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My long healing journey

I met Vitor Pordeus in London this last May, when he came to present his theatre project based in a hospital in Rio, Brazil: The Madness Hotel and Spa. Anyone would be intrigued by the name. My curiosity was especially teased when I saw a poster they’d made of Hamlet and Yorick with the quote: “Madness, yet there is Method in it”. I had just been accepted in a post-graduate research program in Medical Humanities, in which I propose to look at the agency and the socio-political determination of madness. Happy incidents just kept happening afterwards, as I attended his lecture at Goldsmiths, where he spoke of Spinoza, the biology of emotions, epigenetics, and presented the work of the Popular University of Art & Science from which he’s been operating with other groups from around Brasil for four years. When we met, he told me of a congress they were to hold in September, in honour of Nise da Silveira, rebel Jungian psychiatrist who set up an occupational therapy research unit in the 40’s, refused to use lobotomy and electroshocks, and dedicated her life’s work to proving that schizophrenics not only had emotions, but that what she called ‘catalysing affection’ could bridge the communication gap between their psyche and the outside world and produce incredible results, recoveries, encounters.

As we arrived at the hospital, we were met by Cuban medicine students in visit. Vitor took us around the grounds and presented the projects and practices of the place. I was fascinated, enchanted, shocked and curious at the same time. Everyone we met greeted him with expansive emotion. One patient came closer behind a fenced area, pointing to the place under the trees where some of the theatre workshops run. Vitor answered the noise and gesture query: “Yes, there will be a play later my dear…”, the patient answered with a smile and put his thumb up. I got into this type of exchange straight away. During the congress, it was impressive how fast we learned to communicate with every specific language of the clients (they’re not called patients at the Hotel). Their preoccupations shaped our understanding and guessing, our sharing of what was going on for them. Living together, being active, preparing for celebrations, listening to interventions, brushing your teeth, looking for coffee… these are activities with a clear goal and doing them together with chronically ill adults helps a lot when trying to communicate. Gestures, repetition, habit and intuition create ephemeral paradigms that help us read behaviour. It is often uncomfortable to face expressions of such deep loss and pain, which is also why we accept the complete isolation of insanity and illness from our society. But breaking those barriers also puts us in direct contact with the frailest, strongest, most sacred of humanity. Sometimes of our humanity. The fear I had before arriving at the hotel, as a bipolar adult having struggled with heavy paranoia all my life, instantly dissipated after this 1st contact. No-one, schizophrenics and doctors included, thought I was weird or hiding some unnameable darkness. Instead, I rediscovered a sensibility and tenderness I have towards oscillating/ scintillating minds. Emotionally, I am still that uncontrollable wave of exploding chemicals. I am learning to balance my biology better today, I am not as afraid of my eyes looking crazy. But when I’m happy, when I feel love for a new possibility and I am so scared of losing it, I could implode in a firework of neurons, inside is a violent eruption of affection and fear, and I want to throw you and push you and hold you. Just like the movements I saw from the more or less controlled bodies of the people around me in the hotel.

I was also shocked. The precarity of the hospital is unacceptable. The conditions in which clients, patients in the rest of the building, carers, administrators, cleaners, doctors and resident artists live and work are extremely hard and reflect the abandonment mental health is left to evolve in worldwide. The hospital, a vast complex of various buildings with entire areas abandoned, is trying to function as well as it can. It still houses the amazing collection of the Museum of the Unconscious, (started by Dr da Silveira and hosting more than 300,000 paintings drawn by schizophrenics, the largest collection of its kind in the world); painting and sculpture workshops, the Open Time Space where Lula Wanderley and his wife heal patients with objects made with Ligya Clark, the famous sculptor who exploded boundaries between art and therapy since the 80’s to develop theories of creative self-structuring body matter. Also, and mainly, the hospital is peopled with severe chronic patients who are offered less and less alternative occupational programs, and more and more medication. Quite a few practitioners I spoke to expressed the pressure they’re under from supervisors but also mostly from families to always increase the doses prescribed. A drugged adult is easier to manage. A drugged child too. The number of ill individuals abandoned to a fate of semi-consciousness is alarming.

