Are These Feelings Normal?

Last fall I saw the play Next to Normal at Center Stage in Baltimore. All I knew about the play was that it was a rock musical about a woman with depression and  the harm that the  disease inflicts on  both her and her family. “Great storyline,” I can hear people saying facetiously. “I think I’ll pass. “ But the storyline in Next to Normal is very much like my story.

I had no idea how closely the scenes of the play would mirror my own experiences, especially as the mother. The main character, Diana, has suffered from depression on and off for years and is currently entering another very dark place. Her husband, Dan, struggles to keep his job, help his daughter, and support his wife. The daughter, Natalie, feels alienated and confused, and the son is a mystery. I had a lump in my throat as I watched the story play out.

The playwrights, Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, captured the experiences of this family and their struggles so well that the play won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony for Best Score. I was stunned and felt like I was watching my story in many ways. Especially when the Diana sang “I Miss the Mountains” where she mourns the loss of the peaks and valleys of emotion she used to feel. And of course, the character in the play was supposed to have bipolar disorder, so she had to take mood regulators, which flatten out your personality and render you “normal.” And indeed those drugs often help people to live happy and productive lives. But as someone who has experienced mood regulators, I resonate with Diana’s yearning for the mountains.


My doctor labeled me as bipolar II, mostly because he thought I was “too happy” when I took antidepressants to get out of my first depression. I describe how I felt about that exchange in the poem “The Hopkins Doctor Diagnoses Me” which is in my memoir in verse The Altar of Innocence. I disagreed with his diagnosis and fought the idea of mood regulators, but because my depression was so long and so deep, I acquiesced and tried several versions of them. (Full disclosure, I have been depression-free since 1997 and medication-free since 2002.) I remember feeling like I had a heavy, wet, Army blanket on my personality. I had word-finding problems, and I gained 50 pounds. But the doctor would not listen to me when I said that I had a higher-than-average happiness level and lots of energy to get things done. “I’ve always been like that,” I told him. But when you’re a psych patient, you are easy to dismiss as non-compliant if you don’t want to take drugs.

Thankfully, I got well and eventually got off of all the medications, and I’ve been well for a long time. I do have highs and lows, and I have the coping skills to manage them. I journal, meditate, and go to acupuncture regularly. I have a good mix of social time and alone time. But most of all, I see those rolling hills of emotion as vital to who I am. Those rolling hills are normal for me.

Here’s an audio version of the song followed by the lyrics. Enjoy! I’d love to hear your thoughts about how we define “normal” in our current paradigm of treatment. Is there room for disagreement? For nuance? Is there only one “normal”?

Mountains By Yorkey and Kitt

There was a time when I flew higher,
Was a time the wild girl running free
Would be me.
Now I see her feel the fire,
Now I know she needs me
There to share
I’m nowhere.
All these blank and tranquil years
Seems they’ve dried up all my tears.
And while she runs free and fast,
Seems my wild days are past.

But I miss the mountains.
I miss the dizzy heights.
All the manic, magic days,
And the dark, depressing nights.
I miss the mountains,
I miss the highs and lows,
All the climbing, all the falling,
All the while the wild wind blows,
Stinging you with snow
And soaking you with rain
I miss the mountains,
I miss the pain.

Mountains make you crazy
Here it’s safe and sound.
My mind is somewhere hazy
My feet are on the ground.
Everything is balanced here
And on an even keel.
Everything is perfect
Nothing’s real…
Nothing’s real.

And I miss the mountains.
I, I miss the lonely climb.
Wand’ring through the wilderness.
And spending all my time
Where the air is clear
And cuts you like a knife
I miss the mountains…
I miss the mountains…
I miss my life.
I miss my life.