This week marked the second annual #BellLetsTalk day, a unique and incredible social media event that helps raise awareness about mental illness and encourages people to talk about issues related to mental health. This year’s event has raised $5,472,585.00 and saw 109,451,585 texts, mobile calls, tweets and FB shares.
This February, Toronto based actress/singer/blogger and all around awesome ginger Ashley Gibson is running her second annual ‘Life is Sweet Project’ - a month long event which features different blog posts about mental illness from experts and laypersons of all walks of life. In addition, on February 10th Angelwalk Theatre is presenting her show ‘Life is Sweet’ at The Toronto Centre for the Arts with proceeds going to benefit CAMH.
For those who don’t know, Ashley’s mom committed suicide in February of 1998 after suffering from mental illness. Her cabaret show was created to honour her mother’s memory and start an open and honest discussion about her experiences and how she came to know all the joys that make life ‘sweet’ in spite of a terrible tragedy.
Ashley chatted with me about the inspiration behind the project, the challenges associated with reliving painful memories and what is making her life sweet right now:
Could you tell us a little about ‘Life is Sweet’ and what it entails?
The actual show is a re-worked version of the show I did last year called ‘Life is Sweet… even in February.’ It pays tribute to my Mom Debbie who committed suicide when I was thirteen. It is about our story and her struggles with mental illness. I focus on getting people to talk about mental health and about finding the sweetness in life even when we have to overcome tragedy.
In the grander scheme the ‘project’ is a month long series of blog posts on ‘dancing through life’ where I have guest writers who talk about their experiences with mental illness, depression, anxiety, loss and all sorts of other related topics. I’ve got a really great range of ages, genders and all stages in life talking about their experiences as well as professionals discussing who we can help those with mental health concerns.
How long have you been working on mental health awareness activities?
I think it indirectly started in 2009 when I first began writing about my Mom. It wasn’t with the intention of raising mental health awareness, but rather more just an outlet to talk about my experiences. But as the years went on and I started writing about what happened to her, it opened up to so much more.
Last year I decided officially that I would do this show, and that’s where the idea for the blog series came from. The whole project was met with so much incredible support and approval. I had over 10,000 blog views during that month and the ‘Life is Sweet’ show sold out. I had no idea when I started it would become this big and it’s just been amazing.
On a more personal level, as someone who also lost her Mom at a young age I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to stand in front of a room full of strangers and talk about your experience. How do you do it?
I was amazed that I didn’t cry during the show! There were a number of times during rehearsal that I cried and certain songs have a huge emotional resonance and yet I held it together. I think for me it’s this belief that life really is sweet – in spite of everything that has happened to me. Without losing her when I did and the circumstances that surrounded her death, I wouldn’t be who I am today.
Even though she’s gone, I still had thirteen great years with her and I learned a lot. I learned from her life and from her death and all of that knowledge has contributed to making me who I am. I’ve always been a happy and optimistic person and I didn’t lose that with her death. For me I feel like there was a moment where I made a choice. I could have gone down a very dark path or I could work at rising above what was happening. I think with the help of a great support system I was able to work through what I was feeling.
I miss her every single day, and there isn’t a day that I don’t think about her. I think that doing this show and creating this project lets me talk about her even more and share her life with those who didn’t know her – and that’s very special.
In terms of helping others, I think that by sharing the circumstances of her death and the fact that it was a suicide will help others feel less alone. I want people to be able to grow and change and know that they aren’t alone.
I know that ending the stigma that surrounds mental illness is very important to you. How do you think we can go about doing that?
I think for me I try and do it by setting the right example with what I do. Sharing and being as open and honest as possible. I don’t want to be a person who bangs you over the head and says ‘we need to think differently about this’. Instead I hope that by opening up and sharing, it will encourage others to do the same.
#BellLetsTalk day is a great example of this. It gets people talking about mental health in a way they might not normally. Someone who is secretive and introverted might tweet something that day that they normally wouldn’t – and then it opens them up to a bigger audience of people. Dialogue reduces stigma.
Was there ever a time you were afraid to talk about the circumstances surrounding your Mom’s death?
When it happened I was in the eighth grade and it was all very shocking. I was at an inner city school in Toronto with more than 450 kids and people’s parents didn’t die – they especially didn’t commit suicide. It was something that I was trying to come to terms with and understand. I had only officially learned about my Mom’s depression and her previous suicide attempts the day before she died. Then I woke up on February 24th and she had killed herself. I didn’t know what to do. I was so lost I just went to school because I didn’t know where else to be.
So I don’t know if I was afraid to talk about it, but I was definitely needing to process it so I wasn’t sharing it opening. Then rumours started spreading at school – everything from her jumping off a bridge to me making it all up and her still being alive. It was really hard. Thankfully I had a supportive class, teacher and guidance counselor who helped me through it.
Once I got to high school and got away from a lot of those people who weren’t supportive of me I started to become more open. I did about 3-4 years of bereavement group with people and I would get the question ‘how did she die?’ and gradually I become more comfortable sharing that information.
‘Life is Sweet’ is supporting CAMH – a very important resource in Toronto for people suffering from mental illness. Could you explain a bit about how this show helps them?
A portion of the ticket sales are donated directly to CAMH, and they also have a webpage set up where the event is listed and people can donate directly there as well. At the end of the show we will do collections for people who want to donate as well. They’re a great organization and I’ve loved working with them so I’m glad that we can help raise awareness and money to help them out.
Finally, if you had to pick five things that are making your life a little extra sweet right now, what would they be?
1. Quitting my day job and living the life of my dreams.
2. Really good tea
3. My lovely boyfriend (I know it’s a cliche but it’s true!)
4. Great yoga classes
5. Fresh flowers that are in my room reminding me of the promise of spring.
To get your tickets to ‘Life is Sweet’ please visit Tickmaster by clicking here
To donate to CAMH via the ‘Life is Sweet Project’ please visit their official site: https://www.supportcamh.ca/lifeissweet
For more information on The Life is Sweet Project please visit Ashley’s blog ‘Dancing Through Life’: http://www.dancingthroughlifeblog.com/
For more information on Ashley Gibson please visit her NEW official website www.ashleygibson.ca
For more information on Angelwalk Theatre please visit their official website: http://www.angelwalk.ca/
Banner Photo Credit: Ian Brown Photography