At a talkback after a show at her school, the presenter asked the audience if anyone had experienced a time when something they considered a flaw turned out to be an asset. Jessie Knowles raised her hand and boldly told the audience that her bipolar and schizophrenia actually heightened her creativity and spiritual insight. The room went silent and Jessie noticed that afterward people either treated her differently or avoided her altogether. She realized the lack of understanding people had about mental health…and that she could do something about it.
The result is Jessie’s Messy Mind, Knowles’ hit solo show that makes its next stop on its national tour at studio/stage this June as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. In our conversation Jessie brings our readers to a closer understanding of the illnesses.
Describe your illness for our readers and how long it has been part of you life.
First off, I discourage the use of the word “illness,” as I do not believe that the conditions are necessarily “illnesses” or “abnormalities.” I believe every mind is different from every other mind, so I use the term “mental difference.” If we immediately classify those differences as illnesses then we are looking at them through the lens of wanting to “cure” or “fix” a problem. But part of my “problem” has been the inability of others, and by association myself, to accept these differences as a normal part of my unique personality. My experiences have been hard for me to understand and I have used doctors and medication to regulate the “symptoms,” as they manifest quite strong at times, but it was only when I was able to shed the idea that I was somehow “sick” or “broken,” or relegated to a life of “suffering,” that I was truly able to accept myself and embrace my differences as unique and valuable, even as a natural part of the process of human evolution.
I was hospitalized at age 15 for a week and that was a very unique adventure. I was definitely out of place in that environment but my parents and therapists were trying everything to help me make sense of myself and my experience.
In my sophomore year of college, I was finally medicated for ADHD, which saved my academic career and got me off academic probation, imposed by the Emerson College Honors Program which demanded a 3.3 GPA or above.
The next year, I had my first manic episode, which included severe delusions (but no hallucinations) and centered around the stress of casting my very first presidential vote in 2000. And the fact that I was trying an experimental cure for endometriosis called Lupron.
At that time, I saw a doctor who diagnosed me with bipolar and prescribed Depakote and Risperdal, which I hated. They made me drool on myself as a zombie on the couch. Eventually, I stopped taking those. I finished my senior year a semester late and then fell into a depression that caused me to move back home.
In 2003, I had another manic episode, with delusions, and was hospitalized again. That trip to the hospital started as a trip to rehab and ended in the psychiatric ward. I banged on the door to that wing and said “Let me in, I belong in there, not out here!”
I experienced depression and substance abuse issues until I had another episode in 2006. In 2007, I began to develop auditory hallucinations and l believe I received a dual diagnosis of bipolar and schizophrenia. I had another episode in 2009, then again in 2011. At some point, the diagnosis of Schizo-affective was mentioned. But that’s so rare that people seem to understand the experience more as the separate diagnoses of schizophrenia and bipolar.
I had some severe emotional trauma in 2012 and fell into a depression. By 2014, I had risen to an extreme manic state but refused to go to the hospital. That was my first time with extreme visual hallucinations. I entered into a toxic relationship in 2015, which caused my most severe manic episode to date, and was accepted into Parkridge Valley, a private facility that takes in state health care patients in extreme circumstances. The toxic relationship continued through the time I was in grad school until my show and I had another severe episode in the fall of 2016, one month before the premiere of the show.
Two things became very clear to me at that point. First, I was much more protective of my time, and second, the draw of the euphoria of the manic rise had lost its appeal. So while I have been experiencing auditory hallucinations regularly since 2016, I have been able to avoid a delusional state by being committed to sticking with what I know to be true and carefully disregarding thoughts that try to lure me into a false reality. It’s not easy, but so much information about the way thoughts and emotions can trick us has been revealed to me, from this process. I think I am better off for it.
Being bipolar affects both men and women and many do not know they have it. Is medicine affective or not?
