Dear Evan Hansen — Part II

How to find the vocabulary

CW: Anxiety, depression, eating disorders
Plus spoiler alert

One of the more well known songs — if you follow Broadway tunes — is Waving Through A Window. Ben Platt and cast performed it at the 2017 Tony Awards. It’s a haunting explanation of wanting to not be seen in the world and at the same time wanting to ask for help, to be recognized (my interpretation) An illustrative example of how choreography can amplify a story. Evan spends most of the scene alone. People start to show up going on about their lives. At first no one will acknowledge him. And then they actively turn away (3:14) — this one pains me. Everyone. Multiple times. Can you imagine how that must feel? Doing your best to indicate you don’t want to be alone and want a connection. How hollow and disheartening.

I’m not even sure how to address this in a coherent way — there is no perfect cookie cutter answer out there for friends, family, parents or anyone on how to recognize someone is in pain, that they are struggling. Each character in the play fits multiple stereotypes. The high school student with no friends and severe social anxiety. The alterna-kid stoner outsider that alienates people as much as he wants to belong. The over-achieving smart kid looking to set her college guarantees and feeling alone in the process. The sister feeling overshadowed by her brother when he is alive and in his suicide. All of these people might appear outwardly “normal” and not flag as needing support or community or love. All of these people could be asking for help. Or screaming on the inside. All of these people may already be aware and are dealing with their demons. How would you know? How would you find out?

Vocabulary is hard to come by or discover. Mental illness is such an isolating experience. Even with as much as we see in the media today, that fucker lies to you and says shitty things like you are (I am) utterly alone, you are (I am) unworthy, no one likes (me), why would anyone like (me), let’s rehash that 30 second response you gave to someone and how stupid (I am), how they judge (me) and will never forgive (me), beat (myself) up over and over because I said One. Wrong. Word. (I am) useless and insignificant so just shut up. … Can you imagine saying those things to yourself once in a while? Or daily? … That there was a time in my life I said that to myself multiple times an hour? Or the only thoughts I had?… And when would you think that started? High school? College? Becoming a mother? Would anyone in my life at that point in time have a clue what was going on inside?

My most likely recognizable sign was taking a semester off from college and coming back to school having lost 60 pounds. After many years of compulsive overeating, it’s like a switch went off and I Got Healthy via monitoring my diet and safe exercising. I went textbook and lost the weight the “right” way. What nearly no one knew is the trigger to taking a semester off was a severe panic attack at school followed by weeks when I couldn’t hold it together. I was on the verge of a breakdown and I don’t think my parents knew what to do with me (not that I was being totally honest with them either) I never saw it as something that needed treatment. I came home, got a job, lived with my parents and saved a bunch of money to pay towards the rest of my school. Being back at school flipped the switch in another direction and I adopted multiple disordered eating behaviors — food restriction, bingeing, purging and over-exercising. It was over a year before anyone said anything about it and I wasn’t ready to admit I needed help. No vocabulary existed until I had “bulimic” that is so readily apparent and defined.

Even today with all the therapy and support I have around me, I’m still figuring out my vocabulary. It was only recently that I recognized this one… If you ever hear me say that I’m — really really (really) stressed out— I am in the midst of a hardcore anxiety attack. (seriously, only recently) As impactful as that realization was, I’m only now admitting to anyone else (hello world!) It seems logical that asking what will help me reduce the stress would make it better. Honestly, what I probably need most is one of those “I know you are not OK right now. I see you.”

As a parent so much is pounded in our heads about devices and social media, being informed and to watch for cyber-bullying or sexting. SO MUCH! I look at my kid and the YouTube channels she follows, she is a self-taught makeup expert. She has found community in this interest. There is some comfort that as frightening social media and the internets can be to provide dangerous information (or how-to’s) she can also find others and ask for help if she needed it. That we talk about mental illness as a family breaks down the assumptions and stigma. She knows I go to therapy and take medication. This spring she asked me if she will ever have depression. There is nothing like looking in the face of your child when she asks with trepidation if everyone in the family will get it. And honestly replying that yes, it is very likely you will so let’s talk about what to watch for and when to ask for help. It’s closer to having actual vocabulary, more so that she is learning about how people get support.

As the show unfolds, the audience witnesses Evan Hansen find friends and community using his own vocabulary through another character’s voice. For me it felt like that transition when all the thoughts and negativity in (my) head finally got out and the healing begins. It has taken me a long time to identify how I speak about my anxiety and depression (obviously still figuring it out) — what’s even more important is sharing that with my friends and family so they can support me when I’m too far gone to ask.

Sometimes that is what living with mental illness looks like, trusting others to support me when I cannot support myself.