By B.A. Tanner
On the Thursday evening of March 28, room 1050 of the Earth Sciences Centre at University of Toronto (UofT) swelled with the comforting sounds of meditative gong notes, honest conversation, and an impressive cello performance.
Sharing the stage were Ranjini George, Rebecca Higgins, and Erika Nielsen, once again bringing together Editors Toronto, Canadian Authors–Toronto, and the Creative Writing Program at the School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto (SCS–UofT), to deliver an inspirational and informative panel discussion. These three talented women used their life experiences to tackle the tough subject matter of mental health and wellness as it applies to freelance artists.
The program started with an introduction by Lee Parpart, programs chair of Editors Toronto and co-president of Canadian Authors–Toronto, then moved to the first speaker of the night: Ranjini George, who teaches courses on mindfulness, meditation, and creative writing at the SCS–UofT.
Ranjini addressed the need for freelance writers, editors, and artists to foster mental and physical well-being while they manage numerous projects with various deadlines. Referencing the stories from her 2016 book Through My Mother’s Window: Emirati Women Tell their Stories and Recipes, she talked about her own experiences working in the field of mental wellness and encouraged everyone to practise mindfulness regularly. Ranjini explained how sound can be used to help centre the self and control our continuous wave of thoughts. Treating the crowd to the sounding of the gong, combined with several moments of meditation and deep breathing, she left us with the simple but powerful reminder to “Breathe. Be present.”
Next, Rebecca Higgins, a mental health educator, shared her personal struggles with depression.
Rebecca uses both to discuss loneliness and ways to mitigate it, believing that we are all inherently “weirdos.” She employed humour to describe her own mental health crisis, an event she referred to as “The Depression Festival: It’s very easy to get tickets but nobody has the energy to go.” Reading “The White Stain,” a short story from her debut collection, The Colours of Birds, Rebecca demonstrated how deep emotions and mental health issues can be hidden beneath the veneer of normalcy and how people sometimes do strange things to survive their feelings of loneliness. She is currently working on a second collection of short stories that will be sure to include more of her beloved “weirdo” characters.
The last talk of the night was given by cellist, artist, and author Erika Nielsen. Erika was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 27, and she managed to use this difficult and complex experience to connect with others through her music and writing. She began her presentation by playing Allemande from Suite No. 1 in G major by J.S. Bach.
Following her powerful performance, Erika spoke about her journey, from living with untreated bipolar disorder to getting her diagnosis and finding her best treatment plan, all while managing her personal life and professional career. Erika opened up about why she hesitated to accept her diagnosis, stating how her manic episodes were disguised by a false impression of heightened creative brilliance, leading her to fear that treatment would stifle her creativity. Once she accepted her diagnosis and settled into a treatment plan, she not only realized she was still as creative as ever but also found her nearly paralyzing stage fright easier to manage. She used her experience to write her memoir and wellness guide Sound Mind: My Bipolar Journey from Chaos to Composure, letting the world see and learn from her struggles and accomplishments. She finished her captivating talk with another cello piece, which was brief yet hauntingly beautiful.
These captivating presentations were followed by questions from members of the audience, who wanted to know how to balance their internal challenges with their external reality and why sound can have so much influence on our thoughts.
As the evening drew to a close, there was a feeling of peace and positivity, as though we all had spent the night chatting with old friends. If the night left the gathering with one common theme, it was this: we may not be able to fix someone else or their problems, but we can all walk alongside each other in support, taking care of each other and ourselves so we can thrive in our freelance work and personal lives.
B.A. Tanner is a Toronto-based writer and photographer. She is the Membership Coordinator for Canadian Authors–Toronto.
This article was copy edited by Gagandeep Bimbh.