Bipolar is hard to detect without the schizo-affective or bipolar 2 symptoms that manifest as severe delusions or hallucinations. Many people just feel heightened, or like they have excess energy, or they are unusually paranoid bordering on conspiracy obsessions, suspecting friends and family of doing something to harm them on some way. And then at other times they feel depressed and unable to find energy for normal functioning, but they can’t really identify why. I go into a more detailed description of bipolar in the show, that many therapists and psychologists said made some things about bipolar much clearer for them, that even they didn’t know before seeing the show.
Medication has been helpful for me but only after years of trial and error. I had to find a really good psychiatrist who listened to me and respected my perspective, who treated me as a patient and not “another wacko wanting drugs.” Some of them certainly made me feel that way. I had to switch doctors a lot because of my state insurance. Many doctors would take me off something that was working for me because they use a different medicine or they have a policy that they don’t prescribe it. But I have been with the same doctor now for 3 ½ years and he allows me to be an active part of my own treatment. For my sometimes quite severe symptoms, I take 8 different medications, all of which I feel are useful and help me in different ways for managing different symptoms, and have easy to manage side effects. I also take melatonin and B vitamins. Some of my medicines are really expensive but my insurance will cover them. I know not everyone has great options for treatment, but not everyone needs medications to regulate their symptoms and slow things down. Sometimes for a manic state, removing excess stimulus, focusing on deep breathing, meditation, yoga, consciously calming your thoughts or listening to soothing music can help slow things down. Good sleep is a must! The best medicine! It’s hard because at first manic symptoms can be enticing. It was when I was able to consciously resist the urge to follow the rise that I became stable, with or without medication.
For depression, I’d recommend lots of water, exercise, sunshine, funny movies, support from loved ones or a therapist and compassion for oneself, even in the hard times. And repeating the mantra, “this too shall pass,” has helped lift me out of depression. But as you’ll see in my show, sometimes you have to go through it to get over it. I just try to have fun with the experience. But of course, if medication is an option and there’s a trust with your healthcare provider, I would say that it could be the boost someone needs to reclaim control of their life.
But if you notice a negative result or (?) harsh side effects or even no (?) at all, speak up!
When did you decide to write a show about this? Talk in detail about the show and what you have put into it.
I decided to do the show my first day of my first grad school residency for Goddard College in 2012. I had come to the school planning to rewrite a play I wrote years earlier during my independent study at Emerson College, but because of my condition and the fact that I had just spent the summer experiencing the highest height of euphoria followed by the crushing low of heartbreak, I was a huge mess when I arrived in the fall.
The first weekend was spent watching the graduating student’s presentations. A student named Mindy Dillard did a very cool multimedia one-woman show called Poisoned Apple Medicine, using the original music and animated art that she developed at Goddard. It was about how fairy tale stereotypes of women affect young girls and the development of the female psyche, a message I loved. I immediately thought, “doing a show like this would be awesome.” Then she asked the audience a question, “Has there been a time when something you considered to be a flaw turned out to be an asset?” No one stepped up to answer, but I knew mine. I raised my hand, “I have bipolar and schizophrenia and I think it really enhances my creative inspiration, spiritual insight, intellectual curiosity, emotional understanding, etc.” I said something to that effect. And what I said remains true. But the room fell silent. Mindy had no idea what to say. It was awkward but I‘m used to awkward. Then she said, “Great! Anyone else?” And we moved on. But people treated me differently because of that admission. The school was small, only 35 - 40 students at my campus. And I knew by the end of the week that I had to change my plans and do the show that would become Jessie’s Messy Mind.
I developed my comedic persona to include all the characters that I like to do as I talk to myself and “the voices.” I learned to be friends with them because they weren’t going anywhere. I knew it wouldn’t work for them to be a “bad thing.” At the end, during my final two semesters, I took all the pieces that I had written during various states of sanity and wove them together, with the characters interacting and telling the story. I even included some of the scribbled nonsensical stuff just because that’s what it’s really like.
