by Bonny Adler
Content warning: lived experience of mental health/psychosis, mental health institutionalisation, mental health stigma, PTSD
Okay friends, it’s real talk time. Have you ever had a loved one restrained, kicking and screaming, and sedated by mental health nurses because they’d completely lost touch with reality? Because I have.
Would you want to relive that moment during a pole dance show? Because I’ve had to.
I spent years being told by my family that my clear mental health symptoms weren’t real. Since I was a child, I’ve been fighting to get my family to listen to me when I said that my mum was showing red flags of having a mental health condition. Only last year was she finally diagnosed with schizophrenia.
When my mum hit rock bottom, she “lacked insight”. Basically, her grasp on reality was so fragile she didn’t think she was sick. Wanting to help her, take her to get help, only fuelled her delusions. We couldn’t safely get her to a hospital. Police officers came to our family home and had to force her to leave.
I live interstate, so waiting at the hospital my younger sister took on the full responsibility of her own parent’s wellbeing. Over the phone, I listened to my sister cry alone without me there to hold her.
Psych ward admission. A short moment of relief, but it’s bittersweet. She’s not being admitted voluntarily, it’s being done to her, by us. After decades of having our cries for help ignored here was some small validation.
Our relief is short lived. When she’s told her diagnosis, that medication is required, that she’ll be forced to take pills for twelve months, she reacts as expected – badly. She’s in the grips of a full blown episode of psychosis. Feeling betrayed by her children, scared, freedoms stripped away while highly paranoid for such a long time already – she fights back.
“I’m not a fucking crazy person!!!” she screams as she violently tries to avoid restraints. She’s out of options to feel safe.
Security comes in while my sister is screaming to our mother to please let them help her. My sister is forced away for her own safety. Eventually, mum is restrained, held down to a bed by a large team. More drugs are forced into her body against her will or consent.
Surviving a psychotic episode gives you the full realisation of what it feels like to lose the last inch of who you are. It is a terror that can’t be described. Once you have it happen to you, then for the rest of your life you’re petrified it will come for you again. Ripping away what you love in life, burning down bridges you built through hard work, overcoming all odds.
When law enforcement is required for psychiatric emergencies, a legal trigger is set off that will affect that patient for life. In this instance, my mum had a court order forcing her to take her meds. But that’s expired now. Next time she will lose more rights over her bodily autonomy. So, now we sit on the side lines, knowing the very real chance we will do this all again but with greater consequences.
Would you find this situation entertaining for a pole dance show? Is it sexy? Is it fun?
Being in a psychotic state is a very serious medical emergency. One that is routinely mocked and misunderstood. I don’t understand why we allow it to be a common theme for entertainment purposes when it stigmatises members of our community.
I get the mindset. You’re just copying other depictions of “crazy” without any intent of harm. But you need to embrace this discomfort for a moment. Because feeling awkward or silly when checking if your pole show is appropriate for the stage is easy. Because adding a trigger warning at the start of a show is easy. Because saying no, this show theme can’t be on stage, the potential harm to the community outweighs your personal choice on this is easy.
Every show I’ve seen over the years using the stereotypes of the mental health system and our medical conditions as a theme, prop or costume, while dismissing the trauma this system causes, has been violating to my self worth. My mother has schizophrenia, and I have bipolar disorder. These are serious medical conditions, not accessories.
There’s nothing “sexy” or “entertaining” about being forcibly restrained in a psychiatric ward. For those of us with the lived experience, it’s traumatic because these shows support the notion that suffering from our medical conditions isn’t that severe. That we’re “just crazy”. It’s dismissive. It makes us invisible.
Why fight through all the obstacles I have been through, when I’m not valued as a person? That’s what these themes being allowed on stage says to me. There is no consideration for my experience. No trigger warning to even provide the option to prepare myself. I’m forced to endure my trauma again while a stereotype plays out on stage.
Our pole community has a massive demographic of strong willed badasses with a history of mental illness or trauma. We hear their stories all the time. You know someone who has struggled with depression, anxiety or eating disorders. Who have been abused. We have listened to their stories about how pole dance heals them. How the pole community is their safe space. We need to do better. We can easily be better.
To performers who have used mental health themes or are considering to:
I wish my real life ongoing nightmare was just a 3-4 min show that I could walk away from. If you had the choice to trade with me, would you?
Trigger warnings aren’t about saying you’re a bad person, they are an easily accessible tool to proactively protect each other from additional trauma. Every day I wonder if I will end up in my mum’s position. I’ve been close enough. I have fought for the last inch of me and won each time. So far.
I never want a night out with my pole squad supporting the amazing talent of this industry to become a night when I feel unsafe, heartbroken all over again and worse of all, reminded of my nightmare. Pole is my escape.
Be proactive in protecting this community. Nobody should have to disclose their medical situation or past trauma to feel safe at a dance show, but I’m opening up about mine because it’s a conversation that needs to be had. Become a kick ass ally in the pole scene. Speak up on stigma, discrimination, racism, sexism and cultural appropriation. Your actions after a mistake will define you. I believe in your journey.
This is your reality check.
DO YOU, OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW, NEED HELP?
Lifeline 13 11 14 for 24-hour phone support.
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 for 24-hour phone support.
Beyondblue 1300 22 4636 for 24-hour phone support, online chat, resources and apps.
Mindout for mental health and suicide support for LGBTI+ people.
Qlife 1800 184 527 for phone support (3:00 pm – Midnight daily in your state) or online chat for LGBTI+ people.
Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 for 24-hour counselling for young people aged 5 to 18.
Headspace for online counselling for young people aged 12-25.
ReachOut for online forums and information about youth mental health.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bonny is a whirlwind of spandex, 8-inch Pleasers and promotion of self-love. After recovering from chronic pain and gaining control of her mood disorder through pole, she has become a role model for those both in and outside the pole community by promoting mental and physical health. She spends all her free time on a pole, at a sewing machine or helping others achieve their goals.