Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan
Allison Shea Reed is an actor, singer, playwright, and Founder and Artistic Director of RedWit Theatre. Her full-length play Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan, about not just surviving but living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), completed a week-long run as part of the New York Theatre Festival in January 2018 before premiering in Toronto in the Alumnae Studio Theatre in June 2018. The new full length version of the play is playing at the Tank House Theatre at the Young Centre from January 14 to 25, 2020.
Your first play, Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan is founded in the belief that you can not just survive but live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. What was your experience growing up with OCD?
My parents found 7 year old me in tears on the floor of my bedroom, in the middle of the night, holding the door against the wall. When they asked why I told them very matter-of-factly: “I can’t sleep unless the door is right up against the wall.” My parents picked me up off the floor, told me everything would be okay, and set up an appointment at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. I was diagnosed with OCD and although the diagnosis temporarily provided my family with some relief, it was only the beginning of what would be a long and extraordinarily difficult journey.
What many people don’t know about obsessive compulsive disorder is that OCD never fully goes away. It is something that needs to be constantly managed through hard work, therapy, and/or medication. OCD is a lack of serotonin in your brain. Serotonin is what regulates thoughts, essentially what allows you to let things go. It isn’t just about needing to clean or compulsions; for me, it is constant worrying that something someone said will get stuck, that a random thought that pops into your brain is true, and the inability to let a thought/idea go.
What events led you to write Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan and how did you shape each of the characters?
About 3 years ago I had a conversation with a good friend that sent me reeling; they let me know that they thought they had OCD because they like things to be certain way and really like things to be clean. As my entire body filled with rage, I said what I always do, “I am not comfortable diagnosing you, it doesn’t sound like what I’ve experienced but I think checking in with a trained professional to make sure is a great idea.” How could this person who knows me well, that I’ve shared my experiences with, think that THAT is what OCD is? I tried to talk through it with my family but I couldn’t get rid of the anger and isolation that I was feeling. These feelings were not really directed at my friend but at the fact that people still don’t have any idea what having this disorder is like. So I started writing and suddenly I had this piece in front of me that said all the things I wanted to say. “Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan”
The title came first from something a family member of mine said once long ago: “I’m not yelling at you, I’m yelling at your OCD” I remember thinking vividly: but you’re still yelling at ME. It was that phrase that lead me to creating the character of Olivia, OCD incarnate. It was important to me that the character was not a monster but a reflection of the protagonist herself, all of her motivation is coming from a place of protection and control. She is charming and kind, she is not to be hated, she is simply there to keep everything under control. Olivia came first and then came Emily (the character that I play in the production). Emily needed to be full of the parts of me that I most dislike and also behaviors that I have watched people I love struggle with for a long time. I thought it would be more interesting to write a character who had not had quite as much support with her OCD and was still reckoning with the disorder in her mid-twenties. I was diagnosed when I was quite little and really lucky to learn most of the skills I would need when I was young. Most people are not that lucky. Rowan and Graham came next, her friend and her potential partner. Opposites, instigating different OCD behaviours while also trying to pull her into the present, away from Olivia.
What was your hope that playgoers would walk away with after seeing Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan?
My hope is that every audience member that sees the show never says “I’m so OCD” ever again and that they are able to start a dialogue with those who continue to use that colloquial phrase and stop it. The first night of the run in New York, a woman came up to me that I didn’t know and said: “I’m so sorry to bother you but I just wanted to say my daughter has OCD and I thought I understood but I didn’t. I understand now what was happening in the silences. Thank you.” And that to me made it all worth it. My hope is that audiences leave with a better understanding of what OCD actually is and what it feels like to be a human being struggling with the disorder.
You’ve recently written Act 2 of Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan. What can audience members expect from this piece?
Act 1 is about Emily’s battle with Olivia and eventual coming to terms with how her disorder will always be a part of her. Act 2 begins with Emily learning how to live while her disorder is present, learning how to make the decisions she wants to make even when it’s scary. When writing Act 2, I felt it was important to show what the OCD evolves into through the course of a relationship. I think it’s important to show how difficult it can be for someone who struggles with a mental illness to be in a relationship. The second act is Emily learning to listen to her own voice and make decisions despite her disorder; to do what’s best for her not what’s “best” for her disorder. So much of OCD is about control and a relationship means opening yourself up to another person’s reactions and decisions. There’s constant fear that they are going to say or do something that triggers the disorder as well as intrusive thoughts that become obsessions.
Despite the stress of theatre life, you have maintained positive mental wellness. What tools, individuals, or resources do you employ to manage your own mental health?
I think it’s a life-long journey and the tools I use will continue to evolve. I think it’s really important to find a therapist that you can talk to honestly about what you’re experiencing. So much of my journey has been figuring out what works for me and solidifying what thoughts or reactions are genuine and what is the disorder messing with my head. I’ve noticed that I am most successful when I am regularly exercising, spending consistent time with people I love, and have a creative outlet. I think it’s important to find a core group of people you can be honest with when you are struggling, who will ask what you need when you communicate that you’re struggling. The feeling of alone-ness only fuels my disorder, so it’s really important for me to remind myself that I have an incredibly support system and that I am loved even when I feel completely unlovable.
Do you have a message or advice for anyone who has been recently diagnosed with OCD, or is supporting someone with a diagnosis?
It’s going to be okay and it’s going to get easier. Every time you don’t give into an obsession or a compulsion, your brain learns that if you wait long enough you might feel better. It is hard, I am reminded often how hard it is to struggle with this disorder, but it is just one small part of who you are. You are so much more than your anxiety, surround yourself with people who will remind you when you forget that. Also, it’s okay to talk about it! Find a therapist that you really feel you can talk to, and open up to others. In sharing this story, this play, with the world I have learned that there are so many people in my circle who also are struggling with this disorder and the world gets a little bit smaller and more manageable.
For anyone supporting someone with the disorder, my best advice is 3 fold: Ask “what do you need right now?”; avoid anger and remember that an OCD reaction is not personal; and validate their feelings while reminding them that everything is okay in the present moment: “I know it’s scary in there right now, but it’s okay out here”.
Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan is playing at the Tank House Theatre at the Young Centre from January 14 to 25. For information, please visit https://tickets.youngcentre.ca/