It turned out to be super funny and fun to perform. It’s a bold move to put all that “crazy” out there and say “I’m okay with being this way.” But so many people who have lived a life using words like “illness,” “suffering” and “broken” about themselves have come to me and said that they finally understood a part of themselves that they’ve been trained to deny and suppress, or fear. I’m not afraid of what I am, but the writing of the show was a process of figuring out what that is exactly, and then turning it into a show that would be entertaining, and not just me treating the audience like my therapist! I already had the therapy! The show is the beauty I found at the end! And I love performing it. It’s scary at the beginning but once I get going… it’s so fun.
Talk about your mother directing you and the impact that this has had for the show. She understands you. Does that make it easier or harder on you to produce the desired affects?
I absolutely love working with my mom as my director. She has been working professionally as a director, actress, musician, singer, and playwright for longer than I have been alive. My first memories are being in theaters in Los Angeles as a child as she directed her original musicals, That Other Woman’s Childand Smoky Mountain Suite with her writing partner, composer George S. Clinton, who lives in LA. And has tickets to my show!!
In one of the first musicals I did at ChattState, as Maisie in The Boyfriend, there was a nasty rumor going around that I was only hired because I was the director’s daughter. But what they did not know was that my mom left the decision to hire me up to the musical director and choreographer. She’s always been careful like that. I have had to earn my roles like everyone else.
My mom has seen me through a lot of what I talk about in the show, so she understands the root of the stories that I tell and has helped me capture the essence of those moments while keeping me grounded in the present performance, so I don’t get lost in my memory of it. I’m not sure if that makes sense. But it’s easy to get lost when performing these altered states and she has been instrumental in making sure the audience feels safe and taken care of as I lead them on this unique journey.
And she sure knows humor! She finds those moments of comic gold and tunes them so they are subtle enough not to knock you over the head. She brings the authenticity out in those funny moments, so even I find myself giggling on stage as I perform them. She’s really a brilliant director and artist and I am so lucky that she was able to take this experimental show, that was very “messy” when I began, and clean up the performance, cut out the confusion and bring precision to the performance so I don’t look like a complete mess on stage!
If we have to pick the Fringe show to see, why should it be yours?
There will be a lot of great shows at the Fringe, but I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like this one. Aside from the fact that you’ll see aspects of mental health conditions that most people know very little about and as you see these totally new ways that the mind can operate and explore itself, you’ll be totally entertained and I feel pretty certain that you’ll laugh a lot. But on a deeper level, what we are calling “mental illness” is on the rise, especially things like ADHD, anxiety and depression. And more people are discovering that they or a loved one are exhibiting the symptoms of bipolar. We still know very little about how to properly treat these conditions and as a result, suicide rates are also rising. I’ve lost two good friends to suicide and was devastated to lose Robin Williams just a little bit before I did the first performance of this show in 2016. I believe that he had been struggling with bipolar for most of his life.
The way we talk about mental health needs to change. Right now we use words like “illness” and “suffering.” I know all too well that often this is the truth of the experiences, but we need a paradigm shift. And that’s what my show can provide. So many audience members have approached me after the show saying they are so grateful to have a new, more positive way to approach their struggles, either with a new or existing diagnosis or with caring for a loved one. Many people have told me that “everyone needs to see this show!” Even mental health care providers have expressed that they think all doctors, psychiatrists and counselors should see this show. One even suggested that it play regularly on PBS. How that’s supposed to happen, I know not. I’ll settle for Netflix._ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Jessie’s Messy Mind ia written and performed by Jessie Knowles
Directed by Sherry Landrum
Produced by Jessie Knowles and Bridgett Bryant
Executive Producers: SunVine Productions (Rex Knowles and Canedy Knowles)
Part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival
Saturday, June 8 – 11 p.m. (*preview)
Tuesday, June 18 – 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, June 22 – 1 p.m.
Monday, June 24 – 9:30 p.m.
Thursday, June 27 – 10 p.m.
520 N. Western Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90004
Pay what you can options available
FOR TICKETS AND MORE INFORMATION: