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Exploring the myths around madness
Yvo Luna is on stage, tentatively touching the metal prongs of an early, but fully functioning, electric shock machine.
“This is why I hate rehearsing this show,” she winces before the jolt hits her. The stunt is part of a thoughtful, funny hour that documents the Kemp Town performer’s personal battle with “madness” alongside its historical treatment.
Luna’s History Of Madness is pertinent, coming just before this year’s national Mental Health Awareness Week gets under way on May 23.
Despite one in four of us suffering from mental health issues, it continues to be a topic we’d rather avoid discussing. Luna hopes to change that. Keep something taboo and it becomes poisonous, she says, but talk about it and it becomes part of the fabric of life.
Luna’s story is a colourful one. Both her mother and father died while she was still in her teens and at 18, she inherited nearly half a million pounds (her mother was a highly successful businesswoman who owned St Catherine’s Lodge hotel on Hove seafront, now The Seaview).
Their deaths were never discussed in the family – “It wasn’t the way things were done then” – and Luna didn’t cry for either of them until five years later. She remarks on how many people with experience of mental health issues have a bereavement they haven’t dealt with lurking in their pasts.
“Society perceives death as something we can’t discuss.
My mum was ill for years, but no one told us she was dying so it was a huge shock when it happened.”
With a sudden and disorientating lack of parental control, she went on a wild spree that saw her buy three houses next door to each other (like Goldilocks she would sleep in a different one each night) before renting them out and moving to London to live in a squat and work as a prostitute. She didn’t need the money, of course – on one occasion she charged only £20 before being reported to the madam – but the shock it caused, both to herself and other people, was a way of masking her grief.
She draws parallels here with the electric shock therapy still used in the treatment of depression and the Victorian obsession with “hysteria”, a supposed mental health condition that (supposedly) affected women and was treated with, among other things, “pelvic massage”.
Now Luna says she can look back on that period in her life more easily. In the show she recounts it with a light touch, joking about the inappropriate get-up she wore to her interview at the brothel and the retorts she would give to men who asked what a nice girl like her was doing in a place like that. “I’m researching a feminist thesis,” she told one.
But it didn’t help with her mental unease, so she returned to Brighton, sold the houses and gave away all of the money. While acknowledging it must have seemed crazy to some, she has no regrets, even now.
“A lot of things have happened to make me hate money. It makes people behave in very unpleasant ways and I was glad to be rid of it.”
She later joined Brighton Sea Swimming Club and, for the first time, found something that seemed to help ease her mind.
“I think it’s being out in the fresh air and being in a huge thing that’s bigger than you. Even when the sea is calm, it’s immense. And even if you’re not in there, just going down to the beach and looking out over it gives you a sense of spaciousness. I feel a bit claustrophobic if I can’t see it.”
Now Luna has reached a level of acceptance about her condition. Not all mental imbalance is bad, she says, it’s possible to be “good-mad”.
She’s even changed her surname to reflect this, the moon traditionally being linked to madness.
“I’ve been on a long search for cures. For years the only books I read were self-help books and that became another addiction, but in the end I realised it wasn’t necessarily about getting rid of mental health issues, but managing them. Madness can be your genie, part of your creativity and personality and trying to stamp that out isn’t always helpful.”
A careworker by day (she cared for both of her parents and her grandmother and believes it is an essential duty), she is also a writer, performer and painter.
Arresting portraits of her family are hung on the stage when she performs – she took to portraiture as a means of “bringing people back”, though laughs at how creepy that sounds.
While she initially studied performing as a means of acting happy when she wasn’t, gradually she has felt able to explore more personal topics on stage.
“I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable with it as such, I don’t know if that’s the right word. Is comfortable even good? But the more I perform, the better it gets and I do think we need to get these things out in the open.
I’ve been to one play about mental health issues by Claire Summerskill and I know Ruby Wax did a show but there aren’t many people talking about it and I think there should be, so you write the things you want to see.
“The more people learn about mental health, the easier it gets to deal with it.”
She hopes in highlighting some of the peculiar and sometimes barbaric ways mental health has been handled in the past, the show will encourage audiences to think about the way we deal with mental health issues now.
The Victorian treatment of hysteria, featuring primitive versions of items now stocked in Ann Summers, looks faintly comical but there are numerous other methods that were humiliating and cruel.
Luna doesn’t have much truck with modern-day psychiatry either.
“In my opinion, going back into history and seeing the ways we got it wrong only reminds you of how much we’re still getting it wrong.
“They still use electric shock therapy and a lot of medications have horrific side-effects – treating people for depression with drugs that make you put on four stone?!
“I think there are ways to help yourself rather than just going to the doctor and taking a pill.”
* Luna’s History Of Madness is at Upstairs At Three And Ten, Steine Street, Brighton, as part of the ongoing Brighton Fringe on May 23. For tickets, visit www.brightonfringe.org.uk or call 01273 917272.