Certified: You’d be crazy not to see it

Touchstone Theatre is presenting Jan Derbyshire's Certified at the Vancity Culture Lab.

Jan Derbyshire: let her tell you a story, let her sing you a song. (Photo by Ben Laird)

Jan Derbyshire’s Certified is pretty much perfect. And how often do I get to say that?

Certified is about Derbyshire’s journey with mental illness and mental health, but it’s not one of those stories that collapses into the horrors of madness. Derbyshire allows herself to be vulnerable, but she’s also levitatingly funny. And she changed the way I see the world.

The core story is about the sexual violence Derbyshire experienced at 13 and the subsequent onset of auditory hallucinations. It’s about being certified insane and receiving, over the years, diagnoses including gender dysphoria, PTSD, and schizo-affective disorder. It’s also about resilience. And redefining normalcy.

Off the top, the playwright and solo performer informs us that the audience is going to be her mental health review board. In the past, official boards have decided that she’s crazy. And now she’d really, really like it if a group of people “on the outside” would tell her that she’s not.

Most of Certified is very funny, very casual stand-up. Derbyshire tells us that, during her first incarceration, her self-esteem was at its lowest point ever. Pinpointing the reason, she says, “It’s really hard to have any game when you’re wearing paper slippers.” And, in one of my favourite lines, she explains her status as a queer single mother — and identifies a little-known side-effect of alcohol: “If you drink enough, men can start to look like lesbians.”

But she keeps switching up the texture. A poetic riff about an early delusional break includes the sentence “Memories surfaced like milk-soaked photographs.” And, in a fantastic sequence, she decides that she’s a figment of Canadian novelist Miriam Toews’s imagination — and her language shifts accordingly.

There’s substantial political content. Psychiatry has systemically discriminated against women and the gender variant, for instance, and Derbyshire takes that on. I loved a non-binary friend who was psychiatrically abused, so when the flannel-shirted, black-sneakered Derbyshire declared herself a “wo-boy” as opposed to a woman, a rush of release ran through my arms, which flew into the air because I wanted to cheer.

And the voting at the end of the show showed me how much Certified had freed me. When you see Certified, you get three voting cards in your program: green for sane, red for crazy, and yellow for “proceed with caution.”

I spent decades of my adult life terrified of being nuts and my shrinks always reassured me that I wasn’t — because I didn’t hear voices. But Derbyshire still has auditory hallucinations. She has been off all meds for 13 years. But she believes that she’s managed that partly because she takes vitamins and supplements — even though orthomolecular psychology is largely discredited. And I have good friends who have stopped taking their medication with disastrous — and violent — results. So what the hell am I supposed to make of all of this?

Certified convinced me to embrace Derbyshire’s experience and to expand my understanding of mental health. She hears voices and she has big emotions, but so what? She knows what’s real. She’s sane.

And her experiences of mental illness and mental health don’t have to define anybody else’s.

Jan Derbyshire comes to Certified asking for affirmation. But, for me at least, she delivered it.

Everybody I meet is a part of me, so I’m grateful and moved when somebody allows me to embrace a part of them — and a part of myself — that I’ve been afraid of. It’s a relief. And I get to experience more of what it means to be human.

CERTIFIED By Jan Derbyshire. Directed by Roy Surette. A Touchstone Theatre production. At the Vancity Culture Lab on Friday, November 1. Continues until November 16. Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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