates on other screenings!
Finding stability, like anything else worthwhile, takes time and effort. It also takes an openness to learning, and and an openness to failing. Finding stability a process of nearly unparalleled complication as you work, practice, and commit to wellness and discovery. Achieving stability has been the overarching goal in my life up to this point and to say that I’m perfectly healthy and stable would still not be the truth. Living with schizophrenia brings the instability you feel as part of the illness. This includes not only the psychosis, delusions, paranoia, and other symptoms, but the overarching experience of living life with mental illness.
Maybe schizophrenia causes you to be unable to interact with people due to debilitating anxiety. Maybe it causes you to lose your concept of self and everything that you had going for you: school, work, family, friends; all of these can deteriorate slowly, or quickly, depending upon the severity of your illness. You don’t know how to keep afloat in the world because, compared to the things that are going on in your head, reality is so seemingly inconsequential.
You have a special mission!
The government is reading your mind!
You’re a prophet and you’re communicating with aliens!
In any of these cases, normal life has little to no relevance to you. Once you’re diagnosed and you come face to face with the reality that the things you experienced were only in your head; you are now on the long road of rebuilding your life and your relationships to a point that’s stable.
Stability requires a great deal of awareness and reflection, as well as the ambition to put the discoveries you make along the way into practice. It’s taken me eleven years to get to a point where I don’t have to worry every day about paranoia and delusions. It’s been incredibly challenging, but also endlessly rewarding. Many young parents talk about how having a child is a second full time job–I think that finding and maintaining stability is probably just as consuming, taxing, and life-affirming.
Looking back on when I was first diagnosed with schizophrenia, I can remember the consuming confusion and pain I felt at having been told I was “crazy.” On top of that, I was still trying to cope with delusions and paranoia. I believed that words, song lyrics, or circumstances had special meanings, that everything was interconnected and intertwined and that I could figure out the secrets of the universe, if I just paid enough attention. That contributed to a heightened awareness that has stayed with me, but I also desperately wanted to forget my diagnosis and be normal, so I essentially devoted my life to practicing being “normal.”
What I mean by “finding stability” is getting to the point where I was as normal as they came. This meant working on unwinding my delusions and paranoia, but also studying and practicing human behavior. I had to come to terms with, and refute, the things my brain was telling me by analyzing my thoughts that seemed to appear out of nowhere. I had to learn to recognize these thoughts for what they were: a result of my imbalanced brain chemistry, and I then had to learn and accept that the things they were saying had little to no basis in reality. Essentially, they were just components of my own insecurities — haunting me with every social interaction and every public appearance. I had to confront these insecurities that were so deep-seated within me that I’d spend hours and days obsessing over them and cowering in fear.
In therapy, somewhere along the line, I learned about acceptance, but it didn’t really register until almost a year later. I was sitting on my porch thinking about how painful and harmful my own thoughts were to me. The notion that, if I accepted these insecurities, I wouldn’t have to fight them so hard appeared in my head, and this notion changed the entire course of my recovery. Instead of trying to find a way around my insecurities, anxieties and paranoia, I learned to embrace them as facets of who I am. Accepting my anxieties took an enormous amount of pressure off my shoulders and showed me that I could relax into being me. The meds helped, but these techniques– recognizing, analyzing, and accepting– improved my clarity vastly. Pretty soon after I learned to accept myself and my thoughts, I learned to relax and I found that social interaction and appearing “normal” came so much easier. I was allowed to not worry about how I appeared to other people and I was allowed to not worry about whether or not I was crazy because I had completely come to terms with the label of crazy. “Crazy” was a part of me, but it wasn’t all of me.
I was able to take a deep, powerful breath and see that I was okay.
I was perfectly valid as an individual, and my thoughts were valid. Realizing your own validity and worth– that you are not some disgusting animal for having mental health challenges– is something I wish I could tell everyone I come across. It’s important to know that you matter in this world and that your thoughts, though at times these can be terrifying, are just thoughts. That’s where I found the most stability; in that notion of acceptance alone. After that, things seemed easier, more real, and I was empowered to claim some semblance of control over my life.
As the years passed, I continued to practice my social interactions, and my attempts at normalcy in every interaction that I had with another human being. Even completely inconsequential encounters with the pizza guy or the lady at the gas station were opportunities to rehearse my act of playing a “normal human being.” While things got somewhat better, I still suffered from anxiety and fear of what people thought of me. I still tried hard to appear as normal as possible for a long time. I tried to appear friendly and gregarious– like the social butterfly I was in high school. But I was still afraid.
Finally, after a long day of trying, I was laying on my couch listening to a hip-hop record, wondering to myself where it was that these rappers got their confidence. I decided, in that moment, that I was going to try not to be afraid anymore. That was another major turning point in my journey to find stability. In every situation where I felt my anxiety levels rising, I took a deep breath and said to myself, “I am NOT going to be afraid.” This meant that I didn’t have to try to be normal anymore, I didn’t have to worry that people wouldn’t like me if I wasn’t normal. If you think about it, nobody’s normal. Everybody has quirks and crazy moments, but it’s okay because they are who they are, and you are who you are. I am who I am. Not being afraid meant that I could be who I am. What the process comes down to is learning how to be you, not learning how to be a perfect human being. I wish I had known that eleven years ago but, in the end, I wouldn’t change the whole process of self-discovery and finding stability for anything in the world.
EDITOR IN CHIEF / EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman
Imagine you had to trade health for happiness, and happiness for stability. Which would you choose? You have to make a choice, because that’s the deal when you take antipsychotic medications in this day and age. (more…)
When I was deep in the midst of a psychotic break, I was convinced that I was a prophet sent from God to save society from its ills. Many people I’ve spoken to about schizophrenia experience similar beliefs. When psychosis hits, there is often a function of thinking that you have been ordained with supernatural authority. Some people think they are Jesus or God himself and many others are convinced that they hear the voice of God. It’s easy to see why religion seems to take such a central hold in times of psychosis. Psychosis, in and of itself, is a kind of supernatural experience. Religious texts are filled with myths, stories, and folklore about people who communicate with God. The symptoms themselves, which seem to suggest that there’s something otherworldly occurring, through either a perceived telepathy or delusions of grandeur, make it easy to conclude that you are connected to something divine. (more…)