“Remember, I’m not only the Hair Club President, but I’m also a client.”
– Sy Sperling, President, Hair Club for Men
My colleague Micah Blumenthal recently reminded me that TMI Project Workshop Leaders are like that beloved 1980’s cable ad about the Hair Club for Men: we are not just facilitators, we are also clients. We all have first-time true storytelling workshop experiences that got us hooked.
In October 2016 I was embracing my new home in Kingston, but the sadnesses of my life had piled up inside me, and it was getting harder to carry them around. With only a vague idea of “making more time for writing,” I signed up for the free 10-week TMI Project true storytelling workshop at The Mental Health Association in Ulster County (MHA).
It was a motley crew including TMI Project storytellers Morris Bassik, Beth Broun and Barbara Stemki. For weeks our workshop leaders Eva Tenuto and Sari Botton led us in timed writing exercises designed to help us bypass our “inner editors.” We read them out loud to each other, first tentatively and then boldly. There were stories about schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, familial rejection, and other heartbreaks. I remember laughing a lot. Collectively we were a group who had earned the right to find humor in our scars. And so we did.
When I began to unearth my own stories — of struggling with drugs, my relationship with my mother and my husband’s battle with cancer — they seemed to transmogrify from traumatic experiences that made me feel shame and sadness to open source content, the property of the universe and no longer mine to bear alone. Once tragic tales were like former toxic roommates, no longer hostile occupiers of my personal space. And lo and behold tragedy + time = comedy! I felt lighter. It was the beginning of a subtle and steady shift in my life.
In the workshops I have since facilitated I have realized I’m not alone in this transformation. Here are four things to expect when you take a TMI Project true storytelling workshop at MHA:
- YOU BREAK THE JACOB MARLEY CHAINS THAT BIND YOU
My co-workshop leader Dara Lurie and I are now midway through teaching our fourth workshop at MHA. It’s an important turning point for participants. Themes emerge like photographs in darkroom fluid. Participants begin to see the story they want to tell. By the end, it’s like we’ve been to sleepaway camp together.
At the start of the workshops, many people come in carrying their stories like the “ponderous chain” that Charles Dickens character Jacob Marley. Granted, Jacob Marley was fictional and a ghost and we are real and alive, but we are often weighed down by invisible chains wrought from the traumas of our lives: abuse, illness, addiction, and death. But to submit to the process is to court the possibility of the psychic unburdening of at least one story that you’ve locked away because it felt like “too much information.”
- YOU DESTIGMATIZE MENTAL ILLNESS LIKE A F*&%@# BOSS
In 2016 I wasn’t focused on the issue TMI Project and MHA are addressing – destigmatizing mental illness through storytelling. I just wanted and needed to unload the million jumbled stories festering inside me; I definitely had my own ponderous chain. But when I settled in and looked around I realized that I was surrounded by a dazzling mix of people who are just like me.
At the time of my first workshop, I didn’t “identify” as a person with mental illness, which is kind of funny because my entire adolescent and adult life have been defined by therapy, medication, suicidal ideation, and one hospitalization.I have since come to appreciate my propensities and even embrace them as a kind of low wattage superpower.
- YOU AREN’T BORED, EVEN FOR A SECOND
I remember reading an interview with Mia Farrow in which she said she doesn’t believe anybody should ever be bored. I thought, “Oh my god, what the hell are you talking about, Mia Farrow?”
I am bored a lot – at the gym, at work, grocery shopping, walking MishiMish, my special needs chihuahua — and I don’t need Mia Farrow judging me for that.
But the two hours a week I spend around the big conference table under those unforgiving fluorescent lights at MHA are always a respite. Not for a moment am I even thinking about checking my phone. I am ALL IN. It’s that way for everybody. As others read our bodies are still, like monuments to active listening. We are rooting for each other as we tug and pull our stories from down deep. And together we turn all that raw material into something profound. We’re not bored because the stories are so damn good.
- YOU ARE A PART OF A CRAZY, BANANA CRACKERS AMAZING LIVE PERFORMANCE AND YOU CAN INVITE YOUR FRIENDS
There’s a reason that TMI Project true storytelling performances always culminate in an enthusiastic standing ovation. In the cafeteria of MHA with the tables pushed aside at two in the afternoon on a Thursday, the audience – and you – will laugh, cry, and experience more gratifying, cathartic, soul cleansing, rush of human connectedness and this-is-what-we’re-here-for-edness than at any hit Broadway show in the front orchestra seats.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s better than Hamilton. Did I mention that it’s free?
You can join me and TMI Project at the next True Storytelling Performance @ MHA on Thursday, May 9th.
– Hayley Downs, TMI Project Workshop Leader
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