Everything about madness and its treatment is being questioned in Vitor Pordeus’ project. The supposed incapacity of schizophrenics to love and be affected, the distance needed between them and the outside world, the need to control their movements and thoughts be it by locking them up in hospitals or atrophying their senses with medication. Immunologist by specialisation, frustrated by the hegemonic medical industry, it is after working with street theatre that he started developing a system to work with mentally ill adults. Some results are astounding. The Madness Hotel & Spa proposes to work with severely ill mental patients mostly with chronic conditions in workshops focussing on theatre, singing, playing music, dancing, healing rituals. I would not call it drama therapy. As I discovered after arriving, the movement inscribes itself in a rich Popular Education tradition which really gained momentum in the end of the 80’s, when the dictatorship was ending. Paulo Freire is a famous name in the West too; over there he’s the guardian of a vast and dynamic movement engaged in creating knowledge interactively, developing a dialogue with every different community and context, never bringing education and politics from above. In a country where illiteracy and severe poverty is the reality for a huge chunk of the population, social workers, educators, and doctors are obviously concerned with creating conceptually practical alternatives to systems that do more damage than good.

It has not been easy and is still a fight for the Hotel & Spa of Madness to root and grow in the Nise da Silveira Institute. Tepidly met by bureaucracy and a way to manage illness we know well to be inhumane with tired nurses, over medication, and a lack of will and possibility from carers to really interact with their patients. The communication between the rest of the hospital and the Hotel of Madness is very scarce. In most of the old premises, patients still wander behind bars, sometimes abused and beaten by their carers who look after 10 to 15 adults each. Most of the hospital professionals did not attend the congress, even if invited repeatedly. On one of our loudest days, Vitor and a colleague performed a poetic enactment of Dr Nise’s struggle right in front of the Museum of the Unconscious. Everybody laughed when they clowned around, miming patients receiving electroshocks. Satire is the sign of a healthy society. It is one of the signs we are demanding change. Doctors and archivists of the museum watched the scene, but none followed the costumed march as we continued our loud and colourful meander through the grounds of the institute, into the streets and the market, finally forming the largest dancing circle around the nearby square, laughing, singing and dancing with the wind. Clients of the hotel were with us of course, like Andre, who has grown up in the institute being interned from early childhood and doesn’t speak. He shouts, bangs on doors and drinks all the coffee he can put his hands on. He also laughs, gets angry, and says his name a lot. He adores music. My heart was beating fast as we walked out of the gates and he started dancing harder. He shook maracas, banged on bongos and basically had a riot. Participation heals. When preparing for another manifestation, it took us a while to understand that the reason Andre was upset and shouting was because he wanted to wear lipstick like he was seeing on everyone else. We painted his and a few other clients’ faces. They were ecstatic. Sergio, an elder client also mostly silent, was so happy when Oris (a legendary popular educator from Olinda, Pernambuco) started following the lines of his face with glitter; that he sat on the floor and closed his eyes, trembling slightly and pulling his face closer, as I held his back and comforted him with calming words.

Many round discussions held during the congress about street theatre, repression, public health, the coming elections, and the need for public spaces to run these practices and develop research reminded me of the problems and dynamics I encounter in my collectives here in the UK. I would say finding public space to run consistent stable programs is the priority here. There are no free public spaces in London anymore. Most of the artists and educators I collaborate with struggle to find places to live in, let alone run projects. The repression on squatting is probably dismantling the last free space network available. We did have social help and social programs however. Illiteracy was not a problem anymore until recently. Hunger either. Finally, free healthcare still exists, for a few more months maybe? The UK is the 4th richest country in the world, and even if judging by my surroundings, the average yearly individual income is closer to 10,000£ than the official twenty; there is still room to manoeuvre to insure no one goes hungry, everyone can get an education and a dignified profession, no one is homeless and that absolutely everyone has access to free healthcare.

Brazil is a country of intense history and poetic stories. So many people I met never knew their fathers, grew up with their grandparents or alone, lived with poverty and violence, on top of the struggle of being a post-colonial, post-dictatorship state with the humiliating label of ‘developing’ country. The sentiment against social and economic injustice is strong, elections are coming soon and none of the candidates are inspiring much trust. From Dilma to Marina Silva, power from the top tends to serve the same mixture of theft of public funds generated with high taxes and export of everything from minerals, materials, and food. Having a socialist PT government (Labour party of Brasil) is definitely much better than a neoliberal one; but the determination of educators, artists, and doctors I met to continue fighting just as viscerally regardless of who’s in power is inspiring. The fear of the police is gripping. One of the street theatre groups from Sao Paulo grieved with all of us the murder of a 25 year old colleague of theirs by the police. A sweet clown called Lua nearly everyone seemed to know.

