'Playing Monopoly with God'

Melissa Bangs discusses her postpartum breakdown and recovery in "Playing Monopoly with God and Other True Stories."

Melissa Bangs did an unusual thing after she'd recovered from postpartum depression and mania.

The Missoula visual artist, a self-described storyteller with a big mouth and no sense of shame, kept talking about it.

The extremity of her case, which included a psychotic breakdown and time in the Providence Center, had an unusual effect on other people.

Women who'd experienced depression or anxiety after pregnancy told her their stories.

"I was safe to tell (it to), because I went to the loony bin. I topped them. They could tell me. Who was I to judge them? And they were right, I didn't judge any one of them," she said.

She found she'd tapped into a "vastly shared experience," and learned that 15 percent of women cope with some sort of mood disorder after giving birth. She points out that that's only the 15 percent who'd reported it.

Bangs' willingness to talk about the experience could account for the fact that her first one-woman performance, "Playing Monopoly with God and Other True Stories," sold out several weeks before its two-day engagement at the Crystal Theatre.

The show will trace Bangs' traumatic experience with postpartum depression, which began after she gave birth at age 40 in 2012.

While the birth went smoothly, she experienced insomnia for almost a month. Combined with imbalanced hormones, the sleeplessness led to a psychotic breakdown.

She's previously described it as feeling as though she "saw God in everything."

She was checked into Providence, 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, leading her to work with a naturopath and a diagnosis of postpartum psychosis and mania, and a full recovery.


While her show has a serious subject and message, complete with resource tables in the lobby, she's careful to note that it is often very funny, though it's not a comedy.

Bangs and her husband, Eric Ellingson, use humor as a means of surviving tough situations – including ones as tough as a miscarriage. And so her time in Providence was no different.

After Bangs' release, she began reading through her hospital records, and found a nurse's note that read, "Patient says she'll do comedy on this experience."

While in the hospital, she even kept lists of things that she found particularly funny.

The title of the performance, "Playing Monopoly with God," references a recurrent aspect of her psychosis – she thought that a person's visible flaws were indications they were divine.

So one particular night, she knew that a psych ward attendant who was playing the board game with her was God, and she made noble requests for the higher being to clean up the poorer neighborhoods on the board.

It took some time for her to decide to add humor into the public retellings, though.

She first began talking about her experience publicly about a year after her release from Providence.

It was the subject of a lengthy Sunday Missoulian article, and she's discussed it on KUFM, in Mamalode magazine, and at a conference for health care providers.

And in January, she went on stage for the quarterly Tell Us Something storytelling nights, in which community members share short, true monologues.

She did a short version of her story, and described the on-stage experience as a "high."

"I hadn't had a conversation like that with the audience where it was so linked into each other. I hadn't had several hundred people laugh so hard at something I was saying since my last performance at UCB," she said.

That's short for Upright Citizens Brigade, the improv/comedy incubator in New York City. Bangs took classes in the early 2000s.

"For me, improv leads to the most authentic moments I've ever experienced on stage. And the most profound connection with the audience, where the performance really is a conversation," she said.

She used all that training to tell the story in a lively, spur-of-the-moment fashion.

"Tone, timing, physicality, the style of approach – that was all improv. I never rehearsed any of that, I just memorized the lines. I'm doing the same thing with this," she said.

Those experiences comprise her only performance background, although she's had many careers.

The fifth-generation Montanan and a Missoula native has a lengthy resume that taken's to her far-flung places. She's been a labor organizer, a development director for a human rights group and a nonprofit consultant. She's worked in Mexico, Chile, El Salvador and San Francisco. They're diverse jobs, but they all require storytelling of some sort.

After staying home to spend time with Adelaide, Bangs decided not to return to consulting. Instead, she pursued visual art.

Her paintings can be found on the walls of the Radius Gallery, where she's a represented artist.

Back in January, just a day after her Tell Us Something experience, she booked the Crystal Theatre for a February engagement, not even sure what form the work would take.

She's since expanded the piece from some 15 minutes to an hour with an intermission.

In rewriting it, she had some epiphanies, and viewers can expect "some layers of the story that I've never shared publicly before. I don't want to give them away."

It will delve further into gray areas, although she's reluctant to give any of those away.

Her relationship to what happened changes all the time, she says, so there's more, different material than before.

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