courtesy Rob Gee

Celebrating our collective psychosis

Play tries to dismantle belief that mental illness only happens to other people

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Each of us attempts to open a dialogue or form a deal with our absolute reality at some point in our lives. We attempt to bargain with the randomness of everyday events, no matter how illogical the attempt may be.

Stand-up poet Rob Gee, who spent 11 years working as a nurse in an acute psychiatric ward, calls it the “collective psychosis that makes us human.” And he says his award-winning play Fruitcake is a celebration of that psychosis.

Gee says that mental illness is typically seen as either the stereotype of the creative genius or the complete nutter.

“I wanted to explode that little myth,” Gee says. “Any of us can have a psychiatric episode given the wrong set of circumstances. The idea of normality is actually a mirage. There really isn’t such a thing.”

Gee described the way people deal with stressful situations as an example.

“If you’ve got a big day tomorrow,” Gee says, “like an exam, a driving test or a job interview and you’re a bit nervous about it, you’re a bit preoccupied, you’re just screwing with a bit of paper and throwing that bit of paper into the [waste bin], in that split second before the paper leaves your hand to go into the bin you can’t always block out that little voice in the back of your head that goes: ‘if this goes in the bin, my day is going to go really well’ and then the beautiful but totally illogical feeling of relief when you get it in there.”

There is no logic to it and it’s a very normal thing to experience, but at the same time, Gee says, the feeling is not very far removed from something like obsessive compulsive disorder.

“It’s only when that gets exaggerated that it’ll become what we call obsessive compulsive disorder,” Gee says.

Fruitcake is about a jaded nurse during the night shift at an acute psychiatric ward. The nurse hears the voice of God — an elderly Rastafarian woman — who gives him 10 commandments to help him through his shift and his life.

Gee wrote the play after becoming a full-time stand-up poet. Looking back on his career in psychiatric nursing, he says he had a lot about mental health and psychiatry that he wanted to tell. Part of what inspired him to write the play in 2009 was his feeling that psychiatric nurses were rarely given a voice in art and pop culture.

“Our users of mental health services have more of a voice now than they ever did,” Gee says, “which is great. But it’s rare that anyone hears the nurses’ perspective on mental health and we are the only professional that gets to be with patients 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

When he reflected back on his nursing career after being away from it for a few years, he says he “realized that all the little rants, stories, jokes and opinions could be condensed into something surprisingly jolly and informative.”

Fruitcake became 11 years of experience in acute psychiatry condensed into an hour of humour, performance and a little singing.

Fruitcake: Ten Commandments from the Psych Ward is playing at Alexandra Centre Society during Calgary Fringe Festival, Aug. 2–10.