Pamela Schuller will share her story at FEDtalks Sept. 16. (photo from JFGV)
On Sept .16 at Vancouver Playhouse, as part of FEDtalks, Pamela Schuller, an internationally known disability and mental health advocate and professional stand-up comedian, will share her story. Her aim? To inspire attendees to remember and cherish what makes them unique.
Schuller divides her time between being running a Jewish teen mental health initiative in New York City and traveling the world, using her own experiences to discuss inclusion and the importance of embracing differences and disabilities.
“I tell my story of growing up with a severe case of Tourette syndrome (TS) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) … and how, over time, I learned how to be more than OK with those things,” said Schuller. “I learned to love them and embrace them, and found that they add positive, incredible things to my life when I allow them to.”
According to the website tourette.ca, TS is “a neurodevelopmental or brain-based condition that causes people who have it to make involuntary sounds and movements called tics.” And, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (cmha.ca), OCD is “a mental illness … made up of two parts – obsessions and compulsions. People may experience obsessions, compulsions or both, and they cause a lot of distress.”
Growing up in America’s Midwest, Schuller felt she stood out as the oddball kid with TS. Her mom had a hard time raising her. And, as her mom struggled, so did Schuller – dealing with having TS, as well as with numerous trips to the hospital for broken bones and depression. It took a boarding school environment for Schuller to be able to come out of her shell.
“I’d always felt like I was something my community had to work through, that I was a nuisance,” Schuller told the Independent. “But, at this boarding school … well, I’m not going to tell the whole story … I’ll save that for when I’m in Vancouver. But, I can tell you that the school knew that, if I was going to pull myself out of this space of feeling worthless, I’d need to have something about myself that I loved. So, their goal was to help me find one thing about myself that I loved. And we used that to catapult me into realizing that the one thing I love about myself translates into other areas of my life. And that, maybe, I don’t love this thing despite TS, but maybe, in actuality, TS adds to this thing that I love.”
Schuller speaks openly about being depressed before experiencing this mental shift, and of not having wanted to be a part of this world.
“To be honest, I think it’s a journey that doesn’t stop,” she said. “I still have days where it feels like having TS is bad, embarrassing or painful. And I have to remind myself that it’s OK and that there are still things I love about myself … and that, a lot of them, I learned because of TS.
“The first thing I learned that I love about myself was my sense of humour. But, it took some time to channel that sense of humour from snarky and sarcastic … to a more channeled sense of humour.
“Then, over time, I started talking seriously, not using humour, about what it means to love differences, to love the most challenging thing about yourself, the thing you struggle with the most.
“A few years ago, I realized that stand-up and talking about disabilities don’t have to be separate. So, I combined them into a talk, with humour and storytelling.”
A few years ago, Schuller earned a master’s degree in child advocacy and policy, with an emphasis on creating inclusive communities.
She believes that much of celebrating differences is about believing it is possible – that, whatever you bring to a community, you can be a part of that community.
Stand-up comedy serves as a sort of therapy for Schuller. “When I’m on stage, it’s not that my TS calms down … but, even on a tough day, I’m reminded that I love my brain,” she said. “And my brain allows me to do stand-up and have TS.
“That reminder allows me to see other things about me that I love. I think I’ve always seen the world from a different point of view, in part, because of TS. Comedy allows me to point those things out and, in a way, speak without being judged.”
Schuller encourages people to find the one thing that makes them incredible and unique.
As far as what people can expect to get out of her talk, Schuller said, “It doesn’t matter if you have a disability or not, the message is pretty universal. So, you can expect to laugh, to think about things and, maybe, sometimes, to cry, because feelings come up.
“Some of these conversations are tough. We’re all afraid of what we don’t know or maybe we don’t feel so great about ourselves or what we bring into this world. I think, by pairing humour with some of these messages and storytelling, it makes people think – about themselves and how they treat others, how they treat people in their community and what their community is doing.
“I walk into teen communities and I have everyone laughing and thinking,” she said. “And, when I finish, the teens line up to talk to me, share with me or ask questions. So, I think that my goal is to not be preachy, but to be a conversation starter.
“Typically, when communities bring me, they’ll have me perform for everyone. Then, I’ll do workshops, classes and programs. I’ve been working with communities around being inclusive for years, professionally, sharing ideas and talking about the tension points in your community around inclusion and how can we come up with some ideas that might help that.”
Schuller and her family have realized that, sometimes, the things they struggle with the most can also be their greatest strengths.
“It doesn’t mean I don’t still end up in the hospital from broken bones, from TS, but, even in those tough moments, as a family, we’re able to find humour … and to find those moments where, we’re like, ‘OK, this is so amazing … how cool that we’re learning this, doing this or experiencing this.’”
For tickets to FEDtalks ($36), visit jewishvancouver.com.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.