How one woman found sweetness through tragedy
Ashley Gibson remembers her mom. She remembers her light-green eyes, her big laugh, and her warm heart.
She remembers coming home from shopping one day as a teenager, chatting with a friend and her mom in the kitchen.
“(I have a memory of my mom) just listening and asking questions and…just being lovely, and cute and fun,” said Gibson, 29. “My mom was very easy to talk to. And I think it’s one of those things that makes me so sad that she’s not here, because I know that there have been so many days in my life that I wish that I could have had that person to talk to.”
Gibson’s mom, Debbie, committed suicide on Feb. 24, 1998.
For the 15th anniversary of her death, Gibson created a show, along with a series of blog posts, in honour of her mother and to open up a dialogue about mental health in a way that is universally understood.
Gibson performed her solo cabaret, Life is Sweet, Even in February, for the first time on Feb. 22, 2013. She shared her thoughts, feelings and memories of her mom with the audience.
But Gibson says she realized the show might not be enough. The venue, the Flying Beaver Pubaret on Parliament Street, had a capacity of only around 50 people.
“Lying in bed one night, I was like, ‘How can I make this impact more people?’” she said.
It was then that Gibson decided to reach out to see if more people would share their stories, sending e-mails and posting requests for participants through social media.
The result of her search was a series of guest posts on her blog, Dancing Through Life. Those who volunteered wrote pieces on everything from depression and suicide to eating disorders and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
“The response was awesome and overwhelming and amazing,” Gibson said. “I ended up having 25 or 26 different people write for me over the course of the month.”
“I had people tell me, who had written some of the posts, how therapeutic and fantastic it was for them to share the information.”
Shannon Cottrell, 34, was one those bloggers. On Feb. 12, she wrote about her experiences with depression, suicide and SAD.
At first, she says she was nervous about telling her story, because it was something she didn’t often discuss.
“And then I decided to take that leap and just share it,” she said. “And I’m glad I did, because I’ve had some people in various parts of my life come up to me after it was shared and tell me about their stories.”
Cottrell says she believes the blog post series is successful in initiating conversations.
“I absolutely loved reading the rest of the stories of people who participated because it made me feel like I wasn’t alone,” she said. “It’s still nice to know that you’re not the only one with that past and that people can understand you.”
Both Gibson and Cottrell say mental illness is a subject that isn’t spoken about nearly enough.
According to the CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) website, one in five people in Ontario experience a mental health or addiction issue, and nearly 4,000 Canadians commit suicide each year.
With these numbers, Gibson says she doesn’t understand why there is such a negative stigma around the discussion of these topics.
“Everyone is being touched by someone with mental illness at some point in their life,” she said. “So why are we going to be quiet about that and not talk about it and make it this taboo subject?”
Gibson is now working on organizing her guest posts for February of the coming year.
And on Feb. 10, 2014, she will perform her show for the second time, with some changes, with Angelwalk Theatre at the Toronto Centre for the Arts on Yonge Street.
Tara Litvack is the musical director for the show. She says she is pleased the Life is Sweet Project will be put on again.
“It’s great that we can go to a broader audience,” she said. “People can come see it who haven’t seen it before and who missed it last year. It brings people in to think about the subject matter of mental illness that we wouldn’t normally hit.”
Litvack believes that exploring these topics through an artistic medium can be very effective.
“There’s something different about the immediacy of it being such a human experience when it comes to a show,” she said. “I mean, talking about Ashley’s mom…you’re putting a human face to something and that’s very powerful.”
Gibson agrees, and adds that lending her personal experience to the show can make it more relatable to the audience.
“While someone may not feel comfortable talking about mental health…they might be able to watch a show…and that may help them feel something differently,” she said. “I think art can change people’s perspectives, knowingly or not.”
In addition to opening up dialogue about mental health and celebrating her mom’s life, Gibson aims for her audience to see a deeper message in the Life is Sweet Project.
“I hope that people can learn from my experience,” Gibson said. “That in spite of the challenges we may face, that life really is sweet and good at the end of the day. That we all have a lot of things to be thankful for.”
All proceeds from the shows will be donated to CAMH.
To buy your tickets, click here.