Ottawa Fringe: Judy Reid is battling PTSD with the healing power of Improv

Judy Reid will be performing at the Ottawa Fringe Festival.

Judy Reid knows all about the therapeutic effects of the arts. Her work with Improv and storytelling has helped her cope with the affects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as a result of time spent working as a civilian in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Now she’s put her life on stage in a one-woman show at the Ottawa Fringe Festival. But before she steps out into the stage lights, she talked with ARTSFILE.

Q. Tell me a bit about yourself.

A. I was born in Newfoundland and grew up in Labrador, attended Dalhousie University in Halifax, which is also where I joined the Canadian Reserves and trained as a radio operator. I really enjoyed the camaraderie of the Reserves. I was with them for seven years and promoted to Master Corporal in 1999 before I began working for ATCO in 2000. I’m now the company security officer for ATCO’s Frontec division, which provides facility operations and maintenance, disaster response, and military support services around the world.

In 2000 I deployed to Bosnia for six months. It was a very positive experience. It was a peaceful time. When I left my camp in Velika Kladusa to visit other sites, it was surreal seeing bombed-out homes against the backdrop of such a beautiful landscape. I loved jogging on the trails outside of our camp, but we had to be careful to stay on the marked routes because of landmines. While I was in Bosnia, DND awarded a contract to ATCO to provide support to the Canadian Forces. ATCO offered me a job and I returned to Bosnia as a civilian and worked there for three years. I was also a volunteer firefighter for my last year and half in Bosnia. 

In 2007 ATCO was awarded a contract with NATO at Kandahar Airfield (KAF) in Afghanistan, a base of about 30,000 people with troops and civilians from more than 20 countries. For most of my time in KAF I was a quality assurance auditor and was the primary auditor for fire crash rescue. I worked in KAF for four years. 

I enjoyed my work, and although it was occasionally stressful, I didn’t realize how much it affected me. There were rocket attacks and an occasional ground attack. There were many ramp ceremonies for Canadians who were killed, and because it was an international base and our own company employed people from more than 20 countries, we also knew of the many other injuries and deaths that occurred in the Kandahar region.  There were at least a couple suicide bombings in Kandahar and casualties were treated on our base.

One night we had several rocket attacks, with one of them hitting a fuel storage facility, and our firefighters fought that while the attacks continued and the rest of us taking shelter in bunkers. Our firefighters were also responsible for recovering bodies from plane crashes on the base. My own job was easy in comparison, but I now believe I was affected by all these events happening around me. 

Q. Tell me about the PTSD that you are confronting?

A. My main symptoms involve being in a constant state of high alert, having an acute startle response and anxiety. I also have issues with memory and concentration. At my worst I was crying several times a day. For some reason I felt most vulnerable as a passenger in a car and would start crying anytime the vehicle I was in got within a few car-lengths to the vehicle in front of us. Sirens and loud noises would overwhelm me – even people speaking loudly on a bus. I suspect the trouble I have with my short-term memory and being able to focus, is related to always being on alert for danger – not consciously.

I had said that at my worst I was crying several times a day – but the truth is, at my worst in 2013, I was literally pounding my head against a floor. I don’t know if I was trying to knock myself out or just trying to replace my emotional pain – but it scared the hell out of me. 

Q. Tell me about your theatre/improv work.

A. I started taking classes in 2017 with the Improv Embassy. Most of my stage time has been with class shows, performed at the end of a course – however one time I also performed during their Fake News Show. This year I’ve also started performing with and writing for the Shit Hot Shit Show – Ottawa’s only regularly performing sketch comedy troupe (they are also performing during the Fringe). I love performing sketch and was thrilled to find out that I can memorize lines. I’ve also tried stand-up a handful of times and may try again after my Fringe show. I’m very much still a student of improv and have been shying away from joining an improv team. I’d like to retake a couple of the Embassy’s classes (bonus: students can retake classes for 50 per cent off) and start returning to their jams – a weekly drop-in improv session with a mix of students and teachers.

