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Cleveland’s Deena Nyer Mendlowitz brings mental health awareness through storytelling

May 22, 2018 | By Nikki Delamotte

Two years ago, this May, Deena Nyer Mendlowitzbought a gun with the plan to end her life. Almost exactly 17 years before that marked her first suicide attempt. She had been living with – and continues to live with – mental illness, depression and suicidal ideation.

It was her son’s love of “Star Wars” that made her return the gun the next day – May 4th, or as Star Wars fans like to say, ‘May the Fourth Be with You.’ “I thought, ‘This will ruin that day forever,'” she told Plain Dealer columnist Mike McIntyre last year when he profiled her change of heart.

She checked herself into a hospital, and it was there that she decided it was time to build on her work in improv and stand-up comedy as a way to help break the stigma surrounding mental illness. “I thought, ‘What’s the opposite of this urge to destroy yourself?’ And that’s to create,” she remembers.

A year later, the live comedy talk show Mental Illness & Friends! was born. Every month, in the basement of Cleveland’s Bar Louie at 1352 West 6th St., Mendlowitz hosts the mix of storytelling, improv, stand-up and music that centers around sharing experiences living with mental illness. It celebrates its one-year anniversary during Mental Health Awareness Month, 7-8:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 23.

For some, Mendlowitz says, it can be cathartic to tell their story. For others, bringing a friend or partner might offer a new perspective of what someone’s going through.

You’ll also get to know local regulars, like recurring guest Dionne D. Atchison, who talks about “how much harder it is to be a person of color living with mental illness, and how we break that down,” Mendlowitz says. Or Schitzo Bill, who serves up sets of “non-stop one-liners about the likes of meds and being in the hospital.”

“I never would have thought it’d be this easy to get people to come out to a bar on a week night and hear people talk about mental health struggles,” Mendlowitz says. “But people are always coming up after the show saying I relate to this, this is me.”

“You have a show you have to be at this day”

A year ago, Mendlowitz says, she wouldn’t have considered herself a stand-up. Now shows are something to look forward to on even her hardest days.

“I’ll tell myself, ‘You feel awful? Well, you have a show you have to be at this day,'” she says.

In 2010, the Northeast Ohio native started the local improv show, “This Improvised Life.” But while it’s not unusual for a performer’s personal life to seep into any routine, it wasn’t until she devised the 2014 play “Funnel Cakes Not Included” that she made a conscious effort to make mental illness a focus in her performances.

Mendlowitz penned the script, which revolved around severe depression and the need to erase the stigma around mental illness, with the help of actress Anne McEvoy. But when it came to the live production, she had McEvoy perform. Mendlowitz, no stranger to the stage, was afraid to act because shock therapy altered her ability to remember lines.

A workshop production of “Funnel Cakes” had a sold-out run as part of Cleveland Public Theatre’s Big Box Series and went on to be performed in Pittsburgh, Chicago and Ohio’s Miami University. Through Mental Illness & Friends, Mendlowitz continues to spread her message through storytelling beyond Northeast Ohio. This month, the show hit the road for the first time when it traveled to Pittsburgh’s Arcade Comedy Theater.

As Mendlowitz developed her own voice within her blending of comedy and storytelling, she looked to trailblazers that spoke openly about mental illness.

Four years before her son’s “Star Wars” obsession helped to save her life, Mendlowitz was finding inspiration in the work of the film’s legendary Princess Leia screen star and mental health advocate, Carrie Fisher.

“At the same time my son was getting into ‘Star Wars,’ I was reading Carrie’s book ‘Wishful Drinking,’ which talks about how she went through shock therapy just as I was about to go through it,” she says. “A lot of celebrities have said, ‘I was dealing with depression and now I’m over it.’ She was always like, ‘This is part of my life and it will always be part of my life.'”

As a performer, she was also influenced by comedian Maria Bamford, who has been outspoken about living with mental illness. During a hard period of her life, Mendlowitz penned a letter to Bamford, never expecting to get a reply. When she wrote her back, Mendlowitz carried it in her wallet for five years, including when she finally met her at her show at Cleveland’s Hilarities earlier this May.

“When I wasn’t doing well, it was hard to find people who were talking about stuff like this,” Mendlowitz says. “That idea that she helped make me feel less alone made me want to do something similar.”

Spreading the message

Through Mental Illness & Friends, Mendlowitz has made it her mission to give people a space to share. That’s why when someone like Cleveland Cavaliers player Kevin Love speaks up, as he did in his March 2018 essay in The Player’s Tribune documenting his anxiety, it helps breaks down the taboo.

Throughout Love’s widely shared piece, he explains the impact of talking about things he’d kept bottled up, whether through therapy or opening up to people around him. “I’ve seen the power of saying things out loud in a setting like that. And it’s not some magical process. It’s terrifying and awkward and hard, at least in my experience so far. I know you don’t just get rid of problems by talking about them, but I’ve learned that over time maybe you can better understand them and make them more manageable,” he wrote.

“When people like Kevin Love come out and say, ‘This wasn’t a problem in the past. This is something I’m dealing with currently,’ that matters so much from the male perspective,” she says. “I think if it gets one person to say, ‘Oh I can go to the doctor. It’s ok to admit I’m struggling,’ then it’s more than worth it.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t hurdles to sharing your story. Through Mental Illness & Friends, Mendlowitz just wants to give people another outlet.

“I think it’s scary at first; I think there are always consequences,” Mendlowitz says. “If I’m applying for a job and someone googles me, the first thing that’s going to come up is the article Mike McIntyre wrote about me buying a gun and returning it. But the win column is going to outweigh the losses, so you just do it.”

Mendlowitz has spent the last 19 years since her suicide attempt helping others learn to navigate mental illness. Her goal for the future is to talk to youth about everything she’s learned over the last two decades – and everything she wish she had known. She credits her correspondence with Chicago improv legend Susan Messing as giving her the push to not only get help herself, but to discover that she wanted to help others.

“All these kids are feeling different things, and many don’t feel like they’re in a place that they know how to talk about it,” Mendlowitz says. “For me, creating is a resource. Therapy is a resource. How do we frontload kids with the knowledge that when you’re feeling this way, there are ways to build up those resources? And if I could do that for the rest of my life, I would.”

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