Performer’s Spotlight - Joani Peacock
Mind Over Matter,' our upcoming show on living with mental illness, has a lot to teach all of us. Joani Peacock, one of the veteran storytellers performing that evening, has taken the time to elaborate on her own experiences
Have you ever found it difficult to explain to someone what it’s like suffering from a mental illness?
Well I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 48 years old, so it takes a while for someone to understand it for themselves first. But what I tell people that around 5 years ago I came out of this particular closet to help people understand that what goes wrong with our brains is just like what goes wrong with your heart. And people kept telling me “you can’t tell anyone because you might not get a job again”, with the stigma and the stereotypes, but the only way I can change that is by telling the truth. This way people can meet me and really understand me.
So I came out of my closet, and 2 years ago I started writing stories about it called ‘Unorthodox and Unhinged’, because I also grew up in a bipolar house. You can quote people statistics until you’re blue in the face and it won’t give an impact, but you can tell a story, and it’s like meeting a gay person: stereotypes melt away when you know your brother or your best friend is gay because they’re real to you. So I figure this is what I can do to make a difference - tell the truth.
Do you feel like your mental illness has become part of your self-identity?
Oh yeah, very much. There’s a misunderstanding about bipolar disorder. People think it means you’re really sad or really happy. Those are human emotions that flow and fall. Bipolar being a mood disorder means on the manic side, your world gets bigger and bigger and your head gets bigger. If it’s not managed, your head can smash.
Does telling a story about mental illness differ from any other kind of story you might tell?
I think when you first tell your story it’s risky, because of the stigma. But one thing Story District does, even when the story isn’t about such a serious topic, it’s always about first person stories. I just did a second Tuesday story and I picked a story that I thought was light hearted and funny about keeping a date. And even though it was light hearted, it really was deeply personal just like telling a story about being in a mental hospital. I’m hoping to help normalize these stories, so it feels like talking about getting a date.
Does it feel different than telling this kind of story to your friends, family, or coworkers?
Yeah, I mean talking to an audience is very public. There’s a vulnerability, and I know that even from being a preacher. You can craft what you’re saying, but with 100 people there are 100 different interpretations. So once I tell it, it doesn’t belong to me anymore. But it’s also incredibly empowering. There’s nothing I’m more proud of than having told this story last year. I could not have imagined it being any better. And it helps to normalize these stories: they can laugh, and recognize themselves or their friends in our stories.
Does it help to hear other people’s stories about their own mental illnesses?
I feel very privileged to hear them. I feel honored because I told a similar story, but everyone’s story is very unique. They are so touching and humanizing. Community relationship building means we’re not telling them in isolation. We’re people who travel in similar circles.