I’m so happy to introduce my friend Deena Nyer Mendlowitz as our guest this week. (bio here) Deena is a former colleague from the social expressions industry. We sat through many not-funny meetings about funny greeting cards together. She is that friend who deeply believes in you and will encourage you in any pursuit. She’s also the first person who got me on stage to read my writing. (And that’s a serious accomplishment!) Her work in Cleveland (and elsewhere) to destigmatize mental illness is inspiring. Through comedy and candor she is educating and encouraging discussions on the way we perceive and treat mental illness. She is a mom and a creative force. We are grateful for the chance to interview her on The Space Between.
Note: The specific mental illness Deena refers to when speaking about her own experience is Chronic Suicidal Ideation.
Deena, tell us a little bit about your creative pursuits at the moment.
Currently I host and perform in three shows monthly. I host my own live comedy mental health talk show, Mental Illness and Friends. I also host and perform in This Improvised Life, which is on the third Wednesday of every month at Happy Dog East. It is a live show that mixes true life stories with improv. I also host Dana Norris’ Story Club Cleveland Show the first Tuesday of every month at Bottlehouse East. People tell true stories from their lives based on a theme.
At what point did you realize you were dealing with mental illness and not “just” emotions or phases or whatever we tend to pass these things off as?
Five days before I was set to graduate college I attempted to end my life. Before that I’d never really even seen a therapist, besides after my grandmother passed away to talk about my profound sadness at that. The suicide attempt seemed sudden and out of nowhere, but really these were feelings I’d been contending with and fighting with and dealing with, all internally for years.
Since that day it’s just been a continued mission to build up skills to gain more resources because to me that’s how I fight this disease. There’s a quote that really shaped this:
“Suicide is not chosen; it happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain.”
I realized that I couldn’t have a lot of control over the pain, but I can have a huge amount of control over building up my resources.
What were the first steps she took toward managing the illness?
The first step after the suicide attempt was going into therapy and getting on meds. Meds were always hard for me because I had all of the side effects and not much relief. So I found help in dialectical behavioral therapy and also electro convulsive therapy, a.k.a. shock therapy. And then at some point I had to realize that I might always live with these suicidal thoughts and I have to just continually build up resources to get through them.
Your comedy shows raise awareness of mental illness. Do you have a favorite story of how the shows have impacted someone?
Somebody on my show was actually talking about their anxiety about starting a new medicine for a chronic physical illness.Someone in the audience said the treatment is great and it will change your life and actually came up on stage. The two talked about the illness and about the treatment together.
How has motherhood changed the way you manage your time for creative pursuits?
My son’s dad and I have 50/50 custody so I try to make the vast majority of my performances on nights I don’t have my son. I would say about 95% of the time I perform, it’s on a night that he’s already with his dad. Every so often there are special circumstances and we’re both very flexible about adapting the schedule for each other’s needs
Star Wars or Star Trek?
I’m a Star Wars fan all the way, but really I’m more a fan of two things: my son’s love of Star Wars and my love of Carrie Fisher – who she was as a person and an actress. She really spoke up about destigmatizing mental illness. She was open, she was honest, and she talked about how it would always be a part of her life and how acting and creativity would also always be a part of her life
Given your busy schedule, what are some ways you include self-care in your life?
Keeping busy performing is actually a huge part of my self-care. Going on stage, doing something I love, making dates of things that I need to attend, are ways that keep me feeling purposeful and keep me here.
What other ways has mental illness changed the way you manage your creative pursuits?
I pursue things because they’re fun. That’s really the end game for me. I don’t want the things I do creatively to add stress to my life. Minimal stress is okay, but 90% of it has to be joy and purpose and that’s what it has been.
For those people feeling too overwhelmed by life to be creative right now, what advice do you have?
When I was at my worst, I couldn’t create shows like Mental Illness and Friends and I even had trouble improvising, but I think there are always ways to be creative that don’t take energy, but give us energy, — whether it’s playing a silly game of pretend with your child, writing them funny notes in their lunch, coloring or even watching things that give you joy and spark some sort of creativity in you. Also, showering daily is huge. When I was feeling awful and didn’t have any energy to move, I’d force myself to take a shower and that would spur creativity for me. It would make me think of something funny. For me, it’s helped to write about it on social media or even talk to a friend who gets me, and joking around with them.
There are some mental health resources at the bottom of this post. Mental illness- whether it’s anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, or any myriad of issues – it doesn’t discriminate. It affects people of all races, education levels, and socioeconomic backgrounds. The good news is there are people like Deena out there advocating to remove the stigmas that often stop people from seeking help. Thank you, Deena!
Deena’s words that performing is “actually a huge part” of her self-care really struck me. With everything out there to manage, the time that she spends on her art is part of the resources she uses to buoy herself through the tough times. And that she pursues things because they’re fun. Life is too short to bog down in the things that aren’t – and if your art/writing isn’t fun, isn’t part of your self-care, then maybe its time to re-evaluate if you’re pursuing the right path. Thank you, Deena, for your words and for being a living inspiration!
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Phone Number: 1-800-273-8255
A book recommendation from Deena: Undercurrents by Martha Manning