Calling on the Arts to Thrive During a Pandemic

The pandemic has driven a psychiatrist into isolation, but his long history in the arts helps him reconnect.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, individuals disappeared into isolation. And so did I.

I got through by returning to my childhood of 60 years ago. Someone once told me that what makes us happy as adults is what made us happy at age 7. At that age, I loved my Lionel train, movies, making up stories, and plays.

I grew up in the North Carolina mountains. My father was a high school principal, World War II medic, basketball star, and a summer outdoor theater manager. When I was 9 years old, he dragged me to Horn in the West, a play that dramatized the settlement of High County. He thought it would teach me business principles. During breaks from business lectures, I sneaked into summer stock theatre rehearsals. I was stunned by the truths declaimed in Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill plays. Certainly not the truths I heard and saw at our family’s dinner table. Tennessee? Eugene? You guys hooked me.

One day I announced to my father, “I want to audition for a role in Horn in the West.” Dad wanted to shield me, concerned I would be devastated if I lost competing against New York actors. After weeks of the air being sucked from me, Dad gave in. I landed a role. When I jogged to him and announced out of breath that I was cast, he said he looked at my face and knew I was lost to the business world forever.

Outdoor drama led to summer stock theater. Before long, I organized neighborhood children and my cousins to perform in plays that I wrote. My parents’ garage was our theatre and the garage door our curtain.

At age 9, I learned I was legally blind and required glasses. No wonder I could not catch Dad’s pitches. I could not even see the ball. Blindness was a good reason to spend afternoons in my grandfather’s movie theater, sitting in the front row. I could see people’s gigantic faces and expressions. Childhood blindness was a gift that led me to music, theater, writing, and eventually medicine.

Mom and Dad were not parents who read to their children. My teachers and librarians did. After I got home from school, I read to my little brother. Dad said I used to grab napkins, paper bags, anything I could write on, and sit at the end of the hall and write. He liked showing his basketball friends that if I was writing he could not distract me. Writing was necessary to me, like breathing.

All the while, I loved my chemistry set, math, and physics. (To this day I still read Scientific American cover to cover.) In fifth grade, I learned to play the clarinet and joined the marching and symphonic bands.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, although I majored in chemistry and played in the symphony, I took theatre courses, acting and directing. I also took electives in creative writing, novel writing, short story writing, feature story writing, and playwriting. What skills the university could not fit into my schedule, I studied in art schools, from ballet, stage dance, choreography, stage and television light design, and editing to screenplay writing.

In medical school, I composed music and gathered classmates who also adored writing. We put on a full-blown musical: an allegory of Merlin the Magician apprenticing to become a Medicine Man in days of old. Students in our class joined in acting, singing, dancing, playing instruments in the pit orchestra, building sets, making costumes, running sound and lights. It was a smash hit.

During psychiatry residency, professors asked if I could combine show business with teaching. What a terrible idea, I thought. They dragged me into it. Using drama to teach landed me on the UNC-Chapel Hill psychiatry faculty. Following passions opens unexpected doors.

Medicine and the Arts

And so, in Chapel Hill; Morgantown, West Virginia; Australia; and New Zealand, I spent over 30 years teaching psychiatry while a half day a week I taught theatre. I recruited drama students to play patients for my medical student classes. One hundred-ten medical students gathered, eager to raise hands and each pose a single question to the patient—they often forgot “the patient” was an actor.

If medical students messed up, they got to do something they could not do on the wards: have second and third chances to rephrase questions. And those classes were favorite activities for my West Virginia University theatre students.

I began to film faculty, residents, friends, and theatre students portraying patients and used those videos to teach. That led to cofounding a company in San Diego where we produced over 400 videos of simulated patients using New York and Los Angeles actors. Those videos teach in classrooms across the country. Meanwhile, I continued writing plays for local community theatres, occasionally acting and directing.

The Show Goes On

Then in the blink of an eye, I got old. Amazing how fast that happens when you are having fun. I decided to narrow my focus. No more doctoring. No more acting or directing. No more producing plays or videos. Just write. Just breathe. Get better at it. Eight hours, 9 hours a day. Expose myself to others’ works. Learn.

Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. Working 8 hours a day, except for an annual 2-week vacation, means 3 and a half to 4 years to become an expert. I think—no, I know—it takes longer for writers.

Every day I improve. And thank gosh for collaborations. My multitalented friends and colleagues at the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry are producing a video series on the history of psychiatry. During the pandemic, by using Zoom, we were able to continue producing videos.

During a decade of so-called retirement, I have had plays performed nationwide in universities, community theatres, and professional theatres. Boogieban is the story of a young United States soldier with Afghanistan nightmares being treated by a military psychiatrist still suffering from traumas in Vietnam. Tons of conflicts in that therapy.

Boogieban garnered the Cleveland Critics Circle Theatre Award and moved onto Chicago and New York. It was made into a video by a theatre company in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It was the first serious drama to be performed in an Alaskan indigenous village where during a performance, children crawled onto the set to examine props. At least they were well behaved.

Far more important than awards, audiences cry. Audience members hug and thank the cast. They say they feel understood. Talk about their own heartbreaks. Or their sons and daughters’ heartbreaks. Or fathers and mothers’ tribulations.

Then Came the Pandemic

I write more—lots more. I breathe. My mind aches to fill blank pages. My characters act up while I am still lying in bed. They scream at me to vault out of bed, to scribble and then type. They surprise me. They enchant me. They teach me truths I do not even know I know.

Maybe they spring to life because I am old, old enough to have lived adventures with individuals from varied cultures. Australian Outback tribes, Persian Gulf mountain Bedouins, Kodiak Alutiiqs, New Zealand Maori, Appalachian rural folks—and of course: the college students, adolescents, adults, and elderly blessing my psychiatry office. Truth poured out from those people. I was a collection vessel. I tap into that fullness, shape bits of lives into plays, novels, stories, into daydreaming.

And what about memories of life journeys with family and friends? They are the glue that holds my center together.

Time flies. And what about this pandemic? It is becoming more fodder in my rearview mirror.

Dr Fidler was an endowed chair of education psychiatry at West Virginia University. He is also a decorated playwright and founder and senior clinical consultant at Symptom Media.

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