As a young person still trying to figure out who I am and what I want to be, I've often turned to theatre as a way to try to find someone I can identify with and sort of hold that character's hand as I found my way. When I saw Katherine, a strong teenager, stand up to her father and still have all these friends and people who loved her, I had the strength to come out to my father. When I saw Sonya pledge to stand in the dark for her best friend, I recognized that loyalty in myself.
This made my foray into mental illness... confusing, to say the least. Although it is something so many of us struggle with, most diagnoses of mental illness are born in the fanbase and never confirmed. I could say "Dmitri is bisexual and has schizophrenia." And you could say "Where is the script does it say that?" And I could say "Where does it not say that?" and then we're going in circles.
So when my doctor said "You have anxiety." I was surprised, as the only explictly canon depiction of anxiety that I was aware of was Dear Evan Hansen was Evan Hansen, a musical I had already seen, associated more with Zoe (long story- making it short, dead brother) and still am afraid to say in polite company that I didn't like. (And in a way, led to the making of the site! Jason Zinoman, if you're out there, I just wanted to say, you're the grandfather of the site, and we never could have done it without you!) So I was surprised. So surprised, in fact, that I started crying, right there in her office. I didn't have anxiety like Evan did, so I didn't think I could have anxiety, because I hadn't seen any other portrayals of it.
Which is not to say that Evan doesn't represent anyone with anxiety. He represents my sister and her struggle with social anxiety, which, good for her! Not for me. But it's never clear cut exactly what type of anxiety Evan has. We know he sees a doctor and has a prescription, but they just can't seem to pick a strain and stick to it, which leaves those of us who have anxiety not covered by Heidi's insurance plan struggling in the dark.
I have a couple of deeply held beliefs in this life. Not many, but a few. And one of those is that is that, with very few excuses, it is better to do the right thing in the wrong way than nothing at all. You shouldn't let the fear of doing it wrong stop you from doing anything. But one of the few exceptions to this rule is when it comes to mental illness. Portraying mental illness incorrectly or recklessly is worse than not portraying mental illness at all, in fact, it's dangerous.
I believe that Dear Evan Hansen is not just failing at narrowing down what he has, but portraying it recklessly. This bothered me even before I got my diagnosis- I know a lot of young people who are on medications and who love musicals, and I fear the bookwriter might not have thought that one through fully, because it portrays a teenager going off of his meds and we... never circle back around to that?
In just one act, Heidi Hansen goes from being a proactive mom, the kind who set him up an extra meeting with his doctor because she thought he might need one, checking on his supply of meds... to finding out he went off his meds without consulting her and instead of dragging his butt to the doctor's right then and get everyone back on the same page, she just lets him go. And it's never mentioned again! In the finale he doesn't mention being back on his meds, it's like they thought we would just forget that scene. And maybe some of us did. But I didn't.
As a devoted musical theatre lover who is on countless medications, I demand better portrayal. Dear Evan Hansen is not the only one to make this mistake- Next to Normal gave us a beautiful ballad about flushing your meds down the toilet without consulting anyone first. Have none of these writers ever been to a pharmacy? The first thing the pharamcist tells you is to consult your doctor being going off of it. For years, I was being sent this message that you know you better than anyone, if your meds don't feel right, if they make you feel wrong, or a pretty girl can do the job just as well, then just go off them! And then I had a lot of people in scrubs and lab jackets telling me it's not like that. I need to stick with this beat and if something changes, to talk to my doctor. Next to Normal at least has the decency to circle back to the issue but Dear Evan Hansen doesn't.
It's not a groundbreaking portrayal of mental illness, it's a vague and reckless one. Who knows how many people might see Evan as a role model and think it's okay to go about treating their mental illness by lying and then telling more lies to cover up that first one and going off your meds without talking to anyone first in the midst of this? And if they do, and they do something, who has to answer for that? The writers? The producers? Or maybe that's something all of us at the theatre community have to answer for, for sending that message that all of that is okay.
And as for me? Well, my diagnosis had been changed to bipolar II disorder, so wish me well because I am in complete freefall right now.
(Photo by Matthew Murphy)