by Vanessa Park
“I want to be a woman you’ve met. I want this to be a story you’ve heard.” —Melissa Bangs
Photo courtesy of Kris Kinsley Hancock
For the attendees of the sold-out show at The Dreamland on July 16, Melissa Bangs became quite real. Melissa says, when she talks about her one-woman performance, Playing Monopoly with God, and Other True Stories, “If my story does nothing else, may it unleash yours.”
I’ll start at the end.
When the show was over, the Q & A finished, the audience did not leave. Some, who knew they’d see Melissa at the dinner following, headed out of the Studio Theater to mosey back to the Harborview Room to find their table. But many stayed put. They left their seats and moved, with faces still transformed by a combination of shock and recognition, towards the vibrant red-haired woman who had bared her guts and soul for them, made them laugh, brought them to the edge of tears, and—for all her unfamiliarity—became a woman they know.
Melissa’s journey with mental illness began with the birth of her daughter Adelaide. Prior to that, her mental health journey had been one of—well, health. Not a whisper, not a hint of trouble. But a month after she gave birth, a psychotic break landed her in a mental hospital. Or, as she unceremoniously calls it, the loony bin.
She was separated from her baby and husband, confused, and very ill, until, a month later, she was better. Despite a few missteps, her psych team helped her to the point that she went home, continued her journey to health, rejected a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and confirmed that instead, hers was a case of the quite rare postpartum psychosis that affects only one in 1,000 women.
What were the lessons Melissa brought to Nantucket by way of Fairwinds and this event? Mental illness does not discriminate. Stigma around mental illness is still an enormous barrier to care. And everyone has a story.
The people who moved so single-mindedly down the theater aisles to have a moment with Melissa after the show? They had stories to tell. They reached out a hand to her and said, “I’ve never told anyone this but…” They said, “Now I understand what happened to my mother.” Or, “My brother never got the help he needed.”
One woman confided, “I didn’t really know what I was coming to see. If only I had. I would have brought my husband and son and everyone I know.”
I’m proud of Fairwinds for bringing Melissa Bangs and her story to Nantucket. I’m also moved by the courage of the two young mothers who volunteered to be on our panel after the show. Moms who, like Melissa, defied stigma to tell their stories and confide their struggles. Melissa learned how healing it is for people to find their voices and share their stories. She loves to help other people extract their truth from the rubble of shame and the vacuum of isolation. Fairwinds is available to hear anyone’s story, and partner with anyone on the island in their mental health journeys.
Stigma around mental illness is very real and very hurtful. At Fairwinds we know that all too well. It keeps people from seeking the help they need. It keeps others from talking to their friends about the help they get—or might—at Fairwinds.
Melissa defies stigma by turning a room of people who, at first, are stunned by the rawness of her story, into a room of hilarious laughter and honest tears.
Melissa taught us that bringing a story to the light is an act of power and transformation. Everyone has a story. Has yours been unleashed?
Vanessa Park is Fairwinds’ Advancement Director, charged with overseeing development, marketing, communications, and outreach programs. She moved to Nantucket from New York in February of 2019 to join a remarkable team of professionals at an agency that inspired her. Though she is a writer, fundraiser, and bridge-builder—not a clinician—her passion for mental health and community support is lifelong.