Melissa Bangs' first time writing, directing and performing for the stage received a reception beyond anything she expected.
Before she'd hung a poster for a February run of "Playing Monopoly with God," it sold out.
The solo show details her experiences with postpartum psychosis, a rare condition that she experienced after having her first child – one that involved time in a psychiatric ward and a long road toward a full recovery.
She heard positive feedback from men and women of all ages, those with children and those without. Many told her that she needed to bring it to a wider audience.
"That's the one that kept coming back to me is, 'You need to tell as many people as possible,' " she said.
The former nonprofit consultant now sees it as her mission to raise awareness about postpartum mood disorders.
"The lifetime organizer and activist and organizational consultant (in me) is interested in working on the issue locally and nationally over a long period of time," she said.
She's planning an encore performance Thursday through Sunday in Missoula, and taking it to the Myrna Loy Center for the Performing and Media Arts in Helena in September, and the Verge Theater in Bozeman in late October or early November.
She's been invited to numerous other cities, but is first planning on a show in Seattle to learn how to market and stage "Monopoly" in larger media markets.
A professional team will film one of the Missoula performances to create a trailer, including animation and shots of Bangs' daily life with her husband Eric and daughter Adelaide, now 2 years old.
She envisions that it could eventually become a full-fledged documentary with interviews with doctors and survivors, or even a book or a screenplay.
The show will trace Bangs' traumatic experience with postpartum depression, which began after she gave birth to her daughter Adelaide in 2012.
The birth went smoothly for the 40-year-old first-time mother. It was the crucial time afterward that went awry. She experienced insomnia for almost a month, and the exhaustion mixed with imbalanced hormones, causing a psychotic breakdown.
She began to experience delusions, feeling as though she "saw God in everything."
She was checked into the Providence Center, where she was eventually diagnosed as bipolar and given a prescription for lithium.
She describes the drug as "emotionally flattening," and went about researching her breakdown. She eventually found naturopath Dr. Christine White and was given a corrected diagnosis of postpartum psychosis and fully recovered.
"Playing Monopoly with God," an hour-plus monologue, takes a devastatingly honest approach to relaying that experience. She studied comedy with the Upright Citizens Brigade when she was younger, and so there's doses of humor throughout. The title, for instance, is a reference to one of her delusions while in Providence.
White, who took a front-row seat at one of the February shows, said Bangs' outreach is unusual.
"It is incredibly rare that someone speaks out about this when they have spent time in psych ward," White said.
"Melissa telling her story, it changes anybody who hears it. And she tells it eloquently and tells it so you feel her pain and the depths to which she got, and the humor she can find in it all and the gratitude she has at this point for being a mom and feeling normal and telling the story," White said.
The two will visit a Postpartum Support International conference this year to learn more about ways postpartum mood disorders are diagnosed and treated. White wants to learn that group's model of care, and look at ways she can provide input on Bangs' experience, which she called unique.
"I don't think either of us know where it's going, but we have started something," White said.
White said postpartum mood disorders don't fit into the current treatment model for new mothers.
It takes a month or two to set in, White said, after which a mother is no longer under the care of her OB/GYN.
"If the general family practice doctor doesn't know what to do with postpartum mood issues, they're kind of stuck," she said.
She said there needs to be a "better toolbox that includes something besides conventional pharmaceutical treatment."
That works very well and is necessary for some women, she noted. However, for women who may not want to take drugs that could rule out breast-feeding, there should be other options.
As an example, she cited one woman for whom she recently prescribed a plan involving better sleep and neurotransmitters. Within days, the new mother was back to normal.
"I have seen dozens and dozens of new patients as a result of Mel telling her story," White said.
They cover a large spectrum, from postpartum mothers, those who had children years before, to people who have other mood disorders.
She notes that Bangs' situation was unique, and White takes an integrative approach to treatment – some people are on antidepressants, for instance, and need to be.
"I intend to go forward by teaching people that there is a whole range of options that we have to help these women feel better that may or may not include a pharmaceutical approach," White said.
Bangs hopes the return performances continues a dialogue, sparking a conversation with front-line caregivers and hearing their feedback.
"Who's screening for postpartum mood disorders a month after the baby's born? Two months after the baby's born? Five months?" she said.