Utah Boy Shares Reality of Severe Anxiety – On Stage
Oct 15, 2018, 10:15 PM | Updated: May 21, 2023, 4:01 pm
OGDEN, Utah — Oliver Kokai-Means, age 11, struggles with an anxiety disorder – an all-too-common story. About one in eight children struggle with anxiety. Oliver’s story, however, is unique because it takes a dramatic turn, ending up on stage.
Oliver’s mom, Jennifer Kokai, says her son was always a “very careful child.”
“If he was climbing at the playground, mom or dad always had to be right there with him,” she said.
Oliver was eventually diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder.
“If you have generalized anxiety disorder you have constant and persistent fears that pop into your head,” said Kokai.
At school, she says Oliver would worry over and over again that the teacher was going to get mad at him. To get rid of the thought, he would simply do something to make the teacher mad.
“We had had a number of encounters with teachers who saw him as a trouble-making kid and not a kid who was being very brave just by showing up,” said Kokai.
Now Kokai and her husband, who both work, juggle their schedules to homeschool Oliver.
Three years ago, Jerry Rapier, the director of the Plan B Theater Company, asked Jennifer Kokai, a professor and playwright at Weber State University and a member of Plan B’s playwriting lab, if she was interested in writing a play for school kids.
“I had no idea where she would be headed with that,” Rapier said.
Some time later, Kokai submitted a rough draft of a play called ‘Zombie Thoughts,’ co-authored with her son, Oliver.
“People keep assuming that… Ollie helped Jenny but it was Jenny writing the play,” Rapier said, “but if anything, it’s the opposite.”
Together, mother and son wrote a play about two characters: Sam, who has anxiety, and Pig, who doesn’t.
The two make their way through a video game and navigate Sam’s anxiety disorder, the “zombie thoughts” that Sam can’t get rid of. Their paths are guided by input from the audience of fourth-through sixth-graders, who hopefully in the end have a better understanding of what people with anxiety face.
“I don’t think people necessarily understand it’s something you can’t really control,” Oliver said.
“Just think of happy thoughts,” he says people tell him, “and it doesn’t seem so hard to them but it’s kind of like saying when you’re stuck in a tornado ‘oh just jump out of it.’”
‘Zombie Thoughts’ is now touring public schools. There is a free public performance of the play, Thursday, October 25 at 4:30 p.m. at the Glendale Branch of the Salt Lake County Library system. The show is also being produced in Hawaii and Maryland.