Shelley Marshall is both exactly what you’d expect, and unlike anyone you’ve ever met.
On a Facebook support group called Bunz Mental Health Zone, Marshall posted photos of her loft home in Leslieville. It was a call out for people who are struggling with mental illness, and in need of a judgement-free, safe space for socializing and healing.
Her home is an eccentric piece of art in its own right. Situated in a tall building meant for studio space, the walls are adorned with commissioned and gifted art, unique mismatched furniture and an island in her kitchen made by her husband.
The ceilings are sky high and floor to roof windows line the far wall. There are numerous cozy nooks that social group attendees sometimes fall asleep in.
Marshall’s own struggles with mental health began at a young age, at her home, but she kept it quiet from her friends. It hasn’t stopped her from wanting to help others.
“I was the class clown and I was the girl that had it all, but nobody knew what was going on at home,” she said. “And I think that kind of protected me in many ways because I could have this other life of being silly.”
In the middle of playful discussion, Marshall often incorporates some deeper stories of her struggles.
“I remember waking up. They finally got me a bed. I was in emergency for four days with a security guard because there were no beds. They finally got me a bed because of course they overmedicate you so you sleep through the night. And I wake up and there’s this old woman across from me. She catches my sight and says, ‘What the hell are you doing in here?’ And it sounded just like my grandmother.”
The way she tells her stories are almost like a play; throughout, Marshall transforms and acts out the scenes of her life.
The mentally unwell often don’t become heroes, like those who beat cancer, she said. While acknowledging the heroic struggles of cancer survivors, Marshall asks for the same kind of acceptance for those who battle with mental health.
“I promise it will make us better,” she said. “We don’t want to be sick.”
Sarah, one of the female attendees, described her experiences with a relapse. For years, she’s struggled with severe anxiety and depression, relapses that caused her to take six months off work and drastically lose weight.
“Now I’m on medication and everyone just says, ‘Wow, you look amazing.’ Clearly [they] have no idea what’s going on,” she said.
Her psychiatrist helped her realize an unhealthy pattern in her life. The cycle of desiring acceptance is something that affects most people.
“The reason you’re seeking out these relationships where you want this broken person who needs fixing,” she said, “is because you’re so desperate to be appreciated and to feel loved.”
Michele Choma is a professor in the social service worker diploma program at Humber. She has traveled all over Canada to support mental health initiatives, and sat on a United Nations round table for mental health.
Mental illness, Choma said, is still surrounded by stigma.
“Sadly we are still nowhere near having mental health accepted as a bonifide illness, not something to be the butt of a joke,” Choma said. “Can you imagine someone making a joke about cancer? People still continue to see this as a moral flaw and an embarrassment.”
A program like Marshall’s, Choma said, is extremely important to increase support for mental health struggles.
“It gives a voice where there is not one, it gives hope where there is a void,” she said. “I would put this in league with the work that Howie Mandell does for Bell Let’s Talk. We need to demonstrate that it is okay, not just provide platitudes.”
The Full Bawdy Loft is located at 290 Carlaw Ave. The group meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. All are welcome.