When the sharing of this story happened, we were all sat around what is called ‘the chalet’, a circular open space under the trees the patient behind the fence had pointed towards on my 1st day. As the story got heavier and frowns and tears started appearing, Luis, a patient in another ward joining to become client for a few days, stood next to the storytellers and started miming military salutes. Just before, we’d heard him say twice as he made his way to his spot: “Theatre is Space and Relation”; one of the singing refrains used in the workshops. His stature and movements made everyone uneasy. I had only started understanding how heavy memories of police repression during the dictatorship are, how taboo a lot of the stories, how willingly left aside a heavy past where everyone was involved in creating terror or living it. How significant and necessary then, that an ex-policeman, as he unfolded a few days later, would stand next to young theatre makers grieving the death of their companion by the hands of the police. The dictatorship did not control them directly, yet its ghosts were asking to be freed, for history to stop repeating, ‘for tragedy to be avoided’ as Vitor often says.

And the poetry? Poetry is made by everyone. It is courageous, spontaneous, contagious, and unstoppable. Accompanied by music and claps, tears and joy, hugs and laughter, release and healing. Writing poetry and making free associations with images is what got me out of psychotic monologue so many years ago. I’m therefore not surprised Vitor and gang use it to re-humanise the world everywhere they are. It was really heartening to see all generations exchange stories, moments and methods during the elation of the congress. Vitor’s masters are strong ones. From Spinoza to Marx, passing by Umberto Maturana, Vera Dantas, Jose Pacheco, Paulo Freire, Junio Santos and Rai Lima, anyone looking for talent, strength, vision and rigorous systematisation to educate, potentialise, as I heard many times, co-create and insure a sustainable future has enough studying and experimenting to do with this lot. The meeting between Vera Dantas, Rai Lima and Junio Santos was already explosive in the beginning of this wave of sceno-poetic enactments of social questions, making creation central to education and using traditional knowledge, healing and culture to find the new. Now their expertise and proven positive records are attracting an expanding network of dedicated artists, doctors, healers and educators of all ages to create concrete alternatives to an ill society. Vera Dantas tells the story of her early desperation when, as a freshly graduated doctor, she had to face the death of twenty-five children with diarrhoea in a small town of the North. Already homeopath, she started her research and re-contextualised the curing needs of the community she was working with, joined forces with social workers, traditional healers, theatre makers and a radio; and they started theatralising healing. The medicinal successes of this new approach took her to work all around the country, every time re-contextualising the methods to the needs of her given environment, as Freire teaches. She is now in the midst of a beautiful project building a permaculture based teaching and healing open space in Fortaleza, Ceara’. Rai Lima the Bard, composed most of the songs and refrains we all learnt so fast during the congress; Junio Santos and troupe have clowned the streets for direct democracy and laughter for years. Their joy is infectious, no one resists joining in, burst a verb, shake the dust and change perspective. The younger groups are just as mighty. From Doido e’ Tu carnival Samba band, who has won the Fortaleza contest three years in a row with a group entirely constituted of mental health service users and educators, to the wonderful Trupe ProCura who’re using clowning to work in hospitals, educate about health in the streets and produce written work about their research; I was literally blown away by the quality and avant-gardism of each project.

Looking for possible paths for contextualising this wealth of affection, creative healing and active citizenship in my reality, I find an article about healing methods that were used by women in Sardinia, Italy. Healers were called practicos and no one was believed to have special powers. It was simply a question of activating one’s potential to interact with nature and restore our divine abilities, using plants, what was around, and a lot of good will from all sides. One would heal oneself and others to better community for everyone. It’s all starting to make a lot of sense. As I said goodbye and had a last walk around the territory so familiar after two weeks, I shook hands with ‘the man of the thumbs up’ behind the fence, saw someone completely naked in the garden, a few cats lounging, the trees, the steep hill to the chalet where so many moments took over, and thought: We’re Occupying. Occupying History. Occupying Work. Occupying Utopia. Occupying Reality. Occupying Poetry. Occupying Medicine. Occupying Healing. Occupying Love. Occupying Houses, Flats, Hospitals, Schools, Universities, Markets, Squares. Parliaments, Governments, Medias, the Internets. Not to talk but to be together. Not to get lost in vagueness but to already demand the space and relation as our alternative. To Occupy Our Present. For the future of our planet.

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