I never felt so normal in the audience of a Broadway musical as I did on Wednesday sitting second row centre at The Booth Theatre on West 45th Street in New York watching the Tony Award-nominated Next to Normal with my husband.
Within the first 10 minutes, I felt like I was watching myself.
It was a peculiar feeling. And I have to admit these feelings are really hard for me to process. Much more complicated than I thought they'd be because they resonated so deeply. It would be much easier to intellectualize about this electrifying show. As I've been struggling to write this post for the last 24 hours, I've found myself slipping into a different voice. My critical, reviewing voice.
But I wasn't given two complimentary tickets to intellectualize or be a theatre critic and write a review. Next to Normal has received rave reviews. Critical acclaim. From the leading theatre critics in New York and Washington. For it's bravery, originality, spirit and sincerity.
I flew down to Manhattan on Wednesday morning – and was on the ground for all of nine hours – to see this show and react to it viscerally. Diana Goodman, the suburban housewife and central character in Next to Normal, and I share a very similar psychiatric diagnosis – bipolar disorder.
We're not identical – no two people with the same diagnosis ever are – but the way Diana is treated by her doctors, what she goes through on her odyssey to wellness is so close what I've gone through that it's almost uncanny. That's why I've been struggling and it's taken me so long to process my feelings. Her story cut me to the core.
Minutes after the curtain rises, sleep deprived and speedy, Diana is madly making her family's lunches. She covers the kitchen table, chairs and eventually the floor with slices of bread, lettuce and ham in a frantic attempt to get ahead. Until her husband stops her and they go back to her doctor, once again, for a readjustment to her psychopharmacological cocktail of drugs.
Diana is a victim of today's North American quick-fix, pill-popping, McDonaldization of psychiatry culture. Over a period of seven weeks, Dr. Fine, her psychopharmacologist, keeps readjusting her meds to gradually numb her symptoms, or rather the side-effects of all the powerful psychoactive pills she taking – until she admits "I don't feel like myself. I mean, I don't feel anything."
Finally, Dr. Fine is satisfied, as he pronounces, "Patient stable."
That was me 40 years ago, when there wasn't the same smorgasbord of psychopharmacological drugs available. The few that did exist – chlorpromazine and haldol, the "chemically-lobotomizing" antipsychotics – were primitive mind-bludgeoners compared today's offerings. I barely remember how I felt because I was knocked out, practically deadened by their force.
We've come a long way. Or have we?
It's just a question of degree. Diana Goodman's doctors approach her today in much the same way as my doctors approached me then. That's why this riveting rock musical is hard hitting. It hit me hard. Over the head.
Has nothing changed in all these years? Obviously not.
Today, we're brainwashed into believing that we should be controlled. All be emotional "square pegs." Diana's profound emotional "differences" are harrowing for her family. Her husband is happier when she's more complacent and compliant. Calmer, more "normal" – even if she's dying inside.
I wasn't married when I was experiencing my most dramatic moodswings but my immediate family – my parents and sisters – mirrored exactly what The Goodman Family experienced. That was a revelation for me, watching this show.
My mother, like Diana's husband, Dan, was understandably happier when my manic episodes were tranquillized. The family functioned better, I guess.
No one really knew how I felt inside except me. Years of my episodic emotional cycling must have been so emotionally trying, tiring and taxing on my family, I can understand why they were ecstatic when I met and married my husband almost nine years ago.
Ironically, one of my sister's said to me: "He perfect for you. He's a rock."
I'm absolutely sure they're thrilled that he has taken me off their hands. More or less.
Watching the Goodman family dynamics play out in front me with its passionate and at times violent rock rhythms, for the first time I was able to empathize, not only with Diana and her family, but with my family, too. I've never been able to feel what they must have felt, until Wednesday afternoon. The process of writing this post has been cathartic for me. It's forced me to put into words a reality that I've never admitted before because I didn't have their point of view.
My relationships with members of family have been and, at times, can still be rocky. But until now I only perceived my own pain. Not theirs. I couldn't really empathize with them. I didn't have two-way vision.
Diana's sixteen-year-old daughter, Natalie, could have been one of my sisters, when I was at the crest of one of my many emotionally and mentally turbulent times.
Like this beautiful, sensitive, searching young girl, they, too, must have felt invisible when one of my over-the-top outbursts overshadowed them and their lives. Or when my mother, like Diana's husband, Dan, was overwhelmed by a crazy-quilt of confusing feelings and guilt. They both navigated an arduous, uncompromising, and at times, horrifying medical system that can seem so cruel and inhumane.
There is no escaping collateral damage when one member of a family is struggling to live with a mental illness, especially given the still essentially regressive approach offered by mainstream medical practitioners.
"Next to Normal" has nailed many of these truths in my consciousness for the first time. And, as a rock musical, it accomplishes this in a way that no straight play or movie ever can. The music is emotionally jarring, at times. Poignant and plaintive, at others. I bought the CD but it's hard for me to listen to because it's so provocative. Musically and lyrically, it's exploring a rugged emotional landscape that's been my experience. An experience no one wants to talk about.
