Elizabeth Kenny held out for three or four weeks before she started talking back to the voice in her head. He began as a static sound at the edges of her hearing that was especially noticeable at night. In the early days, she would snoop around her apartment before bedtime, crouching down to listen to the appliances and electrical outlets, trying to hear where the noise was coming from. Then, one night, the static congealed into one harsh word: "Elizabeth!"
"He kept calling my name, and I kept ignoring it," she says. "Until one night, I was finally like, 'WHAT?'" At the time, she was rereading Crime and Punishment, one of her favorite books, and the voice wanted to talk to her about that. "For a while, it was like a little book club inside my head," she says. She and the voice would talk about whether some people were essentially good or essentially evil. They would also talk about murder. As her delusions (which would eventually lead her to two stints in psychiatric wards in two states) intensified, Kenny would have long, pitched debates with the voice about whether to kill her mother.
Kenny's saga is the subject of her innovative new solo show, Sick, which reaches far beyond her story and into the contradictions and corruptions of the pharmaceutical industry, opening at New City Theater this weekend.
People often think of heavy-duty mental illness as a hibernating monster in people's heads, a genetic gift from the DNA lottery waiting to spring into action and derail someone's life. But Kenny's mental illness was a gift from her doctors—it was (accidentally) induced.
The story begins with ovarian cysts, which were benign but excruciatingly painful. Her doctor prescribed birth control pills, which Kenny had taken before but rejected because they made her almost catastrophically depressed. Sometimes she'd wake up in the morning already crying. "Imagine someone you know with PMS," she says, "and times that by 975,000." To counteract the depression, her doctor prescribed Paxil. Her symptoms got worse—anxiety, crushing insomnia, a weird vibrating feeling in her bones—so her doctor prescribed more drugs, fistfuls of antidepressants, antianxiety drugs, antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, until she was having all kinds of horrors, from rashes to major visual and auditory hallucinations. After a hideous, years-long ordeal—including the aforementioned stints in the psych wards and episodes where she'd be doing the dishes one moment and wake up the next on the floor, surrounded by knives and bleeding from cuts she had no memory of making—she eventually found a doctor who had a simple but radical solution: taper her off the drugs.
Kenny's detox was, at times, as wretched as the medically induced insanity that preceded it. But she eventually made her way back to the world and talks about the experience with a wryness and conviction you don't often hear from people who've done time in psych wards. She isn't ashamed of her brain—it got hijacked by well-meaning doctors and not-so-well-meaning pharmaceutical companies, whose sly marketing is often passed off as "research" and "updates" for general practitioners. "The pharmaceutical companies are beholden to shareholders," she says, "so they're legally bound to make as much money as they possibly can. If you're writing for the business section of the Wall Street Journal, that's great. But if you're a patient, sitting in an office, being treated, you're thinking your doctor has all these free samples of drugs to give you and you're being done a favor." Kenny isn't opposed to SSRIs or other psychiatric drugs—"I saw firsthand in the psych ward that they save some people's lives," she says—but is worried about the frequency with which they're prescribed and the dearth of public knowledge about their possible side effects. Her story made it into The Antidepressant Solution by psychiatrist Joseph Glenmullen, who has led a public charge against the use of SSRIs, in some medical circles, as a panacea.
Which brings us to Kenny's solo show, Sick, directed by John Kazanjian. She has her own healthy distrust of autobiographical solo shows: "I was really resistant to the idea for a long time—I am not a fan of solo work that's about the person making the work. Everybody and their cousin is making a show about The Time That They Whatever'd. I love Oprah. But Oprah is not theater, and I don't want to make a play that seems like it should be an episode of Oprah."
But Kazanjian and others convinced her that what happened was extraordinary. It involved graphic and frightening personal stories, plus Kenny's native sense of gallows humor and the challenges faced by doctors and the entire psychiatric medical system of the United States.
She worked with Kazanjian on the best way to tell her story, and they settled on a series of note cards and a bell, wielded by actor Tina Kunz Rowley. The method was taken from an early Spalding Gray chance-operation method in which a partner onstage would pick a word from the dictionary (chrysanthemum or packet or whatever) and he had to tell whatever story he had in mind starting from that word. Kenny, Kazanjian, and Kunz Rowley started with a dictionary and a bell—for Kunz Rowley to ring whenever she was ready for Kenny to skip to the next story—and eventually moved to note cards with words like LiveLine, cysts, fainting, battlefield, coffin, kitchen, and so on.
It might not be entirely fair to call it a "solo show," since Kunz Rowley's bell shapes each evening so strongly. "She's really the composer here," Kenny says. "She is such an empathetic person that at first she was all, 'No, keep going with that story.' But she's learned how to be ruthless with that thing!"
Kenny's last conversation with the voice was in a psych ward in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she'd flown to be with her family, accompanied by a good friend. It was the morning after a tumultuous night in the ward, when several new admissions were loudly hauled in and placed in restraints. "We all tiptoed out the next morning to get our meds," Kenny says. "There was this tension in the air, like it could go off at any second." And then it went off. One patient freaked out, then another, then another, like a series of dominoes—the delicate minds of people in bad psychological straits succumbing to the panic in the air. Patients were screaming, and orderlies were hauling them into rooms, strapping them down. But one intern whom Kenny had connected with broke protocol and led her to a quiet room at the end of the hallway, away from the carnage.
"It was a battle," Kenny says. "She just kept calling my name, saying, 'Elizabeth, come here, come talk to me.' And the voice was calling me, saying things like 'We're in this together, you and me, we're outlaws, listen to me.'" But the intern—and Kenny—won. They found each other. The voice kept calling, but Kenny never answered it again.
Gradually, he faded away. That was eight years ago. And Kenny is just getting ready to tell us all about it.
This article has been updated since its original publication.