Last year, April Charlo took a friend, who had recently had a child and needed help with some of her emotional issues, to a storytelling workshop in Missoula.
It's a daylong event designed for "moms of any age who experience, trauma, loss or hardship," whether they're trying to get pregnant, are pregnant, have recently had a child, or are struggling many years afterward, according to founder Melissa Bangs.
In a nonjudgmental space, they want to "peel back the layers, and get a mom to a place where she's telling her true story, most vulnerable, fierce and true story as if no one less were listening," she said. "What if there was nothing to prove, what if there was no one you had to explain yourself to, what if you were just making sense of this heart-wrenching experience for you?"
At the workshop, Charlo realized that some two-and-a-half years after her son was born, she was still silently suffering from postpartum depression. It was a bleak time in which she had invasive, depressive thoughts, ones that she hid from other people out of shame.
"I thought I was an isolated incident. I thought I was unique. I thought there was something horribly wrong with me. By going to this workshop, it immediately broke that stigma, which is like, 'I am not alone. I am not crazy. I am not this horrible person that I had been making myself out to be,'" she said.
People close to her were surprised to learn that Charlo was suffering, since she was so active. She was the tribal outreach director for the Special Olympics, leading the effort to bring the Special Olympics to the Flathead Reservation, which frequently required long hours.
Charlo has spoken publicly before in other circumstances, such as delivering a TEDx Talk on stage at the Dennison Theatre at the University of Montana. Yet she still finds it "scary" to talk about her postpartum depression. She'll return to the Dennison this Sunday, May 12 — Mother's Day — for "MOMedy," a tragicomic storytelling event Bangs started that grew out of the workshop.
Charlo and six other mothers will share their stories at the event, which is moving into its largest venue yet after four sold-out events at the Roxy Theater last fall.
"Some of the stories are hysterical, with some tough moments. And others are really painful with a laugh or two," Bangs said.
Bangs has led the workshops for the past five years as she traveled with her one-person show, "Playing Monopoly With God & Other True Stories," a humorous and sad monologue about her own struggle with postpartum depression, including mania and a psychotic breakdown. She originally performed it as a short monologue at Tell Us Something, the community storytelling series, and realized the potential of the subject.
The goal of her workshops isn't to walk away with a "full story" or even prepare for the stage. Instead, it's to create a space where they can examine the "story" they've been telling themselves and excavate the truth of their experiences, without any of the self-imposed judgments they may have been carrying.
"Another point of the workshop is to begin to normalize the array of experiences that moms are having, and for moms to recognize that they're not alone, and they're not the only one, and that this wasn't their fault, and these are just the stories we're not talking about," she said.
The workshops included some improv and comedy exercises, such as "finding a funny moment in this utterly painful chapter. What happened that was funny?" she said.
The speakers haven't been coached in performance in a way that took away from the authenticity.
All of the "MOMedy" speakers attended the workshops, and Bangs said they're all very different regarding backgrounds and specifics.
"Moms are coming from such diverse walks of life, their experiences range from an IVF journey, to a very traumatic birth that ended in a hysterectomy to save the mom's life. There are stories of depression and suicidality, crippling anxiety, psychosis, and then the pathways to healing are very diverse," she said.
Bangs said they found a support group and community, complete with a private Facebook group, that breaks down the silence around the issue — Charlo said she was willing to share her story because of the difference the other women made in her life.
"I'm slowly still coming out of the woods four years later," she said, "and there's still a lot of healing and forgiveness that I need to do for myself, and that may be the case for a lot of moms of all generations, so I think this show could be the catalyst for that healing for a lot of moms out there."