I was inspired to get involved by my friend Emily. Although she was struggling with her own mental health issues, she put herself out there doing things like poetry readings, volunteering with a theatre group and training as an expressive arts therapist. Emily had always encouraged me to get back to writing, and after she died unexpectedly due to a heart condition, I imagined her giving me a kick in the ass. Life was short, and it was time to try something different.

I showed up to my first jam just planning on watching but ended up getting on stage. I stuck my foot in my mouth at least twice, my face blazed in embarrassment, and I may have even woken in the middle of the night thinking “Oh My God! Why did I say that?” But oddly enough the next couple of days I felt relaxed and exhilarated. I noticed I didn’t feel as tense on the bus. I wasn’t as on edge or self-conscious. And those feelings improved as I continued taking part.

Q. Tell me about your one-woman show? 

A. My show is a mostly humorous look at how I dealt with PTSD, how hard a time I had with everyday things and what I have learned about myself and coping with life.  I say “mostly” because not all of it is funny. I describe a couple of incidents from my time in Afghanistan, and at least one them broke my heart – or at least my memory. Just a heads-up, there will be tears, but overall it’s a funny and hopeful story.

I decided to do the show because I was amazed about how much improv helped me with some of my PTSD symptoms and because I fell in love with the storytelling format after seeing it done at the Ottawa Fringe last year. I had attempted to write something about my experiences in Kandahar a few years ago but was really struggling. It’s as if I’m allowed only a small bucket of concentration per day, and I use it all up at work. After seeing storytelling at the Fringe, I thought it might be a format I could use. Yes, I still have to do some writing, but I think of the performance aspect of it as the reward.

I’m donating half the profits from my show to the Improv Embassy, so they can run an Intro to Improv course specifically for people dealing with PTSD and anxiety. I decided to do that before I even knew it was thing. Second City in Toronto has been running an Improv for Anxiety course for a few years. It has helped me so much and I’m grateful that I get to share that.  

Q. It takes courage to get up on stage? Did you have any concerns?

A. I definitely had concerns – looking like an idiot, panicking and looking like an idiot again. But I think if you’ve survived intense trauma or loss, it can put those fears into perspective. As embarrassed as I may be by something I’ve blurted out on stage, it’s nothing compared to the despair I’ve felt since returning from Afghanistan. If I can survive that, I can do this.

Q. How has improv/theatre helped? 

A. Improv quite simply has helped me calm down. It also made me less hyper-alert and much less self-conscious. I can ignore loud, obnoxious people on the bus instead of getting all tense and worried about how they’re bothering other people and then blowing up at them. I rarely cry when I hear sirens or bagpipes. I can ride in a taxi or Uber without having a panic attack. The physical warmup and stage games helped get me out of my head, and helped me be more aware of myself physically. Some of my symptoms were lessening with time anyway, but it’s as if improv kickstarted or amped up my recovery. Learning lines for sketch shows has showed me that my memory does still work if I practice and properly prepare.

When I noticed how much calmer I felt after doing improv I started doing some research. I read about how the comedian Maria Bamford used a therapy called “flooding” to deal with her OCD. I wonder if improv is similar. I do not find improv easy. I often panic on stage although I seem to be good at hiding it. I think the fear I feel on stage helps me with feeling less fear in my everyday life. I’m definitely pushing some of my own boundaries when I do improv, and I think that kind of growth will help anyone. 

Q. What’s next?

A. Actually, a couple of days after my last Fringe show I’ll be doing my first group burlesque routine at the Rainbow with my classmates from Dance with Alana. I can’t believe I’m doing burlesque – but it’s so much fun. It’s like being a little kid again and playing dress-up … except with fewer clothes. Over the summer I’d like to try some more open mic nights for stand-up and then in September I’ll be taking another class with the Improv Embassy. I don’t have any big projects on the horizon.

How To Get Over A Guy In 723 Days (And Other Useful Things I Learned From Afghanistan, The Dildo Dory Grill and PTSD) is at the Ottawa Fringe Festival from June 14-16 and June 22-24 in the NAC’s Rossy Pavilion. For more information

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.