If you’ve being reading for a while, you’ll know that I’m into theater, particularly musical theater.
I love singing, try my best to dance, and overall love the atmosphere of performing in musicals.
I also adore listening to soundtracks of different shows. On repeat. For weeks at a time.
Next to Normal is one of my favourite shows. The music is haunting, powerful, and absolutely beautiful. The characters are raw, flawed, real, and live close to my heart. The story hurts and heals in equal measure.
It’s beautiful and important, and deeply, deeply problematic.
Musical theater deals with stories of love, heartbreak, race, poverty, religion – pretty much anything you could imagine, controversial or trite as you may think.
In my experience, Next to Normal lies in a category of its own.
In case you aren’t familiar with the show, Next to Normal focuses on the Goodman family. The mother, Diana, suffers from delusions, depression, and bipolar disorder exacerbated by a personal tragedy, which I won’t spoil but which drives a lot of motion in the show even though it happened years before the show’s timeline. She and her family try to live their lives dealing with her illness and their own issues independent and in relation to it.
Next to Normal succeeds in a lot of ways. Dan is unable to deal with his wife’s illness, constantly expecting quick fixes and insisting in spite of everything that “it’s gonna be good” even as his manic optimism becomes increasingly unrealistic and detrimental.
Natalie is angry at her mother for the way she has treated her throughout her childhood and grapples with her own mental health issues and fears of becoming her mother and hurting her loved ones in the same ways.
Henry tries his best to love Natalie in relation to her complicated familial situation and doesn’t know how to deal with her mental issues – but makes his best effort to learn and support her anyway.
Diana – well Diana deals with losing control, losing her agency, and losing herself, along with all the terror and anger that her experiences entail.
The characters in Next to Normal are well written and heart-breakingly real, particularly in relation to their flaws and problems.
My main problem with Next to Normal is its portrayal of medication for the treatment of mental illness. In the song “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I” Diana goes through a flurry of different medications that each have their own benefits and side effects until the song’s final lines:
“I don’t feel like myself. I- I don’t feel anything.”
For a long time, I fought against using medication to treat my anxiety and depression. I thought it was for other people, people who were in much worse places than me. It was a cop out and if I just tried harder I wouldn’t need medication. And as much as I hate to admit it, that song was one of the big reasons I fought against medication for so long.
Frankly, I was terrified of what medication would do to me. I was so scared of becoming numb and emotionless that I was willing to put up with the panic attacks and the increasingly severe anxiety until I could barely function. I wasn’t willing to give it a try until I had thoroughly given up on ever getting better, and even then I hated myself for being “weak”.
When I think back on this, I’m more than a little grossed out by myself. The thing is, I would never have said any of this to anyone I knew who took medication for depression or anxiety. I would have been horrified to hear anyone say needing medication made you weak. It was just so easy to say so to myself.
Medication is not a magic fix for mental illness. Nothing is. It’s tough to fight and a number of strategies need to be used tailored to each individual and even then you can’t always win.
For me, a mix of talk therapy, yoga, and medication is the current plan. So far, it’s been going well for me. It took a bit to get here and I’m proud of where I am, and looking forward to – well – moving forward.
I think that Next to Normal is an incredibly important musical. It faces mental illness head on in a way that most people aren’t used to and can give some insight into dealing with mental illness in a society where the general practice is to look away.
But the people in Next to Normal are one (fictionalized) example of how mental illness can affect individuals and their families. Their stories don’t apply to everyone.
As a disclaimer, I do not claim to be any kind of authority on musical theater any more than I’m one on mental illness. I’m only familiar with a fraction of shows and can’t comment on the structural quality of any musical.
That said, musicals have always been important to me. Next to Normal was one of the first shows that I really loved, and for a long time, it was the thing that resonated most deeply with my perception of mental health.
While it’s a beautiful, important musical that makes mental illness more accessible, it also has its problems, and like any beautiful important thing, those problems shouldn’t be ignored.