Today, as the news swirled about the Las Vegas tragedy and I got caught up in the social media vortex,
I found myself remembering and wanting to re-visit something I wrote about Dear Evan Hansen earlier this year. At first, it felt like an irrelevant thing to do - "Go read something I wrote back in April about a musical? Why?" Maybe my soul knew it'd remind me of goodness. Maybe my soul knew I needed to remember the importance of all that this musical taught me. Maybe my insides were crying out for a reminder of redemption.
It hit me that it's not irrelevant at all.
This musical tells a story about how a high school senior with a social anxiety disorder responds to a tragedy that shocks his community. He becomes entangled in a controversy and as social media perpetuates the chaos, he is forced to navigate the complex scenario in which he's landed.
Dear Evan Hansen has been healing for me this year, and though I have moved on from the Listen Every Day Stage, today I've got it playing again. This microcosmic look into why/how people respond to tragedy via social media provides a thought-provoking, insightful, compassionate look at humanity. In it, I find compassion and inspiration. I am reminded to connect with other people in person even when it'd be easier to keep scrolling and numb out. It's important to look into peoples' eyes. Have meals together. Courageously choose vulnerability. Comfort one other in the midst of sorrow.
I am reminded that while social media can disconnect, divide, and overwhelm us, it can be a platform upon which we can make meaningful connections, inhale and exhale honest stories of hope and healing, and be reminded that we're not alone.
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Written on April 5, 2017.
It feels like Dear Evan Hansen came at the most perfect time.
It feels like a good friend, the good friend I needed in this season of life because lately, I feel like I’m falling apart.
Common symptoms include but are not limited to:
Questioning everything. Feeling resentment. Feeling like I’m showing up late to the Life Party and feeling mad at myself for that. Not knowing what I like. Realizing my weird motives for doing so much of what I do. Feeling mega exposed. Not feeling a sense of belonging anywhere. etc.
I was having a whack weekend, maxed out from all sorts of emotions. I remember driving and feeling like lightning was shooting from my neck to my hands, like I was short-circuiting and shutting down. In the midst of relational tension, I tend to get stuck in my head.
I was feeling a very strong sense of “What The Hell Is Wrong With Me?” and began racing around in the recesses of my mind and memories to once again, try to figure out where things went wrong, how I became this way.
How long have I been unable to empathize with those closest to me?
How long have I had this stupid anxiety?
How long have I not been living my own life and just getting caught up in the hopes and dreams and problems of other people?
Why can’t I love my husband the way I want to?
Why do I do so many things I don’t want to do?
Why do I have so much trouble doing the things I do want to do?
Why am I so bad at just playing?
When did I start laughing less?
Why do I feel like I have the be the helper?
On and on and on.
Trying to trace the lines of my life and getting nowhere, yet again.
Disappointed by how many times I thought I figured it out but would later realize I hadn't come up with effective long-term solutions.
I felt way too anxious in my home that weekend, so I went over to my childhood home. I vented to my mom. She listened well, as she usually does. And at some point, Al-Anon came up. I don’t remember how, but for the first time I felt desperate enough by my own feeling of insanity to consider going to a meeting. (For those who don’t know, Al-Anon is a mutual support group for people whose lives have been affected by another person’s drinking.)
Monday morning came and I went to a meeting. While I was there, I felt myself unraveling. I felt layers of heaviness fall off. I felt known and seen and connected and all I had shared so far was that my name was Emily and I was a newcomer.
I left that meeting and felt a sense of hope and connection, and like my craziness wasn’t just mine, but a sort-of shared craziness among people in alcoholic families and well, even those not from alcoholic families as I’m starting to realize.
But I also spiraled into a lot of other feelings that week.
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Before the meeting, I had told my sister that I felt super disconnected from my own life, that I often felt like I was watching it all through a window, like there was this thin piece of glass that kept me from actually being able to access what’s really happening around me. Like I’m always just a bit outside of it all. I felt relieved I was able to describe my experience because sometimes it's really hard to convey how you feel.
On the day of my first meeting, I ended up at a coffee shop in the afternoon. I turned on my Discover Weekly, and every time I do, I’m hoping and praying something, anything will stand out to me. I kind of tuned out and worked on things and a couple songs in, I thought to myself, “Whoa, what is this song? This person has such a good voice...This doesn’t really feel like it’s the normal thing in my Discover Weekly. *Goes back to Spotify.* Wait what’s Dear Evan Hansen? Ohhhh, it’s a musical? Huh. Wow, that song was really good.”
