Next to Normal

Next to Normal is an emotional powerhouse of a musical about a family trying to take care of themselves and each other.

Through the story of the Goodman family, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey explore the effects that mental illness can have on a modern family. Steering clear of stigma and stereotype, this Pulitzer Prize winning musical presents a narrative familiar to many of us, but rarely seen onstage. We have asked 4 national and community leaders to present their thoughts on the play, the themes, and the ultimate question:

What is Normal?

We invite you to read, discuss, and contribute your thoughts.

Our lead contributors will stay the same, and new comments will be added daily.

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Michael Hollinger, Playwright

Next to Normal contains many treasures, among them its wonderfully varied musical palette, its compelling narrative, textured characters, complex themes and pointed lyrics. But I’d like to consider just three words within it: the title.

Besides being nicely alliterative (those double “n”s), the title automatically plants a question in the brain; in order to consider what “next” to normal means, you have to consider the definition of “normal.”  And the musical is very much concerned with the particular geography of that land called Normal, its boundaries, and the darker terrain outside of those borders.

It’s fitting that the musical takes place within the framework of one American family, a family that, from a little distance, might seem like an archetype of stability and “normality”: a mom and a dad of different genders (he goes off to work, she makes lunches) sharing their own home with a teenage son and high-achieving daughter.  For our culture has been inundated with idealized images of the nuclear family, most pervasively through television, where shows like Father Knows Best and The Cosby Show establish an enviable model of domestic affection and orderliness; within these households, conflicts arise and resolve, but the fundamental health and solidity of the family is never really in doubt.

These idealizations work together to create a kind of “tyranny of normal,” where certain behaviors, qualities, relationships and interactions are permitted and others are not: Love your children, but not too much; feel things, but not too deeply.  Above all, don’t talk about that thing with the trunk in the living room.  Whatever wrinkles there may be in the fabric of family are doubly painful and disorienting because the image of a smooth and seamless fabric is so powerful in our consciousness.

And yet we know that the extraordinary in life is often brought to life through excess – a surplus of feeling, hypersensitivity, ideas, insights and impulses that may not be the province of the well-adjusted or moderate.  As the daughter sings in Next to Normal:

Mozart was crazy.
Flat fucking crazy.
Batshit, I hear.

But his music’s not crazy.
It’s balanced, it’s nimble,
It’s crystalline clear.

The field of mental health has a particularly slippery relationship with the concept of normal.  Although Western medicine has abandoned purging, bloodletting and whipping as viable treatments for mental illness, many of its modern pharmaceuticals are still concerned with equalization – tempering the emotional life of patients, leveling the mountains and filling in the valleys, “shaving the rough edges off” of personality.  There are acceptable limits to anger, sadness, fear and grief; going beyond these limits invites suspicion, concern, and chemical solutions.

I’m not slamming modern pharmacology; my life and those of my loved ones have been improved by advances in the treatment of mental illness.  But I believe that undue devotion to the concept of normal – in mental health, in romantic and sexual relationships, in parenting, in art, in virtually all human endeavors – can constrain us in unhelpful and unhealthy ways; and that in the end, next to Normal may prove to be not just the consolation prize but rather the ideal destination.

Michael Hollinger is an award-winning playwright and professor at Villanova University whose plays Ghost-Writer and Opus have been produced by FST.

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Emily Walsh Parry, Chair of Sunshine From Darkness

I remember thinking when I was 19-years old, that all I wanted to be is “normal.”

But if you truly look at the definition of normal:

nor·mal [nawr-muhl] adjective

1.conforming to the standard or the common type; usual;  not abnormal; regular; natural.

2. serving to establish a standard.

3. Psychology.

a. approximately average in any psychological trait, as
intelligence, personality, or emotional adjustment.
b. free from any mental disorder; sane.

I’m very far from being “normal” whether in the true sense of the word or in its meaning in psychology.

For starters, I have depression. My first bout with the disease occurred when I was 19-years old, just when I was wishing for a sense of normalcy in my life. I suffered many relapses with the dark disease during my college years and didn’t really find stability or accept my disease until my mid-20s.

For years, I was ashamed of my diagnosis. That somehow I had failed and was now the exact opposite of what I had wished for. I lost all hope, confidence in myself, interest in my hobbies, friends and isolated myself from my family.

The grips of depression can be very strong and it trickles out to your support system and family as well. And if they aren’t strong enough, managing and coping with depression can be very taxing, trying and exhausting for everyone.

