‘I found myself filled with rage, recalling moments when doctors had told me “mind over matter” – a polite way of suggesting “you’re just crazy”.’ New Review critic Vanessa Giron on Have You Tried Yoga?
RUOK day has just passed, and I’ve had some weird feelings about it. On the one hand, how great is it that we can talk about mental health far more openly than we used to? On the other hand, the day acts as a cop out to those who don’t live with mental health problems. For one day a year people get to play into the idea that they “get it.”
A friend had said to me that perhaps it might would be better if along with “are you okay?”, we asked “how can I help?” This suggestion made me realise that while an offer of assistance is sometimes what we need, it might also be an invitation into dangerous territory.
Have You Tried Yoga?, a performance at the Bluestone Church Arts Space, looks at the all-too-common problem of people who offer unsolicited advice to others struggling with disability, although they know nothing about the other person’s condition and are not medical professionals. It satirises how they wholeheartedly believe their suggestion is revolutionary.
The opening monologue is a powerful barrage of voices, bombarding the audience with “helpful ideas” on how to “heal,” ending with the most common yet least helpful suggestion: “have you tried yoga?” It’s unclear how much of the story is Rachel Edmonds’ experience and how much is that of the speakers they’ve interviewed for the background narration (the show itself is only partly autobiographical) but for argument’s sake I’ll refer to the main protagonist as Rachel.
Rachel begins their story with an anecdote about being in a wheelchair while ignored in a cafe – “I just wanted to order a fruit salad.” Their mother ends up having to place the order because the waitress snubs them. This is the foundation on which Have You Tried Yoga? is built: the knowledge that as a person with a disability, the words and even the mere existence of an able-bodied person is held to a higher value, even when all you want is a fruit salad. It mocks the ridiculousness of this attitude, as if placing an order for brunch requires you to discuss why you are in a wheelchair, making the air thick with uncomfortable energy. Rachel demonstrates that disability is used to cut people off from even the most basic of social interactions.
What follows is a string of stories that create tension between the performers and the audience. Sitting in two rows along the sides of the church, the audience creates a runway of sorts for the performers, meaning the energy envelopes both the performers and the audience. You share the anger and laughter, frequently making eye contact with those sitting across from you.
The stories range from friends and family reluctant to help Rachel home from a hospital visit because it’s Grand Final day, to a man making lewd comments about how rough anal sex is the cause for Rachel’s bad bowel movements, not Crohn’s disease.
Each story is interpolated with a narration from Rachel’s interviews with people who have lived experience with disability. It’s marked by opening a gift from a small pile in the centre of the room. Inside each present is a t-shirt with a new slogan relating to the upcoming story.
What’s perhaps most revealing is the treatment of invisible illnesses – diseases that eat at our mental health or our organs. Rachel tells us, for example, their experience with endometriosis, recalling the pain they endured as a teenager. It was only after missing out on a lot of school that their mother, tired of the complaining, took them to a GP. After seeing various doctors, being put on a number of contraceptive pills and a slew of horrible side effects, one doctor decided to investigate further. He found that Rachel required 10 hours of surgery because she was suffering from endometriosis.
An important message in these stories is that it’s not necessarily the people we expect to be insensitive but our own medical system that most fails us, especially women with invisible illnesses. There is a story about nurses who try to prevent Rachel from seeing a doctor. After waiting for hours the doctor eventually turns up, only to tell them that the trigeminal neuralgia causing such severe pain that it’s made them suicidal can be helped by massaging the face.
When you hear the crowd cackling, or rolling their eyes, you know these moments ring true. I found myself filled with rage, clutching the seat until my knuckles turned white, recalling moments when doctors had told me “mind over matter” – a polite way of suggesting “you’re just crazy.” Or thinking back to the string of doctors who ignored my strong cramps as PMS, only to find myself alone in a hospital in Italy being told I have a cyst the size of a rock melon. It’s all too easy to place yourself in these situations when your entire existence is a never-ending list of appointments: shuffling in and out of GP waiting rooms, hospital beds, specialist examinations.
After being dumped by their best friend who is sick of hearing about medical experiences instead of “just being positive,” Rachel says to her, “You don’t want me to talk about my health, but this is my life”. And yes, chronic illness is like that, an all-consuming experience that entirely becomes who you are and what you’re about.
But these commanding moments feel let down by the rushed and scattered ending.
It goes without saying that living with certain disabilities is greatly aided by the carers surrounding us. Living with someone with a disability, they share the ups and downs. Without a doubt, these people should not go unnoticed nor forgotten. But the perspective of the carer is left out for much (if not all) of Have You Tried Yoga?, only to be abruptly shoved in for the last 15 minutes of the show.
Hearing about carers is not a bad thing; as I said, they play an important role in the narrative of disability. However their inclusion here felt like a last minute decision, which is a shame because the story stands so well on its own. Hearing from a carer is too important to squeeze in sloppily: if the writers and producers really felt Have You Tried Yoga? warranted that perspective, it should’ve been threaded throughout the show, or put in another show altogether. It felt cheap to put it in the end.
In fact, the entire ending felt rushed. There is a flashback memory about friends in high school, a discussion about their wedding. On two occasions it felt like the story had ended, and when it finally did end it felt out of place and abrupt.
This show has the bones of something great. It’s trying to say too much in one hour, and when you’re talking about disability you won’t always get the opportunity to say everything.
In spite of all of this, the message remains clear: people living with disability have the right, and more importantly the ability, to take up any sort of treatment they see fit. They can also choose to forgo treatment you suggest, including yoga. RUOK is not enough, but suggesting that you know how to nurse a disability you don’t live with is just rude – there is a better harmony that can be found with some consideration of others. People with disability are asking for the space to live in the same world everyone else does. Including the opportunity to ask for their own fruit salad.
Have You Tried Yoga, created by Rachel Edmonds. Performed by Rachel Edmonds and Martin Astifo. GJ Productions at Melbourne Fringe. Until September 30. Bookings
Contains moderate coarse language, adult themes (self harm or suicide), sexual harassment
Bluestone Church Arts Space is wheelchair accessible.