It was called "Waving Through A Window."
I ditched Discover Weekly and began listening to the Dear Evan Hansen soundtrack and Googling hard. I saw all the incredible people involved, folks from Hamilton and La La Land, and then I came across the “Only Us” music video. I was hooked.
I think of how in “Waving Through A Window” Evan asks, “Is anybody waving back at me?” I related so much, but there was a slight difference. In my life, I was noticing that the glass, this window I was referring to, is something I’ve constructed or chosen to stand behind. It’s this divider that I couldn't figure out how to break. It’s not so much that no one notices me or cares. It’s that even if they do, something stands in the way of me receiving it. People don’t even know there’s this window there. I know I’m looking through something, feeling like I’m outside of life, separated by something, but other people have no idea.
As the week went on, and I went to more Al-Anon meetings, those heavier emotions I talked about earlier started hitting me. I felt kind of crazy because in one sense, I knew I was gaining freedom and discovering new parts of myself and could see a light at the end of the tunnel, but on the other end, I was reliving a lot of painful memories, experiencing a lot of regret, and reverting back to old ways of coping by falling into habits that didn’t serve me but that I compulsively turned to.
I remember on Thursday night, as I was sharing about Al-Anon, a friend said I seemed really giddy and happy like someone does when they’ve just started dating someone. I responded that it felt like I was dating myself. Ha. And earlier in the year, I remember saying to someone, “I feel like I just met myself,” but now it felt like, “Whoa, I’m really starting to get to know myself. It’s pretty exciting, but it’s also a whole lot of blegh.”
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A few days in, the excitement and hope of Al-Anon were overshadowed by a sense of depression, resentment and regret. That weekend, I was hit with deep longings and shame about the things I wanted to resort to satiate those longings.
I felt a deep sense of wanting to get a do-over at life but not being able to.
I was reminded of a series of failed relationships.
I was mad I was drawn to certain people throughout my life.
I began to see more clearly that I wasn’t as innocent of a person as I thought, that I had been very selfish.
I felt like I owed the world a ton of apologies.
I felt mad at the life circumstances that made me the person I was.
I felt frustrated that what I thought were solutions all along were turning out to be ineffective and even unhealthy.
Daily thoughts included:
Wow, have I been getting it wrong for yeaaaars or what!
I’ve been totally using people.
I’m so out of touch with myself.
I don’t love as well or as purely as I thought I did.
What if I’ve actually hurt people more than I've helped them?
I’m really damn fickle.
I’m more judgmental than I thought.
It’s scary how deceived, delusional, and arrogant we can be.
I realized how much I had lost my sense of self, or even weirder - maybe I never really had one after all? The biggest part of my identity was grounded in who I am for others. I’d probably tried fixing people more than I’d like to admit, among a long list of other things I also don't want to admit. I’d been very close-minded. I’d been fostering a big-ass superiority complex. I’d been hella insecure. I’d been wanting people to need me so badly so I’d feel good about myself. But now, I wanted to say no to everybody and everything. I wanted to rediscover myself. I wanted to create a new version of myself. Let go of all sorts of bullshit I’d picked up along the way about how to be a person and just feel a fresh sense discovery and explore a new set of solutions. (Which is terrifying if you’ve grown up in the church and realize you have a lot of bullshit to undo and still feel unsure of if you're "allowed to.")
All that being said, my “Waving Through A Window” moments became “Words Fail” moments. I resonated so hard with the emotion and with so many lyrics. With each new verse, I felt so many feelings. With every phrase, I felt a sting of truth mixed with the relief that comes when someone says, “Me too.”
Dear Evan Hansen is the “me too” I’ve needed to hear every day.
To be honest, my life isn’t littered with a lot of moments where I consciously did the wrong thing or deliberately tried to hurt people, and some people who read this may say I'm being too hard on myself. And sure, while I didn’t do all these "bad things" I can pinpoint, the reality is I had developed such a sense of pride and blindness to the ways I hurt people. I had developed this sort of thinking that said: I’m not doing all that. I’m just over here "loving" people so I’m doing it right.