At the end of Brian Yorkey’s play, “Next to Normal,” the family sings this verse:

Day after day …

We’ll find the will to find our way,

Knowing that the darkest skies

Will someday see the sun —

You could say, that’s exactly what happened to me. I saw the sun. And Sunshine from
Darkness.

I came to the realization, with the help of my family, psychiatrist and medication, that in order to stay out of the darkness, I had to take a hold of my own healing and be in charge of my life. I identified the triggers that cause me to relapse and pay close attention to avoid these triggers at all costs.

I’m happy to say that I have been living a very happy, successful and full life off of medication since 2007. Don’t get me wrong, these triggers are still there and still attempt to grab a hold of me, but I know the signs and know when to walk away.

Part of my success has come from knowledge. I immersed myself into an organization, Sunshine from Darkness, founded by Lee and Bob Peterson (who subsequently encouraged me to come out and talk about my illness), that raises funds for research on mental illness in hopes to find better treatments and, one day soon, cures, as well as raising awareness and stopping the stigma.

That’s why I’m proud to say, that I am normal. I’m my version of normal. And that might include a mental disorder, per say. But my “normal” is awesome.

Emily Walsh Parry is the associate publisher of multimedia at The Observer Group and former professional dancer with the Sarasota Ballet. Walsh Parry serves as the chair of Sunshine from Darkness.

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Patrick Kennedy, Congressman

In Congress, the most senior and powerful members enjoy the privilege of sponsoring the most popular legislative initiatives.  It is telling then that when I was elected to the House of Representatives in 1994, as the youngest and most junior member from the smallest state in the country, I was given the opportunity to sponsor the mental health parity bill.   The seemingly obvious piece of legislation, which requires insurance companies to cover mental health on par with their coverage of “physical” health, was not very popular in Congress.  It took over 14 years, countless hearings both in Washington and around the country, and several major grassroots initiatives for this bill to pass.  In 2008, President Bush signed the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act into law.  I sponsored the bill in the House and my father, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, was the Senate sponsor.  Mental illness is common and treatable.  Everyone deserves access to care.

Congressman Patrick Kennedy served 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Rhode Island’s First District.

___________________________________________________________

Dr. Elaine Walker, Professor and Writer

There has been significant progress in our understanding of the nature and origins of serious mental illness.  Most people are now aware that these illnesses entail abnormalities in brain function and that there are treatments available to reduce the symptoms. As a result, the stigma associated with mental illness has declined.  This is a major step forward!

Yet, these advances do not eliminate the burden that mental illness places on the individual and their family members. Over the past 25 years, I have worked with patients and their families as they struggled to negotiate the challenges of finding treatment.  I have consoled parents as they waited in the emergency room of an inpatient facility to find out whether their child was intoxicated or suffering from a first psychotic episode.   I have tried to console teenagers who were desperately trying to understand why their parent has become despondent and suicidal.

In the musical, Next to Normal, we see a family confronting the erratic behavioral changes that characterize bipolar disorder.  The patient is the mother. Her husband is emotionally committed to providing his wife with support and guidance, while at the same time struggling with his own feelings of despair. The teenage daughter fluctuates between compassion for her mother and frustration at the burden it imposes on her teenage years.  The experiences of the family depicted in Next to Normal are all too common.

There is no doubt that we are far from understanding the optimal treatment approaches for serious mental disorders.  Nonetheless, there is cause for celebration; this musical is yet another example of our progress in the elimination of stigma against the mentally ill and our willingness to examine it in the context of the drama of human life.

Elaine Walker is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at Emory University.

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ADD YOUR VOICE TO THE DISCUSSION

Post comments below or submit a formal post to Catherine Randazzo at crandazzo@floridastudiotheatre.org. All comments are subject to the editorial department of Florida Studio Theatre.

11 responses to “Next to Normal

  1. As a playwright, I was impressed that the authors were able to marry a musical format with such a dramatic subject. Playwrights are next to normal in evaluationg each others work and I felt that the continous action was instrumental in keeping the play from bogging down. Good directing and bravos to a hard working cast.

    The play only skimmed the surface for me. I married a bipolar woman and can tell tales no one wants to hear including the slashed wrist episode and the career shattering inability to function socially . One of my daughters acquired BPD growing up with her mother after our divorce and wound up institutionalized for a short time. I employed a person who was institutionalized (Baker Act) after not taking her medication. I have friends who rely on being medicated for BPD. I fully understand the father role and his entrapment in trying to hold together a world full of explosive outbursts and roller coaster rides. Letting go is an option.

