UMKC instructor opens up about her struggle to help others with mental illness
For much of her life, Sarah Beth Mundy has grappled with demons, and her mind has pitched itself into some dark and scary places. But in 2009, when she was 24, she rescued herself.
“I checked myself in for attempted suicide,” she told The Star recently. “It was my second attempt. I think and hope what makes my story interesting is that it was 100 percent my decision.”
Mundy told that story a few weeks ago at the Outburst Performance Gallery. She said her March performance was “intimate,” and her minimal stage presentation helped “portray a very no-frills night of hearing me move seamlessly between story, journal, anecdote and reflection.”
It comprised four vignettes: her experience leading right up to and including her stay at Research Hospital; her earliest memories of self-harm and memories of being a “complicated child”; the past five “tumultuous” years of her life she called, “What I Learned By Being the Worst I Could Be”; and a look into the future, in which she “opened up the venue to explain what I hoped these performances could accomplish, and the open invite for anyone to share their stories if they so feel compelled.”
“The tone of the night overall was mostly frank with really dry humor sprinkled in,” she said. “I hope to host a variety of voices that show that you don’t have to come into this experience assuming a somber night. Part of breaking down stigmas includes introducing comedy where you least expect it.
“My goal is, over time, to showcase a variety of (ways) to discuss these realities. That way, more and more people feel welcome and feel like they can add a voice to the mix.”
She titled the show “Hymen in Hysterics,” which is also the title of a blog she has maintained intermittently since 2010. She discovered the term in the midst of some academic research.
“I was doing English research — I was in a Victorian class — for a gender-study paper and I came across an article about hysterical women’s hymens,” she said. “I thought it was a great title.”
Mundy wanted to encourage anyone struggling emotionally to acknowledge and talk about their state of mind and to assure them there is a way out. Or as she posted on the flyer she had posted around Kansas City: “Meditations on mental disorder. Come with an open mind. Leave inspired to tell your story.”
“When people are exposed to these kinds of stories and sensitive subjects, it can hit closer to home than they anticipate,” she said. “A lot of times, even if they’ve begun to think about these feelings, if they don’t have anyone to talk to about it, they’ll bury it and move on.
“I want this (performance) to make people comfortable enough so they can maybe talk about it on the way home or go home and start writing about it. It’s shocking how much a little awareness or exposure to this subject can have a major effect on somebody.”
Munday has been a writer and a blogger in Kansas City for years. She is also a student of English literature and now an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Mundy had been in and out of therapy since she was a teenager but without reaching any conclusive diagnosis or treatment. Shortly after her hospital stay, she found answers.
“I’d been tested for everything from ADHD to a loose diagnosis that I was bipolar,” she said, “which I was not comfortable with. So I started this period of self-guided research, which led me to the Lilac Center.”
And that led her to a place of relative stability. Or at least to a treatment she believed in: dialectical behavior therapy.
“It’s an intensive, usually one-year program of diligent, weekly therapy,” she said. “It works to rewire your thought processes. If I could sum it up in one sentence, it would be: All emotions, no matter how dramatic, are valid. What matters most is what you do with those emotions.”
Through it all, she wants to convey a message: Address those feelings and process them properly.
“No matter how much you may want your feelings to be validated, they can elicit a collection of responses, like, ‘You’re so dramatic’ or ‘You’re so hysterical,’ which just means more negative feelings,” she said. “I want people to realize you can’t help having these feelings immediately. And you have to process them creatively. I want this (show) to be almost like a model to show people: Here’s one way to process it.”