Diana decides to try a new psychiatrist. Dr. Madden, a psychotherapist, not just a psychopharmacologist. He explains that medication and psychotherapy work best in tandem. But when she hits a wall, he hypnotizes her, opening to her memory of the trauma she's buried for 16-years in order to survive. (It took me 14-years of psychotherapy to unearth the trauma of my adolescent sexual assault.)
Mind you, Diana's story is not exactly like mine. No two stories are. Nor is her diagnosis – Bipolar depressive with delusional episodes. Mine is Unipolar disorder with a vulnerability to mania.
She misses the vibrancy of her emotions when she's medicated. The drugs mask the real reasons for her madness. She's wrestling with unresolved anger and grief. The pills aren't helping her with that. Pills don't unravel or clarify the causes of your psychiatric symptoms. All they do is fiddle with the chemistry of your brain. It's futile. Her depression would be considered "drug-resistant."
And she knows it. So, understandably, courageously, she pours all her pills into the garbage. She's a brilliant, charming, vivacious and educated woman. Both she and her husband were architecture students when they met.
None of these exquisitely performed scenes by the show's magnificent ensemble seemed to make anyone in the packed Booth Theatre squirm. We were enthralled. Fascinated. Fixated. Touched. The satire pinched and pricked us. We rode with the pulsating waves of the music and with each character. And surely, all of us identified with at least one character in the show.
Who has not known someone like Diana? Loved someone like Diana? Or been someone like Diana?
We weren't uncomfortable. I didn't sense that. We laughed and cried. We were moved because what was happening was so real. So genuine. I had no idea that it would resonate with me so deeply.
It's 2009. Diana reluctantly consents to a course of ECT or electroconvulsive or "shock" therapy treatments. They destroy the last 16-years of her memory. Wipe it out. This was not my experience in 1965, or again in 1967, or again in 1975. I had three courses of ECT, but my memory is intact. If I've forgotten anything, I have no idea what it is.
Diana's experience is extremely rare. But, it's mind-blowing in a Broadway rock musical.
My knee jerk reaction, however, was one of anger. At first. Why portray such a rare scenario in such an otherwise authentic production? I know that ECT can be helpful in cases of drug-resistant depression. Won't this reinforce old stereotypes?
Writing this post, I've been processing my feelings about "Next to Normal." My mind has flooded with painful memories and distressing emotions. Forcing me to relive my own past. It's no sentimental journey, I can tell you. But I realize how enlightened and enlightening this Broadway rock musical is.
And one thing it is not – is docudrama or medical research.
So I'm not angry anymore. Experiencing "Next to Normal" – watching it live – is a journey in itself because it's so real. When you see Diana's tears streaming down her face. They're real.
And so is it's ending.
On her own, sad, but hopeful, Diana leaves her family and returns to her parent's home, a safe haven for her, to begin to heal and recover. To start to live with an awareness of the trauma she's experienced. Understanding will take time for her to process. That will be her recovery journey.
Her husband and daughter will survive and recover, too. There's no doubt they'll grow stronger. And as the stage went black, I felt inspired and hopeful. It won't be easy for Diana, but mental health recovery isn't easy. It, too, has it's ups and downs. It's all about finding a meaningful way to live. It's different for everyone.
This is such a rich, multilayered musical. Utterly unique. There's not a derivative minute in it. It has many truths.
For me, Diana's odyssey keeps on resonating. I cannot get her out of my mind. We're all "next to normal" because, after all, what's normal?
As far as I'm concerned, this show is a clear-sighted, and at the same time, empathetic critique of today's biomedical neuroscientific approach to psychiatry. It shows how little many psychiatrists, especially psychopharmacologists, know about the workings of the human mind – which is far more complicated than the brain. How frustrated and impotent they must feel.
Brian Yorkey, who wrote the book and lyrics for the "Next to Normal" defines the difference between "treatment" and "healing" – and far too many modern medical practitioners simply are not being taught the tools to heal the "whole" person. This is a real tragedy.
He certainly reinforces a fact I have learned – having lost a kidney to Lithium toxicity. There are no quick fixes for the devastations of emotional trauma, which invariably play a huge role for so many of us diagnosed with so-called "mental illnesses."
Diana's recovery begins when the show ends. Perhaps she'll begin to find a way to live a life that's meaningful for her. Whatever that may be. Recovery is different for all of us.
We all jumped spontaneously out of our seats at The Booth to give the six-character ensemble a standing ovation. How they deserved it. This is not an easy show to perform eight times a week.
Alice Ripley was astonishing as Diana. I'd put money on her winning a Tony Award on Sunday night. Next to Normal deserves to win one for Best Musical. You can watch at 8 p.m. on CBS. The Tony's are by far the most intelligent and entertaining televised award shows.
I left the theatre inspired and uplifted. Not flying high. But proud. I sensed that everyone felt the same way. People were talking about the show, exploring their feelings and voicing them.
And there's so much to talk about.