    The life for bipolar people is not easy. They have problems with self esteem, have difficulty holding jobs for any length of time, act totally irrational while insisting they are the only sane person in the room, and think you’re their mortal enemy if you disagree with whatever they believe to be true. There is no gray area that is open for negotiation – only black or white – you either believe in their viewpoint or you’re labeled as the enemy who is out to destroy them.

    Professional help is a necessity and, as others have said it is not a matter of finding the right pill. It’s the ability to maneuver around the “triggers” that allows these people to stabilize as best they can.

    For me the play doesn’t go far enough, but I felt the emotion. The authors achieved their goal and the theatre deserves it’s praise. I’d see it again – and that’s my criteria for a successful play.

  2. I just saw the play yesterday afternoon and was very moved by the content of the play and the excellent way the performers shed light on the subject matter. I was moved to tears when Diana said all she wanted at nineteen was to be normal. I can’t tell you how many times my daughter has uttered those words. She was diagnosed Manic Bipolar II at the age of 24. I was shocked and accompanied her to her psychiatrist sessions on many occasions. If I learned nothing else I realized there is long learning curve on learning about the nuances of the disease, how to relate to erratic behaviors , and how to interact with her when her behaviors become so foreign to “normal”. I loved the play and have seen nothing else like it Thank you for offering it.

  3. Sunshine from Darkness is having their 2012 Journey to Wellness Symposium and Gala this Saturday, January 14, 2012 at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

    The event is free and will focus primarily on trauma and PTSD. Doors open at 8 am with programs beginning at 9 am. Speakers include Congressman Patrick Kennedy. Co-Founder of The Next Frontier Campaign, Charles Hoge, MD, retired Army Colonel, and author of the self-help book for combat veterans and families, and Sgt. Tommy Rieman, Silver Star and Purple Heart recipient.

    For more informaiton on the event, check out: http://www.sunshinefromdarkness.org/

  4. We saw the play on Jan. 6th. While I thought the story line was very good, I felt it would have had more impact as a straight drama. I did not care for it as a musical.
    The subject of Bi Polar and depression does not get enough attention and many people don’t know or understand how difficult it is on the person or the family. Two of my sisters suffer with depression and 1 also has bi-polar disorder. It hurts to watch them spiral out of control. I empathized with the family, especially the daughter. It reminded me of my nephew and what he had to go through with his mom. I hope Diana was able to find her way.

  5. Formal post submitted by:

    PAUL WHITE, LCSW
    MODERATOR FOR NEXT TO NORMAL PANEL DISCUSSION

    December 17, 2011

    Florida Studio Theatre’s current offering “Next to Normal” presents the juxtaposition of formal clinical observation and treatment of an individual and her family as they struggle with dealing with life’s most difficult circumstance-the loss of the child. Although the mother may very well have had a bipolar disorder as a diagnosis, the core pathos is how difficult it is for a couple to remain living together, looking at each other day by day, experiencing the emptiness and loss of their infant child. Grief takes over and lasts for so many years that it takes on the appearance of pathology and dysfunction. So do labels or diagnoses actually clarify or do us a disservice, since sets of symptoms can lead is in one direction or another and yet at the same time leave us confused about the human element. Anxiety, panic, posttraumatic stress disorder all produce periods of agitation and loss of control. Post traumatic stress disorder can produce flashbacks that can confuse a person between memory and here in now experiences. Panic can become so intense and pervasive that the person experiencing these responses questions sanity and normality. Depression can be so all encompassing that no sense of present or future can prevail, since then the person may be so entrenched in living out the past in the present. Or, we can go with the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder and determine that the individual is experiencing psychotic episodes as part of the manic phase of the mood disorder. Manic behavior can include grandiosity, arrogance, agitation, relentless insistence upon having one’s way, severe sleep disturbance, followed by exhaustion and the depressive phase. This diagnosis is characterized as having a life of its own without life circumstances impacting directly on the mood swings. In the case of our main character, the mother(wife), she’s experiencing what we might ordinarily call a double depression where there is the downward cycle of the depressive cycle that can have a life of its own and the depression that cycles into her life as a result of the long-term unresolved grief that came as a result of the loss of her child.

