Fiona Geddes is a Scottish actor and playwright. This spring she will be taking her debut show, Normal/Madness, on tour around Scotland, which will include dates during Mental Health Awareness Week. Based on a true story, Normal/Madness explores a young woman's journey of understanding while caring for a relative who has schizophrenia.
Choosing to write a play based on my family's experience of schizophrenia was a tough decision, not in the least because my own family didn't even talk about it!
I was torn. On the one hand, I had a responsibility to protect my relative who was so fearful of the stigma that surrounds schizophrenia she couldn't even face, let alone discuss, her own diagnosis. On the other, I also knew that the only way to break that stigma, to change perceptions, is by sharing our stories and experiences. What I didn't expect was the impact the play would have on both my life and those with similar experiences, and that ultimately it would be my perceptions that changed.
I begrudged my role as a carer; with little understanding of the illness, and years of looking after someone with schizophrenia, I was frustrated and angry. No one had ever explained to me what schizophrenia was. I witnessed the symptoms but had no concept of what was really going on. To me it seemed so simple, ' Just pull your self together!' Over the years I had tried so hard to help, to understand, to care, to fix it. And I failed. I failed over and over again.
However, during the research phase of this project, I had the pleasure of meeting many people who were kind enough to share their experience and stories with me. I interviewed numerous doctors, one of whom is developing a blood test that, alongside the presence of symptoms, can be used to accurately diagnose schizophrenia. I heard stories from people who live with schizophrenia and schizo-affective disorder, as well as family members who act as carers and who also struggle with the day to day implications - some of whom have lost loved ones to this mental illness.
Listening to these stories I found unexpected comfort and a new understanding of the illness. However, it wasn't until later that I fully appreciated the impact of this project.
Shortly into the first week of performances, I received an email from a gentleman who, after seeing the play, had felt compelled to write and express his gratitude. As I read his opening paragraph, the tears began to fall... Having grown up with a father with schizophrenia, he explained that he'd never really spoken about it, not even to those closest to him. He hadn't expressed how he felt about it, how it affected his life, the worries he had about his future and the fact that he felt cheated out of a father-son relationship:
'All these things I've never spoke of thinking that no one would understand or, in fact, care and then I saw your show. And I cried and cried because I was so relieved to know I wasn't the only one. That you, a perfect stranger, understood (as I'm sure thousands of people throughout the world do) and everything I had kept inside was there in front of me without judgement.'
The reason for my tears were twofold: by creating this piece of theatre and sharing this story, we had provided affirmation for someone who had felt isolated and alone. Undoubtedly the most pivotal moment in my career so far, this confirmed for me the importance of theatre. Secondly, it was in that moment, I realised that I too was not alone.
The most unexpected impact of this play, however, was on the relationship between myself and my relative. With tears in her eyes she told me, 'I finally feel like someone understands.' And whilst she still struggles to come to terms with her illness, it no longer goes unspoken.
Normal/Madness will be touring Scotland during April/May 2015. The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival will lead a post show discussion at the event at Paisley Arts Centre. For full info please click here