We here a lot about representation. That communities and minorities need to be represented, and accurately. But less time is spent talking about why representation matters, especially for those living with mental illness. As someone who lives with a mental illness, it helps me better understand my experience as someone who lives with mental health problems. It also helps me know that there are enough people out in the universe who are going through the same thing that I am that it warrants exposure in pop culture. But most important to my story of living with mental illness is how representation helped me reach a diagnosis.
In 2009 a new Broadway musical called Next to Normal was nominated for a series of Tony Awards including Best New Musical. As such, the cast was able to perform a number during the award show. For those of you who don't have a niche knowledge of musical theatre, Next to Normal is a musical about a housewife, Diana, with manic depressive bipolar disorder who also experiences hallucinations. Fun, right? The number the cast performed focused on Diana's experience and how her illness isolated her from what the rest of her nuclear family was feeling. Something in that number spoke to me. Somehow Diana's story was similar to mine and I needed to find out how.
At this point I had, unknowingly, been living with depression for 2 years. My depression had manifested as migraines and after a looooong series of unsuccessful tests and doctors appointments I was sent to a child psychologist as a last resort. In my mind I had a physical illness, not a mental one. I was normal. Obviously my visits to the psychologist were going nowhere.
A few months later my mom and I were in New York. It was our last full day there, and sitting in Central Park I involuntarily started crying because I wasn't going to be able to know how Diana's story ended. Luckily, my mom saw her child was in need and we got tickets to see the show. That evening turned into the deepest catharsis I have ever known. Nearly every song spoke to me and said the things that I had been struggling to find the words for for months. We bought the soundtrack and first appointment back with my psychologist I brought her the soundtrack. "This is what I've been trying to tell you." I left the CD (it was 2009 y'all) with her with a piece of paper explaining how certain songs related to my life.
I came back to her office two weeks later, so excited that she would've finally been able to understand what I had wanted to say all along. She would tell me that these issues were normal, we’d have a few chats and I'd be on my way. Instead what I heard was, "You have depression. See, when the serotonin…". I couldn't tell you how the rest of the conversation went because my mind went blank as she continued to explain the chemical explanation of depression complete with a labelled diagram.
I resisted this diagnosis for a long time. All I been taught about mental illness were the extreme cases. If you had a mental illness, you couldn't function in society. You belonged in a special hospital. I on the other hand was normal. I went to high school and got good grades, I was a competitive dancer who was a good musical theatre performer. None of these things pointed to someone who had a mental illness, I just had frequent migraines.
It took me a long time to accept my diagnosis of depression. But when I think about what would've happened had I never come across Next to Normal I get scared about how much longer it would've taken for me to get the help I desperately needed.
Representation of mental illness matters because it helped me get a proper diagnosis.
My story of using a Broadway musical to get a proper diagnosis probably isn't that common, but as I watch TV shows like This Is Us that accurately portray anxiety and depression, or even as I talk to people about what these illnesses feel like, I wonder how many people are having that same epiphany. 'Is there an actual name for the way I've been feeling?' I remember more than a year after I was diagnosed with anxiety I was talking to friend who had also been recently diagnosed and I was saying something about how my brain always goes to the worst case scenario and he said "As most people with anxiety do…" I was shook. The idea that not everyone planned for how they would escape their car in case the bridge they were driving over collapsed had never occurred to me.
It is so vitally important for us to get our stories out there. It is nearly 10 years since I first heard the song "You Don’t Know" from Next to Normal and it, as well as the rest of the soundtrack, is still a solace I hang on to to this day. Our representation and the sharing of our stories can save lives. There are far too many of us living with mental health problems for us to live in the shadows any longer.