    Family secrets have a way of eroding the basic intimacy within the family dynamics. Most people believe that the expression of feelings around a difficult memory brings back of the full experience of that circumstance with all the emotions as if it’s still happening in the present. The resolution to repeating loops that result in dysfunction and blockage is that final acceptance of staying in the present without having to retreat into the past for solace. The ultimate family resolution was to give up the pain and loss and find a new path to healing and life itself. It is a very harsh fact of human existence that couples that lose a child often cannot stay together over time, not the because of any lack of love between the two, but simply because it is so extraordinarily difficult for the two to face each other and see the grieving in each other’s eyes, knowing it is a way of holding onto the past and not be able to experience the present. And so ends the play.

    Paul White, LCSW

  6. My first experience with depression came when I was in college. I went home for Christmas break and gathered all my courage to ask for help. I had no idea what was wrong with me. Always quiet and shy, I had kept up my work at school but increasingly missed meals and stayed in my room.
    I lost a lot of weight (I was slim to begin with); clothes just hung on me, mostly with the help of safety pins, The day before I was to return to college. I approached my father and said that “I needed help”. He became irate and told me to go back to school and do my work. I really thought I must be something awful to elicit such a response. I went back to school and did my work. In hindsight I realize my father was in denial; he couldn’t handle anything not visible. Years later, I also realized that my father from time to time suffered some form of depression as well. He used to take to his bed for weeks at a time. My mother told me that he was just over worked. I think “Emily Walsh” expressed it best. You learn to recognize the danger signals and do what you can to avoid the “pit”. One of my best therapies has been studying Buddhism. It gave me a new perspective on life and just being in the moment. My biggest “fan” was my late husband. He understood all the nuances of a life in turmoil. Without his love and support I would probably not be here. “Next to Normal” moved me in so many ways. I was particularly moved by the husband’s plight as I know how difficult that “role” can be. The play was breath taking in its subject matter, lyrics and dialogue. It made me feel that I may feel “odd” at times and “weird” but that’s my “normal”. Who’s to say what the “correct” response is to any given situation?

  7. normality doesn’t exist
    what does is abnormality with a twist

    serotonin,norepinephrin,and dopamine
    are not words that are obscene

    they contribute to the mind
    creating thoughts we seek and find

    love,hate,happiness and fear
    come to the surface and are quite near

    enteric chemicals control our passion
    no matter the fashion

    arthur ancowitz md

  8. This play had a profound effect on me. I was moved more by this play than anything I’ve seen in recent years. It seemed to elevate the art to a new level, with its tremendous lyrics, great acting, and stimulating plot line. It took me a day to just be able to examine my feelings on the subject. In general, the best that theatre can be.

  9. Carol. You make such a great point. And I think what’s “normal” is exactly the primary concern of this play. We all have our ways of coping and grieving. I believe it’s when we can’t even acknowledge the trauma or tragedy to ourselves that it becomes a big problem. In our play? I think Diana kept her mouth shut for the sake of her family and never truly allowed a natural grieving process. And Dan just decided it was never to be discussed again. This might work for some people although I can’t imagine. But it certainly didn’t work for the Goodmans!!

    I love being inside this play 8 times a week and am here, if anyone wants to discuss the actors journey.

    Stacia Fernandez. Diana in Next to Normal at FST!

    • I was very touched by this extraordinary musical about a woman with bi-polar disorder because the theme is one that has resonated in my own life. I grew up with an older brother who was diagnosed with manic-depression, the term used by psychiatrists in the late 1960’s. He attempted suicide by asphyxiating himself in our car inside of the garage when he was 18 and that’s when my parents brought him to a psychiatrist and he started taking lithium. Sadly, he suffered terribly all his life and died ( suicide) when he was only 36.
      Now, I am aware of celebrities who have this mental illness and have more success in living with it. Carrie Fisher is one person who suffers from bi-polar disorder, but seems to manage it. I felt more positive at the end of Next to Normal because Diana frees herself to choose what care she needs.

  10. I don’t know much about mental illnesses,but as I look at it, this is just seems like a family whose parents (yes both of them) have not been able to deal with a great loss. We all grieve in different ways and at different levels. I still talk to my late husband’s photograph. Am I next to normal also? And while the play focuses on the mother, what about the dad? At the end, we see that his problem was not just his wife’s “abnormality”, he also had to “let go”.

    At first, I was upset with the ending because I felt the mom could not survive without the support from her family. But the writer says she can, which to me just means she was learning to deal with her grief. Did she have a disfunctional (electrical) brain problem or was she just holding back her anger at her loss for the sake of her family? If the latter, it makes sense that she needed to get away. And that is very normal.

    Not too long ago, I saw an old movie about a man who lived in a dream world, basically to block out the nagging of his wife. Was he next to normal? Some of us do selective listening. What does that make us? How do we draw the line?

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