A month ago Uptown Players, a Dallas theater company, invited me to the first regional production of Next to Normal. Some of you read my original blog on Next to Normal written a year ago http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/struck-living/201006/is-next-normal-normal. When I saw the show in New York, I sobbed throughout the first act. Not little sniffles. The story hit home so hard that I felt gutted. The second act left me outraged due to the highly negative depiction of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), but I got over it. Next to Normal is an amazing show musically, in terms of writing, staging and clever humor. More importantly, the play captures the struggle between someone who is mentally ill and those who love her.
The actors from Uptown Players asked me to give a firsthand perspective of how clinical depression and ECT feel so they could better portray Diana, the main character. We sat in a circle. I spewed phrases to name this vague, relentless hole that once consumed my soul. “Stuck in cotton candy” “Hollow” “Isolated” “Slow, absent the mental lightness required for humor.” They took notes. A few weeks later I dragged my husband Ken to opening night. Ken knew the premise, but had never seen the show.
Ken, my husband of 21 years, and the husband character, Dan, have more in common than three-letter names ending with “n.” Dan’s efforts and confusion mirrored Ken’s experience with me in 2001. The scene where Dan pushes Diana to sign the forms for ECT felt like our lives put to music. “Take this chance and we’ll make a new start. Somewhere far from what keeps us apart.” Diana signs the forms reluctantly, as I did. Love involves compromise, a bending of our selves to fit the puzzle of relationships. For a marriage of any length, there comes a point where faith in each other must exceed the present. For Ken and me, the decision to have ECT was one of those moments.
The tough part of Next to Normal is when Diana recovers and leaves Dan. She determines, as many people do, that she can’t be whole in the shadow of her spouse. Ken provided his stark analysis. “The play celebrates her dumping him.” Nice guy Dan nurses his wife back to health and then Diana dismisses him. Nice Guys never win. Being a Nice Guy, Ken prefers a more Disney finish.
I saw Diana’s move differently. Like many women, Diana wore the hats of Mom and Wife but never had enough time or space to craft her own lid. I designed my own hat while juggling two kids and a husband, but it would have been far easier and efficient to bolt to a self-development nirvana for years of reflection. Without compromise I could have been fully myself, by myself. A life without compromise equals a life without love.
The irony of this ending is that in order to stay well, Diana would be better off in the presence those who love her. Will she realize when she’s on the verge of a manic binge and modify her behavior? Are any of us so self aware that we don’t need any help staying in balance? The nudges from my family are critical to me staying well. I may resent those nudges, but I’ve learned to respect them.
Research suggests social support is a key component for wellness no matter what the disease, but especially with mental illness. If the brain goes awry, family and close friends are the first to notice, support and pull someone like Diana into an orbit of heath. Diana, with a broken brain, is unlikely to diagnose her problems with the organ in her body that’s broken. She gains freedom without compromise, but in the process has compromised her best barometer of wellness. Our interconnection with others is often the net that saves us. The problem is sometimes we feel like a fish in the net.
I guess that’s why I like Next to Normal so much. Life is complicated. Balance is fleeting. Nothing ties with a bow, so why fake it? Early in the story Dan mourns, “love is insane.” Love also brings sanity to our lives. My happy-ending husband loved me beyond reason when I was clinically depressed. He believed in my recovery long after I’d given up. Is that crazy? Yes. It’s love. Next to Normal reminds us that love rarely folds neatly in a box with straight lines and right angles. Thank God. I wouldn’t be here if it did.
If you are in Dallas, Uptown Players is performing Next to Normal until July 3 http://www.uptownplayers.org/pages/n2n.html. The original Broadway cast is currently on tour over the summer in Cleveland, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Charlotte and Toronto this summer: http://www.nexttonormal.com/tour_tickets.
For more information about Julie Hersh or her book Struck by Living, please visit her website: www.struckbyliving.com.