On Childbirth, Psychosis, and Playing Monopoly with God

Melissa Bangs to perform show based on an experience of postpartum psychosis at the O’Shaughnessy Center

By Clare Menzel
Melissa Bangs. Courtesy Photo

By the time the curtain drops on “Playing Monopoly with God & Other True Stories,” a one-woman nonfiction storytelling performance, next Saturday, March 12, some 2,000 people across Western Montana will have laughed and cried along with Missoula’s own Melissa Bangs.

Bangs began telling her story in front of audiences in February 2015, three-and-a-half years after delivering a healthy baby girl, Adelaide Bangingson. It’s the story of three months that followed, during which Bangs fought through postpartum psychosis mania, a condition triggered by hormone depletion and sleep deprivation. Institutionalized for nearly one month then sent home on psychotic drugs that left her distant and unable to breastfeed, it was only after Bangs sought out a naturopathic physician who righted her world with hormone therapy that she escaped her alternate psychotic reality and returned to motherhood.

It’s a difficult story, but it’s not uncommon. Statistically, Bangs has noted, postpartum mental health disorders are the most common birth complication. And the number of moms, dads, sons, and daughters who hear Bangs’ story matters.

“It’s about one of those topics vastly shared and rarely talked about,” Bangs said of postpartum struggles. “We know that so many people [who experience it] never say a word.”

At first, as Bangs, a frank and uninhibited graduate of New York City improv comedy club Upright Citizens Brigade, says, the show “was healing, it was cathartic, to have people cry and laugh out loud and to have an audience go the distance.” But, she continued, the performance “stopped being about me a long time ago.”

Now she uses the stage to empower the women who feel silenced by stigma and shame, and to introduce this massive struggle to those who may have never considered its existence. From sold-out shows to gushing media and fan reviews, it’s clear that the performance, which Bangs describes as “fun and ridiculous and sad and inappropriate and profoundly honest,” is striking a cord.

“Everybody says they find something in the show that rocked them,” Bangs said. “The number one comment is ‘I was laughing or crying the entire time.’ But the other thing people were saying [is], you have to do it again.”

After she performed her first show one year ago without any expectation of an encore, she continued to knock out almost almost 10 sold-out shows across Northwest Montana, in Helena and Bozeman as well as her hometown Missoula. And after she performs at the O’Shaughnessy in Whitefish on March 12, Bangs will embark on a nine-month tour across the western United States, with husband Eric Ellingson, their daughter – still “the light of our world and my greatest joy” – and dog in tow.

While Bangs wants her story both to entertain and release women from stigma, her mission is multi-pronged. An activist and consultant with over a decade of experience in strategic planning and in the nonprofit sector, Bangs has organizational skills in addition to her comedic chops. Before she even wrote out the script, Bangs says she sat down with Dr. Christine White, the physician she credits with saving her life, to sketch out 10, 20, and 30-year plans “to change postpartum care in Montana.”

“Because we’re not educated, we don’t relate anxiety to postpartum, [so women] think, ‘I’m a bad mom or a bad person,’” Bangs said. “The lack of answers we currently have for these health issues and health complications, it’s out of whack. There’s a real opportunity to change that.”

As such, in each place she visits, Bangs aims to congregate local healthcare professionals. In the Flathead, Bangs has partnered with Kalispell Regional Healthcare, North Valley Hospital, Community Birth Center, Fern Creek Midwives, and others to bring the show to the O’Shaughnessy Center.

“We felt it was an important message for the community to hear,” said Catherine Todd, senior director of business development and community relations at North Valley Hospital. “We know that along with the happy things in birth, sometimes there are sad things that happen, and we want to be able to help our families with the education and resources to get through the rougher times.”

Bangs will return to the Flathead in May for a storytelling workshop with local moms, which is becoming a signature event along with meet and greets, which Bangs organizes to foster new relationships between postpartum moms and healthcare providers.

“I think it’ll bring great awareness [to this issue] in an enjoyable atmosphere with great emotion,” said Tagen Vine, president of Kalispell Regional Healthcare Foundation. “With heartfelt tears to uncontrollable laughter, it sounds like a great show and hopefully it communicates a deeper message that this is something that our community needs to work on.”

The sole Flathead performance is at 7 p.m. on March 12 at the O’Shaughnessy Center. Tickets are $20 in advance and $24 at the door. Find them online.