Ah, Next to Normal. The musical that fed me my lengthy dose of angst during my formative teenage years. The musical that educated me more on the issues surrounding mental health and, even though I wasn't personally suffering anywhere near the amount Diana was, helped me come to terms with my own issues and face them head on. The musical that, for what I believe was the first time, made me feel deep, intricate emotions for the characters in the context of a real world possibility.
Up until seeing Next to Normal, my favorite musicals had ranged anywhere from fantasy to romantic melodrama, and while I of course felt for the characters in those shows, it was a different experience entirely to realize that my empathy for the protagonists in this new show felt more...well, closer to home. I think a lot of people can relate to the idea of a family that seems normal on the outside, but is actually stranger than fiction on the inside. What's more, many other people can relate to the problems that cause the Goodman family to be drenched in conflict: the loss of a child, marital difficulties, estranged teenagers, mental illness. As I grew up, I found myself sympathizing the most with Diana. After all, her situation is indeed a tragically heartbreaking one, and the burden she is dealing with is one that no parent should ever be forced to face. Her coping with the loss of Gabe, combined with her juggling this trauma with her damaged mental health, prop up her tragedy as the central issue driving everything in the story.
However, as I get older, I'm realizing that there's a character whose conflicts I regretfully overlooked back then, and it's with this more mature eye that I think about how, at the end of the day, his burdens tend to be swept under the rug in favor of Diana's own quest for normalcy. That character, of course, is Dan.
The thing about Dan is that he represents the “other party” in mental illness; by that, I mean that while Diana is suffering from her own demons and going through the therapy and taking the medication, Dan is the one missing work to drive her to therapy, making sure she takes her medication, and taking care of her when one of her infamous “episodes” happens. He's shown to be a devoted and loving husband who, in his quest to ensure Diana's wellbeing and promising a (relatively) stable childhood for Natalie, ends up burying his own pain so he can be the strong one in the family. In short, Dan is the rock that holds his marriage and family down.
But in all of his selfless sacrifices and caring nature, Dan's arc ultimately brings to mind a valuable question: How much is “too much” before you have to focus on taking care of yourself?
In Next to Normal, Dan's “too much” seems to be on the edge at every moment. He tries to put up a facade of being the strong and stable party in his marriage, but there is always a creeping indication that all is not as well with him as he tries to make it seem. Any acknowledgment of the fact that their son is gone is brought up as Diana is having an episode surrounding this tragic fact, and instead of trying to empathize and share the pain with his wife, Dan is staunchly dedicated to making sure Diana can separate hallucination and reality by guiding her towards grasping the solidly clear knowledge that says, “Yes, our son is gone. We have to accept it.” Up until the very end of the show, he never gets a moment to reflect on his own thoughts on the subject, nor does he get any time to face his own emotions or acknowledge how he's dealt with this tragedy. It seems that his own coping mechanism is to put all his focus on making sure Diana feels better, and in all the trips to therapy and arguments over medication and steadfast attempts to ignore the booming image of his lost son before him, Dan finds his own mental health being swept aside.
This isn't a healthy relationship.
Please don't misunderstand me here. I by no means am implying that one person in a relationship suffering from mental illness is an indication that the relationship is inherently unhealthy, nor am I saying that a husband taking care of his mentally ill wife is inherently toxic. After all, it's the most expected thing to be devoted to your spouse and to support them in any obstacle that comes their way. My point is that if this love and support goes one way, then it absolutely has to go the other way, too. On the subject of Dan as a husband, and the way he and Diana approach their marriage, there is a clear lack of balance in the support Dan receives in return for what he provides for his wife.
The tragedy of the situation is that it's not as if Diana is trying to be a toxic wife, and there isn't anything in the narrative to indicate that she doesn't have any regard for her husband's wellbeing. On the contrary, it's for this very reason that she decides to leave her family at the end. She realizes that what would be best for everyone would be if she pursued help on her own terms, and that at this point, she's only holding Dan back in an unhealthy mold of what they once called their marriage. After all, the damning statement is clear: “What doctors called dysfunction, we tried to call romance.” Ultimately, it's telling that, once Diana leaves, Dan finally acknowledges the vision of their son that has been trying to haunt him throughout the entirety of the show, and with the newfound space to care for his own needs, he at last pursues the help that he spent many years denying himself in favor of devoting himself wholly to helping Diana.
So with that, is it fair for Dan to be considered the “other party”? Well, the issue was always that Dan forced himself into that role instead of seeking help for himself, and that Diana, as much as she loved her husband, could never give him the sympathy or assistance he needed. When they lost their child, the healthy and mutually beneficial reaction would have been to comfort each other and work through the tragedy together; in the case of the Goodmans, they instead chose to focus on one party's pain and disregard the other's entirely.
Dan's story is necessary to teach two ideas. One, you should always be mindful of the fact that anyone, no matter how stable or “put together” they seem, could be suffering from their own demons, and you shouldn't disregard their pain, even if they outwardly try to downplay what is clearly destroying them from the inside. Two, you should never let your devotion to helping a loved one interfere with your own wellbeing or mental health; at the end of the day, it's never a bad thing to give yourself space to face your demons head-on, and if your relationship is an ideal one, then your partner will be more than willing to offer back the help that you've lovingly provided for them.
Anyone would be lucky to have a husband as devoted as Dan Goodman; it's just that Dan Goodman should have a spouse who's just as devoted in return.