On Normalcy


Image ripped from Wikipedia

There are approximately nine definitions of the word “normal.” This rather large number of differing definitions stems from more than just variance from individual to individual; context is key.

In Mathematics:
Being at right angles, as a line; perpendicular.

But in Psychology:
a. Approximately average in any psychological trait, as intelligence, personality, or emotional adjustment.
b. Free from any mental disorder; sane.

(Funny how being different is normal in math, but abnormal in psych.)

I am not normal.

I lie somewhere along the bipolar spectrum. (“Where?” is not a question for which I really have an answer.) I’ve been this way most of my life; it was a relief to finally have a name–however vague–for what’s always gone on in my head.

And after seeing (half) the cast of Next to Normal perform at the Tonys (YouTube clip below), I decided that I definitely needed to see this show. Maybe it would teach me a valuable lesson in finding my way to–well, not complete normalcy, but something close enough.

That didn’t quite happen.

The show–about a manic depressive mom and the havoc she wreaks on her stalwart husband and angsty daughter–is magnificent. The cast is unparalleled. The music soars and roars and tugs at the heartstrings more than anything I’ve heard since The Last Five Years. But it terrified me. That is my future. Mental instability. Psychosis. Laying waste to the lives of everyone I love. Ruining a man whose sole purpose in life is to lift me up.

Of course, this is not something that is guaranteed to happen. (I’m not even sure men like Dan and Henry exist in real life, and you can’t ruin an imaginary person’s life, so I should be good on that front.) But even the possibility is enough to make you quarantine yourself.

Regardless of how much the show wrecked me, though, it occurred to me that this should be required viewing for anyone who knows a fellow bipolar bear. My hope is that Next to Normal will do for mentall illness (a term I really dislike, incidentally; beyond the stigma that surrounds it, it makes it sound like the flu or something) what RENT did for AIDS. While it’s ostensibly about Diana’s struggle with mental illness, the real protagonist of the piece is Dan, the long-suffering husband (played to perfection by J. Robert Spencer). It would be easy to write the character off as a codependent martyr (he can’t bear to face the world without her; he needs to save her), but there’s an earnestness, a sweetness, in him that is impossible to resist. His are the songs that rip your heart straight out of your chest, because you see he’s dedicated every fiber of his being to saving his wife. And why? Because forever is forever, for Dan. Because for him, love is stronger than darkness and death.

Like I said before, I don’t even know if that sort of dedication exists in the real world. I certainly haven’t seen anything like it. And it’s hard to imagine anyone who, after seeing the show, would be okay with becoming a Dan. But that’s exactly what some of us need, and what many never find.

And for those wondering about those manic/mixed episodes, the descriptions of the sensations are spot on: When a world that once had color fades to white and grey and black/ When tomorrow terrifies you, but you’ll die if you look back.

The sensation that you’re screaming, but you never make a sound/…Like a refugee, a fugitive, forever on the run. If it gets me it will kill me/ But I don’t know what I’ve done.

This is what it’s like for people like me. Every day. But I guess Dr. Madden (played by the super hot and amazing Louis Hobson) is right: “The one thing that’s sure is that there is no cure, but that doesn’t mean we don’t fight.”

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