I may have not chosen to cope with alcohol, but like someone said at my first Al-Anon meeting, “I wouldn’t pick up the bottle, but I’d drink people by the glass.”
My meaning, for so long, was found in what I meant to others. If I wasn’t trying so hard to be perfectly loving and helpful, would people still want me? Do I have anything to connect with people over if it’s not a sense of service? It took me a long time to see that I had become perfectionistic, resentful, prideful, judgmental, controlling, manipulative, and self-centered.
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Cue: “Only Us.”
But if you really see me, if you like me for me and nothing else, well that’s all that I’ve wanted for longer than you could possibly know.
Even in my marriage, I felt so disoriented for the first year and a half.
How do I do this?
When he’s sad, how do I fix it?
I'd rather just ignore our problems and focus on more instantly-gratifying relationships where people don't see my mess and I just get to be the hero.
Who do I need to be for him to feel okay?
He needs to be x, y, and z for me to be okay.
He told me I made him feel like he wasn’t enough and this reverberated in my head so loudly, an echo of something I’d heard at 19 in another relationship. My heart broke when I heard it at 19 and my heart ached at the reality that this was happening again.
Why do I do this people?
What do I need my husband to be so badly that causes me to constantly critique him?
Maybe the not-enoughness is within me.
Maybe I'm so empty inside that I rely on him to fill me up.
Maybe it’s not about those things he’s not doing well enough.
Maybe I can't have grace for others because I don't have any for myself.
Maybe focusing all my energy on him won’t actually provide me with relief.
Maybe I'm projecting.
Maaaybe I don’t want to look at myself.
It seems that when we’re so desperate for something outside ourselves to make us feel okay, we’ll hold onto it so tight, it can no longer breathe. We’ll mess it up if we think that's the thing we need to be okay.
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Being so painfully in process made me not feel ready to talk to anyone. But in life, no matter where I’ve been at, I’ve felt like connecting through music, to myself and to the world. And most of the time, I felt like writing.
That first week, I would drive and drive and listen to Dear Evan Hansen. Loudly. I learned the songs as quickly as possible and bounced around the octaves, belting out the notes along with Ben. And I’d cry. I’d just cry and cry. And sometimes while driving. On the freeway, I remember thinking, “Oh wow, I look so crazy. I’m one of those people really going for it. But I’m also weeping. You know what though, I don’t give a shit.” It was really freeing. I needed to sing and cry and emote and all that, and I just let myself.
These songs gave me space for that.
These songs reminded me of the power of good art. Of what can happen when you stick with a creative idea and watch it come to fruition. Dear Evan Hansen, along with Hamilton, reignited my love and appreciation for musical theater. It's helped me connect more to myself, to fictional stories, and to other people. It helped me articulate so much of what I've been learning about life. It's led me closer to being able to answer the questions:
What do I do because I can’t not? No matter who sees, no matter who affirms it, no matter who it impacts or what acclaim it gets me, what must I do in this life?
Writing and singing are my current answers.
And it feels good to know that.
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Evan and I have different responses to pain, different interests, different roles we play.
He’s better with imagination.
He got honest with himself much younger than I did.
He believes it’s enough to just be himself and I’m still trying to figure that out.
But we do have similarities.
We both like writing.
We both know the pain of being left by a parent,
sometimes the kind that remains even when a parent comes back because there's still that part of you that feels abandoned and wonders if others will leave you too.
We both have social anxiety – even if it looks different.
We both escape into our screens.
We both struggle with giving into the temptation to become something other than ourselves so someone will love us and choose us.
We both spent a lot of time in high school wanting a close-knit family so bad, and feeling so relieved to belong in someone else's.
We both put our hope in getting that one person's attention.
We both have moms who stuck with us from the moments things felt really big until those moments felt small.
We both have areas of life that lack closure.
We both have mixed motives.
We both have felt desperately lonely.
We both wonder where meaning comes from and are trying to figure out who we even are.
We both have been shown grace, but have struggled to give grace to ourselves.
We both live an imperfect, messy life and experience heaviness, heartache, self-doubt, and fear,
And yet we press on towards freedom and belonging and authenticity with hope.
We both fight to keep believing it’s enough to just be ourselves,
that we don't have to be perfect to be loved.
We both keep climbing.